Epiphany Magazine - epiphmag.com
Where Creativity and Inspiration Evolve!
An everyday dress hangs in the cobweb-shrouded attic, draped on a padded dressmaker's form. It belonged to a grandmother, a few greats removed. A dress with the high- buttoned collar and sleeves that flirt with the notion of covering the entire hand. It has a straight, ankle-length skirt made from a coarse material, plain but serviceable and no nonsense, just like the woman who wore it as she helped carve a life from nothing.
Her husband's navy blue, button-on suspenders lie on a box nearby. It was said he only took them off to sleep. Near evening time, they hung loosely, draped along the sides of his thighs. When standing by the pot-bellied stove at the mercantile, jawing with cronies, he hooked his thumbs behind those straps; alternately pulling at them, and drumming his fingers along the side of his chest as he emphasized a point he made.
Great-Grandpa's tools are stacked in the corner. A rusted two-man saw, axe, and sickle. The old grind stone stands ready for someone to turn the crank and sharpen the plow blades. That is, if the leather harness has not rotted through with age and can still be used on old swaybacked Bessie, his favorite mule.
The dressing table he made for the love of his life sits beneath the small cracked window. The ornate mirror is dull and worn in spots. The little stool that once had a
flowered cushion sits lopsided, one leg gnawed through by some critter who took up residence in this dark musty room. Grandma once sat here and brushed her long hair to braid for sleep; one hundred strokes of the tapestry-backed hairbrush.
Tucked back under the eaves, sits the cedar hope chest of a long-passed spinster aunt. Fine crocheted doilies, embroidered lace-trimmed linens, and a set of unused chipped dishes, all for the house that she never made a home. Peeking from the dark bottom is a white nightgown with intricate stitching on the bodice, sewed lovingly with thoughts of a spouse she never took to her bed. Wrapped in faded yellow paper are tiny gowns, booties and bonnets for babies never to be born. Those babies never played with this storehouse, this treasure trove of toys.
A braided jump rope made of real rope with the loops knotted by hand. What did little girls sing about while jumping, before Cinderella went upstairs to kiss her fellow? A carved boat that may or may not have actually floated in the creek. A wooden block truck on which the wheels never rolled, but were pushed diligently by a grubby little hand anyway. The homemade doll with yarn hair and button eyes created from scraps of material and stuffed with mattress ticking.
The far away voices of children long gone singing school yard songs, as they danced on the old wooden floor over in the corner, where Grandma and Grandpa now sit. Her white head rests on his slumped shoulder. Their tears have left muddy streaks in the dust that settled on their wrinkled cheeks. The twinkle in his eye has almost gone out. Her smile is fading in the last light of the dying day, seeping through chinks in the wall.
They may be old and in need of care, but they are not disposable, merely in need of repair. They are not dead yet. They have love to share. Wisdom to pass to a new generation. The truth to teach of simple lives fulfilled. Yet there they sit, already relegated to the realm of past treasures.
BIO: Monterey Sirak is a published author of three books of poetry.
Tragic figure, bordering on madness, driven to extremes by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the poet John Le Strange leads a provocative lifestyle and dies before his true value is recognized. Destructive impulses and attraction to death are elements shared by Domino, a prostitute in New Orleans and favorite muse. Attracted by the mythical hues, macabre and vaguely erotic, his courtly and bombastic lyricism joins surreal backgrounds of Louisiana, death, love, and religious zeal aggravated by the iron taste of horror, the heady vertigo of sin and Satanism. According to Le Strange, death must be understood as an imaginary journey to hell that is life. He is a superior spirit, capable of raising himself and perceiving the most secretive correspondences. And just as his skills become an object of curiosity for common people. John chooses Domino to symbolize this condition, because he places her at the highest levels of perception and sensitivity. The last hold, for the hopeless spirit of the poet, is death, understood not as a transition to a new life but as the destruction and decay to which the poet repairs, in the desperate attempt to find, in the unknown, something new, different from the ubiquitous desolation.
Dead, I walk the city, thirsty for some unfiltered ron from an island I've never seen. My face reflects on each thing I pass, and I can't help but focus on it. Every time I have to see it again. My watch has stopped. Le Strange, my name means something in New Orleans. Le Strange, the prince of Serendip. Le Strange, the visionary. Le Strange, an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Stripped of every wonder and enchantment, the city dies in the silence of a false dawn.
The sigh of the wind takes me to places unknown to my imagination. There, where life ends, starts an adventure that whispers words only the heart can interpret, towards infinite dreams, a magical place where the stories of the future write the poems of the past.
New Orleans sinks into the hypocrisy of the best friends amid the scorn of alligators. The best friends lie, the blend of good intentions quickly lost, untrue assertions spirt the clever arguments. You must make friends with the lie. If you try being yourself, you hand yourself over to the paralysis, to the opposite of ability. The absolution returns a merciful grace, a sugar plum wich satisfies the lame matter. Consciousness is rude, woos the stray canard who welcomes the travail of her woman friend. The falsehood is not satisfied with the peasant scuffle, with the resentment, the amusement. Pretends and hides every policy, opinion, pandemonium, without the deception of discernment, of the wrath.
Madness seizes the sorrow and becomes a flower. It flatters happiness for a moment, The emotion of a different life, meets the delirium and falls in love. Where the soul, that lives life with resentment, does not scare and bewilders the reason.
Domino brings home her puppet boyfriend and plays with him. The tall covex space appears turquoise, draws a sinuous line, sensual on the perimeter, steeped in the events of others. Is the profile of a sea wave, villain of the most beautiful seawater, ensures the persistence of blue. The opposite of darkness is spreading slowly, the wave breaks regularly, long, smooth. It changes the moment, hands out colours. The night owns the future, forgives the guilt, multiplies the fixed and reflected light, surrounds the vaporous game, unties a curtain. After dark, you look and measure the content of mirrors, the anxiety of angels goes on stage, exercises its memory, reminds all. The vibrations are perpendicular, penetrate the skin, A mass of water rises and falls. Is female, able to overwhelm the spectator with the honesty of her sins, under a dim light, so as not to be seen, so you do not see the others. There's a glare, the vision is complex. A comely light, double. The volume of the music is consumed, a ruby-throated hummingbird flies free. Soft folds grow and follow the trend, the long radius, the imagination of reach, the underside of the tables. Steel and water deposit the gray and blue in the depths of the deepest eyes. Wooden puppet head is sitting on himself, his face is opalescent, flattered, inspired by an happy melodrama built on the water.
Expeditious, after a rinsing, a vixen becomes Domino and hooks a wealthy sucker, Next to a Babylon, hanging on a sofa. The big-breasted dwarf takes to carouse, with boldness and elegant rudeness, soaking with champagne. The abundance prods the lout who sinks into the spree, mortified by the flamboyant quagmire suddenly drowning him. Exhausted, he does his utmost, becomes comical and rolls in the darting and whining of the female. The fouling of the simpleton. He seems to sail by his brig, closet of slovenliness and shame of a penitent. Champagne becomes Cain and burden, wearing the excitable and the intemperance out. The brig is wrecked in the trick, soaked and limp. The face stops barking and turns out joke, unfair joy and gloom. Back from the dressing room, the mistress comes out of the maze, snatching the sullen loser's hoard, the discourtesies and the bundle. Slackens the soiled and ragged snare, while, lazy, the ignorant brigand, obscene and minced, cancels the boarding, stuffing himself with glances.
The gaze bends the night's damp colors, new anatomies. Bold shapes wink and move under the roses. Tasting strokes, things you can touch, perfect lipstick, clear in the stretch, creamy. Rose leaves sweeten the thorns. In summer, the night put on its coloured plumes, the great silence wakes up and takes away the agony of boredom. The wail of a rose is the cry, at night, of a carnivorous spider, with sweet mouth, showing off new throats with its multiple body, innumerable and victorious.
Holy Spirit is not a church mouse. Is a stray queen, Our Malicious Domino, full of grace and confidences, sovereignty of mirrors and sofas. Heavenly Absinth, fragrant drink of salvation, Scalds and flares up and knocks again, in the dark dirty burlesque. A jewel case for Dionysus, usable misleading, celestial female with a blessed voice, flowing in the shadows, extraordinarily restless, amused, with a principle of faith, absolutely compliant
No woman knows, for sure, if her lover is me. Demon nightmare, Angel fallen from grace, the most malicious insatiable lust. Lover demon, bearing down my vulnerable women, pursuing the longing. Human flesh endowed with artificial life. In her sleep, I am the husband lying beside her, I am the next-door neighbor, I am the young and attractive stable boy. And the nun claims to be assaulted by the prelate. And the unholy offspring takes the image of suspect twins, of evil look daughters, of Merlin the Wizard. Beloved Domino, I will pick up a hundred stones and built a wall around you so high, you will no longer be able to leave your bed if you do not use a ladder.
Hellish exile of the east peacocks, worship of the great flame, ray of the vain vampire. In the pagan temple a creole beauty crosses the pavilion with the half-mask and the rule of the despot queen, winning the pedestal. In the underworld of the ragged little girls, her serpentine allures each sharp talisman, every drunken javelin. In her room, bricks with a transparent bark, tapestries, mats, torn canvases, decorated shutters climb up from time to time, a cobalt-colored carpet draws Chinese ideograms. Oriental lamps similar to distant galaxies with a bright opacity commend the pale meeting of demons and witches, the pandemonium. The stubborn emptiness of chatters attracts the discontent and an intermittent fever in the meaningless space of a vacant abyss. Myriads, gaps, secrets, the profane grants the Sabbath, the small of the abuse, the crackable demonic. The officiants pass the sentence, the holocaust of pythonic. Her hair detains the century, fuity with balsam. The loss is made elixir, Essence and flower. The guillotine runs through the hazel thinness with the rush of maltreatment. Dishevelled, wrapped in a tipsy cloth, the lifeless body on the infamous slope, cold, in the shade of slaughter
Yet I get delicate perceptions, genuine, or otherwise desperate and, however, capable of confessing love, of taking my hand, of making me understand. I let myself fall and see Domino in her poignant naturalness, because I simply yield to her as she to herself. Promising creature of the afterlife, I see her browning, the hair draws her in the most handsome figures, exhalts her wanton malice and the affected exuberance donated by a liturgical Sun
Immortal embrace of a fragrant victress. Caressing, bodily shape mimosa, carnal scent of Louisiane, female equivalent of a tempting faun able to appear bronzed, statuesque. Rising hues verging on rosy, surrounded by a medieval ocean, immense sacred vestments, the courting of a majestic Moon, remembrance in love with a perpetual symphony.
If the Judgment did not lay the blame on me, the defeat. If the Assassin asked for mercy. Under a priesthood of disgrace, the Whitish Light of the Icy God is in love with the beloved first blood in the morning. In the pale carnage, short bodies fall reddish on the Stone Earth. Half a shadow of the vermillion child glides along the blade-beast of a bluebottle-razor. In a rusty and purple garden, the amaranth sting whips the shot and the Martyrdom with the rope flame. If Endless Father shed his own blood, if Heaven had no more blood. If, Enemy of God, I were a butterfly. If, Demon of Devils, I accepted, on a whim, the agony and invoked, sweetly, the madness. If I upheld, I swear, the torment, if implored mercy. If, Beautiful Prince, I tore my teeth and my eyes. If small arms, rich in blood, waved flags painted like butterfly wings
I am the nervous wandering, the arabesque, the disorder. I am the restless story, the agony in cage, the excellent madman. Mementos, still in the light, cast into a bottomless pit, before a regret depicted by the frosty warmth of my pale smile.
BIO: Alessandro Cusimano was born in Palermo in 1967. Son of a painter and a teacher, he moves to Rome where he attends the classics. Poet, writer, playwright, since the age of 21, his life is marked by recurrent and painful bouts of depression, by the use of alcohol and drugs. None of this, however, distracts him from the research and the study of his expression ideals, his narrative technique, his poetic style, along with a a special focus on visual arts, from painting to cinema, from photography to theatre.
Appeared recently on the international literary stage, some of his writings have been published by The Cynic Online Magazine, RED OCHRE Lit, Decanto Magazine, Weirdyear, Streetcake Magazine, Anotherealm, Numinous Magazine, Parting Gifts, Eratio Poetry Journal, EPIPHANY Magazine, Deadman's Tome, Black Cat Poems, Orion's Child Magazine, Bewildering Stories, FOLLY Magazine, Exercise Bowler, Emerging Visions, Write This and Linguistic Erosion.
It Only Feels Like Waking Up
It has been some time. It seems a long time. Pacing now. He has not looked at the papers on the desk. He has waited but it is hard not to wonder.
How long has it been? Watching her thin, delicate hands, looking young and pale, as if she were normally kept in a box underground. That hard spark of a voice asking with calm precision, Wait here, Mr. Metzer. Breathing his name as if she had been holding one breath her whole life. Wait here. Door closing like a light going out. How long?
Walking to them now, he slides the white, angling it to his eyes. Recognition. He has seen this paper before. He has seen this type. He has seen these signatures, lining the bottom in black ink. Some are marked through. Marked through with a slow line. The letters are familiar. They make up the names of people he knew. His own name flashes like sun through trees. It is split in half by a slow, slow line.
It is not for us to feel sympathy.
Clean and cool in the villa. Lunch, superb.
He is a prophet and they have been warned.
Light everywhere. Not difficult to see time passing slowly in a place like this. Where they have chosen to think, to discuss, not a room for living. For display, for discussion, for showing off. It is a room to brag so the occupant need not.
It is final. It will solve any and all future problems.
They look like a painting, he thinks. All so still and solid, hair perfectly combed, boots shining, uniforms crisp, glints of silver sparking, aflame.
We will sign. We have all agreed. It is right, what has happened here.
He is unsure. He has wondered, What if God sees?
I will damn my soul to hell. Spoken and thought in the same moment.
Objections will be met with torture. With death.
Smiled, breathed in pretty words but he sees it in their eyes. What if the FÜhrer sees? He will sign. He is as certain of this as he is of the devil. Every man knows in his gut what waits when he falls asleep the final time. Every man has written the story of his life with the decisions he makes. Few sign their own death warrant. He is in rare company.
Suddenly sick. Suddenly running. Staggering into the world outside, stomach expelling its contents on expensive German stone. This is real. This is vital. This has happened and he is gasping.
The sun is shining. It is beautiful. It is beautiful and bright and there is a breeze and there is nothing more one could ask of a day. The remains of the superb lunch are running down his mouth, mixing with the grass. Green and now, raising his eyes, clear blue. It is the color of heaven. He will not see it. He is certain.
On the ground now, alone absolutely, as the others continue the meal in their bragging room. High glass paneled doors shining, a barrier, a wall between what he was before and what he must surely be doomed to now. Carving his name into white pages dancing with authority, dancing with the knowledge that anything was possible, if one strove for the unimagined. If one undertook abominations only just invented.
He squeezes his knees harder against his heart, tightly, urgently. A fleeting thought-- his heart was in danger of falling out, the erratic thump against his bones too strong to keep from bursting. He has never been so aware of how easy he was to break, how small and thin everything was in people and the closeness of the heart to the world outside. His body shivers without him telling it to, shivers like it knows, like it knows how scared Hans Metzer should be. Is it sympathy? Is he able?
The air is full of his own absence, the blue, blue sky and the green, green grass continuing to breathe as if the world was not changed. As if Hans Metzer had not redefined the soul God deigned to put inside him. Had he lived before this time? Had he lived before knowing existence of such feral hate? It would be easier to forget. It would be easier to disincline his mind to such notions. This was the world now. This was the world, and this was the green, green grass. This was the blue, blue sky.
Years. Everything that came from ninety minutes, from 5400 seconds. 5400 seconds over a superb meal, names carved, millions washed away, footprints in ocean sand. The steam of bodies hanging forever, still breathed by those who saw. Anything can be ruined, anything can end. A world innocent of unappeasable cruelty-- something that good, something that pure, something vital, it does not take much-- so fragile, if touched, breaks. Hans Metzer's fingerprints were everywhere. He understood, he knew, he might have resisted and had his life drained away that very morning. He chose to watch it leach out more slowly. Men, women, children seeping into the earth like water-- but it is over now. It is from before. It is from history and now he is farther from Wannsee and closer to where he wants to be. Where he does not think of it, where he thinks only of working and gardening and the trust granted by those who do not know him and what he has done. He lives a very long time. He lives outside of those 5400 seconds and is happy.
One day he stops living, alone in his warm bed in his warm house and it is sudden because one loses sight of things when it is helpful to forget. One loses sight of things when seeing is painful. It only feels like waking up and he is seated in a room, facing a young woman. It is very nice in this room, very clean and very cool and very bright. The young woman does not look up from the papers on her desk and he smiles. She is lovely. He sees a door behind her. The only door in the room and it is puzzling to him. Where am I?
And she looks up. She sees him as if she were waiting, waiting for him to speak, as if she knew what his voice would sound like. Speaks as if she had been holding one breath her whole life. The young woman asks, Mr. Metzer ? Hans Metzer?
It is surprising but he answers. Yes. And again, Where am I?
Picking up a pen, such thin, graceful fingers, the young woman draws a slow line on the crisp white in front of her, then, standing, speaks softly, carefully forming each word, Wait here, Mr. Metzer. She opens the door, walks out, closes the door. It is a single motion and Hans Metzer waits.
It has been some time. It seems a long time. Pacing now. He has not looked at the papers on the desk. He has waited but it is hard not to wonder. Walking to them now, he slides the white, angling it to his eyes. Recognition. He has seen this paper before. He has seen this type. He has seen these signatures, lining the bottom in black ink. Some are marked through. Marked through with a slow line. The letters are familiar. They make up the names of people he knew. His own name flashes like sun through trees. It is split in half by a slow, slow line.
It is so empty. Full of absence. Things he doesn't want are falling into place, and he tries to smash them back into pieces. Tries to speak, to fill the space, but she's stolen all the words. Her lovely, clear voice, Wait. Wait. It is the only word left with any meaning now. He has been waiting so long. The papers. It is the papers. Attestation. It is a shaking thought, a moving thought and he is inside again. He is inside 5400 seconds. 5400 seconds from decades of living. It is so empty. The room is so empty, so clean and cool and bright. No sign, no indication, nothing to show that once he was someone. That once he thought, What if God sees?
He waits. He is waiting. He watches the door. No one comes. Striding to it, placing a firm hand, turning the knob. Nothing happens. It is locked. It must be locked. It means something, he knows. This is very vital, very real. It means something, and he looks, as if his eyes were pulled by a string up, up, up. It is blue. Clear blue. It is the color of heaven. He has nothing to reach it with. He is so heavy. He could never lift himself that high, that far.
Clean and cool in the room. Light is everywhere. He is alone with names that were people and they feel no sympathy.
BIO: Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art. You can view some of her Artwork on this page.
Photo by Kate LaDew
Charity Begins at Home
It was Cunningham's policy not to answer telephones or doorbells. What had they ever brought him other than bad news? This time, though, as luck would have it he was just passing the front door when the bell sounded, immediately followed by the voice of God thundering from the den: "If it's a charity, no more than five dollars! Understand? Don't get carried away, Cunningham!" Well, if not God, then close enough: his wife.
Cunningham opened the door and found a little girl standing there holding up a coffee can decorated with tissue paper and glitter, a slot across the top. For a moment, he was taken aback. Was his wife clairvoyant? It would be too cruel, that on top of her other powers, all of them in service of making his life miserable.
But then he remembered: of course, Christmas season, somebody standing there with his hand out every time you turned around. He tried to ignore the holidays as much as possible and had always felt great empathy for Ebenezer Scrooge. He wished old Ebenezer were still around. They'd go share a few beers and bah humbug their way through Christmas.
It was hard to be a Scrooge, though, looking at the little girl at the door. With red jacket, white mittens and white earmuffs, her bright blue eyes and golden ringlets falling from her temples, she might have been a little angel as she gazed at him, holding the coffee can in both hands beseechingly and solemnly making her plea for ...
Well, he didn't know what it was for. He hadn't been paying attention. Still, he said, "Sure, I'll be happy to donate, little lady," and reached for his wallet. But then he paused.
He knew exactly how much was in his wallet: five dollars. His wife sent him out of the house each morning with a five-dollar bill, "for emergencies" - as if you could fend off a half-dozen emergencies with a five-spot. Each night after he deposited the contents of his pockets on the dresser, his wife would look into his wallet to see if the fiver was still there. If not, then would commence the inquisition. He blushed to think about it - sometimes. Generally, he didn't think about it at all. He was vaguely aware that it hadn't always been this way, that, once upon a time, a lot of things were different. But the past was past. Can't fight Father Time.
The little girl - she reminded Cunningham somehow of his oldest daughter before she became a mouthy teenager - stood there waiting. He pushed the wallet back into his pocket. No, by God, he wasn't going to have the magnitude of his charity dictated by his wife.
"Can you wait just a second, sweetheart? I have to go get my checkbook."
He came back with the checkbook and asked the little girl who he should make out the check to. At that a woman--the little girl's mother, no doubt--stepped out from behind a tree.
"You can make it out to Sacred Heart School," the woman said.
"Yeah, it's for the Virgin Mary," the little girl piped up, perhaps suspecting that Cunningham hadn't been paying attention the first time. "She got vandalized."
She couldn't pronounce her r's - it came out "voojun mawy" - and vandalized had several extra syllables. She was so cute Cunningham wanted to get down on his knees and hug her. When was the last time he'd hugged a child - or anyone?
At that moment Cunningham's wife walked down the hall, and as she passed him she said, in her best drill sergeant's voice, "Remember, Cunningham, no more than five dollars."
He was used to her hectoring, but when she gave that supercilious command, not even deigning to wait and see if he complied - the woman outside looking away in embarrassment, the little girl frowning in puzzlement - Cunningham saw red.
"How much did you say you were trying to raise?" he asked.
"It'll take a thousand dollars to repair the statue," the woman said.
"Yeah, it was vandalized," the little girl said, vandalized this time coming up a syllable or two short.
"Sounds like a worthy cause to me," Cunningham said, and wrote out the check for one-thousand dollars.
Cunningham felt awfully pleased with himself until approximately 11:06 that night when, as he lay in bed staring at the ceiling, the horror struck. My God, what had he done? A thousand dollars? They didn't have a thousand dollars! He was going to go to jail for bouncing a check to a Sacred Heart fund-raiser, and the Cunninghams weren't even Catholic!
His wife was Presbyterian, but Cunningham wasn't anything. He'd been raised a Baptist, but as he got older he sort of drifted away from it. Then after he got married, his wife tried to convert him to Presbyterianism - "for the children's sake," she argued - but Cunningham couldn't work up any enthusiasm for it. He'd attend if the children were in a Christmas program or something like that, but he stopped altogether once they were grown. Now he drives his wife to church every Sunday and sits in the car on the parking lot until the service is over. It's peaceful out there, and he likes, from a safe distance, to listen to the hymns being sung by the congregation. Sometimes he even sings along. Still, all that God business, it's just not for him.
Lying there, Cunningham thought about Baptists and Presbyterians and Catholics until he realized he was only trying to distract himself from the thousand-dollar check. Suffering Jesus!
He got up and spent the rest of the night pacing.
Cunningham stewed in his own juices at work the next morning until the stroke of nine, then called the bank. He felt compelled not simply to explain to the bank person that he wanted to stop payment on the ckeck but to convince that person of the justice of his action. This involved a series of contradictory, illogical, and finally utterly absurd lies so grotesque that Cunningham was positive he heard snickering on the other end of the line. When he was finished he was bathed in sweat and stank of humiliation. His efforts were to no avail, though. To stop payment he would have to appear in person at the bank.
He didn't bother wasting breath to ask old Eckart, his boss, for an hour's personal time to run to the bank. He wouldn't have a chance to get down there until his lunch break. He spent the rest of the morning gnawing a series of pencils into wood-paste and imagining that beautiful little girl and her mother arriving at the bank, their shock and hurt at finding that his check had bounced, the phone call to the police, the squad car, siren blaring, speeding toward Cunningham's office as we speak.
At 11:45 he couldn't take it any longer. He sneaked out of his office and down the back stairs.
At the bank, another round of lies, sweat and humiliation, but eventually payment was stopped for a fee of twenty dollars, which would eventually have to be explained to his wife, of course, but considering how his life usually went, for Cunningham a battle deferred was as good as a battle won.
Cunningham got back to the office to find a party in full swing. What the hey? Then he remembered: of course, Christmas Eve. The office party, then they got out of jail early.
Cunningham was sidling his way around the edge of the office bay trying to get to the refreshment table without having to speak to any of the dunderheads he worked with when he got ambushed by his boss: "Cunningham! Where've you been? The party's almost over."
Uh oh. He was in for it now. The old bastard - actually, Eckart was at least a decade younger than Cunningham - had probably seen him slip out fifteen minutes early for lunch. He'd be docked or worse yet fired, on Christmas Eve. Old Eckart would just love doing that.
"Sorry. I had some business to take care of. This charity thing I'm involved in."
Eckart put his hand on Cunningham's shoulder and looked him in the eye for a long uncomfortable moment. Then he said, "I'm not surprised, Cunningham. You know, during the year, press of business, deadlines and all that, I don't get much of a chance to say this, but the truth is, you're a good man, Cunningham, a good man. Here, merry Christmas."
Eckart shoved something into Cunningham's hands. It was obviously a bottle, wrapped in Christmas paper with a bow on the neck.
Eckart, nodding toward the bottle, continued, "I know you're not supposed to tell somebody how much you paid for a gift, but I want you to know I hold you in very high esteem. That's no cheap rot-gut wine, there. That stuff goes for twenty per."
The office parking lot was empty except for Cunningham sitting in his car, in the process of having a religious experience. Or something like that.
It was a combination of things. The angelic little girl. His own uncharacteristic impulse of generosity. Even the humiliation of the nearly-bounced check. After all, saints went through a dark night of the soul, didn't they, hit rock bottom before they saw the light? But Cunningham hadn't hit rock bottom, not even close. A little humiliation? Ha. Humiliation was the air he breathed. No, what was remarkable was how the worst had not happened. He'd avoided catastrophe, then returned to work, not to be chewed out by Reichsfuhrer Eckart but to be praised by this suddenly transformed, generous, admiring Eckart, called a good man - him, Cunningham, a good man - and given a primo bottle of wine.
Cunningham tore the gift wrap from the bottle. Jordan vineyards. Hm. The truth is, he didn't know a thing about wines, but it looked like it might well be a twenty dollar bottle, had a cork and all.
Twenty dollars. That was another thing. One minute he's getting twenty dollars deducted from his checking account as a stop-payment fee, and the next he's given a gift worth exactly twenty dollars. Coincidence?
Cunningham had never much trusted coincidences. He recalled an incident from his youth, back when he was still going to church. The minister was making some point about tithing. He and his wife--this was back before he was a minister - decided to skip church one Sunday and go for a day at the lake, using the fifty dollars they should have given as their monthly tithe. On the way to the lake their car broke down, had to be towed to a garage. What did the repairs cost? You guessed it: fifty smackeroos. At home after church little Cunningham announced to his mother, "Aw, that story about the fifty dollars was a real crock. He just made that up," at which point his mother chased him around the kitchen smacking him about the head and shoulders with a wooden spoon. Since then he hadn't had much use for coincidences.
Now, though, he wasn't so sure. There seemed to be an awful lot of things coming together here, a convergence of some sort. Who was Cunningham to say that it was all without significance? There seemed to be almost a scientific or philosophical or logical premise at work here - that you could prove something had significance but you couldn't prove something was without significance. So who was he to say that it all had no significance for him?
Maybe an invitation of sorts had been extended to Cunningham. Eckart had said he was a good man. The old boy must have been in his cups because they both knew that wasn't so. But if he wasn't a good man there was no reason he couldn't become one - or at least a better man, or at least live a different kind of life. What he was living now was no kind of life.
Once, he'd looked forward to Christmas. When the children were small their excitement had excited him; to see the joy on their faces Christmas morning, well, it almost brought tears to his eyes to think of it even now. And even before the children, he could remember a Christmas when he and his wife were poor as church mice. He'd given her a bottle of perfume from Woolworth's, and she'd given him a pair of imitation leather driving gloves from Kresge's, and they'd thought it was all fine. He could recall that Christmas, but the recollection failed to warm him. All the intervening years - his wife's growing contempt for him, her bossing and badgering, and, yes, his not insignificant part in the debacle - had so numbed him that he could remember but not feel. Now she would shame him even in front of strangers - an angelic little girl - and he was just supposed to take it. And generally he did just take it. Well, that was all going to come to a screeching halt.
Not just yet, though. No use stirring up a ruckus on Christmas Eve, or tomorrow, either. His wife would have some diabolical plans for Christmas day, and he'd let her have her fun, but soon after that ...
He eyed the Jordan cabernet, shifted the bottle from one hand to the other. He loved the heft of the thing. He bet that wine was extraordinary. OK. Here's what he was going to do. On New Year's Day - new day, new year, new Cunningham - he was going to initiate a whole new manner of living by opening that bottle of wine and then by God drinking it, the whole thing. Although he liked to drink, he got few opportunities - his wife saw to that - and usually a couple of drinks would leave him rubber-legged. But that was OK. He'd sip that wine slowly - a twenty-dollar bottle was for sipping, not chugging, after all - sip it all day long, and if he got a little fuzzy around the edges that was just fine because he was going to change the way he thought anyway. Change the way he lived.
Christmas morning Cunningham got up and made himself a pot of coffee, sat reading the paper and drinking cup after cup as his wife, in the kitchen, sipped her Earl Gray and concocted one of her culinary horrors.
At lunchtime she was still cooking, so he made himself a cheese sandwich, doing his best to stay out of her way.
"Excuse me!" he said, jumping back to avoid a collision as she rushed from stove to counter carrying something vile-smelling in a pot.
"No harm done," she said.
It was their first words to one another that day, and their last until late that afternoon when the guests started arriving. They didn't talk much in the best of times, but today the silence between them seemed even more strained than usual. Well, not "strained," exactly. They seemed, unaccountable as it was, almost shy with one another, as if both knew there was something they should say, but the habit of silence was too strong to overcome.
That afternoon Cunningham watched a basketball game on TV, his attention periodically diverted to the goings-on in the kitchen. What was she up to this year? Always it was something different. Always there was some new main course - one year Hungarian omelets, another something ghastly made with tofu, but never turkey, which Cunningham loved - and the guest list, except for Cunningham's spectacularly obnoxious sister-in-law, Linda, could not be predicted. Last year there was the widow from across the street, who sucked her teeth three times after each bite of food; the year before it was the turn of the bachelor Presbyterian minister, who apparently had not discovered the virtues of underarm deodorant.
It was just getting dark when Linda arrived. She'd no sooner walked in the door than his wife walked out, calling back to Cunningham, "Entertain your sister-in-law, Cunningham, while I go pick up the other guests."
He and Linda looked at each other and shook their heads in mutual sympathy, the closest to a friendly gesture that'd ever passed between them. This, however, did not prevent them from spending an uncomfortable half-hour ignoring each other. The only thing that kept Cunningham going, other than a handful of Advil for his bursting headache, was the recollection of the lovely heft of the bottle of wine which, one week from today, would christen Cunningham's new life.
Finally, his wife returned with the mystery guests du jour, Karl and Tina, whom she had collected from the Union Rescue Mission. Fine with Cunningham. He had great sympathy for the downtrodden, being one of them himself. Besides, the two seemed like nice enough folks, quiet, intent on the food rather than the conversation, such as it was. It would be an exaggeration to say that Cunningham was enjoying himself, but he was holding his own.
Then came the main course: a large tureen containing pieces of grayish chicken, it looked like, swimming in a dark red sauce. Amazingly, it didn't smell too bad, but for some reason that he could not put his finger on, Cunningham's heart began to misgive even before his wife started to speak.
A speech before serving the main course was one of her more pernicious Christmas traditions, and usually Cunningham ignored it, but today he listened intently, with a sense of foreboding.
"Friends, thank you so very much for the joy you bring us today by sharing your precious selves with us, even as we share God's blessed bounty with you. Let us remember in this season of fellowship the birth of our Lord's son, Jesus, and His message of peace and joy to us all. He urged us on to faith, hope, and charity, the greatest of which is charity, by which he of course meant love. Let us therefore dedicate ourselves to love. Let it begin today. Let it begin here in this home, among us friends and loved ones."
With her napkin she wiped a line of perspiration from her top lip, then continued: "This dish I'm about to serve you - coq au vin - well, I hope that it's at least edible. But even if it's not, please take my efforts as a sign of my good will and my affection for you all. And in the same spirit take my dear husband's sacrifice of a very good bottle of wine, which went to make the sauce. He's a good man at heart, better than he knows. Well ... I've gone on too long, as usual. Let me finish by saying, from my heart, God bless us all, Merry Christmas, and bon appetite!"
With that she raised her glass of water, and Karl and Tina raised their glasses of lemonade, and Linda, rolling her eyes and sighing, raised her cup of coffee. Cunningham raised his glass of water. They clinked glasses, Karl and Tina, Karl and Linda, Tina and Linda, Cunningham with Karl and Tina and Linda, and Cunningham's wife with all three but not with Cunningham because they were at opposite ends of the table and could not reach one another. But their eyes met, and his wife raised her glass to him.
Her eyes were gleaming - with malice? Or something else, a look he'd seen, once?
As he searched his memory, almost unconsciously he gestured with his glass toward his wife, then raised it to his lips. But then he stopped, suddenly terrified. Because if it tasted like wine, if this water tasted like wine ...
BIO: "I have published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including DESCANT, CHARITON REVIEW, BOULEVARD, ANTIOCH REVIEW, and PUSHCART XV, and three collections: THIS TIME, THIS PLACE and PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD, both by White Pine Press, and LIVES OF THE ARTISTS by Livingston Press.
I'm dangling my foot in the lake, and suddenly I'm hearing myself scream.
"Something bit me," I say, and edge away from the water.
Everyone but me is in the lake, cooling off. New Jersey in summer is muggy. You steam. In the dry desert heat of Los Angeles, you bake. We moved there a year ago, and I'm still not used to the weather.
"A bee!" Tim says.
Bees don't swim underwater, and they don't bite, they sting, but I'm keeping quiet. If I'd tried that before, maybe Mom wouldn't be in the hospital, stitched together like a rag doll.
"You okay?" my big brother, Ben, asks.
I shrug, and Ben and Tim go back to splashing each other. Tim's a kid compared to Ben and me, but he doesn't give up easily. "I'm going home," he finally says. Home for him is just beyond the woods, past his grandparents' house.
What's it like, I wonder, to know the way to your grandparents' house so well, you can find it in the dark? All my grandparents are dead, Mom's mother before I was born.
We start on the path Tim's grandfather cleared through the woods. The throbbing in my foot feels like a heartbeat. Like it has a life of its own.
At dinner, Grandpa Paskow asks, "How is the bee sting?"
I hadn't mentioned the bee sting, which it isn't, and neither had Ben. We didn't dare upset Dad. Mom's car wasn't officially totaled, but he sold it for scraps. "I never want to see that damn thing again," he shouted. It was as if he blamed the car, when really, I was to blame.
She started it. She was driving Ben and me to summer school and harping on my gray T-shirt. "Clare, honey, you know your name means 'light.' You're meant to wear light colors," she said. "Pastels."
"I didn't ask for the name, and I'm not asking for any advice on what to wear, either, okay?"
Ben and I scrambled out of the car, and she said cheerfully, "Learn lots, darlings! Love you!" But her eyes were clouding over.
Driving home she missed a stop sign, and a Buick broadsided her new '67 Chevy. Her right knee slammed into the gearshift, and her breastbone hit the steering wheel. And after smacking into the dashboard, her upper lip split open like a piece of ripe fruit.
Dad packed Ben and me off to New Jersey as soon as he could book a flight. Grandma Paskow had been a friend of our grandmother's, the sister, Mom said, she never had.
"Just don't talk to Mike about Vietnam," Mom pleaded from her hospital bed. Grandma and Grandpa Paskows' son had flown missions in Korea. "It's like he's still fighting that damn war," Dad muttered.
Dropping out of summer school wasn't a problem. Ben and I weren't making up coursework: He'd registered for band practice, me for a photography class. Mom insisted I sign up for something. "If you know your way around campus this fall when you start as a freshman," she said, "it'll be easier on you."
Not seeing Paul Weitz anymore was never going to be easy. It didn't matter to him that we'd be going to different high schools. But it mattered to me.
"Tim called and said a bee stung you," Grandpa Paskow continues. "He hopes you are feeling better."
I surrender my foot for inspection. Grandpa Paskow blinks behind his glasses. He's been keeping bees for years and knows what a bee sting looks like.
He disappears into the pantry and returns with a jar of honey. Suspended inside, as if bewitched, is a honeycomb.
Grandpa Paskow scoops honey from the jar with his finger and dabs a cut on my toe. "To help with the healing," he says.
I mumble a thank-you.
The next morning at breakfast, Grandpa Paskow says, "Clare will help with the bees today."
"Do not worry, sweetheart," Grandma Paskow says to me over her shoulder. She's scrambling eggs at the stove. "Bees do not make a habit of stinging people. Paskow will show you."
"Paskow" is all anyone hears Grandma Paskow call Grandpa Paskow. He calls her by her first name, Vera, or else Skarbie, which means "treasure" in Polish, she told Ben and me, her face turning bright pink.
Grandpa Paskow keeps his bee gear is in the garage, along with his gardening tools. He hands me Grandma Paskow's bee coveralls to wear. Pulling on his pair, he tells me he's moving a colony of bees to a neighboring hive. "Their own hive does not have enough bees to defend it well," he says.
With his veiled bee helmet on, Grandpa Paskow looks like a robot in a science fiction movie, and I guess I do too, when I put on mine. I trail behind him to one of the hives.
He removes the hive frames one by one. Some bees cling to the frame and its waxy honeycomb. Others whirl around like tiny tornadoes.
Grandpa Paskow examines each frame. He's looking for something.
I follow his gaze to a bee with a long, slender shape. Stubby bees hover around her.
The queen is the mother of every bee in the hive, and her scent marks them all, Grandpa Paskow said to Ben and me over a breakfast of biscuits and honey butter the morning after we'd flown in from L.A.
Grandpa Paskow reaches into the pocket of his coveralls and pulls out something like a crowbar. Its sharp, pointed end gleams. He raises his arm to strike.
Even behind a veil the scream is piercing. Thrown off balance, Grandpa Paskow misses the queen's body and pinions one of her wings. She struggles, and her fairy's wing shreds.
Grandpa Paskow strikes again. The struggling ends.
Now, when it's too late, I remember what else Grandpa Paskow said that morning: "A hive can have only one queen. For bees to be accepted in another hive, their queen must die."
Grandpa Paskow opens the screen door for me back into the house but stays outside. He says he wants to check his tomato plants.
Grandma Paskow is writing at a desk in an alcove of the living room. Displayed on the desk, in a glass jar, are the gallstones removed in her surgery last year.
She looks up from her writing. "No stinging from the bees?"
"No, no stinging, thank you." Maybe I should say something about the queen bee. Instead I ask, "You're writing a letter?"
"A shopping list. Mavis wants a list of ingredients I will use to make Tim's birthday cake." Mavis is Tim's mom. "She insists she is buying everything for the party tomorrow afternoon."
Also displayed on the desk are old photographs. I recognize Grandma Paskow by her smile. In one photo she's standing next to a woman who is not smiling. Something seems to be distracting the woman, something the photo doesn't show.
Grandma Paskow glances from me to the photo. "You do not know who that is?" she asks.
I shake my head.
"That is Liliane, your grandma. See the jeweled pendant she wears? It is a fleur-de-lis. That means in French 'lily flower.' Her mother gave it to her when she was a little girl back in France before the First World War." She pauses. "Your mother has no picture of your grandmother to show you?" she asks. She pauses again. "No, I suppose not."
I stare at the photo. My grandmother stares back.
Her eyes are the first thing you notice - which is what I've been told about mine. We also have the same broad forehead and long neck.
"Your grandmother was so very ... sensitive. You could see it in how delicately she stitched." Grandma Paskow shifts in her chair. "Will you be joining Ben and Tim at the lake? It is another hot day."
Grandma Paskow lingers in the past only slightly longer than Mom. I'll ask her: "What was your father's name?" And she'll answer: "Thomas, but your brother was named after your father's father. You weren't named for anyone, I just always liked the name Clare. I noticed your teacher spelled it wrong again, with an 'i' . . ."
My toe twinges. Whatever attacked me at the lake might still be there, lying in wait below the surface. Maybe I should warn someone. But they're all so sure I was stung by a bee or else acting like they are.
"I think I'll read," I say and climb the stairs to my attic bedroom.
I can usually count on a book for an escape. But not today. I keep seeing torn wings. And my grandmother's face.
I abandon the book on the bed where I'd been reading. A door in the back wall opens onto a dimly lit storage area. Other than broken-down appliances, it's crammed with boxes and steamer trunks. More photos of Liliane might be packed inside.
A nearby stack of boxes reaches to my height. I stand on my toes to loosen the flaps of the top box. Pain shoots through the injured toe, throwing me off balance. My shin bangs against the side of a nearby trunk.
I collapse, cursing, to the floor. What am I scrounging around a dusty attic for? Why won't Mom talk to me about Liliane? Talk to me really. Not just now and then drop a hint, like a grenade.
A buzzing noise is coming from somewhere. Shoved into a corner is a sewing machine. Bending over the needle is my grandmother. She is threading it with her finger. The finger disappears into the eye of the needle, then her hand, her arm, all of her.
I'm helping Grandma Paskow wash the dishes after dinner when I ask her, "Did my grandmother ever stay in the attic? When she came to visit. If she came to visit ..."
The phone interrupts me. Grandma Paskow peels off her dishwashing gloves and answers it. "Yes, Mavis," she says into the receiver. She winks at me and shoos me away.
Ben and Grandapa Paskow are watching a baseball game on TV. They don't see me drift over to the staircase.
I rummage the drawer in the nightstand next to my bed and find a flashlight. Gripping it, I return to the storeroom. The flashlight shows a date on each storage box. Against the far wall there's a box marked "1942," the last year of Liliane's life.
I open the box and reach for a bundle of letters tied with ribbon. The writing looks like cobwebs covering the page. I untie the ribbon and begin reading.
Dearest Vera: Maybe if I saw you again I would remember who I was
before I lost myself in this house. Thomas says nothing must change from
when he was a boy here, not the lace curtains, not the blue willow china,
nothing. I have money to buy a train ticket with earnings I saved before
Thomas and I married. I do not know what possessed me to hide this
money from him. You remember that he forced me to quit my seamstress
work after the wedding. His pride. His jealousy too.
I met my grandfather only once. I could barely see over the side of his hospital bed. Everything was white. The sheets, the pillowcase, his face. Mom's knuckles as she held my hand.
That night I dream I'm on a train. I'm wearing a long dress. Water seeps up from the bottom of the train. My dress is drenched, and I'm being dragged down by its weight. The entire dress turns to water. I try to struggle out of it but can't. The fabric is my own skin.
I awake, and rain is trickling against the window. I drift back asleep, and when I open my eyes again, sunlight floods into them. The rain must have stopped sometime in the night.
"Uh, sorry, I overslept. The storm woke me," I say as I enter the kitchen.
Everyone is seated around the table. They look up but are silent until Ben asks, "What storm?"
"You didn't hear any rain?" I ask in turn.
More silence. "Well, I'm a light sleeper," I say, not sure that's true.
Ben makes his way to the front of the crowd of kids in Tim's back yard. They're all watching Tim open his presents. I slip away to the kitchen to ask if I can help with something, anything, a task to anchor me.
Grandma Paskow and Mavis are standing at the kitchen counter. Mavis is tasting a spoonful of cherry icing. Grandma Paskow is swirling the icing onto a cake with a knife.
"Hi, can I help?" I ask.
They glance up. The knife pauses. It's streaked with red. Grandma Paskow answers, "No, thank you, Liliane."
Mavis sighs. "You really must give me the recipe, Mother Paskow," she says.
She and Grandma Paskow are acting strangely normal. Like I was never called by my grandmother's name. Like it never happened at all. Just like it never stormed the night before.
At dinner, my throat feels swollen, and red-hot, as if stung by the queen bee herself. I can't talk. I can barely breathe. I manage to swallow some water and a few spoonfuls of peas.
Back in my attic bedroom, Liliane is standing by the window. I follow her gaze to the moon floating over the woods.
Liliane turns toward me. She fades. Moonlight into shadow.
There's no retreating into sleep tonight. My eyes won't close even though there's nothing to see. Not even my grandmother.
But I can I hear her. She's humming a lullaby that keeps me awake.
I throw off the bed sheet. My feet I leave bare. They'll feel every matted leaf, every gnarled root on the path.
Up above, the moon plunges into clouds. I follow its watery light into the woods.
The past is a mirror. Shattering it brings terrible luck.
The lake now ripples at my feet. Water grips my ankles and pulls me in.
Bits of dirt and decaying leaves whip around me. I'm riding a storm. It bucks and snarls, it wants to crush me. My lungs burn. My heart is a fist pounding at my chest to get out. It's time I let it.
Something grabs at my foot. I glimpse it through the murky water. The thing that attacked me, a pale, outstretched arm ...
No, a jagged branch reaching up from a sapling sunk on the bottom. Where the young tree rests there's a glimmer. Something lies buried with it in the mud.
I sink down. The thing has a flower shape, like an iris or a lily. "It is a fleur-de-lis," Grandma Paskow said about the pendant my grandmother wore in the photo where she gazed out beyond the frame.
A part of her now rests in my hand. She's also in the shape of my forehead, the slope of my neck. She's been here all along.
BIO: "I've contributed poetry to Cricket magazine. My short fiction has appeared online at HotValleyWriters and at Fiction365
"Mount of Olives"
Photo by Kate LaDew
Robert Watts Lamon
Sam Mayfield walked with a slight limp familiar to those who knew him. Those who remembered him without it were either dead or scattered around the country. The limp had come with the bullet that struck him as he retreated with the Second Infantry Division from Kunu-ri to Sunchon. The retreat was one Korean War episode he seldom discussed and never gladly.
By 1980, he was living in Rochester, New York, a happy, middle-class man, married, and with grown children with children of their own. He had already put in many years in the personnel department at good old North Chemical and Photographic Company. And once a week, and for two weeks in the summertime, he put on his uniform to serve with the United States Army Reserve. In uniform, he was the proud soldier with the Second Division patch on his right sleeve and a Combat Infantryman's Badge and a row of ribbons on his chest. He had been around this man's Army.
Neither Sam nor his wife Amelia was strait laced. They enjoyed the annual Christmas party given by Sam's reserve unit - they drank, they danced, they flirted - but they remained loyal to each other. Every morning, they had breakfast together, and on weekdays, they kissed good-bye before he climbed into the Chevrolet and drove to good old North Chemical and Photographic. In winter, he drove through the snow and slush. In summer, he dodged the potholes. Arriving at the huge factory complex, he would park in the vast asphalt lot, show his badge to the smiling security guard at the main gate, and proceed to the building that housed the personnel department. There he spent his working days reviewing applications for employment, conducting preliminary interviews, and funneling the applications with his comments to the proper department heads.
But change was coming to the craft of image making, the very core of good-old North Chemical and Photographic's prosperity. Electronic imaging was well on its way, foreign competition was growing, and North's boardroom failed to respond to the changing market. Top management insisted things hadn't really changed - that nothing could compete with that good old North name. And in its inevitable decline, the company did much less hiring and much more firing. Most of those working in the personnel department became expendable, and one payday, Sam Mayfield found a pink slip in the same envelope as his paycheck. He had hoped for early retirement, but instead got a single piece of severance pay.
Sam and Amelia had always saved and invested, preparing for the tough times they knew might come. And now they decided to pick up and go - to find a place where the living was easier. They joined the migration toward the Sun Belt, settling in eastern North Carolina, where living appeared not only easier, but much more interesting. They opened their own business, a dry-cleaning and laundromat package they bought and made successful. They needed flood insurance, since the nearby river was known to spill its banks.
They kept the business for some years and then sold it at a profit and retired for good, content to boat, fish, and swim along the Carolina coast and Outer Banks. Their home was set apart and surrounded by the rich soil of the Coastal Plain. They planted corn, squash, tomatoes, melons, and the like, delighting in the cornucopia that leaped from the ground. Blessed with good health, they enjoyed a life of friends, feasts and excursions.
Then came that strange hurricane. Sam and Amelia had already endured several storms that left trees and wires down and creeks flooded. Their home had survived without serious damage, though this storm season had been especially active. And so, as the rain poured down, and the winds diminished, they went to bed early, as usual, intending to get up early. But during the night, a peculiar shadow began moving over the road and toward their house. It slowly invested the front yard, then the single, broad front step. Sam awoke at five in the morning, feeling an unusual chill, and noticing an odd smell. He turned the switch on the bed lamp, but it didn't light. He left the bed and tried another lamp - no light, no electricity. He kept a flashlight in a bureau drawer. He found it in the dark, snapped it on, and descended the stairs. He had reached the second step from the bottom, when he found himself facing a dark presence. The reality struck him, and he hurried back upstairs.
Amelia was awake and sitting up. "What's wrong, Sam?"
"Better get dressed."
"What's that odor? Are we shipping water?"
"Yes, we are."
Sam gathered clean underwear, a polo shirt, and cargo shorts. He changed from his pajamas and pried sneakers onto his bare feet. "We'll have to wade to the boat."
They were prepared for emergencies. They kept canned food and bottled water in a second-floor closet and a folding boat in the garage. Whenever a storm approached, Sam unfolded the polypropylene boat and checked the six horsepower Mercury Outboard and the supply of gasoline. And now, flashlight in hand, Sam sloshed out the front door and into the garage to find his SUV with water just below the front bumper and his twelve-foot boat floating beside it. He managed to clamp the motor to the boat and add fuel.
Amelia, in cut-off jeans and a sweatshirt, waded out the front door carrying bottles of water in her arms. Sam steadied the boat as she climbed aboard and took a seat amidships. The he climbed into the seat aft, started the motor, and he and Amelia buzzed away along the flooded road, in the growing dawn.
"Well, Amelia - this is my first amphibious operation."
"I'm glad it stopped raining. Do you think everything's gone?"
"The waters will recede, things will dry out. We'll see what we have left and make our plans."
"Let's look for our neighbors."
"Not a soul in sight."
The neighborhood was quiet, except for the sound of their motor. The houses had been built individually, being of different designs and standing at different elevations. Flood water had reached most of the houses. Near some of them, furniture was stacked on exposed hillocks. They passed hardly visible mailboxes bearing familiar names. Others were entirely submerged, and on one, the red flag was up and protruding above the surface. They were heading east, toward a confluence of waterways, and the farther they traveled, the higher the level of the foul water engulfing the houses.
"Where is everybody?" Sam said.
"Must've been a warning, and we didn't hear it."
They approached a modernistic house with a cantilevered porte-cochere. On the low roof, barking and wagging a stub of a tail, was an energetic springer spaniel.
"What in the world?" Amelia said. "I didn't know the Watson's had a dog."
"No telling where it came from. Springers are swimmers."
Sam moved the boat close to the flooded house. "Come on, doggie. Let's go for a ride."
The springer barked, pondered, and then leaped, not into the boat, but into the water, catching Sam and Amelia in the great splash. It swam to the boat, and they helped it climb aboard. It shook itself, and they took turns petting the dog, which then sniffed its way forward and sat near the bow like Washington on the Delaware. Sam engaged the motor and they were off again. The dog welcomed the motion of the boat. He was almost smiling as he looked now here, now there. But soon they came to an overhanging oak tree and saw a man straddling one of its lower limbs. Sam throttled back and stopped under the tree. He and Amelia recognized Harry Muldoon.
"Harry," Sam said, "What are you doing up there?"
"Not much I can do up here." Harry replied. He had red hair and green eyes and was as stubborn as the IRA.
"Where's Tess - and the kids?"
"At the assembly area." He pointed in the direction in which they were traveling. "I'm keeping an eye on things."
"When did everybody leave?"
"Last night. The police came and knocked on the door. Said the water was rising."
"They missed us."
"They got flooded out themselves."
"Come on and ride with us."
"I hate to leave home."
"So do we. Why stay up there?"
"Like I said - I'm keeping an eye on things. My tree, my home - all paid off and all mine."
"Harry - you silly man," Amelia said at last. "You come down here right now. If the water keeps rising - "
"I'll climb higher."
"My Lord - is he a fool?" she said softly.
Sam grimaced and shook his head. "Harry - do you think that tree will stand?"
"It's a sturdy old water oak - I think it will."
"We're heading down the road. You need water?"
"I sure do."
Standing up carefully, Amelia handed up two bottles of water, barely reaching Harry's outstretched hand.
"Thanks, Amelia," Harry said.
Sam and Amelia waved as they rode away. The springer looked up at Harry curiously and returned to its post in the bow.
They reached a familiar intersection. Its street signs and stop signs barely rose above the water. Past the intersection lay a procession of modest houses, some with water reaching the eaves. Then, to one side of the flooded road, the ground rose anomalously above the water, and a shallow slope led to a broad plateau. They could see fringes of a crowd on the green esplanade. Sam steered toward the dry ground, switched off the motor, and raised it in the shallow water. Amelia jumped out, and Sam pulled the boat ashore.
"I'm worried about Harry," Amelia said as they approached the crowded area.
"So am I - but he'll determine his own fate."
"Did that dog leave us?"
"It may find its owner here."
The crowd had divided into clusters of friends and neighbors. Many wore clothes they had grabbed in a hurry, and some had mud stains on their shoes and slacks and bare legs. Everyone, it seemed, was telling flood stories. Farther away, a row of house trailers gleamed silver and white in the welcome sunshine. A Chinook helicopter came roaring overhead with a portable toilet dangling from its belly. Minutes later, another chopper landed near the trailers. It carried people rescued from rooftops.
"Will our feet ever dry out?" Amelia said.
"Before the cold weather, I hope."
"There's Tess Muldoon."
Tess, a mother in her thirties, was with her two boys. She noticed Amelia and smiled and shook her head. "I swear Amelia - water, water everywhere. Greenville, Kinston - it's a mess."
"We couldn't get Harry out of that tree," Sam said.
"I don't know what's got into him," Tess said, bowing her head. "He's acting sort of - crazy."
Sam thought for a moment and then said, "Amelia, you stay here with Tess. I'm going back up the road."
"All right - but you be careful."
They kissed, and Sam walked back to the boat. As he came near, the springer's head appeared above the gunwale. It was guarding the boat.
"You must be hungry, old friend."
The dog recognized the word "hungry" and wagged its stub of a tail.
"Come on along then. Maybe I can find you some food."
Sam pushed the boat into the water, climbed aboard, and used an oar to move out of the shallows. He lowered the motor, started it, and buzzed back up the flooded road with the dog in its preferred station forward. He reached the tree where Harry Muldoon was battling reality. Harry was still perched on the same limb, leaning against the trunk. The flood waters had risen with the tide, and Harry was closer to the boat.
"Harry - let me give you some more water."
"Thanks - I can use it."
"Tess and your two boys are worried about you. I can give you a ride to the assembly area."
"I'll get there, soon enough. Tell them not to worry."
"If a chopper crew sees you, they'll probably throw you a line - maybe lower somebody to haul you away."
"I won't budge."
Sam felt the early touches of exasperation. "Have you eaten recently?"
"Not since yesterday."
"They'll feed everybody at the assembly area. You could have lunch with your family." Sam didn't like the gleam in Harry's eyes - he seemed to be functioning under some sort of internal power surge.
"I'll stay here. This is where I live."
Sam shrugged and exhaled fully. He felt uneasy persuading people for their own good. "I'll bring you some food."
He motored away, heading for his own flooded house. On his way, he noticed something in the water. At first, he thought it was a stuffed chair or a sofa, but then realized it was a dead cow, a Guernsey, brown and white with pink udders, drifting along, hitting a tree that turned it around. The dog growled as the cow went by the boat.
Reaching the house, Sam tied the boat to a shutter hook and made it through the front door in waist-deep water. He tried not to look around as he climbed the steps, thinking of what was already gone - the family pictures, the books in the den, his favorite chair. When he struggled back to the boat, he was carrying a box containing several pop-top cans of prepared food, more bottled water, and some plastic spoons and a bowl.
He steered the boat back to Harry Muldoon's oak tree and made another appeal for Harry to come down and return with him to civil society. But Harry was unmoved, and Sam realized they both might drown if he tried to drag Harry out of that tree. He left him with a supply of food, and spoons and steered the boat westward, pausing to feed the dog near a patch of exposed ground. Happily fed, the dog decided on a swim and then walked himself on the patch of ground. As Sam waited, he gazed back toward his own house and worried that it might come off its foundation. While inside, he had heard odd creaking and gurgling. His attention returned to the dog as it swam back to the boat.
"Glad you like spaghetti and meatballs, old friend," he said to the springer, helping him aboard. The dog shook itself and returned to its customary station.
Sam hesitated at the tiller and then, out of curiosity, decided to continue westward. He came to a wide open area that was now a plain of water with visible, island-like rooftops. This was the shopping center that had once contained his small business, Mayfield Cleaners. He pressed on until he reached shallow water and had to raise the motor. He avoided a floating log, pushing it away with an oar, and watched a live snake curl near the hull. Coming about, he returned to deeper water and buzzed past his own house once again. He was lost in thought when he drifted too close to a half-submerged tree. A branch grazed his forehead, drawing blood. He pressed his shirttail to the wound, which got a curious look from the dog.
"My second Purple Heart, old friend."
As he neared Harry's oak tree, he noticed the Muldoon house had come off its foundation. The long walls were pinched together and partly folded, and the entire thing looked like so much unwanted cardboard. He paused under the oak tree, but didn't see Harry. He called his name, but heard no reply. He motored back and forth past the big tree - not a sign of anyone. Had Harry been taken away by rescuers? - in another boat or a helicopter? Sam hadn't heard any other motors close by. He gazed at the Muldoon house - now beyond repair.
By the time he arrived at the assembly area, a Channel Nine News helicopter was hovering overhead, and the National Guard had put up a kitchen tent. And there was a change in his friends - the laughter was gone, and some of the women were crying.
Amelia waved to him and came running. "Sam - Harry Muldoon is dead. My Lord, he floated right past here."
Sam was shocked, saddened, but not entirely surprised. "His house came off its foundation. I guess he just let go."
"Maybe he went to sleep and fell."
"Maybe - we'll never know."
"Tess identified the body. She's in a bad way. We're shielding the two boys."
"It's nothing. Let's go eat."
They began walking toward the olive-green National Guard tent, just as another Chinook roared into view. Its twin rotors passed close to the hovering Channel Nine chopper, and it landed near the center of the crowded plateau. Its principal passenger was United States Congressman Randy Cook, the first of a stream of dignitaries scheduled to visit the area and the first to be photographed with the "flood victims." He had shed his silk suit and Gucci loafers, put on khaki trousers and Nike running shoes, and rolled up the sleeves of his Tommy Hilfiger shirt. He began a tour of the assembly area, accompanied by a similarly attired entourage, shaking hands, giving reassuring words and promises of government assistance. He soon noticed Sam and Amelia, both in their seventies, but still active - and photogenic.
"Hi, there," he said, extending a hand to Sam. "I'm Congressman Cook. How are you doing in all this water?"
"We'll survive," Sam replied, shaking the offered hand. "I'm Sam Mayfield. This is my wife Amelia."
"Well - hello," Amelia said, surprising Randy Cook with a firm handshake.
"Anything I can help you with?"
"We could use some dog food," Sam said, quite jokingly.
The Congressman thought he was serious. "You're eating dog food?"
"No, no - we found a dog." Sam pointed back toward the boat, where the spinger's head was just visible above the gunwale.
"Oh - I see," Randy Cook said - disappointed that they weren't eating dog food.
A TV reporter in the entourage decided Sam was a wise guy. He spoke up in a network voice of doom. "Congressman Cook is here on a serious mission - to address your needs."
"We'll address our own needs," Amelia said.
"The state and federal governments are providing food, shelter," the reporter said, waving toward the tent and trailers.
"Of course - without all that, you could have looting, chaos."
Congressman Cook spoke up. "FEMA will likely buy your home and rebuild it."
"They can have it," Sam said. "We're moving."
"Are they nuts or what?" a young Congressional aide said in a stage whisper.
Sam laughed. "Hell, our finances are in better shape than the Federal Government's. Our insurance company may go broke, but we can still clear the lot and sell it - when it dries out. We knew the risks when we settled here."
"Well - good luck," the Congressman said with a smile that was almost a leer. As he walked away with his troupe, he looked back at Sam and Amelia several times.
"Well, Sam," Amelia said, "I guess we're just old fuddy-duddies."
"We'll pick up and go again."
"To someplace nice and dry."
"One flood in a lifetime - "
"That's plenty. We can always vacation here - in good weather."
"And harvest Christmas trees in the mountains."
"Or sell mutual funds in Charlotte."
"Hate to leave friends."
"We'll make new friends."
"We'll do just fine."
"Amelia, I think we're a couple of old soldiers. Let's try some of that National Guard chow - before they throw it out."
And so, Sam and Amelia Mayfield strolled past the clusters of people, nodding and waving at friends, exchanging words here and there, and looking forward to their next great adventure.
BIO: "I'm published in science, non-fiction, and fiction. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, I've sold an article to a security trade bulletin and published a number of short stories in small magazines, including Aphelion, Toasted Cheese, Xavier Review, and The MacGuffin. I've also contributed four book reviews to Liberty."
Robert Watts Lamon
Turning up the hearing aid, Adelle asked again. Not usually one to talk to strangers. Still, there was something about the girl, maybe reminded her of someone from a long time ago.
"Trinity," the girl said, offering the box of Dots, smacking hers in an open mouth.
"Afraid it's DentaChew or nothing these days," Adelle said, taking a baggie of prunes from her handbag, returning the gesture. "Except these. Like one?"
Trinity looked at the bag.
"Guess young people don't know prunes from cat doo-doo," Adelle said, grinning, having one.
Trinity reached into the bag. A sucker for a dare.
"Go easy," Adelle said. "For me, more than three means a sprint for the ladies' room. At my age and on a Greyhound that could be disastrous." Adelle, always one to count her prunes.
"Potent little doo-doos, huh?" Trinity said, popping one in her mouth. Prune taste meeting tropical Dots.
Adelle liked that. A girl with moxy. "Watch, they have pits."
"I'm pretty iron-clad," Trinity said, spitting the pit in her hand, dropping it to the floor, guessing she could shock the old doll with some of the things she ingested.
"That's your youth talking, dear. I had your vitality once." Adelle laid the pit in her tissue she kept tucked in her sleeve. "Guess I take a shine to anything wrinkled."
"Looks to me like you got plenty of vitality," Trinity said it and meant it. There was something milk-and-cookies about the old girl, something that said home-cooked meals and knit sweaters, whatever that was.
"More likely to change my bloomers after a good sneeze these days." Adelle talking like she knew the girl. The instant granddaughter.
Trinity laughed, the tongue stud catching Adelle's eye, Adelle not hiding her curiosity. Sure didn't have those back in the days of flappers and cloche hats.
Trinity swallowed bits of prune and Dots, stuck her tongue out, letting Adelle have a look.
"That had to hurt." The goose flesh going up her arm, the thought of someone drilling through her tongue.
"Not too bad," Trinity said, not mentioning she was stoned out of her skull through the whole procedure, wondering what the old girl would think about the stud below, adding, "But I know I'll likely regret it some day."
Adelle waved a hand. "You get to my age, you'll have a stack of regrets."
"That and liver spots and a mountain of moles."
"You have any?"
"You kidding?" Adelle tugged up a sleeve.
"I mean regrets."
Something in the girl's eyes made it important for Adelle to search for an answer. She looked out the window, watched a few trees blur by, then turned back. "Some might say I spend too much time talking to Fitzhugh."
"That's sweet. What's wrong with - "
Adelle put a hand on Trinity's. "Fitzhugh's my dead husband."
"Yeah?" Trinity smiled a moment. "So what do you guys talk about?"
That got Adelle grinning. "Things we never talked about while he was living. I guess that's where the regret comes in."
"Big difference, it's me talking now, him listening for a change. That part's good."
"We worked at it."
"Well, that's worth something."
"I mean, we really worked at it."
"How about you?"
"Me, single. I just dumped my last boat anchor," Trinity said. "Nothing worth working at, trust me."
"Ah, had a few of those along the way. Got to kiss a few toads before you find a keeper."
"Right. Well, my last toad was Banzai, the reason I'm on this bus." Still wanting to castrate the tattooed, cheating prick.
"Going back home, dear?"
"Home. You must come from somewhere."
"Yeah, sure. A quick stop in Pismo. See my mom and stepdad, clear the air maybe." She never thought of it as home.
"Not the easiest people to talk to. And my stepdad, well, basically he's the sh..."
"The shits? It's okay to say it."
"Didn't want to seem rude."
"Contrary to popular belief, you young people didn't invent the s word, or the f one either." Adelle offered the prunes.
Trinity was laughing, liking this old girl more and more, digging into the bag. "Yeah, well, okay, he's the shits as stepdads go. Aught to know, I've had three of them."
"Wow. That's some score."
"That's my mom for you, but, well, we've always had our own oil-and-water thing, but guess it's easier to ditch husbands than daughters."
"Sounds like you had it tough. But I'm sorry, I'm prying, aren't I?"
"No, no, it's fine. Growing up with Mom and her toads - tough's an understatement. Anyway, after Pismo, I'm going to breeze around for awhile. No more anchors that lead to regrets. Might do Paris."
"How about work?"
"Mom's got me on an allowance. Turns out Toad #3's loaded. Anyway, I think it's enough. If I run out, there are always tables need serving, make enough and move on." She shrugged.
"Sounds like an adventure."
"Yeah, you could say that. Guess I'm not the-home-in-the-suburbs type."
"Life in the burbs is overrated, dear. Trust me."
"Doing it my way, like that old song."
"Old Blue Eyes."
Trinity nodded. Not a clue.
Adelle offered the prunes. Trinity thinking the little blobs weren't bad.
"So, here we are," Adelle said. "One talks to the dead, the other runs from the living. A fine pair."
Trinity put her hand on Adelle's. It felt right.
Adelle saying, "Best part about talking to Fitz since he passed is I get to do all the... Already said that, didn't I?"
"Ah hah." Trinity patted the withered hand.
"Well, Fitz was a big part of my life, but I think I need this trip, get out of that stuffy, old place for a while, memories collecting like dust on the hutch, Fitz helping me recount them, finding the ones tucked far and deep. You ask me, it's just not healthy going that deep."
"Need a change of scenery." Trinity was nodding.
"Can't sit and stare at the same clock, watch the years tick away, while the hearing goes, eyesight fades, everything goes south, leaving you nothing but memories. That kind of thing will suffocate you." She snapped out of it. "Sorry, look who's being the boat anchor now."
"No, no, sage advice." Trinity shook a few Dots from the box, offered some to Adelle, popped them in her mouth.
Adelle felt the girl's hand on hers, hoping she wouldn't squeeze it. The arthritis would send her through the roof. "You're sweet," she said, looking out the window at the landscape whizzing by.
"Your Fitzhugh move furniture, switch on lights, sh ... stuff like that?"
"You kidding? Never let him touch the furniture. Never once. Man had no sense where things should go." She offered the bag. "Another prune, dear?"
"Why not?" Prunes and Dots. A taste sensation.
Adelle talked through her limit of prunes, then she adjusted the inflatable pillow, excused herself and drifted off. Thoughts of the daughter that would have been all those years ago.
Waking in the golden afternoon. The near-tropical foliage told of the miles that had clipped by the window while she snoozed. The station stood next to the bus, a green tin roof. Trinity's seat was empty.
Adelle was the last to clamber off, the driver helping her down the steps, fetching her suitcase from the luggage compartment.
Adelle asked him, "The young lady next to me, she get off at Pismo Beach?"
The driver stood straight, considered a moment. "Young lady?" He thought some more, scratching under his hat. "Nobody got off at Pismo. Pretty sure that's right. Sorry, mind's not as sharp as it used to be. You want, I can carry this inside for you, ma'am?"
"That would be kind of you, yes." On the way in, Adelle opened her handbag, tugged out the untouched bag of prunes.
BIO: Dietrich Kalteis is a writer living in West Vancouver, Canada.
His work has appeared in Foundling Review, Tryst, Verdad, One Cool
Word and others. His screenplay MILKIN' DILLARD has been optioned to
Bella Fe Films, Los Angeles.
A Thousand Stories To Tell
Friends started saying that I needed therapy. I'd just moved to a new place, the friends I'd fallen in with were good friends. I knew that. After a life time of bad friends, I knew how to recognise the bad ones.
Since I was a child I had begun to control my life in peculiar ways, I would only eat food of a certain colour, other colours made me nervous, yellow scared me the most. I was terrified of bananas, lemons, potato waffles, chips, yellow peppers, yellow smarties, yellow jelly babies, yellow jelly. I began searching the backs of cereal packets, ready meals looking for rogue ingredients - I kept thinking that people were trying to sneak yellow into my meals. I only ate white, red and green food. I'd divide my plates into three colours, white then red, then green. I'd eat the white first, then the red, then the green. I was happy this way.
Later, much later, I had a boyfriend who said that he fell for me after watching me in a restaurant dividing up my food. It always seemed amazing that someone could fall for you for the very reasons why other people called you crazy. That boyfriend was wonderful and bonkers. Qualities that often seemed to go hand-in-hand. He wanted to be a glove puppeteer and he was really serious about it. He made a load of puppets out of old socks - all different kinds he'd found in launderettes or picked up at charity shops. He liked the socks to all have some kind of history. The glove puppets had sewn-on buttons for eyes, just like you'd expect a glove puppet to have, but he'd also scout around the car boots for old vinyl's and cut up the album covers to make the sock's clothes. It was a weird idea but it seemed to work.
The puppets had their own little world and all their own voices, there would be story lines and a sub plot and Luke spent his whole time analysing why different socks would go out with others. The type of fabric and colours and size of the sock had to be matched perfectly with its personality. A footballer's sock for example couldn't go out with a girl's white knee length that would be all wrong - for so many reasons. He was a very precise person and he took the love between two socks very seriously. He dropped out of university to pursue the sock career. I would watch him perform with the socks as street theatre. The kids loved it. He got loads of gigs. He tapped into what socks really thought and how they felt about being at the bottom of the clothes chain. He was very good at analysing a sock's feelings; his performances tackled issues like prejudice and homophobia. He even had a sock theatre production rather like Jane Eyre with the black sock in the attic that refused to be worn. But that sock's decent into madness was philosophical as well as post-colonial, for she challenged the entire identity of which a sock was, seeing as a sock's only purpose was to get into a pair and be worn. Not dissimilar from humans really and Luke used to point that out to people. Children understood what it felt like not to match, not to be able to find a pair, to be the sock in the attic, but then children always understood important things didn't they?
Luke got disillusioned with the street theatre though, said his puppetry was really for adults and he wanted to branch into a wider audience but no one would hire him. Several creative directors said to him that an audience of adults didn't want to sit there and be lectured about society's values and prejudices by a bunch of socks. He said the socks were too 'self aware'. He said the socks were 'obnoxious'. Me and Luke split up around soon after this. I didn't see him for a long while. Years later I bumped into a friend of his who said that he had got into peanuts in a big way. Peanuts with their shells on. He would make clothes for them out of cigarette packets. And perform some sort of ballet. The peanuts didn't talk - for fear of being obnoxious maybe but they did dance and they did mime. Luke had a thing about mime artists and mutes- he was convinced that they knew some profound truth about the universe but just refused to tell us, maybe he was exploring that through the peanuts. I didn't know. Nor did I know how successful the peanuts had got. I read the theatre reviews in the papers sporadically just to see if the wise-guy socks or the philosophical but mute peanuts featured at all but I found nothing.
So I was telling you about the children that understood those wise-guy socks. And how children tap into all of our fears and all of our truths. And I got to thinking about my childhood, but I couldn't remember very much. I blocked it out somehow. Just had a few scattered memories that my brothers and sisters had told me happened over the years. Not really a memory at all. My friends told me that it wasn't healthy not to remember your past. That you past self influence every decision that you make. That a person is not really themselves without a past. That I needed to understand about the food and the bananas and the lemons, maybe I'd been abused by fruit in my childhood.
So I decided to take their advice and see a therapist and not just an ordinary therapist, but one that would regress me. Because that seemed to be the answer right now. Because I was starting to clean up my life. I'd lived a life of damage and regret before I moved here. More abortions than you could possibly imagine, if you can measure our your misery in abortions that is. And I think you could.
My regression therapist was called Reg. I hoped he was going to have a long white beard and look like Sigmund himself to settle me onto his knee and call him mother. Or I hoped he'd be young and rough and look like Robert Downey Junior but with out the drug habit. Because that's what people want from life, they want disgust or they want romance. Either one and they're happy. Reg was not at all what I expected him to be and not at all what I'd heard about analysts. I was an old fashioned kind of girl and had imagined a chaise-langue and a wood-burning fire and me talking and talking while he performed whatever amazing things a therapists can perform in order to perfect you. Reg was altogether different. For one thing he never stopped talking about himself. The stereotype about analysts was that they just sit there for fifty minutes don't say a thing a past form the odd grunt and start scribbling out your invoice before the session was over. But it's a myth that therapists want to cure you by talking about you. And you working it out yourself. They want to talk about themselves, that's all they want. Nobody ever listens to them and that must be a pretty frustrating life.
So I went along to Reg's therapy sessions and he told me all about his childhood, his addictions, and his abandonment issues. And he made me analyse him. Every now and then he would open his big brown eyes and look me up and point to a journal of psycho-analysis for more details about his diagnosis. He'd applaud me for my insight into his childhood. We began to talk about Malcolm his dog and Malcolm's affair with his mother. Bestiality was not considered taboo in our room of healing. In ten years time Reg said that every thing that happened between Malcolm and his mother would be legal - look at what's happened in the gay community, they were all getting married and twenty years ago people couldn't wait to string them up. I said nothing. I hadn't told Reg I was bi. After all these sessions weren't about me. I was still paying Reg, but it was all about him.
The analysis was working on me though. Reg's past was providing a backdrop for my own life, it added colour, flavour, it made me interesting. It was becoming my main source of conversation with my friends. Reg and I had drawn up no confidentiality policy and when I mentioned to him about talking to other people about his past he waved a hand at me and told me he was not ashamed that he got beyond shame in session four and that he had moved on, that I might shout about his sick and sordid past from the rooftops if it helped me and it did help me. It made me popular and it made me funny. It gave me a thousand stories to tell a thousand times over. And I got to thinking that if Reg and I had ever regressed and we had ever dug up my past then all I would have a thousand stories to tell. But I knew that Reg's stories were a hundred times more interesting than mine would ever be. Now I had knowledge of another person, making me appear as if I was an expert on the human condition. Even though I probably should learn about my own past, I was learning how little it really mattered. All it did was give people water tight excuses for being boring or for being mean or for being untidy, you're untidy because you're untidy it had nothing to do with your mother never letting you finger paint, that was all just bollocks. I was starting to think that the reason why people were messy was because they cared more about important things than dirt. They wanted to spend their spare time with their friends rather with their Hoover and their rubber gloves. They were mean because they chose not to be generous and boring because they had no imagination. And no amount of therapy can grow you an imagination.
I didn't give up on the therapy, even though friends said it was burning a hole in my pocket. I told them it was a small price to pay for daily entertainment more interesting than The Sun. They couldn't argue but they were all worried about my eating about how I still divided my pasta from the tomato sauce, the rice from the curry, the spinach from the tomatoes. They said it wasn't healthy. But who's healthy? In analysis they say to look at your past for the answers to the present. The only past worth thinking of was Luke and the obnoxious socks. By now it was the naughties and we had the internet so I did what any prospective stalker would do and Googled him. And sure enough I found him. (And the socks and the peanuts.) He was touring round the West Country for some obscure Cornish festival. So I told Reg I would be away a week and not to worry and told him he could call me on my mobile if he needed me which was fine by me as I didn't even have a mobile phone. But I liked saying that just so I could enjoy the time not being bothered by people trying to get hold of me. I went down to the West Country by train. Luke's performance was on the beach. I was a little disappointed since I had hoped him and the socks/peanuts would have been promoted to theatres, but this was Cornwall and a different world to the rest of the south. A world of high cliffs and sheer drops and breaking waves and people wearing wooden jewellery. A world where fern and bracken were still big and people sat and watched puppet shoes after a long day surfing with a pint in their hands. Adults, children and even dogs watched and I thought about Reg and how he would be pleased that dogs were involved.
Luke's act hadn't changed much. He still opened with the self aware socks, the cast of the old favourite characters were still there, the socks with tourettes, the one in the wheelchair the wise-guy ginger sock. They still had the same take on society but society had been updated. They talked about mobile phones and internet and trains and nurses and traffic jams and how nobody says you're sorry if they walk into you and nobody says thank you if you hold the door open for them and they talked frankly about the drugs and the war and pollution. Sitting here among the grass with the wind whipping round out ice cream hands with the colour leaving the sky and filtering down onto our faces then dropping politely into the sea, the socks did little more than comment about a society that had barely reached the tops of Cornwall. The socks were funny and smart and got loads of laughs. But when he brought out the peanuts, it produced a hush amongst the audience, and as they performed their ballet and mime I could see people really starting to hear what they were saying over the songs of the sea and the sky. Because silence is tough to listen to, especially when delivered by peanuts. I laid back on my hands and stretched my legs out in front of me taking in the sky and all the funny little peanuts tap-dancing on Luke's home-made stage. The stage was opposite a pub and I thought of me and Luke in half an hour when his act was over and the socks and the peanuts had taken their bows, I thought how I would invite him into the pub opposite for a beer and a packet of crisps and how the day would be over by then. And how we'd sit in the warm of the pub, high with fresh ideas for the socks, me with fresh tales straight from the couch, not worrying about drinking a brown beer with yellow crisps and the socks and the peanuts laid out on their home made stage looking at the sky become night through the open door.
BIO: I have an MA in Creative Writing from The University of Sussex and my short stories have been published in literary magazines, including Ambit, Random Acts of Writing, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tall Tales and Modern Fables and London Art. I perform at short stories nights in Brighton . I blog about my writing on my web page: natasciadsakamoto. My current novel A Fat Gold Watch was short-listed for the Lightship First Chapter Award, long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press Award.
Photo by Kate LaDew
"Is he out of the nuthouse yet?" Penny isn 't known for her subtlety.
"You know that 's extremely derogatory, right? Just so you know. And no, I haven 't heard from him in two years."
"And Luke? Have you told him?" Penny isn 't going to let this go; she 's Luke 's godmother after all. She knows for a fact every birthday the boy wishes for a father.
"No, I don 't think eight years old is mature enough to hear your father isn 't dead, but in fact criminally insane." Veronica rubs her bare arms and leans forward over the splintering top of the picnic table to get a better view of the show unfolding on the grass.
"And who will be my assistant for the last amaaaaaazing trick where we shall make a rabbit disappear!"
The children clamor to reach their arms the highest, fingertips extending into the cocoon of warm June air as if to reach the cookies on the tippy top shelf. The magician selects the birthday boy. The boy 's cheeks blotch but his shoulders are back and pride radiates off him.
"Crimminy, this better go well. Luke deserves his birthday to be perfect. He 's been through so much." Penny shakes her head and tries not to say more.
She puts her arm around her best friend, the toughest woman she 's ever met. Veronica never forgives, or forgets. Penny can 't say she admires the trait, but Veronica has earned her armor.
At first you couldn 't tell. The immaculate two bedroom townhouse with real hardwood floors and a granite kitchen island seemed just about perfect. The divorce was a shock, sure, but what doesn 't kill you makes you stronger, right? Penny did see Veronica die a little every time she added a new layer to her defenses. When it came time for the cover-up, all pretense was gone. Penny tried to hold Veronica 's hand at the trial but Veronica 's hands were crossed under her breasts as if to keep her heart from slipping away entirely.
Veronica smiles a wan, no teeth smile and fidgets with the cake, centering it on the table again, sliding it to the right, then back.
The magician arrived on stilts through the backyard gate to the squealing delight of the eight year olds. He swayed unsteadily with a huge maniacal grin, inciting the adults to gasp and the children to clap. His clumsy dismount was like a drunken pole vaulter. So far his act is mostly juggling and balloon animals, but the kids are wild about him.
"Mom! Did you see that?" Luke runs to his mother and clasps her tightly in a vise-like hug.
"This is so cool! Where did the rabbit go?" He runs off again. For a minute Veronica 's arms stay outstretched after him. But he 's already gone, running after the others to pursue the beleaguered creature.
"Where did you find him anyway?" Penny edges her finger into the cake icing and surreptitiously raises it to her mouth.
"The magician? My mom recommended him; said she found the flyer in her mailbox. He was cheap and you know things are pretty tight right now..."
Both women gaze across the rippling grass, too green with chemicals and too short due to Veronica 's zealous preparation for the party. Penny scans the yard for Veronica 's mother and spots her near the gate, on what has to be her fourth wine cooler.
Abruptly, Veronica stands up and gives the war cry, "Cake! Cake Time!"
The children swarm in, singing in off-key but strong voices. In the side bushes, Penny glimpses a white fur ball disappearing from view. She smiles, the trick worked.
"Blow out the candles baby," Veronica puts on her sunglasses as if the eight small flickers are too bright for her eyes. This day is always hard for Veronica.
"But the magician said I get one more trick!"
The crowd turns in a single wave to look at the man who has sidled up behind the birthday boy.
Something is off. Heartburn and vertigo hit Penny hard. Maybe it 's the smile, teeth too jagged and gums stretched too tightly, or the scraggly beard in dire need of a trim buried under the heavy make-up.
"One more trick?" Surprises unnerve Veronica.
"Yeah, he says he 's gonna make my wish come true! My wish I always wish at my birthdays."
Veronica loses herself in the pools of her son's eyes, drowning in the hope, the anguish, the innocent love. Her chest is a trampoline as she repeatedly gasps for air, but there is not enough. Where did it all go?
She senses the guests ' distaste for this twist in the party agenda.
The magician 's head bobbles like a toy as he sets his hand firmly on Luke 's shoulder.
The boy looks up, his eyes perfectly mirroring the magicians, ready to have the final trick revealed.
BIO: Megan Gregor is a former clinical social worker who has channeled her curiosity about human nature into creative writing. Her short story SIGNS is a Hot New Release on Amazon.com. Read more by Megan Gregor at: www.gregorific.com, The Zodiac Review, and Liquid Imagination Literary Magazine.