… okay you have to start over, that’s all. Huh? We’re at the beginning of the program again okay? Soup Kitchen: just start in on it like: here’s the big event that ended it, the event that no one talks about. I guess. Once upon a time—now it’s your turn: Go Continue reading
Mikhail Feldman the writer disappeared from this world on June 19th, 1939—or, in the words of my grandfather, went poof. This happened on the street in Peredelkino, southwest of Moscow, in front of a café, though it seems strange to me to mark the spot of someone’s disappearance. It seems to me he could have vanished halfway across town and gone just as poof.
My grandfather fled Russia a few months later; Lev became Leo somewhere over the Atlantic. He landed at a harbor in Baltimore, showed up soon after at a train depot in Chicago, and finally arrived at a bus station in Los Angeles, where a small group of Russian émigrés told him that if he kept going west he would wind up in Russia again. He’s still friends with these men, and growing up I heard them called cousins. They set Lev Leo up in construction. He asked them if they had heard of the writer Feldman, and his new cousins shrugged. Continue reading
His company had been stationed on the Lebanon Line for four months, and in that time, they’d only seen “action” twice. The first was an unreported skirmish, late one, night when a forward party, crawling through thickets of scrub oak and sage, was greeted with a volley of shots—low, whipping tracers, which hadn’t touched a thing. The second was an unanticipated mortar barrage that torched three posts and resulted in eleven wounded. Cpl. Evgeny Sokolov had been on leave when that happened, and he didn’t regret it much.
This afternoon, as he stood manning the northeastern lookout, which was basically a periscope hole dug in two meters below earth, his thoughts revolved less around the chances of his killing or being killed than his prospects of finding a wife. He had been told that most successful relationships started in the Israeli army, though he didn’t know how, since he hadn’t seen a girl in three weeks.
“Sokolov,” shouted his Captain, blaring through the radio set. “When you’re done in twenty, stop by Command.” Continue reading
The degree hung on the wall over a piano that Ted’s son Billy no longer played. Sage had bought Billy an electric guitar. An amp. Signed him up for summer indie rock camp. They were learning the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. So now Billy went around the apartment singing “are teenage dreams so hard to beat” and Ted tried not to answer.
It was a B.S. in Biology. With Honors was typed next to a gold, embossed sticker. It was super official: there was Latin he couldn’t read.
Ted now worked at a science lab called Ancestral Organs. The nightshift janitor.
His day job was at the box factory; he worked the glue gun, a step up from cellophaning pallets of boxed radio-controlled cars.
He wondered whether his degree had given him an edge over the other two applicants:
the man with Jeffrey Dahmer’s 1982 mug shot mustache;
the woman with the scrotal purse.
Had his past interest in the sciences made him more fit to wield a mop in a lab after the scientists working as real deal scientists went home to their families? It hadn’t come up during the interview. But his past experience had. His qualifications.
“The scientists – what we here like to refer to as our Somatic Programmers – are clean in the lab. Obsessively so. But they sometimes let off steam etcetera in the bathroom. Is that OK?”
“I had a summer job at a children’s zoo during college. There was a depressed Rhinoceros with irritable bowel next to the African wild dogs. I cleaned the veldt.”
“Sounds perfect. Did you enjoy the work?”
“Yes sir. Glad to have it.”
“But fuck!” Ted later told a friend.
“I knew it would end. It was temporary. I was getting a degree. And a piece of that weekly 250 bucks would be spent on beer for moonlit naked swimming in a suburban man-made pond with Laura the lifeguard who liked that I could describe mitosis.
A new school year would start. August’s slow-burn. Full leaved trees. New girls in sometimes windblown skirts. Fucking windrows of women in windblown skirts.”
Ted hated Sage. Sage’s “smug stupid” face. Sage’s “smug stupid” face smiling in front of Ted’s most precious possession: an autographed still of Billy Joel with a personally penned message: “For Ted, chase your dreams!”
In the still from the 1989 We Didn’t Start the Fire video, “Billy fucking Joel!” was earnestly pounding out imaginary drums at a vintage kitchen table in front of a blown-up and fire engulfed photo of Nguyen Van Lem’s execution. “Fucking raw, man,” is what Ted had told BJ during their brief meeting. And then, when he was too excited to think of anything else to say: “dude, man, dude… just the fucking rawest.”
When Sage first stopped in front of the photo, Ted had steeled himself to defend the virtues of BJ’s song craft. But then Sage had simply said: “Bacon? Reagan? Palestine?” while wrinkling his brow in grotesque disbelief: “you should check out Fugazi. Your son loves them.”
Ted said nothing, but started having a “fierce fucking nightmare, man.” A nightmare that left his sheets soaked in sweat. Sweat that Ted worried smelled like terrified ladybugs.
The looped sequence: Sage’s “smug stupid” face, hooded in a hound’s-tooth skirt, stared into Ted’s estranged wife’s vagina. Ted’s estranged wife’s vagina – in hissing baritone – said “Ted didn’t start the fire.” Sage replied in a sultry mezzo-soprano: “chubby-checker, psycho” . . . “chubby-checker, psycho” while his head began to swell.
Ted hated this dream. But it was nothing in comparison to the reality of (Sage’s “smug stupid” face) + (Billy looking up into it with boundless adoration), which sometimes =’ed thoughts of exhaust-pipe-asphyxiation to Lita Ford’s 1988 ballad If I Close My Eyes Forever.
After the BJ fiasco, Ted bought a copy of Fugazi’s Red Medicine and joined a poetry class that met at a Barnes and Noble Starbucks. He finished one poem.
What is wrong with my love?
It runs beneath my skin like knuckles,
but refuses to beat me into something useful.
It only beats me.
When things get bad, I Google
this man provides for his family better than I do.
When Ted had finished reading it aloud at the last meeting he attended, the eavesdropping barista purged his steam wand and said: “Fuck is all wrong man, say egad!”
Joy had made the call on Halloween 2003.
Ted would later tell a friend: “My fucking neck went numb man. Shit, man, shit. Did you know your neck could go numb? Like fall asleep or something? I didn’t. I went all boneless you know. Like a nematode.
And then the rattle of an old projector started up near the back of my head. Like my brain had shut down and was noisily trying to get going again you know.”
The projector played a clip of a single shivering sperm swimming in space towards an ember-colored egg. Something Ted had seen long ago on a field trip to the Fort Wayne, Indiana Health and Sciences Center. The two blind things met, weightless in the starless lonely of someone’s insides.
A soundtrack of waves toothlessly gumming a sandy shore.
The worm quivered into the egg.
A stentorian voice: “The gill arches form; a body begins to bloom.”
It made perfect sense.
“But fuck,” Ted said. “How the hell had it happened to me, you know? That’s what I was thinking.”
Something Ted had known the basic mechanics of since the talk with his father after a birthday sleepover viewing of 1984’s Enemy Mind suddenly seemed like sorcery.
“Joy started to cry, man. All lachrymose. You know, like lactating sadness from her eyes. It’s a word dude. And I totally started spacing out man. Who knows where I went?
All I know is wherever I was, a bearded Dennis Quaid was helping a pregnant Louis Gosset Jr. deliver his son Zammis on Fyrine IV.
Man I had some growing up to do.”
Billy arrived in June, womb-rumpled and screaming.
Ted called his Mom: “He looks like a mucus covered walnut with black chimpanzee hair but smells something like caramelized clouds. I love him, Mom. I just met him and I love him.”
When Ted held Billy for the first time, he said to Joy:
“My heart feels like a flower blooming in collapsed time. Seriously.”
And then quietly to Billy: “I’ve sort of been a fuck up so far, so sorry about that. Seriously little dude. My love for you will be a resurrecting radiation.”
When they got home from the hospital, Ted downloaded Joe Harnell’s Opening Theme 1. The Incredible Hulk: Main Title – Version #1 from 1978’s The Incredible Hulk television series. A few nights later, while Joy and Billy were asleep, Ted used an old cassette deck to record a slightly modified opening narrative over the music:
“New father, Ted Banks. Doctor? Not really. Scientist? Sort of. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of a father’s love for his newborn son interacts with his unique but so far not so stellar body chemistry. And now, when Ted Banks needs to be totally awesome for the family he loves, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by love.”
But no metamorphosis occurred.
For the first few months after Billy was born, it seemed like nothing could stand in the way of Ted’s desire to build a “stellar fucking life” for the two people he loved.
He blasted the homemade “Hulkspiration” over and over again in the car – a silver 1986 Buick Skylark with drooping roof fabric – going to and coming back from job interview after job interview. But the rejections piled up and the job he took waiting tables at an Irish pub remained their main source of income.
He started staying up late, watching his son breath, putting his hand over his son’s small tummy.
He even prayed sometimes.
“Christ shit’s fucked. So totally fucked. Please let it not be so fucked. Just for this little guy. This little guy right here. No gnashing of the teeth or stuff like that for this little guy who doesn’t even have any fucking teeth to gnash yet. No lonely bird on the housetop. No living like an owl of the waste places. Shall none of that be done you know. Please Lord. I am ready for a new lesson: humility in the face of undeserved fortune. That would be so fucking awesome of you so on high. In thy name. Thank you.”
Ted eventually flung the recording out of the car window, slightly embarrassed. Confused why the strongest feeling he had ever experienced in his life had had absolutely zero impact on his ability to make a home for his family.
In its place, Ted started listening to The Lonely Man Theme in D minor that accompanied The Incredible Hulk’s credits.
“You know, the song that plays when Bruce has inevitably failed to keep his green alter ego from fucking everything up again, and sheepishly thumbs a ride to a new town.”
But then the seemingly impossible had happened: Ted found a job in a lab assisting a controversial biology professor tackle limitations on the regenerative power of planarians. Joy baked Ted a cake. Billy – with more than a little encouragement – put his hands and face into it. They took pictures with the cell phone they shared and sent them to everyone they knew, caption: “My Dad’s Got A Bitching New Science Job.”
Which was barely true, but who cared: it came with health insurance. Ted and Joy would no longer have to play Google MD for the person they loved more than anything in the world.
The work was simple.
The Nobel Prize winning scientist Thomas Hunt Morgan had established that a planarian cut into more than 279 pieces was no longer capable of regenerating.
The professor’s thesis: Morgan was wrong; the planarian’s regenerative ceiling could be exceeded through pharmacological manipulation.
Ted’s job for the entire six years:
- using a microscope and scalpel to slice up the chemically treated planarians beyond their established regenerative ceiling;
- placing the pieces in an incubator at 24 degrees Celsius;
- checking if the pieces had regenerated.
They never did.
The project lost its funding.
And six years of dissecting tiny regenerating worms with gloomy white eye-spots was insufficient experience to land Ted another lab job.
Ted, Joy and Billy were soon uninsured and broke. Again.
The fights started, but since Billy was six, Ted and Joy spelled most things out:
“I’d love to go get F-U-C-K-I-N-G I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M. Go to the F-U-C-K-I-N-G-L-A-K-E. Eat F-U-C-K-I-N-G-P-I-Z-Z-A. But we have no F-U-C-K-I-N-G-M-O-N-E-Y.”
Joy was usually more to the point: “Because you’re a F-U-C-K.”
F-U-C-K-I-N-G Sage had appeared just after Ted lost his job.
The way Sage told it, his father had been a no account “goon bag wino” for the better part of Sage’s childhood. A fact that Sage never tired of bringing up. Something about “my life wasn’t always this good – man – so keep your chin up. Miracles happen every day man. Bootstraps. Create your own future. The power of positive thinking.”
On his born-again-night, Sage’s old man had been baptizing his liver with a second box of wine while working on his 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda. The scissor jack broke and the car fell on top of him, slightly crushing his skull.
“I felt like a bag of INSERT! pre-born-again-expletive-here-ha-ha potato chips under there you guys. My head went all crunchy. Hand to God. ”
Sage’s father retold the story every Christmas Eve at the megachurch Yoked Together.
“A group of guys playing the roller hockey in front of the house came to my rescue. Praise Jesus. Hallelujah. Just don’t ask me how to spell that last one.
And with holy-spirit-inspired-adrenaline – NO DOUBT! – as your teenagers might say. You know what? Those fine men were able to lift the car up off me while the holy spirit’s wings pumped enough oxygen into my Cuda-compressed lungs to keep my heart going so that I could crawl out to safety.
And then, with INSERT! pre-born-again-expletive-here-ha-ha cerebrospinal fluid dripping from my blanking ears, I had what you might call a Vulcan mind meld with the Lord. When I looked at the box of wine on the garage floor, I saw an image of the Last Supper superimposed on the box’s label.
And the Lord said unto me: ship my body and blood in a box.”
Two weeks out of the hospital Sage’s father founded Sanitary Sacraments LLP, and made a fortune, which now belonged to Sage, selling patented boxes of prepackaged, hermetically sealed communion wafers and juice cups to churches across all fifty states.
Ted hadn’t been so lucky. The Lord had not descended; there had been no divine entrepreneurial intervention. But Joy caught a break when Sage happened to be behind her at the grocery store on Thanksgiving eve 2010 when her credit card was declined and five bags of groceries were already sitting in her cart.
“Miss, may I be of assistance?”
They moved out shortly after the New Year.
No divorce. Just a break.
Joy said: “We’re bent together. Maybe we’ll come unbent apart.”
Ted stood on the limestone stoop. Freezing.
As he watched them drive away in a brand new Tesla Model X, his son’s head cheerfully bopping in the booster seat to some Bulgarian folk music Sage had bought him, Ted said aloud: “But I love you.”
And he watched the words, warm steamy clouds at first, quickly blend into the cold and disappear.
In his sleep that first night without them, Ted dreamt that he was sitting naked in the living room, shivering a set of subcutaneous wings from his back.
“The wings had fucking teeth,” Ted told a co-worker at the box factory the next morning while carefully glue-gunning together a cardboard standee of the DeLorean from Back to the Future: Redux.
“Fucking teeth, man. Black. About the size of a baby’s. And they were covered in something transparent and gooey. I rubbed the wings together and played music. Like a fucking cricket man. Like a centauricket. And not just any music. It was Bach’s cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. And how the fuck do I know that Lou? The only classical music I have in my record collection is Billy Joel’s 2001 Fantasies & Delusions, Op. 1-10. Fucking moving shit by the way. I played it for Billy while he was in the womb. Fuck Baby Mozart.
But anyway, when I first met Joy we went to a double feature at this artsy drive-in theatre out in a cornfield near Champaign, Illinois. It was called the Ivory Screen or something. Had the bones of a real-deal Midwestern mastodon – tusks and all – woven into a green and pink neon sign.
The movies were The Beast Within – at seventeen, this kid sheds his skin and seizes himself into a cicada, but a human-sized cicada who is psychically linked to his father, a creepy humanoid cicada that raped the kid’s mom – and Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly – where this woman goes nuts after a horny spider god tries to get romantic with her through some sweaty wallpaper.
They played the Bach Cello Suite in the Bergman movie. Joy cried.
Like Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap says: ‘D minor is the saddest of all keys.’
Joy said it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. I bought her a copy of it for our first anniversary.”
Lou – finishing off a standee with a cardboard flux capacitor – said: “Doesn’t Stephen King base most of his books on his nightmares? You should write it up man. Could be huge.”
And so Ted made a stab at outlining a screenplay.
“Who fucking knows man, maybe it’ll be a hit movie” he told Lou the next day.
Three years later, Ted’s unfinished screenplay mostly gathered dust bunnies beneath his bed. The binder contained a single page:
THE CENTAURICKET (© 1/3/11)
By Ted Banks
This dad misses his family so much he grows cricket wings and sings for them to come back (something pretty like Bach). Guy’s name is Ted. But is not just me. Turns out wings help guy to be a pretty cool dad. Other kids’ dads are super jealous. Fin.
Beneath the typed summary were short handwritten notes, one for every New Year’s resolution to finish the story and “turn my fucking life around, you know man, just fucking do it”:
12/31/11: “Revisiting story idea. Fuck yea Ted. Idea still seems pretty awesome a year later. Good sign. Not your typical Hollywood bullshit. Keep working on this. You really have something. Do it for Billy. Do it for the future of your family. Otherwise, family at the mercy of those who do not love them. Not good.”
12/31/12: “Took this out again. Still seems pretty fucking good. But definitely needs fleshing out. Keep it up man. Think. Remember J.K. Rowling. But without the fucking wizards man. Because, you know: inventing believable teenage British orphaned wizards is not your thing. And that’s OK man. Don’t feel bad. Make your own magic. Fuck yea. Awesome. Never say die.”
12/31/13: “Fuck this.”
Billy’s tenth birthday was fast approaching. Sage had already told Ted his shortlist of presents for Billy:
- two tickets to Neutral Milk Hotel’s sold-out show at the Riviera and text messaged directions to a late night DIY show featuring Jeff Mangum, Todd Rittman and Rey Washam;
- a ’73 Hiwatt amplifier “used by Robert Fripp on Brian Eno’s Another Green World then later on King Crimson’s Red, and then later by Duane Dennison on The Jesus Lizard’s Goat”;
- a Travis Bean TB500 guitar – “same type used by Steve Albini”;
- and three reservations at Alinea: Sage, Joy, Billy.
Ted’s touché: “a fucking charter boat, man. The Coho Salmon will be running through Lake Michigan just in time for Billy’s birthday. When he was five we used to play Bassin’s Black Bass for hours on Super Nintendo but he’s never been really for real fishing. It will be awesome. I’m even bringing some non-alcoholic beer so we can toss a couple back together. And fucking custom made Koozies that say ‘Happy Birthday Billy, reel in a big one: follow your dreams man. I love you. Your!!! Dad.”
“Yes? Who’s this?”
“Rob. The new shift manager over at Windy City Packaging. Listen, you’re going to have to come in tomorrow. It’s fucked. I know it’s your son’s birthday or something, but the glue gun acted up again and Alvarez ended up with third degree burns on his right hand.
Jesus. The glue went right to the bone man. It’s bad. Weirdest thing: he was gluing fire to Miss Doubtfire’s tits for a new standee going out to department stores. Some crazy fuck digitally remastered Mrs. Doubtfire and it’s part of a huge promotion.
Anyways, we’ve got stacked pallets of Doubtfires that still need their tits set ablaze and we need you on the gun man. As Princess Leia says: ‘you’re my only fucking hope.’”
Ted called Sage:
“Sage. Look. Fuck, I’m heading out to the lab tonight. Got to pull an all-nighter and then go into the factory tomorrow morning for a full shift. Listen, the boat is chartered for Billy’s birthday tomorrow. Can you take him? I can’t get the deposit back and I gotta work. It’s an emergency.”
“Sure. I can just take him on my boat, man. No worries.”
“No, no man. It’s gotta be my boat. The charter. It’s my birthday present for him. Can you just please do this for me. My boat. Tomorrow. I gotta go.”
“Sure Ted. We’ll take your boat this time. Stuff like that’s important. No explanation needed. Sort of totally starting to understand this whole being a dad thing. What’s the charter?”
“It’s Spendthrift Charters out of Waukegan. And Sage. I got custom made Koozies for us and non-alcoholic beer. Can you swing by the apartment in the morning? You’ve got keys.”
“No problem. I’ll be sure to pick up some Billy Joel too.”
Ancestral Organs overlooked the Chicago river just a few blocks up from Lake Michigan. There was a new high-rise luxury apartment complex just on the other side.
Ted sometimes stared into it.
“About the time I check in at the lab, the families across the street are just starting to reassemble themselves.” Ted told a friend.
“The apartments are like stacked aquariums. Each tank holds a brightly lit family full of happy pajamaed kids running and playing like schools of fish along the huge windows.
Each apartment has a long kitchen table. Mom on one end. Dad on the other. The children sit safely between them.
Always safely between them.
Growing up with a view uninterrupted by anything but other twinkling sky rises. Can you imagine that shit? And if they look out the corner, to the east, the children can see until the water curves away and the lake falls off the earth.”
During a childhood fishing trip, Ted’s dad had said: “look out to where you can no longer see, that’s where the earth bends the water; that’s where the lake falls off the world.”
“Into what?” Ted had asked.
“Into where the clouds are born.”
On this, the eve of Billy’s tenth birthday, Ted stared into the apartments longer than usual, but eventually pushed himself back into the chair and set it rolling away from the windows. And then pushed back again, stopping at the opposite wall where he could reengage the motion sensors for the lab lights.
“Time to clean off the ‘steam etcetera.’”
When the night’s janitorial work was done, Ted started a simple ritual he invented for especially down days: he called it “being a mother fucking scientist.”
He went to the hallway closet where the lab coats were stored, and randomly selected one with the name Dr. Fritz McCutty sewn in bright red cursive on the upper right hand side, and swung it around his shoulders. And with the lights on, he performed for the parents – but mostly for the successful moms – who were just getting up for work in the buildings across the river.
He walked purposefully to microscopes.
He shuffled around empty Petri dishes and test tubes from one place to another.
“There’s no way they can see anything from over there but the vigorous activity of a socially-committed scientist.”
He rolled in a lab chair, turning midway between stations, the lab coat fanning out.
He pretended to read off important information from a blank computer screen while furiously scribbling nonsense across a yellow pad.
He composed his face into numerous moods of the scientific process: an “oh my God the serum fucking works!” face; a “haha they were wrong to laugh at my hypothesis face”; a “nonono we have to start the whole damn thing again” face; and his favorite: the “Jesus F’ing Christ we just cured mother fucking cancer” face.
He thought: “She’s getting out of bed now. Another day at the office. Doing business. Wait, what’s that light on across the way. That man. He’s a scientist. How exciting. Looking into the corners of the world instead of doing stupid business. And such a hard worker, up so early. Maybe I’ll walk over after work. Yes. Walk over after work, and maybe bump into that interesting man. Who knows, maybe he’s curing cancer.”
And Ted thought: “I’ll tell her that I recently synthesized life with my bare hands. And she’ll say . . . .”
But just then a hard knocking interrupted him. Broken glass. The lights off and hands around his neck.
Ted came to with a shock of water to his face and saw a number of things: there was a man, a very severe looking man, screaming into his face; there were two other angry looking men; there was an eye on the floor; and there was a fourth man – sort of – with his eyes closed, suspended upright in a large tank of water, who appeared to be breathing from gill slits in his neck.
“What the fuck did you do to my son you fucking son of a bitch. Oh God. I’m going to fuck you up so bad Dr. McCutty, oh so fucking bad. How do we get him out? What are those fucking things on the side of his neck? What the fuck is on the side of his neck?”
Ted looked around the room, only halfway conscious. He had never been in this room before.
“I’m in Big Blue,” he thought.
Big Blue was the only part of the lab Ted didn’t clean. The door to Big Blue was heavy and “Jesus Lou, the door’s lock is triggered by a fucking retinal scan.”
Ted referred to it as Big Blue because someone had taped an old French movie poster for Luc Besson’s 1988 Le Grand Blue on the imposing door.
“I’ve only wiki’ed it Lou, something about free divers. Competitive breath holders. Cinéma doo look. Whatever the fuck that means. That room is creepy. Doo not go in there.”
Ted felt his face crushed by a fist well-trained for crushing faces.
Then the other two men grabbed his arms and held him up between them while Ted absently thought “I feel like the man tied between the horses in Faith No More’s 1992 video for Midlife Crisis.”
The angry man – crying now – shoved a syringe into Ted’s neck far enough so that when he depressed the plunger, whatever it was that was in the syringe mostly just sprayed into the back of Ted’s throat.
It was bitter. It burned, and it seemed to be causing Ted’s throat to swell shut.
And then his feet were up and the backside of his head smashed into the floor.
His lips and face felt warm.
The back of his head felt like it was leaking sand.
They were dragging him. Ted thought: “my head’s a wheel-barrel wheel.”
Ted’s throat narrowed, becoming a sort of unmusical reed. Each hard sucked breath of air made a high-pitched and raspy wheeze that Ted hadn’t heard since Billy got the croup and they had “totally freaked the fuck out” and “I’m calling 911, fuck the charge, what if he’s dying. Sounds like he’s choking. God please don’t let him die.”
The paramedic had said: “You must love him a lot. You look scared. Settle down. It’s just the croup. Kids get it all the time. No. We still have to take him in the ambulance. It’s procedure. Sorry. The charge? I think its $600 dollars just for the ride.”
And then Ted was being dragged down a hallway to a part of the office under construction. The syringe was still stuck in his Adam’s Apple, and every time he swallowed for a little piece of air, the syringe bobbed up and down too.
The men dragged him over to a window in a far unused corner office that was being remodeled. The window was open and there was a construction chute hanging off the building. The chute normally emptied into a large garbage boat, but the boat wasn’t there, and so now the chute just emptied straight into the river.
The men tied his legs to a heavy office chair, and then threw the office chair down the chute. Ted followed. He gasped, but his lungs just mutely pulled at his throat, which was now completely closed.
Ted heard the chair hit the water, and then nothing.
He was out.
“My father could find luck in the head of a fish,” Ted had once proudly told Joy.
Ted was fishing with his Dad at the end of a poured concrete pier with no discernible organization. It was as if the construction crew had just poured concrete into the lake until it stuck, and had then haphazardly thrown in chunks of broken limestone, pieces of some house’s foundation, street signs, and any other garbage.
Zebra mussels had invaded the lake. Fishing in Sandusky was bad that summer, but you could still catch Sheepshead, the mouths of the larger ones full of what looked “just like human teeth, perfect for munching the shells of mussels.”
“Most think this fish is trash,” Ted’s Dad said.
“But it tastes just fine if you cook it up right. You just need to be careful cleaning it.”
When the cleaning was done, and the filets were placed in a glass casserole dish, Ted’s Dad picked up the heads.
“Right here, about where there’s a crease in the gill, and near the top of the head, just behind the brain, there are two lucky stones. Fish ears, or otoliths for us biologists.”
Ted’s Dad had always given him the lucky stones.
“He never kept one for himself. Said he was already the luckiest man in the world for having me as a son. For having my Mom as his wife.”
Large gulps of water came in through Ted’s neck.
He was breathing.
His lungs were still somehow involved, animating his submerged body with the rhythm of someone softly sleeping. But they were altered. The tissue of the alveolar sacs had thinned, providing more surface area for capillaries to mingle with the water’s small amount of oxygen.
The chair tied to Ted’s legs anchored him twenty feet below the Chicago River’s surface. The muddy water completely blotted out the sounds of the city’s traffic and absorbed all the sunlight.
Ted slowly came to, a school of fish collecting above his head, where a small amount of blood still plumed from his wounds.
A quick “what the fuck” bubbled from Ted’s mouth, soundlessly breaking on the river’s surface a few seconds later.
Ted saw nothing but darkness. But knew he was floating. Knew he was floating in water. Knew he was floating in water and somehow still breathing.
It was cold, but the current sometimes brought warmer pockets.
He bent over, and blindly fumbled at the knot at his ankles, his mind a machine gun of “fucks!”
It was slow going at first, but he eventually un-noosed himself from the river’s bottom and then started swimming up. He soon reached a depth where the rays of sun could reach and the darkness bloomed a dusty green. A little further up and the water yellowed, slightly sparkling with shards of light.
He broke the surface just beneath the Clark Street Bridge. It was a beautiful Chicago day. A perfect birthday day. A perfect day for fishing.
But he couldn’t breathe with his head out of the water.
The pink, sore slits that had opened on his neck became engorged with blood that couldn’t feed on the oxygen in the air. His altered lungs burned. He went back below the water. He started to cry.
“Oh my God, what the hell. The guys. That dude in the tank. Oh, shit. This is bad. What the hell has happened.”
He searched the slits at his neck with his fingers. They were sore to the touch, like a row of fresh paper cuts.
Not knowing what to do, but feeling like “a fucking freak with gills in his neck should probably not be near a large city,” Ted swam out of the river’s mouth and into Lake Michigan.
Ted swam for what seemed like miles, the roar of boats finally dying down to a few far off mumbling motors. Soon there was nothing but blue. The blue above him, streaked with thin clouds. The blue below, deepening into darkness.
And then something sharp pierced him around his midsection. He panicked and rolled in the water, pulling hard against the pain, until somehow he managed to get the sharp thing embedded even deeper into his flesh and tightly wrapped around one of his ribs.
The pain was excruciating, but grew to be almost intolerable when a few seconds later the sharp thing began to pull him through the water.
Ted realized that he’d been hooked. That he was being reeled in. That on top of everything else on this, his son’s tenth birthday, he would soon be discovered. Pulled out of the secret of the water. Sentenced to drown in the sunny day above him aboard some “piece of shit day trader’s yacht, full of beautiful, wide-eyed and shocked spectators.”
He fought hard. And in the struggle learned more about the person at the other end of the line.
The angler was persistent. He didn’t give up. He wasn’t that strong, but he kept going with a tenacity and patience that Ted hoped his son might have one day. But there was also hesitancy in the line. And something like empathy. Perhaps a feeling of sadness for whatever was hooked and trying to get away. And Ted hoped that his son too might have this empathy. Might have this ability to comprehend the suffering of others, even while crawling over them towards his goals.
And then the fight was all out of Ted. He gave into the painful pull of the hook around his rib.
Soon, he could see the white belly of the boat. He could hear music. It was difficult to make out at first. But it became clearer and clearer.
I go walking in my sleep,
Through the valley of fear
To a river so deep
And I’ve been searching for something
Taken out of my soul
Something I would never lose
Something somebody stole.
And Ted said to himself: “Holy shit. That’s Billy’s 1993, Grammy Award winning single The River of Dreams from BJ’s final, most personal record, River of Dreams. Even in this last moment, he’s here to comfort me. My God, life is strange, if only he knew.
No river is wide enough. No valley is so full of fear. I will never lose my love for you. But they stole so much. But still, my love for you was something I’d never lose. My love for you, my son. Billy, if only I could see you again.”
And then the hook pulled hard, and Ted’s head was up over the water. He was looking at the back of a charter boat, the name Spendthrift IV was spelled out large across the boat’s back, just above the motor.
Ted saw Billy and Sage. Sage held the line. Billy stood next to him, watching him with “boundless adoration” while nursing a koozied beer. A koozie that read: ‘Happy Birthday Billy, reel in a big one: follow your dreams man. I love you. Your!!! Dad.”
Adam Caldwell lives in Chicago, Illinois with his wife and son. He writes stories and plays in the noise band Hit School.
At word of Lord Thomas’s arrival, Ursula’s mother fanned herself with a napkin. Half-moons of sweat had gathered under her arms. Several weeks before, Lord Thomas had written that he’d be hunting in the area. Were Ursula’s fourteenth birthday feast to occur while he was there, he said, he’d make every effort to attend. He was a distant relation—the family’s only grand duke—and Ursula’s parents scrambled to arrange a party. Certain necessary repairs to home and village had to be put on indefinite hold. Masonry continued to crumble at the church, raining down on Sunday parishioners, to the consternation of the vicar; a doctor had yet to be summoned to attend to an escalating outbreak of sweating fever in the town; and a well turned up bad water. But repairs would have to wait. “Drink beer,” Ursula’s mother urged when the townspeople complained. Much of the manor’s furniture and tapestries had to be sold. “It’s for the good,” Ursula’s mother whistled through her wooden teeth as the last of the furniture was carted away.
She ordered a live peacock from the city. So dear a price was paid for its transport that Ursula’s mother almost wept when the bird arrived limp and hardly breathing. She watched as cook killed it, baked it, and used a fine brush to paint in the faded color on its rattier feathers before sticking them back into its body. Ursula’s mother let out her breath. The table was heaped with other fine and costly foods. There was mutton in aspic and all manner of savory pastries, and pheasant soaked in almond milk, and cheese baked with pears. Everything that could be candied had been candied. Late-winter flowers were strewn on every flat surface of the hall. Garlands, twisted around the ceiling beams, trailed down the columns at either side of the table. A group of musicians played a volta while young girls scattered leaves at the feet of the entering guests.
Ursula, arranged behind the sagging peacock, was the table’s true centerpiece. Unlike the bird, she sparkled with youth and vigor. She sat between her mother and father with her head angled slightly to the side, as she’d been taught to sit, hardly moving while the guests ate. The guests wondered if they’d ever seen a girl so exquisite.
Lord Thomas, entering with his retinue, was dressed for hunting. Before sitting, he took another guest’s glass and raised it to Ursula’s mother. “Cousin,” he nodded and drained it. He refilled the glass and drained it again.
“Your Grace,” said Ursula’s mother eagerly. “We’re so—”
He raised his hand and a hush fell over the crowd.
“I’m pleased to be at this feast,” he said. “This is a great day in the life of a girl—the day she flowers into a woman.” He snapped his fingers above his glass and a servant refilled it. “To honor Ursula’s metamorphosis, I’d like to make her a rare gift. You’ve not its like.”
He clapped again and two servants appeared, dragging an oblong shape across the banquet hall. It was eight feet high and twelve feet wide, and covered with tasseled damask. At a nod from their master, the servants swept off the drapery. Underneath was an enormous mirror with a smooth, unwarped surface. It reflected the hall in perfect detail. A murmur ran down the length of the room.
Behind Ursula’s back, her father took her mother’s hand.
“You’ve never seen yourselves like this,” said His Grace. “The mirror’s reverse is of a rare mercury alloy, which is why it reflects so faithfully. Look at yourselves—your true selves.”
A profound silence followed the initial murmur. Servants stood frozen, trays in hand. Even the dogs were still. The grand duke’s words were true: no one had seen himself quite like this. Each flaw was apparent in the glass, and some of the celebrants wondered whether the insult was deliberate. The mirror stripped away pretensions and titles, reflecting not lords and ladies, but revelers who looked as squalid as witches at a black mass. Here was a stained and untucked shirt, there a tooth and an earring missing. A near-bald ermine slid from a mottled shoulder; a hand, slick with grease, peeled meat from the bone.
At the same time that the uneasiness in the room grew, Ursula’s reaction was equal—and opposite. She noticed, for the first time, that she was beautiful—that she had transformed—into the very maiden her mother had prayed for that morning. She had pale skin, sloping shoulders, and an oval face of rare symmetry. She hadn’t eaten since morning, so her hands and face were free of fat and crumbs. Look how her hair glimmered, so light it was almost colorless. She smiled at her reflection, and her reflection smiled back at her. Hello, Ursulam. She thought of her reflection as the Latin accusative of her own name. Ursula lifted a hand with slow grace to touch her hair. Ursulam did the same, her hand like a painted Madonna’s. Pride swelled in Ursula’s breast.
Lord Thomas addressed Ursula’s mother: “Let this gift reflect the amity between our family’s two branches,” he said a little drunkenly. He took a few steps toward the mirror and faced himself in it. His tread was heavy with gout. He bowed toward Ursula’s mother. Her wooden teeth clacked in response. “And let the bonds of affection, in times to come, grow even more dear.” He winked at Ursulam.
Ursulam reddened. Ursula’s pleasure turned to alarm as Lord Thomas, rather than looking away, pinned her eyes to the mirror. The blush extended to Ursulam’s shoulder blades and down her arms. Ursula’s reflection, much to her own disapproval, gave Lord Thomas a coquettish smile.
* * *
Ursula’s parents kept the mirror in the reception hall, where it doubled the room’s size. A fortnight after the party, Lord Thomas visited, and the four of them took their brandy and plum cakes in front of it. Ursula’s headpiece and dress had been arranged for the good part of an hour prior to his visit, and her hair glowed with a net of Oriental pearls. Lord Thomas nodded in approval.
“Ursula gathered the plums herself, Your Grace, last summer,” her mother said through her noisy teeth. “She’s very industrious and—”
Lord Thomas interrupted: “Ursula,” he said, “do you know I collect tapestries?”
“I’ve heard, Your Grace,” Ursula answered in a modest voice.
“Call me Thomas.” He smiled. He had all his teeth but most were brown. A bit of brandy dribbled onto his mantle.
Her father said, “You might have heard, Your Grace: Ursula is a skilled weaver. We cannot repay the generosity of the mirror in kind, but please accept a gift: Ursula will weave a tapestry that we hope will be worthy of Your Grace’s collection.” He bowed his head.
“I would display it proudly, Ursula,” said Lord Thomas.
“What does Your Grace prefer as a subject?” said her father. “Something classical? Ursula has been educated in—”
“Unicorn and maiden,” Lord Thomas replied. “Rams and olive trees around the rim.”
“Our heralds! United in a tapestry!” cried her mother. “You honor us, My Lord.” She bowed. Wisps of fine, thin hair escaped the plaits on top of her head. Her scalp showed pink between them. Ursula longed suddenly for the mother of her childhood. Ursula’s mother used to braid her thick hair, color of summer dandelions, in front of the fire, singing an old folk song about a child lost in the wheat. She had seemed big back then—tall and slender, possessed of great confidence, cleverness, and wealth. Now she was stooped, thin-haired, and deferential—in every sense reduced.
Ursula tallied Lord Thomas’s conjugal attributes. It was plain he had vices. Then there were the rumors: young girls on his properties went missing; other parents had refused him their daughters. But mightn’t he allow her to hunt and read? Her parents’ monies and lands were dwindling. A male heir would save them. But Ursula’s birth, beauty, and virginity were their only assets. If her marriage was fruitless, they were doomed, and she could be used only once.
Ursulam showed no outward signs of distress. She and Lord Thomas seemed to have an understanding. Suddenly, in the mirror, Ursulam’s left hand lifted, exposing the palm. Ursula’s own hand remained cupping her knee.
Ursula suppressed a gasp.
* * *
She was installed in the tower room. She set up the vertical loom and ordered quantities of dyed wools and silks. She started and restarted the tapestry. Little by little she built the bottommost border, which she populated with rams’ heads facing opposite directions. Between the rams’ heads she wove olive trees dense with clusters of fruit. The tower room overlooked the gardens. In moonlight it was very beautiful, even when the weather chilled. The moon, huge, paternal, hung suspended over orchard and wood, dusting them with pale light like hoarfrost.
But Ursula wasn’t working fast enough. Her father soon visited.
“You need to make progress,” he said.
The servants dragged the mirror in and leaned it against the wall. For the first time Ursula felt cold. The new room, artificially doubled, was all out of proportion.
“Take it away,” she said.
“His Grace recommended it,” said her father. “To give you some company.”
In time her alarm gave way to boredom. Ursulam was a hard worker. Ursula followed her rhythm. By the time they began the turf and birds of the millefleur background, the blossoms were burgeoning on the real plum trees outside the window. As they began the feet of the figures, the blossoms outside were falling. The summer ripened. The calves of the figures appeared. The plums’ smell was a dizzy wave. Ursula used to climb those trees. She’d glut on as many plums as she could eat and give the rest to Cook, who made preserves for cakes. Now who was picking them? Unpicked, they’d rot. They’d cover the ground with fetid slime.
Ursula learned to blank her mind for days at a time. By the time the plums lost their leaves, the unicorn and maiden were complete to the waist.
“Are you feeling ill?” she asked Ursulam.
Are you feeling ill? the voiceless Ursulam asked back.
Ursula’s memories flattened into a millefleur background. Had she ever had a yellow-haired mother who smelled like honey and rosewater? Did she ever place her palm against the rough, living bark of the plum trees? Had the skinny moon existed in a sky larger than a tower window? She watched Ursulam for cues. Ursulam was comfortable in the ugly space.
“Thank you for the company,” said Ursula.
Thank you for the company, mouthed Ursulam.
All at once, with a prickling at her neck, Ursula realized that Ursulam worked with her left hand. Sinistral people, she knew, were the devil’s agents. She stopped working but could have sworn that Ursulam continued to lead the shuttle through the warp. Had it always been so silent? Finally, too late, the image slowed and stopped. Reflected and reflection matched up again.
Outside crows filled the sky with sudden shrieks. Ursula dropped her shuttle. A full second later, with great deliberation, Ursulam dropped hers as well.
Ursula screamed, “Father! Father!”
She kept shouting until the key scraped in the lock. Her father stopped short when he saw her work, three-quarters finished.
“Ursula!” he said. “I’m so pleased! You’ll have this completed before next year’s thaw. A spring wedding is a blessing from heaven!”
“Papa,” she said desperately, “give me another room.”
“His Grace will be pleased.”
“Let me work downstairs.”
“You’ll work in here until it’s complete,” he said. “His Grace was particular about your solitude. It’s a cocoon, he says. It makes a girl a woman.”
“Then take the mirror.”
He tsked. “Endure it, Ursula. Become a butterfly.”
“But there’s a devil in it,” Ursula whispered, glancing at the mirror. But haughty Ursulam was gone: her reflection, small and frightened, was a faithful copy of herself.
Her father reared to his full height. “Do not speak of devils!” he roared.
Ursula recoiled. It took great effort to calm herself. “Father,” she said, contrite.
His shoulders relaxed. He brushed a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “My girl.” He held her by the chin and gently examined her. “Daughter, we’ve sold almost everything. We’re losing land by the acre. I know you’ll do what you have to because God blessed me with a good daughter, as good as any son. I’ve always been proud and now I’m proud in advance. Give me cause.”
Ursula breathed. She closed her eyes and nuzzled his hand. “You’ll have cause, Father.”
As soon as he left, Ursulam was back. Ursula took a deep breath, steeling herself for the final months, the final battle with her reflection.
She picked up the shuttle. Ursulam followed suit. Dry-eyed, they wove. Ursula led with her left hand to force Ursulam to use her right, and slowly, over the course of weeks, then months, her left hand toughened. In frail sunlight she wove. In candlelight, while the moon glowed white as a fish belly, she wove. Her hair, once plaited daily, hung limp about her face. She wore a rough, woolen tunic. The two Ursulas slept on twin pallets. They ate in their weaving chairs, facing one another, like old friends who no longer need to speak. A film covered Ursula’s memories, like the film over an old man’s eye.
Little by little, through hard work, Ursula turned the tables on Ursulam. It was now Ursulam, thin and ugly, who dragged while they worked. It gratified Ursula to see her mirror image so browbeaten. Her lips were chapped. The nails of her hands were broken and brown, the pads of her fingers swollen with calluses.
Ursula was strong. She didn’t need food or even warmth. Her hands flew, sure and strong. By the time she finished the tapestry, Ursulam was a husk. The two of them passed the shuttle through the warp for the last time. Ursula nodded to acknowledge a successful collaboration, to thank and to commend the lesser woman. Ursulam nodded her deference. The two shared a moment of concord.
Ursula’s conscious mind hadn’t registered the images on the loom in months, and she looked to the completed tapestry. Her heart lurched. It lurched again. The loom had two figures, as promised, a maiden and a unicorn. The unicorn reeled away from the maiden. The maiden had eyes of bald, white silk: Ursula had forgotten to weave irises. The maiden’s mouth was open in a scream. The scream was silent. With a sudden, sweating intuition, Ursula turned the loom to face the mirror and looked at the reflected tapestry. She saw that the woman’s reflection, too, had blank eyes and an open mouth. But the reflected figure’s mouth was not screaming—it was laughing.
And then Ursula knew the truth. Panic choked her. She was trapped. The whole time they were weaving, Ursulam was weaving herself into the real world while Ursula wove herself into the mirror. Ursula touched the loom. Her hand met the wood but couldn’t feel its grain. She raked her fingers across the fabric to destroy the image. Her nails had no effect. The unicorn still staggered away from the woman. The woman’s eyes glowed white and sickening. Ursula ran to the mirror. She peered out of it. Its dimensions confined her. She placed both hands on its surface. She shuddered. A ghost in a ghost room. Her flesh was transparent. Vast, unbreachable silences raged around her, thundering up the length of the room. Her childhood self was gone, given way to Ursulam and the laughing, sightless creature they’d made.
* * *
It was a spring wedding. It took place in Lord Thomas’s manor hall, where whispers and moans echoed all the time, even when the room was empty. A gilded calf’s head sat on the feast table, surrounded by marzipan figures of Zeus and his lovers: Io, Callisto, and Metis, in the act of transformation—the first into a white cow, the second into a bear, and the third into an insect. Rows of mirrors lined the walls, reduplicating the nervous guests, who whispered, A spring wedding, a blessing. When the bride appeared, the room became still, and a sigh of approval or apprehension echoed in the windy hall. Ursula had plum blossoms woven into her colorless hair. She was so pale she almost glowed. None of the guests noticed that she adjusted the chalcedony necklace at her throat with her left hand instead of her right. She walked slowly toward the vicar and Lord Thomas at the end of the hall. Behind the altar hung a tapestry. It featured a unicorn and a laughing maiden. It was widely rumored that she had completed the piece in under two years, and few faulted her for its defects. There was definitely something indecent about the image. The eyes, for instance. It looked as though they had been inked in.
As the bride reached her groom, and together the couple knelt before the vicar, Ursula’s mother turned to her father. “She’s so pale!” her mother whispered with approval. “I thought we’d have to bleed her!” She herself was always bled before banquets to maintain her snowy complexion. She dyed her hair with saffron to defend against the creeping gray.
“But her hips are too thin,” said her father. “It might be a problem.”
“My hips were thin,” she reminded him.
“And look what happened!” he whispered back. “A single daughter!”
They both laughed under their breath.
As the musicians took up the wedding song, he said, “I was worried.”
“As was I,” said his wife.
“But our girl,” he said. “She brought us back from ruin.”
“From the very jaws of defeat,” she said.
“It ended up all right,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “It ended up very well indeed.”
Saramanda Swigart completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction has appeared in Caveat Lector, Fogged Clarity, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air; her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Recidivists! And I’m one of them—
Killer-diller in my two-tone stompers. Hi-de-ho!
We’re cooking with gas.
It was a smoggy morning in August, already 120 degrees. In the quad below office workers were taking their 8:45 break. Hanley adjusted the binocular feature on his eyeglasses, which magnified the leaves of a live oak and revealed a battered squirrel sitting on a branch. The garden of the state capitol building was beautiful with old trees and shrubs, but when he looked across the lawn, he could see seams of SynTurf and artificial gopher mounds. “Soft focus,” he said.
* * *
“Mr. Hanley, right?” asked a man in line at the canteen.
“No, Hanley Anderson.”
“That’s right. Anderson. You’re the fellow who wears suspenders. A bit of a throwback, are you, Hanley?”
“I guess I am.”
“Don’t see you around much.”
“I usually eat in my office.”
“What’s that book you’re reading?”
“The new budget numbers.”
“Still working on that? I submitted my recommendations two weeks ago. If you can’t cut staff or pensions, the only thing left is facilities. I cut seven percent, not a quarter more. No sense in being a hero.”
“Even if California is broke?”
* * *
It had been eighteen months. When the call came, Hanley was startled. Turnbull’s handsome face hovered before him at eye level. Hanley felt like he had been caught sleeping on the job.
“You asked me to call,” Turnbull said. He had a deep, warm voice that put Hanley at ease.
“Mr. Turnbull,” Hanley said.
“Call me Jake.”
There was no need to exchange niceties because employers had full transparency on employee history, including an auto-assembled highlight reel of one’s public and private life. Notwithstanding, it was considered good manners to converse in the old way:
“Where did you go to school, Hanley?” asked Turnbull.
“Excellent school. Were you a radical?”
“The opposite, I would say.”
“A conservative at Berkeley? That’s interesting. But I like what I see.”
“On Transparency, sir?”
“Well, yes. Anyway, we have a big job to do. How do we cut thirty-five percent out of next year’s budget without reductions in salaries or pensions?”
“Working on that, sir.”
“I have a good feeling about you, Hanley. The deficit is killing us. All that spending, doesn’t it make you want to spit?”
“Spit? Haven’t heard that one.”
“Funny, Hanley, coming from you. I’m going to Singapore next week with Morehouse. Singapore knows more about prisons than anyone in the world. Did you know they have robot guards? Not for us, of course. Take a look at state hospitals, private prisons, and fire camps. Cut deep. It’s time to think outside the box.”
“How far outside?”
“Up to you.”
* * *
His office was getting hot. When he tried to turn up the air conditioner, the screen read: “Try again later, Hanley. Everyone is doing their part to conserve energy.”
Hanley spoke into a small microphone mounted on his desk. Twice a screen floated up, which he waved down. He began: “More than eighty percent of the inmate population is serving time for drug crimes. Early release is the solution, but when offenders get out, they must compete for jobs against workers with clean records.” A long discussion about “expunging the record for felonies and misdemeanors” followed.
After dictating fifty-nine pages, Hanley felt excited but tired. He pushed his chair back and ended by saying: “It was clever for planners to install trees that collect solar power, but SynShade made the cities hotter, and now the urban forests smell like burning tires. With every evolution there is the risk of unintended consequences. But what are the consequences if we do nothing? You asked me to think outside the box, sir…”
The long dictation had given Hanley a headache, which was aggravated by the high-speed review with QuickTake. When he finished, the proposal was auto-proofed and edited, with footnotes, statistics, and photographs. It would arrive at Turnbull’s office as a hardcover book. He was tired and strangely giddy. Too late to back out now, he thought. “Send it.”
* * *
It was almost nine and a red sunset diffused through the layered smog. From the train Hanley saw a swarm of Google cars racing five abreast at 160 miles an hour. After an interval another metallic blur would speed through. He hated it. To distract himself he listened to the conversation in the seat behind him. They started out in French, switched to English, then Swahili and a form of Oceanic pidgin. He looked around and saw a young couple, newly chipped, with double gold bars displayed on their temples. They laughed and bantered in loud voices.
The young woman said: “Bobby, you have a wonderful sense of humor.”
“PunDor!” quipped Bobby.
Hanley braced himself for what he knew would come next.
“Which bug hid in the rug?” she started.
“The lesser of two weevils!” said Bobby.
“You can lead a horticulture,” she challenged.
“But you can’t make her think,” he snorted.
“Too rich!” shrieked the young woman.
“I could pun a marathon,” said Bobby irrepressibly.
* * *
Hanley slid a worn key into the mortised lock. It was against the law to have a front door that locked with a key, but houses on the historical register were exempt. Hanley surveyed the kitchen. The cabinets were white, aged yellow, with heavy glass knobs. There was a large iron skillet on the stove and shelves with faded boxes of antique food.
The house had belonged to his great-grandmother and was a perfectly preserved California bungalow; it had low ceilings, shingled siding, and a gravel roof. On both sides of the block stood similar bungalows, where some neighbors left their doors unlocked as an homage to a poorly imagined past.
Julie, Hanley’s girlfriend, called out: “You’re burning the toast! How do you cook with that thing? Are you home, Hanley?”
“Just a minute. I can’t hear you. I’m running the mangle.”
“I said you’re burning the toast!”
“It’s not the toast. It’s the toaster’s old wires. I’ll be right there. Grab the toast. I need to mangle the sheets.”
Julie, who was an art student, had blonde hair cut in a bob. She had brought along her little friend, Johnny.
“Damn it, Julie. Why did you bring that thing with you? You know how I feel. Nothing after ’46. Please take it out.”
“And leave him outside? What does it matter? You aren’t bothered by Johnny when you come to my place.”
“That’s because it’s your place and this is mine. When I come home I like everything simple.”
“You mean everything 1946?”
“Even if the car across the street is a 1957.”
“Just one, the ’57 Chevy. He’s promised to keep it in the garage. But he’s a good neighbor. Being a good neighbor myself, I mind my own business.”
Johnny, three feet tall with a face like Johnny Depp, was following the conversation and would have questions for Julie when they got home. Julie hadn’t decided if she was going to marry Hanley. Maybe she would agree to a five-year contract. She liked Hanley’s tall, neat frame. Their dates were pleasant but his fixation with 1946 had become obsessive. Johnny agreed.
“In 1946 didn’t husbands beat their wives?” Julie asked.
“That’s unfair. You know I would never lay a finger on you.”
“How can I be sure?”
Hanley looked pained. “Some people live dozens of immersive lives. Why can’t I live one?”
Julie laughed. “You mean two. You’re forgetting your life at work.”
“Look, I know. There must be something wrong with me because I like books. And I like the radio because it plays my favorite shows.”
“And once you have listened to all the shows from 1946, does it move on to 1947 or repeat?”
“It repeats because that’s the way I have it set.”
“So there you are. You’re an escape artist like everyone else.”
Hanley’s cell rang: “Mr. Turnbull. What a nice surprise. Yes, I’m home early.”
“I know you are, Hanley,” Turbull began. “We’ve been watching your conversation with Julie on Transparency. The governor just finished reading your White Paper and wanted me to call you. He likes it!”
“Likes it but has questions.”
“There is a lot of detail…the part about expunging the record—”
“Here, Governor Morehouse wants to say hello. Better turn off the speakerphone. The governor doesn’t like people listening in.”
“Hello, Governor. Yes, my speakerphone is turned off. I don’t like it either. I couldn’t agree more. We are spending much too much locking people up. Yes, staggering duplication, fraud, and waste.”
The phone went dead. Hanley went outside for a better connection. Across the street a maroon ’46 Packard was doubled-parked.
Turnbull rang again: “It’s the governor, Hanley.”
“I’m sure it was my phone, sir. Happy to. Well, we begin with the early release of non-violent offenders. I assumed two hundred fifty thousand releases year one and eighteen months to retrofit the cells. This includes new plumbing and drop-down IVs in every cell. No, I don’t think we will need to advertise; the press will do it for us. It’s possible we’ll be oversubscribed before we open the doors. You have the numbers, sir, but ten billion dollars the first year might be on the conservative side.”
“Do you really think the prison guards should staff it?”
“That’s the beauty of the plan, sir. No dislocations. The prison union will like the reduced workload.”
“Who selects content?” the governor asked.
“California, of course. We would start with popular programs: Ancient Greece and Rome with feasts and orgies. Avatar adventures on distant planets. I want to think about it but we can get creative. Thank you, sir. I’ll write it up.”
Turnbull came back on the line. “The governor wants to know Julie’s age.”
“She’s twenty-seven. No, I’m not sure if she will be spending the night tonight. I know—full transparency in all things public and private.”
“Was that the governor, Hanley?” Julie asked.
“Jack Morehouse himself.”
“About tonight?” Julie said, looking down at her hands. “I don’t mind. I know they’re watching. I really don’t mind. Nothing they haven’t seen before.”
* * *
To clear his head, Hanley walked to work, arriving before the temperature rose above a hundred. Governor Morehouse had instructed the “wizards” to run revenue projections for each of the state penitentiaries. There were so many budget scenarios, Hanley needed QuickTake to input the data.
Hanley didn’t think of himself as an odd bod. That was Julie’s expression for him. He had a pretty good sense of humor but he wasn’t being humorous. He was an idea man, someone for whom ideas came easily and poured out without filters. His suggestion seemed to almost write itself—but it was Morehouse who saw the potential.
When the legislature approved Phase One, the media’s response was praise for the bold plan. Certain groups, like Recidivist’s Pride, protested, saying they didn’t want to lose their heritage. Others said the government was taking the final step toward mind control. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Morehouse explained. “We don’t want people to spend their whole lives immersed. People need to work. These are vacation cells!”
The retrofit went faster than planned. Pelican Bay, Salinas, Sacramento, and Mule Creek were now repurposed, and more than a million Californians had opted for “voluntary detention.” The slogan on the California license plate now read: Any land, any dream. Legions of out-of-work screenwriters created cheap immersions called “pulp dips,” sensational exploitation pieces lasting under twelve hours. Others repurposed classics like War and Peace for extended stays. With so many options, the DPC needed more salespeople and trip guides. California was getting back on its feet.
Julie called. “How are you doing with your Immy?”
“I’m surprised. Who knows more about the Eisenhower years than you?”
“Truman, actually. But I’m afraid I’m overthinking it. The story is distracting from the urban landscape.”
“I know what you need,” she said.
* * *
A million users; then, overnight it seemed, ten million. The State of California was flush with cash. In the ramp-up there were problems: irreversible comas, seizures, and strange brain swellings. Hanley wrote another White Paper outlining how the guards should be retrained as registered nurses. In another he made the case that timeshare commissions were the cause of violence among prison guards.
* * *
Hanley had collected thousands of images for his set designer. Avoiding the obvious, Frank Sinatra was specifically written out. He wanted it real: the hard times after the war—the dismal truth. He leaned back in his chair and imagined soot on his collar and sidewalks littered with trash. There would be shoeshine boys with snot and men going off to work with lunch pails smelling like baloney and cigarettes. There would be no staged adventures or romantic encounters—no awards for cleverness, initiative, or accumulation.
Julie called. “How’s it going?”
“I figured it out,” Hanley said. “I’m going to make it so nobody wants to live there. I’m going to make sure everything about it is lousy. How do you like that?”
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said a voice coming from the closet.
“What the—” When Hanley looked up, Johnny, Julia’s little friend, opened the sliding wooden door.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked the trespassing bot.
“You need help, Hanley. You’re thinking about this all wrong.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“Well, for one thing, every time you download QuickTake, the paired frequency signs you into the neural network. I just listened in.”
“So now you know everything about ’46.”
“Yeah, but it’s a shell. Nothing happens. No action. Everyone is going to be bored to death.”
“That’s the idea. I’m writing it for me. How do I turn off your insolent ass?”
“You know I don’t have to tell you. Not anymore.”
“Come over here and turn around.”
Hanley opened a small door in the back of the bot and removed a silver bar. Then he sat down and imagined a grim day—too cold—spangled with incidents of polio and tuberculosis. There would be no such thing as seat belts and women would have runs in their nylons. Sirens would wail and the sky would be dark and heavy with recidivist clouds. It would be perfect.
Todd Easton Mills received his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University. He co-wrote and produced the documentary film Timothy Leary’s Dead. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Rougarou, The Alembic, Griffin, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, RiverSedge, Paranoia VHS, Collage, Antiochracy, Forge, Jet Fuel Review, New Plains Review, Crack the Spine, Serving House Journal, Barely South Review, Santa Monica Review, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11.
Nina saw the old man first, just a second before Ollie, standing at the edge of the woods on the far side of the pond. He waved to them, and then beckoned, but they did not move. And then he was there, and then he was gone. The pond was below their yard, at the bottom of the hill, and they weren’t supposed to go down there unless they had an adult with them. Sometimes there were ducks on the pond, and sometime loud geese, and Ollie had seen another bird on there once that she bet was a swan, and one time last spring their father had brought them down there to try and catch frogs with a pink and green net. They did catch one, but as soon as they caught him, he jumped out and back into the water, making a splash. Their father wasn’t home now though—both he and their mother were at work—and Helga the au pair was inside babysitting.
Helga was tall and round and pulled her hair back tight, and she came from a black forest in a place called Germany and she lived with them now and watched Ollie and Nina during the day. It had just been Easter, and today she was busy eating the chocolates the Easter Bunny had brought their mother. “She told me to eat them,” Helga said, “so that she will not get fat.”
Ollie saw her come to the window every once in a while to look out and make sure they were still there: they weren’t supposed to be out in the yard alone, but Helga said it was too cold for her to go outside, and too nice for them to stay in. “You get some fresh air,” she had said, dressing them in boots and scarves and hats and gloves, “and this you do not tell your mother or father. It will be our secret. And when you come in—I give you candy. You must just do one thing,” she said, leaning over and pointing a finger, “you must stay away from the pond, and the woods, and be careful of the Nokken.”
Now Ollie scanned the far edge of the pond, but their grandfather was nowhere in sight. Nina turned to her, a stick in hand—they had been poking the ground looking for moles. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” Ollie said.
None of the trees had leaves back on them yet, but the woods were big, and everything was brown and gray, and their grandfather had been wearing his heavy brown coat, so now Ollie bet he had stepped back into the woods. She had seen a deer drinking from the pond once, and he had disappeared the same way. And once she thought she had seen a horse, but he disappeared, too. It was easy to disappear in the woods, and that was why they couldn’t go in there. They were supposed to stay by the swing set, and the green playhouse, and plastic gray castle, but Nina always wanted to go look down at the pond. Nina loved animals.
Now they turned and the old man was suddenly behind them.
“Papa,” Nina said again. She dropped the stick and ran, grabbing the old man by the legs, and hugging him tight. Their Papa picked her up. Nina hugged him tighter, and the old man kissed her cheek. Then he looked down.
“Hello, Ollie,” he said.
Ollie went over and he picked her up, too.
Their Papa was old, but he wasn’t that old; he wasn’t crooked and all hunched over—like their father’s grandmother—and he didn’t walk with a cane. But he was kind of bald when he didn’t wear his baseball hat, and he had a gray mustache. Ollie and Nina had been going over his house during the day for a long, long time whenever both their mother and father had to work, but now they weren’t going over there anymore, and Helga had come to live with them because everyone said their Papa was old. He didn’t live in his house anymore either, not for a while, because their mother had sent him to a big building to rest.
A lot of people didn’t rest in that place though, and some of them were either crying, or screaming, and Ollie saw one once hurrying down the hall without any clothes on. But some of them just sat in their wheelchairs with their heads tilted over on their shoulders, so she supposed those people were resting. Their Papa didn’t like it there much though, even when their mother bought him bags of butterscotch candy, and he was always telling them so.
“This place is for nitwits,” he would whisper to Ollie and Nina.
“It’s not for nitwits,” their mother would say, “it’s for people your age. It’s good for you to be around people your age. Good for you to have company.”
“I had company,” Ollie heard him say once. “And you took them away.”
The rest place had a nun sitting at the desk when you walked in, and sometimes she would give you a piece of candy, and then you had to walk down a long hall passing pictures of Jesus, and God, and an old man called the Pope. The rest place had a funny smell usually, and a lot of times you would see trays with eaten food on them in the halls.
“Papa.” Nina squeezed his neck again. Nina was always squeezing people she liked, hugging them tight. “I thought you were at the rest place?”
“Oh, I’m still there,” he said. “I just thought I’d come visit. I miss you. I don’t like to be away from you guys.”
“Where’s your car?” Ollie asked, looking towards the driveway.
“It needs a tune up, so I decided to walk.”
“Through the woods?” Nina asked.
“Yes,” he said, “through the woods. I like the woods.”
“And did you see any bears?” Nina asked.
“I saw three. But I growled really loud, and I scared them away.”
“You should be careful around bears, Papa,” said Ollie. They’re wild animals.”
“But they can be nice,” said Nina. “And cute.”
The old man put them down, and Ollie looked back at the window. Still no sign of Helga. Sometimes she fell asleep watching T.V.
“Do you want to come in the house, Papa?” Nina asked him, looking up. “We can ask Helga to make you some cocoa. And then you’ll be warm.”
The old man looked up at the house, and then crouched down. “That’s okay,” he said. “I better stay out here. I wouldn’t want to worry your Mommy.”
“But how are you going to get home?” Ollie asked.
He stood then, and did two jumping jacks. “I can run. I’m very fast.”
“That’s a long way Papa,” Ollie said.
“Well, I found little house out in the woods,” he said. “I can stay there a little while. Build a nice fire.”
“Papa!” said Nina. “You’ll get burned.”
“Not if I’m careful.”
Ollie looked out across the pond, into the trees. She couldn’t see any house out there, and she wondered if he was fooling. There was noise up above them, and then three ducks landed on the pond. One stuck his head in the water, shook his neck.
“And maybe I can cook a duck for supper,” their Papa said, smiling. He took a deep breath. “We could try and catch one. Jump right in the water after them.”
“No, Papa,” Nina said. “Don’t eat the ducks. That would be mean. And the water is too cold.”
The old man smiled. “Okay,” he said. “What if we just visit my house then?”
Ollie looked inside the glass door to check on Helga. The T.V. was on, and Helga was on the couch. Snoring. People on the T.V. were pointing at each other. Angry faces, yelling, and then the T.V. show faded to a commercial.
Their Papa led them through the woods. Ollie was a little worried, but not too worried, because if they were with him, they couldn’t get in trouble for leaving the yard, but she was worried that he might get in trouble, and they might strap him to the bed in his new home like some of the old men she had seen there.
And she was a little worried about the Nokken.
Helga liked to talk about the Nokken, and she knew all about them from her old home in the Black Forest. Helga had said that the Nokken were usually near the water, but they could be anywhere in the woods. And the woods were bigger once you got inside, and there were a lot of places to hide. There was a path that Ollie and Nina sometimes walked on with their father when he took them looking for rabbits. Their Papa took them this way now, but they didn’t see any rabbits—just a squirrel leaping up in the trees—and then he took them off on another path they hadn’t walked on before, and when Ollie looked back she couldn’t see the house anymore, and she hoped Helga was still asleep. Nina was talking to Papa about her little stuffed wolf named Woofie. Woofie had a bow tie and a fancy striped jacket and had been lost since before even Christmas, and their mother thought she had maybe left him at their Papa’s.
Nina still cried sometimes in bed at night about Woofie. She used to squeeze him a lot and say he was her favorite and she took him everywhere—even once to the beach where he got all covered with sand.
“Have you found him, Papa?” Nina asked now.
“Found who?” he asked.
“Yeah, Woofie,” Nina said. “You know? Woofie.”
“Oh, yes, Woofie. No, I still haven’t found him, but once I get home I’m going to look one more. Maybe under the bed.”
“When are you going home?” Ollie asked.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe the next day.”
“But Mummy says your house is for sale Papa,” Ollie said.
“It’s Papa’s house,” Nina snapped, “And no one can sell it if he doesn’t want them to.”
“But they have a sign, Nina,” said Ollie, “and the sign says “For Sale.”
“Oh, I’ll take that sign and throw it in the pond,” Papa said, “and then I’ll go inside and look for Woofie. I bet he’s under the bed.”
They came to a little river in the woods now, and there were some rocks you could step on to get across, but the rocks were far apart and covered with slippery green stuff so their Papa picked them up and carried them over one at a time. Little rivers like this sometimes had spirits, too, Helga had told them, and if you listened really closely to the water trickling sometimes you could hear them talking or singing.
“What are spirits, Papa?” Nina asked now.
“They’re like ghosts, Nina,” Ollie said, “except they’re not always scary.” She thought about it a minute. “But they can sometimes be scary. Right, Papa?”
Nina froze, stopped walking, and said she wouldn’t look at the river again, so their Papa went and picked her up. “Oh, they’re not scary. They’re a little like fairies.”
“Like the Nokken, Papa?” Ollie asked.
“Nokken?” said the old man.
“Helga always says stay away from the pond because of the Nokken,” said Ollie.
“And what is a Nokken?”
“I don’t know, Papa,” said Ollie. “Not really anyway. Helga says they had a lot of them where she came from, and it’s like a fairy or a ghost, and they can read your brain and they pretend to be nice, but they’re not, and they try to pull you into the water, or sometimes pull you onto the ice when it’s thin. And then you fall in and can’t get out.”
“And then you drown,” said Nina.
“Well, I’ve never heard of any silly old Nokken,” Papa said, “and most fairies that I know are good. Especially fairies that live in the water. They’re always nice.”
“Does the tooth fairy live in the water?” Nina asked.
“That’s where she hides all the teeth,” he said. “And then they become little white stones on the bed of the river.”
“The bed?” Ollie asked, looking back.
“Where the fairies sleep,” he said. “And stay forever. I like to think about forever.”
He lifted them over a rock wall, and then they came to a small house that looked really old, but the front door was missing and it had a hole in the roof. Their Papa said it was his cabin now, but he didn’t get a chance yet to fix the roof yet, but it didn’t matter much because he liked to lie on the floor at night and look up at the stars.
“But you must get really cold, Papa,” said Ollie.
“Oh, I get a little cold, but when I do, I just build a fire, and that keeps me warm.”
He brought them into the cabin, and there was fireplace built into the wall. The fireplace was made out of round rocks, and there were ashes everywhere. There was a bed in the cabin, but the mattress was dirty, and half of it was touching the floor. There was a pile of white blankets on the floor, and there was a small round table.
“Who lived here before you, Papa?” Nina asked.
“Somebody who wasn’t very neat, and wasn’t very good at fixing holes in the roof. It might have been dwarfs.”
Nina was staring at him again, wide-eyed, but Ollie wasn’t sure she believed him. “But how did you know it was here?” she asked.
“Oh, I saw it one day a long time ago when I was out here walking one day.”
“Papa, if those dwarfs come back, you better run, like this,” Nina said, and she went running across the cabin to show him how. There was a lot of trash on the floor. Cigarette boxes and bear cans. And more old clothes. Something that looked like it might have been a sweater. She tripped on an old shoe and fell, and then she rolled over and sat on her bum, but she didn’t cry.
“Dwarfs wouldn’t hurt him, Nina,” Ollie said, “they just like to dig for gold and sing songs.”
When the old man brought them back to the yard, he kissed them both good-bye and made them promise that it would be their secret that he was living in the woods. Ollie went in for a minute—Helga was still asleep on the couch—and took two bananas, a bottle of water, and a package of crackers, and gave them to him before he went back into the woods. Nina started crying when he left.
Their father got home before their mother that day, and when Ollie asked where she was, he said she was at the rest home. Their father was tall and thin with blue eyes, and whenever he got his hair cut, Nina told Ollie that it made him look bald. “He’s not bald, Nina,” Ollie would whisper, “his hair is just really short.”
“Well, Papa is bald,” Nina would say. “He just has maybe three, or maybe seventeen hairs left, and he’s an old man.”
“Papa is much older than Daddy, Nina,” Ollie would say.
A lot of times their father would be singing—their Mummy hated it when he was singing because she said he sounded like he was in pain—but tonight he was mostly quiet. He said he was going to cook some macaroni and cheese, but then their mother came home, said she would cook supper, and then she was crying. Their fathr said he would just order pizza then, but she said no, and said that she wanted to keep busy. It was better to keep busy, she said, but then even when she did, cutting some onions and celery, she was still crying, and Ollie wondered if it was because Papa had run away, but she was afraid to say anything. Nina went over and hugged her legs, pressing her face tight into them and rubbing it back and forth, but their mother just kissed her head, and told them to go play.
The playroom was down the hall. The room was a mess, and all their pots and pans and knives and forks from their play kitchen were on the floor. So were their Beanie Babies, their car, and Kermit the Frog. Nina was wearing her baker’s hat, and pretending to make some brownies, and Ollie was helping, but she was also trying to listen. Their mother started crying again, and she could hear their father whispering, and then their mother said something about “it’s like he’s not even there,” and Ollie knew she had to be talking about Papa. She wanted to ask Nina if they should tell them that he was out in the woods, but then she was afraid Nina might get scared, and then she might cry. And then if they told, Papa might be mad. He didn’t usually get mad, but she had seen him mad once when he was watching football and his team was losing. He yelled at the T.V.
The next day he was back in the yard when Ollie looked out the window. Helga was in the living room again, but today she was wearing tights and lying on her back on the floor. When Ollie asked her what she was doing, she said she was stretching.
“Exercising is very good for the heart, young lady,” she said. “You must take care of the heart.” She sat up and took a bite of her doughnut. She helped them get their hats and coats on—it was a little colder today, she said—and she went to the back door to let them out, Ollie couldn’t see her Papa anymore, and she thought he might have gone back in the woods.
Nina ran towards the hill above the pond, and Ollie scanned the yard. Looked at the shed. It was dark inside the shed, but she thought she saw something moving in the window. She was taking slow careful steps to get a better look when her Papa was suddenly beside her.
“I thought you might be in the shed,” she said.
“No,” he said, “this time of year there are only mice in the shed.”
“That’s why my Mummy won’t go in there,” she said.
Nina saw them then, and she came, running.
“Oh, your Mummy has always been afraid of silly things,” the old man said to Ollie, “like mice, and dark sheds, and the pond. She’s a silly woman.”
He took them back to his house in the woods, but it looked better than it had the day before. He had swept the floor, and it looked like he had had a fire in the fireplace because there was a big pile of gray ashes in there now, some still glowing red.
“Where did you get the logs for the fire, Papa?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, some friends of mine.” Their Papa had made a table out of a board and a big tree stump, and surrounding it were more tree stumps, standing up right. “I had some company last night,” he said, “so I needed to make sure I had a table and everybody had a place to sit.” He went to the fire place, broke some twigs and threw them on, and then once it was going, he put on another log. The fire crackled, and sparks and ash floated across the room.
“Who did you have for company, Papa?” Ollie sat down at the table.
“Oh, just a fox, a wolf, a dwarf and some elves. The dwarf wouldn’t sit at the table though because he didn’t trust the elves, but he was nice enough to cut the wood.”
“A wolf, Papa?” Nina said, her eyes wide. “In the house?”
“Oh, he wasn’t a bad wolf, and he is old now, so he doesn’t have much energy to go chasing people or the other animals. And besides, he can’t see very well, so he wears a pair of little glasses. I just gave him some chicken broth, and then a little tea.”
“What about bunnies?” Nina asked.
“Oh, a couple of the bunnies were looking in the window, but even though the wolf was old, they still weren’t sure if they should trust him—he still has very big teeth. And they knew they couldn’t trust the fox even though he swore to me he was a gentlemen, and would never cause trouble as a guest in my house. But foxes are foxes and you can never be sure. The dwarf of course drank too much beer, and then I was afraid he might not find his way back through the woods, so I let him sleep by the fire.”
“Where does he live, Papa?” Nina asked.
“He said he lives in a small cave not very far from here.”
“Can we see him?”
“Not during the day. He would never come out during the day, and if we tried to wake him, I’m afraid he might get grumpy. He isn’t a bad dwarf, but he has a temper if you wake him up when he’s trying to sleep.”
Ollie looked around the room, trying to picture the scene her grandfather was depicting, scanning for the signs that the event had actually happened. “Were you cold last night, Papa?” she asked.
“Not too cold,” he said, “The dwarf snored a lot though, as dwarfs are apt to do, so I didn’t sleep very well.”
The old man smiled at her, and Ollie listened for sounds in the woods. Footsteps. Possibilities. The wolf or the fox approaching, coming back. Slowly. Sneaking. She wondered if they walked on two legs like the ones she saw in the books her mother read to them, or if they ran around on four legs like regular foxes and wolves. Either way the wolf’s tongue would be hanging out, wet, and he would look hungry. A bird called out in the trees above them, and then something shook in the branches. She looked out into the woods. The sky was cloudy today, and the woods were very dark.
“Mummy is worried about you, Papa,” she said at last.
“Me?” she said. “She doesn’t have to worry about me. I’m her father.”
“She’s worried because you’re not at that place anymore,” Ollie said, “and they don’t know where you went.”
“They don’t?” he said. “I thought I left them a note.”
“Maybe you should tell them you’re living in the woods,” Ollie said quietly.
“Well, hopefully I won’t be living here long,” he said.
“But where will you go?”
“You know, I’m not sure. Maybe Texas. Help with the cows.”
“I like cows, Papa,” Nina said.
The old man leaned over and patted her head. “We all like cows.”
That night, in their bedroom, Ollie went to their window, and looked out to see if she could see a fire in the woods, but it was very dark out, and she could barely even see the trees. Nina was playing with their Barbies. She thought if she saw Papa down there in the yard, maybe she could sneak him into the cellar. But she couldn’t see him. And then she pictured him in the woods with Wolf, the Fox, the Dwarf, and the Elves, all drinking mugs of beer, and she wondered if the dwarf was sleeping by the fire again. She hoped they had a fire because they had gone to the store with their mother when she got home from work, and it had been cold.
They were in the car, buckled in their car seats, when their mother told them that Papa wasn’t doing well. She looked into the mirror on the windshield as she talked them, her chin raised a little. Their mother had blonde hair, and she usually wore it up unless she was going out somewhere with their father. Her eyes were blue, and she had small scar on her chin; she told Ollie and Nina she had got the scar when she fell off her bike when she was little.
Nina had her second stuffed wolf—“Woofie’s Cousin”—that Papa had bought her when they couldn’t find Woofie last fall, but his cousin was a little bigger, had a longer tail, and he didn’t wear fancy clothes like Woofie. Nina was talking to him though, and sometimes when she got excited she would clench him tight in her hands and shake him a little. Then she would pull him close and hug him.
“So, I want you girls to say a prayer for him that he’ll be okay,” their mother said.
“I think he’ll be okay, Mummy,” Ollie said now. She wondered why her mother wouldn’t just tell them that they couldn’t find him, and then she wondered if maybe he did stop back at the rest place and check in. She felt something by not telling their mother what they knew, but she wasn’t sure what that something was. If she did tell, she thought Papa might get mad, and then they’d make him go back, but if she didn’t tell and her mother and father found out, then they would be mad, too.
“He’s really old,” Ollie added now. “So, he’s been taking care of himself for a long time. He told me and Nina he even had to take care of himself when he was little. And sometimes he had to take care of his little brothers and sisters—cooking spaghetti for them, and hot dogs. Back then they didn’t even have T.V. so if they wanted to watch a show they had to stick socks on their hands and make them talk, like puppets.”
“He is really old, honey,” their mother said. “That’s the problem. Sometimes when people get that old, they can’t take care of themselves anymore. Papa forgets to do things—like shut off the stove, or drain the water in the tub, or to shut all the windows before going to bed. And he forgets to take his medicine, and to call people back, and sometimes he even forgets to eat, so it’s dangerous for him to be alone.”
The next day both their mother and father went to the rest home again
Helga fixed them lunch. Chicken noodle soup, and peanut butter and crackers. Helga was wearing an apron, and talking about how tired she was.
“Just exhausted,” she said. “Work, work, work. I tell you girls, you get older, you marry a rich man, and then you be all set. I was all set to marry, back in Germany, but then he joined the Navy, and boom! I never see him again.”
“Do you think the Nokkens got him?” Ollie asked.
“On the ocean? No. I don’t think so. The Nokken do not like salt water. Just fresh water. And this is why I tell you girls to stay away from the pond. If I there, fine, I see them, and shoe them away. But alone, never.”
“Would they run from you?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, yes, I make them run very fast.”
“What do they look like?” Ollie asked.
“Oh, they can look many different things. Sometimes they may look like a very handsome man in very fancy clothes, and at other times, a kind old lady. Or sometimes an ugly old lady, like a witch. Or sometimes a small child, like you. But usually if they look like a child they are Myling, and not a Nokken.” Helga licked the spoon. “I have even heard that they sometimes look like a horse. A beautiful white horse. The thing is, they really don’t look like anything, and so they can trick you by making you see something you are not. They are very clever, but you must never listen to them, even when they play beautiful music and try to enchant you. I read much about them in the Folkesagn when I was a girl. There is also the Huldra—she is very beautiful but you can tell it is her because she has a long cow’s tail she hides under her skirt. And of course the Myling and Fosegrimen. But here I think, we just worry about the Nokken.”
Ollie looked at her. “How come?”
Helga raised her eyebrows a bit. “Well,” she said, “because of the pond.”
She was sleeping again on the exercise mats, when their grandfather appeared at the sliding glass door. He tapped a little to get their attention. Ollie was watching The Wiggles. Greg was singing about Fruit Salad, Yummy, Yummy.
Nina was upstairs playing.
Ollie looked at Helga, and then she snuck out onto the back porch, sliding the door shut quietly behind her.
“Mummy went to the rest place to talk to them again about you, Papa,” she said. “What if they go to the police?”
“The police?” the old man said. “Well, what are they going to do? Arrest me? ” He made his hand look like gun. “Hands up Mac! You’re under arrest!”
“It’s not funny, Papa.” Ollie looked at him closely. He looked a little more white, and his hair was sticking up like he just got out of bed. You must be cold at night. You can’t stay in the woods forever, Papa.”
The old man patted her head. “Not forever. Just for now. I don’t like being far away from you guys.”
“You must be hungry. Do you have any crackers left?”
He smiled. “I had a little but the dwarf ate them—right after he drank the rest of my beer. I have to get some more. But now, I was thinking maybe I can catch a fish. Do you want to help me catch a fish?”
Ollie looked back in at Helga to see if she were still asleep. “We can’t be gone long. Do you want me to get Nina? She’s upstairs, and she’ll be sad if she doesn’t see you. ” She looked back to her Papa but when she did she was on the porch alone. The old man was gone. Inside Helga had sat up on the matt and was looking her way.
It was a few days later, that their mother got a call from the nursing home, telling her that she had to come. Ollie hadn’t seen their Papa since that day on the porch. She looked out the window. The leaves were starting to come out on the trees, and everything was turning green, making it hard to see very far into the woods now. The sky was really cloudy, and it looked like it was going to rain again.
“Maybe if Papa built a boat, he escaped down the river,” Nina said to her. Nina was beside her at the window, still in her Winnie the Pooh pajamas. The same as Ollie’s.
“How would he build a boat, Nina, if he can’t cut down any trees?”
“He could use an axe, or the wolf could chop them down with his teeth, like this,” she said, chomping.
“He doesn’t have an axe.”
“Daddy has one, so maybe Papa stole it from the shed.”
“Papa wouldn’t steal anything, Nina. And the river isn’t big enough for a boat.”
Now the rain had started. Ollie could see the drops hitting the pond. Circles growing, bigger and bigger.
When their parents finally got home, Ollie and Nina were in their fort in their bedroom. The fort was made of blankets and pillows, and Nina had taken their Winnie the Pooh Light and put it on the floor inside, so they could see their dolls—Baby Pousie, the twin clowns Lovey and Lovey’s Sister, the Panda Bear named Boo Boo, and the doll with the Red Hair. Claudia. Six of the Barbies. And Woofie’s cousin. They were all having a tea party inside the fort.
Claudia was fighting with Lovey’s Sister, when Ollie looked over and saw their mother laying on the floor, her head resting on her arm, as she peeked inside, watching them. Her face was very white, and she looked like she had been crying again, but she also looked like she was trying hard to smile. Ollie heard their father talking to someone on the phone in their bedroom across the hall, and then their mother told them that once he was off the phone, she and their father had to talk to them.
Nina was crying again. “Ollie, if Papa has gone to the angels that means he’s dead, and we’re never going to see him again.” Nina’s face was all red, and she was hugging Woofie’s Cousin tight.
“Yes, we will Nina,” Ollie said. “Just not for a long time.”
Nina shook her head. “But I don’t want to wait a long time.”
“You have to. Once we’re old, we’ll see him. That’s how it goes. Just like Daddy said.” Ollie had been crying, too, but now she had stopped. Their mother and father were downstairs. They said the girls could sleep in their bed if they wanted. Just a little later.
“But we should tell them he was living in the woods,” Nina said again now. She had already said it like five times. “And then maybe they can do something.”
“He already died, Nina. They can’t do anything.”
“But maybe it wasn’t him that was dead. Maybe they don’t know that. And maybe they can save him.”
“They can’t save him if he already died.”
“You don’t know that Ollie!” yelled Nina. “They might be able to do something!”
Baby Poussie was lying on her back on the floor, staring at the ceiling. The fort had fallen down, and they hadn’t fixed it. But their father had taken the Pooh Light and put it back on the bookcase before it got broken or caused a fire. It was dark now, and it was quiet downstairs. Helga had brought them up some chicken noodle soup and Goldfish crackers on a tray, and then she had hugged them both, and kissed their heads before she went back downstairs. Ollie went to the window, and looked out on the woods, hoping that she might see the fire going out there somewhere. The Wolf, and the Dwarf, and the Fox. Waiting for her Papa.
The next day their mother and father got all dressed up and went to the place where people would come to visit their Papa even though he was dead. Nina said that that meant he wasn’t really dead, like not in the ground dead, because other people could still visit with him, and pray that he wakes up, but Ollie wasn’t so sure. They had wanted to go, too, and she had cried a little, and Nina had cried a lot, but their father said no—said they were too little.
“But they might need closure,” their mother said. She didn’t know they were listening in the next room. “Otherwise, they won’t understand.”
“Of course, they’re not going to understand,” their father said. “They’re not even four.”
The phone had been ringing all day, and Mrs. Clark had come by with lasagna, some bread, and more macaroni and cheese. Helga ate most of the lasagna while their mother and father were arguing about whether Ollie and Nina could go, and as she was licking her fork, she said, “You know girls, I must agree with your father. Things like this are no places for small children. It could give you nightmares for a very long time. My grandfather, he was your age during the War, and he saw some terrible, terrible things. And now he still has nightmares. And sometimes, he wets his pants. You don’t want to wet your pants or your Mum will make you start wearing diapers again.”
Ollie didn’t want to wear diapers again—Billy Tudor who lived down the street still wore diapers and he was going into kindergarten next year, but their mother said he “had problems.” Ollie didn’t want people thinking they “had problems.” But Nina said she didn’t mind if it meant she got to see Papa again.
Helga put on the Wiggles for them once their parents were gone.
There were flowers in the yard. Small purple flowers with white and yellow middles, and the grass was suddenly all green, but it was still a little cold today, so Helga put their winter hats on them. Nina had found a little frog, and they were scared that their cat Ralph might eat him so they put him in a pail with grass, dirt, rocks and twigs. The frog looked like he wanted to get out of there though and was sitting on top of the rock, staring up at them. They had him in their play house, and the frog had already escaped twice. Then he peed in Ollie’s hand. Now Ollie was working in the kitchen, making mud pies, and Nina said she was going to bring the frog to the pond so he could be free again.
“We’re not supposed to go down there alone, Nina,” Ollie said. “If Helga sees, we’ll be in trouble.”
“Helga’s not going to see, Ollie. She’s probably busy eating all the Fruit Loops. And I’ll run really quick. I’m really fast.”
Ollie watched her sister hurry across the lawn holding the bucket out straight in front of her. Ollie sifted some sand into a pie plate, getting out the twigs and small stones, and then once it was full, she patted it flat. She listened for Nina, but all she heard was a duck call out. More ducks had come back to the pond, and the Lilly pads were growing again. Their grandfather had been in heaven for almost four days now, and Ollie had stopped looking for the fire at night in the woods. He had probably made up the story about the wolf and the dwarf, she thought now, just doing make believe, but that was okay, because it was fun. Stories were like that.
Their mother had promised to take them to the graveyard to visit him, but their Dad said she wasn’t ready yet. They had gone to the church, wearing yellow dresses with white sweaters, but they didn’t see him then. Just his coffin, covered in a white sheet with an American flag draped over it. And then in the graveyard, his coffin was covered with flowers but it wasn’t in the ground. Nina had looked at the coffin and whispered in Ollie’s ear. “I don’t think he’s in there.”
Now Ollie left the play house, and looked up at their real one. Helga wasn’t at the door, or in the windows. Ollie called out to Nina, but Nina didn’t answer, and she didn’t think she had come back from the pond. Ollie put down her mud pie and went to the top of the hill. Ralph galloped by, and then ran halfway up a tree, and stopped, clinging to the bark, hanging their and staring at her.
Ollie stopped at the top. Nina was crouched down at the edge of the pond, looking into her reflection in the water. The reflection of Nina looked a lot bigger than the real Nina and was kind of blurry and dark. Nina lifted the frog from the bucket, and he jumped from her hand, all four legs spread, and landed with splash. He scrambled a little in the water, making ripples in Nina’s reflection and then he lay still. Just floating. Nina stood, and poked the water with a stick, sending more ripples, and then when the water was still again, her reflection was back in the water, but now there was another reflection there. Papa was there, too. Standing right behind her.
Nina leaned over to touch him, and the old man’s reflection began to drift. Separating from Nina’s. Ollie started down the hill. The old man in the water was moving away, out towards the center of the pond, and his image was growing bigger, thinner, as he did, breaking in the ripples. Nina leaned over again, and then she jumped, hitting with a splash. Ollie tripped, and slid a little down the hill. She almost stopped, started to cry, but she couldn’t stop, couldn’t cry—Nina was in the pond. Nina tried to stand up, but she was spitting water, a leaf stuck to her cheek. Their Papa’s image was gone now, spread so big that she couldn’t even see him. A noise escaped Nina’s lips, and then the ducks all quacked at once, and flew up and out of the water. Ollie watched them go, disappearing over the trees; she had never seen them fly so high. But Nina had to get out of the water—Nina couldn’t swim, and it was too cold. And they weren’t supposed to go near the water. Trouble, Ollie thought. It was going to be a lot of trouble.
When she reached the water’s edge, she found a long stick, and held it out.
“You have to grab it,” she said, but Nina didn’t look like she could hear her. She had turned away from Ollie, turned so she was again facing the middle of the pond, and now there was a man out there, looking as if he was trying to swim. Soaking wet, and what little hair he had left plastered to his bald head. Papa. Again. But now not just a reflection in the water. But really there. Trying to swim.
Nina called out to him, and he raised his arms straight up into the air, and then he went under. Nina took a step forward, and Ollie yelled for her to stop. Their grandfather broke the surface again, sending rippling rings across the pond. He opened his mouth to call out help, but no sound came out of his mouth. But there was something. It hadn’t been there before. But now it was. Music. It sounded like music their father sometimes listened to in his den at night, the lights low while he read a book or did something on the computer. Soft and distant, and almost making her want to sleep. Violins.
Nina was now up to her neck, and their Papa again went under. He stayed under for longer this time, and once he did, Nina jumped forward again and tried to swim. The dog paddle. It was the only thing she knew how to do, only thing Ollie knew how to do, too, but Nina wasn’t very good at it. Ollie called out for Nina to stop, but she didn’t. And then Papa was in the middle of the pond again, but Nina went under.
Nina’s head popped up. Ollie held out the stick one more time, but Nina was still facing away from her, and now the music was louder. Ollie called out one more time, and when Nina still wouldn’t turn, Ollie took a step forward, and then she jumped.
The splash made Nina turn, but Nina’s head was barely above the surface. The water was freezing. Ollie kicked her feet, heading towards her, but their Papa was still moving backwards, further across the pond. Ollie could only see the top of his head.
Nina started to cry, her face scared, and as Ollie tried to get hold of her arm, she went all the way under, too, her hat coming off. Ollie kicked her feet, pulling Nina as she did, and then her feet touched something, the rock or the bottom. She pressed her foot against it, and pushed off, kicking again, but Nina was crying louder, and fighting against her. Ollie swallowed a mouthful of water, raised her face to the surface, spit and then coughed, splashing again, reaching for the shore.
When the water was shallow enough, she tried to stand, but stumbled backwards. A frog sat on a rock, staring at her, just a few feet away. Nina sat up, soaked and shivering, and staring across the pond. She was still crying.
Ollie looked out at the middle of the pond. Now there were only bubbles, ripples, in the spot where their Papa had been, but the water was quieting. She could still hear the music, but that was fading, too, and then it was gone. The only noise, Nina’s sobs. Ollie looked up at the sky, solid gray, and then the breeze picked up, and a few of last year’s leaves blew out upon the water. She looked across the pond again, and now there was person standing there, staring at them, having just climbed from the water. A man, but a younger man with longish hair, not Papa. Dressed in a cloak. His face dark, and his eyes like black holes. He stared at the girls a moment longer. And then he turned and walked into the woods.
In the bedroom of a small apartment outside Kielce in Poland, a man named Gustaw Smolak had a heart attack just as his wife left to get groceries in their olive green Camaro. The Smolak family lived on the second floor of a building that had been redecorated so many times by its tenants over the years that the amassed layers of paint were visible if you looked closely at the moldings. Eggshell, grey, green, a garish yellow so awful that they began repainting before they finished, grey again – a chipped rainbow where the walls met the floor, which, incidentally happened to be about three inches in front of Gustaw’s face when he fell flat on his back, clutching his chest and cursing with whatever gasps of breath he could manage. The phone, a Soviet rectangle with buttons that faintly glowed orange, sat upright in its cradle on the nightstand beside the bed – an impossible trek across the room from his current position on the wood floor. His voice seemed locked in his throat. He managed a few sputtering coughs.
Gustaw lifted the claw of his right hand, contorted the fingers into a fist, and pounded three times loudly on the wall (which was now the lovely cream color Mrs. Smolak had chosen from a packet before they had moved in). It was fortunate first that Gustaw had fallen against the wall that connected their apartment to the apartment of the widowed sisters Irenka and Maja Jaskulski, fortunate that Irenka had been delayed in leaving for work because she forgot her bus pass and needed to double back, fortunate that the wall’s thickness was mostly due to layers of paint and therefore had very limited sound insulation, and very fortunate that Irenka had a key to the Smolak apartment that Mrs. Smolak had given her so she could watch after their cat while the Smolaks were out of town. Irenka heard the three knocks (and a series of distressing groans) and dashed into apartment 2B where she saw Gustaw on the floor, and promptly dialed for an ambulance.
Gustaw woke several hours later in the hospital to see his wife’s face above him, tear stricken and without red lipstick for the first time in thirty-one years. His youngest daughter sat on a plastic chair and punched angrily on the keyboard of her cell-phone. She had warned him about this sort of thing for years, his failure to eat right or exercise, but she properly understood that awakening in a hospital after a heart attack was no time to hear “I told you so” and that put her in a proper lousy mood. She had already phoned her two sisters, one living with a leather manufacturer in Italy with two blonde and bilingual children and the other who worked at a fancy salon in Chicago cutting hair for stockbrokers and suburban women.
When the middle daughter, Katarzyna, the hair stylist who had “Kate” on her nametag, listened to the message, a frantic Polish rant about their do-nothing father who gained twelve pounds since the doctor told him to start exercising, who always ate the skin on his chicken and cooked eggs in bacon fat even after that article she sent him, had a heart attack, she was about halfway done cutting my hair. She had apologized before reaching in her apron to silence the buzzing cellphone, apologizing again when she held it up to her ear after seeing the name of the caller. A drop of water ran underneath the black smock and down my neck while I watched Kate’s face become ashy in the mirror. The right side of my hair was already cut, and the left was gathered up with a few broad, pinching plastic clips. She hung up. She picked up the scissors. She slid two of the clips out of my hair at once. I heard the snipping begin again, faster than before.
“My dad.” she said, “My sister called. My dad had a heart attack.”
Gam never cuddled or cooed. She didn’t linger or inquire or speak of love. She had suffered the loss of her husband over two decades ago and, though they hadn’t laughed often, when they did, it was deep and hearty. Gam smothered bread with butter and piled ham high between the white, buttery slices, serving it to anyone who paid her a visit. “Grandpa’s favorite,” she’d tell us grandkids. With ham sandwiches, she thanked you, preparing another after you’d finished your first. She missed the chance to meet you at the door, bracing herself with the table to stand, taking too long to maneuver herself, swiveling each leg around the wooden bench with caution. But there she was, once you’d entered, with a sandwich wrapped in a pink napkin.
She didn’t leave the doorstep after you said goodbye or after you filed into your place in the car. Instead, she watched, her broad smile growing, growing with her tall yellow teeth fixed in an overbite. She waved with enthusiasm until your taillights disappeared not down her long driveway but into the horizon.
My sisters and I spent ample time at Gam’s after our grandpa passed. Her house smelled like stale cigarette smoke and fresh-ground pepper. At home, our parlor and dining room always had blooming flowers, and bowls of potpourri sat on shelves in our bathrooms. Mom once brought a candle, vanilla-cake scented, and lit it in Gam’s kitchen.
Gam looked at the flame, lit a cigarette, and moved to the living room. “Get that thing out of here.”
“It’s vanilla,” my mom said. “It will bring a little life in here.”
“I don’t want it,” Gam said. “If I wanted my house to smell like a damn cake, I’d bake but I don’t bake, do I? Do I?” We knew better than to answer. “Those things cause cancer. Don’t you read? Take it home with you.”
No one in my family accepted gifts particularly well, but Gam was the worst. At gift-giving too. On Christmas, my mom and three aunts barely sat on their seats, watching Gam work a letter opener around the wrapping paper to save the paper for next year. She opened box after box in silence, glaring at teacups and sweaters.
“This texture,” she’d say, rubbing the threads together. The cheap wool blend scratched. “Where do you even find this?” Then she would keep a pile for what she wanted, the wrapping paper and boxes, and a pile for us to take back, the gifts.
For my tenth birthday, she gave me a stuffed blowfish. Horrified, I stared at its puffed cheeks, the fins out.
“It’s a blowfish,” she said. When I didn’t speak or move to touch the gift, she repeated it louder and slower, “Blooow-fish.”
Amanda, the youngest of us, tiptoed around Gam. One night, during one of our many sleepovers, Amanda whined in wet sheets.
“What’s happened? A bad dream? What’s wrong with you?” Gam said.
Michelle and I stood in the doorway of the room the three of us shared. We had stayed up with Gam in the living room while she completed crossword puzzles and talked to the blaring television set.
“Egypt!” she said to the Jeopardy panel. “No one reads anymore.”
Now Gam fumbled under the lampshade until the room was swathed in light. “Jesus!”
Amanda hugged her satin pillow to her chest, petting a corner and crying quietly.
Gam tugged the comforter off the bed. “The bathroom’s across the hall. Right there! How could you be so stupid?” She slapped at Amanda’s legs, pulling up the sheets.
I willed Amanda to move, to get up and join us, to go to the bathroom. But Amanda just inched away from our grandmother, coiling into a small shaky ball, lifting her body where Gam pulled. I don’t think she even bothered to change her underpants after Gam switched off the lamp and left the room.
“Help me with the couch,” she said to us. “You two can sleep out here tonight.”
We too left Amanda and went to help with the couch.
As I grew, I admired Gam’s blunt tone, her opinionated views, even her strong judgments — though most should have remained unspoken in public. Born in 1922, she survived two depressions, won awards for her ballroom dancing, supervised at the leading telephone company in Chicago, and raised four daughters while her husband fought in World War II. I found their love letters this past summer, cleaning out her house. Even with an ocean between them, they were crazy for each other. My grandfather’s words surprised me most. “Dance, it’s good for you to keep dancing. I want you to be happy,” he wrote. “But stay away from that Johnny Salamone. Remember you’re mine. I long for you in my arms.” In life, he was remote, quiet, and spoke only when Gam asked him a direct question.
“Are you hungry, Rick?”
“Yes,” he said, watching the black-and-white forms on TV.
“What do you want?”
“Meat and potatoes.” He looked at her once. “Or casserole.”
She would make both, and he would eat both. His appetite was never satisfied after the war.
I’d heard about Johnny from my grandma when I was fourteen.
“You want a smoke?” she said, pointing the open pack of Parliaments my way.
I shook my head no, but I was curious.
“Try it,” she said. “You’ll like it.”
The last time she said that was when she covered my scrambled eggs in pepper. “Try it, you’ll like it.” I didn’t like it. I was four, and I hated it.
But now, I reached for one of the unfiltered sticks, examined the ends, the blue brand’s stamp. She held the lighter for me. I coughed, clutched my throat.
“Good, huh?” She nodded.
I smoked the rest without inhaling.
“There will be many boys in your life,” she said. She blew out the smoke in slow, short breaths and watched the ghostly lines sway, connect, break. “Johnny was all right, nothing special. He was handsome. Not like your grandfather. But by God, he could wear a suit.” She looked past me with glassy, happy eyes. “This girl Linda, I taught her the fox trot–we still write occasionally–she thought Johnny was something. He took her to dinner, kissed her on the cheek, and wouldn’t you know it, the very next week, sly ole Johnny was dancing with Cheryl.” She sipped her vodka gimlet. “In the bathroom, she cried to me and the other girls. I powdered my face. What did she expect? He was twenty-two and handsome. ‘He’ll never settle down,’ she said. ‘Mark my words. He won’t ever ask a woman to marry ‘im and Johnny’ll die alone.’” She lit another cigarette and smiled at me. “I asked Johnny to dance that night.”
I leaned forward. “Which dance?”
“A slow one,” she said. “I saw how he looked at me. He brushed my hair away from my face and moved his hands lower on my waist.”
I imagined Linda watching them.
“I never liked things being impossible. Johnny broke down, the way they all do. He was handsome, sure, but it’s important to always know that you are more beautiful than them. They want you more than you want them.”
I brought my feet to the chair and played with my shoelaces.
“After our dinner, Johnny didn’t dare kiss my cheek. He asked to kiss my hand, kneeled, and pecked my glove. He called in the morning, asked to take me to lunch, and I agreed. Two dates and five days later, and there was Johnny on his knee again, in the dance hall this time, kissing my gloved hand, and asking me to marry him.” Her tone was whimsical. “Linda, Cheryl, all the girls watched with mock horror, but I know they were secretly jealous. That was in January. I married your grandfather in May and was pregnant with your mom in July.”
When I stood to leave, she flicked a hand in my direction. She stared at what seemed to me thin air. Still, when I looked out the small back window of the car, she was at the door, waving goodbye.
We didn’t talk for three months, not until Christmas. By then, I had turned into something like a black sheep, thrown out of two private high schools, chain-smoking in the house, locked in my bedroom with a boy and loud new music from ’99. During dinner, I exchanged few words with my family. Gam watched me eat, curious, amused, even approving.
Gam hated the idea of family straying from Chicago or its suburbs. When my mother had visited Indiana in her early twenties for a college tour, my grandmother told her not to bother returning. Called her a traitor. “What will I do without you?” Mom calls her the master of guilt. When I announced that I would be leaving for Florida, I expected her violent outrage. Instead, she sat, calm. “Florida?” she said. Key West, I told her. “Are you a homosexual or something? What’s in Key West?” I left without saying goodbye and she didn’t budge from her seat.
The heat in Florida exhausted me, stuck to my lashes. Sweat pooled at my neckline in the early mornings. I painted landscapes at the beach and took an evening photography class right off Duval. At night, there were dances at the pier, which made me think of my grandma, though these free-spirited moves with bare midriffs were nothing like her controlled, practiced performances.
I wrote to her, the first family member I contacted since I moved. Told her about the dances, the seascapes I painted, the thunderstorms every other day, how I ate seafood now. Everyone was very friendly, I said. “There’s a Midwesterner here,” I told her. “An older man who taught at Northwestern University.” I didn’t tell her that he came down here in the midst of a bad divorce, or that he had a daughter a couple years younger than me. “He took me to the orange grove,” I wrote instead.
“Orange grove?” she wrote back. “Were we so bad you had to run so far? You should be watching your acid intake now that you’re getting older. Tell me more about this man. Northwestern’s a good school.”
After the first month, I finally called my mom and sisters too. Every Sunday, I called my family after that.
On the seventeenth of August, I received a letter and I knew it was bad news, for all it read was, “Call me when you can, if you can. Love, Gam.”
I had been painting the sunset from the Coast Guard port then I had my night class so I received the letter late. Too late to call. I paced under the moon, not wanting to sleep. Gam wouldn’t admit when she needed help. Carrying five full grocery bags, the plastic digging into her arms, Grandpa would rise to help, but she’d rush past him. “I got it. I’m fine.”
I called early the next morning. “Gam, it’s me. What’s wrong?”
“Yes, child, of course. How’s Florida?”
“What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“It’s been a quiet summer without you,” she said.
“I miss you too.”
“I’m glad you called. It’s good to hear your voice.” She coughed her wheezed, strained cough. It was normal. She sounded normal. “How’s your friend?”
We were dating now, but it had only been a few weeks. “Good. He’s good.”
“Good,” she said. I could hear her smiling on the other line. “Glad to hear that.”
“How are you?”
“Your mom came by last night with chicken casserole. Used my recipe. Sweet woman. She misses you terribly, you know. We all do. You’re so far.”
The master of guilt indeed.
“Susie’s got to go out.” Susie was her yappy, twelve-year-old Chihuahua. “I should go.”
“So everything’s all right?”
“Keep writing, dear. It keeps me alive. It makes me happy.”
That night, the darkness enveloped everything. A chill rippled over the water and, although it was still summer, the mosquitos didn’t find our skin and the heat had left us. She had sounded fine, normal, but I knew better.
Gam died that night. It was a Friday so, as usual, she’d met my mom and aunts for Friday Fish Fry at the musty diner downtown. Mom said she was her regular self, barking at the waitress, complaining about the coffee, telling my aunt to forget about the anti-depressants and try being happy for Christ’s sake. When they dropped her off at home, she wrapped two vanilla wafers in pink napkins for each of them and kissed them goodbye. She stood on her doorstep in her dirty-white slippers and waved and waved until their cars disappeared.
I imagine her standing there, waving for minutes, waving after they passed the downtown diner and drove out of town. I imagine her rereading my grandpa’s letters, smelling the yellowed paper, tracing his words with her fingertips. I dial her number, the only one I know by heart, and I let the phone ring and ring and ring.
Born in Chicago, Kacy Cunningham grew up in the Midwest. She received her BA from the University of South Florida. She has also studied at Cambridge University in England and at the University of Florence in Italy. She is a first-year MFA student at San Francisco State University.
You can do it in a bathroom, curtains drawn, lights out. Any room where there’s a mirror. Some recommend the use of candles, but the best results can only be achieved in total darkness. Make sure the glass is clean. You don’t want to mistake dust or scratches for anything more than what they are. Say the name three times, five times, seven times: Bloody Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Jane. Variations of Mary and Bloody are best. Repeat the name. Tell the ghost in the mirror you believe in her. Tell her to Come out! Spin thirteen times. Stand perfectly still. Maybe she’ll appear. Maybe she’ll claw out your eyes. Maybe she’ll take you back into the mirror with her. Don’t stand to close. If your breath fogs the glass,you might fall victim to an illusion. This happened once to Laney-Jane and she came squealing from the girls’ second floor bathroom. Upon further investigation, we discovered that she’d been frightened by nothingmore than a patch of her own breath.
There were three of us then, the start of fourth grade: Sadie, Laney-Jane, and me, just Jane, but the others called me Kate, short for Katherine, which Sadie had baptized me in her parents’ kitchen sink. There could only be one Jane in the group. I’d wanted to be Medea or Athena or Daphne, something exotic and beautiful and straight from mythology. “They’re pagan,” Sadie explained, dunking my head into the lukewarm water, which tasted faintly of dish cleanser. “Why would you want to be a pagan? Saints live forever in the glory of heaven.” One counts, two counts, three counts, and I was Katherine, after the saint who was beheaded when the wheel couldn’t break her. Sadie was Catholic, and knew nothing about mythology: Only the name of a saint would do.