The Carriage House

by Pauline Mortensen

When Martin Blumenthal awoke that morning, he rolled over on his back and discovered that he had a stiff neck which seemed to cap the chill along his spine. He lay there looking at the picture above the foot of his bed. In it was a lamb shivering in the snow and an English sheep dog howling into the night storm. It made his neck hurt. He lifted himself to a sitting position and let his feet fall over the side, his toes just brushing the floor. He was wearing his long night-shirt that Ruth always said was too warm for summer. So, if she was right, how did she explain the cold down his back? She’d probably been fooling with the air conditioning again. Martin tested his legs on the hardwood floor and hobbled off to the bathroom. When he came back, he sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the bottom of his nightshirt around him. He sat there trying to remember; when he woke up in the mornings it always seemed like he had just forgotten something. Every day forgetting. Where would it end? He clawed the shirt up his back and pulled it over his head. He finished dressing—his smooth tan pants his wife always ironed with a crease, and an olive-green shirt. He brushed his stringing white hair back across his sunburned head and noticed that if his body stiffened anymore on him, made him stoop another inch, he would not be able to see into the mirror on his dresser.

Ruth was waiting breakfast in the kitchen. He spoke to her in a high-pitched graveled voice. She shouted something back that he couldn’t quite make out as she placed his plate of eggs in front of him on the table. He looked around for the ketchup. She had forgotten it again. When he got up to get it, he spilled his milk. He dabbed it up with his napkin.

“What is it this time?” He heard that. In the refrigerator he grabbed the bottle of ketchup in his fist and held it up like wine.

“The ketchup. You forgot the ketchup again.”

“Forgot, nothing,” she said. And he heard that too.

After breakfast he took his position in his rocker which faced out the front window toward his roses: Red and Amber Regalias, Bertha Whites. They grew as tall as men because he pruned them to grow vertically, the rows angling back slightly almost like auditorium bleachers. The plants seemed to soften the effect of the carriage house front which rose abruptly from the surrounding concrete walkway—the house not having the advantage of a porch.

The carriage house had two stories like the main house and faced Ninth East like the main house; it had been converted to apartments like the main house, but once when university students came to sketch the main house, they told Martin that the carriage house lacked “architectural integrity.” During American Heritage Week it had been described in the paper as “blunt and stark with a utility of design.” So, Martin had always kept it bright yellow as if to compensate for what it lacked in shape.

People still came to see the main house even though it had been neglected; the porch woodwork was chipped and had an occasional spindle missing from the railing. Where once roses had climbed trellises from the porch to the roof, students now chained their ten-speed bicycles. On one side of the porch was an original Davenport where neighborhood cats slept, and on the other was a chest of drawers that someone had started to refinish leaving it half stripped of paint.

As Martin took his place this morning, he glanced out the side window. Some men were unloading lumber from a pickup truck backed up on the lawn at the main house. Perhaps they were going to make some repairs, maybe build a fence around those garbage cans. “About time,” he said aloud. “Get the Board of Health after that lazy Don Avery.” He began to rock back and forth. His father would never have permitted such an eyesore, not the Judge, not on his property.

Martin felt something on his arm; it was his wife’s bony fingers. “I keep telling you, you should build your own fence,” she shouted at him, her face sticking out from her neck like a chicken’s. He pretended he didn’t hear. She leaned closer. “Did you hear me?” Martin rocked his head up and down so she would leave him alone.

Why should he do it? He had already built a fence, a chain-link fence, one that would keep the student renters off his lawn—out of his roses when they played football. In a way he had built it against his better judgment, as a matter of survival. The fence had divided the yard, cutting across a connecting sidewalk whose usefulness had passed away with horse-drawn carriages. There had seemed a crime in that. And he had built the fence at his own expense; Don Avery had resisted paying a penny. What did he care? He was no real neighbor, renting the place out to just anybody.

The key point was that a wooden fence on his property would completely block his southern view, and it would block out the sun. If Avery built a fence, a small one around the garbage cans, that would be the most logical and agreeable thing to do. But Avery wasn’t agreeable on most counts and logical only when it suited him.

There had been few occasions when Martin had actually visited the main house after the remodeling. He had returned several letters over the years delivered to the carriage house by mistake. There had been the trips to see the manager, but there had been many managers, students who only lived there two or three years and moved on. He preferred to catch them in the yard or to phone to discuss his business of reminding them about their responsibility of keeping the place up. This was better than walking to the manager’s apartment down the darkened hall with its two bare light bulbs, one at each end of the corridor. The remodeling had destroyed rooms and entry ways. The house had changed so much Martin always had to struggle to figure out where he was; he was never allowed to go into the living rooms where the fireplaces had been, where his bedroom was with the window seat, where his mother punched down bread dough in the kitchen, and where the chandelier in the parlor mirrored a million images of his face. These rooms he was not allowed to go into because of some new wall that felt like chalk and rubbed off on his shirt when he brushed against it.

Martin watched out the side window. There were two men on the back of the truck and one on the ground; he couldn’t make out if one was Avery. The man on the ground could be him—he wasn’t doing much. The other two were bringing out the lumber, sliding one end out onto the pile and dropping the other end like dry bones.

It was a lot of lumber for a fence the size Martin had in mind. He stopped rocking and pushed back with his legs to see if he could get a better look. The window glass was old and had ripples in it that made the men look like snakes. He put on his reading glasses, but it didn’t help. The men were still warped and their purpose even more so. Martin put the glasses back on the end table. The clock on the mantel began to chime.

It was the clock Ruth had brought home from some antique store just after they were married. She had brought it home and removed some dusty old thing from the mantel, replacing it with the polished brass clock. There it had bleated out the Westminster chimes every fifteen minutes for the past forty-five years. Martin had known then that she wasn’t going to be of any help, that she didn’t understand about the main house and the Judge and couldn’t because she had never known either one. She didn’t know that the Judge had convicted a man once just because of the fancy clothes he was wearing. He had told Martin this and warned him when Martin wanted stripes in his new suit. And Martin told Ruth this, but she still didn’t know it. She had decorated French Provincial, even the piano with its cat’s-paw feet. She had insisted on that. And Martin had had to give lessons on that new French Provincial for thirty years. Now that he never played anymore, the cat thing was finally silent.

He touched the arms of the oak rocker where the varnish had been worn away, where the oak was nearly opalized with the oil from his hands. Now dry, wrinkled and covered with brown spots, his hands caressed the oak. He leaned back into the rocker and closing his eyes thought of a Talisman rose.

The sound of dropping lumber changed into footsteps in his head, the footsteps of his father on the porch saying “Where is Martin?” Martin was under the porch hiding where the cats slept and where it smelled like mice. He hid for fear of what his father would say when he got home, what he would do for breaking the eggs that he and Lew Mitchell had stolen from the chicken coop and splattered on the roof of the barn just for the fun of it. Martin’s father found him under the porch shaking with fear and took him to the carriage house where things smelled like leather, horse sweat, and axle grease. There his father had set him on a bale of hay, and the Judge himself climbed up on the lid of the grain bin. “Hear ye. Hear ye. The court of the Honorable Judge Blumenthal is now in session. You are charged with stealing and destroying property that does not belong to you. How do you plead, Martin Blumenthal?” Martin had pleaded guilty because there was no way around it; his mother had caught them throwing the eggs. So, the Judge took the pitchfork and pinned Martin’s leg to the bale of hay, and closing his eyes to represent blind justice, he passed down the sentence of guilty, for which Martin was to take the hired hand’s place in the carriage house cleaning stalls and feeding the horses for a period of two weeks. This was to repay his debt to society, to his mother, and to the Judge. Martin did it and felt that it was fair and felt anger and pity for Lew Mitchell who got away with it here but would have to pay in the next life. When the sentence had been delivered the pounding stopped, and Martin opened his eyes. That was always the way it came out, and the forgetting that seemed bent on taking it all, had not taken that.

Next door they had finished stacking the lumber and were pulling the pickup off the lawn. Someone was parking it on the street. It reminded Martin of the off-street parking ordinance that Don Avery ignored. Martin had obeyed it, digging up half his lawn and his roses to provide private parking for his tenants as required by law. But what did the law matter to Don Avery? Martin’s fingers tightened on the arms of the chair, and he started rocking.

Avery’s only chance was to redeem himself with a fence. The Judge would approve of a fence, a small white-picket one around the garbage cans, something unobtrusive that would blend in. The Judge had always taken the plain view of such things. His tastes had remained simple in an age he said was architecturally extravagant. This meant that his house had less of the gargoyle effect, as he would put it, and more of the straight-line effect which created the feeling of solidarity, strength, and truth, more courthouse and less gingerbread house. Martin agreed. While other houses in the neighborhood of the same age had stained glass windows and faces carved over the entries, the Blumenthal mansion stood out bare-faced and open-eyed. The Judge was proud of that. It was the architect and not the artisan who gave the building its beauty, its gabled roofs and dormer windows instead of minute carvings that from a distance obscured the true lines and cluttered the solid space. The Judge had maintained there would be no angels or devils looking down on him when he went into his own house. And there were none.

Martin stopped rocking. There was a man dragging a ladder around to the front of the house. He disappeared when he rounded the corner, and Martin decided it was time to water the roses.

The hose was coiled along the side of the carriage house on the cement patio where he always left it. He bent over slowly and picked up the end, unscrewed the sprinkler head, laid it on the windowsill, and started for the roses, the hose uncoiling behind him.

There was dignity in caring for roses. Kneeling beside the Judge under the rose trellis, pulling weeds, Martin had felt that. The Judge under his judicial robes wore a red rose on his lapel where he could smell it when he was in court. It was something to keep him separate from the riffraff he had to deal with. The Judge told him about transients, about the winos down by the warehouse, how they’d sell their own mother for a bottle. They had no place, not like Martin who would someday inherit all of this, and his father would lift him to the top of the cement hitching post and pan the whole block with his arm.

Martin nosed the end of the hose down into the soil, waited while the circle of soil around the roses filled and the excess flowed out into the lawn. He could see what they were doing now. They had a ladder stretched up to the top of the porticoed front entry. And there was Avery, himself, starting up the ladder with a crowbar. They were not going to build a fence. Two other men waited at the top of the ladder, leaning against the dormer window of Martin’s bedroom. Martin moved the hose. They were going to work on the dormer.

Sitting in the dormer Martin could look down on the street and the carriage house yard waiting for his father to come home or waiting for Dave, the hired hand, to do something interesting. The rain would drum on the window sometimes, but always Martin felt impervious to the storm, sitting so far out from the house, yet always protected. Once he had seen lightning strike a tree in the vacant lot across the street, and the tree had caught on fire and some men had put it out.

Again, he moved the hose. The men on the roof were beginning to remove the shingles from the dormer roof. The nails squeaked and the old cedar splintered and cascaded down the roof into the flower garden. Martin felt the coldness of the hose. He bent over to collect some fallen rose petals with his free hand; he tucked them into the pocket of his shirt, pinching the softness to release the fragrance onto his fingers.

While he was bent over, he saw two boys cross the street from the ballpark. They each had on a baseball glove and were tossing a ball back and forth. They joined the sidewalk in front of the carriage house and started toward the main house. Martin held the hose tight in his hand, and the coldness seemed to move up his arm. Leaning over the Red Regalias he drew in the reassuring smell of the roses.

The boys hovered around Avery’s pickup for a while, then headed for the peach tree in the front yard, just on the far side of Martin’s chain link fence. “Just let me catch them in my yard,” said Martin just under his breath, “and there’ll be hell to pay.” He pulled up the hose to stick his thumb in the end and squirted down the grass between his roses.

The boys began searching the ground under the peach tree. They started throwing peach pits at each other. Not finding any fresh peaches, one of the boys started up the tree trunk, the other boy boosting him up with his hands.

On the roof Avery and his men were ripping away the shingles, clawing at the wood with hammers, Avery tearing things with his crowbar. The top of Martin’s head burned with indignity while the whole right side of his upper body seemed paralyzed with the coldness from the hose.

With his left hand Martin massaged the numbness out of his right arm. He pulled the hose into another circle of dirt and changed hands. He took a leaf between the fingers of his cold hand and polished the dust away with his thumb until the natural wax was restored.

There had been no trespassers when his father was at the head of the estate, at the head of the bar. There had been an iron fence to define the place, posts made out of four-inch plumbing pipe, and three iron chains draping between. Only a segment remained in front of the carriage house, a segment rusted but still solid. Avery had removed the rest of it and had hauled it away in the back of his red pickup.

The boy in the tree was tossing down peaches to the boy on the ground who caught them in his baseball glove. Then there was a crash. Martin wasn’t sure where it had come from. He stood there unmoored, drifting. It came again and again like signals for his attention. The boys at the tree were shouting, one jumping up and down, the other shaking the limbs of the tree. There were peaches falling all around. Martin stuck his thumb in the end of the hose and aimed it at the tree. There was more shouting, something about a crazy old man, and the water seemed to blur his own vision. But he kept squirting, squirting them out like ants. They retreated, dancing out of range on the sidewalk. Still, he kept squirting, but the sound persisted. He looked up at the house through the limbs of the tree, leaving off the pressure with his thumb. There was a gaping hole in the side of the dormer roof, and Avery stood with his crowbar lifted high for another swing. The bar came down on a new spot and slats and cement of the old-style construction were knocked away; they fell inward into where the window seat had been.

Martin had not understood. They were not putting on a new roof; they were not repairing the dormer, but removing it altogether, as one would attack and remove something evil, something offensive. The coldness in his arm seemed to spread into his chest and move outward from there spreading to his other extremities. His arms went limp; they hung at his sides, the water from the hose running down his leg and onto his shoes. His legs felt pinned to the ground.

In this position Martin felt he had to say something. He dropped the hose. Someone was talking to him.

“Hey you. Hey you.”

He turned to the sound, towards the street. Something hit him in the arm, but it didn’t hurt, and then he saw boys running down the sidewalk. He waited. He heard the surrey coming home, the sound of the wheels on the hard road in front of the carriage house, heard his father on the steps, and the horses pawing for water in front of the house. “No,” he said in answer to the voice inside his head. And to himself he remembered there had been a Depression, and there had been debts to pay. The voice persisted.

“Excuse me, but do you own this place?” Martin knew he had to answer true.

“No,” he said.

“We saw the sign. The ‘For Rent’ sign in the window? Can you tell us where the office is?” The voice drifted, moved outside.

“Excuse me, but could you tell me who we could talk to about seeing the apartment for rent?”

“Apartment?” The voice was standing beside a blue Volkswagen; the voice had a mustache. It was a young couple from the university. The woman was still in the car. He moved towards the young man, his feet squeaking inside his wet shoes when he walked.

“Yes, an apartment. We were just passing by and saw the sign. We’ve been looking all over for a place.”

Suddenly Martin demanded, “What is it you want?”

“This is really an interesting place. Are you in charge here?” The man looked at his wife through the front window.

Martin came up to him, stopping a few feet away. “My wife, she handles . . .” He looked at the student with the mustache, a number ten plastered on the front of his red shirt and demanded, “What did you think? Of course I’m in charge here. I used to own all this,” and he panned the whole block with his left hand.

He stepped in closer, tried to stand straighter to look the student in the eye. “I’ll show you something interesting if you want.” He took hold of the student’s arm just above the elbow and tried to pull him so he could get a look at the main house. The young man resisted slightly. Martin paid no attention—he held the student’s arm out like a turkey wing.

You see that house, built in 1889. That house has architectural integrity.” He pointed with his free hand, his wrist limp, and his fingers unable to straighten out. “You see what they’re doing to it? they’re destroying it, that’s what they’re doing. Do you see?” He pulled the man’s arm to get him to move to a better spot. “Do you see? I didn’t sell it to Averys to have them destroy it.”

Martin moved in, stuck his face next to the mustached one, stared into his eyes for an answer. The student tried to pull away again, but Martin held him firm, sinking his fingers into the man’s bicep.

“Hey, search me I . . . “

God knows what Avery’ll put up there, probably his garbage cans. Do you want that? Do you want that really?”

The student looked back at his wife and then to Martin. “I really couldn’t say. It looks like they’ll do a nice job.” And then, “I’m sure they will.”

Martin gave back the arm, pushed it away with both hands in disgust. “What do you know about Avery?” The student got in his car; he said he’d come back another time. There were flowers painted on the car door. What did he know?

Martin looked down at his own wet shoes and pants and made his legs move out onto the sidewalk. He had to stop Avery before it was too late. In front of the main house Martin stopped about where the cement hitching post had been that had held the iron ring where the horses were tied in place, to keep them from pawing the lawn. He looked up to where the dormer was being taken apart by the three men. The men moved from side to side on the roof like matchsticks on the piano, like the matchsticks he moved back and forth when he practiced.

He had tried to work all the matchsticks to the right side of the piano, playing a piece over and over, moving one match if he played the piece all the way through without a mistake, but moving it back when he fumbled the next time through. He tried to get all the sticks on the finished side at the same time, three times perfect so he could finish practicing. His father had hired Mrs. Finch because she was particularly strict about practice. She smelled like vinegar sitting next to him on the piano bench, sometimes onions. She’d sit there nodding, trying to stay awake while he labored through the pieces, and Martin had felt guilty about making her sit there that way.

The sides of the dormer were disintegrating before him. Avery was smashing the wood, bringing the crowbar down as if it were something hateful. The wood splintered and popped, and soon the obstruction that had been Martin’s childhood had been removed. Avery was coming down the ladder.

He came over to where Martin was and stood there smelling of sweat, bits of wood and plaster stuck on his arms. He said that Martin needn’t worry about a thing because he had a lot invested in the old house and that he wouldn’t do anything to bring the property value down. He insinuated that Martin couldn’t understand such business matters. Martin wanted to tell Avery how the house had been built, the design of the thing, what it meant, but Avery told how the tenants were complaining about how drafty the dormer window had become and that he, Avery, poor mechanic, was stuck with the bills because he paid the utilities. Martin could only say that he understood, because, after all, he rented apartments too. So, he only said that he hoped it would look nice when he got done. And Avery walked off still clutching the crowbar.

Martin thought it had been all right living next door cultivating his roses, prodding Avery and his managers from time to time to keep the place up, to keep his tenants in line. But Avery was going too far in this. He shouldn’t be fooling around with the way things were.

And Avery had stood there dusting his pants and stomping his feet on the sidewalk, never really looking Martin in the eye. There was no reassurance in a man who couldn’t look you in the eye and swear to tell the truth. Martin started home rubbing a pain that was working up in his thigh.

Walking back, Martin heard laughter coming from his yard. Those boys, the ones with the baseball gloves, were in his yard after his roses. One was grabbing at the flowers, pinching and twisting the petals free. The other one was running in and out of the columns of plants. A fistful of petals showered into the air, and then another. Martin was working his feet.

“Hey you two. Stop that. Stop or I’ll get the law after you.” He was moving as fast as he could; he was out of breath.

The boys saw him coming; one cupped his hands around an entire flower and popped it off, and he trailed the petals in the air behind them as they ran all the way to the corner of the block. They were gone by the time Martin reached his yard. There were petals all over the grass. Too many for Martin to pick up.

He picked up the hose, turned off the water, and recoiled the hose by the side of the house, more out of habit than from conscious effort. Martin went into the house and dropped down into his rocker, his hands rubbing the arm rests.

He leaned back into the chair, his head bobbing up and down slightly, but out of control as if it were in water. When his head was down, the water tapped his mouth so he couldn’t breathe; then he heard his mother shushing him, holding him in her arms, rubbing his toes and fingers trying to make the color come back into them. They sat in her chair, the oak rocker, gently rocking while she tried to shush him from crying so much. The Judge was saying, “He should have done what I told him; he should have stayed in the carriage house until I came for him, but he was bound and determined to get back to the house.” Martin saw himself looking out the carriage house door from where he was perched on the seat of the carriage, where he was wishing he were in his room away from the water. Only yesterday there had been snow up to the second step of the house, but now there was only water running down the street, through their yard swamping the carriage house and most of the sheds. There were animals drowning which his father and Dave were trying to save, rabbits and chickens struggling in the foot-deep water. All the sandbags and digging was not helping very much. Going out to help his father had not turned out to be as fun as he thought it was going to be. The water came up over his boot tops and spilled in on his toes, and it was cold water having just been snow, and he had wanted to go back when his father set him on top of the carriage seat and told him to stay until he came for him. But Martin had become colder sitting there waiting and doing nothing. Outside, the water surged at him knocking him over. He remembered going down, his face hitting the water, the water trapping his mouth and burning his eyes. He had closed his eyes and mouth tight and his eyes had seemed to push inside his head. He had slid along the hard packed ice underneath the water, his face going under and up and the water going down his back turning him over and up and moving him along. He had tried to lift himself up, but his arms wouldn’t work. The cold had dislocated them taking them away from him, and his legs were tied together with the cold. So, there he was without arms and legs, a rolling sightless lump, until a hand grabbed his coat and lifted him up. Then there he was with his mother stripping his clothes off of him in the foyer and throwing the blanket around him, and the Judge was saying, “He should have done what I told him; he should have stayed in the carriage house until I came . . .” In the foyer, then in the parlor before the fireplace where his mother was rocking him gently and shushing him and telling him everything was going to be all right. The Judge leaned against the mantel and said, “He should have done what I told him . . .”

But Martin on his eighteenth birthday had come down the spiral staircase very proper in his long-tailed coat, pressing his piano music against his side. He came down the stairs and into the parlor where the Judge’s friends were waiting, and the Judge was waiting, standing by the fireplace, his arm resting on the mantel with his foot on the grate. Claude Debussy was on the cover of Etude magazine, a memorial tribute. Martin played Suite Bergamasque, wading through it as best he could. The men in the new style suits told him that he certainly had a chance, and they shook his hand and made a bow towards him. They talked with one another in the corner, and then they talked with the Judge in front of the fireplace and shook his hand. Everyone who shook Martin’s hand had whispered congratulations as if they all knew he had already been accepted.

Perhaps they had known more than he had, for he went away to Juilliard that fall to study the piano. His father had put him on the train and had given him his best valise. Martin had put his music into where the legal documents and books had been.

He went away in August and came back for good after eighteen months. Martin was sitting in his father’s study, uncomfortable, fidgeting in his father’s leather chair. It made his legs sweat. He sat there behind the massive desk and tried to comprehend the shelves of books “the dark covered mysteries” the volumes of law.

From behind the desk, he could look out on the street at the spring rain. The side window had been opened for spring cleaning and airing, and the rain was coming in on the floor. Martin went to the window and pulled out the pins and let the window slide down into place. The Judge was dead. Last week Martin had gone to the funeral where they had lowered the Judge beside Martin’s mother. Martin was alone in the house now. He had decided not to go back to school; there was no point in it anymore. He wondered what he should do, not knowing then that he would go to Lew Mitchell for financial advice. His eyes toured the high-ceilinged room with its endless books, and he seemed out of place in the solid-grained, leathered-covered room.

Martin saw himself then as a young man starting out on his business career with Lew Mitchell, and he saw himself old at the same time, watering the roses, and in his dream he laughed at what a young man thinks, about how a rich young man thinks there is enough money, and how it had seemed that there would always be enough if he handled it, not prudently, but wisely.

Then in ‘29 Martin saw himself sitting in a dark-colored room. There was a lemon-shaped burning object out in front of him, a sphere not completely round that was solidifying into a lamp. The lamp was on a desk made out of fashionable mahogany. It was deep reddish brown with square black leather insets in the top; the walls of the room were paneled with similar dark wood which absorbed the light from one small lamp.

Out of the darkness Lew Mitchell leaned forward and placed some official looking papers on the desk; his eyes were one dark bar across his face, the face that was the grown-up face of his childhood friend. Lew spoke.

“I believe I have found the way for you, Martin. A way that will leave you financially solvent and secure for the rest of your life.”

“I appreciate how you’re helping me, Lew. You always were the one for making plans.” Martin heard himself talking, remembered how it had always been with Lew sitting across the desk with all the answers.

“Yes, but you realize, of course, there is going to have to be some sacrifice on your part.”

“Of course.” Martin felt his head bobbing in agreement. “It’s just that with the city building up around the place, I can’t afford the taxes.”

“Yes, Martin, but it’s not just the taxes. You’ve piled up a considerable debt in the market. Continuing to live in the style you are accustomed to is no longer the question. There are going to have to be adjustments.”

“I see. Well, what have you got for me?” Martin leaned forward on the mahogany desk, trying to see the papers in Lew’s hand.

Lew leaned back into the darkness. He waited a few minutes as if trying to find the appropriate starting point. He began slowly. “You are familiar with the current situation in the housing market, are you not? The new steel mill, the expanding university?”

“They say there is a shortage.” Martin tried to see his face; it was like trying to see through water.

“Exactly!” Lew seemed to leap on his words; he slammed his flat palm on the desktop. “Here it is. The best deal I’ve been able to manage under the present conditions. I have several interested parties who want to buy your place.”

The news did not exactly take Martin by surprise, but it was still a blow. “What do you mean my place, Lew?”

Lew’s eyes reflected the light of the lamp; they seemed to glow with the prospects of the plan. “Just this. The crash has left you penniless. I couldn’t predict that. You have debts, and your only assets are tied up in this real estate. You’ll have to liquify those assets.”

Martin tried to say something, but Lew went on.

“The way I have it figured, you could keep the carriage house. Convert it into apartments, make a place for yourself in it, and live off the income from the tenants. With the sale of the rest of the property, you’ll be able to pay off your debts and be able to afford the remodeling.”

When Martin woke up from his nap, it was late afternoon; he opened his eyes slowly, unsure of where he was. There was light on the philodendron in the corner and the philodendron

silhouettes on the wall. His neck hurt. There was something pushing, hammering against the top of his head, forcing his head downward into his shoulders. He tried to move, but a sharp pain down his back restricted him. He grabbed for the arms of the rocker, but his hands seemed strapped in, encased in thorns. He looked down anxiously at his lap, at a grey wool comforter drawn up over his arms and tucked in at his sides. After a moment he remembered it was the one Ruth had put on the foot of his bed. Slowly he lifted his head and upper body away from the back of the chair, and the pushing sensation gave way to a throb in his head. He tore his hands free from the blanket and caught hold of the rocker, gripping the wood, working his fingers into the worn indentations. He sat there tilted forward, staring out at the roses that were shaded by the carriage house.

He smelled bean soup from the kitchen and heard the clank of silverware on the Formica counter. Then the day came back, distilled into the one impression of roses cascading down from Avery’s crowbar.

Martin pushed himself up from his chair trying to raise himself straight. He went out into the afternoon sunlight to see what Avery was doing. He walked around his stadium of roses that stretched from the asphalt parking lot to the chain link fence. The wet grass squeaked under his feet as he slid them along underneath him. He moved down the fence until the peach tree was out of the way, and he looked up. On the roof of the main house above the Judge’s porticoed entry was the fence for Avery’s garbage cans. The new wood only roughed out the shape of the remodeled room, but rather than a gabled roof, the roof sloped outward to the street like a rabbit hutch, broad and squat.

Martin took hold of the steel fence, sticking his fingers through the holes and around the wires. He clung to it as if he were receiving a freezing electric charge, the jolt reaching the center of his body.

“He should not have done that,” said Martin, and he released the fence and started backing up. His feet dragged, and his legs were stiff. There seemed to be movement around him, but he couldn’t account for it. He rocked forward and back, turned west to the carriage house toward the sun, toward where his roses should have been, but he was blinded by a whiteness that pushed in his eyes. He thrashed out with his arms expecting to take hold of something, but he seemed unable to locate himself. There was a cold pain down his back, and he was turning and falling forward, crashing down through the roses, his face peeling against the thorns. He clenched his teeth against the impact, clenched them so he couldn’t get his breath. The ground hit his shoulder first; it compressed his chest and knocked all the air out past his teeth. And then he was on his face sucking in the wet grass, and the throbbing in his head was like a pounding gavel.

Spaces Between Us: The Dialogues of Il and Elle

by Nicole M. Christensen

Act I, Scene I:  Stage is black except for two spotlights that suddenly illuminate Il and Elle standing on opposite sides of the stage.

Il: Two roads converged in a yellowed wood . . .

Elle: And being two travelers . . .

[Stage to black, then a spotlight on Il and Elle again.]

Elle: A.

Il: Being.

Elle: Seen.

Il: Divided.

Elle: Equals.

Il: Effectively.

Elle: Geometrically.

Il: Adjusted.

Elle: I.

[Stage to black.]

 

Act I, Scene II

[When stage lights come up Elle is standing center stage and Il is seated downstage facing away from each other. They move, sit, etc. to their own interpretation throughout the remainder of the scene.]

Elle: [Addressing the audience] Am I alone now? [Il sits on the side of the stage, staring off into the distance, not responding] Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?

Elle: [More insistent, pointing to people in the audience] You, and you, can’t you hear me? I, I’m sure I can see you. . . . Maybe . . . it’s no use. [Elle proceeds to go to opposite side of stage and sit, mirroring ll.]

Il: [Stands slowly surveying the audience, squinting; begins to walk across the stage and suddenly notices Elle.] Hello there. Can you hear me? Hello? [Walks over to Elle and, looks at her.] Ah, sleeping. It figures. My travels always bring me back to here . . . [Paces the stage as he continues. Looks thoughtful for a moment.] Should I wake her? No. That would be awfully inconsiderate. Perhaps she has completed a hard day of work and needs her sleep. She may have just completed a marathon. She could have just given birth! She could be an insomniac for all I know. How could I wake her? I don’t even know her name―[Thinks and looks back to Elle.] But, I would like to know her name. What could it be? Anne? No. . Beth, Claire, Diana, Elizabeth, Francie, Gidget, Helen, Isabelle, Jane, Katharine . . . ah! I know where this leads [Very triumphantly]―Zelda! [Looks back to her.] No. Perhaps I should wake her. I think so; perhaps she has been sleeping for hours. In fact, she may have overslept and will be grateful that I woke her. She has an appointment! Yes, something important I’m sure. So, I will wake her. [Starts to walk towards her.] But how to wake her. I could softly serenade her with Italian arias to gently rouse her from slumber. Hmmm. I could pounce on top of her screaming “The Germans are coming!” No! That’s a terrible idea! But . . . if it were done nude . . . [Looks excited.] No. Probably best not to mention the Germans. I know! I’ll . . .

[She moans.]

Oh no. I’ve woken her . . .

Elle: [Yawns and stretches.] Oh, another day. Much to do, much to do . . . [Il walks over to her and follows her around, trying to get her attention.] Same thing every day . . . busy, busy, busy.

Il: I’m sorry to have woken you, I was only trying . . .

Elle: I’m already late . . .

Il: Let me introduce myself . . .

Elle: The appointments, the meetings! Always piling up . . . [Notices Il for the first time.] Excuse me. You’re in my way . . .

Il: I’m sorry, very sorry. Please, my name is . . .

Elle: I’m too busy right now . . .

Il: No, you don’t understand . . .

Elle: I’m perfectly happy. Please go . . . [Stops, freezes, as does Il, and looks out at the audience.] Well, maybe not perfectly happy . . . But I’m okay . . . and I’m busy. [Sets off again hurrying about the stage.]

Il: [Looking exasperated, watches her for a moment.] Stop it before I shoot!

Elle: [Suddenly halts, turns and looks at him.] What?!

Il: I said, [Clears his throat.] please stop and listen to me.

Elle: No, you didn’t You said, “Stop it before I shoot.” And you screamed it as I recall . . .

Il: [Thinks.] That’s not how I remember it.

Elle: What?

Il: I said, that’s not how I . . .

Elle: No, no, I heard you. Shoot what? You said you were going to shoot . . .

Il: [Thinks.] Oh, I don’t know. It just seemed like the thing to say at the time.

[She starts walking away.]

Well I tried being polite with you . . .

Elle: Tried?! When? I never heard you . . .

Il: Just now! I was trying to get your attention just a few moments ago when you were . . .

Elle: No you weren’t. I saw you, don’t think I didn’t see you. You’ve been sitting by yourself for the longest time. You prefer solitude. You think I didn’t see. You want to be alone.

Il: I feel quite lonely right now . . . [Pause.]

Elle: What?

Il: I said, I feel more alone around others, than by myself.

Elle: Strange man. What do you want?

Il: I want truth.

[Pause.]

Elle: I want happiness.

Il: Then we seek the same destination.

Elle: Do you think so?

Il: Yes.

Elle: Perhaps.

[Il walks away from Elle and sits down facing away. She watches him, turns away, then turns back and begins walking toward him as she confronts him . . . ]

Elle: So we’re talking, don’t leave now. Tell me about yourself, where have you been?

Il: [not looking at her] I have been everywhere and nowhere. The paths I have traveled in solitude have brought me back, always, to the same place, the same questions. A bit changed from the journey I grant you, but always my solitary trips have brought me to this place . . .

Elle: [speaking to no one] I have been nowhere and everywhere. In a group, on a schedule I have seen it all and understood nothing. So much to learn and see. But I find I am always bored now . . .

[Il and Elle suddenly look at each other.]

Together: What did you say?

[Pause.]

Il: You must have places to go . . .

Elle: And you must have places . . . also.

[Pause.]

Together: Yes.

[Pause.]

[Exit off of opposite sides of the stage.]

 

Act I, Scene III

[Spotlight on Il and Elle.]

Il: Jade.

Elle: Came.

Il: Elegantly.

Elle: Eminently.

Il: Entering.

[Stage to black.]

[Scene opens with Il and Elle on stage in their original positions as they had been when the play first began.]

Il: There’s the seats, the feel of the air . . . I’m sitting on a stage of some king [Looking around.] . . . yes this definitely has a familiar feel to it . . .

Elle: He said we’d been through it all before.

Il: [Pointing to the audience.] You, and you . . . have we met before? Little balding man! It’s all very strange.

Elle: He said it was like being damned to daily reincarnation to the same hell . . .

Il: I wonder if someone would care to tell me just what’s going on? I don’t understand–

Elle: He never understood . . .

Il: [to the audience] Someone just tell me what I’m supposed to do!

Elle: He created it all himself . . .

Il: I have no control! None at all over this craziness! You’re all fakes!

Elle: We both were creators, at least I thought . . . There was a time I was so sure, but then he said . . .

Il: [ferociously, pointing at the audience while speaking but afterwards turning so he points at Elle] You LIE!

Elle: [desperate] He convinced us both.

Il: It IS a stage and we’re helpless puppets. [Sad laughter.] Puppets and fools. No one’s ever shed any light on this dark play . . . .

Elle: I chose the company of fools over solitary night . . . But it is darker now . . . .

[Stage to black.]

 

Act I, Scene IV

[Spotlight on Il and Elle.]

Elle: Only.

Il: People’s.

Elle: Curiosities.

Il: Are.

Elle: Essential.

[Stage to black.]

[Il and Elle on opposite sides of the stage, facing diagonally away from each other. They speak and react as if they are talking face to face.]

Elle: If I begged you to love me, would you?

Il: No.

Elle: If I begged you to stay, would you?

Il: No. I will leave you. Don’t you understand?

Elle: If I showed you why it is wrong, what you will lose, would you see?

Il: Our eyes are already closed! I see my own path. I see my own light. It is enough . . .

Elle: You are trading gold for stones, don’t you see that?! Do you know what you choose?
Il: I am choosing my own path.

[Short pause.]

You caught me by surprise. I was not ready for you. I see this . . . that it is your fault.

Elle: So you have chosen. I will be miserable. Will you be happy?

[Silence.]

Your choice?

Il: You made me choose. I did not want to.

Elle: You will be happy?

Il: Perhaps I made the wrong choice. I will know years from now . . . maybe not years . . . maybe not ever . . . sometime down the road I’ll look back and . . . there’s no way to ever know! Don’t you see?

[Sinks down to his knees.]

Elle: [softly] The wrong choice?

Il: Pity me.

Elle: Pity? I am your castoff, your Unwanted. You walked away. Now you ask of me . . .

Il: Please. I can barely hear you.

[Short pause.]

Your face is familiar. What is happening?

Elle: You have forgotten already. We’re both in pieces you know. And you’ve forgotten. Isn’t that the way it is? Didn’t I try to warn you? What will become of us?

Il: I don’t know.

Elle: What was your name?

Il: What was yours?

Elle: It’s a tragedy you know.

Il: No. It could have been prevented.

Elle: A fine drama then.

Il: It means nothing.

Elle: It means everything.

Il: I am the fool.

Elle: We play the fools.

Il: We were never wise enough for the part.

Elle: What was your name?

Il: Ah, it is time to say goodbye I think.

Elle: You said goodbye before you knew me.

Il: Is it too late?

Elle: Never.

Il: Then we begin where we left off.

Elle: No. Begin anew.

[Stage to black.]

 

Act I, Scene V

[Spotlight on Il and Elle.]

Il: Tears . . .

Elle: Ubiquitous.

[Stage to black.]

Elle: Hello? Where is everyone? Can you hear me . . .?

Il: Can you hear me? Where are you?

Elle: I’m here. I promise I’m here. But where are you?

Il: I’m HERE! I’m HERE! COME FIND ME! [Laughter that turns somewhat mad.] Someone come find me . . . [softer, aching] Someone come help me . . .

Elle: Help me . . . [The sound of wind.] It was an echo . . .

Il: Only an echo.

Elle: No one heard me . . .

Il: Hear me . . .

Elle: He MUST be out there . . .

Il: Where am I? Where are you?

Elle: There’s no one.

Il: There’s only one.

[Short pause.]

[Bright white light shines from above the stage in a small circle onto stage center.]

Il: What is it? Hello?

[Male voice from offstage, fatherly, quiet, peaceful.]

Voice: I know.

Il: [frightened] Who are you?

Voice: I am here. Come.

Il: What is this?

[Il’s face is suddenly illuminated as it comes into the light onstage. One of his hands starts to go into the light as he smiles and looks up.]

Elle: [Laughter, self-righteous, mocking.]

[Il, shocked, looks toward the laughter and disappears from the light.]

What are you doing?

[More laughter.]

Il: I don’t know, I don’t understand, I only . . .

Elle: Fool! Just like you said, we’re (all) fools, but now you’ve forgotten?!

[Laughter.]

Il: Have we all forgotten?

Elle: A pathetic image. You on the stage alone, hopeless. You’ve stolen my role, the one I made famous . . .

Il: The victim.

Elle: Are you? Tell me, are you?!

[Short pause.]

Voice: You are ashamed.

Il: [Face again illuminated by the light.] I don’t understand. Is it possible?

Elle: Absurd.

Il: But the light . . .

[Spotlight vanishes, stage lights come up, Il and Elle are next to each other onstage. Il is crouched down on the stage, Elle is standing beside him.]

Il: It’s gone. Where did it go? Where is . . .

[Frantically starts darting about the stage, looking under and around imaginary objects.]

Elle: What do you seek?

Il: Truth.

Elle: [Strikes a match and holds it to the audience.] Look.

[Il keeps frantically searching.]

Look!

[Il freezes and looks over at her, transfixed by the flame; approaches her slowly, entranced.]

Elle: You want truth? [sadly] Here.

[Il reached up to the light and Elle blows it out. Stage black.]

 

Act I, Scene VI

[Spotlight on Il and Elle.]

Elle: Vetoes.

Il: Double your.

Elle: Expertness.

Il: Why?

Elle: Zero.

[Stage to black.]

[Il and Elle are in the same positions with same lighting from Scene One.]

Elle: [addressing the audience] Am I alone now?

[Il sits on the side of the stage, staring off into the distance, not responding.]

Am I alone now? Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me? [more insistent-pointing to people in the audience]

You and you, can’t you hear me? I . . .

Il: [Stands suddenly and addresses Elle.] Okay, give it a rest . . .

Elle: I beg your pardon.

Il: No you don’t, you . . . well all right. There. You’re pardoned.

Elle: What?

Il: You begged, I granted, full of grace as I am. But please stop this incessant questioning.

Elle: I only wanted to know if . . .

Il: You know very well that they can hear you. Just like I could hear you. But is anyone listening?

Elle: Well, you obviously heard me.

Il: I was participating in the rarest activity yet known to man. I was thinking. I was deep in meditative thought, when your incessant questioning shattered the fragile shell of my contemplation.

Elle: Oh that was beautiful. And I’m sorry that I disturbed you.

Il: I think you’re the more disturbed.

Elle: Pardon?

Il: Granted.

[Short pause.]

Elle: Look, I’m busy.

Il: I believe it.

Elle: You’re mocking me.

Il: Am not.

Elle: Are too!

Il: D2 . . . No I’m not. Ask them.

[Smiles and points to the audience.]

[Man in black comes running across the stage, screaming, ranting, pulling his sweatshirt off – a black T-shirt underneath – and flings the sweatshirt onto Il’s head as he runs past Il and Elle.]

Il: [Stands in shock and reaches up to touch the sweatshirt now draped casually over his head.]

Well then, that was . . . totally uncalled for.

[Tries to stand with some dignity.]

Elle: [Bursts out in uncontrollable laughter, pointing at his head, tries several times to regain her composure, and is unsuccessful.]

Il: What? What?

[Elle continues laughing.]

Il: They really need to do something about this. [Pointing in the direction of the man in black.] This could be dangerous. I could have, well, I could have lost something.
[Man in black comes running across the stage as before in opposite directing twirling black pants above his head – revealing red polka-dot boxers – and runs up to Il and drapes the pants over his shoulder and continues wildly off stage.]

Elle: [Breaks out in uncontrollable laughter.]

Il: Ahem. [Clears his throat repeatedly, getting louder, hoping to silence Elle’s laughter. Finally speaks.] You know, it’s not one bit funny. [dryly] I’m just glad he wasn’t wearing armor. I could have been killed.

Elle: [laughing] Oh, that would have been, that would have been . . . [Il glares at her.] that would have been terrible.

[Elle turns away to hide her laugh; the man in black emerges again twirling his red polka-dot boxers with a board reading “Censored” covering his midsection; man runs directly into Elle, knocking her to the floor, and flinging the boxers in her direction.]

Il: [Smiles and slowly walks over to Elle, so enraged she can’t speak; stands rocking at her feet smiling.]

[Furious, Elle picks up the boxers and throws them at Il; Il takes them.]

Well thank you. They’ll fit just fine. Yes, really good quality actually.

[Il extends a hand to help Elle up.]

Elle: No. You’re a royal idiot, you know that? A raving lunatic. Just look at you.

[Stands up.]

Il: You’re absolutely right. What was I thinking? [Proceeds to place boxers upside down on his head.] Your majesty. [Bows.]

[Elle turns trying to remain annoyed.]

I realize that you, pinnacle of tolerance and advocate of lunatics everywhere, you could not possibly be offended. Surely you of all people can find the humor here.

[Elle is still defiant through smiling; Il takes boxers off of head.]

To return to your earlier question, I . . .

[Man in black reappears with nothing but “censor” sign, large bunny slippers, and a black top hat, begins running across the stage yelling.]

Do you mind? [pointing to the man] We’re having a moment here.

[Man stops abruptly, turns dejected, and walks off the stage from side he entered.]

Elle: You were saying?

Il: To answer your earlier question . . . [Clears throat, looks away, looks back.] I was listening.

[Il walks slowly past Elle offstage, lights out.]

Act II, Scene I

Elle: Zero.

Il: Wise.

Elle: Experts.

[Stage to black.]

[Lights come up; Il and Elle are seated facing one another at a small table, pantomiming a meal conversation.]

Il: So, where did you say you were from?

Elle: California.

Il: Oh . . . they must have lots of . . . stuff in California . . .

Elle: Yes.

[Scene freezes for the following and all subsequent asides as Elle talks facing the audience . . . ]

Elle: [aside] Well, you’re a scintillating conversationalist.

Il: I mean, I’ve just heard it’s really, uh, crowded there.

Elle: Yes.

[Freezes.]

Il: [aside, facing audience] Well, you’re a scintillating conversationalist.

Il: [to Elle] So, are there really, a lot of people back home?

[Freezes.]

Elle: [aside] I can’t believe this.

Elle: [to Il] Uh, yes.

[Freezes.]

Il: [aside] Come on! Throw me a bone, I’m dying here!

Elle: So, where are you from?

Il: North Dakota.

Elle: Oh . . . [Turning head to give disturbed expression to audience and re-facing Il.] Boy, that’s . . . unusual. I didn’t know if anyone actually lived up there. I thought maybe we’d sold off North Dakota to Canada twenty years ago [Laughs but stops when sees Il’s stony response.]

Il: No, I’m from North Dakota.

[Elle begins speaking to the audience, moving around to her own interpretation. Through next monologue, Il is frozen in background.]

Elle: This is just unbelievable. Am I sitting here, listening to this backwater turkey ramble about North Dakota? Some hick that I met, no, not through a friend, not through work, not even a dating service, but the Internet? I have hit a new low. It’s not like I’m some loser. I graduated from college five years ago with an Ivy League degree and loan payments to prove it. Now, I have a great job – okay it’s a good job, but in a few years I’ll move up the ladder. Point is, I’m successful, right? I’m in good shape, literate, I know what’s going on in the world. But you want to hear about my day? Well, I’ll spare you the gory details, but it has so far been twelve hours of raw, backbreaking, nerve-wracking, knuckle-whitening, traffic-jamming, muscle-cramping, panty-hose-running, raining, slipping, falling hell! [Short pause.] Wasn’t I supposed to be happy?

[Sits back down in her chair – Il comes to life.]

Elle: This isn’t happiness.

Il: What? You don’t like the food?

Elle: Yes – never mind.

[Elle freezes.]

Il: [to audience] Never mind? Okay, fine. Don’t eat your $25 dinner, which I’m paying for, thank you very much. Maybe for a city girl that’s no big deal, but for a boy from North Dakota – well. You want to know how often my family ate out at nice restaurants when I was growing up? Oh, let’s see . . . NEVER. Yeah, that’s right. Big occasions growing up – well, I just picture Mom, laughing, making enough food to feed the county. Those are some of my best memories, actually. I don’t have an important diploma, well, only high school, but that doesn’t count I know. You know what I do right now? I paint. No, not one of those sophisticated Rembrandt or Monet types. I paint houses, and fences through a little company I own. Hey, it does all right, people like to keep fresh paint on their homes, despite what’s going on inside of them. But I never go to a fancy place like this. What am I doing here? It’s not a question – what am I doing, period. My first time on the Internet too, and I start talking to her. What was I thinking? What am I so desperate to find that I’d stand for this . . .

[Sits.]

Elle: I’m glad to be sitting. I’m so tired.

Il: But where’s – the rest?

Elle: At the end of the day, I’m always looking for a rest . . . I think we all need it.

Il: We do.

Elle: [Raises glass to toast with Il.] To sleep, perchance to dream . . .

Il: Of the rest.

[Glasses clink.]

[Stage to black.]

Act II, Scene II

[Spotlight on Il and Elle.]

Elle: Double your . . .

Il: Vehemence.

Elle: Using.

Il: Teaching.

[Stage lights up; Il center stage seated in a chair. He moves around, stands, etc., during this scene to his own liking. He is addressing the audience.]

Il: I’ve got a problem. Do you want me to tell you? No, no, I shouldn’t; you’ve all got problems of your own, and who am I to be burdening you with my petty things? After all, shouldn’t I be an alpha male? Strong, burly, able to bend tall sycamores with my bare hands . . . I don’t need advice, right? [Short pause.] I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I don’t even know what an alpha male is. I just read that in some magazine and I thought, well shoot, I’ll be an alpha male. But what about beta males? Why don’t we hear about them? Is there a gamma make? [Laughs.] Or females, why is this designation only male? Hi there, are you an epsilon female? You look like you’d go well with a theta male. What the hell is an epsilon female? Or male? Well, forget it. So I’ll tell you my problem. It’s greetings. I never know what to say after “Hi.” I mean, you can’t very well just say “Hi” and leave it at that. It’s, “Hi, how are you?” But maybe I don’t care how you are, I’m just walking by and I want to say “Hi,” and “How are you?” just gets tacked onto the end like some kind of vestigial limb. It’s the veritable pinky toe of the greeting world. “Hi, how are you, don’t answer!” I know it’s horrible. But I know you all think this. You’re walking down the street and someone you recognize is coming towards you and what do you say? “How are things?” or “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”, right? Has anyone ever said something beside “Fine,” or “Great,” or “Okay,” in response? Would you care if they did?

[Elle enters from stage right and talks as she hurries across the stage.]

Elle: Hey there! Long time no see!

Il: There’s a reason for that.

Elle: Have a good one! Bye!

Il: No, no, that was too fast. I bet she just didn’t hear me, so she assumed of course, that I’d said . . .

[Elle walking from stage left to stage right.]

Elle: Hi!

Il: Hi.

Elle: How’s it going?

Il: My hand just fell off – just absolutely fell off at the wrist, right into my lap, blood everywhere . . .

Elle: Hey great, talk to you later!

[Short pause.]

Il: Now that’s just sad. Where does this come from? Who started this . . . ?

Elle: Hello again.

Il: Oh brother.

Elle: You don’t look too well today – are you okay?

Il: Actually, I’ve got some really bad diarrhea, and you know, things have just been moving through me so fast . . .

Elle: Wow that’s neat! Well, I’ve gotta run. See you!

[Exits.]

Il: So, that’s my problem. Not the digestive tract thing, the greeting thing. But what’s the alternative? I asked a friend about this once. He said, tell them you appreciate them. But I’m trying to see how that would play out. “Hi there! You know, I appreciate you.” What does the other person respond? “Thanks. Seek counseling”? Another friend suggested a compliment. Something like, “Hi! I like that sweater you’re wearing.” I could see this occasionally working with a female friend, but with a guy? If some guy walked past me and complimented my slacks I think I’d be worried. I’d be thinking, Why did Bob just compliment my slacks? Is there something on them? Is my fly down? Is he gay? This is a bad thing, definitely not an improvement over “How are you?”

Elle: [Walking from stage right to left.] Hey there! Nice tie.

Il: She wants me.

[Stage to black.]

Act II, Scene III

[Spotlights on Il and Elle.]

Elle: Essentials.

Il: Are.

Elle: Curious.

Il: Pieces.

Elle: Only.

Il: Understood.

[Stage to black. Stage lights up. Side view of Elle lying on ground stage left, Il lying as a mirror image to Elle stage right.]

Elle: Hello?

Il: Hello?

Elle: Uh, you over there. Come help me up.

Il: Come help you up? Whatever for?

Elle: Because I want to get up.

Il: Well get up then.

Elle: But I can’t.

Il: You can’t? What’s wrong with you? Leg broken or something?

Elle: No. I just . . . I don’t know. I want you to come over here and pull me up.

Il: That’s absurd. If you want to get up on your feet, just stand up.

Elle: No.

Il: You haven’t even tried.

Elle: Yes I have.

Il: When?

Elle: Just now

[Pause.]

Elle: There, I tried again. See, it’s no use.

Il: I don’t believe you. You’re not trying at all.

Elle: Okay, fine. [exaggerated groaning] There. I really tried. Now come over here and help me.

Il: In case you haven’t noticed, I too am lying prostrate on the ground.

Elle: Oh. Well, why don’t you get up?

Il: Why would I want to do that? I rather like it down here.

Elle: Like it? Why?

Il: Well, one has a brilliant view of the stars.

Elle: What stars? It’s the middle of the day, you idiot!

Il: Yes, all right, it’s day.

Elle: And a cloudy day I might add!

Il: But I imagine that if it weren’t a cloudy day, one would have a brilliant view of the stars . . .

Elle: Oh, that’s fine, just fine.

Il: Look, I don’t have to justify myself to you. If you don’t like it, get up and go. I wish that you would, in fact.

Elle: What’s that sound?

Il: What sound?

Elle: It sounds like a rumbling, or a volcano . . . or some sort of engine?

Il: Anything’s possible.

Elle: Could it be a car?

Il: The fact that we’re lying in the middle of a road makes it a definite possibility.

Elle: Then perhaps we’d better leave.

Il: Go ahead.

Elle: Well, help me up . . . It’s essential that someone help me up!

Il: I’m not listening . . . [overlapping Elle’s next line] la, la, la, la, la, la, la . . .

Elle: Get your butt off the ground and help me!

Il: [Arches his back so his butt is off the ground.] Is that better?

Elle: Oh, shut up!

Il: Hmm, the roar is getting louder.

Elle: How observant of you.

Il: Perspicacious is my middle name. Say, I remember a crack in the road between us.

Elle: It matches the one in your head.

Il: That was bitter. Something’s definitely coming our way.

Elle: Yes, something’s coming.

Il: I can hear the wheels scraping across the hot pavement now . . .

Elle: You can not. I barely hear a distant rumbling.

Il: My senses are more acute. The gears are gleaming as they speed along the pavement.

Elle: You’re imagining things.

Il: An unpredictable driver swerves his vehicle left, then right, then left . . . only a few more feet and then . . .

Elle: [Jumps up off the ground and yells.] Ahh! We’re going to be hit!

[Small boy enters stage opposite from Elle on a tricycle, peddles across the stage. Elle watches, then bows her head.]

Il: [Jumps up.] Well, that was dramatic. I honestly didn’t know how it would turn out.

Elle: You could’ve helped me up.

Il: I could have. But now you don’t need me. I set you free.

Elle: I set myself free.

Il: [Lays back down.] If you say so.

[Elle walks off stage; lights out.]

 

Act II, Scene IV

[Spotlights on Il and Elle.]

Il: Important.

Elle: Elements.

Il: Come.

Elle: Jailed.

Il: I.

Elle: A child.

Il: Jeered.

[Stage to black. Spotlight on Elle in middle of stage.]

Elle: Question: are we more alone in solitude or in a crowd? Does loneliness increase in direct proportion to the amount of space between one person and another? Or is it something else entirely? [Short pause.] I’ve often wondered about this because sometimes, surrounded by people, even friends, I feel suddenly much more removed than when simply by myself. Isn’t that strange? When I am alone, there is only one voice that I hear. I hear myself. But then, in a crowd-I hear what everyone else is saying, but I can’t hear my own voice. And if they’re not listening to me, and I can’t even hear me, then where have I gone? Have I disappeared? Where could I find me? In solitude. But is solitude without others? Or something else? [Short pause.] In a group or by myself, I am one, I am alone, I am in solitude, though not necessarily lonely. Lonely is a place where the voices you long to hear can no longer be heard. It is not an empty space – loneliness is when the space within you is filled with everything around you, and what is within you has been silenced. Lonely and alone are strangers you meet; but solitude you invite to stay.

[Stage to black.]

 

Act II, Scene V

[The following are said in quick succession.]

Elle: Goodbye.

Il: Hello.

Elle: We play like always.

Il: But, yes.

Elle: But, no.

Il: Yes.

Elle: I suppose.

Il: Of course.

Elle: Not at all.

Il: Absolutely.

Elle: Uh . . .

Il: No!

Elle: That’s me!

Il: Yes!

Elle: Yes! So . . .

Il: No, you messed up that time!

Elle: Ah, yes.

Il: No. For you, no.

Elle: Yes

[Short pause.]

Il: Again, one more time?

Elle: Begin.

Il: Finish.

Elle: My life.

Il: My life.

Elle: Happiness.

Il: Education.

Elle: But no! That’s not true . . .

Il: It depends on the professor . . .

Elle: It depends on the student.

Il: The truth.

Elle: Philosophy.

Il: Religion.

Elle: Political science.

Il: Oh, that . . .

Elle: You messed up that time!

Il: Like always.

Elle: Like never.

Il: We play like . . .

Elle: Children.

Il: Adults.

Elle: The truth is somewhere . . .

Il: Between us.

Elle: Hello.

Il: Goodbye.

 

Act I, Scene VI

Elle: Genius.

Il: Affects.

Elle: Immediate.

Il: Decisions . . .

Elle: Sleep.

Il: Becomes.

Elle: Awake.

[Stage to black. Il and Elle in original positions.]

Il: And so we’ve traveled one road.

Elle: Two roads converge.

Il: Many roads converge.

Elle: Two roads diverge.

Il: Today.

Elle: Each day.

Il: Each moment.

Elle: As two diverge.

Il: Two converge.

Elle: And on and on.

Il: Ad infinitum.

Elle: Have I known you?

Il: [to the audience] Have I known you?

Elle: [to the audience] Have I known anyone?

Il: [to the audience] Have you known anyone?

Elle: But yes.

Il: But no.

Elle and Il: But of course.

[Short pause.]

Il: I’ll tell you a problem.

Elle: I’ll tell you nothing.

Il: [Walking toward Elle.] Together.

Elle: [Looking away.] Alone.

Il: Once upon a time, in a village.

Elle: A city, a country, a space . . .

Il: Far, far way.

Elle: [Looking at Il.] Right here . . . [Looking at the audience.] Between us.

Il: A man.

Elle: A woman, a child.

Il: Said, “Hello.”

Elle: Goodbye.

Il: “Can you hear me?”

Elle: No.

Il: One answered.

[Pause.]

Elle: No one?

[Pause.]

Il: No.

Elle: One?

Il: [Pause, smile.] Yes.

[Stage to black.]

End of Play

Wednesday Tennis

by Christine Guerra

The courts were reserved—Tuesday nights for the men’s tennis team and Wednesday mornings for the women’s team. After the children had gone to school and the husbands to work, the women would put on short white skirts and gold bracelets. They each drove, one lone head in the minivan, and waited together at the end of the court. They pulled their husbands’ green beer bottles out of the trash and said, “Do you believe them? Glass on the court. What were they thinking?”

“They weren’t thinking.”

“I’ll have a talk with my Harry tonight.”

“If it breaks and gets in the surface, you can never get it out.”

“This is the reason we have a charter.”

“Glass,” Delia said.

They would play until the sun rose above the tree line, till the cool of the morning started to burn off. Not competitive like the men. The men played in the heat. Their shirts would stick, and they would pull them out by the tails to rearrange the beads on their swarthy faces. The men threw away their game balls after a match, considering all the sport to have been smashed out of them by their mighty strokes, but the women pulled the cans of balls out of the trash the next morning, used them for practice, and found they still bounced.

Delia shook her head with the rest of them when they talked about the men. Her husband didn’t play tennis with the neighborhood. He preferred racquetball at the health club. He wouldn’t stand out in the cul-de-sac with the other men on Saturdays, either, and talk about whatever it was those men talked about. Delia didn’t understand this about Paul. The men always looked so friendly. They were older; you could see the shine of their scalps through the wisps of hair. They were stable. When they mowed their lawns, you could tell how far along they were or whether they had done the back first by how much red sunburn showed through their hair. Paul paid a teenager from the next street over to keep the yard. Delia asked him to do it himself, just once, and said she would bring him lemonade when he stopped to change the bag. He told her she could take lemonade to the teenager.

***

            Sonya lived in the stucco house with dormer windows on the corner. She invited Delia to the team. “Come wheeze with the old ladies,” she said. “Lend us some youth.” Sonya came from Norway with her husband and talked as though she had something in her mouth. Delia let the words go into every part of her mouth, especially when she spoke with Sonya, as if she could improve her accent by example. Sonya was an atheist—Delia half-expected her to be a shoplifter or a child abuser.

There was an order to things, Delia thought. Baptists were at the top, the most virtuous. Under them were the Methodists, then Catholics and Jews. Below them, populating the prisons, were the cultists and atheists. Delia had never met anyone in prison. The farthest she’d ever been from the Chatahoochee River was New York City. She had gone there on a theater trip when she was nineteen. It was an ungodly city, a Sodom, a Gomorrah. She hadn’t been mugged, but a waiter padded their bill. To her it was the same. Best to stay in your own pond, she thought. She did not believe in evolution. Fish should stay fish.

Paul had lived in California for a year, before his father repented. That was when Paul was twelve. Paul said that before he met Delia, he had wanted to live in San Francisco, but that Delia had helped him to see what he really wanted. He still thought it was a nice place to visit. Delia was working on that.

***

            The tennis coach was a short Jewish boy who lived in the city and drove a VW Rabbit the color of an under-ripe lemon. “Ladies,” he always said. “Ladies.” He was raised in South Carolina. You could tell. “Ladies, let’s get those racquets up.” He had hair on his arms and very white teeth. He smiled like a toothpaste model. His 1eg muscles were bunched. Sometimes, Delia would catch herself watching him walk, his calves swelling and smoothing.

Sonya would grip her racquet like an ax. The Jewish boy would say, “Ladies, shake hands with the grip,” and she would say, “Glad to meet you.”

Delia kept a paperback Bible on her nightstand. Paul wanted to get her a nicer one, but she said that she would feel bad bending the spine back. When she didn’t feel like reading, she would tell Paul that she had been studying the Word in the afternoon and that she needed time to digest. She believed greatly in the need to digest the Word.

Delia had a bachelor’s degree in biology from the small Baptist college where she met Paul. She had planned on medical school before she met Paul. But when you meet the right one, all your other plans become dispensable. She told Sonya that.

“Two people with one direction,” Delia said.

“It takes work,” Sonya said.

“The Bible says that Jesus will do the work,” Delia said.

Sonya smiled politely. She didn’t believe.

Delia heard the riffled hum of bees.

“I wasn’t accepted to medical school. I wasn’t smart enough.” She held five balls on the flat of her racquet. “I sure don’t know what I would do without Jesus—what I would have done if I didn’t know that Jesus was guiding me.”

“In other places, people don’t believe like you.”

“It’s not believing. It’s just true.”

Sonya drank from a bottle of water that had ice forced through the neck.

***

            Monday mornings, Delia clipped the coupons from the Sunday paper and did the shopping. She liked doing them back to back so that she could remember better what she had clipped. It reminded her of when Paul was still in college and every fifty cents mattered. They went over and over the bills, offering to cut personal luxuries. Paul skipped lunch, without telling her. He insisted that she buy scented candles, since she liked them so much. He would bring them with wildflowers wrapped in the free supermarket newspaper. Now, the house was filled with candles.

She would watch the children on the street and wait for Paul’s car, pushing all the wax to the center of the candle. She thought that she should have lived back when they sealed envelopes with wax drippings. She thought that she would have been very good at that.

She said to Paul, “Maybe I should get a job.”

He said, “Do you need money?”

She said, “I miss working.”

He said, “Do whatever you want.” Delia didn’t mention it again.

***

            Sonya said, “Where did you learn to serve? I can’t do it.”

“Jesus does the work,” Delia said.

“I hope he has more important things to do than that,” another woman said. They laughed, very friendly. Delia decided that the woman must not be a Christian.

Delia said, “I never thought a person could be happy without Jesus.”

“It can be hard to be happy. As hard as serving,” Sonya said.

She swung her racquet short. She didn’t stretch like she should have. The ball bounced in the lane.

The Jewish boy said, “Ladies. Like picking an orange, ladies. “

***

            Tuesdays Delia had lunch with her sister, who lived with a man. The sister swore a lot and made Delia uncomfortable, but at the end of the lunch, she would say, “It is so refreshing to talk to you.” Delia would always bring her a scripture to read, written on a piece of paper, even though she knew that the sister wrapped her gum with it. Delia didn’t really look them up. She copied them off her daily calendar for Christian women.

Thursdays the cleaning lady came, and Delia took the laundry to the cleaners. Fridays she went to the postnatal wing of the hospital and looked at the babies. She would lay her face against the glass and try to read the charts. Paul said, “When the Lord wants us to have children, He’ll send them to us.” He counted days for her. He was tender. She was taking birth control pills, but didn’t tell him.

“Follow through, ladies. Put some power in it, ladies.”

***

            Paul liked to cook. He would bring home special cuts of meat, or ripe vegetables, and make dinner. Delia said it threw off her shopping. She didn’t really like to cook. For lunch, she ate peanut butter sandwiches. She also liked yogurt and chewy granola bars with chocolate chips. She bought the kind of yogurt printed with dinosaurs, because the grown-up yogurt had chunks of fruit in it. She didn’t like chunks.

Sonya had two children, ten and thirteen, and she tutored college students in physics. Sonya had never eaten a peanut butter sandwich in her life. Delia didn’t know that for a fact, but it seemed true. Sonya’s husband looked like he was sixty.

Paul came home and said, “A woman tried to pick me up at the gas station today, can you believe it?”

Delia said, “Didn’t you tell her you were married?”

Paul said, “Sure I did. It’s just funny.”

***

            Delia told her sister, “I don’t know what to do with kids.”

“What? It’s easy. That’s what they invented TV for.” The sister was looking at the waiter, trying to catch his eye.

“What would I feed them?”

“They love peanut butter sandwiches. And macaroni and cheese. And anything that comes in a can. If it gets too tough, give them ice cream. They’ll eat it till they explode.” The man she had lived with before had a son, who was only allowed to visit them once a month. Delia thought that was too generous.

“Why don’t you have any kids?” Delia said.

“Oh,” the sister said, “Because they ruin your sex life. But that wouldn’t bother you as much.”

Delia didn’t answer.

***

            Paul thought they needed a vacation. Time to get away, and relax. Stress could make you sterile, he said. Could make either one of us sterile. He said, imagine us at the beach, with the moonlight and the surf. What a beautiful way to make a baby, he said. We could always tell him where he was made, he said.

Delia said, “Why would you tell a child about where it was conceived? It would warp its mind.”

Delia said she couldn’t go anyway, that she couldn’t leave until the tennis season was over. The others were counting on her, she said.

***

            Delia had trouble praying lately. She felt silly, as though someone watching her would think she was talking to herself. She didn’t sing in the car anymore, either. She never danced alone. She didn’t care for dancing in public, either, unless someone said to her that she danced beautifully. Then she enjoyed it.

***

            Delia said, “Maybe the Lord just doesn’t want us to have children. Maybe we should just give up.”

Paul tried to touch her hand, but she pulled it away.

***

            “Ladies, concentrate. Ladies, be sure to eat lots of carbohydrates before the match. Pastas and breads, ladies. Pastas and breads.”

Delia zipped her racquet into the bag and packed her tennis balls into the can. The lid was missing again.

“I’m bringing cream puffs for after the march.”

“After exercising?”

“We’ve earned some extra calories.”

“Don’t tell Bob. He’s on a no sugar diet.”

“They are worse than the children, really.”

“Yes,” Delia said. “They never want what’s good for them.”

***

            Paul asked if she wanted him to come watch her play. She said yes, but when he was there, he made her nervous. After the first set, she waved him over to the chain-link fence and asked him to leave.

When she got home, he said, “Do you want a divorce?” He stood at the bottom of the stairs. She stood on the third stair. She could see the top of his head, where the hair was just beginning to thin.

She said, “Divorce is a sin in the eyes of God.”

“So is lying,” he said. “You don’t want me. I’m going to a hotel. “

She said, “Wait, we’ll have children. Wait. We can fix this.”

He said, “I don’t understand you.”

She said, “I might be pregnant right now. It might happen tonight. Don’t go.”

He said, “We need help.”

She said, “You’re right. We’ll pray.”

He said, “I don’t think I can right now.”

***

            After dinner, after the news, when the house was dark and cool, Delia watched the moonlight on the wall. In the pine branches, the moon made shapes of light. An old man at first, then a toy soldier. Then it looked like Jesus, bending slightly towards the window.

The Man Who Murdered Himself

by Nancy Owens

“Right in here,” the nurse said.

“Doctor Sorenson will be with you soon,” And she left. 

Kyle would not usually have examined the small office as he entered it. Twelve doctors, thirty-seven surgeries, and sixty-three consultations had long ago convinced him that one professional’s abode was more or less like another’s. 

When Kyle was four years old, doctors terrified him. He remembered the bushy eyebrows and deep-set eyes of Dr. Rells, his first surgeon. When Dr. Rells delivered the anesthetic before the first operation, Kyle had felt like the victim of a mad scientist about to perform an experimental surgery. He was afraid he would wake up and find that his brain had been removed by accident, 

By age nine Kyle had changed surgeons five times. Names and introductions slipped past him unnoticed, and his emotional response to surgery changed from trepidations to disinterest to annoyance. H is scars multiplied more quickly than the candles on his birthday cakes. 

Kyle’s friends soon lost interest in the story behind each new bandage and suture. His enemies made fun of them. The school bully liked to knock him down and poke at the fleshy lumps growing on his back. Kyle’s private vision of hell looked like a middle school locker room. 

Once he had been proud of his deformities, now he despised them. The malformed right hand that the most expensive surgeries could not repair, the ever-so-slight limp when he walked because bone surgery left one leg slightly shorter than the other, the fleshy purplish bag of flesh on his left side that the doctors had not yet removed—these were the devils that tormented him night after night. Sometimes the tumors on his nerves pinched so tightly he could not walk, but it was not the pain that kept him from sleeping on hot summer evenings. It was the specter he saw in the mirror.

The night before his twelfth birthday he got out of bed at 2 A.M. He stood in front of the full length mirror on his bedroom door for three hours, staring at the discolored landscape that should have been a human chest. Hundreds of spongy, cauliflower-shaped tumors poked from beneath his flesh. Most of the lumps were the size of a marble, but some were as large as golf balls. Scattered on the skin between the tumors were dark brown patches on his flesh. They were called “cafe au lait” spots: the trademark symptom of neurofibromatosis. 

That night Kyle did not consider suicide. But he smashed the mirror and went to bed with his fists still bloody. 

His condition grew worse with the passing years. The doctors burned off the tumors, but like warts, they grew back in greater numbers. Scoliosis set in, hunching Kyle’s back despite the body brace he wore for three years. The correction of bone deformities in his skull created permanently bald areas on his head—hair regrowth was barred by scar tissue. Surgery decreased the bulbous size of his right hand but left it twisted and only slightly usable. 

When he was seventeen, he dug through his mother’s drawers until he found all of his baby pictures. He burned them. 

Kyle wore corrective shoes for his limp and a hairpiece to cover the bald spots. Monthly visits to the dermatologist made his face look, if not beautiful, at least nearly normal. He carefully selected clothing to conceal the worst of his tumors, and he kept his hands in his pockets most of the time. 

He plowed his way through college by sheer willpower and a sizable loan from his parents, landed a job in an accounting firm, and built up some semblance of a normal life. But he often caught clients watching him from the corners of their eyes, as though they were trying to figure out what was odd about his gait or the shape of his face. Or why he always seemed reluctant to shake hands.

No, on a usual day, for a usual consultation, Kyle would not have stopped to examine Dr. Sorenson’s office. But this was not his annual medical evaluation or even one of his frequent pre-surgery consultations. For the first time in his life, Kyle would meet a doctor who could talk to him, not about a treatment, but about a cure. 

So he studied the tiny room intently. 

The desk was small and completely bare. Kyle suspected its drawers had never been opened. Beside the desk was a small garbage can, empty except for a single gum wrapper. Apparently Dr, Sorenson used this office only for formal meetings. 

Right then, a small, balding man trundled through the door. He carried a briefcase in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. Pens and pencils jabbed from all available pockets of his blue scrubs, and a pair of glasses dangled by a cord around his neck. He maneuvered his way around to the back of the desk, plopped the papers on it, and began shuffling through them. 

“You must be Mr,Waterby,” the man said without looking at Kyle, “I’m Dr. Sorenson. Do sit down.” Kyle eased into the chair and winced as his right leg gave a stab of pain. He tried to shift the leg to a more comfortable position as the doctor arranged his papers.

“Well,” Dr, Sorenson said at last, “you are certainly the most dramatic case of neurofibromatosis I have ever seen.” 

Kyle frowned. He’d heard that from at least eleven experts. They ought to put that in a medical textbook somewhere: Kyle Ameus Waterby, the most dramatic case of neurofibromatosis since the Elephant Man. 

“Quite frankly, it’s amazing you’re still alive,” the doctor continued. “According to your file, you’ve had three neurofibromas removed from your cranial nerves, and there are two more growing on your spine. Your last tissue sample indicates that they have become malignant—“ 

“If you are trying to tell me I’m dying, I’ve known that since I was ten.” 

“No, not at all. As I said in my letter, I think I have developed a method that can cure you—no more tumors, no more scoliosis, no more scars . . .” 

Kyle leaned forward, “How?”

“What do you know about molecular replication?”

“Nothing specific—the scanner dissects an object molecule by molecule, and the replicator reproduces the item from the scanned data.” 

“That’s right,” Dr. Sorenson said, nodding, “but did you also know that the scanned data can be altered—modified before the replication takes place? | can take an apple, for example, and remove the seeds. I can take a rat, infect it with cancer, then scan it and remove the cancer before replicating it. I’ve taken rodents with leukemia, heart disease, and broken bones and made healthy replicas from them, I’ve changed the color of their fur and performed optical surgery-all with replication.” 

“Are you saying you can scan me, and then rebuild me without the disease?” 

Dr, Sorenson nodded.

“Why haven’t I heard of this before?”

“Well, it’s extremely risky, My success rate with rats has been only twenty-two percent. And until now, replication has been a one-shot deal: The scanning process used to completely destroy the original subject. Plus, even a minute error could cause the replication to be unstable, even if no modifications were made to the scanned data.” 

“You said ‘until now.’ What changed?” 

“A new technique has just been developed: a way to scan the subject non-destructively. Do you see what this means? Now, if there is an error in the first scan, we can simply make a second, or a third-whatever is required.” 

Kyle’s face remained expressionless, but his fingers tapped excitedly on hrs knee. “How much will it cost?” 

“Well . . .” Dr. Sorenson started to reach for his notebook but changed his mind and scratched the bridge of his nose instead, “You should know that what I’m proposing is . . . well, it’s entirely illegal.” 

“If it can cure diseases in rats, why couldn’t it be used on humans, too?” 

“Replication frightens people, and because, well it can be messy. The failures were . . . drastically unpleasant. Missing neurons, chemical imbalances—a single mistake in the scanning process can be incapacitation or even fatal to the subject. The new non-destructive scanning minimizes the risks, but the ethics of the entire procedure are still debatable. And human replication has been illegal since the technology’s development.” 

Kyle folded his arms across his chest, and cringed as they jostled a tender tumor, “I’ll risk what’s left of my body if I want to!” 

“l assure you, I am quite willing to perform the procedure,” Dr, Sorenson said calmingly,  “I have access to a research replicator in Connecticut, but it’s expensive to operate, and there’s no way to apply for a research grant under these circumstances. If you could pay the expenses, I would gladly donate my services in the interest of, ah, scientific research.” 

Kyle thought of his parent’s summer home in California, the last remnant of his once substantial inheritance. He had sunk the rest of his parents’ money into operations and medication, but the summer home he had kept tucked away. He’d always meant to visit it . . .

“I can give you two hundred thousand dollars,” he said. 

Dr. Sorenson spent almost a year preparing to perform the replication, The summer house had to be sold, and Dr. Sorenson had to find an expert on neurofibromatosis who was willing to work on the quasi-legal project. Together they pored over Kyle’s x-rays, MRIs, tissue samples, and other medical records. They plotted, graphed, planned, and ran data through computer simulations of the replication process. Dr. Sorenson grew more and more excited as the day of replication grew nearer.

Kyle, or the other hand, became increasingly withdrawn. He looked at his lumpy body in the mirror every morning and hated it. He stared at his hands folded in his lap, the nearly-normal digits of the left hand eclipsed by the overgrown distorted flesh of his right appendage, and he hated them. Like a convalescent loathes his wheel-chair or an athlete resents his leg brace, Kyle despised his body. He imagined it was a cast, a repulsive outer shell waiting to be shucked off at the earliest convenience.

He brooded over the approaching replication date. Each morning meant nothing to him except that there was one less night separating him from his liberation. He grew inefficient at work. His supervisor threatened to fire him, so he quit. He had already made plans to move anyway. He would rent a condo in Florida or in New Mexico, somewhere far away from everyone who ever knew him, ever knew he was disfigured. His friends would never know how he had changed; the government would never know. He would shuck off his name as he would shuck off his skin, and he would emerge as . . . someone else. 

And there it was—the heart of Kyle’s anxiety. Without his shell, without the bags and the tumors and the scars criss-crossing him like some perverted rendition of Frankenstein, who was he? He did not like to think about it. So he brooded and listened as the wall clock ticked off the seconds, the hours, the days. 

And then, the day arrived. As he stared at the replicator’s scanning machine, Kyle thought it looked like nothing more than a blank wall with a person-sized hole in it. He climbed onto the sliding bed and looked sideways at the wall’s maw. Kyle tried to tell himself that this was nothing new, that it was like taking a CAT scan . . . except that he would stay there for at least three days. Kyle’s heart began to pound as Dr. Sorenson hooked him up to several machines. He flinched as the IV poked into his arm, even though he had grown used to such accoutrements long ago. 

“Everything feel alright?” Dr. Sorenson asked, “Ok then, lie down.” 

Kyle did, and the doctor released a clamp on the IV. “Remember,” he said, “the medication will inhibit your motor control. Don’t let it worry you—you’ll only be conscious for a few seconds after your full body functions stop. Just relax, feel the medicine seep in, and let it go . . .” 

Dr, Sorenson was still talking, but Kyle stopped paying attention. He felt the fluid from the IV running up his arm, half-tickling and half-burning as it passed. A few moments later he felt detached from his body. He could still feel, could still hear and see, but he had no control of his muscles. Like those lucid moments halfway between sleep and waking, he could sense the waking world but could not interact with it. 

The feeling of disembodiment was frightening. Kyle began to panic, but forced himself to remember Dr. Sorenson’s patient explanation that the medicine was necessary, that his body must remain absolutely still during the scanning process. Only his brain would remain active, trapped in a state of semi-sleep that had no memory of time, so the machine could scan his brain patterns and replicate them along with the rest of his body. 

He felt his breathing stop, and heard a slight buzz as a nearby machine took over the task of oxygenating his blood. Another machine began to pump his blood through his body as his heartbeat slowed to a stop. He felt himself drop into darkness. 

Kyle could not say how long he drifted like a man on the edge of sleep, sometimes floating to the top of his dream world but never quite escaping it. Eventually, the blank gray of the replicator’s scanning chamber was replaced by the white walls of a recovery room, Kyle’s eyes were half open, and he could just see the door from the corner of his eye. Sometimes Dr. Sorenson would enter through the door, and check the status of the machines humming all around him. When that happened, Kyle tried to move. Most of the time he could not make his body obey, but occasionally he found he could twitch his fingers, of swallow, or track Dr. Sorenson’s blue-clad form with his eyes. 

But one of these times, Dr. Sorenson entered the room followed by another person.

“. . . not sure this is a good idea,” Dr. Sorenson was saying, his voice ringing clear in Kyle’s ears. Into the room came-Kyle, Kyle stared at the tall figure as if he were watching his reflection in some divine mirror. The hair was full, the face fully shaped, the right hand was small with the fingers separated. The man-who-was-not-him strutted into the room like a god, and stared in revulsion at Kyle, misshapen and motionless on the bed. 

The stranger with Kyle’s face looked at Kyle for a long time. Kyle tried to speak, but he could not make his lungs and vocal chord work. He felt his lips open and close limply. The man-who-was-not-Kyle swallowed and turned pale. 

“Get rid of it,” he whispered. His voice sounded strangled. 

“Wait-are you sure?” Dr, Sorenson asked. “l want to keep it for at least a few more days, until we’re sure you won’t develop unexpected complications. Besides, the research value—” 

“Just get rid of it,” the stranger interrupted as he left the room.

Furious, Kyle tried to speak, to move, to ask what that impostor was doing parading around in the perfect body meant for him. His eyes squinted. His fingers twitched, but Dr. Sorenson either did not see or did not wish to see.The doctor looked at the door and gave a sigh. Then, he reached over and shut down the life support machines and disconnected the IV. As he left the room, he turned off the light. 

Birth of a Daughter

by Angela Colvin

The Nightgowns

In the mid-1970s, you purchased two things that have made me what I am; the first was a night at Little America Hotel, where you and Dad celebrated your honeymoon; the second was a pair of nightgowns from LaVoy’s. They were considered lingerie in their day, but I wouldn’t even consider them nighties—there was nothing truncated about them. They were long enough to cover your feet when standing, and they billowed out a foot in each direction. They were, however, transparent in the sunlight. Polyester manufactured in its most striking shades—one black as tar and the other a blinding yellow that you called “pale.” The only way to connect such an adjective to the nightgown was in describing those who saw it for the first time. You chose such colors for a reason, albeit it must have been subconscious—black for your future feelings on shopping in bulk, endless “guaranteed” winnings from Publisher’s Clearing House, dog hair, and dreams deferred—for the end of each day and the beginning of the next, But not Sundays. Yellow was for the peace and quiet of Sundays. Sundays and classical music, the PTA, your Super-Mom title, and your high school drill team outfit that still fits. But yellow was especially representative of your thoughts on us children, whom you determined would be your greatest accomplishments, I suppose the melon yellow version still haunts your closet today. Although I intended to take it to college, I mostly took your other half with me.

Dress-up

I don’t know why I confiscated the black remnant. It was on impulse, probably because I lacked the initiative to go out and buy a bathrobe, and I needed something to see me through the long trek from dorm bathroom to bedroom. I used to steal it from your closet when I was little, I’d listen to you playing the old upright for hours, playing out your frustrations and anger, your fingers caressing the same keys your mother played. Accompanied by your music, I’d drag the thing from its hanger and dress up as you. I always seemed to get tangled up in the layers however and never made it to the mirror before stumbling inside it and slamming into the green shag sea below me. It served me well my first year in college, but then I met “that young man” as you called him, and simultaneously the gown began to fall apart.

The Moo-Moo

Life is not meant to be experienced in halves. I don’t believe my other half should still be hanging, unused, in a storage closet. But I guess the first thing people see is what they grab and run with.

Debunching

You were the only girl in the pool with clothes on—that’s how I noticed you. Someone had invited me (on account of my being “the new boy”) to the party while I was walking through the dorms. There were only about fifteen guys at that party, and I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I was the only one who hadn’t spent a semester getting to know you, and you seemed to be enraptured by some twig of a guy at least six inches shorter than you. He could have been the Munchkin mayor.

I watched you for over an hour before I decided to do anything about it. Whenever someone would throw you in, you’d stealthily debunch your clothes when your body reemerged from the water. Your smile could be addictive. Opportunity arose when you and a roommate suddenly burst into song at the edge of the pool. It sounded awful, but it was a chance to meet you—”always introduce yourself to woman by complimenting her,” my uncle used to say, “even  if it’s a lie.”

Food For Thought

You weren’t anorexic, but close enough to it that I had become a candidate for Miss Body-Conscious of the Universe. I was obsessed with food, preoccupied with the latest fat-burning exercises, and I hadn’t worn a swimsuit in over six years.

I caught him staring at me once and made a concerted effort not to let my shorts and tee-shirt gather up and stick to me as I left the pool’s sanctuary. I didn’t want to look fatter than was apparent. Annie and I had both thought he was a delicious morsel—she thought he was cheesecake, but I knew he was more like a juicy piece of steak. His legs were definitely steaks. I had another obsession, and that was lean-bodied soccer players. They move like liquid, each movement pouring and blending into the next. To get his attention we boisterously began singing off key because he was floating with an all-too-attentive California Barbie on the “Donut of Abomination” (as we called the inner tube). To our delight, that abomination finally floated our way.

Threadbare

A silhouette wasn’t enough. He tried to get more than ankles showing; however, I only became a little threadbare. Here a stitch, there a patch of thinning, but he wanted to take the scissors to me.

Curves

What did you call that thing? You told me once that it was christened “the moo-moo” by mortified roommates. And yes, the spelling was intentional (you, often described yourself as a cow). Your idea was that it covered you entirely, a bathrobe substitute so you could just “flow” from room to room. Two problems, though: it was transparent in the light, which was often the setting I saw you in, and when you turned, it grasped every curve of your body, “wanted and un-,” you laughed. That laugh smelt of mothballs—dusty and sour. You surely had a sense of humor, ripping yourself up into laughable little confetti-sized pieces you could throw at a party.

You had a crazy worldview, some of it formed from leftover perusals of ridiculous teen magazines; some from being your mother’s daughter, and some from just being you. Those parts were beautiful—stars you kept on reserve for clear nights. But such expositions were rare; generally, it was all shadows and curves beneath the moo-moo.

Showering

He tried to change me—save me from myself, but I struggled with his fitting in the moo-moo. He left while I was in the shower, with my thoughts swirling about my feet. I stepped out clean, but he wasn’t there to see it. He had gone to save the world, and I guess that changed both of us,

Pulling Threads

He was gone, but he left behind a large hole exposing her rib, and she had to hold it shut as she scurried past people to the privacy of her room. Although the hole bothered her, she had even started to pick at my threads herself.

Reflected

My roommates jokingly conspired to burn the moo-moo, until Jules found out where you bought it—then the jokes got serious. LaVoy’s was her grandpa’s business. Horrified to be part of something that so embarrassed her, she apologized profusely to the others for her grandpa’s designers and began planning moo-moo abduction, since I refused to give it up. Once she even accomplished it, but knowing I’d die without something to cover my nakedness through the early morning hours and that I was too lazy to go buy something new, she only gave it to our next-door neighbors as a joke. They, ofcourse, couldn’t resist playing along in the heist.

I fell asleep that night and about an hour later the back door, which opened directly into my room, creaked open. Something tall and black swept in, It was my neighbor Jeremy, fully moo-mooed and looking like death incarnate, White boy in a black moo-moo—not a Kodak moment. There he was, a man draped in my inhibitions, teeth gleaming and moonlight shooting off his glasses, dimly lighting the mirrored hallways of my soul.

Patching Holes

I came home for the weekend to find the sewing machine humming, It wasn’t the usual burring purr of efficiency, but a languid growl, starting out deeply in the back of its throat, then its voice rising in intensity as it picked up speed, and then changing its mind and slowing down to a yawn. You were patching holes, all sorts of them, some in clothes, some on stuffed animals, some on pillow cases; everything that could be, would be repaired that day. I mentioned something over your shoulder, I was going to apply to that arts school in Boston, give up chemistry and that scholarship we had worked for. You didn’t miss a stitch, just mentioned in return that there was homemade pie in the fridge. I tried to open a window to let some air in, but you stopped me without looking up—said it was too cold. So I ate, you worked, and we sat that way until you breathed out, lightly clenching the side of the counter with out-turned palms and resting your body on your wrists, “Do you want this?” you asked, pulling the yellow moo-moo out of the sewing basket, “I’m not going to fix it if it’s not needed,”

An E-mail

Dad-
Thanx for the cash, I think mom will love her present.
I realized something when you told me that she sold her piano to help pay for my tuition next year in Boston. I don’t think I’ll ever be her—I could never do that. It seems like everyone around here is on a crusade to find themselves, as if we’d suddenly gotten lost the day we registered for college, or left ourselves in the car by accident when our parents drove off—waving at ourselves no less. I obviously didn’t get all of mom’s genes so I don’t completely understand her, but she knows me better than I thought, although she still thinks I’m too much like you, but that’s all of her I could get close to—you. I can’t drive, read, and practice my voice all at the same time or graduate in four years as a valedictorian with kids like she did. I’m trying to be as practical as she would, but I must’ve caught some of your dreaming germs (as mom calls them) so I guess I’m just gonna breathe life in for a while before I decide to do anything with it.

-me

Boxed Away

I wasn’t going to arts school, and, even more surprisingly my side was ripped completely open. I wasn’t put back on, just ripped open, held, looked at, then thrown in a box with other homebound stuff. Not with the stuff that would be unboxed, but into a package with trinkets and tickets, gum wrappers and photographs, dried flowers, bits of pottery projects, and old keys.

The Minimalists

It was very weird that your number was in the Boston listings. Living and building homes in Panama’s villages had made a minimalist of me and moving back to Boston sounded great. It’s known for small roofs, private lives, luxuries too expensive to buy, and little freely circulating money. But I had a cousin there, which meant he had an apartment, and maybe connections to a job. When I saw your name, I only called to see if it was you. Your voice was different, so I listened to it for a while before I decided to see you. That was nicer than I expected, and so was the next time, and the time after. Before we even thought about marriage, you had me in a steady job, and calling your parents on holidays. This afternoon you said you wanted a “little pink bundle” to put in the quilt your mom sent us for Christmas. A baby quilt made up of squares from old nightgowns. The inner lining was black and yellow checkered—you couldn’t seem to get over that. But your comment about the pink bundle is what made me laugh. It reminded me of this morning, which is why I was smiling just now. It was simply an image; one I can’t get out of my head. You, coming from the bath, standing there—pink as the day you were born and grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Sharlimar

by Aaron Eastley

Sharlimar looked up. Moved to the bank to be sure. Far up river she heard the engines. They were early, she hadn’t expected them till Thursday at least, it must be something gone wrong.

She walked quickly back up the trail to the camp in the clearing and fired up the single burner. Poof. Almost out of kero. Good ting they comin’ already, she thought. It ent regular though. Even Vishnu ent able to drink out as many Caribs in fived days as last trip’s gold and di-monds probably sold for. But trouble for the boss-man usually does be good for she.

Sparks flashed in the flames. She lowered them expertly.

Back out at the bank she listened to the heavy ruble of the approaching engines blasting before them down the corridor of trees. Two boats. Maybe three.

Behind her, filling the emptiness all around, a thousand palm fronds and fern branched struggled madly, chatoticly, but utterly still in what seemed to her a never-ending effort to thrust their long necks out beyond the thick, intertwined tangle of growth, out of the enveloping warmth and moisture into a cooler, finer air that doesn’t exist in the bush. The mammoth ferns, she had often thought, struggled hopelessly, irrelevantly, and only the river brought life.

A spider fell from the canopy off to her left, and caught itself with a line about four feet above the ground. She knocked it down with the flat palm of her hand, then covered it with one sandal and worked it methodically from side to side. The ground by the bank was worn and hard. Almost imperceptibly, her lips curved. She knew to be afraid of the black ones. Killing them was like killing mosquitos – there are always more – but she liked it anyway. It was plenty bad if they got to you first.

 

“Why you does be back so early?” she asked Vishnu after they finished unloading.

He spat on the ground.

“Rasheed get in trouble in Georgetown. He talk all too big about de di-monds we findin’ an about he nice set-up here in the bush. Before we get all our gear an food an’ ting arranged for proper, a street boy we meet get all excited an try to fine out we camp spot an sell the story to people in the Organization. At las we haf to take the boy he self an run back here to keep quiet the story.

“So, here we is,” he went on, “in the bush without nuf food or haf our replacement gear. An I’s still suppose to sen’ de divers down an make the kidnap’ boy work.” He kicked at the cook fire and looked straight at her.

“I tell ya. Is Rasheed get styupid, an now we all is drinkin’ Ginger Tea fuh he fever.”

She nodded, but didn’t say anything.

He started to walk away, then stopped up short by his cot, rummaged through a bag and pulled out a cotton print dress, yellow with red hibiscus blooms printed on it. Walking back he pushed it into her hands and walked away.

“Deh nah,” he said over his shoulder, “I was able to get that one ting. It should take yuh figure well.”

 

“Dis roti does be col’ like de dog nose,” one of the men yelled from his cot. Sharlimar looked up from the fire.

“Ya is lucky to get dahl-pouri a-tall,” she replied looking sidelong at Rasheed.

“I find is nicer working for Americans,” the first man said. And this time he too looked at Rasheed.

“It was the first night. Rasheed pulled out his revolver and spun the cylinder once, twice slowly. It was loaded, all chambers. He took out one bullet and rubbed it on his pant leg as if to clean it. Sliding the bullet back into place, he clicked the cylinder in line with the barrel and rested the gun on his knee, then continued to eat. The other man looked down at his roti and didn’t say anything again.

“If yuh still hungry,” Sharlinmar said to him, paying no attention to Rasheed, “yuh can hunt for wild meat in the bush.”

Rasheed glared at her. “Don’t talk to dem stypid lickle boyz, Sharlimar. They ent worth nothin’.”

They ate in silence for awhile, then turned to talking about where they would work in the days to come. Across the clearing, on of the new men whispered to Vishnu.

“Why she cyan’t talk with us?”

Vishnu didn’t say anything. But Rasheed heard and answered.

“Yuh shut-up boyee!” he yelled, jumping up and crossing the clearing. “Yuh jus’ shut up.” He leveled the barrel of the revolver at the man’s head.

The man’s plate clattered to the ground and he stared wide-eyed at Rasheed. But before Rasheed could move or speak Sharlimar came between them and stood still, looking stolidly at Rasheed, ready. Rasheed stared at her, saying nothing, and slowly lowered the gun. Without a word Sharlimar moved back to the stove and Rasheed fixed his eyes on the man, who remained as he had been, wide-eyed and speechless, and spoke to him very quietly.

“Is what I say yuh do, uh?”

The man recovered himself slightly. “Ya mahn, ya mahn!”

“Dat’s right,” Rasheed whispered. “Dat’s bettah.”

 

Later, after Rasheed had gone to his cot in the higher clearing she stood out of the light at the edge of the clearing, and listened to thtem taling among themselves.

They liked she. “Dat woman does be sharp like a half-grown tamarind,” one said.

“Yah mahn. You see how she ent care about if she be shot or en-ting? She have more guts than ah calabash.”

 

Still, she ignored them, mostly, in three years she had seen plenty of them, and buried plenty, too. It ent no use to be friendly, she’d learned. It only vex Rasheed and make he send them down more often.

These days it only did be Vishnu she talk to, because he been with Rasheed too long an he too good a diver for Rasheed to shoot he or do he en-ting, and sometimes he could make Rasheed listen when she needed he to. Probably Rasheed know Vishnu will kill he when he ready, an he doesn’t want no trouble, especially in the bush.

 

They’d been working for six days now, but so far it was only gold dust and small diamonds they found. The new men were getting anxious. It always happened that way. The old ones just sent them down more and laughed at them once they were gone below. The boss-man himself, he never went down.

They had fled Georgetown without much flour, but they had brought a big six-cylinder diesel engine. Three hundred horsepower, Rasheed said, strong enough to pull water through an eight-inch pipe. Sharlimar knew what that meant: dangerous but fast. Plenty more than mud and rocks an ting come up the big pipes . . . but also sometimes man arm, an sometimes man whole body. She had watched them at work plenty times, moving the floating platforms up and down the river, the pumps thrumming deeply as they churned water and mud up from the river bottom and spewed it out into long wooden troughs lined by the remaining men. She had even worked the platforms on trips when Rasheed had come back without enough men, so she knew the work and the code of rope pulls the divers used.

The pipes were flexible with handles for the divers to old onto on each side of their mouths. Holding a pipe with both hands, and with one rope around an ankle and another one around the waist, the divers would swim down fifteen or twenty feet to where the slope of the bank met the flat river bottom. A tug of the ankle rope meant they were ready. Once the engine was on, the divers moved the mouths of the pipes across the base of the bank, sucking up as much raw material as they could. Most divers couldn’t stay under for more than three minutes, so they worked in threes: every couple minutes the ankle rope would jerk and another one would go down. Above, the free divers breathed and watched the signal ropes. One jerk on the ankle rope meant I’s ready, two jerks meant kill the engine, three on either was for full stop and bring me up. Anything but one jerk, the boss-man get mad. She had seen it all plenty times. Rasheed never cut the engines for switches.

 

About half an hour before sunrise on the seventh day, six men went upstream in one boat and the remaining five went downstream in the other. Most of them had never known any climate but that of South America and the Caribbean, and the chill breeze past the speedboats made their skin rise. They wore only short pants cut off just below the knee.

Sharlima watched the downstream boat pick up speed and plane down the corridor, and noticed the boy, Ravi. She’d asked Vishnu, he was thirteen.

Whatsoever, she thought. He ent nah child or Rasheed wouldna have even bring him. If is a story he had an Tasheed ent think he tough, he’s be at the bottom of the Essequibo now.

Dat would be like Rasheed. Rasheed, de big boss-man. Biggest coward in the bush. Curious, she followed the downstream boat, in spite of it being lead out by Rasheed, and hid in the bush to watch them work.

 

“Wa-djoo do deh boyee?” It was high afternoon, and the boy had found something in the pumping mud. Found, and pocketed. It was a di-mond. A big one. But Fozzle done see him.

“Waa! How ya mean?” the boy called out. “Wa-opin witchu anyway, sneakin’ up behin’ me all quiety an ting?”

“Ya shut up mahn! I ent styupid ya know! . . . Yadoes think I’s styupid?”

“Na mahn, na mahn! Let go ya me!”

“It have a di-mon in ya pocket boyee! It have!”

“Na mahn, ha mahn! Ent have! Ent have!”

“Ya lie boyee!”

“Na mahn!”

On the near bank, Fozzle had the boy by the throat with both hands and was holding him with his feet a few inches off the ground. The boy could barely choke out his violent denials. Fozzle threw hims to the ground and held him, kneeling across his stomach with one leg to each side.

“It have!” Fozzle roared. “It have!”

The boy just gasped.

Off to one side and behind Fozzle’s back, Sharlimar saw the di-mond half-covered by leaves. It was still crusted around with sand and smeared with mud, but hot sun reflected in one surface clear and bright. She jumped from the bush and planted her foot on it, driving it into the mud of the riverbank.

Others were coming now, in from the platform.

“Wa-oppnin’ here?” Rasheed yelled, waving his gun at Fozzle and the boy and Sharlimar all at once.

“It have a di-mond somewhere on he,” Fozzle growled, still furious, but backing cautiously away from the marauding barrel. Rasheed didn’t need any cause to send him to the bang-ground, and Fozzle knew it. The boy’s eyes were mostly all white now.

Rasheed put the barrel in the boy’s face and told Vishnu to strip him.

“If it have a di-mond,” he said, “then we does out yuh light.” The boy passed out.

When they didn’t find en-ting, Rasheed almost shot Fozzle for he was so vexed at all the trouble. The divers had been jerking at the ropes for three, five minutes, running out of air and getting real desperate. If they came up with the pipes they would suck air and the whole thing would have to be primed again.

The boy lived. Rasheed was sore vexed at she for leaving the camp, but he only swore at her a bit. She ent care. He always got vex with she when she show she ent afraid to move in the bush or talk to the men. He always afraid she will run away with one of them, or go back to her own people in the deep Rupununi. Today, she thought, he right.

 

Later that night, when the moon had drifted down across the river, she moved out to the bank and looked up-river. She watched the moon ripple and settle brilliant white on the crystal black water. Half an hour later it descended behind the drooping branched of the trees that stretched out over the river from the far shore. The bush was silent. All around, she knew, a million things were moving in that silent darkness, but all were invisible and mute, shut-up tight in the giant living grave of the bush, intentionally silent, prolonging life only by this chosen death of silence, both hunters and prey. For here, during the night, everything was always both, so each creature kept silent and was never certain why.

Once the moon was gone, she stared forward at nothing for awhile. Then, turning her eyes up-river again she whispered: “It ent life there either. In de bush it ent life anywhere a’ tol.” It didn’t take long to dig the di-mond out of the mud and get back to the camp.

They had found another big one that day, and all the men were drunk, laughin’ and kicksin’ with each other around the fire. They had bush whiskey they bought on their way in, so it couldn’t have taken long. By three-thirty they were all passed out, and she left for good.

She knew it was no use stealing a speedboat. She didn’t know how to drive one, and they’d just follow her in the other. She had to stick to the bush. Vishnu was the only one with the guts to follow her and she knew he wasn’t stupid enough to try.

After a long, nearly emotionless final look at the oblivious face of Rasheed, she moved to the edge of the cleared area and out into the night. The moon, so high and clear before, had sunk low into the canopy across the river, and she picked her way through the great trunks and hanging, finger-thick vines in almost total darkness. In the canopy above all was silent, almost completely silent, disturbed only by the almost imperceptible hiss of rapidly beating bats’ wings.

Lao-Tzu’s Black Ox

by Matthew H. Kennington

It is said of Lao-tzu that he was born jaded and gray. He lived when China had lost the perfect harmony it had known under the reign of the Duke of Chou – a time when people yearned for a return to that perfection, for someone to lead them back.

Lao-tzu means Old Boy.

He was a courtier and an officer, and this is how he wrote the Tao-Te Ching. One day he rode out of town on a black ox. He was stopped at the city gate.

“Where are you going?” asked the gatekeeper.

“I cannot say,” said Lao-tzu, “for fear I will end up somewhere else.”

“Then why are you leaving us?” the man wanted to know.

“To dwell,” said Lao-tzu, “in the thick, and not in the thin. To dwell in the fruit, and not in the flower.”

Through the gate, just beyond the city wall, was the near edge of an orchard. It was the hot season, and the trees, in numberless ranks, dark and green, swayed under their own weight. “I am fleeing for my life,” said Lao-tzu.

There was no one in the street. There was no one under the eaves or in the garden that the gatekeeper kept beside his post. He turned to the man on the ox and bowed low. “You are a great man of letters,” he said. “I can see that. If you would do one thing before you go.”

“I am weary,” said Lao-tzu. “If you would open the gate…” But the man had shuffled off to the windowless room that was his post. He returned with an armful of papers.

“If you would be so generous,” said the man, “as to write down for me what you have learned in your long life, I’m sure I would be the better for it, and you would be none the worse. Then you can go your way and my gratitude with you.”

So Lao-tzu sighed and took the pen.

 

This is the story of a man whose name was not, of course, Phat. Phat came from the bottom part of Vietnam that hooks around under Cambodia, an area which neither country really wants, except that they don’t want the other to have it. This, and the fact that he spoke Cambodian in Viet tones, practically singing it through his nose, made Phat what is called Gampuchia-groum, “Under Cambodia.”

He moved to Cambodia, where he married and lived for ten years, Gampuchia-groum. He didn’t speak of it much, but it was the only thing he spoke of.

Lao-tzu made the characters slowly and clearly, without pausing.

 

                   The highest virtue is not virtuous; therefore it truly has virtue.

                   The lowest virtue never loses sight of its virtue;

                            therefore it has not true virtue.

The gatekeeper stood behind Lao-tzu, who was sitting in the dust. He peered at the letters. He was a stocky man with a drizzle of a beard and full cheeks, and his lips moved at the corners. He was enjoying himself immensely. “You may be surprised to learn,” he suddenly said, “that I am not an ordinary, ignorant gatekeeper. So please you, my name is Sung-up Moon, and I am teaching myself to read!”

“Ah,” said Lao-tzu and went on writing.

 

                   When the highest type of men hear the Way,

                            with diligence they’re able to practice it;

                   When average men hear the Way,

                            some things they retain and others they lose;

                   When the lowest type of men hear the Way;

                            they laugh out loud at it.

                   If they didn’t laugh at it, it couldn’t be regarded as the Way.

“That is a good thing, is it not?” said the man.

Lao-tzu lifted the pen and regarded him. “Is what a good thing?”

“Teaching myself to read?”

“I don’t know,” said Lao-tzu.

 

Rumor had it that Phat was once a military man. Some said for the Vietnamese, some said for Cambodia. There were other rumors that Phat helped the Khmer Rouge during the sour, bitter time of the killing fields, but that seems doubtful. The Khmer Rouge did not take help from Gampuchia-groum. Still, rumors feed on little and thrive on nothing, and Phat told his neighbors nothing.

At last he had to flee. He put his wife and a son on a ship headed for Bangkok. His older boy was in the military and could not get out, but Phat knew that three out of four was exceptional luck, so he tucked his son into a dim corner of his mind and went about the ship with a pleasant air, smiling at everyone. He joked with the other Gampuchia-groum aboard, who was a twenty-year-old girl named Cheng, whom he would never meet again.

 

                   Those who work at their studies increase day by day;

                   Those who have heard the Tao decrease day by day.

                   They decrease and decrease till they get to the point

                            Where they do nothing.

                   They do nothing and yet there’s nothing left undone.

 

The gatekeeper licked his lips and rubbed his nose. “I’m not sure I follow you here,” he said.

Lao-tzu stopped writing and looked up. “Entirely,” added the gatekeeper.

“And who asked you to follow me?” said Lao-tzu.

“Ah,” said the man. “Just so.”

 

In Dallas, there is an apartment complex at 4909 Live Oak. Upstairs, there are six or seven Cambodian families who have been in the States for several years. Downstairs, Phat lived between a Mexican family and a Cambodian woman who lived on welfare because her husband had driven off to California. The woman had a son and two daughters. They did not play with Phat’s son.

The caseworker drove Phat to find a job. Dallas Semiconductor said he had steady hands, and they could take him as a solderer if he could find a way to get there every day. There was a bus, the caseworker said, that came up Live Oak; he could use that. But the bus cost money. “Then you’ll have to catch a ride from someone in your complex,” the worker said.

Instead, he went to Red Hanger Cleaners and took a minimum wage job that he could walk to.

 

At first, the ox had lumbered into the shade of a mango tree, where it stood and switched flies with its long, unkempt tail. But the shade had gradually slipped off its back and down its broad, black side until the ox stood snorting and slobbering in the full heat of the sun.

“Won’t you be more comfortable inside?” said the man who kept the gate. He stood to the side of the seated man and shielded his head with one hand. The man was nearly bald.

Lao-tzu finished another page and let it slip to the ground. All around him, white papers lay like petals in the dust. He did not hear.

No need to leave your door to know the whole world;

                   No need to peer through your windows to know the Way of Heaven.

                   The farther you go, the less you know.

 

                   Therefore, the Sage knows without going,

                   Names without seeing,

                   And completes without doing a thing.

 

In easy, black strokes he built column after column. “it is easy to see,” said the gatekeeper, “that you are a sage yourself.”

Suddenly, Lao-tzu stopped writing. “You may know better than I,” he said, “but it is my opinion that mine is the mind of a fool – ignorant and stupid!”

“Not to show disrespect to your extraordinary humility, but I believe you are now having a joke of me,” the man said.

But Lao-tzu shook his head. “The common people see things clearly; I alone am in the dark. They discriminate and make fine distinctions; I alone am muddled and confused.”

“If you say so,” said the man who kept the gate.

 

At Red Hanger Phat swept and cleaned after the workers had gone. He moved the clean garments onto other racks, matched the tags by color and number. Then he filled the racks with the next day’s batch. At 8:30 P.M. he went home, where he would sit against the doorjamb of the outer room and watch the children move about the muddy courtyard.

After six months, the caseworker came to see why Phat was still in 4909 Live Oak. If he still refused to commute, why didn’t he find a second job nearby? In fact, Phat could even make use of his evening hours at home doing piecemeal work. The caseworker went to the car and returned with a cardboard box.

The three plastic pieces and short wire were the components of a fishing bobber, a simple enough device to construct. All Phat had to do was load the copper wire with a spring, pass it up through the plastic pieces, and bend the tip back down with a pair of needle nose pliers. In a matter of seconds, Phat could make three cents. His wife could help too, or his son; it didn’t matter, just so the work got done. Phat accepted the entire box with much bowing and grinning.

But in fact, he made very few bobbers.

 

                   The one who was skilled at practicing the Way in antiquity,

                   Was subtle and profound, mysterious and penetratingly wise.

 

                   Hesitant was he! Like someone crossing a river in winter.

                   Undecided was he! As though in fear of his neighbors on all four sides.

 

It was not much later that Phat had a very lucky break. One of the other janitors happened to mention that his brother’s friend was selling a car. The janitor was a man Phat quite liked, so even though he’d never met the fellow’s brother, let alone his brother’s friend, Phat was interested. On Tuesday of the next week, Phat drove home in a $175 silver Impala. He parked it behind the building in the blacktop lot that had never housed more than two or three cars at a time. He parked in the same spot every night. In the morning of the third day of his newfound freedom, there was a commotion outside Phat’s door. The young men of the complex were milling about, and through a rip in the curtain, Phat could see them pushing and elbowing each other. “What do they want?” he said aloud.

His son slouched in front of the television. “They want you to move your car,” he said.

Phat was startled, partly that something he had done mattered to his neighbors. “Why would they care where I park my car?” he said.

“Because they play basketball there. You’re in the way.”

“I’m not in the way,” Phat said, his voice rising. “What is in the way? That is a parking lot. Not a place to play ball.”

His son was silent. Phat went to the door and looked out. The boys slunk away.

 

The gate keeper retreated into his shack, but he now appeared cupping a clay bowl in his hand. He walked bent over the bowl, so that the thin string of his beard brushed its sides. He approached the man in the sand.

“What is it,” Lao-tzu said, still bent over the pages.

The man waited, switching the steaming bowl from hand to hand.

Lao-tzu looked up. “Yes?” he said.

The man bowed from the waist and held out the bowl. “I am sorry,” he said, “that I have only this crude bowl to give you. If we were at my home, I could…”

“Thank you,” said Lao-tzu, and laying the papers aside, he rose to his feet. He bowed and accepted the bowl with both hands. “I am not thirsty at the moment, but perhaps the ox could take a drink?” He approached the beast and held the bowl below its muzzle.

The man knit his brows. His chin worked side to side, and he fingered his beard. Lao-tzu returned the empty bowl and bowed. The man returned to his shack, holding the bowl away from his body.

 

When he returned, Lao-tzu motioned for him. “Listen to this,” he said, and read aloud:

 

       We fire clay and make vessels;

       It is precisely where there is no substance, that we find the usefulness of clay pots.

       We chisel out doors and windows;

       It is precisely in these empty spaces, that we find the usefulness of the room.

       Therefore, we regard having something as beneficial;

       But having nothing as useful.

 

All the while the gatekeeper had been nodding and smiling tightly. In the silence that followed, though, his nodding turned to a sort of rocking from the waist, an unconscious sway. His hands were clasped over his chest, and the smile was gone. He knit his brows. “I don’t get it,” he said at last. “What’s the use of having nothing?”

 

With the car, Phat was finally able to take the Dallas Semiconductor job, and with the job, he was able to move upstairs. He was placed on the assembly line, one station down from the woman who was his new neighbor at 4909 Live Oak. They had never spoken, but he had heard her yell to her children in the courtyard, calling them to supper. And he had seen her squatting outside the door, talking with the other women. Her Cambodian was rural and rushed – from the Battembong province – and he could not catch everything she said to the woman who sat across the line from her, but he did catch the words “Gampuchia-groum.”

He decided he would do something about his neighbors before it got out of hand. That evening after supper, when they were sitting outside their doors, he made the rounds. Four other people in the complex worked at Dallas Semiconductor, all of them Cambodian. He approached them one at a time. “You see I have bought a car,” he told them. “It is old and ugly as an ox’s rear, so I park it out back. But it runs well, and I would be glad if I could ever help when you need a ride.”

They acted as though they could not understand his Cambodian. But the laughter he heard as he reascended the stairs was not from misunderstanding.

 

“I have a son,” said the man at the gate. “He is a grown man now. Years ago he left our city. He will never return. He was a good son; he would have stayed and cared for me, but I sent him away. He was cunning and quick, and he could not bear to see me sit here day after day. I am like that ox of yours, and he was like a tiger. He went to school, to be with other tigers. But someday…” The man fell silent.

Lao-tzu had been watching the man and squinting. His hand was still poised over the words,

 

       Heaven and Earth will of themselves be correct and right.

 

He sighed and put down the page.

“And what of you?” said the gatekeeper. “Are you unhappy too? Why must you go from our city?”

“I am sick, and I believe there is only one cure.”

“What cure is that?” the man said, and stepped nearer.

Lao-tzu motioned to the papers with his lower lip. “If you cannot find it on your own,” he said, “how can I show it to you?”

The man bobbed and smiled again, as a young boy caught in a fib. He took up one of the pages that had fallen at the old man’s feet.

 

       As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way.

 

“This thing you style ‘the Way?’” he said. “Is it your cure?”

“If it is not,” said Lao-tzu, “then there is none.”

 

That night there was a fire. A siren blared in the alleyway next to the apartment, and lights flashed through Phat’s window. He dressed and went outside.

The iron gates of the complex had been locked for the night, but they now hung wide open. By the back gate, young children milled about the legs of the adults, peering out. Phat moved along the walkway over their heads. He gazed down into the parking lot.

Scattered glass sparked and flashed in the swirling light like so man thousand red embers, flaring out and dying again. Great, swirling balls of flame rolled out of the car, first from one window, then another. The silver pain vanished like dew in the sheer heat. A fireman had a steady gush trained on the blaze, but none of the water seemed to quite reach the flame.

 

Five thousand characters later, Lao-tzu returned the pen. “It is enough,” he said, “how can one say what cannot be said?”

“But you have said t beautifully,” the man replied. “I will study these things as I sit here at my post; I will read and study it all. I know the world like a tiger knows the forest and everything that moves in it. Then I will write to my son and I will know the words to say.”

Lao-tzu closed his eyes and dropped his head. The man fell silent again. “There is no way to bring my son back?” he said softly.

“There is a Way,” said Lao-tzu. “That ought to be enough. It has to be enough.”

The man suddenly seemed very much older. He moved slowly to collect the papers and gently brush the dust away. “I cannot repay you for your goodness,” he said.

“You can,” said Lao-tzu. “You can open the gate.”

 

The ox had found where several branches had fallen. It was lying calmly beside a palm tree. When the gatekeeper approached, it rocked itself up.

He led it back by its nose rope. “It is a wonderful beat you have here,” he said. “In this world, there is no other like it.”

“That’s true,” said Lao-tzu as he ambled off into oblivion. “It is all I need. And yet it is not mine.”

Tystnad

[Swedish for “silence”]

by Gabrielle Bomgren

Father

So, this is how it feels to die. My wooden clogs are covered with April water. I’m dancing with Emma, slowly losing the beat, my knees fusing with the lake. The water surrounding me is warmer than I’d expected. My mouth is closed – welcoming the absence of oxygen. It’s dark underneath the surface, but not as dark as the usual darkness inside my head. The box inside of me is getting smaller. I’m turning. How do I get out? The exit is small. Swirling, pounding brain. The boys playing, me yelling. Emma walking up the hill with one bucket of water in each hand. Gottfrid’s laughter. Red water gushing out of my ears. Somebody screams, “enough.”

 

It’s still.

It’s light.

Emma asks me to dance.

I accept.

 

Gottfrid

I haven’t seen father since he went down to the lake. Before he left he told me my Reader’s Digest had come. I want to read it, but I know Alfred is in the house right now. I’ll wait. Last night father told me to get out the cards so that we could play Canasta. I found a moldy smelling deck in the drawer of mother’s kitchen table. I shuffled. The kitchen was warm. Alfred told a joke about this Norwegian man who carried a portable outhouse with him on hike through the woods – just in case. We kept on smiling after we stopped laughing. Alfred went over to put the kettle on the new black stove. He even remembered to throw some more wood in.

I shuffled again and I dealt. Three even pile. Once I happened to turn over one of Alfred’s cards. It was the nine of clubs. When I got to the last round we noticed there was a card missing. Father stared at my hands while I counted the cards in the three piles. There was one card missing in Father’s pile. I knew what was coming. He stood up, leaned over, crooked his elbow, leveled it with the height of the table and swept the cards off the table. Father sat down again. He looked at me without seeing me. Then I realized he cried. The tears were miniatures compared to how mother’s used to be – the sound quiet. Father cried. I’ve never seen him cry before. I wanted to leave the room and I did. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll go over to Hansson’s. Maybe they have some wood to chop.

 

Alfred

People don’t think Gottfrid and I get along. They’re wrong. We just don’t talk to each other. People have a hard time telling us apart. I can’t really see why. I’m almost a decimeter taller than Gottfrid and I’m also not as heavily built as he is. His hands are big. I used to tease him for that. I said that his hands were almost as big as the lid used to cover the hole in the outhouse. It’s kind of true. Gottfrid’s hands are enormous. There’s also another major difference between Gottfrid and me: I believe in God.

We live in our house – the very same house in which our mother gave birth to us. It was built back in the 1880s. The logs are thick, the ceiling low. The kitchen is not bigger than the size of two rowing boats, but a lot of people can fit in it. When Gottfrid was born, father and Uncle Goran weren’t on great terms with each other. Goran accused father of being possessed by the opposite force of our Maker. At this time father, mother, Lill-Emma, Hans, Gottfrid and myself all lived in the kitchen. So I guess the kitchen must be big enough for Gottfrid. But I don’t know for sure. Goran lived with his family in the big room (the size of four boats). Uncle Goran and father never talked to each other after the accusation.

The year father was laid off at the mill the priest came to our hose. He was supposed to come every year to quiz us on our catechism, but he only came once. He didn’t ask us any questions. This is what he said (after he’d eaten mother’s bread): “The Swedish soul is quiet. It talks when there’s need for talking, and it’s silent the rest of the time.” I liked that priest; too bad he decided to move to Uppsala the following year.

Gottfrid and I talked a lot the day I found father in the lake. It was enough talking for a long time. We haven’t talked since then. I think it has been seventeen years now. It’s still time for silence.

 

Father

I danced with Emma from Smaland last night. We had been harvesting yellow fields of rape seed all day – her eyes followed me. She’s too new in this area to know better. The simmering sunshine and her rolled-up sleeves made me forget my promise. I don’t think she knows that my father killed my mother and that he was declared insane after the deed. They’ll tell her soon enough about my mother’s body, lying in the pasture with the white wind-flowers and the yellow buttercups highlighting her pale dead face. I don’t think about it as often anymore but last night right before I knew I had Emma, I saw mother’s hollow eyes somewhere in the darkness. I left. I woke up by the old stone house halfway to Frid’s farm. How did I get there?

 

Gottfrid

Knut, Hansson’s new man, asked me why I didn’t move into town. I shook my head and left. He hasn’t seen the land, I figured, as I walked home. I could never leave. I’ve seen it. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the creator of my land. My lake is formed like a big cheese slicer. Our house has a permanent spot on the left side of the handle. Home. I’m as rooted as any of the ancient firs surrounding the world of our house. My land is not necessarily beautiful, but it’s me.

 

Alfred

My father drank vodka before he tried to dance on water. I saw him and a bottle floating upside down in the lake. He wore the sweater mother had knitted the year before he told her to leave, or two-and-a-half years before the fever took her. It depends on what even one wants to measure time with.

He was heavy. I dragged him up to the rocks by the new apple tree. I couldn’t stand up anymore. The ground was wet. My face was wet. I wanted Gottfrid to come home. He did, but not until later. Without moving I let the view of our lake dry my cheek, chin, eyes, throat and nose.

 

Father

I woke up this morning and saw her face. I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I couldn’t say sorry. It had been used too many times already. Maybe Goran was right after all? I couldn’t think about it without seeing the darkness moving in. It had power. I knew I had to send her away. I love her.

 

Alfred

We talked over our dead father. Words falling over us.

“Do you think father is in hell?” I said.

“I don’t believe in hell,” Gottfrid answered and said something about roots and I think I know what he meant even though I can’t remember now.

“I wish I had talked to him this morning,” Gottfrid said.

“Do you think he was scared when he died?” I said.

“I don’t know.”

We talked about mother – her death. We talked about father’s darkness. We talked about the absence of women in our house. We talked about when we were kids. We talked about Gottfrid’s pig who got drunk on old apple peelings.

Gottfrid wished that the deck of cards last night would have been complete and that he had never left the room. I wished I had been able to tell father I would miss him – not his darkness, but him. We talked about our home. We talked about having to bury our father. We didn’t talk about the fact that custom wouldn’t let us go through the graveyard entrance with our father’s casket. He was a self-murderer. We didn’t mention the stones that strategically stuck out from the stone fence by the graveyard gate for the men carrying the casket to use in order to climb over the fence.

Then we talked about guilt. What could we have done? Then we didn’t talk about guilt, because I, and probably Gottfrid too, felt uneasy when we did. We talked and then I went to get Anderson – the villages part-time marshal. Gottfrid stayed with father.

Eating the Old Thoughts

by Terrie Petree

Though the sacrifice had been made a year before, Cora Chattering once cooked and consumed her own last supper. She prepared a dish representing each child, dead or living, and washed away each bite with cold water from the thermos her husband had carried with him to work. Back when he worked. Back when he breathed. Appropriately, the main dish was Tell, her oldest child. For Tell she ate roasted duck, meaty and tough. Chewing until the ache in her jaws spread to her temples and through her head. Next was Liv, just a year younger than Tell, but a child of life and light, wide awake to the world. Cora ate Live in a bowl of brightly colored mixed vegetables. It could have been Lifesavers of fruitcake, but to digest Liv, Cora needed to eat a rainbow and mixed vegetables were in the freezer. A trembling yellow Jell-O was next. The tremulous transparent nature of Kade’s dish angered Cora. She thrust each spoonful of the insipid blob into her mouth and tore the weak substance with her teeth even though it would go down easy with or without mastication. As she swallowed she thought of Kade and wondered if lemon Jell-O was still his favorite food. Finally, a white angel food cake with cumulonimbus qualities. The irony of an angel food cake for Faith, her youngest, almost chocked her.

Faith had bene the only apostle present at that meal, twenty years ago. At thirteen she was unaware of the symbolism of the bread she broke with her mother that night. But, as she grew up and Cora grew odd, Faith thought back on the strange meal of Jell-O and mixed vegetables as the last night her mother was Mom and the first night the woman seated across from her was Cora. A mother and daughter ate at the long table that evening when Faith watched Cora break a piece of angel food cake, dip it into her water, and look solemnly, knowingly towards the ceiling as she ate the soggy offering. But, two unrelated females left the table, separated by one meal saturated with meaning.

Cora never explained the cannibalistic feast to her daughter. She had chewed, digested, and excreted her husband and family. For dinner that night years ago she had eaten skin, bones, and hair. And with a hint of ceremony she had eaten the old thoughts, the painful memories of the cross she was no longer willing to bear. A few days before the dinner, Cora had walked barefoot on the bank of her small mountain pond. The weather was cool, sharp as autumn became dead winter. She wanted to feel the sting of icy water until it became like needles in her feet. Cora had been numb for too long. She could not escape from the memories as the year anniversary drew closer. As each five-toed indentation formed in the cold mud and then slowly wore away, she thought of two things. First of the inked impression of her children’s feet pressed flat into forever on the pages of baby books. Then, she thought with no little desire how good it would be if memories were footprints in mud and water could wash away the bad ones. Standing in black mud, Cora knew then that she had to free herself from the crippling grasp of remembering. That’s when she decided to eat what had been eating away at her.

The purpose of the meal was to separate herself from the agony of memory, but the separation became all encompassing. Soon after her feast of forsaking, Cora began speaking with Dante, her golden retriever. She didn’t tell him he was a good doggie or ask if he would like a treat. Cora conversed with Dante.

“My life would make a gripping movie,” she repeatedly told him. Without expanding on events, Cora envisioned the big screen of picture that brought hands to mouths and widened eyes as thirsty others drank in the acid flavor of her existence. She didn’t smile at the conjured images of her silver-screened life and she didn’t cry. Cora only thought of it mater of factly, the way she did about everything in the twenty years since the dinner.

Faith had married at seventeen and moved down the mountain into town. The four years between the dinner and Faith’s marriage were surface years in which neither woman ever spoke of what lay lurking in covered wells of subconscious thought. Yet Cora was threatened by Faith’s absence because she knew emptiness would inevitably bring whispering memories like hot tar oozing into her mind and coating her thoughts. Ray came during the year after Faith moved to help Cora and to ease Dante’s burden. Ray was Cora’s Chevy pickup. Cora saw Ray’s steel, bulky body as manly and secure. She spoke to Ray as if he were her father, he lover, or her husband depending on what figure of manhood she needed at the time. At night Ray sat close to the house so that Cora could see him from the living room.

Dante and Ray had been Cora’s closest friends for twenty years. During the middle of her sixth decade Cora knew that she preferred the conversation of an inanimate object or slobbering canine to the tedious daily vernacular of mere acquaintances. These acquaintances were once her close friends, but years and events wore away the bonds. This group of strangers growing stranger included Faith.

Today, Faith stood in front of the grocery store watching others watch her mother as she had for twenty years now. None of the 913 people in the town ever grew used to the sight of old Cora bumping down the mountain in the truck. On this Autumn afternoon Faith watched the entourage of leaves and dust accompany Cora through the cluster of pointing pines that lined the road. As Cora pulled into the grocery store, Faith could see her long, gray ponytail and red plaid shirt. Faith could also see that Cora was lost in conversation, even though Dante was not in the truck.

“Afternoon Mom. How are you?”

Cora stood with one leg on the gravel road and the other still twisted behind her on Ray’s floorboard. With her aged and purple-veined hands gripping the steering wheel, she stood staring at her child. Her child. As if Faith were used to such attention from her mother, she stood patiently, humbly waiting for a reply. Faith’s cheeks were reddened by the sharp autumn weather and it was at these colored lumps of flesh that Cora stared with startling intensity.

“I’m red.”

“I thought I’d come up tonight. I’ve got some good pie apples for you,” Faith said.

Cora nodded and put the half of her body surrounded by the foreign world back into the security of Ray and drove away. Faith stood in the road, watching her mother grow more distant.

“Autumn is a bloodbath,” she told Ray. Cora’s eyes were large with horror and submission as she looked at red leaves, red sun, her red truck, her red shirt, and thought of her red daughter. With a deep sigh, the breath of defeat, she felt the hidden, hated, but never forgotten suppression of twenty years rise from her stomach to her tongue.

“They say knowledge is a dangerous thing. All four of my children are full of blood. I saw it in Faith’s cheeks. Yes, they say knowledge is danger. I thought sending Tell to college was giving him life. Tell was the oldest, you know. And always watching. Looking for something, I think. Tom used to say that we should have named him See instead of Tell.” Cora laughed the laugh of inner anguish. An insidious chuckle that gave voice to the ache inside her. On the air that rushed from her lungs, the biting story came pouring out of her mouth with the force of two-decades worth of restraint.

“Tell came home that Christmas after his first bit of college. I saw it, Ray. I saw that Tell had stopped looking. My boy wasn’t searching anymore. I sent him off to that school to find something to fill eyes. What did those people give him? On Christmas Eve night I heard two shots. One. Two. Run, oh run to the shed. Faith stood screaming. Kade stood staring. My husband standing in the middle of his four children. Two standing and two lying in blood between gardening tools and wiper fluid. Tell shot Live first. My daughter had now nose anymore, just blood. Tell fell only a foot or two from her, the gun still touching his hand.” Cora and Ray now sat in the gravel drive facing her home. She could see the shed from behind the right side of the house. Cora was angry. Angry that thought she had once digested were pounding on her. Each hot red thought forcing its way into her mind. Each sharp taste of the past raping her tongue with the searing flavor of a life that wouldn’t be repressed.

“I buried Tom by Tell and Live just four days after the kids’ tombstones were put in. He had a heart attack. But really it was the whispers that killed him. The whispers of them.” Cora pointed down the mountain towards the town. “And the whispers of the trees behind the shed. They kept telling each other what they had seen. Tom heard them say ‘Tell’ and ‘Liv’ over and over again. He must have known it was coming because he went to the shed and lay across the places where Tell and Live had been. Faith found him, too. Kade set out that night to burn the shed. But I said no. I need it. It’s a memorial. ‘A memorial to what…to hell?’ Kade asked. A memorial to what I have survived. A piece of the pain I can kick, and touch, and hate, I said. So after the funeral Kade drove away. Far away. He lives in Nevada now. I think he has a son.”

And Cora let it begin. She looked in surprise at the clear liquid of her tear. She had expected to cry blood. When the few tears dried up, Cora walked from Ray directly into her kitchen and began her final Last Supper. She left ceremony behind and with a hunger born of hatred and fear she began to consume all the red she could. Cora’s savage teeth devoured oozing tomatoes. She drank thick, cold spaghetti sauce. Her old woman hands shoved bits of raw ground beef into her mouth. From a can she forced pickled beets inside her. In a matter of ten minutes she ate every blood-colored food she could. Then, she methodically cleaned the kitchen and walked out to the shed. Although she could feel herself growing older each second, she found the ladder and heaved her way to the roof. Cora sat with folded arms on top of the shed.

It was dark when Faith pulled up, but she saw Dante staring up at the roof. The lights of Faith’s jeep shone on Cora as if she were finally the star of her life’s movie. Without a word, Faith walked into the house, unable and unwilling to face that shed which seemed to wickedly wait for her in the darkness with its gruesome surprises. A few seconds later, she got into her truck and drove away. The red pie apples sat waiting on the long table.

Fruit Leather Suit

by Jim Richards

I couldn’t decide which flavors to buy for which parts of the suit. Strawberry for the pant pockets? Fruit punch for the shirt sleeves? Apricot for the inseam? I called home to ask. “Just get any flavors!” she yelled. It cost thirty-three dollars and sixteen cents. The lady let me keep a penny. “Why?” I said, “I want to pay what it costs.” She re-opened the till and put the penny in; she seemed kind of mad. “At least it’s shiny.” I said, but she was already helping the next person who was buying cans of tomato soup, among other things.

On the way home—I might add it wasn’t raining today, at least—on the way home a police officer—with a handsome mustache, a mustache that says, “humph humph, I am a real man”—this police officer turned on his lights behind me, so I pulled over. “Can I see your license, humph humph humph,” he said. I didn’t need to check my back pocket; I could tell it wasn’t there because my fine rump was nestled snugly into the bucket seat of my VW GTI. My wallet was buried under the pounds of fruit leather. I had dumped them out of the bags and put the bags back at the check stand since I didn’t need them. In fact, I think that is when I said, “at least it’s shiny,” and she wasn’t with a customer, she just paid no attention to me. Some people are like that.

“That’s quite a load of dry fruit rolls you got there,” the mustache said.

But this part about the officer isn’t really important, so let’s get to the part where I was finally a home, sitting on the couch, watching Jeopardy as I opened the fruit leathers and stripped them from their plastic lining. “What is a horse?” I said and peeled a shiny moon of apricot from its plastic sky. “What?” my wife yelled from the shower. She though it would stick better if her skin were hot and steamy. “Nothing, “I said, “I was just playing Jeopardy.”

“What?” she said.

“Playing Jeopardy!” I yelled. She turned off the water just before I yelled, “Jeopardy.” I guess she heard me because she didn’t say anything else. Did I mention that my name is Larry? Anyway, I’m Larry, I work at the hospital.

“Well, let’s get started,” she said, waddling out of the bathroom with a towel around her I wouldn’t want her to know that tis used the word “waddling,” you know? “What’s all this?” she said, looking down at the plastic sheets piled at her feet. Some sort of static cling reaction was attracting the wrappers to her feet and ankles. She bent to peel them off, and a few more clung onto her arm. “What the hell?” she said and dropped her towel. The more she tried to get them off of her the more they clung.

“Who is St. Anselm?” I said to the TV as I tried to peel the plastic sheets from her skin.

She yelled, “Get away from me, you idiot!” and kind of knocked my hands away. Her body was covered in sheets of plastic. Sometimes I don’t know how to help people. Like that little boy who got hit by a car on our street when I was walking home from the blood bank, which happened to be out of orange juice that day. I didn’t know what to do because I’d never seen a body all spread out like that before.

My wife got quite angry about the plastic sheets, and then she just wanted to take a nap. We never did get to make the suit. After a few hours, the fruit leather got kind of hard and crusty. Our front room smelled like an exotic fruit-stand. I ate a few before they got hard. I like apricot best. But what I really would have liked is to have made that suit. To mold a circle of apple leather around her shoulder. To form a collar around her neck out of fruit punch. To lick the smooth side of a strawberry circle and seal it perfectly over the milk curves of her lower back. That way I could give Alex Trebek the question “What is love?” and really know what the answer would be.