I wash my hands, scrubbing them.

They still smell of shit.

1.

Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he

offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”

He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.

It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.

“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.

That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?

Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”

He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”

Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.

“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”

“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”

“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”

Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.

“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”

“I wish we had friends with children.”

“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”

“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”

“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”

“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”

He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.

“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.

Danny looked at me victoriously.

“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”

“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”

“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”

“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”

“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”

Dr. Barak coughed.

Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”

Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”

That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.

He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.

“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.

When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.

He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”

2.

Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.

“Can I have chocolate milk?”

For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.

“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”

That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.

“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”

My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”

“Did you give her something?”

“What?”

He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.

“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”

“Of course not!”

He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.

“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.

“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”

“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”

“You did.”

3.

My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.

A Messenger alert.

It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.

How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.

Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.

Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”

We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”

“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.

“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.

She began to get off the toilet.

I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”

She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”

She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.

I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”

She screamed, “Daddy!”

“No daddy!”

But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.

“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.

“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”

“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.

My phone vibrated in my pocket.

4.

That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.

Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.

I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.

Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”

“At least she went.”

“But what does Ron have to say about it?”

I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?

“Since when are you two back in touch?”

“Since when do you go through my phone?”

“Since I have a reason to.”

“How dare you?”

“You want to talk to me about morals?”

“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”

“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”

“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”

“Sure. It’s my fault.”

“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”

“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”

“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”

He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”

 

“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”

“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”

“I’m not—”

“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”

“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”

“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”

“He’s a child psychologist.”

5.

A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”

I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.

6.

My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.

Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”

Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.

She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.

I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”

They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”

I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.

One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”

He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.

I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”

“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”

7.

“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”

Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?

The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.

“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”

“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”

“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.

“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”

“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”

He looked at me tentatively.

“Do my hands smell like shit?”

I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”

I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.

They covered my face.

I wept into them.

8.

We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.

“I met with Ron,” I finally said.

The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.

“Because I wanted to see him.”

His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.

“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”

He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.

“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”

A paralyzing silence fell over us.

Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.

We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.

We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.

“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”

“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”

From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:

“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”

There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)

“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.

Besides, she was too, too pleased.

A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.

“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”

“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”

While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.

“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.

“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”

“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”

Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.

“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”

Her voice trembled.

“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.

Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.

Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.

“Marchesa, my respects.”

That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:

“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”

“At your service … your wish is my command.”

Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.

“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”

“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”

“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”

And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.

“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”

“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.

From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”

“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.

“It’s a fair price.”

“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”

Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.

“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”

“Mamma …”

Eugenia kissed her hand.

Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.

Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.

“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .

“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.

“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”

“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.

Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.

“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”

“Yes, Aunt.”

She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.

By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:

“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.

“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”

Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”

“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”

Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”

They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.

There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.

“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.

“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”

Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.

“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”

“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”

“There you are.”

“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”

Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.

“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”

“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”

“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”

“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”

Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.

“What a rat’s nest.”

Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.

“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.

“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”

“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.

“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”

“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”

“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.

Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”

She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”

Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.

“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”

“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.

“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”

Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”

Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:

“Nunziata!”

Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.

“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”

“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.

“Is your brother not there?”

“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.

“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.

“Can you come up?”

“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”

“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”

“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.

“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.

Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.

“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”

“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”

 

“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.

The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:

“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”

“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.

“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”

Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.

“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.

The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.

“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”

“No, signora.”

“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”

Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.

“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.

The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.

“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.

She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.

“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”

“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.

“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”

Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”

“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.

“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.

As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.

“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”

“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”

Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.

“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.

“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.

Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.

Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.

“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.

“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.

“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.

“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”

“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.

“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”

“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.

“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.

Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.

“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”

“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”

“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”

“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.

Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.

“Mamma, where are we?”

“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.

“She’s half-blind!”

“She’s a half-wit, she is!”

“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.

Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:

“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”


 

*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.

He was a young socialist. His father, a minor official, had thus threatened to disown him. Yet he had remained true to his convictions, for he was possessed of both burning zeal and supportive friends.

They formed an organization, distributed ten-page pamphlets, and held lectures. He naturally attended such meetings regularly, and from time to time his essays were included in the pamphlets they produced. Beyond their group it would appear unlikely that any of these were widely read, but he was nonetheless quite proud of one: Remembering Liebknecht. The ideas it expressed may not have been altogether precise, but it was suffused with poetic passion.

In due time he completed his studies and went to work for a magazine publishing company, though without neglecting his attendance at group gatherings. There he and his comrades discussed the issues before them with the same fervor as before, striving toward their goal like underground water slowly seeping through solid rock.

His father now no longer interfered in his affairs. He found a bride and moved with her into a small house. It was a very small house indeed, but far from being discontent, he regarded himself as rather fortunate. His wife, their puppy, the poplars at the end of the garden…all this lent his life a sense of intimacy and comfort he had not known before.

Now that he was married and caught up in the time-consuming demands of his job, he was sometimes absent from meetings. Yet his ardor was undiminished; at least, he himself was convinced that over the years he had remained quite the same. His comrades, however, took a different view. Those younger members who had joined the league only in recent years were particularly scathing in their criticism of his tepid commitment.

This, of course, only led him to edge his way even further from their gatherings. Then he became a father, and this gave him an even greater feeling of contented domesticity.

And yet his passion still lay in socialism, and in studious devotion to its goals, he burned the midnight oil. At the same time, he became progressively dissatisfied with the dozen or so essays he had written, especially with Remembering Liebknecht.

His comrades had in the meantime grown sufficiently indifferent to him that he was now unworthy even of their denunciations. They simply turned their backs on him – and others, mostly his associates – and plodded steadily forward in the service of the cause. Whenever he encountered a friend from the old days, he would again go through the motions of lamenting his fate, but in fact, by this time he had clearly grown content with his tranquil life as an ordinary citizen.

Years went by. He worked for a company, earning the trust of the men at the top. This in turn enabled him and his wife to live in a considerably larger house and to rear several children. Yet as for his passion of yore, only the gods could say where it had gone. Sometimes, sitting back in his rattan chair, enjoying a cigar, he would recall his youth. Such memories inevitably filled him with a strange melancholy, but at such times the Oriental capacity for graceful resignation would come to his aid.

He had, to be sure, been left behind, but then someone happened to read Remembering Liebknecht and was deeply moved. He was a young man from Ōsaka who had invested his inheritance in stock speculation and lost everything. The essay proved to be the catalyst in his conversion to socialism.

Needless to say, the author was aware of none of this. Even now he sits back in his rattan chair, enjoys a cigar, and remembers his youth – and all quite humanly, perhaps too humanly.

On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.

Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.

Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.

“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”

Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.

“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”

Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.

“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”

“Of course I did.”

“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”

“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”

Anna turned away from him.

“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”

 

Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.

Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.  

Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.

That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.

“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…

In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.

“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”

And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”

And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.

Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.

Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.

“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”

Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.

After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.

Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.

Two years later Nikolai’s father died.

And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader.   From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.

When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.

Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.

From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.

And so it went for almost two years.

But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.

No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.

After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”

No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.

A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…

Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.

“Are you afraid, Kolya?”

Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”

“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”

Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.

Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.

They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.

 

When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.

“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.

“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.

He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.

The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.

1979

I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!

There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.

Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”

I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!

I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.

Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.

My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.

While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.

From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!

I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!

My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”

To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.

News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.

I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around,  and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.

But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.

The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.

Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”


*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.

CHAPTER I–THE PROMISE

 

“An old-fashioned Christmas.–A lively family will accept a gentleman as paying guest to join them in spending an old-fashioned Christmas in the heart of the country.”

That was the advertisement. It had its points. I was not sure what, in this case, an old-fashioned Christmas might happen to mean. I imagine there were several kinds of “old-fashioned” Christmases; but it could hardly be worse than a chop in my chambers, or–horror of horrors!–at the club; or my cousin Lucy’s notion of what she calls the “festive season.” Festive? Yes! She and her husband, who suffers from melancholia, and all the other complaints which flesh is heir to, and I, dragging through what I call a patent-medicine dinner, and talking of everybody who is dead and gone, or else going, and of nothing else.

So I wrote to the advertiser. The reply was written in a sprawling feminine hand. It was a little vague. It appeared that the terms would be five guineas; but there was no mention of the length of time which that fee would cover. I might arrive, it seemed, on Christmas Eve, but there was no hint as to when I was to go, if ever. The whole thing was a trifle odd. There was nothing said about the sort of accommodation which would be provided, nothing about the kind of establishment which was maintained, or the table which was kept. No references were offered or asked for. It was merely stated that “we’re a very lively family, and that if you’re lively yourself you’ll get on uncommonly well.” The letter was signed “Madge Wilson.”

Now it is a remarkable thing that I have always had an extraordinary predilection for the name Madge. I do not know why. I have never known a Madge. And yet, from my boyhood upward, I have desired to meet one. Here was an opportunity offered. She was apparently the careworn mother of a “lively family.” Under such circumstances she was hardly likely to be “lively” herself, but her name was Madge, and it was the accident of her Christian name which decided me to go.

I had no illusions. No doubt the five guineas were badly wanted; even a “lively family” would be hardly likely to advertise for a perfect stranger to spend Christmas with them if they were not. I did not expect a princely entertainment. Still I felt that it could hardly be worse than a chop or cousin Lucy; the subjects of her conversation I never cared about when they were alive, and I certainly do not want to talk about them now they are dead. As for the “pills” and “drops” with which her husband doses himself between the courses, it makes me ill even to think of them.

On Christmas Eve the weather was abominable. All night it had been blowing and raining. In the morning it began to freeze. By the time the streets were like so many skating rinks it commenced to snow. And it kept on snowing; that turned out to be quite a record in the way of snow-storms. Hardly the sort of weather to start for an unknown destination “in the heart of the country.” But, at the last moment, I did not like to back out. I said I would go, and I meant to go.

I had been idiot enough to load myself with a lot of Christmas presents, without the faintest notion why. I had not given a Christmas present for years–there had been no one to give them to. Lucy cannot bear such trifling, and her husband’s only notion of a present at any time was a gallon jar of somebody’s Stomach Stirrer. I am no dealer in poisons.

I knew nothing of the people I was going to. The youngest member of the family might be twenty, or the oldest ten. No doubt the things I had bought would be laughed at, probably I should never venture to offer them. Still, if you have not tried your hand at that kind of thing for ever so long, the mere act of purchasing is a pleasure. That is a fact.

I had never enjoyed “shopping” so much since I was a boy. I felt quite lively myself as I mingled with the Christmas crowd, looking for things which might not turn out to be absolutely preposterous. I even bought something for Madge–I mean Mrs. Wilson. Of course, I knew that I had no right to do anything of the kind, and was aware that the chances were a hundred to one against my ever presuming to hint at its existence. I was actually ass enough to buy something for her husband–two things, indeed; alternatives, as it were–a box of cigars, if he turned out to be a smoker, and a case of whiskey if he didn’t. I hoped to goodness that he would not prove to be a hypochondriac, like Lucy’s husband. I would not give him pills. What the “lively family” would think of a perfect stranger arriving burdened with rubbish, as if he had known them all their lives, I did not dare to think. No doubt they would set him down as a lunatic right away.

It was a horrible journey. The trains were late, and, of course, overcrowded; there was enough luggage in our compartment to have filled it, and still there was one more passenger than there ought to have been; an ill-conditioned old fellow who wanted my hat-box put into the van because it happened to tumble off the rack on to his head. I pointed out to him that the rack was specially constructed for light luggage, that a hat-box was light luggage, and that if the train jolted, he ought to blame the company, not me. He was impervious to reason. His wrangling and jangling so upset me, that I went past the station at which I ought to have changed. Then I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a train to take me back again, only to find that I had missed the one I intended to catch. So I had to cool my heels for two hours and a half in a wretched cowshed amidst a bitter, whirling snowstorm. It is some satisfaction for me to be able to reflect that I made it warm for the officials, however cold I might have been myself.

When the train did start, some forty minutes after scheduled time, it jolted along in a laborious fashion at the rate of about six miles an hour, stopping at every roadside hovel. I counted seven in a distance, I am convinced, of less than twenty miles. When at last I reached Crofton, my journey’s end, it turned out that the station staff consisted of a half-witted individual, who was stationmaster, porter, and clerk combined, and a hulking lad who did whatever else there was to do. No one had come to meet me, the village was “about half a mile,” and Hangar Dene, the house for which my steps were bent, “about four miles by the road”–how far it was across ploughed fields my informant did not mention.

There was a trap at the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” but that required fetching. Finally the hulking lad was dispatched. It took him some time, considering the distance was only “about half a mile.” When the trap did appear it looked to me uncommonly like an open spring cart. In it I was deposited, with my luggage. The snow was still descending in whirling clouds. Never shall I forget the drive, in that miserable cart, through the storm and those pitch black country lanes. We had been jogging along some time before the driver opened his mouth.

“Be you going to stop with they Wilsons?”

“I am.”

“Ah!”

There was something in the tone of his “Ah!” which whetted my curiosity, near the end of my tether though I was.

“Why do you ask?”

“It be about time as someone were to stay with them as were a bit capable like.”

I did not know what he meant. I did not ask. I was beyond it. I was chilled to the bone, wet, tired, hungry. I had long been wishing that an old-fashioned Christmas had been completely extinct before I had thought of adventuring in quest of one. Better cousin Lucy’s notion of the “festive season.”

We passed through a gate, which I had to get down to open, along some sort of avenue. Suddenly the cart pulled up.

“Here we be.”

That might be so. It was a pity he did not add where “here” was. There was a great shadow, which possibly did duty for a house, but, if so, there was not a light in any of the windows, and there was nothing visible in the shape of a door. The whereabouts of this, however, the driver presently made clear.

“There be the door in front of you; you go up three steps, if you can find ’em. There’s a knocker, if none of ’em haven’t twisted it off. If they have, there’s a bell on your right, if it isn’t broken.”

There appeared to be no knocker, though whether it had been “twisted” off was more than I could say. But there was a bell, which creaked with rust, though it was not broken. I heard it tinkle in the distance. No answer; though I allowed a more than decent interval.

“Better ring again,” suggested the driver. “Hard. Maybe they’re up to some of their games, and wants rousing.”

Was there a chuckle in the fellow’s voice? I rang again, and again with all the force I could. The bell reverberated through what seemed like an empty house.

“Is there no one in the place?”

“They’re there right enough. Where’s another thing. Maybe on the roof; or in the cellar. If they know you’re coming perhaps they hear and don’t choose to answer. Better ring again.”

I sounded another peal. Presently feet were heard advancing along the passage–several pairs it seemed–and a light gleamed through the window over the door. A voice inquired: “Who’s there?”

“Mr. Christopher, from London.”

The information was greeted with what sounded uncommonly like a chorus of laughter. There was a rush of retreating feet, an expostulating voice, then darkness again, and silence.

“Who lives here? Are the people mad?”

“Well–thereabouts.”

Once more I suspected the driver of a chuckle. My temper was rising. I had not come all that way, and subjected myself to so much discomfort, to be played tricks with. I tolled the bell again. After a few seconds’ interval the pit-pat of what was obviously one pair of feet came towards the door. Again a light gleamed through the pane. A key was turned, a chain unfastened, bolts withdrawn; it seemed as if some one had to drag a chair forward before one of these latter could be reached. After a vast amount of unfastening, the door was opened, and on the threshold there stood a girl, with a lighted candle in her hand. The storm rushed in; she put up her hand to shield the light from danger.

“Can I see Mrs. Wilson? I’m expected. I’m Mr. Christopher, from London.”

“Oh!”

That was all she said. I looked at her; she at me. The driver’s voice came from the background.

“I drove him over from the station, Miss. There be a lot of luggage. He do say he’s come to stay with you.”

“Is that you, Tidy? I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to drink. We’ve lost the key of the cellar, and there’s nothing out, except water, and I don’t think you’d care for that.”

“I can’t say rightly as how I should, Miss. Next time will do. Be it all right?”

The girl continued to regard me.

“Perhaps you had better come inside.”

“I think I had.”

I went inside; it was time.

“Have you any luggage?” I admitted that I had. “Perhaps it had better be brought in.”

“Perhaps it had.”

“Do you think that you could manage, Tidy?”

“The mare, she’ll stand still enough. I should think I could, miss.”

 

CHAPTER II–AND THE PERFORMANCE

 

By degrees my belongings were borne into the hall, hidden under an envelope of snow. The girl seemed surprised at their number. The driver was paid, the cart disappeared, the door was shut; the girl and I were alone together.

“We didn’t expect that you would come.”

“Not expect me? But it was all arranged; I wrote to say that I would come. Did you not receive my letter?”

“We thought that you were joking.”

“Joking! Why should you imagine that?”

“We were joking.”

“You were? Then I am to gather that I have been made the subject of a practical joke, and that I am an intruder here?”

“Well, it’s quite true that we did not think you were in earnest. You see, it’s this way, we’re alone.”

“Alone? Who are ‘we’?”

“Well, it will take a good while to explain, and you look tired and cold.”

“I am both.”

“Perhaps you’re hungry?”

“I am.”

“I don’t know what you can have to eat, unless it’s to-morrow’s dinner.”

“To-morrow’s dinner!” I stared. “Can I see Mrs. Wilson?”

“Mrs. Wilson? That’s mamma. She’s dead.”

“I beg your pardon. Can I see your father?”

“Oh, father’s been dead for years.”

“Then to whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

“I’m Madge. I’m mother now.”

“You are–mother now?”

“The trouble will be about where you are to sleep–unless it’s with the boys. The rooms are all anyhow, and I’m sure I don’t know where the beds are.”

“I suppose there are servants in the house?”

She shook her head.

“No. The boys thought that they were nuisances so we got rid of them. The last went yesterday. She wouldn’t do any work, so we thought she’d better go.”

“Under those circumstances I think it probable that you were right. Then am I to understand that there are children?”

“Rather!”

As she spoke there came a burst of laughter from the other end of the passage. I spun round. No one was in sight. She explained.

“They’re waiting round the corner. Perhaps we’d better have them here. You people, you’d better come and let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher.”

A procession began to appear from round the corner of boys and girls. In front was a girl of about sixteen. She advanced with outstretched hand and an air of self-possession which took me at a disadvantage.

“I’m Bessie. I’m sorry we kept you waiting at the door, but the fact is that we thought it was Eliza’s brother who had come to insult us again.”

“Pray, don’t mention it. I am glad that it was not Eliza’s brother.”

“So am I. He is a dreadful man.”

I shook hands with the rest of them. There were six more, four boys and two girls. They formed a considerable congregation as they stood eyeing me with inquiring glances. Madge was the first to speak.

“I wondered all along if he would take it as a joke or not, and you see he hasn’t. I thought all the time that it was a risky thing to do.”

“I like that! You keep your thoughts to yourself then. It was you proposed it. You said you’d been reading about something of the kind in a story, and you voted for our advertising ourselves for a lark.”

The speaker was the biggest boy, a good-looking youngster, with sallow cheeks and shrewd black eyes.

“But, Rupert, I never meant it to go so far as this.”

“How far did you mean it to go then? It was your idea all through. You sent in the advertisement, you wrote the letters, and now he’s here. If you didn’t mean it, why didn’t you stop his coming?”

“Rupert!”

The girls cheeks were crimson. Bessie interposed.

“The thing is that as he is here it’s no good worrying about whose fault it is. We shall simply have to make the best of it.” Then, to me, “I suppose you really have come to stay?”

“I confess that I had some notion of the kind–to spend an old-fashioned Christmas.”

At this there was laughter, chiefly from the boys. Rupert exclaimed:

“A nice sort of old-fashioned Christmas you’ll find it will be. You’ll be sorry you came before it’s through.”

“I am not so sure of that.”

There appeared to be something in my tone which caused a touch of silence to descend upon the group. They regarded each other doubtfully, as if in my words a reproof was implied. Bessie was again the spokeswoman.

“Of course, now that you have come, we mean to be nice to you, that is as nice as we can. Because the thing is that we are not in a condition to receive visitors. Do we look as if we were?”

To be frank, they did not. Even Madge was a little unkempt, while the boys were in what I believe is the average state of the average boy.

“And,” murmured Madge, “where is Mr. Christopher to sleep?”

“What is he to eat?” inquired Bessie. She glanced at my packages. “I suppose you have brought nothing with you?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t. I had hoped to have found something ready for me on my arrival.”

Again they peeped at each other, as if ashamed. Madge repeated her former suggestion.

“There’s to-morrow’s dinner.”

“Oh, hang it!” exclaimed Rupert. “It’s not so bad as that. There’s a ham.”

“Uncooked.”

“You can cut a steak off, or whatever you call it, and have it broiled.”

A meal was got ready, in the preparation of which every member of the family took a hand. And a room was found for me, in which was a blazing fire and traces of recent feminine occupation. I suspected that Madge had yielded her own apartment as a shelter for the stranger. By the time I had washed and changed my clothes, the impromptu dinner, or supper, or whatever it was, was ready.

A curious repast it proved to be; composed of oddly contrasted dishes, cooked–and sometimes uncooked–in original fashion. But hunger, that piquant sauce, gave it a relish of its own. At first no one seemed disposed to join me. By degrees, however, one after another found a knife and fork, until all the eight were seated with me round the board, eating, some of them, as if for dear life.

“The fact is,” explained Rupert, “we’re a rum lot. We hardly ever sit down together. We don’t have regular meals, but whenever anyone feels peckish, he goes and gets what there is, and cooks it and eats it on his own.”

“It’s not quite so bad as that,” protested Madge, “though it’s pretty bad.”

It did seem pretty bad, from the conventional point of view. From their conversation, which was candour itself, I gleaned details which threw light upon the peculiar position of affairs. It seemed that their father had been dead some seven years. Their mother, who had been always delicate, had allowed them to run nearly wild. Since she died, some ten months back, they appeared to have run quite wild. The house, with some six hundred acres of land, was theirs, and an income, as to whose exact amount no one seemed quite clear.

“It’s about eight hundred a year,” said Rupert.

“I don’t think it’s quite so much,” doubted Madge.

“I’m sure it’s more,” declared Bessie. “I believe we’re being robbed.”

I thought it extremely probable. They must have had peculiar parents. Their father had left everything absolutely to their mother, and the mother, in her turn, everything in trust to Madge, to be shared equally among them all. Madge was an odd trustee. In her hands the household had become a republic, in which every one did exactly as he or she pleased. The result was chaos. No one wanted to go to school, so no one went. The servants, finding themselves provided with eight masters and mistresses, followed their example, and did as they liked. Consequently, after sundry battles royal–lively episodes some of them had evidently been–one after the other had been got rid of, until, now, not one remained. Plainly the house must be going to rack and ruin.

“But have you no relations?” I inquired.

Rupert answered.

“We’ve got some cousins, or uncles, or something of the kind in Australia, where, so far as I’m concerned, I hope they’ll stop.”

When I was in my room, which I feared was Madge’s, I told myself that it was a queer establishment on which I had lighted. Yet I could not honestly affirm that I was sorry I had come. I had lived such an uneventful and such a solitary life, and had so often longed for someone in whom to take an interest–who would not talk medicine chest!–that to be plunged, all at once, into the centre of this troop of boys and girls was an accident which, if only because of its novelty, I found amusing. And then it was so odd that I should have come across a Madge at last!

In the morning I was roused by noises, the cause of which, at first, I could not understand. By degrees the explanation dawned on me; the family was putting the house to rights. A somewhat noisy process it seemed. Someone was singing, someone else was shouting, and two or three others were engaged in a heated argument. In such loud tones was it conducted that the gist of the matter travelled up to me.

“How do you think I’m going to get this fire to burn if you beastly kids keep messing it about? It’s no good banging at it with the poker till it’s alight.”

The voice was unmistakably Rupert’s. There was the sound of a scuffle, cries of indignation, then a girlish voice pouring oil upon the troubled waters. Presently there was a rattle and clatter, as if someone had fallen from the top of the house to the bottom. I rushed to my bedroom door.

“What on earth has happened?”

A small boy was outside–Peter. He explained,

“Oh, it’s only the broom and dustpan gone tobogganing down the stairs. It’s Bessie’s fault; she shouldn’t leave them on the landing.”

Bessie, appearing from a room opposite, disclaimed responsibility.

“I told you to look out where you were going, but you never do. I’d only put them down for a second, while I went in to empty a jug of water on to Jack, who won’t get out of bed, and there are all the boots for him to clean.”

Injured tones came through the open portal.

“You wait, that’s all! I’ll soak your bed tonight–I’ll drown it. I don’t want to clean your dirty boots, I’m not a shoe-black.”

The breakfast was a failure. To begin with, it was inordinately late. It seemed that a bath was not obtainable. I had been promised some hot water, but as I waited and waited and none arrived, I proceeded to break the ice in my jug–it was a bitterly cold morning, nice “old-fashioned” weather–and to wash in the half-frozen contents. As I am not accustomed to perform my ablutions in partially dissolved ice, I fear that the process did not improve my temper.

It was past eleven when I got down, feeling not exactly in a “Christmassy” frame of mind. Everything, and everyone, seemed at sixes and sevens. It was after noon when breakfast appeared. The principal dish consisted of eggs and bacon; but as the bacon was fried to cinders, and the eggs all broken, it was not so popular as it might have been, Madge was moved to melancholy.

“Something will have to be done! We can’t go on like this! We must have someone in to help us!”

Bessie was sarcastic.

“You might give Eliza another trial. She told you, if you didn’t like the way she burned the bacon, to burn it yourself, and as you’ve followed her advice, she might be able to give you other useful hints on similar lines.”

Rupert indulged himself in the same vein.

“Then there’s Eliza’s brother. He threatened to knock your blooming head off for saying Eliza was dishonest, just because she collared everything she laid her hands on; he might turn out a useful sort of creature to have about the place.”

“It’s all very well for you to laugh, but it’s beyond a jest. I don’t know how we’re going to cook the dinner.”

“Can I be of any assistance?” I inquired. “First of all, what is there to cook?”

It seemed that there were a good many things to cook. A turkey, a goose, beef, plum pudding, mince pies, custard, sardines–it seemed that Molly, the third girl, as she phrased it, could “live on sardines,” and esteemed no dinner a decent dinner at which they did not appear–together with a list of etceteras half as long as my arm.

“One thing is clear; you can’t cook all those things to-day.”

“We can’t cook anything.”

This was Rupert. He was tilting his chair back, and had his face turned towards the ceiling.

“Why not?”

“Because there’s no coal.”

“No coal?”

“There’s about half a scuttle full of dust. If you can make it burn you’ll be clever.”

What Rupert said was correct. Madge confessed, with crimson cheeks, that she had meant, over and over again, to order some coal, but had continually forgotten it, until finally Christmas Day had found them with an empty cellar. There was plenty of wood, but it was not so dry as it might have been, and anyhow, the grate was not constructed to burn wood.

“You might try smoked beef,” suggested Rupert. “When that wood goes at all it smokes like one o’clock. If you hung the beef up over it, it would be smoked enough for anyone by the time that it was done.”

I began to rub my chin. Considering the breakfast we had had, from my point of view the situation commenced, for the first time, to look really grave, I wondered if it would not be possible to take the whole eight somewhere where something really eatable could be got. But, when I broached the subject, I learned that the thing could not be done. The nearest hostelry was the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” and it was certain that nothing eatable could be had there, even if accommodation could be found for us at all. Nothing in the shape of a possible house of public entertainment was to be found closer than the market town, eight miles off; it was unlikely that even there a Christmas dinner for nine could be provided at a moment’s notice. Evidently the only thing to do was to make the best of things.

When the meeting broke up Madge came and said a few words to me alone.

“I really think you had better not stay.”

“Does that mean that you had rather I went?”

“No; not exactly that.”

“Then nearly that?”

“No; not a bit that. Only you must see for yourself how awfully uncomfortable you’ll be here, and what a horrid house this is.”

“My dear Madge”–everybody called her Madge, so I did–“even if I wanted to go, which I don’t–and I would remind you that you contracted to give me an old-fashioned Christmas–I don’t see where there is that I could go.”

“Of course, there’s that. I don’t see, either. So I suppose you’ll have to stay. But I hope you won’t think that I meant you to come to a place like this–really, you know.”

“I’m sorry; I had hoped you had.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean that if I had thought that you were coming, I would have seen that things were different.”

“How different? I assure you that things as they are have a charm of their own.”

“That’s what you say. You don’t suppose that I’m so silly as not to know you’re laughing at me? But as I was the whole cause of your coming, I hope you won’t hate the others because of me.”

She marched off, brushing back, with an impatient gesture, some rebellious locks which had strayed upon her forehead.

That Christmas dinner was a success–positively. Of a kind–let that be clearly understood. I am not inferring that it was a success from the point of view of a “chef de cuisine.” Not at all; how could it be? Quite the other way. By dint of ransacking all the rooms, and emptying all the scuttles, we collected a certain amount of coal, with which, after adding a fair proportion of wood, we managed. Not brilliantly, but after a fashion. I can only say, personally, I had not enjoyed myself so much for years. I really felt as if I were young again; I am not sure that I am not younger than I thought I was. I must look the matter up. And, after all, even if one be, say forty, one need not be absolutely an ancient. Madge herself said that I had been like a right hand to her; she did not know what she would have done without me.

Looking back, I cannot but think that if we had attempted to prepare fewer dishes, something might have been properly cooked. It was a mistake to stuff the turkey with sage and onions; but as Bessie did not discover that she had been manipulating the wrong bird until the process of stuffing had been completed, it was felt that it might be just as well to let it rest. Unfortunately, it turned out that some thyme, parsley, mint, and other things had got mixed with the sage, which gave the creature quite a peculiar flavour; but as it came to table nearly raw, and as tough as hickory, it really did not matter.

My experience of that day teaches me that it is not easy to roast a large goose on a small oil stove. The dropping fat caused the flame to give out a strong smelling and most unpleasant smoke. Rupert, who had charge of the operation, affirmed that it would be all right in the end. But, by the time the thing was served, it was as black as my hat. Rupert said that it was merely brown; but the brown was of a sooty hue, and it reeked of paraffin. We had to have it deposited in the ashbin. I daresay that the beef would not have been bad if someone had occasionally turned it, and if the fire would have burned clear. As it was, it was charred on one side and raw on the other, and smoked all over. The way in which the odour and taste of smoke permeated everything was amazing. The plum-pudding, came to the table in the form of soup, and the mince pies were nauseous. Something had got into the crust, or mincemeat, or something, which there, at any rate, was out of place.

Luckily we came upon a tin of corned beef in a cupboard, and with the aid of some bread and cheese, and other odds and ends, we made a sort of picnic. Incredible though it may seem, I enjoyed it. If there was anywhere a merrier party than we were, I should like to know where it was to be found. It must have been a merry one. When I produced the presents, in which a happy inspiration had urged me to invest, “the enthusiasm reached a climax”–I believe that is the proper form of words which I ought to use. As I watched the pleasure of those youngsters, I felt as if I were myself a boy again.

 

* * * * *

 

That was my first introduction to “a lively family.” They came up to the description they had given of themselves. I speak from knowledge, for they have been my acquaintances now some time. More than acquaintances, friends; the dearest friends I have. At their request, I took their affairs in hand, Madge informally passing her trusteeship on to me. Things are very different with them now. The house is spick and span. There is an excellent staff of servants. Hangar Dene is as comfortable a home as there is in England. I have spent many a happy Christmas under its hospitable roof since then.

The boys are out in the world, after passing with honour through school and college. The girls are going out into the world also. Bessie is actually married. Madge is married too. She is Mrs. Christopher. That is the part of it all which I find is hardest to understand–to have told myself my whole life long that the name of my ideal woman would be Madge, and to have won that woman for my own at last! That is greater fortune than falls to the lot of most men. I thought that I was beyond that kind of thing; that I was too old. But Madge seemed to think that I was young enough. And she thinks so still.

And now there is a little Madge, who is big enough to play havoc with the sheets of paper on which I have been scribbling, to whom, one day, this tale will have to be told.

 

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

 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.’

‘But seriously?’

‘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?’

‘Enough.’

‘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

I’m going to a funeral, and for the occasion, I’ve chosen a knee-length black Donna Karan dress (Flashy Trash, $15), black lace bra and panties, garter belt, sheer black stockings and brown snow boots with my “For Funerals Only” black pumps stuffed in a Hello Kitty backpack. If I didn’t care at all what people think, I would have added purple elbow-length gloves and a hat with a dotted veil. I would’ve used brown eyeliner to paint a mole on one cheekbone like Marie Antoinette. I wear the garter belt in memoriam of the guy who died. He would have appreciated the effort. I also like the shiver that comes when the wind whips under my dress and tickles my bare thighs. It makes me want to squeal and bend my leg at the knee.

It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wile E. Coyote tie.

At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.

For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.

It’s too close to the premise of Speed, and anyway, I’d no doubt block his view and we’d crash and my mom would have to identify the body and she would be mortified to see me wearing a black lace thong.

I exit the bus at Michigan Avenue, casting one last meaningful glance at my almost-lover. He doesn’t even turn his head to look at me while I stand at the crosswalk, wishing a breeze would come along and blow my hair across my cheek.

I have a minor panic attack as I enter the church foyer, because I have forgotten how to genuflect.

Then I see the guy from Divorce Law in the last pew. I usually don’t find him attractive because his face is dented with pockmarks and he walks on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets, but when he turns, his gaze skimming over me, I notice he has the bluest, bluest eyes and you can’t help but wonder what he looks like naked. Maybe underneath his starched button-up oxford he’s hiding a chest rippled with muscles. Maybe he has excellent technique, very adept fingers that would make me arch my back and lose complete control, and, at our wedding, our guests would line up to congratulate us, dying to ask me what I saw in him. I would look over at his long thin, talented fingers, one now circled with a gold band, smile and say, Oh, yes, thank you for coming.

The service begins with the horn-like opening bars of “Morning Has Broken.” I squeeze in next to my friend, Jennifer Sanantini, who works as a receptionist for Fred Cornell who smokes cigars and chews gum at the same time. The casket sits in the front of the church, and all you can see of the body is the tip of the nose, sticking into the air like it’s testing the smell of the white orchids in large baskets on the floor.

The organ music falls silent when the priest approaches the pulpit. He is not your typical, sixty-eight-year-old holy man with a shaky voice and bald head. He’s about Jesus’ age when he died and he appears heterosexual. His hair springs around his head in neat whorls and he has the chiseled features like a religious figure from a stained glass window. Strong jaw, defined cheekbones, sensuous wide mouth, and sweet hands now making the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I want to crawl under the podium and slip between his legs while he says, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. While everyone prays, he would look down at me, there, prone on my knees. He’d push my head away, his face white. For the love of God, what are you doing? I would bow my head and say, Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin and then I would take him in my mouth and his hands would tighten on the podium and he’d whisper, No, no, you must cease and desist, but I wouldn’t, and he would respond against his will.

Jennifer Sanantini is frowning at me and I realize I’m wiggling and I stop.

Sometimes, I worry that God listens to my thoughts and will answer stray fragments of them one day, causing me to be gang-raped in an alleyway by a pack of eighteen-year-old construction workers with Irish accents who resemble J. Crew models. I try to keep my prayers very explicit. Please let Jonathan Pervival Simmons from Accounting whom I know only to say hi to through Brenda Lesley in P.R. show up at my apartment one night, banging his fists on the door and shouting, Katie! Open up! I can’t go another minute without touching you! This, God, must happen on a night I’m wearing my red short nightgown instead of a yellow-pitted white T-shirt and my kitty-cat flannel pajama bottom and glasses. And I have definitely not picked my face and my eyes are not puffy from crying over long distance phone commercials and my bed is actually made, and he’s wearing—but, you know, sometimes I never make it beyond the door-knocking. The details are exhausting and the struggle to make it real is too tedious and so the rest of the story doesn’t seem worth the effort.

After the ceremony ends, we must file past the body and pay our last respects. I follow Jennifer Sanantini whose slip peeks under the hem of her dress. This is my first dead person in a while. I can’t stop chewing my fingernails. When I finally see him, it’s not that bad. He’s wearing a suit I don’t recognize from work. He looks the same, more or less, except it’s as though his face is made of wax, like if you took a wet washcloth and rubbed a little circle on his cheek, it’d turn shiny.

A bunch of us meet up at a semi-professional bar in Lincoln Park to drink a beer in his memory.

We’re there for about fifteen minutes when I spot this man at the end of the bar who reminds me of a boy I was in love with in college. Jon Preston. You had to say his full name, in whispered tones. He sewed patches on his jeans before it was even cool and I thought, Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Now I can’t wear patches because it’ll seem like I’m copying him.

I stood in awe, every moment with him was unreal, like this gift from heaven. I’d think he didn’t even know my name and then catch him staring hard at me while I was doing something stupid like trying to open the door without using my hands.

The most lucid memory I have of that time is lying on his mattress covered with dinosaur sheets. I was wearing a heavy metal square my friend gave me from Afghanistan. It hung on a leather strap around my neck. I said, Do you want me to take it off? He said, No, leave it on, and the cool gray metal thumped between us while I rocked on top of him. He looked at me with clear blue eyes, his pupils large and black with a dot of gold in the center. I wish I could draw them to show you how perfect they were and how much I wanted inside those eyes to switch places with him and know what he was seeing in me.

Three Heinekens later, this look-alike Jon Preston stands next to me. His eyes are closer together than I first thought. He says, It’s loud in here. It’s hard to talk.

I yell, What? As a joke. He repeats, It’s loud in here. That’s ten points off for not knowing how funny I am.

Then I discover he loves Annie Hall and he quotes the line about the raccoons and I believe we could fall in love and raise adorable children without pretentious names and move to the country and buy a golden retriever and name it Janet and in the winter he’d wear soft flannel shirts and heavy boots and he’d chop wood and also cook oatmeal and when he’d come in from the snow carrying an armload of wood, his cheeks would be so rosy I’d want to bite them. I ask him who his favorite artist is. Norman Rockwell. What music does he listen to? Phish. What toy did he like best when he was growing up? Huh?

I say I have to go find my friend now.

Jennifer Sanantini is listening to one of the junior lawyers tell about a messy divorce case involving a box of Penthouse Forum letters that the wife found to be harmful to their children. Jennifer laughs and nods and shakes her head and, when she sees I’m watching her and the guy is not, she wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue a little.

Our group has suddenly grown alcohol-maudlin, in part because someone put “Seasons in the Sun” on the jukebox and also because, after all, we did just come from a funeral. The junior lawyer starts telling another story, this one about the deceased and how he used to crack everyone up because he’d always forget to zip up his pants and once he walked around at a convention with his shirt tail hanging out of his crotch. Gary, the guy who’s always loitering by the water cooler, throws his head back and laughs and tries to put his arms around me but I see it coming and duck to inspect a non-existent run in my stocking.

I wonder what the dead man’s family remembers about him, or maybe he lived alone in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe he played old Frank Sinatra records over and over and only ate Swanson pot pies. Maybe he wore checkered grandpa-pajamas and thick mule slippers and maybe he looked out the window and thought, Is this everything?

I count six baseball hats and three men in Cubs T-shirts. I search for one guy I would take home with me, just one; I have to pick one or else God will kill my entire family. There is no one. This makes me want to go home, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and listen to Counting Crows’ “Omaha,” even though it makes me sad because it reminds me of my grandma, whom I miss but never call.

Jennifer acts overly concerned when I tell her I’m leaving. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure? Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking to see if Brad, the married guy in Damage Control, notices how good of a friend she is. Brad is not; he is guzzling a beer and involved in a serious conversation about the Bulls. I admire his leather suspenders, but only because I really, really hate them.

While hailing a taxi, I pretend I’m “That Girl.” A cab zips to the curb and stops without a screech. I give the driver my address, squirming in the seat to see his dashboard ID photograph and name without him becoming suspicious.

The cabby’s neck is smooth, vulnerable, and his ears stick out. Please don’t talk to me, I pray. He says, It’s starting to snow, huh? The wiper blades squeak across the windshield.

Yes, it is.

He says, You are coming from a party?

I press my legs together. The skin sticks. I feel like he can tell what kind of underwear I’m wearing. Maybe he can even smell me. Yeah, I say. Somebody died.

We drive the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls up to my apartment, I tip him extra for not being better company.

The snow is falling in huge white flakes, God sifting great puffs of flour from the sky. The cabbie waits to see if I make it inside okay. I want to run over to his window and say, Would you like to come up for a cup of hot chocolate? Instead, I hold out my hand and catch a snowflake on my mitten, turn, and spin for him so that my skirt flares out a little.

I look back, and he is still watching me, almost smiling. He waves and starts to drive off. I say, Thank you, and run down the sidewalk to the warmth of my building.

 


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