The End of the Drought

In the pale dining room, almost grey and almost purple, where her mother had loved to feed people for fifty years, Rhonda Jones stood staring at a clutter of plates and teacups.  The room smelled like old wood and maybe just a little like mouse.  Her mother would have been horrified that it didn’t still smell of Pledge and Lysol.

“All these dishes,” Rhonda said.

The box she’d brought in from the car would not be big enough.  Some of the dinner sets weren’t too bad; there was one with a band of light aqua blue that would probably go home with her.

“I guess I’ll take most of this to Good Will.”

It was odd to hear her own voice breaking the dead silence of the house. She closed her mouth firmly, set aside her purse, and shook herself out of her coat.  It was tight on the arms. She’d been building muscle at the gym recently.

If it hadn’t been for keeping fit and working hard, this winter would have been unbearable. The election the year before had set her teeth on edge, made her break with a few friends on Facebook, and gotten her to read too many feminist dystopian novels.

In this state of anxiety, her mother had finally succumbed to her cancer, passing away last summer in the middle of a heat wave.  The grass had browned all over town, except for where people snuck out at night to water their lawns even though it was against the ordinance.

Rhonda knew the ordinance well because she had helped draft it.  People liked to think no one who worked for the city really did anything, but they’d be mad as hell if everyone got to green up their lawn and then nothing came out when they went to turn on the shower one day.  There had been some lunchtime jokes at city hall about all the toilets that couldn’t be flushed.

“They’ll get over it,” Rhonda had said. She tapped a button on her keyboard and the email was sent. Her employee would shoot it along the proper channels and the town would know about it by the next morning.

Still, some people felt entitled to look out for themselves, turning on their garden hoses real quiet, padding around their own driveway with the sprayer in hand, their slippers getting wet, head spinning as they peered into the dark around them like thieves.

It was August when her mother finally wilted and left.  How she kept herself together during the funeral with all the family around to drive her nuts, Rhonda would never know. Her cousins would say with Jesus’ love and mercy and Rhonda would nod in agreement, although she’d stopped believing years before. That was an unwinnable debate. Saying you didn’t believe in Jesus in the Jones family was tantamount to trash talking somebody’s grandmother.

Rhonda considered herself good at choosing her battles.  She saw peace and calm as the most cherished state of mind and organized everything in her life to protect it.  How calmly she had decided to get out of her marriage. How still she’d been as they sat next to one another at a lawyer’s desk, her signature a brisk scratch, his a slow and mournful note.

After the funeral, her cousins lost interest in comforting her quickly.

“She doesn’t want that from us,” Charline had said.  She was the leader of their small tribe, the oldest and the biggest, with shoulders and arms that strained to burst from under the triple layers of bra, floral sundress, and ecru cardigan.

Rhonda always looked on at her cousins in amazement. The ring of seven that were the backbone of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church.  They dressed liked their mothers did for church. None of them were over fifty-five yet, but they might have been born the same year as women who were pushing eighty.  She knew it was a tradition and something that made them feel connected to the comforts of lost mothers and fathers. She also knew that it was the proper ceremonial garb for the new queens of the church.

Still, to Rhonda, who always wore the same simple navy dress when at last her excuses ran out and she had to make an appearance in the aisles, the others looked like children playing dress up.  Truth be told, they tired her.

Church tired her and so did tradition.

Yet still she was guarding herself against upsets, against drama, like if anything normal were to blow up, she knew she’d take the shrapnel in the gut.  Maybe that explained why she always passed a hand protectively in front of her stomach whenever the cousins approached her.

“You’re your own worst enemy,” Charline said to her one Sunday last winter. “You don’t have to do it all alone. Besides, you don’t have time to clean that place out and Aunt Edith would be so sad to see her house go to rack and ruin.”

She wanted to say that it was only getting a little dusty, that she kept gas in the tank and the heat set just low enough so no pipes would freeze. She should have said that she paid a man to keep the lawn mowed and that she popped in once a week to double check the window locks and to wave the flashlight around in the basement in case the old water heater started to leak again. It had that once but it had been fixed.

Instead she said, “Thank you, Charline. I’ll think about it.”

Today she had planned to finally start going through the things, taking the house apart. She had pulled her car all the way up the drive, into the shadows of the wisteria arbor, just in case one of the queens drove by and saw her there. She didn’t want their help, their soft flower perfume and soft flower dresses, their forceful voices, the cluck and close by thunder of their laughter – they laughed exactly alike to a one – and their knowing confidence about how to best wrap up dishes and put away tablecloths so they wouldn’t yellow.

Maybe she didn’t want them to know how much she wasn’t going to keep. If they saw how disposable the past was to her, they’d probably start to figure out why she was the most apt to miss church.  Why she never stayed too long at reunion picnics.  Through a series of self discoveries, Rhonda had become unlike the tribe. And knowing the views of the tribe, she had unhitched herself from them in ways that were always just beneath the surface.

So now to wrapping the dishes in sheets of newspaper, to having the tips of her fingers blacken from stories about wars in other places and games won here at home.  She knew this was going to take a while.  Pulling a few containers of Chinese food she’d picked up to eat later from the box, she went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.

It was humid, tepid, and empty.  She had forgot that she’d unplugged it months ago, when she cleared everything in it into a big trash bag and took it to the land fill.  Pickle jar, mayonnaise jar. Ketchup. Mustard. Capers. So many kinds of jelly.  Her mother loved toast and jelly.

It was too much, all the sudden, keeping guard against all the things inside of her that would disrupt her peace and quiet.  There was rage inside of her and there was pain. Rhonda could almost see the former like white light racing out of a tunnel, and she could nearly smell the other.  Old hurts that stank like sour milk and regrets that all blended together to make a drab and familiar odor like a spice cabinet.

Cumin for the time she didn’t come home from college to help her mother make barbecue. She’d shown up the day of instead, driving straight to the park, and letting some of the boy cousins get the food out of her mother’s car.  She’d been talking to a friend she brought from school.

Clove for that winter night years ago when she headed over for chili and, seeing the light on behind the lace curtains, was unable to make herself pull into the drive for a visit. She called over later and said she wasn’t feeling well. Her mother had sounded so disappointed.

Cinnamon for when her mother nursed her through the flu as a child and all she could keep down was little torn pieces of toast. Her mother told her she would have put a little more butter on it, but she wasn’t sure if it was too rich.  In a sick room that she had been in for a few days by then, the sugary warm smell of the cinnamon toast might have brought on her nausea but it didn’t. She was probably already getting better, but it seemed like her mother had made magic happen.

Celery salt and cardamon for the legendary potato salad her mother taught her to make a month before she died and which Rhonda had never made sense because she didn’t want too much starch in her diet.  The recipe, written carefully on a notecard, kept surfacing in her purse like something thrown in the sea that insists on coming back to shore.  That spidery hand of her mothers. No one wrote like that anymore.

It was so close to the surface, her grief, that she felt it would push out through her eyes and ears. Her heart had started to race. She should sit down and try to breath the way her therapist had taught her.  This time she knew it wouldn’t work.

If Charline were there, she’d pull her into her arms and cradle her like a child.

Charline would say, “You have to go through it, Rhonda. There’s no other way.”

Rhonda paced in circles, as if she were escaping the clutch of something, and then she stopped because she felt a little dizzy and like her heart was going to abruptly cease beating. She had to get out of the house, she thought, and her hands trembled as she unlocked the kitchen door and stepped out onto the back porch.

It had started to rain.

It drew her out from under shelter, it brought her to the center of the lawn, not far from the clothes line where her mother used to walk up and down with fistfuls of fabric and pins, her face hidden by a wide straw hat.  She’d always seemed a little turned away from Rhonda, bent over her work, and except for when she absolutely needed her mother, Rhonda had always stayed a little back, watching her movements with a hungry urgency and a mouth set in a straight, mute line.

She ran her fingers along the clothesline, trailing it up to the post and turning and walking it again to where the line ended in another post that had been overtaken by lilacs. Her wet shirt clung to her coldly, her hair dropped beads of water into her open mouth. The tears were close now, and she simply needed to wait for them. The time had finally come and whether or not she could survive the pain was not even a thought her mind could form. She was rendered animal for the moment, all wide eyes and gathered shoulders, moving up and down the clothesline while the rain fulfilled a promise to the grass under her feet.

Berniece in Three Acts

Act 1: Disappointment

She ruined his birthday cake. It burned in the oven while she sat out on the fire escape, smoking one cigarette after another, trembling because the Spring was cold and late that year in Chicago.  Berniece hadn’t felt the cold much, hadn’t gotten her sweater from the back of the chair in the bedroom, though her hand, arched over her knee, trembled so that long columns of ash would fall on her stocking feet and brake into flakes like dirty snowballs.

Luckily the fire alarm grabbed her from her revery before the whole place burned up. She didn’t like to think what Robert would have said if he came home to a crowd gathered outside the building and a firetruck parked on the street.  It took her hours to get the scorch marks off the front of the stove, vent the smoke out of the apartment, and tidy the kitchen back up. She called down to the baker and asked him to make a birthday cake, white with chocolate icing. When he asked her how embellished she wanted it, she got nervous and said she wanted it plain, just like a normal cake.

“You don’t want me to put ‘Happy Birthday, Tommy’ on it?”

“Tommy,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

A silence stretched thinly between them.  Over the phone she could hear the baker breathing and the sound of an oven door whining open and clattering closed. Finally he said, “How about candles? What’s that now, nine? Ten? You got those, Mrs. Allen?”

“I have those. Can you have it done by four o’clock?”

“Four o’clock?”

“I know it’s short notice…” Then she came clean all in a rush, and they were both surprised that she was crying as she said she ruined her son’s cake. It wasn’t something for a person to cry about. The baker said that.

“Don’t cry over a birthday cake, Mrs. Allen.” He said, “I’ll rearrange a couple of things and get your cake done by three. If you want to bring me down your own plate, I’ll put it on that before I put in the icing.”

She was laughing through her tears now. “Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll be down.”

It was too much to try to pull herself together. It was almost one and Tommy would be home just after three and Robert by six.  She threw on a long coat and shoved her feet into a pair of taupe kitten heels that she wore too often because they made her feel instantly pulled together. As her toes sank into the mouth of the shoes, she saw the ash stains being covered over, herself cheaply transformed into a normal wife and mother.

Lipstick. A scarf and – at the last minute – earrings. She rubbed lotion into her hands and found clean gloves.  Berniece didn’t give the apartment a last glance as she stepped out with her purse in one hand and the plate in a brown paper bag under the other arm.  She never glanced back when she left.

 


 

Act 2: The Visitation

It felt like a dream the moment she opened her eyes. She was standing in the hallway of an office building.  At one end of the hallway there were two windows, ganged together, with oak blinds pulled but tilted open. A fiery sunset with a round clementine sun was painted over the shadowy buildings. She was alone in the hallways except for a pair of wilted trees in pots that guarded the elevators.

It was an older building, completely foreign to her, though the type was ubiquitous. Oak trims and doors with textured glass in the top panel.  Plain block lettering in black on the glass. Later she would only recall one of the names.  Knee high columns of metal and faux wood with sand in the tops for putting out cigarettes. Miles of speckled taupe linoleum tile that made her kitten heels seem to disappear when she glanced at her feet.

How had she come to be here?

She crossed to the elevator and tapped the down button, but the light didn’t come on and there was no sound as she waited of a line igniting, the lift rising or dropping from other floors.  She tapped it three times more.

“You’re on the right floor.”

She turned to see a man silhouetted against an office doorway. He was tall and broad, made to look like a tank in his boxy suit.  A highlight along his face revealed blond whiskers and surprisingly small ears.

“No, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not sure how I got here.”

“I need to speak to you, Mrs. Allen.”

“How do you know-”

“We haven’t time for that now. Come into my office.”

He turned away and she followed him, despite herself, like a moth compelled by a porch light. Although she anticipated no ecstasy. In fact, she moment she passed over the threshold into his office, she wasn’t surprised to see the lighting change, the colors growing dimmer. Why was she not surprised?

It was like they both knew something, yet she’d forgotten.

“You’re missing,” he said without preamble. “And I need your help to find you.” Leaning against his desk with one ankle crossed over the other and his arms folded together at the waist, he was closed off except for his clear brown eyes, studying her intently.

She recognized him then.

“You’re that detective that Robert hired last year when Sheldon asked him to go into business with him and Robert was worried. You found all those lawsuits, the shell corporation. Robert was so pleased with your work.”

Suddenly she felt like a normal wife again, like when she put on red lipstick or washed the smoke off her hands. This was what wives did, making men who did business with their husbands feel valuable. Her mother had always been good at just that; she could make a dinner party far better than their small kitchen should have allowed. And she kept the wine flowing and later the cigars and brandy.  The men all insisted she stay when she demurred and insisted on leaving them to their own vices. Berniece’s family never had parties with wives – or it didn’t seem like that in her memories – only men, lining the tables, wearing fat ties, crimp marks in their hair where their hat brims had rested too many hours of the day, beating the streets to sell things to women who stood in doorways, trying to loosen their apron strings, glancing back over their shoulders now and again in to deep and shadowed front halls.

“We ain’t got money for nothing.”

Berniece could never make a dinner party come off.  Robert preferred to meet his colleagues at restaurants.  He said neutral territory was better. It was more modern. She was pretty sure it was on account of her peculiarities. That’s the word Robert liked to use, his eyes slipping away from her gaze, a kindness that smarted like a paper cut.

The man leaning on his desk shook his head.

“He said you drifted away like this all the time.”

“He said? Who said?”

Now she was back in the office with the detective.

“Oh,” she said.

The detective crossed toward her and beckoned her to take a seat.

“We need to talk about Friday.”

“Today is Friday.”

“No, ma’am. Today is Monday. And no one’s seen you for three days.”

She squinted into the colorless corners of his office.

“That can’t be true. I’m right here. I just left the apartment to go to the-” She broke off, glancing down at her hands. Only the purse, still clutched in her right glove.

“Oh, good. I must have dropped off the plate.”

“Yes, you did. The baker confirmed it. That was at a quarter passed one on Friday. Then someone remembered seeing you crossing through the park. The one near your apartment house.”

She remembered that as soon as he said it.

“Yes, that’s right. I went to the park. I cut across it diagonally so I could walk past the fountain. The old one, not the new one. I like the old one better.”

“Did you meet anyone there.”

“Of course not.”

She opened her purse to find her cigarettes, but her hand fished around only in emptiness, the glove whispering against the stained red satin lining.

“Oh, my. I must have been robbed.” She held the purse out to him.

“Anyone suspicious follow you?”

She stood, leaving the purse on the chair like a mouth hanging open, and she began to pace the floor.  “There was a man. We passed one another just as I stepped into the park. He glanced at me and he held my gaze for just a moment too long. You understand? It made me feel uncomfortable. Undressed. I walked a little faster then. And I wanted to look back to make sure he was still heading away.”

Berniece paused and looked into the detective’s eyes.

“But then I was scared that if I turned back, we’d make eye contact again and he’d be encouraged. So I cut through a little path that wends its way through boxwoods and hollies.”

“Did he follow you?”

She frowned. “I don’t remember.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin. He wore a grey suit, a little shiny at the elbows, like a man who’s down on his luck.  A square sort of face. Pale grey eyes or maybe that was just the light glinting off his spectacles. I’m not sure about that.”

“Did he smile? Did he seem friendly or threatening?”

She shivered, recalling. “He seemed hungry.”

He crossed to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He became her father then in a sense, with a troubled and kind expression, holding her before him to ask more questions.  Only when her father did it, she could smell his floral pomade, his cigars, and his aftershave, something like spices and woodsmoke. It had always been too much to take in, especially when meeting his eye was already so tumultuous.

The detective said, “This is important, Mrs. Allen. Did you see him again?”

She nodded, wanting to shrug his hands away. Instead she stepped back and he lifted his arms before his fingers would have slipped down over her breasts.  Taking up her purse and resuming her seat, she stared into the corners of the room again.

“I did see him again. But it wasn’t in the park. It was in a room. He was standing above me with a window at his back. And his shirt was stained then. And his hands, too.”

She frowned, her lips feeling a little thick as she spoke the words, “Blood, I think.” Funny that it didn’t frighten her in the least.

He drew a sharp breath.  “And do you know where this room was?”

“I didn’t recognize it. It was seedy. Old. Victorian. With faded wallpaper. Little flowers, all in blue.”

She laughed nervously then.  “I should be the detective.”

“Ma’am?”

“Outside the window over his shoulder there was a water tower in the distance. It said Trubin City. That’s about twenty minutes north of here.  A horrible little town. Robert and I got stuck there once, years ago, waiting for a mechanic to patch our tire.”

“I know of it.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing. There aren’t many Victorian houses in Trubin City. Mostly little places with pointed roofs like they were building back in the twenties. And newer ones, tiny brick boxes with flat roofs. And lots of long, low-slung cinder block shops with plate glass fronts. Dime stores with things that make everything seem just a little meaner. Like plastic flowers you put on graves.”

She dug around in her purse again, wanting to smoke and forgetting.

“I was going to study architecture. I used to want…”

Shrugging, she glanced at the detective.

He was thrusting his arms into his trench coat.

“There isn’t much time,” he said. “I’m off to Trubin City.”

She should have stood and followed him to the elevators. Instead she sat there and stared at the things on his desk. Bills and memoranda all with cluttered black ink that said nothing she recognized.  An ashtray overflowing and a coffee mug that probably hadn’t been washed since Eisenhower was president.  Behind her she heard the bell for the elevator and the whoosh of the doors opening.  Then it closed again and she could hear the motor as the car dropped away and away.

 


 

Act 3: Revelation

When she opened her eyes again, Berniece knew at once that it was not a dream. It felt nothing like it. There was nothing surreal about the hospital room: the muddy green blue paint on the bottom half of the walls, the crimped metal blinds at the square windows, the band around her wrist with words she understood plainly.

The detective was there, but this was not like before.

In noon sunlight as pale as a white onion, he sat in the visitor chair, his head slumped forward, his whispers shimmering like gold dust.  He started awake, rubbed his eyes, looked into her face as if he were meeting her eye for the first time.

“You’re awake,” he said. “I should call the nurse.”

“No, don’t,” she said.  She wanted to ask him if he remembered their last meeting. Instead she waited to hear what he had to say.

“How are you feeling?” A familiar question, she’d heard a lot in her life, always with a note of hesitation, the asker braced for disappointment.

“My throat is sore. And my stomach.”

“They had to pump it to get the pills out.”

She frowned. “I was sure I’d been stabbed.”

He leaned forward too quickly, his eyes narrowed, his chin pushing forward.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“There was so much blood. You remember.”

He frowned. “How much do you remember?”

“Just what I told you before.”

“Ma’am, we haven’t spoken before.”

It seemed pointless to argue. Even she had felt it was a dream, all the while.

“So he poisoned me?”

He leaned back and folded his hands on his lap carefully.

“The way he tells it, after you stabbed him, you took the pills yourself.”

“I stabbed him? But that’s nonsense.”

“He says you went berserk and stabbed him over and over with a steak knife that got brought up with the dinner tray. He’s got the wounds and we’ve got the knife. That much checks out.”

After a silence, he added, “He said you tapped him on the shoulder in the park, asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. To get out of the city. He said he thought you were some sort of crazy rich lady out looking for a lark.”

She thought about the loose springs in the sofa. “My husband wishes we were rich, but we’re always missing the boat.”

“He said you wound up in Trubin City at that bed and breakfast Friday night. You spent the next two days racking up a bill for wine and steaks.  You sent him out to buy liquor Saturday night before the store closed and the two of you spent most of the weekend in bed together.”

She brought her hands out from under the sheet, wanting to hold them together because she felt cold. Her nail polish was chipped and there were scratches on the backs of her hands.  Her wedding ring was still there, and the engagement ring with its little shaving of diamond.

“I don’t understand. I’m a mother. I’m not a monster.”

He leveled his eyes on her face and he didn’t seem to have anything to say just yet.

“I pass this man in the park and then I wake up here and you tell me I tried to kill him.”

“And then yourself.”

She felt the muscles around her mouth twist as she thought of protesting.  Then her features went flat again. It felt true, the things he was telling her, although she still couldn’t remember.  A cloud must have passed over the sun because the room grew darker.

“I don’t know what to say. I have to believe it’s true, although I can’t imagine why I’d do it. I never do anything to make a fuss. I never fight. I never kick or scream. I’m as meek as a mouse. I always try to be good. I never get things right. I never have.”

“Mrs. Allen?”

“The cake,” she said, scratching blood out of her cuticles with her thumb. “I wanted to make it myself.”

Then, thrusting her hands back under the sheets again, she asked, “Is it still Monday?”

“Tuesday.”

“That’s Tommy’s real birthday. But we always have birthdays on Saturdays. It’s so much easier, isn’t it?”

 

 

Little Blue Flower

I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel.  The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.

It began when he saved the life of a wizard.  Remarkable in and of itself.  As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same.  He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way.  It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish.  He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.

As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act.  His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before.  He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door.  She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean.  It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one.  Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time.  He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.

So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory.  He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless.  It would find its way into the waste basket.

At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick.  But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call.  It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.

The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?”  At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead.  His lips moved in a silent incantation.

“There,” he said aloud.

Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”

The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest.  “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”

When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo.  It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life.  When he and Diana were first falling in love.  He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy.  But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth.  He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?”  That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year.  His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.

Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.

“Happiest memory, you are gone.”

He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture.  But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.

“Damn.”

He tried it once more. Then again.

When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator.  Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment.  The cry of the seagulls.  The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards.  The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players.  Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.

He laughed at himself until his head hurt.

There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.

 


 

Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy.  Because.

Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something.  Now he couldn’t remember what it was.  He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.

“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”

And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall.  And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really.  He’d been irritated with her about it.  Thinking it was sentimental.  He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.

“Let me do this,” she said.

It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember.  It was something else.  Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man.  He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind.  Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it.  It was sharp, but vacant.  There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.

He began to wonder if he did have the super power.  Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana?  He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.

 


 

Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him.  It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most.  As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard.  And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty.  But if emptiness could itch.  Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.

He was stunned by the loss.

Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question.  How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?

Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?

 


 

He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left.  Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them.  Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already.  They had been talking for years.

If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it.  He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty.  It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers.  That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.

He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long.  Men have codes about things like this.  But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning.  Charlie frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.

He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

Charlie blinked.  “I’m glad I already called last call.”

“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”

Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”

“Tell me about it.  The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up.  The thing your granddad said.”

Charlie shook his head, “He just…”

“Yeah?”

Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar.  He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”

“Of course it is,” the man said.  His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”

“No,” Charlie said.  But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”

When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears.  The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light.  Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.

“What was that thing you said a minute ago?  The thing about the happy memory?”

“I don’t know.”

Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve.  “I think you’d better get out of here.”

But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.

“Night, Charlie.”

The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him.  He didn’t say good night.

 


 

After that the man was sure his power was real.  It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory.  It was undeniable.  When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box.   He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic.  He just knew it to be exhilarating.

 

 

 

The Second Escape

With slender fingers the fog first choked the trees before encircling the building.  It was the kind of grey morning that gave no hint at the movements of the sun, that suggested that time was suspended, shadows given pause and highlights wiped away like fingerprints. The fog was a mercy, Dr. Klinger had said the previous evening, eying satellite feeds with a fevered intensity.

Max could see only the tops of pines distantly from the window of his cell.  Below him, in the courtyard outside the back entrance to the compound, voices barked and metal cried as the persons from the lab hastily loaded equipment into vans that purred and fumed.  It was an impromptu moving day that had sent everyone left in Dr. Klinger’s small operation into twenty four hours of perpetual motion.  More than half of the original group had been mown down in the flight from the old campus.

“This time the watch worked,” the doctor said. “This time we didn’t put faith in AI only to discover how easily they could corrupt it.  This time we went back to the beginning. To all beginnings. We rely on human wisdom and loyalty.  The animal in us all can save us all.”

When Klinger started to rave, Max would go still, studying anything he could latch his gaze upon. He would take even breaths and remind himself that if he gored the doctor with his antlers, he would lose the only person in the group that had something like love for him. He had overheard the others speaking before their last flight from the hired guns of the corporation.  He knew that some of them wanted to either give him up or incinerate him themselves.  The idea was to hide all proof of the experiment.  He was a liability.

When he told Dr. Klinger this, he was given assurances.

“I know who you heard saying those things. I always knew they weren’t loyal, Max. And did any of them make it out alive?”

“So am I supposed to relax and believe that karma will take care of everything? If karma were handling this-”

“You can’t believe that a man of science is concerned with karma.”

“If karma were really handling this, I’d like to know what the fuck I ever did to deserve being mutilated? Turned into a freak?”

The doctor struck him then, a quick, catlike blow with the flat of his hand against Max’s cheek.  His eyes were bright with feeling.

“You are not a freak. You are an entire ecosystem. A miracle. The intelligent material of dozens of forms of life, each rewired to cooperate within your body, helping to circumnavigate all of the safeguards that evolution put into place to prevent science from stitching together new life. You are a marvel of biological engineering.”

Max had turned away. This was weeks ago and the first time he had ever felt the urge to kill.  It had never been in his disposition to respond to a blow with a blow. His instinct had always been flight.  It had made his father think of him as weak, peering at him with hazel eyes that were aloof with disgust. Or perhaps simply he was confused by Max.

The day that Klinger struck him, a different response emerged, like a chain buried in the mud that was suddenly pulled from both ends, so that it rose up with a metallic whine. That was when he knew that the doctor’s talk of an ecosystem was not limited to what he could see in himself when he looked in the mirror.  Something was rewriting itself in Max. He was still apt to take flight, but now equally inclined to draw blood.

The doctor had turned away then, knotting his fingers together, his shoulders curving inward toward his chest.  “Anyway, the betrayers weren’t taken down by accident. I scheduled the departures to make them most likely to be in the line of fire.  Karma is a blind justice that primitives believe in.  Any definitive retribution must be thoughtfully orchestrated.”

He turned back to Max then and he could not see the change in him. He must have still imagined him to be a man who cowered in the face of pain, because he placed a hand on his shoulder gently.

“I will always protect you, Max. You mean more to me than you will ever know.”

It was funny to think that this man was saying to him something that would inspire hope and peace were it to come from a parent or a lover.  Issuing from the lips of this man, with his ignored beard and exhausted squint, it felt like a life sentence.

They could not both live, Max thought. One of them had to die.

Klinger studied him closely then.

“If you ever ventured out into the world, they would likely see you as you see yourself. You might be taken into another lab, taken apart, and studied organism by organism. And they’d make sure every trace of you was gone. What muriatic acid couldn’t sluice away would be pulled out of servers on line and taken from yellowing old folders.”

Max didn’t want to listen to Klinger, but he found himself mesmerized.

“Or else they’d shoot you where you stood, aiming for the head. They might bury you and say prayers that you’d never rise again. You would become a legend, something hill folk pass down to keep their children from wandering into the forest.”

 


 

This time when they abandoned their compound, Max studied the order in which the teams climbed into the vans.  The hired guns were nowhere near them yet, according to the last communication with their watch, yet he wondered if Klinger were still hedging his bets, putting his weakest links in harm’s way in some bid to feel that blood was not quite on his own hands.

Max was put into a vehicle with Klinger and two women he knew as Natasha and Inez. He knew they were doctors, but they never wore name tags, and everyone at the institution called each other by their first names except for Klinger.  Natasha was tall with angular features and long, beautiful hands. Her gaze was always quick and inscrutable. Inez was short and compact, wore her hair in a braid that coiled like a snake at the back of her head.  She cracked her knuckles nervously whenever she listened to a briefing from Klinger, but sometimes Max thought she was looking at him with empathy when he happened upon her gaze.

The four of them were in back of the van, with another woman and a man in the front seats.  They didn’t use horns to signal and they didn’t use communication devises.  All phones had been turned off after the last contact with the watch, because once the lab was loaded and ready to go, the last thing to disconnect and load was the scrambling device they had used to prevent detection for the last two months.  If anyone so much as took a selfie, they might in some way open themselves up to another ambush.  The GPS systems in their vehicles had been ripped out and left at the site.

Their departure had been planned from the beginning. In the absence of any modern technology to assist them, they were getting out with old school methods.  Careworn paper travel atlases had been procured and – unless the roads had been changed significantly since the turn of the century – they would get them to their next temporary compound.  Their movements were synchronized with old fashioned timepieces.  A small alarm bleeped one Klinger’s wrist watch and like magic the van in front began to roll forward into the fog.

On Tarking Ridge

The shadows creep deeply along the ruts in the road and swallow the trees up whole as night falls. We stand beside my car, Harry and me, shivering, wishing it was really spring.

My mom says the mountains are hazing; that’s what she calls it when the buds on the trees make the forest on the ridge look purple.   When the magnolia in the neighbor’s yard started to bloom last weekend, Dad said the world really had gone to shit.  There would be a late frost and kill everything.

“Everything’s upside down these days,” he said. He hunched over his computer, tuning the rest of us out.  His style.

Maybe tonight it will frost. It’s cold enough or feels like it anyway.

Harry says, “You sure this is the place?”

He’s trembling and I put an arm around him. “This is where I saw him last time.”

We just have to wait.

Harry is patient and kind.  He would follow a friend anywhere rather than let them go in alone. Luckily this doesn’t seem too dangerous. I’d never want to see Harry hurt.  We’ve been friends since grade school. He helped me skip school when I had my first period so no one would see the blood on my jeans.  My mom and dad were out of town on business and I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the secretaries in the principal’s office. They’re all terrible. Harry never said anything about it afterward to me or anyone else.  He is good like no one I know.

The wind picks up on the mountainside, rustling the leaves on the ground, bringing a whiff of warm earth and new life.  There are soft disruptions in the shadows, nothing too loud, just squirrels scrambling around.  A few cries from birds. My mom would probably know their names.

“That’s a tufted titmouse,” she might say. “You can tell by the liquid notes.”

She was a nerd before it was cool, she likes to say. I always pretend it’s a good joke because I feel sorry for her. Humor is not her strength.

Then on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the indigo twilight, I see the stag man as clearly as I did the last time. Tonight I’m not high, though; I made sure we’re clean and sober.  My mouth goes dry, but I give Harry’s arm a squeeze. I want him to look but not to say anything.  His hair brushes my cheek as he tilts his head to study the ridge. I feel him stiffen against me.

So I am not crazy.

The stag man isn’t tall, but his antlers make him seem like a beautiful dancer out of a strange ballet. His legs taper down to a pair of hooves.  It makes him stand unnaturally, his butt stuck out a little more than normal, his shoulders thrown back, too.  It really is kind of like a dancer or this kid in school who everyone was calling gay a year before he came out. Danny. He always walked like that. It made some of the other guys look when they caught him out of the corner of their eye, then scowl and turn away, like they were tricked into it.  I know I saw that happen at least three times and it made me laugh every time.

But this isn’t Danny and I’m not laughing.

“I can’t believe it,” Harry whispers.

“Are you scared?”

“No. I don’t think so. Are you?”

“No.”

I’m not scared. I wasn’t scared the first time, either. He doesn’t seem threatening. He just looks sad, his head turning now and again to study the woods.  Now his head tilts toward us and while I’m not scared, I still find my stomach turning to jelly under his gaze.

The stag man turns his whole body toward us now, his hooves scratching the moist spring earth, one of them rasping along a vein of stone so we can hear the sound of it. Now his face is in shadow, his antlers and his lean, square shoulders trimmed in dim silver light.  If he approaches us, he will remain faceless until he is right on top of us, but out cheeks and brows, our noses and chins will carry those dim silver highlights. He’ll read us and see inside us maybe a little, the way no one else in ours lives ever can. I don’t know why I think this. I’m just tired of trying to make myself clear to older people who always turn my words and my thoughts upside down.

It doesn’t make any sense that I think he’ll understand, but it makes no sense that he even exists either. Harry and I link hands like we always have when we’re about to be swallowed up by mystery. With his nails biting into my palm, our breath curls up around our faces, and we wait without breathing as the stag man closes the distance.

 

 

Deer Feet

It was hard for Max to walk at first.  He was sure his ankles would snap under his weight. But that bastard Dr. Klinger said he would be fine and needed to exercise.  The doctor would protest being called names.

“I saved your life, young man,” he might say. His woolly eyebrows would escape up under his bushy grey hair, that tangle that spilled forward each time he raked it back.

What would Max say in return?  He might say that his life wasn’t saved, that he could have lived perfectly well as an amputee. They could have outfitted him with those blades like the Olympian who smashed through his bathroom door and killed his wife.  He would rather have metal arcs spanning the distance between his knees and the ground.

“But you had to be shown. The board had to finally see my vision, that bunch of number-crunching neanderthals. The accident happening on your way from my lab was providential, as my grandmother used to say. It was serendipitous. You coming out unscathed except for the hamburger meat that was your old feet. Meanwhile the deer beaten to a pulp but those feet as perfect as they ever were.”

The doctor might put a hand to his chest piously. “If anything I should be thanked.”

Max had thought a lot about his trip to the doctor in the last three weeks.  His employer had sent him out to announce formally that they were cutting funding to the doctor’s program.  There had been too many liberalities taken with his study of interspecies genetic co-modification.  When the doctor sent them a white mouse with the red wings of a Cardinal at Christmas, the board was deeply disturbed, if briefly entertained, watching the creature fly up and down the length of the boardroom table, snatching up bits of cheese off the lunch platter while hovering inches above the surface.

“But what would the press say if they saw this…thing?” the CEO asked.

There was a brief conversation, voices rising in anger at times, before they all fell silent to hear the chair speak.

“It will have to be incinerated.”

So it was done.  For good measure, they collected everyone’s cell phones and scanned them to make sure no one had taken a video.  Each person in the room signed a nondisclosure again, although from the beginning of the project, they had already signed dozens of amended and updated versions of the same.

Somehow it fell to Max to break the news to the doctor.  It felt wrong from the beginning. He was the youngest member of the board and some would say his greatest qualification was being a blood relation to the CEO.  It was a fool’s errand, to say the least.

The doctor had wept when he received the news.  But then he had pulled himself together, offered Max a lunch, as the journey from the remote lab to the nearest town was some distance, and the long roads twisting and still etched with winter ice.  All he remembered about the drive back to town were high banks of white snow on either side.  Then the stag, standing there in the middle.  If he hadn’t felt so tired after lunch, if it hadn’t been so hard to keep his eyes open.  In the weeks he spent lying in bed, he had plenty of time to catalog his regrets.

He should have headed back before lunch, when he was still buzzing from the thermos of coffee that kept him company on the ride in.

He should have refused the task; his uncle would hardly fire him for it.

He should have stayed in college and finished his MBA instead of being seduced by an offer for an immediate and easy windfall.

He should have studied dance, as he wanted to when he was sixteen, instead of being shamed out of it by his father.

He should have died in that boating accident at five instead of his cousin Katie. It always came to this; it was an illogical regret.  He had had many joyful moments in life between that summer day when the water off the Cape turned maroon all around them and the morning he woke up to find he had hooves instead of feet.  All the same, he couldn’t escape the thought that this was a long overdue payment for a debt he owed the universe. Somehow he had cheated that day, getting to walk away unscathed.

On the fortieth day after the car accident, the doctor insisted he walk.  It was hard to do because the small area of his new feet allowed him little wiggle room for balance. He found he wanted to spill forward.

“Well, that’s enough for today,” Dr. Klinger said. “The tenons are still knitting and I’d hate to see you snap them in a fall. I could kill the pain with morphine for your sake, but seeing my handiwork undone would be most unpleasant.”

As Max began to fall asleep, the doctor stroked his brow fondly.

“You really are a miracle. You’re the most beautiful creature ever designed by man. You just don’t see it yet.”

“I’ll never be able to balance on these deer feet,” Max said drowsily. The physical therapy was exhausting. Or else they were feeding him something in his IV to lower the veil. His eyes fluttered closed and he forgot as soon as he saw it that one of the doctor’s assistants was wheeling in a cart on which were perched a strangely familiar set of antlers. Eight points. Then Max could not open his eyes any longer.

“I think I know how to solve the problem of balance,” he heard the doctor say.

Then a voice, “Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

It may have been his own.

Landau

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.

Acquaintance

I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.

 


 

I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

November

2016

In the weeks after the election, George felt at loose ends, like a person who has set a task for themselves and forgotten it.  There was a sense that he had unfinished business to attend.  In the manners and the eyes of his friends, he saw a similarly implacable restlessness.

He swept the grass with the rake on a warm Thursday in mid-November; after the late frost the trees let loose the rest of their leaves and he set to work again.  Still the winds that beckoned December brought more organic litter to the grass.  He started to put on his boots one Sunday afternoon to go out once more for raking.  Instead, he let the leather and laces slip through his fingers.  The heel made a dull thud on the floor and he stared at his socked foot too long.

He began to see the problem at last.  In putting all his hope into one outcome, he had reserved nothing to buoy him in the event of disappointment.  Despite a certain degree of intellectual wariness, in his heart he had been certain.  And that certainty had been ripped away; like a thing ingrown it had taken some heart flesh with it.  Although it made him want to laugh at himself to admit it, he discovered that he was in mourning.

Election years had always been fraught with anxiety.  This one was heartbreaking. 2000. 2004. Yet some had ended with a sense of joy. He would never forget watching a young black family take to the stage in a freezing Chicago park; a warm blaze of red against black on the stomach of a future first lady; a halo of light behind a pair of pronounced ears; the rich manly voice ringing out into the night, promising brighter days ahead.  The camera cut away to tears glistening in the eyes of people uplifted by hope.

 


2004

He didn’t want to call his mother to talk about politics.  It was something they hadn’t agreed on since he was a child with no perspective of his own.  Still he wanted to give her a chance to change her mind.

She answered on the second ring.

“Oh hi, honey.”

“Hi.”

They chatted about nothing memorable for a moment.  George took a deep breath and launched into it.  “Mom, I want to talk about the election and I want you to hear me out.”

“George…”

He had prepared a speech.

“I just don’t understand why you think they are your party.  You are a lower middle class woman and they don’t give a shit about your rights.  All they care about it tax breaks for the rich.”

“Now that is not true.”

“What have they ever done for you?”

“Despite what you think, I am not a party loyalist. I voted for Kennedy.”

He had never heard this before and he doubted it instantly.  After a breath, he said, “Well, I’m asking you not to vote for this man.”

“I’ll vote for whomever I damned well choose.”

“You don’t care that he targets gay people like your own son?”

“He does not.”

“Yes he does, Mom.  He’s using people not wanting us to marry to get votes from the religious right.”

“Well, honey, a lot of people aren’t for gay people marrying. It’s a religious institution.”

He knew then that she was not going to change her vote.  Not even an appeal to her to stand with him would pull her away from the party that she called her own.  If blood was thicker than water, than ballot ink was as viscous as cooling lead.

She broke the silence.

“I’ll think about it, honey. Okay?  Now are you and Ray coming to Thanksgiving this year? We miss you.”

“I’ll think about it.”

He heard her sign as he dropped the phone into its cradle.

 


1996

They had only been dating for a few months when election day suddenly was upon them. When Ray wasn’t in school and when George wasn’t at work, the two of them were living each hour of each day as one seamless and unending date.  They drove through all the little towns in the valley, walking through junk shops and eating in little pubs.  Heavy sandwiches, dark brown beer.

They found hidden areas in the woods and made love under a canopy of trees that was bright green when they first discovered one another.  The tent was bones and blue heaven and a few stray leaves when November found them huddled against an ancient oak, watching the distant sparkle of afternoon light on the river.  Their breathing was growing soft again when George said they would need to hurry back to the car if they would get to the polls in time.  He wasn’t entirely sure of when voting ended, but he knew he didn’t want to miss it.

The last time the president had been chosen, he’d been on the other side of the political gulf and he needed this vote to express his own personal journey.  It meant less to Ray, who was less certain about politics.  They’d learned not to discuss abortion; protective of their shared peace, they sheltered themselves from disputes.

They took a scenic route across the county for George to vote in an old school-house where his family had voted for decades.  After he cast his ballot, he took an ‘I Voted’ sticker from an old woman wearing a cream cardigan over a flowered dress.  It took a few tries to get it to affix to his thin jacket and he was still pressing it when he climbed back into the beat-up Dodge Omni.  Ray was looking thoughtful.

“Do you think we have time to get to West Virginia so I can vote, too?”

They had been living together in Virginia for a few months, but Ray was still registered in his home state.  The question filled George with excitement.

“Let’s try,” he said.

While they drove through the three counties that separated their polling places, the sky darkened to a smoky violet.  George felt himself getting anxious.  They should have spent less time in shops and at the pub earlier in the day; less time making love in the woods on the side of the road.  When he glanced over at Ray, he saw his lover wearing a tense expression unfamiliar to his typically jovial countenance.  As another town receded in the rearview mirror, George pressed the car to go faster.

They had just crossed the state line when Ray said, “Wait. I think they changed the location.”

“Would your mom know?”

“Yeah.”

George watched for a phone booth as they climbed up into the mountains.  Finally they saw one in a yellow fluorescent glow up ahead.  George pulled nettles out of his sweater sleeve while Ray stood in the golden nimbus, leaning into the phone as a wind kicked up, scattering rusty leaves into the dusk.

As they got back into the car, Ray said, “They did move it but I think I know where my mom meant. It was a little hard to hear because her damned scanner was going off in the background.”

Noticing George shiver as he fitted the key into the ignition, he said, “You could have stayed in the car.”

“You looked cold.”

Ray reached out and gave his hand a squeeze as they pulled back onto the road.

“Are we headed in the right direction?”

“We need to get onto 29 when we come to it,” Ray said.

They turned on the radio to listen to NPR.

“…with only ten minutes until the polls close in West Virginia,” the announcer was saying.

Gunning the engine, they found the junction to 29.

It was hard to find the polling place.  Twice they passed it and when at last they pulled into the lot, the absence of any line and the presence of only a single car made them suspect they were too late.  Ray clambered out and George watched him talk to an old guy who was standing at the doorway of the fire hall, wearing a hat lettered with VFW.  Ray’s shoulders drooped as he walked forward into the headlights.

George was jealous of their happiness – he didn’t want them to feel glum.

As they nosed back onto the road, he said, “Well, we tried.”

“Yes, we did.”

“We should go back to the house and make some soup. That would be cozy.”

It didn’t take them long to shake off their disappointment. At least they each did a good job of finding things to talk about and to laugh about.  George’s ears popped at they descended into Virginia; he couldn’t remember if they’d gone funny on the way up into the mountains.  They moved softly into the night, the cold and glistening world outside of the vehicle vast and mysterious.

Time would ink the map of their future, but there would always be something left uncharted. It was both a terror and a comfort were they to ponder it, but all they wanted just then was to get home.  And they were thinking about ingredients: potatoes, celery, carrots, cream, salt, pepper, flour, stock.

Acting 201

Felix went all in to help Adele with her final performance in acting class.  Perhaps he was regretting that he hadn’t signed up for 201 with her; every time they hung out with friends from the first class, they said they missed him.  Weeks before the end of semester, he had mapped out a plan for Adele.  He chose the monologue, coached her through it line by line, designed the set, and did her hair and makeup.  All because she looked like Bette Davis.

It wasn’t an easy three weeks.

There were times when Adele begged to abandon the project.  One night she came really close to putting her foot down entirely.  When she yet again failed to enunciate her lines with the proper Davis clarity, she tossed herself across the battered sectional in Felix’s basement.  Hugging a pillow close to her chest, she suggested she might rather do the monologue from Fame, which she still remembered from high school.  It was a little on the short side, but she even had the clothes she’d worn. The leg warmers were doing double duty as curtain tiebacks in her bedroom.

Felix wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re destined for this role, Adele! Don’t be faint of heart…”

He motioned for her to stand, and she rolled her eyes, but she climbed out of the sunken cushions.   She had the big eyes and the small mouth and if she could just learn to actually be dramatic and articulate all at once, while not dropping a line or forgetting a mark, then she’d be fine.  His big obstacle was getting her to embrace the bigness of the part.  Adele had a dry, close-lipped personality, but for this she’d need to have sweep and volume.

Secretly Adele thought the lines were corny, but Felix was protective of his heroes.  “Bette exudes corruption once you get to the end and look back on it, but for at least the first half, you’re convinced she’s the classic woman wronged. She plays it so well.”

His eyes would drop to the floor each time he praised the long dead actress, as if embarrassed that Adele might feel inadequate by comparison.  She could have told him she didn’t like that whole old style – people didn’t act like that anymore – but they’d had exhaustive talks about it in the past.  He thought there simply wasn’t enough guts and saliva in modern theater.

That night they watched the movie together again.  Maybe for the first time ever,  Adele was glad she wasn’t stoned because there were some line readings that would give a nun church giggles.  Glancing over at Felix, she saw a pleased little smile on his lips. With his dyed black hair and painted on brows and lips, he looked vampiric in the television light. Not that she would ever tell him; he was too vain about his looks already.  He’d spent almost two months pay on green contact lenses to look like Louis from The Vampire Lestat.  And one night he told her about an exhaustive face lightening regimen that involved peroxide and a nail brush.

He was silly, she thought then, growing frustrated with the movie.

“Can’t we turn it off and try the lines again?” she asked.

He agreed too readily and she wondered if subjecting her to the film had become a tactic.

“Feed me my line…”

He was about to when they heard a soft knock, telling them Felix’s mom had come down the steps and wanted to enter her son’s subterranean den.

“Hello?” Jean called out warmly.

Felix looked peeved, but Adele felt like she was getting a pardon.

“You two still working on the play?” Jean asked.  She was dressed in denims that rose all the way up to her bra and a sweat shirt with an appliquéd kitten clambering anxiously out of a watering can.  Her shoulder length hair was messy except for scrupulously combed bangs.

“Yes,” Adele said. “The drill sergeant never sleeps.”

“Ha, ha,” Jean laughed.  “Well, Felix, you ought to give Adele a break. You two could come upstairs and eat with me. I made goulash.”

“No, Mother,” Felix said. “Maybe later.”

Adele never knew how to act around Jean.  If she followed Felix’s example, her demeanor would hardly be warm.  She was raised to be polite to elders, but like her friend she wasn’t always comfortable with chit-chat.  As usually happened, a silence stretched between the three of them and eventually Jean edged towards the steps.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it then…”

“Thanks, Mom.”

When she’d gone, Felix made a little face. It wasn’t exactly mocking, but it seemed to say, ‘What just happened?’ As if it were odd that a mom would offer supper to two teenagers who rarely left her basement except to go to their classes.  Feeling angry at him but unsure of exactly why, Adele took a deep breath and began her monologue.

“‘I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We used to meet each other, constantly, once or twice a week-”

“Can you hit those t’s a little harder? It’s like this…”

Pulling his characteristically slumped shoulders back, Felix launched into the monologue in a perfect impersonation of the old movie idol.  Adele stared at him with a mouth like she was eating worms.

“What?”

“You,” she said. “You ought to do it.”

“I didn’t take the class. Besides, I’m not a girl.”

She almost said maybe that was up for debate, but she bit the comment back, turning away to gather up her things.  “I’m going home.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re tired-”

“I am. You’re right.”

When she turned on her car lights, they shone through the patio doors of the basement, and she saw that Felix had already put the movie back on.  If she knew him at all, he’d make a run upstairs for goulash in about two minutes.  But he wouldn’t eat it with Jean.

 


 

The day of the performance was hectic.  Felix had made a list of all the things they needed from home.  Adele would bring her own extensive makeup kit, a curling iron, bobby pins, and the 1940’s outfit she’d borrowed from one of her mother’s friends.  He would bring a piece of plastic rattan valance to wrap around the base of a plant he was borrowing from the admissions lobby.  This would help make the set look more Malaysian, he determined. And he had a piece of cloth his dad had brought from Guam that they could drape over the This-End-Up sofa ubiquitous to all theater department performances at the college.

Tension propelled them through makeup in near silence, but they started to get testy with one another while he was curling her hair.  Worrying that he’d burn her skin and ruin the show, his hands trembled and he got the waves around her face wrong.  Luckily her brow was just as high and rounded as Bette’s because he doubted he could have talked her into shaving back her hairline, even though Davis had done it herself twice in her career, both times to play Elizabeth I.

“You’re pulling!” she said, punching his arm.  He was through with the iron now or else she wouldn’t have dared.

Unperturbed, he spoke through a mouthful of bobby pins, “Don’t forget the line is, ‘We’d always been so careful before about writing in the past.’ You said ‘calling’ instead twice last week and you could still hit those t’s a little more aggressively.

“I’ll pretend each one of them is you,” she muttered.

He smiled for the first time all day.

“That’s right, my queen,” Felix said. “Get it all out.”

Finally there was nothing else he could do and Felix had to leave the stage area and take a seat with the class. As he watched Adele perform her scene, he was glad they’d chosen dark green for her outfit, but he couldn’t help but feel she never quite rose above a level of emotion one might call robotic. It was worse than that she wasn’t as fiery as his favorite actress. Rather she was flat, like someone who’d never felt anything before. Maybe she was on the sociopath spectrum, he wondered. Was there a spectrum for that?

The class applauded nicely for Adele.  After the curtain closed on stage,  Professor Dupree studied Felix for an awkward moment.  He imagined she was realizing how much of a role he’d played in Adele’s final project.  Impulsively, he leaned towards her and made a bold suggestion.

“Since I’ve done so much of the work in helping Adele, do you think admissions would let me sign up for the class retroactively, if I could complete all the homework assignments before next Tuesday?”

Her eyes widening, the professor said haltingly, “I don’t think they’d go for that.”

Quelled, Felix studied his lap.

A moment later, Adele was cautiously descending from the stage in her borrowed pumps. Professor Dupree gave her an empathetic smile.

“That was an interesting choice, Adele.”

“It was all Felix,” she answered.

For a moment, it seemed that the two women were transmitting a silent message to each other.  Felix felt if he had a moment, he might figure it out.  But then someone up on stage was asking who brought the plastic rattan valance. They needed to break things down quickly to do their monologue from Fame.

When he was done corralling all of their props and the makeup kit, he couldn’t find Adele anywhere.  The class was recomposing themselves for the next number and the professor gave him a smile that was thin.

As he stepped out of the student center to see if Adele was having a smoke, he heard Professor Dupree give a gleeful little squeal, saying aloud about the next act, “Oh, I love this one!” He shrugged, thinking with some pleasure that Dupree had always struck him as fatally boring.

Adele was sitting on a picnic table on the smoker’s terrace.  She’d unbuttoned the vintage blouse a little, but left her hair up off her neck and face.  In the harsh afternoon light, the makeup looked thick, but her eyes were magnificent.  He shook a cigarette from his pack as he approached her.

“You were great.”

“No I wasn’t,” she said.  “But I’m glad its over.”

He lit his cigarette with a lighter that had a spent flint.  After a moment it sparked, but it was too late to continue to argue her defense.  He said instead, “You want to come over tonight.  We can watch whatever you want.”

She shrugged, “Okay.”

They both knew it would need to be something funny.