Prose: AV12-Prose

Prose

The Truth About Love

Kyon natters softly.  His mouthful of little songs wakes Cho because it’s the sound of her son.  She opens her eyes and gazes into his copper-coin face, her devotion the precise size and density of a four-year old boy.  Uncurling from around Kyon, Cho flounders out from between lightly starched sheets – up and getting ready.  Cho brushes the black wave of her hair and then slips into a cream colored camisole and nylons her skinny legs.  A simple blue dress with long sleeves unifies her style into one appeal. 
 
Finding matching socks for Kyon has eaten up years of Cho’s life.  Every morning her hands become frenzied shovels scattering socks and misplaced toys in the dresser drawers until she finds a pair of matching socks and shoes.  Then it’s, “Make the ears.  Crisscross.  Into the bunny hole. Pull them tight.” until finally, Kyon is socked and shoed and ready for daycare.    
 
She collects her bags and then out through her brownstone door steps into the winter street.  The sleet stopped in the small of the night but the morning is still shockingly cold.  Cho’s scarf frames her quiet face, her wool coat an ocean in which both she and Kyon swim.  They wait on the corner to hail a cab, every freezing minute stretching into the space of two.

The City is in Cho’s ears and the morning is all bang, bang, boom. Her impractical shoes make the shuttling of Kyon from taxi to the Tiny Years Daycare Center a teetering task.  Kyon prattles all the while, his voice audible but not his words.  Cho hands Kyon to an old woman with large ears, black eyes, and a “Hello.  My name is…” sticker, but there’s no name written on the tag so it’s just “Hello.  My name is… nothing.” Nevertheless, Cho trusts the nameless old woman to keep Kyon from a thousand accidents. 

 Cho jumps back into the taxi, her hair splashed across the back of the seat.  She reaches for her scarf, bracelets sliding down her arm, and realizes it’s no longer there.  How many scarves has she lost conveying Kyon from taxi to daycare, how many gloves, how many umbrellas, how many earrings?  Really, I must be more careful, she thinks.  But this is the last thought of Kyon she permits herself for the remains of the workday, rather, she concentrates on transforming herself into the dragon-lady of corporate advertising: frigid, bitchy and ready, if necessary, to use a Samurai sword to get her way.  It’s not a role of Cho’s choosing, but it is a stereotype her boss expects her to fulfill.  It is, after all, why he hired her – he likes Lucy Liu. 

 Stilettos punctuate Cho’s every move on the thirty-ninth floor of The Rockefeller Center with a fashionable snick.  She fires the man with horse teeth.  Snick.  She lands a multimillion dollar account.  Snick. She moves the deadline up three days.  Snick.  She abruptly answers her own phone because she fired her horse-tooth assistant.  Snick.  
 
“Cho Nahm speaking.” 

“Ms. Nahm?”

“yes?”

“This is Mi-sook at the Tiny Years Daycare Center.  I’m sorry.  Kyon is crying.”

“I don’t understand.”  Snick.

“Kyon won’t stop crying.”

“You called me because my son is crying?” Snick!  Snick!

“I’m sorry, Ms. Nahm.  Kyon has been crying for three hours.  I’m sorry. I can’t make him happy.  So sorry.”

“Are you asking me to come and pick him up?”

“Yes ma’am.  I’m so sorry.”

Click.  Snick.
 
Cho leaves the office in a flurry of snicks.  And for nine blocks in the back of a yellow taxi, she is two schools of thought – corporate executive versus devoted mother.  The corporate executive orders the cabbie to stop, the devoted mother asks the driver to keep the meter running while she gets her son.  Cho enters the daycare center and the sound is suddenly overwhelming, like Grand Central Station, but diminutive.  And there, there in the middle of it all is Kyon crying.

He looks like an exhausted swimmer, red and drenched.  Kyon’s relief gathers itself in his expression as soon as he sees Cho, who swoops down to hover like a hen nestling her egg.  Together they become the still in the center of the room.  Cho gathers the familiar shape of Kyon to herself, pressing kisses into the bend of his neck.  She slowly pivots on her pointed heel to face Mi-sook who bows, hair draping.  Then Mi-sook tilts her head upward and unexpectedly the bright look of discovery makes a sunrise of her face.

“His shoes are on the wrong feet.”

Cho looks at her blankly.  Mi-sook doesn’t have the confidence to repeat herself, so she gingerly approaches Kyon’s feet, every mannerism a bowing apology.  Quick, quick she unties one shoe, then the other.  She juggles them to opposite hands and then quick, quick she ties one shoe, then the other.  She looks up for approval.  When Cho utters, “thank you,” it also means “I hate you.”  And, “Write your name on the nametag, stupid bitch.”   

Leaning against the cold cab window on the way home, Cho watches narrow alleys and the lights on in every apartment pass.  She hides from the driver’s rearview eyes behind a curtain of hair and listens to Kyon breathing as a child will do just before falling asleep, deeply.  The cab slows, stops, and then idles in front of Cho’s brownstone.  The porcelain sky shatters just then and sleet clatters on the sheets of sidewalk ice and car glass.  Cho collects her bags, her son, and dashes to the door, splattering slush up the back of her legs. 

Cho’s coat on a chair, shoes slipped off, heavy wet nylons piled on the first step to upstairs.  Kyon’s quilted coat drenched, little hat hung, and yawning.  And then Cho notices a vacancy on her wrist – her bracelets missing.  She rushes outside in her bare feet hoping to find the bracelets between the front door and where the taxi was parked.  She tips on her toes searching in the pelting sleet, but the bracelets are not to be found.  Cho returns to the house and sits silent, rubbing warmth back into her feet.  She contemplates the significance of the missing bracelets, inventing meaning when it doesn’t become evident.

Cho begins to feel that Kyon has ruined her life.  His neediness, his mismatched socks, his culpability in her disappearing accessories.  The sharp-edged toys on the kitchen floor, the sleeplessness, the forever sticky face and fingers – all of it making her forget who she is and what she ever wanted. 

Cho’s eyes become a mystery to Kyon.  Sensing an atmospheric change, he hoards himself – mouth closed in fear, chin trembling.  In a quiet yet quick explosion of movement, Cho collects Kyon’s wet shoes and moves to him kneeling.  Without words, she positions him on the floor, his soles directed at her.  And then, like so many times before, she purposefully jams Kyon’s shoes on the wrong feet.  She yanks the laces tight while Kyon mouths the words, “Make the ears.  Crisscross.  Into the bunny hole.  Pull them tight.” 
 
The truth about love is that it isn’t always good.  And the particular places from which Cho’s fury erupt, makes her immune to Kyon’s painful pleading.  All Kyon understands is that his feet hurt and somehow, it’s his fault.

The Temp Job

It was a recession and I got laid off.

“I’m sorry,” my boss said, “I just can’t afford to have an assistant right now. I might know of something for you, though.”

He handed me a business card. It was white with bright red lettering. It said: Echo Enterprises.

“I got it last night at a party,” my boss said. “Some guy gave it to me, said he’s looking for someone.”

I thanked my boss for the lead. Then I gathered my things and went outside. It was a Friday afternoon, a summer afternoon, and very hot. I walked until I found a payphone and then I dialed the number on the card. The number rang ten, maybe fifteen times, but no one answered. I walked until I found another payphone. Ten more empty rings. But on the eleventh ring, a woman answered. She sounded young, around my age. She told me to come in the next day for an interview. I thanked her and hung up the phone. Later that night, I realized she’d never asked for my name.

#

At the interview I was greeted by an attractive man wearing a red tie. He gave me the usual spate of grammar, spelling, and typing tests. After I finished, he took me to a small, windowless room.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You passed all your tests. Now it’s time for your interview. First question: Do you mind working on a temporary basis?”

“No, that’s very good for me, actually. I’m just looking for something to tide me over.”

“Great,” the man said. “You’re hired.”

He escorted me into another small windowless room. There was a square table in the center of it. On the table was a beige telephone.

“When this phone rings, your job is to not answer it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s a very simple job,” the man explained. “Don’t answer the phone.”

“If you don’t want me to answer the phone, why do you need someone to sit here? Why not just shut the door and let the phone ring?”

“You’ll be paid well for this, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Good. You can start tomorrow. Bring something to read.”

#

I arrived the next day with a newspaper and a novel. I took a seat at the small table and moved the telephone to the corner. I spread the newspaper and began to read.

By then end of the morning, the phone hadn’t rung and I’d read the entire paper. I was pleased with myself; I’d never made it through the whole newspaper before. I felt as if I’d learned more about the world in one morning than I had in several years.

I took a long walk during my lunch break. When I returned to the office, I began the novel I had brought with me. The phone remained quiet and the afternoon passed peacefully.

At the end of the day, the man in the red tie came by.

“Did the phone ring?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Well, it usually takes a while.” He handed me an envelope filled with new bills. It was three times what I was typically paid for a day’s work.

That night I treated my friends to dinner. I told them I was working as a secretary at a big law firm. My primary responsibility was to answer the phone. Easy money, I said.

#

Two weeks passed by in this manner. I went to work, read in the windowless room for seven hours and collected envelopes from the man in the red tie. In the evenings I went out with my friends or to the movies. I was happy, but sometimes I felt guilty. My life was too easy.

#

Nearly a month passed before the phone started to ring. But when it rang, it really rang. Oh, how it rang! It rang and rang and rang. It was rain beating on the windows; it was locusts in summer–incessant,
unstoppable, freakish.

The weird thing was, I didn’t have any desire to answer the phone. I wanted it to stop, yes, but only in the way you want a headache to recede, or a car alarm to shut off. That is, I didn’t feel like I had much
control over it.

At the end of the day I went to the office of the man with the red tie. “The phone started ringing.”

“It’s about time.” He handed me my cash. “Have a good evening.”

The next day, the phone was already ringing when I entered the room. I wondered if it had been ringing all night. Something about the way it was ringing made me think it hadn’t been. That it had waited for me.

#

It wasn’t until the phone stopped ringing that the job began to get to me. After two whole weeks of ringing, the phone suddenly quit, midday. The silence was luxurious, a sea of quiet. But at the same time I felt as if I had missed a terrible opportunity. As if a window had been open and now it was shut. I began to feel anxious. It was hard to concentrate and I couldn’t read as much. I kept thinking: What if it never rings again? And then: If it does start ringing, should I pick it up? And then: But what if never rings again?

And then: Who had been calling?

#

To my relief, the phone began to ring again. But this time it was excruciating to hear, an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

“Why can’t I answer the phone?” I asked my boss.

“Because you aren’t supposed to answer it.”

“Then why does it keep ringing in my room?”

“Because you aren’t supposed to answer it.”

“Then why doesn’t it ring in the room of the person who is supposed to answer it?”

“Because you’re the one who’s not supposed to answer it,” the man said. “How many times do I have to repeat myself? It’s so simple, it makes me want to scream!”

#

The phone stopped ringing again. Once again, I was overcome with anxiety. When the man with the red tie came by at the end of the day I told him I wanted to quit.

“The only way you can quit this job is to answer the phone.”

“That means I can’t quit until the phone starts ringing.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’m not going to sit around and wait for the phone to ring so I can quit. That’s absurd. I’m quitting.”

“You can’t quit.”

“I just did.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

He looked at the phone. “No you didn’t.”

#

The next day I did what people do when they call in sick to work. I washed my clothes, cleaned my apartment, had a beer with lunch, and went to a matinee. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my job. It was as if there was a beige phone in my mind, perched at the corner of all my thoughts. I saw what the man in the red tie meant and I hated him for it.

#

I had to wait another two weeks before the phone started ringing again. When it first started I felt a strange and physical elation–as if I were in a plane that was just taking off–but a moment later I had vertigo and couldn’t even look at the phone without getting a cold feeling in my chest. I listened as it rang five, ten, fifteen, times. Then it stopped just as suddenly as it began. I thought to myself, that’s it, I’ve ruined my chances, I’ll be stuck with this job forever–even when I die that phone will somehow still be with me; I’ll drag it like Jacob Marley and his chains, its spiraling cord will bind my wrists and ankles, its spurts of
ringing forever curtailing my unwound thoughts.

And then the phone rang. It rang five, ten times. On the eleventh ring I picked it up.

“Hello?”

A young woman responded. “Hello. Is this Echo Enterprises?

“Yes.” There was something familiar about this woman’s voice but I couldn’t place it.

“I’m calling about a job? Someone told me there was an opening there?”

“Yes, there is. You can come in tomorrow for an interview.”

I gave her directions and then we said goodbye. It was only after I hung up that I realized I hadn’t asked for her name.

Stripped

Two years ago my wife was brained in a car accident. Since then, I get by with cheap thrills. There is no clear line of demarcation. What constitutes cheap varies. Peeping works. Profanity, mockery.

I’m a scapegrace. It’s in my blood. As kids, we huffed paint thinner, tortured caterpillars, frogs. There was a vice involved. Shame. Much shame. Poor bugs didn’t know their fate was in my hands. That’s been the lowest I’ve been. Peaked at the spry age of ten. These days, I’m curbing the behavior. Trying out the adult thing. You’ll see what I mean.

I work at a dry-cleaning warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit, near the Rouge River. Everyday the gas hoses pisshh and passhh late into the evening,  which creates an atmosphere like a sweatshop in Thailand. Work never stops and the warehouse smells like burnt people, a crematory. Goebbels would get off.

This is where I’m tempted and the adult thing goes out the window: Nearing the end of another afternoon shift, on a cigarette break in the alley, my coworker and best friend Paul says to me through a mouthful of rat-colored smoke, “We should go to the booby bar.”

“Do you even need to ask?” I feign interest. “I’m already there.”

The skin joint ain’t cheap. I’m not really in the mood, but I concede because I need entertainment to survive. Reality television just isn’t cutting it. The bell rings, ending our break. Paul and I watch the rest of the employees form a single file line, a human wick, and march bravely toward inanity. Most are from the Philippines. They look sick. Very quiet. Aloof. I’m afraid of them, and they me.

We flick our cigarette butts into a puddle. Head inside to finish out the shift.

***

After Paul calls his wife from a payphone, we make the trip to Atlantis, near the airport. It’s a natty grease-spot of a tit-bar. Paul and I have been going since we were eighteen. We’re now thirty-two and have faces like weathered brick, splotches of graffiti. Someday we’ll renounce our membership to this group, these dollar-stuffers. Step down in lieu of reorganization. Perhaps we’ll join the Moose. Something respectable.

Paul doesn’t want to join the Moose. Says they’re just flabby old men in a constant gripe session, mentholated backsides. And they put ice in the urinals at the Moose club. Never figured that one out. Maybe Paul’s right, but I’d still like to get out of the booby bars.

Inside, the lights drift about the room like a fish tank filled with roving sea-creatures. Legs twirling. Hands fondling. Women upside down on the brass bars. Chimpanzees in second-hand lingerie. Their world is a cage.

“Look at all the BOOBIES!” Paul points to all the representatives. “Floppy ones. Perky ones. Fake ones,” he says. “And don’tforget about the members of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” Paul likes them small, firm, like swollen knots.
I don’t care, as long as they don’t look like undercooked pancakes. I smell baby oil, which makes me sad. Dana, my wife, would slap it on her shoulders  after a hot shower. I yearn for her touch, the clinically proven mildness.

***

We take seats at a table without shame. We know better. Sitting at the stage is desperate. We may have the pedigree, the background, but we’re not like these other humps, these louses. The girls will come over if they’re not ill natured or crabby.

On cue, one with a big dumper approaches the table, plops down on Paul’s lap. She burrows her hungry bum into his crotch and chirps: “Do you want a dance, sweetie?”

Paul, as calmly as he can: “Not now, princess.”

Hard to resist getting down with the first girl who approaches. I know the game. Have to play it cool. She giggles, smothers her chest into his face. I catch her fragrance; a syrupy fructose like a punch drink.

“What’s your name?”

“Paul.”

“Paul, I’ll be back later on for that couch dance.”

Have to pay for at least one couch dance.

Otherwise girls start ignoring you like a queer. This one sways from our table, skin like vinyl, muscles like a strong river current. I lean over and remind my buddy: “Don’t tell them your real name, ok?”

***

A waitress with a lazy eye approaches. “Bourbon. Beautiful bourbon,” I holler over the din of sexual frustration. Cigarettes blaze around the darkness of the room like firebugs in a thicket. Mirrors refract the light onto the ceiling. The music is more annoying than the sirens of a bomb raid.

“I don’t know how girls can dance to this,” I say to Paul. “These hip-hop artists cut up Marvin Gaye and don’t even know he was shot by his father.”

Sit back. Relax. This is no time to get worked up. Let Paul enjoy himself. He’s eyeing a long-legged girl with a fuzzy black patch and rosy cheeks, a smile that probably makes his stomach ripple with adrenaline, deviance. He waves to her. She waves back but can’t come over. She’s straddling another customer. I break his balls, jabbing him underneath the rib cage.

“I think maybe she likes you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“You really think so?”

“She likes your personality, your looks, your charm.”

“Fuck you.”

“Genuine love.”

The bourbons arrive. I’m jazzed to be out of that dry-cleaning trap. Been a long winter. Summer is upon us, and I plan on getting out in my garden more often, finish what my wife started two years ago. Stupid as it sounds, I want to give back to the earth. It would make her happy.

Paul’s eyes continue to wander. Abruptly, he sits up, inspects the stage.

“What is it?”

He nods toward the stage. “See that retard over there in the wheelchair?”

I needle my way through the crowd. At the foot of the stage: a man in a wheelchair; rumpled legs, face twisted. Little bastard is enjoying himself, too. Waving dollar bills around with his withered hand.

“What’s he doin’ here?”

“Evolution my friend.” I slap Paul on the back. “WE ALL NEED PUSSY!”

Sure I’m trying to change, but cheap laughs are always at hand. We pound the table, garnering the attention of the bouncers. The bouncers are big, chests the shape of industrial-sized propane tanks. They have fists like hammers. We raise our drinks toward the wheelchair.

***

The waitress walks back through lewd banter, hungry hands that yearn for the touch of a female. Those crooked eyes; one looks at Paul, the other one at me. Sexy in a way.

“More BOURBON!”

Off she goes.

Paul slams his empty glass down – CLINK – waves to his girl again. “COME ON OVER HERE SWEET MAMA!”

She finally slinks over and I tug on Paul’s shirt.

“Think he’s ever been laid?”

Paul draws back. I always do this. Ruin the night with pesky questions.

“You mean the retard?”

“Yeah.”

“I dunno–who’d do it with him?” Paul grabs his goatee, his charred cuticles rustling through the bristles of hair.

“Maybe another retard?”

“Maybe.”

“What about a whore?”

“Doubtful.”

“Why not?”

“Even a whore’s got enough sense not to fuck a retard.”

“What if the retard is loaded?”

Paul’s girl arrives, plops herself down on his crotch. He squeals.

“Am I interrupting an important conversation?”

“What could be more important than you?”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, darling.” She ruffles Paul’s hair. Dame has blue eyes that dig into my skin like hot shrapnel. Face is round; cheeks that remind me of the crabapples I would throw at the passing school buses as a kid.

“Name’s Streeter and this here’s Harris,” Paul says.

A genius, my friend.

She smiles, extends her hand.  “My name’s Darlene.”

“Nice to meet you Darlene.” I dig into my billfold.

A quick peek and I register nipples like pink seashells.

“How about giving Streeter a special dance?” I  slip $50 in her g-string. Give her thigh a comforting pat. She takes Paul by the hand.

“Thanks Harris,” Paul says.

“No problem Streeter,” he says and gestures as if the touch of her ass burns his fingers like a hot frying pan.

***

I refuse a few dance offers. One from a girl with braces and a protruding belly. About two-and-a-half months pregnant. Another with weaves, sniffling the snot back into her nose. Eventually, my eyes float over to the handicapped fellow near the stage. I inspect his body, his mannerisms. I’m fixated. Can’t stop looking.

“That’s $14 for the drinks,” the waitress says.

I slip her $20.

“Keep the change,” I tell her. “Come back later and give me a dance?”

My voice is tender, sincere. Two things that don’t mix well in a strip joint.

“Dancers tend to get bitchy when a waitress horns in on their business.”

“Sit down a minute. What’s your name?”

She sits, setting her tray on her bare lap.

“It’s Veronica – do you need something else?”

I point to the man in the wheelchair.

“See that guy over there?”

She cranes her head toward the stage, turns back.

“You mean Marvin?”

“You know him?”

“He’s a regular.”

I watch his body and imagine a bug wriggling in the vice.

“I’d like to send him over a drink,” I say.

She looks surprised. “He drinks Mai Tai’s.”

Marvin suddenly curls his head like a deranged owl. He inspects us, knows we’re talking about him. His face is heavy. Eyes dancing in a gelatinous pool.

“Set him up with a Mai Tai,” I say.

I give her the money plus a tip. Deep down, I’m a good guy. Changing my ways. We both watch Marvin struggling to put a bill in a girl’s trapdoor. We’re all into cheap thrills. Retards are no different. Men are equal.

***

Paul plops in his seat like a spent banana peel, eyes droopy, laggard. It’s as if God reached down and fondled him; a hand-job from the Lord.

“That was amazing,” he says.

Veronica stands. “I’ll leave you two boys alone.”

“Don’t forget Marvin’s drink.”

Veronica’s pink panties reach out through a frayed hole in her cut-off jeans.

“Who’s Marvin?” Paul whirls around, winces when he sees the cripple near the stage. “That drink’s for the retard, ain’t it?”

“Yeah,” I say, defiant. “Thought the guy could use a drink.”

“We all need a drink,” Paul says, grabbing his bourbon/rocks, sloshing it around like some haywire cement truck.

“Here’s to Marvin!” I say.

“Here’s to Marvin!”

***

Paul and I are bottomed-out drunk. I don’t want to go home. I pretend I was never married. I pretend I don’t work in a dry-cleaning warehouse. My life has disappeared.

Marvin is still at the stage with his foamy pineapple drink, eyes on the prize.

“Should we get Marvin a couch dance?” Paul’s tongue is thick with bourbon.

“Seems like the right thing to do.”

“If we pay the girl enough,” Paul says, “you think she’d jerk him off?”

“I don’t see why not. My girl did.”

Her name was Leila. She’d escorted me back into the lounge area, her light pink boa fluttering along the back of her legs. A dance later she offered her services.

“Ve haff to keep up vit deez Mexican girls,” Leila whispered to me. She had a Slavic grind; thin, almost fragile teeth.

I was nervous, looking for bouncers. Fumbling, Leila found my fella, grasped too brusquely. A sand-paw rub-job was not what I expected. She appeared more delicate than her scratchy hand proved to be. My stomach dropped as she slipped a condom over my stem. Then the warmth of her mouth.

“What do you mean ‘keep up’ with the Mexican girls?”

Leila stopped, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Dey break de rules. Dey get all de dances vhile ve haff to scrounge around vit de odders. Ve have to keep up vit deir vays or ve go broke.”

“Oh,” I said, pushing her head back into position.

***

“We’d like to get Marvin a couch dance,” Paul tells Veronica, our waitress.

She furrows her brow, hesitates. “Marvin doesn’t usually get lap dances.”

“How about Leila?” I press the issue. “Is she busy?”

Veronica looks back at Leila. She is sitting at a table teeming with  Japanese businessmen. She twirls a red drink straw between her lips. Last-call lures. Veronica gains her attention, waves her over. Leila lingers, giving the Japanese one last chance. But no takers. She flips her boa over her soft neck, saunters over.

“Bye Ryrah,” says one of the Japanese men with an inebriated coo.

“Vat can I do for you boys?” She looks at me. “Vant to go again?”

Veronica takes the opportunity to disappear into the oncoming rush of lonely college boys: ball caps, tribal tattoos, shopping mall cologne. Drakkar Noir. I miss her already. Maybe I’ll come up on lunch one day and ask her out.

“Could you give our friend over there a dance?” Paul asks.

Leila looks at the nearly deserted stage. Her sexiness dissipates, slumps forward. “Marfin?” she says, confused. “He is your friend?”

“We go way back.”

“I don’t know.”

“Just want to do something nice for the guy,” I say. “We’ll make it worthwhile.”

Paul pulls out his wallet. I see pictures of his wife, his little daughter Sandra. He tucks them neatly away without even thinking about them. He doesn’t know how good he has it.

Leila reaches for the money, dejected.

“Leila, come here,” I put my arm around her bare waist. She bends down and I whisper in her ear. “Give him the same dance you gave me.”

Leila glares like she wants to punch me in the mouth.

But, she walks over and gives Marvin’s ashen hair a rustle. She pulls his wheelchair from its stationary position, cuts through traffic, tables and chairs. With a fading smile, she heaves the wheelchair up the back ramp to the lounge area.

***

“Gotta hit the pisser,” Paul says. “Then we’ll hit the road.”

I take a final drag off my butt, smash the red-hot eye into the bottom of the ashtray.  I watch Paul approach the lounge on his way back. The bouncers are at the bar, laughing. Paul stops to brush aside the glittering beads. Checks up on Marvin.

I feel a warm creek of goodness trickling inside. We did a good thing. I’m helping out humanity, feeding and sheltering this poor, hungry man.

Paul returns. “Just saw Marvin and Leila in the lounge,” he tells me. “Scared out of his wits. You should’ve seen it.”

I picture the scene in my mind–the bug struggling to get away, the skirmish to stay alive. “You think we did the right thing?” I ask.

“Go back and see how happy he is.”

That’s when we hear a thundering CLUNK rock the entire establishment. Everyone looks at the back lounge. We all know. The overly eager bouncers rush over, the glimmering beads of the door rattle aside. Paul and I rush to the action, too.

There we see Marvin and Leila entangled in a knot of writhing flesh, wrestling on the ground, her breasts flopping, her lingerie torn, the feathers of the boa floating in the air like a messy duck-shot. Marvin’s eyes aglow. Must’ve popped a fuse in his fuse-box. Pants are at his ankles. Hands locked on Leila’s fragile throat.

“Someone help her!” a fellow stripper screams.

But we all stand and watch. Leila’s face gets puffy, a mixture of blue and red bursting up through the skin. The struggle continues. The bouncers surround the infuriated man – drool hanging out of his mouth like cod liver oil – and attempt to break apart his hands.

Marvin keeps his grip. Tightens it.

One of the bouncers begins slugging at Marvin’s open midsection. Another evacuates the scene, extending his burly arms, moving us back with the ease of a powerful stevedore. My last glimpse: Leila’s eyes bulging, her breath leaving her beautiful body.

***

Outside the club, Paul and I are as silent as snowfall. Standing underneath the warm glow of the neon sign. Through the closing crack of the metal door, amid all the commotion, I catch Veronica’s sad eyes and sickened mouth.

I tug at Paul’s shirttail to warn him of the oncoming ambulance. Local squad cars roar up behind the crowd with streaky red lights. The horns jangle my composure. Two sallow-faced paramedics move into the club with a squeaky-wheeled stretcher.

The metal doors slam shut again.

The crowd loses interest. The fun is over. Tomorrow is now today. Some of us will go to all-night diners and stew in front of hash browns and black coffee. Some will go home to detached wives in the midst of menopause. Some will go home alone, too depressed to remove their clothes before falling face first into an empty bed.

Paul and I linger. We watch the parking lot empty, the gravel spitting up underneath the tires. We don’t speak. We hear nothing but the tinny whir of CB’s from the squad cars.

Time to go.

As we stroll to Paul’s car, we pass the lone handicapped space in the lot. It is occupied with a new Toyota Camry. The car has vanity license plates that say “Marvin.”

Shame. Much shame.

As we leave, I sink low into the passenger seat. I sink low and imagine that vice gripping the thorax of a large black beetle, the mealy, dry-apple guts pushed out and plopping to the ground, my right hand twisting the handle.

Laundromats in Heaven

In heaven there are jobs. This is surprising, and I ask Moses, “What’s up with that?” He just shrugs his shoulders and goes on peeling potatoes. All those stories of heaven with golden streets, total happiness, and no need for food or shelter? Bunk. I’m kind of shocked to be in heaven in the first place, what with all the sinning and everything, and then this work stuff. It really throws me for a loop.

I wake up on the floor of the soup kitchen with a raging headache and someone who looks suspiciously like Jim Morrison standing over me. That’s how I got here. No Book of Names check in. No horns blowing. No angels to greet me with a robe of white. I’m concerned at first about where I am, particularly due to the sulfer smell and that Jim Morrison guy, but Moses assures me the smell is because he just lit the stove, and he explains that Morrison had a moment with God those last minutes in the bathtub.

I ask what my job is, and Moses says I have to figure it out for myself, that I’ll just know when I find it. As I leave the soup kitchen, I see Morrison in a greasy cook’s apron and one of those white paper hats handing trays to an endless line of people. He gives me the thumbs up.

Outside, it’s true that there are a lot of clouds, and I have a pretty good time walking through them and feeling the soft mist against my face. All that hazy white makes seeing challenging, and I run smack into someone. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I hear and see my ex-wife’s scrunched face only inches away. She hasn’t changed a bit—big green eyes and long blond hair. “This must be a joke. This is heaven, ” she says.

The slate apparently is not wiped clean.

“I am a bit surprised too,” I shrug.

“Christ,” she says.

I tell her she’d better be careful about swearing in heaven. “I’m not swearing, dummy.” She rolls her eyes. “I actually want to talk to him and find out how you got here. Your presence is going to make eternity suck.” She stomps away.

“Wait!” I yell. “I need someone to show me around.” She ignores me and disappears into the haze.

*   *   *   *   *

The clouds seem to lift in the busier areas. There are streets here, just regular cobblestone ones, tough on the ankles but pretty to look at. I walk around for a while, stick my head into a cheese shop, and see Paul Newman slicing and measuring huge chunks of golden Irish Whiskey Cheddar. The shop has dark wooden beams, and a couple of people wander around amongst the rows and rows of stilton, brie, Gouda, Havarti, and mozzarella gleaming like marble. My stomach growls. “How does this work?” I ask blue eyes.

“Well, what do you want?” he asks, wrapping the cheddar in white paper and taping it neatly.

“Anything really, well, except gorgonzola. How do I pay?”

Newman laughs. “That’s a good one,” he says. He cuts me a big slice of Gouda and throws a chunk of French bread in my packet. “You’ll catch on quickly,” he winks. “I did.”

I’d like to stay and ask some questions about Cool Hand Luke, but he’s already taking out the blue cheese for another customer. Outside the shop, I watch people walking around and realize there are no cars. There are people of all races and sizes and kids too, and a couple of dogs chase each other around a corner. I meander down the street where there is a dreadlocked busker strumming a guitar. People stand and clap when he’s done with his upbeat tune, but no one throws money. He doesn’t even have his guitar case open. No cars, no money.

*   *   *   *   *

There are so many people around and I wander aimlessly, looking into a candle shop, a Chinese restaurant, a laundromat. I see Cyd Charisse getting her shoes shined near the newspaper stand. Nothing seems that different, except for the occasional clouds hanging in the air like fog and the famous people minus paparazzi. Still, I have no sense of how to navigate the streets and no idea of my purpose.

In the laundromat the smell of soap and hum of the machines is soothing. A familiar-looking girl in a short plaid skirt and knee high socks stuffs glittery shirts into a washing machine while an old man dozes in the corner. I sit down to eat my cheese, and it feels solid in my stomach. My legs tingle, and I feel tears coming down my cheeks. My throat is tight, and I know I shouldn’t cry in heaven, but the tears keep rolling.

Someone, broom in hand, still remembers how it was.

“It was good back on earth, yeah?” he asks, sweeping up lint and used dryer sheets. The voice is calming and familiar. Tim Russert leans against his broom for a moment, gazing into space. “I had a pretty good life, too.” He smiles wide in his round face. “It’s hard at first here. I can always recognize a new guy like you by that dazed look. Anyway, you have to find your own way, and there’s a sort of reversal. Has anyone told you about that?”

I shake my head no. Nobody’s told me much.

“Do you recall Matthew 19, verse 30? No? Well, it goes like this ‘But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.’”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“It’s a logical reversal so that those of us who had fame, or glory, or riches during our earthly lives now will live a common life. Hence the sweeping,” he says, lifting his broom as evidence. “I miss politics,” he sighs, “but I love the way the moist air fogs the windows in here, and you know, everyone needs clean clothes. There’s something rewarding about a job like this.”

He pats my back, and I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.

“I don’t even know how I got here,” I say.

“No one can remember the death part. Too traumatic.” He sits down next to me and stretches out his legs. “And over time, you’ll forget everything about earth. Have you seen Morrison yet?” He sits up straight and I nod. “He’s a surprise, don’t you think? I was at Woodstock, you know.”

I tell him I didn’t know that. Russert tells me there’s a nice golf course here where a guy can take a lesson from the golf pro, Gerald Ford. Still, Russert says his memories are fading now, no matter how much he tries to keep them alive by chatting with newcomers like me. Eventually neither of us will remember that Gerald Ford was once President. “What did you do on earth?” he asks.

“Roofer,” I say. Russert raises his eyebrows. “It wasn’t bad, really,” I explain. “I like being outdoors, and I was good at it. Of course, there was always the risk of falling—”

“I bet you’ll have a great job here!” he interrupts. “I’m pretty sure roofer is on the “Worst Earthly Jobs” list. Go look at the list. Have you looked at the list?” He leads me to the door and gives detailed directions. “Of course, you won’t have the best job. The people with no jobs, no food, you know, come first. Come back and see me when you find out!” He waves from the doorway.

*   *   *   *   *

My spirits are up now, and I weave my way through heaven. I notice that no one seems sick, the streets are clean, and there’s no air pollution. Even the old people don’t use walkers or canes. Everyone has clear skin too. There are lots of potted flowers, marigolds, too, like my wife used to plant. They smell heady, like sunshine and summer. I finally find “The List”—a marble wall engraved with job titles followed by a number. I find Roofer followed by the number 24. A recycling plant worker next to me squeals as she sees the number nine following her job title. “You wouldn’t believe the crap people put in their recycling bins,” she shuddered. “Tampons, rotting food, diapers. Even the occasional dead animal. All that for minimum wage.” I agree that she deserves something better.

We get in line headed for a table where a wrinkled nun sits. “Occupation and name?” she asks, and flips through a leather-bound book.

“Roofer—Kenneth Hamilton, Minnesota.” The nun flips through the book and frowns, her finger running up and down the page. “We might have a problem,” she whispers. She studies the page and then makes a quick phone call. She covers the mouthpiece with her hand and speaks so quietly I can’t quite hear her. I’m starting to feel nervous. She pivots and gives me a quick look of pity. “Just as I suspected,” she says. “You’re not in the book.”

“What?” The hair on my arms stands up. “What does that mean?”

“What do you think it means?” she asks, tapping her pencil against the page. “Let me ask you something. Were you at all surprised to be here?”

“A little,” I stammer. My heart pounds hard. Suddenly, it’s like one of those old Polaroid cameras is flashing through my brain, illuminating moments from my past I’d rather not remember. I see myself passed out with my arm draped over the toilet bowl. I see myself as a teenager stealing a pizza from the Giovanni’s delivery car. I see myself lying on my tax forms. And worse. The nun is staring at me.

“Okay, I did some bad things, I admit. I cheated on my wife; I drank too much beer once and a while. I skipped church now and again. I regret those things, really.” I ramble a bit more about my sins, just letting the truth flow out of me, and once I start, I can’t turn off my mouth. The nun’s expression remains stoic, which surprises me as my litany of sins gets worse and worse. I put my hands over my face. This is not going to be good.

She sighs, “You seem remorseful.” I tell her that I am, I really, truly am. “I guess it was our error in the first place,” she says, and I watch her write in the book with a short pencil. “Don’t disappoint me.”

My heart feels like it could explode. I thank her repeatedly and shake her hand, which is skinny as a tree branch. “Here you go,” she says.

I look down at my job description. “Termite controller?” I ask.

She raises her eyebrows. “Feel like complaining? I’ve got worse. Just ask Castro what it’s like to inspect sewers.”

I figure it’s best not to ask how Castro got here in the first place.

Catawba Cut

I cried my first tear on the same map coordinate where Audie Murphy crashed and burned, on a chain of ragged mountain peaks in Catawba, Virginia, nestled in the flesh of Dragon’s Tooth and the celebrated burning brush of Brushy Mountain—that’s what I was tempted to say when you told me I needed to learn to accept my place.

You put me in my place that day, sure enough, catapulted me to Catawba, to the one room shack with a twisted, rusted roof in The Cut, a tiny gravel quarry just across the road from the house where my mother was born. Straight slate walls punctuated three sides of the yard and climbed eighteen feet to a cow pasture. If you ran out the back door of the house couched in The Cut, you’d get cut off, and then what? After all, my biggest problem with that place was that it was infested with fleas, and Daddy had to carry water. We used a bucket for a potty and a clothes basket for my bed.

Yes, I was birthed where Audie Murphy crashed and burned one foggy night. It was Drew Tucker who told me that Audie Murphy, some kind of a war hero, was dead. Drew Tucker used to tell me stories about Audie Murphy on the school bus. Drew was always bringing things to school in jars. One time he brought a black and golden garden spider onto the bus: it wagged and spread its spindly legs, swollen abdomen looking as thick as my fat thumb. After the crash, Drew and his daddy climbed up the mountain to poke around the site, and they found a finger bone. They kept that in a jar, too.

Drew Tucker had it bad; his father ran down to the country store one day and picked up some prostitute. Now, Drew is off somewhere in Baltimore, homeless: he found his place.

You’re a televangelist’s daughter, so you caught me off guard that day by the columbarium. You had worked yourself up to some fact about my plight. I knew you were planning to lay some wisdom on me, because that was your appointed roll in the Church of Jubilee—plus, for you, it was a family thing. To your credit, Sister, I know you meant to give me the peace, and lecturing suited you, but I hadn’t confused our places: There’s something in the scriptures warning against that and the vice versa.

I should have persevered that day, however, to tell you something, but I stopped short and stood there thinking about the ivy (let it creep) and the bagworms (let them eat) by the columbarium. It was the bagworms that most fascinated me; they gathered bits of browning foliage and stuck them to their protective bags, eating all the while undisclosed on the dogwood. I mean: they were decimating that dogwood by the columbarium. You had to have an eye for dogwoods to notice.

You stuck me back in a place, Sister, a place that I had bolted past, like overgrown cress, crooked and canted to spread seeds far and wide. Dare I say chosen for fertile ground? I had lived beyond that place all my life, had even been called “some kind of genetic miracle” by one of my boyfriends’ mothers.

He had tried to keep his mother from discovering me at all, but she had different plans: she drove out to the house when she had promised him better. The house—scaffolding and junk piled in the yard, bicycle trails pressed through the great green grass, and a flat circle of dirt worn around the doghouse—the house made her exclaim to him: “She must be some kind of genetic miracle.”

Afterwards, he took me to his house for dinner, because his mom had invited me with grace and hospitality. We ate meatloaf, tasteless and faulted so it fell directly in half, and I considered the fact that the interior of the home was white; everything was white, even the furniture and the poodle dog. They didn’t look up from their plates, and they didn’t talk to me, no, never spoke.

You caught me by the columbarium, and I was caught sure enough, caught just like that—overreaching—I imagine you would say. You put a choke hold on me just as his mom did on dinner day. I wish, sure enough, that I had “chosen not to associate” as my mother would have said.

“You need to choose not to associate,” she would say each time I mentioned a new friend, “People in town are rich, so you need to choose not to associate with them.”

“It’s wrong to live beyond your means,” she would say.

Since my mother (and his mother, for that matter) had already laid the groundwork, I was inclined to believe you: I said inclined. What I did do was decide not to tell you the truth. I’ll sum it up for you: two women, you and I, let something rear up at the Church of Jubilee—you with your hubris and I with my offense—we let it get away by the columbarium; it had been a matter of life and death. Together, we could have cinched it; we could have avoided calamity.

When he touched that girl, I knew it was a setup from the beginning, but everyone else blamed Satan, and they gathered in the sanctuary and wailed. You and your entourage hired him knowing that he had a past, but he told you he had been healed, and Jubilee was a place for second chances. A little birdie told me that later, Sister, but at the time (by the columbarium) I was left with my good old discernment—I’m calling it my own charisma.

I didn’t know he had a history. All I knew was that he tumbled into church on Sunday costumed in bib overalls and no shirt! He let out this guffaw, and he pretended to trip. The kids were going wild with laughter over his foolishness. He put Audie Murphy and me to shame. I thought about being outright offended, but I knew better; instead, I asked: Why does he work so hard to get everybody’s guard down? Do we laugh about hayseed rednecks in church? Everyone else said he was charismatic.

Then it was the day I witnessed him chasing someone’s daughter through the basement corridor: thank God nothing came of that—he had a witness, you know. I should have told you by the columbarium. Telling your father the televangelist, two of your hand-picked vestry members, and the senior warden that he was unfit had not worked for me—I was on a handout, and handouts are only supposed to go one way. In fact, your father said, “If you don’t like what we’re doing with the youth program here at Jubilee, you can find another church.”

You put me and my discernment in my place—Catawba—at the foot of Dragon’s Tooth, in a shack, under your feet, but that’s a good place to learn about bagworms: you learn to pick them off the dogwood trees and crush their stubby bodies with your bare fingers. They pop like grapes when you squeeze them, but it’s bagworms or dogwoods, Sister. Take your pick.

You Light Up My Life

Saturday nights are slow moving dreams. To the tune of Majic 94.5, slow oldies. It hits me as soon as I walk into Sid’s Pharmacy for the three to midnight shift, Karen Carpenter singing Why do birds Suddenly appear? Everytime You are near. Just like me They long to be Close to you.What a shit song. If I wasn’t sixteen, if I hadn’t skinned the side of Dan’s Firebird, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be working here for minimum wage, letting Sid breathe his old man smell on me. Sour, trapped air coming out between his capped teeth, the newest part of him. He  wears his cream colored toupee dusted with powder. My throat catches fire when he’s around.

Sid doesn’t work Saturday nights. He stays in his white brick house in Weston with his Maltese, Mickey. Manicured lawns. Around here, even old people steal. Not much, Tylenol, analgesics, Vick’s Vapo-Rub. I let em walk out even if they’re not smart enough to take it out of the box. Sid always comes running when the alarm goes off. Frank, you horse’s ass, he says in his papery voice, you’re letting good money walk out of here.

Not mine, I tell him and walk away.

I did once chase a guy outside the store without thinking, and got as far down as Kmart before I remembered, Jesus, I make $3.65 an hour. I went back inside and told them he jumped into a waiting car. Yeah, right, a heist of a couple of nudie magazines. Sid patted my ass and said I was a good boy. It felt like he’d left a white mark on my jeans. If you touch me again, old man, I told him slowly, I’ll burn your hand. You won’t recognize your own smell.

Watch yer mouth, kid, he said, smoothing down his doll’s hair with spit.

When I walk in, Renee’s at the front counter, stuffing her mouth with Twix. You’re late, she says, going back to her magazine. I head for the back room without saying anything. Cheryl’s keeping an eye on the back counter and filling prescriptions. She’s waiting for Sid to die or grow so old he’s paralyzed and has to sell the store. I think she should hold out for senility, maybe then he’ll sell it cheap. Otherwise, they’ll have to pry the deed from his hairless hands.

Under her white coat, she’s set to go out. She’s wearing a tight black see-through kind of shirt so I can just glimpse the warm flesh beneath it, and a pair of slim pants. Her face is a little puffy but pretty, even though she’s my mother’s age, 36. I remember that I’ve got to steal a carton of Parliaments.

Cheryl’s dated the same sad sack for ten years, and he refuses to marry her. Jesus, even though the guy’s forty, he’s still waiting for the call that will change his life. He’s keeping himself free just in case he has to move or leave the country suddenly. I’d be surprised if he’s ever flown in a plane. I know I haven’t. Cheryl says she can’t leave him now when she’s already put so much time into it. She’s stuck, she says, ten years forward, ten years back.

I believe in cutting your losses, but who knows? Ten years ago, I was six. When I get back to the front, I see that Renee’s left the big jobs for me. There are several boxes of cigarette cartons to be put away into the long shelves behind me and stacks of magazines to cut and count. Renee leaves me in a chocolate haze.

Sid’s generous in one regard. He lets us eat all the candy we want on our shift and we can take home magazines to read and return. I start in on a bag of gummi bears. That’s how I count down the hours: gummi bears, Twizzlers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, more gummi bears, Snickers, a Whatamacallit, then it’s time to go home. I start slicing open the cartons. Most popular by a long shot is Marlboro Reds. Two rows. Then Marlboro lights, Camel unfiltered, Camel Lights, then Newport Lights menthol, which are like bursts of cold light exploding in your head. I stay away from menthol. It took me awhile to get used to all the different kinds and their particular locations, 100’s, slims, longs.

Sometimes the older guys come in and they don’t ask for their smokes the way the young ones do, really specific, Benson & Hedges, Ultra Light 100’s, box, please. The old timers slap their money on the counter and say cancer sticks, and laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. It scares me. Once, when I was training this new guy at the register, a black guy walked in and asked for Lucky Strikes. Up here, you don’t see a whole lot of dark people and the new guy got flustered. Lucky Blacks? he asked. Then he got so nervous he slammed the register closed with his hand in it, and didn’t make a make a noise, though I can tell you, my hand was throbbing too. Just from the memory of that sound. For a moment, I thought he was going to get slugged, but the guy just kind of chuckled real low, like it was coming up from a deep well. That’s funny, he said, I’ll remember that.

I can’t find the scissors to cut the plastic wrapping off the magazines, so I walk down the school supplies aisle to James Taylor singing Sweet Baby James. There is a young cowboy who lives on the range. His horse and his cattle are his only companions. He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyon waiting for summer, his pastures to change.I like the idea of being a cowboy, waiting for summer.

James Taylor always makes my mother misty for some other life she thinks she had. If my father hadn’t tricked her, I’d be a James too. Jimmy? Jim? While she was still drugged down, my father signed all the paperwork himself and named me after him, Frank Benedetti, Jr. Now he’s fat and lives in Florida selling stereo equipment. As far as I’m concerned, I have the name of a ghost.

Now we live with Dan, who’s built like a steel pole, skinny but strong. The muscles in his arms twitch when he’s thinking hard. We walk wide circles around each other, I think we both know what will happen if we’re together too long. I grab the most expensive pair of scissors we have and get back to work. I start with the easy stuff, the women’s magazines, Cosmo, Glamour, Mademoiselle. Then the teen stuff, the hot rods, guns n’ammo, and save the dirty magazines for last. We always carry Playboy and Penthouse, but occasionally the distributor sends us other things that we can keep or send back. Magazines with names like Tits & Ass, Cum or Blow. Serious stuff, although I like the girls better because they seem more real. The Ambers and Tiffanys of Playboy look freeze-dried. Hairless birds. Still, I have to admit they are beautiful. Sometimes I feel so full, I have to spend a few extra minutes in the bathroom. This time I think about Cheryl and what’s under her lab coat, all that gleaming skin beneath black mesh.

By nine o’clock, I start getting ready for the condom rush. I go to the back counter where we keep them, where Sid likes to get a good look at the guys who still have sex. It’s fucking sad. I don’t ever want to grow old. I grab the condoms when Cheryl’s not looking because I sell it to my friends at the friendly Frank discount. I’m everybody’s bud. I get things in return too, an open door at every party, free beer and hash.

When I’m walking back to the front, the bell over the door rings its two-note song and a youngish guy with a pencil-thin ponytail comes in with an older looking woman. I open a Snickers and feel the pure intense pleasure of sugar. The woman follows the younger guy around, staying a couple of feet behind him as though she’s attached to him by some invisible wire. He doesn’t look like he’s looking for anything in particular, he’s just wandering the aisles with his mother behind him. Ma, he says, you need these Dr. Scholl pads? How about this ipecac? What the hell is ipecac?

I hear his mother murmur something and he puts it back real quick. I go back to my Rolling Stone. I’ve forgotten about them so I’m surprised when I look up and see them staring at me. Hey buddy, he says, good reading?

Guess so, I mumble. I straighten up.

He puts his things on the counter. A box of Ramses and K-Y Jelly. For a moment, I’m shocked that he’d buy this kind of stuff in front of his mother. The guy sees me staring at the counter and says, I’m gonna have me a party. An explosive night, if you know what I mean.

Over the drama of You Light Up My Life playing overhead, his mother finally looks at me through blue light and water and says, I just love this song. Don’t you?

I’m done for. I’ve been cursed for life. We just stand there listening to Debbie Boone sing out the window, her heart-strings snapping like twigs.

All the Beautiful People

When my sister turned 18, she took the 2500 dollars for college and remade her face to look like Elvis Presley. It wasn’t because she wasn’t beautiful. She was. It was the fad. After Elvis died, men and women mourned their hero and as a tribute remade their faces. Years later, she remembered that she saw it on television and thought that it was beautiful. Then, she took her new face and left home.

She made her way across the country, looking for cities, people, parties, and places that were anything but home. She ended up in Haight-Ashbury, having heard of it from some left over hippies. But it wasn’t what it was supposed to be, not anymore. It hadn’t been a place frozen in a time none of us were old enough to remember as she thought it would be; it had become a collection of lost souls, hippie wannabe’s, homeless, teenage runaways–all younger than her. She made her way south, looking for something more, or something less, or something different still.

Our home was washed away in the floods that overtook our trailer park. My parents bought a newer trailer home and parked it in the exact same spot because they believed lightening would never strike twice in the same place. But it did. When another flood hit the same spot just a month or so later, it did a pretty good job of clearing out the neighbors and insisting that we buy a new floor, door and location.

My mother had a dog that limped; it couldn’t go up or down the two stairs to get outside and so had lots of accidents, which infuriated my father to no end. That little grayish-white mongrel was too young to be put to sleep, too old to go up two steps and too loved to be left outside. It was the cause of much contention in our little home.

My high school boyfriend thought the world was an amazing place and wanted to explore it. He left before he graduated and after we made love, 17 and one half years old, and he never came back for me. He became a missionary and moved to Guatemala or some other such place where no one, not even his parents, was sure what happened to him.

I had another month or so to go and a promise of 1800 dollars if I went to Antelope Beauty College, smaller than our high school, classrooms smaller than our trailer. Don’t be fooled, there is nothing beautiful here.

That small trailer was getting smaller. Literally, the walls were moving in, the floors shriveling, the area around us getting larger. I thought it might be the consistent rain shrinking the faux wood. Or maybe it was the arguing, vibrating the walls out and then in, in, and in. Maybe it was the smell from the little dog causing the world to warp. I tried to tell them, to show them, but they would not believe me.

When I graduated, my parents didn’t want me to do anything foolish like remaking my face or getting piercings and tattoos, so they said they would go with me to Antelope College and pay the tuition when it was due.

I left home and they kept their money and their long festering grudge against my sister and her face, their arguments about that dog, and their little trailer whose walls were slowly moving in.

I met a guy the last week of school; he was visiting or passing through or something of the sort. I dreamed of something beautiful, someplace bigger, someone else’s life, but not someone else’s face. He had a 68 Dodge Ram and promised to take me away to California. He said we could follow the old route 66 the whole way. On the way to California, he got weird; he wanted us to get married in Vegas; wanted us to get jobs at the Pup-n-Taco or some such nonsense. I told him if I wanted to live my parents’ life, I would have stayed at home.

I told him I was pregnant and he hugged me so hard he almost drove into the ocean. It took me a few tries to explain that I was more than two weeks pregnant. It took him a few moments to capture in his brain the pictures I was sending, but finally he did. He slowed to a pause on Pacific Coast Highway, north of Zuma beach, and pushed the door open, told me this was my stop. He didn’t even give me my bag.

I’m walking south on PCH. The sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and I’m telling myself this story.

There’s a woman, long added braids and skin the color of the midnight sky. She’s wearing a lime green dress and has shoes to match. She’s reading a book by Betty White and holding a little rat-lap-dog. She’s beautiful.

I walk into Starbucks, across from Zuma, and call my sister collect. Somehow, I know, she knew it would be me, but she doesn’t say so. I tell her where I am and she says she has to get her kids from school and daycare, that I should have a seat or better yet go look at the blue ocean water but not to step into it.

I have twenty dollars with which I buy a cup of tea and the young boy, almost man, almost manager, hands me eighteen dollars and five cents. (I wish abortions cost less than 18 dollars.) He smiles as if he knows my secrets or some other secrets and tells me to have a nice day. The pimples on his face could make constellations that brighten a darkened sky. And the silver from his braces could be the milky-way. He’s beautiful and doesn’t know it.

I sit and wait, watching the people. I’m afraid of the ocean. I’m afraid of the water, I’m afraid of the people who go into the water, no matter how beautiful they might be.

There are two old men smiling at me. They are playing a game of chess and as their arms move, their skin shakes loose, and then shimmies as if grasping, trying desperately to hold on to its own. They both have translucent hair and I’m wondering if they are brothers. I wonder if my sister and I will ever be that old. If our skin will ever be that loose. If we will ever be friends and if we could ever play that game. The men are so beautiful that it makes me want to cry.

My sister is older now. A streak of gray starts at her forehead and works its way down the side of her face. Her Elvis face has wrinkles, lines around the eyes that even if he had lived would never have.

My sister’s husband is a nice man, the kind of nice that is hard to believe really exists. He forgave her the past he knew and never asked about the past he didn’t. He gave her a big house and two children and a big car to drive around the city. He’s tall, her age, no grays in his hair, but strays in his beard when he lets it grow. He’s quite beautiful and although my sister, after 8 years of marriage, doesn’t see it anymore, I do.

A vacant look has taken up residence in her pallid Elvis eyes. Her children are three and five, and even when she hugs them her eyes do not.

I never asked my sister if she was sorry she remade her face. It seems I’ve always known her as this, the streak of gray, the woman’s wrinkles on an Elvis face, and her saccharine little children holding her so tight they are squeezing the life out of her.

It’s my birthday. It’s my perpetual birthday and I’m walking south on PCH. I’m blue and I’m telling myself this story.

There are two young girls with short shorts and string bikini tops and they are bounding like puppies to the boy with pimples. They have long, thick brown hair and they smile wide and almost unbelievably happy grins. The two old men are watching them now and their eyes have a look that makes my stomach turn and the tea taste bitter. The girls are beautiful and I wonder what happens to them when they walk out, the door slamming behind them, the men’s eyes following them. I wonder if they will always be happy.

When I go to stay with her, my sister says very little. She doesn’t talk about her life now, or even her life here. She doesn’t ask me any questions. I want to ask her for the money. I want her to ask me why. But it doesn’t happen.

My sister lives in the Valley; it’s a strange and hot place that smolders at mid day and sinks down into the darkness of night. It’s surrounded by mountains and with each earthquake a little more of it disappears. She does things: gets up in the mornings, and goes to bed at night, makes dinner and lunches and talks on the phone. And she does other things she doesn’t care about: play-dates and meetings and appointments for this one or that one. She doesn’t go out much and she cries herself to sleep sometimes. I can hear her from the couch, from her daughter’s bedroom when I sleep in there, from the dimly lit hall when I stand in the muted light of the wall sconces outside of the bedroom. I wonder why no one else notices.

She says she wants to paint the walls; she thinks they are dingy and it’s making them look small. She doesn’t want to hear my thoughts about shrinking wood or expanding middles.

I’m walking south on PCH on my birthday. The world is a blue place; it’s a beautiful place and I wonder if it’s the same in Guatemala and if he ever thinks of me. I think of the boy with the 68 Dodge Ram on Route 66 and I wonder if he drove into the ocean. I wonder if he ever knew he wasn’t on the 66, but on the 1, or the 101, or both. I hope he drove into the ocean.

I can see the ocean from where I stand, far away from the sand. I watch the people. A fat woman in a bikini that is almost hidden by her own overlapping flesh; I know she knows she is beautiful.

There are boys, lots of boys with long boards and they wait near the shore until the ocean waves at them just right. They are smart boys; boys who don’t go to school, but know how to read the water, the world, the women, the beauty surrounding them. It hurts.

To be a part and to be apart.

My sister’s husband has a nice way with me. He offers me money and rides to anywhere I want to go for the day, or for a time. I usually choose here. I want to tell him too; I want him to ask. I want to hold him and hug him and make him make everything else go away. He’s so beautiful it hurts to hold him.

My sister has taken up the habit of looking at me in strange ways with her ghostly Elvis eyes. I think she has guessed my secret, the secret that will not stay hidden much longer. I want to tell her about all the boys, but all I tell her about is the beach and all the beautiful people and she laughs.

She has the walls painted, but is certain the painters did not do a good job. The walls still look dismal and I am beginning to see what she sees there. I try to tell her it happens in all houses, in all places, that it happened to the trailer, the school, the town, the truck, but she won’t hear of it.

Guatemalamust be a wide and lingering place. I think about going there sometime. Maybe they don’t have things that close in. Maybe it is surrounded by a beach, like this one, and the beach doesn’t close in.

The people on the beach are beautiful and the sand isn’t as smooth as it looks to be. A man with a beach ball belly goes from cooler to cooler, making the begger, looking for beer, but he’s a cop and I figured him out. The round, smooth and tan belly is what the sand should be and it’s quite beautiful to look at when he stands very still.

My sister asks me what happened to my college money and I tell her; I don’t tell her the cause was her lovely Elvis face, but I do reach out to touch it. At first she lets me, then she pulls away realizing it is not her I’m touching but that face. She’s so beautiful it hurts to see her cry, hear her cry, to cry for her, for me.

She doesn’t like the beach and I don’t know why she lives here in California. She won’t take her children to the beach and so I don’t know why she drives them down here to pick me up or drop me off and listen to them say please, mom, please. She tells them there are things out there. It seems like she’s talking about secrets, but the only secret is a precious and beautiful life that is just out of our reach. Maybe it’s out there, somewhere, in the ocean, that precious and beautiful life just out of our reach.

I’m walking south on PCH, just North of Zuma. Starbucks is across the street and I can see the girl in lime and the men in escaping skin and the sand is warm and lovely and the people are all so beautiful.

It’s my birthday. Always my birthday. The ocean is blue. The sky is blue. I am blue. I’m telling myself this story.

I’m waiting for my sister, waving to my sister, wading to my sister. Her ghostly Elvis eyes can’t see me down here away from all the beautiful people.

Will and Chance

“A falling leaf can spook a deer that’s spooks a herd. Silent things can spread,” Charles Two Hats told me, on the mountain above the green lake.

“Until they make a waterfall, then a flood. Until everyone knows the Child’s word and he wakes.”

A year ago, when I stopped at my father’s Oregon ranch—before I ever made Montana and met Emma Little Bear and then Charles Two Hats in the Lakeview County Jail, before I ever heard of the Sleeping Child—I was lucky but didn’t know it, not even when the two dogs chased our truck and Tug spoke their names as he watched them in the mirror.

When we’d driven in the Australian shepherd and Queensland blue heeler had barked and run over and then recognized me when I’d shouted, “Willy! Chance!” and they’d followed happily at our boots when Tug and I crossed the dry lawn and knocked at the door.

“Who the hell is it?”

It was my dad’s voice, from somewhere back in the house.

“It’s Bill, Dad!”

“The door’s open,” he called.

Tug and I left the eager dogs and went in past the hat rack with its stained gray Stetson and a black dress hat with a satin band.

We waited in the living room with the bear and deer and antelope heads on the wall and my great-grandfather’s Sharps rifle above the stone fireplace. My father’s leather recliner sat in front of the dark TV, a TV Guide open on the seat.

My dad looked gray and frail. Wearing beaded moccasin slippers and Levis and a short-sleeved, snap-button shirt, he came out of the kitchen holding a beer. I hadn’t seen him in a year.

He smiled, then stopped, seeing Tug.

“Oh, you got a friend. Let me get another Bud.” He started to turn around.

“That’s okay, Dad. I don’t need one.”

My dad squinted up at Tug, then handed him the can.

“Here you go.”

“Thanks,” Tug said. “I can use that.” He pulled the tab, tilted the can toward my father in a modified toast, and took a long drink.

My father looked at Tug’s ponytail.

“Dad, this is Tug. We’re on our way to Montana.”

“Montana?”

My dad lifted his eyebrows.

“How come?”

“Got a job,” I said. “In a sawmill. Tug’s brother-in-law’s the boss.”

“You know you got a job here, anytime you want it.”

“I thought you had the ranch rented out.”

“I do. But that don’t matter. Jess’ll put you on.”

“No thanks.”

“What’s wrong with Jess?” My dad stared at me.

“Nothing.”

“That’s what I say.” He turned back toward the kitchen.

He walked in a shuffle and I remembered him galloping his paint horse full out, swinging his lariat and throwing the long oval, then leaping down as Buck stopped on a dime and my father ran to knock the calf over and bind its legs. He’d had one horse after Buck.

Once, when Blake Smalley, a big hired hand from town, went nuts and began breaking the windows out of the hay truck with a crowbar, my father walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. Blake whirled around, swinging. Ducking the bar, my dad hit Blake in the chin and knocked him out, then told me to fetch a ladle of water.

In my memory, my father was legendary, eternally youthful, strong and sure and unencumbered by doubt, ready at a moment’s notice to size up any situation and seize the perfect angle of approach, the way he’d cut off a steer heading toward a thicket of snakes.

It was not just his eyes and bone and sinew that had aged when I saw him now but the West itself that had suddenly grown old. Together, like a matched pair that pulled an empty wagon, his time and his life were moving in stride away from the world and he was biding the hours that fell like cottonwood leaves.

“Come sit down. I got chili on.”

“We can’t stay long. Just stopped to say hello.”

“Have some chili,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s all laid out.”

“You hungry, Tug?”

Tug lifted his beer.

“I’m always hungry.”

We went into the kitchen.

“Sure. Sit down at the table,” my dad said.

The sink was full of dirty dishes. A plastic garbage can brimmed with beer cans and wet coffee grounds. The wood drainboards looked buttery.

A big cast iron pot steamed on the back of the gas stove.

I watched my father’s hands shake as he took the three bowls from the cupboard. From a drawer he got out three spoons and set them on the counter. The spoons looked dull with unrinsed soap, or grease.

“It’s ready,” my dad said, stirring the pot with a ladle.

I got up and went to the stove.

“Here, you sit down. I’ll get it.”

I served the chili, setting the bowls on the table.

“I got crackers,” my father said. He started to get up.

“Sit still, Dad. I’ll get ’em.”

I opened one cupboard and saw cans of soup and corn and tuna and salmon. I opened the next door and pulled out wrapped crackers from among boxes of Wheaties and Corn Chex. There were four new bags of off-brand potato chips.

I unwrapped a stack of soda crackers and put them on a plate.

“You want anything else to drink, Dad? You want some milk?”

“No,” he said, lifting his spoon. “Beer’s fine.”

“Tug?”

“I’ll stay with the Bud.”

“That’s right,” my dad said, nodding at Tug. “Beer and chili go together. Just like ham and eggs.”

I sat down, then handed them each a paper towel. I wiped my spoon with a towel. Tug wiped his spoon.

My dad took a spoonful of chili.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Good,” Tug said.

“It’s venison chili.”

“You been hunting?” I said.

“Naw,” my dad said. He shook his head. He closed his eyes. “Jess give it to me.”

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

My father looked down at his bowl. I lifted my spoon.

The chili was spicy, partly hiding the musky, wild taste of the deer meat. And something else that tasted flat, both bitter and sweet.

“Middling. He skates by, pays the rent.”

My dad looked at me.

“You know, I told your mother, if you hadn’t gone to school, you could’ve run this place. Now it’s all tied up.”

He glanced at Tug.

“Long-term lease.”

“How’s Mom?” I said.

My father stirred his chili like a can of paint.

“Okay. About the same.”

“She in town?”

“Yeah. Card game.”

“You got a nice place here,” Tug said.

My father looked up.

“Top notch.”

We ate without speaking.

“I haven’t heard from you for a while,” my father said finally.

“I’ve been working.”

“That’s what I told your mother.”

“In Mussel Bay. On a salmon boat. I got laid off.”

“Where’d you say you were going?”

“Montana.”

“That’s what I thought. Pretty country. How come?”

“Got a job. Tug here set it up.”

“Well, that’s good.”

My dad looked up from the chili.

“Can you stay a while and visit?”

“No, we got to head out.”

“I got all this chili.” He glanced toward the black pot on the stove.

“We start work Tuesday morning,” I said.

“Well—” My father chewed. “Your mom’ll be sorry she missed you. I was telling her the other day, about that gal you were married to—”

“Jenny.”

“Jenny. For some reason I thought her name was Holly.”

“That was her sister.”

“That’s right. They were sisters. I’ll have to tell your mother.”

I’d seen Jenny that morning, for the first time in six years, when she’d stopped in Mussel Bay to pick up the lost dishes Holly had given us for our wedding.

She said Holly had died two years ago, of cancer, her fiancé sitting by her hospital bed.

My father lifted his beer, then shook it.

“Get me another one, would you, Bill?”

“Tug?”

“Why not?” He raised an eyebrow, bringing his napkin to his mouth.

He’d eaten about a third of his bowl.

“I let that chili cook all night.”

“It’s good,” Tug said.

“It’s got sage in it. I picked it myself. Just washed off the quail. Twice as good as in the store. And chili peppers, onions. And olives, I had an extra can. Eat all you want. It cooked all night.”

I handed Tug another beer.

“We’ve got to go soon,” I said. “Let me do these dishes.”

“Oh, leave ’em. I’ll get around to it. You guys want some ice cream?”

My father started to get up.

“I got some in the freezer.”

“We’re fine,” I said.

My dad hesitated, half out of his chair.

“The fights are on TV. You want to watch ’em?”

“We need to go,” I said.

“Well, that’s right. You drive at night, you’re liable to hit a deer.”

Tug stared at his chili. I took his bowl and mine and got up.

I started to scrape the leftovers into the garbage basket under the sink.

“No, the dogs’ll eat it,” my dad said.

I put the bowls back on the counter.

“That’s right. Just leave them sit.”

Tug drank in long gulps as my father got to his feet.

“Thanks for stopping in.”

“Thanks for lunch, Dad,” I said.

“Thanks,” Tug said, setting down the beer. “That hit the spot.”

“There’s more,” my dad said.

“Oh no.” Tug touched his stomach. “I’m full.”

“I’m going to use your bathroom,” I said.

“You know where it is.”

I went back into the living room, then down the hall.

The bathroom looked clean enough. I figured my mother must be in and out. Except for a crumpled towel on the floor it was all right.

I came out and glanced at my parents’ room.

It was neat and tidy, the pink glassware lamps with ruffled shades on either night table, a mirror and my mother’s perfume and cosmetics set out on the low dresser. A silver frame held my fourth-grade school picture. I went down the hall to my room.

The single bed with blue sheets and a plaid spread was unmade. Change and a pocketknife, my dad’s wallet, truck keys, and a plastic bottle of Gelusel on its side lay scattered on the desk, across pink and yellow bills and receipts and a tattered black and white snapshot of me and Tommy, the peacock with spread feathers. Scuffed, overturned boots and a pile of dirty clothes filled a corner.

My .22 Winchester pump rifle with the hammer rested on the pine rack I’d made in shop. Uncle Ernie had given me the gun for Christmas with a carton of five hundred long rifle cartridges when I was 12.

The sun-bleached felt banner of the Oregon State Ducks still hung on the paneled wall, along with a plaque of the high school baseball team, my ears looking too big below my high-clipped hair.

I stood next to Jeff Flint, the first baseman, who joined the Marines and was killed at a jungle airstrip in Viet Nam two days before he was supposed to come home. He had a friendly, space-toothed grin. No boy in Grassdale ever got braces. Soon he’d be dead more years than he’d lived.

Out the dusty window I saw the high curved mesa and the three spires I’d dreamed about the night before. The sandstone pillars stood up tall and red and menacing.

For high school geometry I’d sighted the tallest tower from the barnyard through a cardboard tube mounted on a stick with a level and a protractor to measure the angle, then driven the pickup to the mesa, checking the speedometer at four-tenths and a third.

With a t-square I’d drawn a triangle to scale and figured Crucifixion Rock was 162 feet.

I went back into the living room.

“It picked up a cow and was walking away with it, on its hind legs, like it was strolling down the sidewalk—”

Tug nodded as my father pointed to the stuffed bear’s head next to the fireplace.

“Well, I guess I’m ready,” I said.

“I was just telling your friend here—” My father stopped, searching for the name.

“Tug,” I said.

“I was telling Tug about the time that bear carried off the heifer, like a sack of groceries. Remember that?”

“Sure.”

“Weird,” Tug said.

“I hit him with the 30.30 and the heifer ran off like a bat out of hell. She had a few scratches, that was all.”

“Huh,” Tug said.

“You haven’t heard from Uncle Ernie, have you?” I asked.

“Naw, not in a while.”

“He still in Washington?”

My dad nodded.

“He’s a big wheel, you know. Always asks about you, what you’re doing. How you are.”

He looked at the bear.

“The last time he wanted your number but I couldn’t find it.”

“What for?”

“Some business.”

“What business?” I asked.

“I can’t remember. I think he said something about a lake.” My dad frowned. “That was a couple of months ago.”

“Well, tell him hello if you hear from him,” I said with irritation. “I’ll send you my new number and address when I know it. Write it down by the phone.”

As I said it, I knew my father wouldn’t remember. He didn’t remember Jenny’s name. He’d thought I’d been married to Holly.

But I was wrong, I didn’t know about the single yellow leaf that spooks the deer—

I thank my father now for remembering, though the lake he had forgotten wasn’t in Montana but Lake Chelan in Washington state, where my uncle had bought a motel he wanted me to run.

My uncle sent my money, to go a semester at the college in Kootenay where the mill was, and the hotel teacher sent me up to the big hotel on the lake, to the fancy Lakeview Inn, to be a weekend intern.

Because of my father I met Emma Little Bear and later Charles Two Hats.

From a boat’s inverted periscope I looked down deep through Sleeping Child Lake, to an abandoned sandstone city where Emma was sure her lost son had gone, where the next morning Emma’s silver bracelet flickered and went out before I could reach her.

“Sleep deeply until you wake,” the prayer goes, the one I learned in jail, when I was held as a witness. “When both worlds grow closer—”

What I found in the green Montana waters was both loss and gain—Charles said that in this world they’re the two edges of an arrowhead. They angle and meet in one razor point that aims straight like a compass, to the wound that hides the target.

Emma’s brother came to the jail and said she didn’t have a child, that her ex-husband had cut her once and she couldn’t have kids and Charles said it was the Sleeping Child Emma was looking for.

Two days later, when we were released we climbed the mountain above the lake, to the Old Ground, and wore ashes and danced around the fire as we sang the death song, to lead Emma to the Sleeping Child’s village by the river, where he has the bad dreams and can’t wake.

Last night, a year later, I woke up from a nightmare about Emma, in the White Horse Motel in Williams, Arizona. I saw her drifting among the domes and pavilions of the underwater city, the antler Sleeping Child carving at her neck and bracelet on her wrist.

Joyce asked what was wrong and in a rush I told Joyce that I’d learned pain can water the heart and the heart can grow from pain, that all of us together have a chance at heaven, but even the dead know sadness and what bad we do in this world is a nightmare in theirs, and Joyce understood—

She’s a good person, with a little boy named Charlie. She’s Tug’s sister and was married to Ray, the manager at the mill, before Ray got his secretary pregnant. We’re going to live together, on Wyatt Carlson’s appaloosa ranch, where I have the steady job as a farrier.

Tug and I started toward the door.

“I’ll tell your mother you stopped by.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tug said.

My dad stared up at Tug’s long hair and then his earring.

“The girls like that, do they?”

“They seem to.”

I thought of Dixie, the exotic dancer, standing nearly naked in front of the Gill Net in Mussel Bay, Tug holding her arm as he talked to the cop and Roper from the Blue Fin lay in the back of the squad car.

My dad touched his ear, then stroked his thin gray hair.

“Well, maybe I ought to let it grow. See what happens.”

“See you, Dad.” I put out my hand and we shook.

He touched me on the shoulder.

“So long, son. Take care. You come any time.”

“So long,” Tug said.

We went out the door. The dogs were lying on the step.

“Chance and Willy look happy.”

“They’re sidekicks,” my dad said. “They run all over.”

The dogs got up and I patted Willy’s raised muzzle.

“Drive careful now. There’s a lot of drunks on the road.”

The dogs followed us to the truck. Chance wanted to jump up on my hip, he knew me now.

“See you, dogs,” I said.

I looked at my dad’s dented pickup, hoped he’d wrecked it on the ranch, backing into something, and not on the highway.

Tug and I got into the truck and waved at my dad standing on the step in his moccasins. It was the first time I’d ever seen him outside without a hat.

We started back down the dirt road with the dogs barking and racing after us.

“A great lunch and sparkling conversation,” Tug said. “I hope I don’t get sick.”

“It’s always the same.”

“Will and Chance—”

Tug watched the dogs in the side mirror.

“That’s it in a nutshell, ain’t it, bro?”

“What’s that?” I said.

“What you want,” Tug said, “and what you get.”

“I guess so,” I said and drove on past Jess’ cows and dry rangeland—toward Emma Little Bear and Charles Two Hats, to Montana and green Sleeping Child Lake where the Child’s single word was waiting for me.

The Daughter of Dr. Putrus

Past the expressway skirting the neighborhood, Sundus’s house. Everybody in the neighborhood knew bint doctor Putrus. People tended to swoon when she walked by them. The boys and I spent hours talking about the roundness of her buttocks and the fullness of her breasts, the lusciousness of her lips and the curliness of her long hair. Her beauty provided fodder for our fantasies. Those who tried to talk to her were met with a cold shoulder. She always kept to herself, but she was not aloof. The neighborhood kids crowded around her and she always had sweets for them. I saw her often bantering with her girlfriends. I saw her almost everyday of the week at the university where she was studying English or on the bus we both took to get home, but fearing that she might reject me, I never dared approach her.

One afternoon, as I was sitting on the top deck of the bus taking me away from the university, I noticed her straining to climb the stairs of the vehicle. Her heavy school bag, laden with books, weighed on her right shoulder. Her left arm balancing more books while the bus jerked as it left the stop, an opaque black smoke trailing behind it like a cape. On the seat next to me, I had put my two notebooks. I did not remove them for her to sit next to me. The bus was empty. She sat across from me and sighed as she dropped her bag on the seat to her right and the books on the seat to her left. She adjusted her brown leather jacket and flipped her hair from in front of her sweaty face and fanned her hand in front of her nose. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and strings of it cascaded along her cheeks like vibrant curling tendrils. I looked over Al Jumhuriya newspaper I was reading to see her almond eyes looking at me and her angelic face beaming with a disarming smile. I smiled back and resumed my reading matter-of-factly trying to mask my excitement and puzzlement that Sundus, the girl the neighborhood boys secretly coveted was sitting so close to me I could touch her if I extended my hand.

“What’s all this black smoke?” I heard her asking no one in particular. Her voice was warm and radiant.

“It’s from the exhaust pipe of the bus,” I explained pointing a disengaged finger towards the back of the bus.

She seemed more relaxed now.

“I know! Why so much? It’s not healthy,” she said looking around. Two girls sat at the front chatting energetically.

“This bus runs on charcoal,” I said. “The embargo is straining our country’s oil resources and there is no fuel left. From now on, all public transportation will run on charcoal.”

She looked at me dismissively.

‘What are you reading?” she asked in a saccharine tone.

“Al Jumhuriya,” I answered.

“I can see that. What are you reading about?”

“It says here there is no sugar in the markets.”

“Oh! Why? Is it because of the embargo too?” she asked her brows accented in dismay.

I leaned forward as if to tell her of a secret and she leaned closer bringing her head next to mine. She smelled of heaven.

“Because it’s sitting right here in front of me,” I responded smiling charmingly.

She laughed out loud her cheeks blushing and her eyes twinkling as she sat straight. The two girls sitting upfront turned around to look and then turned back to their hushed gossip.

“Thank you,” she simply said looking away.

“No need for thanks. It’s really not a compliment. I’m just stating a fact.”

She smiled again. We sat there for a while in silence her legs crossed and mine too. I folded my paper and put it on my lap. We both swayed with the motion of the bus as it drove on Abu Nawas past Al-Mua’alak Bridge.

“Where are you going?” she asked next.

“Al Mutanabi!”

“Me too!”

“Why?” I asked surprised. “You are carrying enough books to fill the National Library.”

She laughed at that. She had beautiful pearly teeth.

“These are my last year’s course books. I am going to sell them because I don’t need them any more. And you?”

“I’m running an errand for my mother. She wants me to pick up phyllo pastry sheets from a bakery close to Al-Mutanabi.”

The bus stopped at Al Rashid place and we both stood up. She struggled again with her heavy bag. I offered to help her carry the books and she accepted. We turned into Al Mutanabi and started walking toward the Tigris River. The street and its cafés and stores were bustling with life. The sidewalks were carpeted with dust covered books and magazines. Up and down the street, people walked, some carrying a book or two, some squatting by the books reading the titles, and others flipping the pages of the outdated magazines. Some of the booksellers animatedly engaged in conversations with their clients about the availability of this book and, in hushed tones, about the scarceness of banned ones. Sundus walked to the first bookseller we came across, a balding man with bushy eyebrows and small darting eyes. He was sitting at the door of his store pursing his lips while the voice of Oum Kelthoum singing Al-Hawa Sultan serenaded from an old gramophone inside the store. He seemed unconcerned about the people milling about and entranced by the enchanting voice of the cantatrice. A glass of tea comfortably sat between his fingers.

“Uncle,” she called making him jump and almost drop his glass of tea. “Assalamu Alaikum!”

“Wa Alaikum Assalam!” he answered through tight lips, his voice barely audible.

“I brought the books I talked to you about yesterday.”

She emptied her bag, discharging all the books at his feet and took the ones I was carrying and stacked them in front of him. He put his tea glass underneath his chair and donned a steel framed pair of glasses, then he reached out for the closest book to him. He held the book as if it were a precious crystal glass he was afraid to tarnish or worse, break. He read the title out loud – Moll Flanders – and attentively inspected the covers and then moistening the tip of his right index finger, flipped the pages.

“You scribbled and highlighted all over these pages,” he commented somewhat irritated.

“Those are my notes … so that I don’t forget the meanings of certain words and concepts.”

He cast a quizzical look at both of us as if asking “Don’t you have notebooks?”

“You filled the margins of these pages with garbage and left no room for anyone else to scribble on them. Why is it that you, young people, treat books with such cruelty, such disdain?”

He tossed the book to the side like a Frisbee and took another one that he subjected to the same deliberate scrutiny. Oum Kelthoum’s voice filled the silence Sundus and I stood in.

“How much are you asking for these … books?” he finally asked.

“How much will you pay for them?”

“You won’t find anybody to give you more than five thousand for these,” he said with a shrug.

He took a wad of banknotes from his pocket and pulled five bills that he handed to her. She hesitated and then took the money.

“Come on!” she said to me as she started walking off down the street toward the river. It was only then that I realized I had forgotten my notebooks and newspaper in the bus. I cursed myself.

“Don’t worry!” she said. “The price I got for the books was decent.”

“I forgot my notebooks and newspaper in the bus.”

She looked at me not knowing whether she should sympathize with or laugh at me. We both laughed.

“Let’s have some coffee,” she offered.

We entered a small café, squeezed past two tables where old men sat playing backgammon, and settled for a secluded table in the back, next to a window overlooking the street. The waiter took our order. Al-Mutanabi vibrated with a jocular and unsparing atmosphere as more people, their eyes darting from one book to another, their feet shuffling from one seller to another, seeped into it. Sundus put her empty bag on a chair, and fixed her hair with quick, but gracious gestures. Except for a thin gold bracelet on her right wrist, and a gold cross hanging from a small gold chain around her neck, she was not wearing any jewelry. Her smiling eyes were full of wonder and bespoke an inner peace that put her at odds with our frenzied surroundings. The waiter came with the Turkish coffees, put them on the table and left. With a superbly indifferent confidence, she pulled a pack of Royal Menthol cigarettes, pulled one out, and lit it shamelessly. Then she put the pack and the lighter on the table, in front of her. She blew the smoke out with dignity, her head cocked back, her elbow on the table while the cigarette was slowly being consumed between her thin white fingers. She looked at me through the curtain of smoke, her luscious lips parting for a ready smile. I hang at those lips. I drowned in those brown eyes through which the Tigris flowed and whose lids looked like rose petals opening up in reverence for the sun. I didn’t think anybody in the neighborhood knew Sundus smoked. I felt I was ushered into the inner sanctum of a world that in the past I have only imagined.

“Are you shocked that I smoke?” she asked as she took a sip of her medium sweet coffee.

“No! You can do whatever you want to,” I said faking nonchalance.

“Do you smoke?”

“No! And certainly not menthols,” I retorted a bit annoyed. “But you know smoking can kill you,” I added

“This embargo is stifling me and you and everyone you see around here. So smoking is a way for me to know that I am still breathing. If it doesn’t kill me first, the Americans with their embargo will, or maybe Saddam,” she said in a tone shrouded in resignation.

“Hush, Sundus!” I pleaded. “Someone might hear you.”

“I never told you my name.”

“We live in the same neighborhood. You think I wouldn’t know your name?”

“I thought you never cared. You never talked to me or even looked at me. I saw you sometimes with the guys at the university and in the neighborhood. I know your sister Iman”

“There just was never an opportunity to do so. I didn’t want to talk to you in front of everybody so as not to embarrass you, but I always wanted to talk to you.”

“Now there is nobody. So you can talk to me all you want,” she said boldly undismayed.

I pulled my pack of cigarettes and reached across the table and grabbed her lighter. I lit one up and looked up to find her gleaming eyes following my every movement while silently laughing.

“So, you’re still breathing too!”

Quickly time went by. Words flowed from us in a gush like cattle being freed from an enclosure into the open pasture. Her voice was harmonious and soothing. Her speech was poetic to my ears. The stories we told each other, over three more cups of coffee and many more cigarettes, brought gales of laughter from both of us. It was close to dusk when we took the bus back to Al Amel. As the bus entered our neighborhood, she stood up.

“Get off at the next stop!” she said

“When will I see you again?”

“Tomorrow! Take the 5 pm bus for Al Ahrar Bridge.”

She shook my hand. Hers was moist and I held it a bit longer. She squeezed mine and smiled. The bus stopped and she left. I got off at the next stop. The streetlights were on and the streets were serene as I walked with a lighter gait towards my home where my mother is waiting for the phyllo pastry sheets. I kept thoughts of Sundus loitering in my mind like I would keep chocolate slowly melting in my mouth. I could not explain how I’ve lived so long without talking to her, nor could I imagine how I could survive tomorrow without being with her.

Blush

This is not all that bad, I tell myself, and once the surge from Lonnie Lou’s thrashing subsides, it seems almost reassuring.

“Come on, old man, move around. This is supposed to be good for ya.” Lonnie Lou’s voice, when she’s agitated, sounds deep and guttural like it was when she was a Lonnie and sporting a beard. I’m never sure which one of them is really talking to me.

“I’m good, I’m good, Lonnie Lou.” I beam back at her, trying to appease her, but she won’t be appeased, not in the least.

“Hell, old man, this is therapeutic. The AMA says water exercise builds bone density in seniors.” She blasts out an arm from underneath the waves, and before I can turn away, she’s pinned me by the neck, dragging me across the pool. I can see the frightened looks of the people passing by to their apartments. Perhaps they’ll call someone and complain.

“Henry, you’ve got to work up some steam, boy, if you plan on keeping up with your blushing bride.” Lonnie Lou grins at me, and when she does I can see the five year old Lonnie that day he succeeded in flushing his sister’s kitten down the toilet. “You can’t keep up if you don’t exercise.”

If nothing else, Lonnie Lou is persistent. She turns and begins water-jogging the length of the pool backwards, holding me in a type of swimmer’s half-nelson. I am reminded of the times my daddy scooted me back and forth in Milner’s Creek on hot summer days. On those days I could never imagine nor foresee becoming a fragile seventy-five year old man, nor see myself married to a woman half my age who had been born a man. Well, life’s full of surprises.

“Henry, if you’ll move around more, your circulation will improve.” Lonnie Lou swings me around, slips her hands down to my hips, then dips down and springs upward, shooting me up like some kind of dolphin. I instinctively duck my head into a dive, just like Daddy taught me, and enter the water like a knife. Unfortunately, the apartment pool is five feet at its deepest, and Lonnie Lou has tossed me toward the shallow end. My head caroms off the bottom, and for a moment I lose consciousness.

I come to in my wife’s arms; she’s cradling me like a baby. I look up to see her staring inquisitively down at me, and through the haze in my head I realize that Lonnie Lou has eyes just like her mother Louanne, Louanne Volger, hooded eyes that seek out all and reveal nothing. I cannot imagine what’s going on behind those eyes, but I know that deep down Lonnie Lou loves me, loves me in her own special way. Louanne herself has commented innumerable times on this very subject: “I rather not be painting an ugly picture, Henry,” she would say, splaying out a thin stream of cigarette smoke as she mulls over her son’s/daughter’s peculiarities. “But in some corner of her heart there’s a space just for you. It’s all a question of finding it.”

“Thought we’d lost you there for a minute, Captain. You okay?” Lonnie Lou’s voice is noncommittal, and I find comfort in the fact that she didn’t panic when I lost consciousness. Many women, even some men, would have panicked and made the situation seem much graver than it actually was.

“I’m okay, Lonnie Lou. Thanks for asking.” I try to stand on my own, but Lonnie Lou won’t relinquish her hold.

“Hold still, Henry. Let’s take a breather.” She thrusts us through the water to the side of the pool, where she deposits me. “Stay here for a minute. I got to get some exercise.” She pushes off from the edge sprinter-like, forging a path through the water like Moses. Lonnie Lou begins swimming laps, powerful strokes, from one end of the pool to the other, her arms slashing through the water effortlessly. She turns her head sideways to breathe every other stroke, and in doing so, she turns her body sideways in a corkscrew fashion, and I’m amazed, as always, by the curve of her breasts. When I moved in to the other half of her parents’ duplex, she was a three year old Lonnie, and breasts were no where in his future. Now, here in the pool of the Regents Apartment complex, her breasts move and sway as if Lonnie Lou were born with them. I mean, born with them in that full-bodied fashion. I guess life takes some strange turns at times, but like my grandmother used to tell me, it all works out in the end.

“Henry, time for you to swim some. It’ll do your heart some good.” Lonnie Lou has ceased her exercising and has swum to my side. She hugs me tightly to her, the grayness of her face a stark contrast to the fuchsia of her hair. I know it’s the meth, and I wish she wouldn’t use it, but the last time I mentioned it to her, she glided me across the living room like a paper airplane, so I won’t dare bring it up again, at least not while she’s in this mood.

“I’m a bit tired, Honey bun. Do you think ole Henry could just paddle around the pool for a bit?” I try to keep my voice as upbeat as possible. No need aggravating Lonnie Lou while we’re having such a good time. Like the ad says, the family that plays together stays together.

“Just a few minutes, Babe. It’ll do you good.” She grabs me by the nape of my neck, submarines me under the water, then twirls me like a matador’s cape, walking loops with me from one end of the pool to the other. I remember my father doing the same to me at Milner’s, except I was able to breathe easier back then. I wave my hands, signaling to Lonnie Lou that I’m ready to surface, but she’s misunderstood the signal, and dives me deeper under the water. When I finally think I’m going to burst, she effortlessly pops me up to the surface.

“Having fun yet?” Lonnie Lou is nothing if not funny. Her sense of humor has gotten us through some tough times, that’s for sure. Our marriage, like any other, is a give-and-take, and our two years as man and wife have been full of it. Some folks think I was foolish to accept Lonnie Lou’s proposal. Even her mother Louanne cautioned me. I remember her exact words: “Don’t do it, Henry. Hell, you’re too agreeable. If I said, ‘Henry, let’s go to Shoney’s, you’d say, ‘Well, why not? Let’s do it.’ You’re too easy, Henry. Been that way since I knowed ya. Lonnie’s about one thing— Lonnie. Or Lonnie Lou. Either way, it’s all about self.” Nobody sees the funny side of Lonnie Lou like I do.

“Let’s do that rocket thing again, Henry.” I’m catapulted into the sky again, landing awkwardly with a smack. I realize that I’m not a young man any more, and that I better start acting like it. It’s tough trying to keep up with a younger bride, but like they say, life is what you make of it. And I believe in it wholeheartedly.

“Come here, you.” Lonnie Lou has come to my rescue once again, and as she scoops me up from the bottom of the pool, I grasp for breath, then smile at her and say, “Thanks, Lonnie Lou. I love you.” She chuckles, says “Ditto,” then helicopters me some several feet into the air. I hit the water again with a resounding whap. I can’t seem to find the strength to stand, nor the coordination to paddle off the blue bottom of the pool.

Lonnie Lou once again retrieves me from my dilemma. She balls me into a fetus in her arms. She bounces me from one leg to the other, hefting me like an Olympian mulling over throwing the shot, all the time searching me with those hooded slits of hers, as if weighting something in her mind. I lay limp in her arms like an old dishrag, which I reckon, in some sense, I am, in my old age. But it’s all been good; it’s all good.

“I think you’re ready for the Space Shot, Ole Henry. Get ready for blast-off!” My wife, still harboring the arms, if not the armpits, of a man, launches me out into space, and I seem to float there for an eternity, a ball of flesh and bone and gristle, finally hitting the water like a gutted fish thrown from the pier. I float downward, a leaf, the five feet an everlasting tiering of flutterings, until I come to rest on the floor of the apartment complex pool. I am on my back, but I am not uncomfortable. Strangely, enough, I feel peaceful, as if I were born to settle along the creek beds and bottoms like some kind of catfish, contented and at one with the world. I open my eyes and I see the bright, clean light of a fine Tuesday afternoon. In a moment, Lonnie Lou steps to the edge of the pool above me. She stands there for what seems like minutes, staring intently at me. I smile up at her and wave a little wave. She pauses for a moment, then waves back. Finally, she turns on her heel and heads up to Apartment B-14. Life is good.

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