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?”
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?”
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.”
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 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?”
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?”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“Because there’s 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.’
‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’
‘God! Have you ever done that?’
‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’
I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’
‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’
He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’
‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’
Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’
It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.
Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.
‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’
‘There is that, I suppose.’
‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’
‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’
‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’
‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’
‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’
‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’
He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’
‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’
We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.
‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’
‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.
The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.
I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.
After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’
Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’
‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’
‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’
‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’
He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.
‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’
We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.
‘How many times have you done this?’
‘Do they pay you for it?’
I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’
‘So why do you do it?’
‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’
‘What made you start?’
‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’
‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’
I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’
‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’
The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.
‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.
He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’
One move leads to another move, and nowhere feels as good as you want it to feel; your childhood feels wrong, and this place feels wrong, and the next place feels wrong, and so you move again. Find a new job, a new apartment, meet a neighbor at the mailboxes; he has a dog named Kidney that terrifies you, but the neighbor is a new friend, the first one you meet and when he invites you to dinner you go because that’s what you do, you’ve just moved to the area.
His wife is sullen with red wine, glancing at you, and you understand, you do not like people either, though she does not realize this about you because you chat with her husband like you do like people, and he chatters back nervously as though he really does like people; he is one of those rarities, only he usually pretends not to like them because of the wife. Hence the nervousness. He has broken a rule bringing you here. Kidney scratches behind a closed door down the hall.
Your job is in an office with bright yellow walls; they are too yellow, and you point to them and say you now know what it’s like to work inside the sun. Everyone laughs, someone suggests we turn up the heat, and the next day someone brings you a bag of Sun Chips, then Sunny-D; soon they call you Sunny. You get a promotion. You go to the neighbor’s to celebrate, and the wife, takes Kidney for a walk. Neighbor tells you don’t take it personally. Neighbor is excited about the promotion.
Things slow down. Work. Coffee. Mailboxes. Neighbor. Your coworkers sense something. They make calls, fix blind-dates for your lunch hour, say: this might be the Moony you’re looking for! None of them are Moonies. You wish you could be friends with the neighbor’s wife who hates people, but you after all are a person, too.
Your mother calls. She says three houses opened up in their neighborhood and they are all good deals. Your dad snores in the background. Your mother says: I broke another plate today. Your mother says: I ran into your high school sweetheart. No, not married. Bald as a bat!
You move. Somewhere new. New neighbor, new job; it’s not hard, you are highly skilled. The walls are blue in the new office. They call you Skyler.
New neighbor’s dog Potato scratches down the hall. New neighbor has no wife. You sleep together. You move in together. Goodbye Potato. You tell your mother, she cries about it. At the office they call neighbor Nightler. Things slow down. Night- ler gets thin. You realize Nightler does not like people. He puts headphones on when you enter the room.
Your coworkers sense something. You hear whispers around his name. Bzzzzzz Nightler bzzzzzz. You close your door. Boy do you miss old Neighbor.
Your mother calls, says: we’re still here! Dad snoring. She says: we bought new plates today. We bought three. One for you.
The problem with people: one person leads to another person, and no one’s who you want them to be; even Mother feels wrong, and Nightler feels wrong, and the next one feels wrong.
Nightler says: I’m hungry. I think you should leave.
You move. This time you move backwards. Hello Neighbor. Hello Kidney. Hello wife that hates you. You say to Wife: I hate you, too. You say to Neighbor: I do not hate you. I do not really hate everyone, only I think I do when I get restless. Will you chain me here to your kitchen chair? Will you be my Moony?
Wife leaves with Kidney. Goodbye. Goodbye. You are unhappy being chained down the rest of your life. But it’s the only way to stop moving.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place
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
Yoshi Takamata moved from Kyoto to Connecticut at the age of fifteen, and his three years of American high school, followed by four years at local college and two decades in New York City, had done little to soften the severe Japanese accent he greeted me with after I had climbed a flight of stairs on Chambers Street to find my new master.
It was Yoshi’s accent that assured me I was in the right place. The dojo itself was dishearteningly rundown, a converted dance studio with water- damaged ceilings, a warped wooden floor, and a wall of tall, dirty windows, only half of which opened. There was no visible training gear other than a blue multipaneled gymnastics mat and a curved wooden sword propped in the corner. A flimsy cloth curtain separated the two locker rooms, each looking to fit no more than a half dozen people at a time.
“Come in to my office,” Yoshi growled, bowing. I bowed in return, slipped off my shoes, and padded behind him in my dark socks.
Yoshi’s office was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the dojo. On the walls hung framed photographs of Yoshi at different ages, flinging opponents through the air by their wrists and shoulders, and kicking apples off of swords while blindfolded.
Yoshi gestured for me to sit in the visitor’s chair. I faced him across the slim wooden desk. He folded his hands, interlacing his fingers. Where his starchy white uniform had been rolled up at the cuffs, I could see his smooth forearms, like the skin of a mannequin.
“I’m looking for a new master,” I said.
“It’s been almost ten years since I last trained. I don’t know how it happened. I stopped just after college. I had a red belt but I moved for work and then somehow the years went by.”
“Are you married?” he said.
“That’s usually how it happens.”
“I’m engaged,” I said.
“Congratulations. I was engaged once. Very nice girl. She plays violin for an orchestra.”
“But you didn’t marry her.”
“My family was disappointed.” Yoshi shrugged. “What can you do?”
He plucked two hard candies from a ceramic bowl on his desk and offered me one. A student of his, I later learned, worked for a candy distributor and kept Yoshi’s office supplied with treats. Most of the students provided free services to the dojo at one time or another. A red-belt lawyer had drafted the insurance release form. A blue-belt carpenter had built the shelves in the women’s locker room. Another blue belt, a computer engineer, had designed the website.
Yoshi rolled the candy around in his mouth and asked me what it was, exactly, that I wanted to learn. Why had I come back? To get in shape? For self-defense? Was I bored of the gym?
“I’d like to be able to put someone in excruciating pain,” I said.
“You want to fight.”
I shook my head. “That’s just kicking and punching. I want to learn how to incapacitate someone. So painful they can’t even think.”
“That is a . . . unusual desire.”
He stood and walked out of the office. A moment later, when it was clear that Yoshi wasn’t returning, I followed him out. I regretted offending him. I should have said that I sought spiritual enrichment. Standing by the door, I slipped my shoes back on and tied the laces. “Sorry if I’ve wasted your time,” I said.
Yoshi smiled. He seemed acutely relaxed, his round, wide face displaying the expressionless gaze of serenity etched into the sculptures of gods. We shook hands.
Then my thumb exploded.
It’s a bad habit to shut your eyes when you’re attacked. Maybe it comes from the childhood belief that if you don’t see it, it will hurt less, as if viewing pain were necessary to its transmission. Or maybe it’s just the opposite, and shutting your eyes is a kind of dedication, a devotion to the momentary annihilation that agony brings. Either way, I suffered in astonished blindness. When I finally reopened my eyes, I found myself kneeling on the hardwood floor, freshly released from Yoshi’s vicious grip. I could feel a circle of heat throbbing around the distressed bones of my limp hand.
“Welcome,” Yoshi said.
I began studying under Yoshi that autumn. Although my previous master had been a triathlete who demanded a brutal level of conditioning from his students, Yoshi possessed something beyond a physical excellence that, with enough diligence and training, I hoped I would one day achieve. There was a fluidity and ruthlessness to his movements that made him seem impossible to stop. His speed was careless, his strength inscrutable, his touch adhesive and pitiless. He was shadowy, emotionless, disinterestedly cruel. At times, when facing him, I felt like I was facing death. Only unlike the invisible figure that had recently claimed my father, for all my new master’s terrifying skill, Yoshi was tangible, reachable, even interrogable.
But he did not always answer the questions asked of him. Many times he would ignore them, or else answer an entirely different question. One evening, I was struggling to understand how to move an opponent who was resisting me. I had failed to predict the difficulty of inflicting great suffering, that what life had meted out casually to my family I had to labor to reproduce and, consequently, control. Yoshi told me to create a space for the person to fall into. “But how do I get them into that space?” I asked.
We were standing alone on the thin blue mats. Class had just ended, and a few students were waiting outside the overcrowded locker rooms for their turn to change, checking their phones for missed calls and messages.
“Look at Oriana’s feet,” Yoshi said.
I craned my neck to see them. “You mean the way she positions her toes?”
“They are sexy little feet,” he said.
“I guess,” I said, confused.
“Haven’t you ever noticed them?”
“You must learn to look down. Where the eye goes, the mind follows.”
Yoshi raised an eyebrow. “Tonight I think it is time we celebrate your promotion. Too much seriousness is not good for a man, Mr. Wallace!”
Only a year had passed since I had joined Yoshi’s dojo, but my devotion, along with my previous training, had sped my advancement, and Yoshi had recently made me an assistant instructor. After changing out of our uniforms, we went to the Irish pub across the street. The bartender was one of Yoshi’s students, a handsome young yellow belt with a shaved head. He brought us a round of free drinks.
“Thank you, Billy,” Yoshi said and scooped a handful of peanuts from a dish. He turned to me. “What do you think of the new Italian student?”
“Gabriella or Oriana?”
“Both of them,” Yoshi said.
I shrugged. “Gabriella has that dancer background, so she’s disciplined, flexible, good core strength. But then she’s slow, the way dancers are. Everything’s a performance and—”
“Oriana has very good spirit,” Yoshi interrupted.
“Did you see last week when she saw a nail sticking up from the floor? She went straight to the office for a hammer and flattened it. Because she is raised European. American but European. They have family values.” He motioned for Billy to bring a round of shots. “Really, you never noticed her feet?”
“I try not to get distracted by the students.”
“The pinky toe has a very small nail. It is very sexy.”
Billy came over with our shots. He placed them on the bar and asked Yoshi to correct his finger lock. “I was trying it on my mom last night and it wasn’t working,” he said.
“Which finger did you use?” I asked.
Yoshi shook his head. “Finger selection is unimportant. Of course, it is easier to pick one of the weaker fingers, but with proper technique all will work. Give me your hand.”
Billy stretched out his palm. A moment later, his face was flat against the bar and he was breathing loudly out of his mouth.
“Always, you must strike a kyusho, a vital point, to attack a joint,” Yoshi said. “Our ki, our energy, flows through these kyusho. They connect the body’s energy system. Every joint is controlled by at least four—many to choose from.”
After Billy staggered away, Yoshi raised his shot glass.
“To your tremendous achievement, Mr. Wallace.”
“Thank you,” I said, though I felt undeserving of the praise. Whatever skills I had developed were insignificant compared to Yoshi’s. I was capable, even proficient, in certain situations, but I lacked the holistic devastation Yoshi routinely demonstrated. Wrists slipped out of my grip. Partners reversed my locks. I muscled through technique that should have been effortless.
“What is very important for you next . . .” Yoshi said, and I nodded eagerly. It was the first time that I had ever been out alone with Yoshi. He had often invited me for a drink after class, but always in a group of students, and we would sit around him while he entertained us with anecdotes about his boyhood training in Japan, rigorous drills in which he was forced to run barefoot in winter around the icy fields until the skin on the soles of his feet tore free. To sit together on our own, side by side, seemed an almost daunting privilege.
“Yes, Sensei?” I prompted.
“Another shot!” He laughed and motioned for Billy to bring us a round.
“But Sensei, doesn’t drinking weaken your kyusho?”
“Well . . . yes.” He picked up the shot glass between his thumb and forefinger and sniffed the contents. “But pleasure is a discipline too.”
The following Saturday morning, Yoshi called. My wife handed me the telephone with her eyes still closed. She rolled over and fell back asleep.
“Sensei?” I whispered, climbing out of bed as quietly as possible.
“Come meet me at the dojo!” Yoshi cried.
“It is part of your training!”
“But Sensei, it’s seven a.m.”
“I am a night bird. I never went to sleep. Bring your car.”
He hung up. I changed into sweatpants and a tee shirt, left my wife a note on the bathroom sink, and swiped the car keys from the self-adhesive hook by the front door. It was a long walk to the outdoor parking garage on Eleventh Avenue, and I had underestimated the cold. A dog walker in a knee-length coat blew onto alternating hands, her breath white in the September morning. Outside an apartment building, I passed a series of soil beds full of purple and black-striped flowers. The blooms looked startled and hunched over, as if interrupted while stepping out of the shower.
When I arrived at the dojo, I found Yoshi asleep on the mats. He wore a baggy, charcoal suit, the sleeves wrinkled from having been rolled up. One of his socks had a hole by the big toe, which I could see because Yoshi had taken off his shoes to use as pillows.
“Sensei, I’m here,” I said and bowed.
“I’m here,” I repeated, louder this time.
“Excellent, excellent.” Yoshi sat up. His eyes were red and irritated. The radiator in the corner of the dojo spit out wet, petulant heat.
“Should I change into my uniform?” I asked.
“No, no,” Yoshi said, rising off the mats. “Do you know New Jersey?”
“I guess so.”
“I am unfamiliar with New Jersey. It is better if you drive.” He stumbled toward the door, carrying his shoes in one hand like a sleepy child dragging her doll.
I had parked the car halfway down the block from the dojo. The lock on the passenger-side door was broken, and while waiting for me to climb in and open his door from the inside, Yoshi leaned his forearm against the roof and rested his head on it. Flecks of gray had begun to sprout in his black hair. Behind him, in the second-story window of an apartment building, pigeons were cooing. I put my shoulder into the door and popped it free.
“Where are we going in New Jersey, Sensei? Is there a kyusho seminar?” I asked hopefully, while we idled at a stoplight.
“We go to the mall,” Yoshi said.
“The mall? Why?”
“The heart wants what it wants,” he said and passed out.
I took a roundabout route to the Lincoln Tunnel, wandering through the red and yellow awning-filled labyrinth of Chinatown, up through Little Italy, and all the way over to the Meatpacking District, passing the French brasserie where I had taken my parents out to dinner on their first and only visit to the city. My father instantly disliked New York; he found it noisy and congested, and insisted it smelled of sewage. My mother, out of loyalty to my father or perhaps out of agreement, remained silent. I got angry at my father for his criticism and his reluctance; I felt that his disapproval of the city that I had fallen in love with was, through a commutative property to which sons are particularly receptive, a disapproval of me. I even snapped at him for picking at his meal, calling his conservative tastes childish. Had I known then that my father was already dying, that his mild appetite and the dull intermittent ache in his stomach and lower back were the result of metastasizing pancreatic cells, I might have kept quiet. None of us knew, however, what was coming. We couldn’t anticipate the next five years with their radiant pain.
Yoshi slept fitfully while I sped southward along the New Jersey Turnpike. I don’t suppose it’s fair to expect grace from someone asleep, but it bothered me to watch him fidget, and after a while I turned on the radio to distract myself.
“Blondie. I love her voice,” Yoshi said, stirring in the passenger seat.
“Sensei, how much farther until we get there?”
“This song reminds me of high school. The good old days. Smoking pot.” He chuckled and slapped my shoulder, the impact of the blade of his hand against my body sending us halfway into the passing lane. I jerked the wheel and we swerved back. “Let’s see,” Yoshi said and pulled a cocktail napkin out of his pocket. He unfolded it, squinted, and then flipped the napkin upside down. “Can you read this?”
I took it from him. “We passed this exit five miles ago.”
“Good, then we’re almost there.” He flipped down the sun visor to check himself out in the compact mirror. “It is a good thing Oriana likes long hair. I need a haircut very much.”
“Is that who you went out with last night?”
“Of course not.” He snapped the mirror shut. “I went out with Gabriella. Aerosmith!” he said, and spun the volume dial. “Even their later material is catchy. Aerosmith has a tremendous longevity. As a band, they are very reinventive.”
“I don’t understand. You went out with Gabriella? I thought you were interested in Oriana.”
“It is always wise to befriend a woman’s friend. A woman’s heart, and not just her body, has kyusho.” He slid his crumpled tie free of his collar and began to retie it.
A few minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot and entered the mall. It didn’t take us long to find Oriana. She was easy to spot. Oriana’s job was to stand just inside the entrance of the NordicTrack store and demonstrate how to use their exercise machine. She wore a black leotard, a black tank top emblazoned with the store’s logo, and sneakers so big and white and clean that it looked as if she had just stepped out of a snowbank in Aspen. She moved precisely but happily on the machine, her blond ponytail bouncing above her shoulders. A queasy cross between jazz and flamenco music accompanied her efforts.
Yoshi asked me to keep an eye on Oriana while he visited the bookstore on the second floor. “Do not let her see you,” he instructed.
I leaned against the mall’s information board and watched Oriana from a distance. Many of my friends were getting engaged, my wife and I had just had our wedding in June, so I was becoming increasingly familiar with the difficulty of understanding another person’s romantic enthrallment. And while Oriana was hardly an inscrutable object of desire—she was attractive in the way that any blonde in her early twenties with healthy skin and an athletic body can be—I’ll admit I expected something more from Yoshi, a hunger for exoticism and sophistication. The most exotic thing about Oriana was her slightly upturned nose of questionable authenticity.
Yoshi returned with a slim brown bag and motioned for me to follow him into the store.
“Miss Odenna,” he said, nudging past a woman pushing a twin stroller.
“What a coincidence,” Yoshi said. “I am just doing some weekend shopping with Mr. Wallace. You remember Mr. Wallace from the dojo? He is an assistant instructor now.”
I glanced in the mirror that should have been projecting Oriana’s taut figure across the store but instead reflected Yoshi in his rumpled baggy suit and me beside him, swaddled in sweatpants and a workout shirt.
“Wow,” Oriana said. “You guys look different out of, you know, class.”
“You too,” I said.
“They make me wear this. It’s like a uniform.”
“Black is very sophisticated,” Yoshi said. “Is this a difficult job?”
“Not really. The commute’s the hardest part. My roommate moved out and she was the one with a car, so now I take a bus from Port Authority and it’s about an hour and a half each way. What are you guys shopping for?”
“I am buying Mr. Wallace a book,” Yoshi said. “To provide him spiritual guidance. It is easy to improve the body, but the spirit is much more difficult.”
“Cool,” Oriana said.
Yoshi opened the brown bag and extracted a thin black paperback entitled Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. “There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment,” Yoshi read aloud. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.” Yoshi closed the book. “These are very inspiring words. When do you eat lunch?”
“I usually just get a salad. I don’t know. Around one?”
“You must have lunch with us.”
“Oh wow. Really?”
“I insist. Live true to the single purpose of the moment.”
“I don’t know if I can take a half hour. They’re super strict. I’m not even supposed to talk to people.”
“I will take care of it,” Yoshi said.
“Wow. Thanks, um, Sensei.” Oriana’s smile was toothy and girlish, rapturous and a bit clumsy, the kind you see young women direct at their undeserving boyfriends.
“Do you like gyros?” Yoshi asked Oriana and handed off the book to me. I took it without thinking, distracted by the sense that something was wrong—something besides my having ended up in a mall in New Jersey, or Yoshi’s successful wooing of Oriana with nothing more than a Japanese paraphrase of carpe diem. Then I realized: Oriana had stopped moving. She was standing still, one foot a half stride ahead of the other, her hands folded atop the plastic and metal control panel.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“Everything okay over here?” asked a man in khaki pants and a black polo shirt, marching over to us. He was broad shouldered and thick, with a fat, ex-college football player’s build. Monogrammed on the pocket of his shirt was the store’s insignia and, above it, the word manager.
“Sorry. We were just talking for a second,” Oriana said quickly.
“Do you have questions about the machine?” His face was soft and a little sweaty. It looked like if you stuck your finger in his cheek, the indentation would stay.
“Miss Odenna is a marvelous representative,” Yoshi said. “She deserves a half-hour break with us as a reward.”
I had once heard that only seven percent of communication was verbal, and that the remainder consisted of body language and facial expressions. Confronted by Oriana’s glowering manager, for the first time I was obliged to consider this statement as more than an inflated statistic.
“Get back to riding the machine,” he said.
With an anxious glance over her shoulder at us, Oriana resumed her pacing.
“Excuse me,” Yoshi said, “you may not talk to Miss Odenna in this way.”
The manager ran his tongue over his front teeth. He might have been irritated or he might have been bored. He certainly wasn’t intimidated. “Why don’t you two go somewhere else to pick up girls? Try Abercrombie and Fitch. There’s a cute Chinese girl that works one of the registers.” Finished with us, he turned to Oriana. “A little slower, honey. You can’t sell this thing if you look like a hamster.”
“I have not completed speaking with Miss Odenna,” Yoshi said.
“Yeah, you have,” the manager said.
“Excuse me, there is a misunderstanding. We have not been introduced: I am Yoshi Takamata. I am Miss Odenna’s master.” Yoshi extended his hand to shake. His disquieting, serene half smile had returned. The manager stared down at him with apparent bewilderment. Then, reflexively, he took Yoshi’s outstretched hand. He would have been safer lowering his hand into a pot of boiling water.
After security released Yoshi, the three of us drove back to the city. Yoshi sat in the back seat to comfort Oriana, reading aloud from The Book of the Samurai to her. Oriana listened without reply, like a child being sung a lullaby. “For a samurai,” Yoshi recited, “a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word martial valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words show one’s bravery. In troubled times, too, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one’s heart. It is not something said simply with one’s mouth.”
The changes at the dojo began soon afterward. A potted ficus plant appeared on the windowsill of Yoshi’s office. Pine-tree-scented air fresheners hung in the locker room. The floors were swept, the mouse holes plastered over, and the mats mopped. Along with the addition of a miniature refrigerator and a cube-shaped portable speaker, these renovations were discreet and welcome, and at first I took them as indicators of a blossoming in Yoshi’s life, as he courted Oriana in every venue that he could.
A few weeks after they had become a couple, Yoshi confessed the news to me in his office, though he needn’t have bothered. He was in his early forties, and the pace of dating a girl in her early twenties was taking an obvious toll on him. His eyes were puffy with sleeplessness. His skin looked waxy. An aged slackness had overtaken his handsome, once-boyish face.
Gradually, he stopped teaching many of the classes. Oriana was now working as a cocktail waitress, a job Yoshi had secured for her through a former student who managed a Midtown nightclub, but he liked to be there at the start of her shifts, and since her hours were unpredictable and her schedule likely to change without warning, he often abandoned his teaching duties at the last minute. Naturally, this wasn’t how Yoshi described it when he called in a panic half an hour before class, begging me to take over for him. Instead he invented emergencies, repetitive lies about late-running meetings and sudden dinners with clients—besides owning the dojo, Yoshi claimed to help at his father’s insurance business—lies that would be forgotten hours later when my phone lit up with a midnight call from Yoshi, who was now at home, waiting for Oriana to get off work. I could hear the television babbling and the metallic click of a bottle opener. “She is so shy. She is an angel,” Yoshi would tell me.
From the contact I’d had with Oriana, I didn’t think she was an angel. She was shy, that was true, but she was also vain, and when people paid attention to her, the shyness vanished, and in its place came a brassiness that could easily be misinterpreted as something more inviting. While Yoshi was aware of the agitating effect Oriana could have on men, it didn’t mean that he endured it with any grace. When they went out at night, he glared at men who eyed Oriana and threatened the intrepid ones who dared speak to her. Luckily, most of the bartenders knew Yoshi and prevented any real confrontations—except for one instance when Yoshi squeezed an overly solicitous man’s jaw and brought him to the ground in flustered, agonized tears.
Oriana had asked him to keep their relationship secret from the other students. Consequently, Yoshi was careful not to favor Oriana in class and avoided eye contact with her if she asked a question. Yet his fascination was impossible to wholly conceal. He grinned whenever he spoke her name. He answered her too quickly, repeating himself and gesturing wildly. There were moments when I felt that everyone could sense his enchantment, that it was noisy, incandescent, flagrant—as love, perhaps, should be. One night I caught him staring through the rear window of his office, a diamond shaped sliver of glass that looked out onto a corner of the dojo. When I reminded him that we had been waiting ten minutes for him to begin class, he whispered, “Mr. Wallace, you must come see this.”
I closed the office door and came up beside him. He gestured to where Oriana stood with her back to us. Her long blond hair was piled on top of her head and speared through with a chopstick. Inside her bulky white cotton uniform, she was winsomely petite, her neck as thin as a dandelion stalk. She reached high with her right arm and let her left arm slacken at her side. Slowly, tantalizingly, she stretched the tiny intercostal muscles running between each rib and the lean latissimus muscles of her lower back. She had been in the office plenty of times and knew precisely where the window was positioned.
Yoshi shifted in place, continuing to observe her. I could see the reflection of his eyes in the glass, and for a moment, I had the disconcerting sensation that I was once again in my parents’ boxy old Volvo, looking up at the slashed reflection of my father’s face. As the youngest of three, I sat in the small middle seat while my brothers sandwiched me, my arms pinned, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but stare ahead, either at the unspooling road or up into the rearview mirror. The angle of the mirror created a spooky superimposition, projecting my father’s mouth onto his forehead, so that he looked like a Greek titan, ready to consume us.
It was strange to think of him like that now—my most recent and final memories of him were of a shrinking old man in a hospital bed, weak and pale, as bitter as an almond. That there had been a time when he was all powerful was almost unimaginable to me.
After class that night, when Yoshi announced that we were having a holiday party, I should have realized how far gone he was. Food, drink, even excessive conversation was forbidden in the sacred space of the dojo, where one forges one’s soul through strict discipline. Yoshi kicked open the miniature refrigerator and pulled out two six packs, then told the candy distributor to run to the corner deli for beer. The windows that could open were opened. The radio was switched on to a classic rock station. Oriana came out of the dressing room, carrying a bag of votive candles under her arm and, without any warning, flipped off the overhead lights. Darkness stretched across the room. Then she lit a candle and placed it on the wooden floor, and lit another and another, each white circle spreading its new, urgent luminescence.
It was the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when a night in the city often becomes a matter of celebration, despite the unpleasant personal and professional facts of one’s life. In those busy weeks, dozens of parties are attended, most of them happily—evidence of what might just be the enduring resoluteness of life, which doesn’t care much for facts. And the forty students who milled around the dojo that night did seem genuinely cheerful as they drank beer and talked about their lovers, spouses and children—those essentials we ignore every night while we strive to inflict agonizing pain with ever greater ease—but I was gloomy and worried. I felt edgy, tethered to something I could neither recognize nor, accordingly, protect myself from.
After a while, I snuck into Yoshi’s office. It was quieter in there, the radio muffled by the heavy wooden door, and much darker. The only light came through the small diamond-shaped window, and this light was a diminishment, the faint glimmer of distant candles. Holding my hands out in front of me, I navigated around the sharp edges of the desk and sat down behind it. It was uncomfortable on the floor, but it would have been disrespectful to sit in Yoshi’s seat. I crossed my legs and shut my eyes, assuring myself that I was meditating, though really I was drunk and sleepy.
The creak of the door jarred me awake. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. I blinked in anticipation of brightness, but the light stayed off. Then the door clicked shut and two black shapes tiptoed across the office. The smaller shape approached the file cabinet and removed a bottle from the top drawer. It was the scotch that, I thought, Yoshi had told no one else about except for me. The bigger shape sat on the edge of the desk. He had his back to me, but I recognized Billy’s shaved head.
“Did you bring cups?” whispered the smaller shape as she handed over the bottle. It was Oriana’s voice.
“You don’t drink Glenlivet from a cup,” Billy replied. Oriana giggled and rubbed Billy’s shoulder. She ran a hand along his developed triceps and cupped his elbow, pulling him close to her.
I stood and turned on the green banker’s desk lamp.
“Mr. Wallace!” Oriana said, jerking away from Billy. “Jesus, you scared me!”
“We were just getting something for Master Takamata,” Billy said.
“But we couldn’t find—” Oriana said.
“We need real glasses,” Billy explained. “Then we were going to bring it out to him.”
“I’ll bring it,” I told Billy. “Why don’t you go? Oriana, stay for a minute.”
Billy hurried out of the office. Oriana sat down in Yoshi’s chair and crossed her legs. She pursed her lips into a small pout. There was something charming even in her sullenness, and I suspected she knew it. “What?” she said. It was an old story, maybe the oldest, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
“Don’t hurt him,” I said.
Yoshi pushed open the door with a grin. He had decided to grow his hair long, but instead of a masculine wave, it puffed out like a hedgehog’s back. When he saw the bottle in my hand, he swatted my shoulder with affection. A nerve near my scapula went numb.
“Mr. Wallace, you have been hiding very unseasonally. But you are forgiven because you found my special treat.”
Yoshi took the bottle from me. He filled three cups and gestured for us to raise them in a toast.
“To the flower of my heart,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, my wife told me that she was pregnant, and a week after the new year, I stopped training with Yoshi. I explained that with a baby coming, I couldn’t risk an injury that might put me out of work. He accepted my excuse with regret but didn’t try to change my mind. Perhaps he worried that there was something else to my sudden resignation, some behavior for which he was responsible and that he didn’t want to confront.
I was surprised by how little I missed the dojo. My wife encouraged me to continue my training, concerned that I was abandoning my only outside interest. Like my father, I had no hobbies, and when the illness overtook him, he’d had nowhere to go for diversion.
“I’m not like my father,” I told her.
“I didn’t say you were. Just that . . . people need something else.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” I told her.
“But you like it.”
I wondered if I did. When I was nine years old, desperate to impress my older brothers, and exchanging the first and most valuable currency of boys, which is bravery, I had jumped off our roof. When our father heard me crying, he came outside to the backyard and, shaking his head, told me to get into the car so he could take me to the hospital. “I can’t walk,” I’d cried, crumpled on the grass. My brothers came over to help me up, but our father waved them away. “He does it himself or he doesn’t go.” It took ten minutes for me to drag myself across the yard and to the car, and another five to settle into the back seat, wincing as I struggled to position my leg in a way that didn’t make me want to scream. When I was done, my father climbed behind the steering wheel and lit a cigarette. He looked over his shoulder at me, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “If you’re going to be stupid, you’d better learn to be tough.”
But training with Yoshi hadn’t taught me anything about being tough. And perfecting the painful manipulation of a stranger’s kyusho now seemed equally senseless. Whatever minor skill I had gained only rendered me more aware of how vulnerable we are. It was an impossible task. There was no training, no expertise, no level of mastery that could ever truly protect us.
I saw Yoshi one more time, at the end of February. He had been locked out of his apartment and called to ask if I would come downtown and give him my keys to the dojo, which I had forgotten to return.
“It’s almost four in the morning. Why don’t you just take a cab up here and sleep on our couch?” I offered.
“I must get into the dojo.”
“I’ll pay for the cab.”
“My keys,” he repeated. “Please.”
I put on a sweater and a pair of jeans and thick black boots. Softly I kissed my wife’s warm cheek. Her forehead was damp with sweat and her lips chapped. She often woke in the middle of the night and had trouble falling back asleep, but that night her breathing was heavy and deep. She was growing, changing, becoming. It was a strange new process, tasked with its own variety of pain, and I kissed her again, full of gratitude. Then I found the keys and hailed a cab to help my old master.
Yoshi was waiting for me in the Irish pub. It closed at four, but the bartender, a heavyset man in his fifties, had let him stay inside until I arrived. Yoshi sat slumped in a booth in the corner. His eyes were gray and unfocused. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, maybe a week, and a wispy mustache was sprouting above his lip, giving him the appearance of a catfish.
“Master Takamata,” I said.
“Excellent, excellent.” He waved to the bartender. “A great student!”
The bartender handed me Yoshi’s tab. I paid it and we left.
Outside, Yoshi paused at the curb of the sidewalk. The cold night air seemed to have roused him, and he began to bob his head slightly, as if he were a boxer weaving in a fight. “The night is still young, Mr. Wallace. I know a Japanese bar . . . very high profile. I introduce you to a Japanese girl.” He took an accidental step off the sidewalk, flinging his arms wide to reassert his balance. “Japanese girls—very loose. They pretend the opposite, but they are island girls. A history of many sailors.”
“I brought your keys,” I said and led him across the street.
He labored up the two flights of stairs to the dojo, and then I unlocked the door for him. The air smelled dusty. Plaster littered the edges of the floor where the mouse holes had been chewed back open. I switched on the light but Yoshi switched it off.
As I kneeled in the doorway to untie the laces of my boots, Yoshi pushed past me and lay down on the mats. He stared at the ceiling, stained with years of water damage.
“Oriana is gone,” he said.
“She leaves me for her yoga teacher.” He kicked off one shoe and tried to pry free the other but couldn’t do it. I walked over and unlaced it for him. Then I placed both his shoes alongside the edge of the mat.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Are you going to sleep here?”
“I don’t need to sleep. I am a night bird.”
“Do you think she loved me?”
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?” I said.
“Did she?” Yoshi sat up, leaning on his elbow to face me. “Tell me the truth.”
I hesitated. I thought about the icy fields of Yoshi’s youth, the skin tearing from his feet as he chased after bravery and strength.
“No,” I said.
He smiled. It was the smile that I had so often confused with serenity, but which was only familiarity, a muted recognition of the transference of pain. Yoshi closed his eyes. I placed his jacket over his shoulders, left the keys beside the door, and went home to my beautiful wife.
Panio Gianopoulos, “The Flower of one’s Heart” from How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books.
For three years, lifetimes ago, I was an office manager at a credit agency. During those years, with one exception, I never fired anyone. Probably this was because everyone quit first. The pay was miserable, there was too much work for any person to do in any given position, and my superior was an aimless man who was slowly ruining us all. His office window looked out onto the street, and it was on the sill of this window, visible to every passerby, that he kept his balled-up hamburger wrapapers. It was from this man that I received orders to fire Paula.
I wasn’t supposed to fire Paula because she was lazy or in-competent. We kept on a lot of people who were lazy and in-competent. In fact, they tended to be the ones who got the most respect from the majority of us. I was to fire this young person, this twenty-one-year-old typist, because when she took her first vacation her replacement from the temp agency did an astonishingly better job and was willing to take over Paula’s job. The girl from the temp agency, Linda, typed at what was a phenomenal rate, according to my superior, although I had never been a witness to her fast finger work. Purportedly, she didn’t make mistakes either. She was prompt. To top it off, she brought my superior his hamburgers twice during the week that she served as Paula’s replacement.
Why I eventually agreed to fire Paula was not a mystery to me. My superior made it sound like a solid business practice to fire Paula. Besides, he so seldom made a demand that it seemed unthinkable to argue for too long with him—although I did express my opinion that we should keep Paula.
Paula had been with us for just over a year. She was quiet and did her work. She wasn’t late—except for a couple of times and then with good reasons. She sometimes got lost in details, that’s true, and once she handed in a document that was part gibberish. But when she was told about the problem she worked straight through her lunch hour to get the report straightened out. She was, I think, entirely unremarkable.
Except for her brother.
For years, even long after I fired Paula, I would think of her brother and feel a surge of longing and confusion—and even some envy of Paula. In fact, on a certain level those of us women who saw him (he stopped by at least once a week to take Paula out to lunch) felt almost proprietary toward him. He and Paula had the same dark coloring and slim, graceful build, although he was considerably taller. But more than his good looks, it was his manner that was touching. He remembered everyone’s name after the first visit. Without fail, he helped his sister put on her coat. He had a way of making his whole face smile, and then he’d turned to Paula with a wink, and for a moment you could see what they’d been like as a couple of little kids. It was obvious that he was the kind of brother who could manage a secret. It seemed certain that they had had secrets as children—silly little secrets that they kept and that drew them closer together. You just knew that he was the big brother who protected her. I imagined that he would protect her after she was fired too.
I suppose that seeing Paula’s brother was so refreshing because of some of the things I had to do and say. For instance: I had to tell a pretty young woman that she smelled funny—so funny that people couldn’t get their work done around her. Frequently, I listened to employees tell me about their gynecological problems because they knew that although I was also a woman I would never in a million years ask them follow-up questions, and so they could get the day off with only a small amount of self-humiliation. Along with that sort of thing I counseled someone with an ulcer who worked with a can of warm cola at her elbow on doctor’s orders. I think she got an ulcer because she was such a good listener—everyone confided in her. For a while two pregnant women kept falling asleep while talking to clients on the telephone. There were harrowing things too: I had to barricade the door three times when deranged husbands or boyfriends came for the women who worked in the agency, and one of the husbands was our security guard. Worst of all, I had to pretend that I didn’t notice when a woman from accounting came in with her newborn baby and the baby was missing a hand.
No one had warned me. It was a beautiful baby, and I said it was a beautiful baby. And there was the mother making hardly more than minimum wage, and there was her baby without a hand.
Presumably there is a way to fire people, but I didn’t know how to do it.
It shouldn’t be done right before Christmas or New Year’s, I reasoned. I decided that the right time to fire Paula was three weeks after New Year’s. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t have done it at that time because that’s the time, at least in Ohio, when few people have anything to live for. The snow has been around for a long time and has a used, particularly defeated look. It begins to look unnatural, even though nothing could be more natural. And then you have Valentine’s Day looming around the corner, like some sort of mean mockery of everybody. But, as I said, the snow is the worst part. It isn’t even a color anymore—but an unreflective, dead, noncolor. When I had to confront my superior again to see if he still meant that I ought to fire Paula, I stared out the plate-glass window behind him, past the hamburger wrappers wadded on the windowsill. The snowbanks looked as if an occasional canon shot landed in them. That sort of bleak snow makes you think that nothing will change. Things will just break down and wear away at best.
“Are you all right?” That was Paula’s question to me. She put her hand on my forearm. Her touch was gentle and hesitant, and I noticed for the first time how broad her face was, like a child’s.
She had touched my arm after I asked her to come into the restroom with me. When I realized that she thought I must be ill and was asking for her help, blood shot into my head.
Of course I thought it would be best to fire Paula first thing in the morning, so that she would have the whole day to herself and so that her brother couldn’t accuse us of getting the most possible work out of her before letting her go. I also thought it would be best to fire her in the restroom so that we would have some privacy. My own desk was at the head of an office of eight desks. Certainly there was no privacy there. In particular, I didn’t want any men to see her being fired. It would be too humiliating to be fired in front of a man—even some of the kinder men. And of course there were men in the credit agency who had hardened their hearts long ago to women in trouble.
I thought that my firing of Paula should be swift too.
But this is the truth: although I had rehearsed ways to break the news to Paula, I can’t remember a word I said to her. I was trying to keep my balance so that I wouldn’t plunge my head into the sink.
I must have said something to the effect that she was being replaced because of the accelerating demands of the position she was filling (i.e., typist).
I braced myself for angry words—because even a quiet, passive sort of person like Paula can let you have it.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Paula cried. Never before and never since have I seen anything like it.
There was no prologue. Seemingly no beginning. No snuffle or slow moistening of the eyes or blushing of the cheek.
Her crying was instantaneous and silent. It was as if water were spurting soundlessly out of her head.
If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have believed it: it was as if she had to be made of tears. Her blouse—a violet-colored flimsy blouse that showed the outlines of her bra—was wet with tears. As if she had to cry not only out of her eyes but out of her cheeks and out of her eyebrows and out of her chest.
I count it as a miracle that no one came into the restroom during all this.
I myself was ready to run from the restroom. I couldn’t even see her eyes for her tears; her eyes were that puffy and her tears were that profuse.
And then I started.
I was crying—and I wasn’t even feeling sympathetic toward poor Paula during those moments. I was only feeling physically sympathetic, I suppose. I was lurching and crying. I was in my tears, inside them, swimming in them, and all my sadnesses came up—things I can’t mention here and would rather not dwell on. They came up not as discrete names or memories but as substances of some sort without features, as if my sadnesses had turned to liquid inside me.
When I finally gathered myself, when I could see again, Paula had left the restroom.
I walked through the back door to her desk. She wasn’t there. Her coat was not in the cloak room. I ventured back to her desk, in case somehow I had missed her, and the big beige typewriter—we used electric typewriters in those days—seemed to be resting by itself, just waiting for Linda, the remarkable replacement for Paula.
Now I am going to move swiftly to another part of the story, the part where I come to see that I have been party to something like a murder. But of course it took me a good long time to figure it out, and once more something strange happened in the agency’s restroom.
The next week when I saw Linda seated at Paula’s typewriter I felt guilty. I hadn’t paid much attention to Linda during the week she was temping, but now I looked at her closely. She had Paula’s coloring, that was true, but not Paula’s smile. Paula had a shy, embarrassed smile—as if she were apologetic just for being Paula. Linda’s smile was a challenge. It was a smile that practically spoke. Her smile said: You are so stupid. When she smiled one of her teeth stuck to her lower lip.
On the very first day she only typed in the necessary information on three of the forms that we use for garnishing wages.
On the second day it occurred to me that there was something vicious about the way she looked at me. And then I realized the obvious: she felt pity for Paula—and anxiety. She was afraid that she would suffer Paula’s fate. She thought of me as the sort of office manager who fired people easily and often and thoughtlessly.
As I recall it now, I made a point on the third and fourth days of her first week to stop by her desk. I even brought her coffee twice to show her that there was nothing to worry about.
Once, I watched her when she couldn’t see me. She was looking into a compact of facial powder with such concentration that I wondered what she could be seeing. She squinted at her reflection. She actually licked her lips. And then she smiled at herself—a beautiful, dazzling, full-toothed smile that lit up her eyes, a smile I had never seen her use for any of us.
At the end of the week I actually found myself staring into the restroom mirror and wondering why I appeared to be a person who is easy to disdain. I washed my hands, pulled off one of the manila papers to dry my fingers, and when I was about to toss the paper into the wastebasket I saw something that made my heart skip: mailing addresses. Lists and lists and lists of mailing addresses. Linda’s mailing addresses. They had cost us a fortune to obtain, and she was supposed to affix those addresses to envelopes for our new advertising brochures. She had dumped them here. There could be no mistake.
It had been a long day, and suddenly I was close to tears. Linda had left early, and so I retrieved the mailing labels from the waste basket and put them on the top of her typewriter. I knew that I wouldn’t even have to talk to her about them on Monday. She would see the mailing labels and know that I knew what she was up to. That ugly smirk would dissolve back into her face, and she would have to contend with the labels and my knowledge of her perfidy—and her knowledge that I couldn’t be viewed as an imbecile quite so easily anymore.
As it turns out, Linda had picked up her check earlier that afternoon (it had been processed because we were at the end of the month). We never saw her at the agency again.
One of the women in our office, the one nursing an ulcer, informed me that Linda told her just before she left us that Paula had contracted gonorrhea. Furthermore, this was due to the fact that Linda had seduced Paula’s boyfriend after she her¬self contracted gonorrhea from her dentist during a checkup that turned passionate following a routine cleaning.
“But why,” I asked, “why did Linda want to hurt Paula?”
About two weeks later I was able to figure something out again thanks to the woman with the ulcer.
“Did you know that Linda used to live with Paula’s brother?” the woman asked.
I felt my breath knocked right out of me. With that information I could see that I understood everything. How better to harm Paula’s brother than to harm Paula?
“He must have dumped Linda in some spectacular way, and poor Paula was the sacrificial lamb,” I told the woman with the ulcer. “I bet he was polite about dumping Linda. He used his politeness like a weapon. That would make Linda want to kill him, at the least.”
And then my friend with the ulcer said: “Guess who else is walking funny these days?”
Of course I found out that she meant my superior.
It was all miserable—and more trouble for Linda than it should have been worth.
This all happened so long ago, but parts of it are very fresh to me. Especially the firing and the way Paula cried. And her brother. Sometimes I felt guilty about Paula and her brother although I never tried to contact either of them to apologize.
Just this past year, believe it or not, I saw Linda again, and I still recognized her after all this time. I was visiting with my cousin who asked me to stop with her at a yarn shop. This was about ten miles outside of Cincinnati at one of those little malls. I recognized Linda immediately. She was standing under rows and rows of knitting needles of all sizes, most in bright metallic colors—blues and greens and magenta. A line of hand-knitted sweaters dangled from the wall behind her. She had a kind of washed-out look. Instantly it occurred to me that if she were a sweater she would look nice until you turned her inside out and saw all the loose knots and clumped spots.
She tried to sell me some angora yarn but backed off immediately when she sensed my lack of interest. She had a superior air, and so it was likely that she owned the shop. It occurred to me too that she must have been a fabulous knitter and had successfully changed her avocation into a vocation. I tried to imagine her reputedly fast fingers clicking the needles, but of course she didn’t give me a demonstration. Her smile was much the same; one little tooth kept getting caught on her lip. At one point her hand fluttered up to hide it—even from me, an old nobody.
And then a month later—this is the way life is, some version of reality will always come to get you, let no one tell you otherwise—I was at a wedding reception when I met a woman who appeared vaguely familiar. When I told her my name she laughed and said she knew something she bet I didn’t know: “You fired my niece twenty years ago.”
This particular woman was about my age, heavy-set, sloppily drunk, and extremely talkative. She was laughing as she spoke. She looked, I could see now, a lot like Paula and her brother. And apparently she knew my name because I was a family legend of some sort.
I found out from that woman what I could about Paula’s life.
Paula—get ready for this—is a chief executive officer of a major marketing company. I felt disoriented for a moment. Who could have predicted it? Paula must fire people all the time. You can’t be in a position like that without ruining people’s lives. Paula, I learned, was also married and the mother of a teenage daughter. A powerful person. Our Paula.
But I didn’t think I would drop Paula a line of congratulations for her good fortune and hard work even if her family laughed about her first job now. I knew what it had cost her.
“Don’t feel bad about firing her,” Paula’s aunt said, looking right into my eyes. “It was nothing to her. It was amusing. Given everything she had to deal with it was nothing.”
I was sure then that Paula must have made the firing incident into a family joke. She was fired from her first job, but look at her now.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked the woman. Truth be told, I had wanted to ask her about him as soon as I knew she was his aunt. I had thought of him for years really. I had even tried to imagine having someone like Paula’s brother to comfort me on the two occasions when I got fired.
The wedding reception was virtually over. People were getting their coats. The roads were likely to be icy, and there was a sense of urgency in the air amid all the white and silver wedding decorations.
“What about your nephew—Paula’s brother?” I asked again.
“Oh dear,” the woman said. “You didn’t know? Paula doesn’t have a brother. You must mean Michael.” She paused and then I felt her determination—she would be swift, and she would lower her voice so we would have our privacy.
“I don’t like to speak ill of Michael, but he enjoyed fooling people. Paula didn’t like to do that, but he liked to go around pretending they were brother and sister.”
She must have registered the look on my face because she went on speaking even more quickly. “I know. I know,” she said. “It was strange. He liked to call Paula his sister. It was his strange joke—a kind of compulsion. He did it even in front of me. But I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t know. Hodgkin’s disease. He must have been fighting it when Paula worked for you. I thought everybody knew. I thought you knew. You hired his sister.”
“Lynn was his sister’s name, I think. No, Linda. Linda was his actual sister.”
I was swimming in confusion. “The only person I ever fired in my entire life was Paula,” I said, “and I shouldn’t have.”
In my mind’s eye I saw Linda with all those knitting needles hanging over her head, and I felt what people used to call Holy Fear, the fear of a jealous God’s revenge.
Already I have had a long life, filled to the hilt with mistakes, but I’ll say this: it is a terrible perversion to harm the living just because you want to injure the dying.
It’s not that I’m bragging about, at last, knowing what I know. Or pretending in some mealy-mouthed way that I should have known more than I knew years ago. He took my breath away, I used to think of the beautiful young man who said he was Paula’s brother.
Why wouldn’t I have believed whatever he said: the man I thought was Paula’s brother? If I had known the truth I wouldn’t have said anything anyway. That’s what beauty and politeness do. When you see those two possibilities together in one person that person can lie to your face. You don’t say: Your real sister believes she’s the love of your life, not Paula. And you play your little game with Paula because your sister is right. You let Paula go, I didn’t. Would I have said that? It’s only family members who can correct one another that thoroughly and ruin each other in the process. Like anyone, even the bravest of the lot, it’s cowardice I understand.
*Lee Upton, “Let Go” from The Tao of Humilation. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
“This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm. As if she was really sorry.
“Stick a fork in me. I’m done,” I said.
“No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“It’s only one house. Maybe the next one.”
“It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.
“But we’ve come so far. You can’t stop now. Absolutely not.”
I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would not break. That’s how hard she was. No one could win against her. Certainly not me. Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast upward.
The houses they did not buy: the contemporary with too much sunlight, the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting, the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the houses they did not buy.
Seventy-three houses they did not buy. Seventy-three houses I showed them and I knew this game. I knew how to play this game. But she was winning.
“I quit,” I said.
She laughed. “We’ll take a few days off.”
I just won’t return her calls, I thought. “Great idea,” I said. To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”
I could see that made the partner mad. But she was the long-suffering type, even with me.
“Not at all,” her partner said. She held her head up high.
They were so beautiful, these two. Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy blond, with a gorgeous, wide smile and sharp, blue miss-nothing eyes. Long Suffering was short and olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that showed off her large breasts. Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching for its turn at the watering hole.
I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples. There were tons of resales on those couples. A lot of them broke up after four or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought new ones with other women. I especially liked couples like this one, with their matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts, and high-salaried corporate jobs.
I liked lesbians, but I hated these two. They were realtor cock-teasers. Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my point. They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.
It had nothing to do with me. They were watching each other, waiting for the house that made one of them pant and scream. Then one of them would have the upper hand. The one who wanted it the most was the one who would have to grovel for as long as they lived in that house.
I know power struggles. I can smell them in the air after twenty-three years in the business and four marriages of my own. The smell is unmistakable, like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.
“The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on the market these days,” I said. “I know you are busy women with highly responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this. We’ll have to wait it out. Maybe in a few months, the market will improve. You two deserve something spectacular.”
Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has watching a chipmunk run by. Her blue eyes were steady beams.
“Next week,” she said. “Set it up.”
Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring intently into her mobile phone. She licked her lips slowly.
Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be buying a house with her. Look at her. She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she? But she isn’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I feel so close to you. You feel like a friend after spending all this time with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming out on my face. Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.
“If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.” “I operate on instinct. My gut tells me to keep looking. The right house will grab me. The house will say, come on in, you two. She’ll relax in this bedroom. She’ll attack me in this living room.”
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“A house doesn’t fix anything. Definitely not a sex problem.” “Who says? Maybe a house could fix something. Maybe no one lets it.” She reached out and put both her hands over my hand. Her hands were warm. “Help me.”
“For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.
I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone. But she laughed.
“You’re a cockteaser,” I said.
“So I’ve been told. By better women than you.” Her smile stayed fixed on her face, but she let go of me.
Good, I thought. I’m finally getting to her.
“So next week, then. Set it up for Saturday,” she said.
Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday. I was top agent in my office. I didn’t have to work things like this. It was a sad, tiny little house with a persistent moldy smell. The owners were old. They didn’t want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling. So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block over. No one cut their grass regularly. Next door, someone had propped two stained mattresses against their house.
The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that the owners leave so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people trooping through. I didn’t care. I was happy to be there. Anywhere but trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.
Only one couple ventured in during the first hour. I put on my honest, earnest face.
“It needs work, I won’t lie to you. A little paint, new rugs. You can see for yourself. But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next year. All signs point straight up for appreciation in value. If you bought this now and fixed it up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”
The man had the hungry look. He didn’t want to be poor all his life. His wife looked afraid. She didn’t want to make a mistake.
I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know. No one knows. The neighborhood could take an upturn. And a husband who wanders could stop, just like that. Sure. It could happen.
After they left, it was quiet for a long time. I turned up the volume on the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in my chair. I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend, instead of me.
The door opened. They walked in. Long Suffering wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set up in their parking lots during closeout sales. Concrete Skull leaned in.
“We found you,” she said.
“I thought we were taking a break.”
“Break’s over.” Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.
“Don’t you ever give up?”
“Never,” she said. Her partner snorted.
Now, we’ll get into it, I thought. Come on, Long Suffering, make your move. Get in there. Speak up. But she just turned, walked back to the car and got in, holding her elegant, round rump out on display for an extra second before it vanished into the Mercedes.
“Why me?” I asked. “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor? Maybe she’ll do better for you. And she can come to your house-warming party, too.”
“You know why I want you? Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to work hard for me. Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever they show me. Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me and my money. Wrong. You’re smarter than that. It’s all about the deal.”
I liked beating out lesbian realtors. I pictured them trotting out secret weapons with her little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common. And still I won. I admit I melted a little, flattered.
So we went on to the seventy-fourth house. It was a spectacularly ugly McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill. But it was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.
“Honey, this is it. This is the one,” said Concrete Skull. She smiled her gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten. It didn’t sound convincing even to me. This is a test. This is only a test. In the event of a real urge to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared. So disregard this test. It is only a test.
“No way,” Long Suffering said. “I loathe the smell of this house. You’ve got to be kidding me. No freaking way.”
“I was kidding. I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said. “See, honey, we really are getting close. We both hate this one. So that’s a good sign.”
They both turned to me, waiting for my applause. “Seventy-five,” I said. “That’s my limit. I warn you.” They both chuckled, like I was making a small, dumb joke.
I hate you both, I thought. You are the bad smell.
It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed. When we walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it. Somebody wanted this one, but I couldn’t tell who. I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming cars and deciding when to run. I studied one and then the other. Who was it?
I tried all my realtor tricks. I vanished into other rooms so they could talk privately. I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me. I studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny and indifference.
“It’s quite old,” Concrete Skull said finally. “It’s an old house. They are asking a lot for such an old house.”
Aha, I thought. She wants it.
“Honey, what do you think?” she asked. Her voice was a cat slinking along a high ledge. I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the seventy-eight previous houses.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said. She sounded bored but she was paying close attention, her brown eyes flickering madly. “Let’s go on to the next.”
I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the Persian rug.
“I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said. “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This is a house where you will have swank parties. I see gorgeous women in slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”
“We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull. “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.
“After you practically pushed them in my mouth.” “You wanted me to.”
“You wanted it worse.”
I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.
“Let’s write it up, girls. You can sign the agreement right now,” I said. And they did.
When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and cried. Her partner was on her way. We were supposed to wait for her, but Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.
“We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office, bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.
“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so. But we can’t do this one simple thing. I’ve done it with other women. It’s no big deal. Go look at a few houses and buy one. What is happening? Why is this happening to me? I can’t stand it. I’m being punished.”
“It’s only radon. Easily remediated,” I said. “Punished for what?” “I stole her from another woman. They have a baby. I’m mean to my mother. I hate my father. I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with. Is that enough?” She was really wailing now, working herself up.
“It’s only radon,” I said. I was enjoying myself immensely. “I’m forty-one years old. I can’t make any more mistakes.” “Everyone has some radon around here. This house is just a tad over the limit,” I said. “You don’t understand. I am not everyone. I can’t have it.” “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said. “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house. We’ll be poisoned from below. What chance do we have to make it? Do you have any idea how many failed relationships I’ve had? This is my last chance. I’m not wasting it on her.”
“It’s not that bad. You’re getting all carried away.” I thought of Husband Number Three. I thought he was my last chance too, but along came Four. There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found. I could have kept it up my whole life. Hello Five. Hello Six. Hello Seven.
Long Suffering showed up. “Do you still want it?” “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed. “It’s a poison house.” “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.
“It’s our last chance. We’ll never find another house as good as this one. This was the one. And it’s ruined.”
“So we’ll buy it and fix it.”
You fool, I thought. You don’t see that there is no way to win with her. The house is nothing. The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.
“I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried. “I’m done.”
“You’re done. With looking?” Long Suffering stood in the door-way, legs planted wide. Slowly her face began to change. “With me? In front of her?”
“Just ignore me,” I said. “Do what you have to do.” You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.
I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things. But she stood there silently for the longest time. And then she crumpled to the floor, making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs. She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet, and she kept making the squeezy sound. It was the most terrible sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was like watching somebody die.
I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly next to her. I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me, then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings. I was safe there. I rubbed her back. I patted her hair. I whispered in her ear, “You’re okay. You will be. You’re not going to die.” It didn’t help at all. Nothing does. Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.
We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back. We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.
*Kathy Anderson, “You Are the Bad Smell” from Bull and other stories. Copyright @ 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org.
Ben was my summer boyfriend, my “older man,” Mom called him. He was twelve, and I was eleven, a skinny eleven, though I believed my breasts appeared acceptable to those who mattered. He lived usually with his mother in Florida. He had a beautiful red face with a scar outlining his jaw from once playing basketball and diving into the pavement. He was known as a diver, though he didn’t swim. He even refused to stick his ankles in the baby pool my parents packed with beer and Coke for their parties.
The first Monday of summer, Mom stayed home from work. She had me on trial. Would she have to take a leave or could she trust me alone? No money for a sitter. In our neighborhood, kids ran around like abandoned animals, but we knew to be civilized when we had to.
I made lunch in the microwave, not the stove, which Dad said had the potential to explode when used by small hands. Cheese warmed between two slices of bread. I ate in the living room, reading about different breeds of cats and humming. Multi-tasking. Mom had the television on in the basement. She already pounded up the stairs once to check on me. She was having fun, pretending to care.
After lunch, Ben turned up outside the picture window carrying some pillowcases. With my hand on the doorframe, I swung toward him and we kissed for the first time in nine months.
“You smell like cheese.” He gave me a pillowcase, which was smooth and fancy. “I need to borrow your backyard.”
At the top of the staircase, I yelled to my mother, “I’m heading to be responsible out back.”
“I’ll be watching,” she called.
Ben went toward the pine trees, where so many years’ worth of needles covered the ground. He dropped to his knees and shoveled piles of them into his pillowcase. He said his dad had a new girlfriend who carried a tape measure in her purse. “At breakfast she measured my height.”
“How tall are you?” I asked. Some kids in the neighborhood called him a shorty. Whenever I brought him up they said, “That shorty?” though never to his face.
“The girlfriend asked if I knew you. She called you ‘That silly girl who ties something around her chest.’ She said that’s not what breasts are supposed to look like.”
“As if she knows.” I sat cross-legged in the needles and sorted out the sharpest. They were increasingly snappy the further down the pile. “Breasts don’t all look the same.”
“They had a conversation about it.” Ben filled another pillowcase. “Dad called your breasts ‘hypothetical.’ Or, I don’t know, ‘parenthetical.’ ”
“Your house is a house of hysterics.”
Mom came outside with a watering can. She watered the yellowed weeds near the back porch, watching us. Ben waved and smiled at her, and she took it as an invitation.
“I wondered when someone would have the initiative.” She nodded at the stuffed pillowcases. “Garbage bags would hold more.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ben said. “It so happens I have a need for needles just as you have a need to be rid o’ them.”
She gave me a look like we were weird. I groaned as she went for the bags. “I’m officially on the chain gang.”
“What’s wrong with her wrist?” he asked.
“Don’t look at my mother.”
“It’s the color my chin turned a few days after I messed it up.”
I took a handful of pine needles. “You’re a crappy boyfriend.”
He took my hand and brushed away the needles. He had a crazy eye that twitched occasionally. “You’re a good kid.” He kissed me quick on the cheek, watching the backdoor.
With trash bags of pine needles, I followed Ben across the street. The needles pricked through my shirt, but I didn’t complain. Up a narrow stairwell and down a short stuffy hall, I wondered which room was his and what it would be like to follow him in and close the door behind us.
Instead, I watched him empty four bags of needles onto his father’s sheets. We smoothed the comforter over top so no one could tell what was beneath, and he showed me three small holes in the comforter.
“You notice things better left unnoticed,” I said.
We heard the front door open, and my mother, “Mary, you shouldn’t be here!”
“Come to the park,” I told Ben. “Everyone’s there.”
“That doesn’t excite me.” He fluffed one of the pine-needled pillows. The bed was prickly and splotched. “Have fun with your ugly friends.”
Instead, I went home with Mom, my wrists crossed behind my back like they’d been handcuffed. “You know how to be nice, young lady,” she said. Boys’ homes were enemy territory.
I sprawled on the living room carpet until almost dinner. Dad’s car pulled into the drive. “There’s a gorgeous girl on my floor!” The screen door snapped behind him. He took off his shoes. “How’s my doll?”
“Tired and dirty.” I turned away from him, toward the kitchen. Mom was making sloppy joes.
“Your mother still mad at me?
I didn’t answer. He tiptoed over me, though there was room to go around.
“Let me see it,” I heard him say. I closed my eyes. All afternoon, Ben hadn’t kissed me. There was a bed. There was his anger. I imagined how it would feel, climbing into a soft space and getting pricked with a thousand needles. It was almost my turn.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place.