welcome to volume 84 (July 2010) of
down in the dirt
Alexandira Rand, Editor
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the Killer in Repose
He’s sitting silently on the couch,
one unintended slight away
from grabbing a kitchen knife,
a hammer, a pan of boiling way,
and stabbing, battering,
scalding the skin off his father.
The old man is one wrong word
from toppling from his favorite chair,
struggling to stem the flow of blood
from his chest with crimson hands
or salve the bashed in skull
or writhing on the floor in a blistering hell-fire.
Every home harbors a killer, a victim.
But, thankfully, all of the slights are intended,
all of the words are right.
The band Pop Salad was in the studio, recording their latest album. It was not going smoothly.
“What’s the problem, guys?” their producer, Mike Turnbull, asked.
“We can’t get it together,” drummer Dick Hiatt said.
“I think Freddie’s singing is off-key,” guitarist Al Basham said.
“Don’t you go blaming me, Al,” Freddie Morlant said. “My vocals are perfect, as always.”
“Come on, let’s not bicker,” bassist Joe Bruce said. “We can work this out between us.”
“Maybe I was wrong,” Basham said. “Let’s do another take.”
Turnbull approved the next take, but Basham was still unhappy with it.
Al Basham was not the leader of Pop Salad, but his songwriting took the group to the top of the charts. He and singer Freddie Morlant didn’t see eye to eye, though.
The public assumed they were the best of friends. They hugged each other onstage, and in interviews, they praised each other’s talents.
But Basham wanted a change, and he wanted it soon. He did not like the way things were going.
That night, Basham spent some time with his girlfriend, Loretta.
“I’m not satisfied with our band,” he told her.
“What’s wrong with it?” Loretta asked.
“We’re not reaching our full potential. I’m a perfectionist. I can tell when Freddie’s singing is bad.”
“He doesn’t notice it?”
“Of course he doesn’t. He can’t hear himself sing out of tune.”
“He needs someone to tell him about it.”
“I informed him of it, but he didn’t agree with me.”
“If you’re not pleased with Pop Salad, you can quit and join another band. Or, better yet, you could go solo.”
“I couldn’t do that. I’m too dependent on the other members’ instrumental abilities.”
“You should discuss this with Freddie. Maybe he’ll let you sing sometimes.”
“That would be great. We’d share the attention and acclaim if I sang occasionally.”
“Mention that to Freddie when the two of you are alone.”
“I think I’ll do that.”
* * *
“Can you spare a moment?” Basham asked Morlant after a rehearsal.
“Yeah, sure,” Morlant said. “What’s on your mind?”
“Your singing leaves something to be desired. I think my vocals are better.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“The fans would agree with me.”
“In your dreams.”
“Look, you’re always hogging the spotlight. Don’t I deserve to shine once in a while?”
“You’re just jealous of my popularity.”
“It isn’t like that at all!”
“You crave all the glory.”
“I should get some recognition. If I sang sometimes, I’d receive my share of fame.”
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Your ego needs to be gratified.”
“Our band is ready for a change of pace. Our records all sound the same when you’re singing.”
“You can’t argue with success, Al. We’re the top group on the charts. My singing is largely responsible for that.”
“I see I’m getting nowhere with you,” Basham said. “I’ll have to talk to our producer about this.”
“Mike isn’t about to change things with Pop Salad,” Morlant said. “Don’t forget that our albums are still turning platinum.”
Deep down inside, Basham knew Morlant was right. A record producer doesn’t fix what isn’t broke.
Basham would just have to accept things the way they were and not complain about them.
* * *
One day, Basham saw a book titled Telekinesis in the library. Curious about it, he checked it out.
He read that telekinesis is the occult ability to move objects through sheer concentration.
Basham wanted to find out if he had this ability. As an experiment, he placed a pencil on a table and concentrated hard. A minute later, the pencil rolled off the table.
He did have telekinetic powers! But how could he use them to his advantage? He’d have to think it over.
He got a pizza from the freezer in the garage. It had been raining heavily that day, and the roof was leaking. He put a pail under the leak.
He went back into the house and turned on the TV set. The news was on.
The anchor said, “Charlie Westcott was electrocuted last night when an electric radio accidentally fell into his bathtub. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Matthew’s Hospital.”
Basham turned off the set. He had gotten an idea.
He knew that Morlant listened to his radio while taking a bath in the afternoon.
Basham now had the solution to his problem. He hoped it would work.
He concentrated for a minute. Then he drove to Morlant’s house.
The front door was unlocked. Basham entered the house and went into the bathroom. Morlant was lying in the tub, the radio in his lap. He had been electrocuted. Basham had concentrated and moved the radio until it fell into the tub.
Basham felt some pity for his friend. There would be no more good times with him. But better days were ahead. Now he could sing on all of Pop Salad’s songs.
But he realized that Morlant’s death would look suspicious, being so similar to Westcott’s demise. Basham had to make it look like Morlant had been electrocuted in another way.
After hearing a clap of thunder, Basham got an inspiration. He carried Morlant’s body into the bedroom, where he dressed him. Then he took the corpse, his guitar, and his amplifier to his car and drove to his home.
In his garage, Basham sat Morlant in a chair beneath the leaking roof. He put the amplifier on the floor next to him. Finally, he placed the electric guitar in Morlant’s arms.
Then he called the police with the bad news.
* * *
“It’s obvious what happened to poor Freddie,” Basham told Lt. Hammett. “He was playing his electric guitar when it started raining through the hole in the roof. The rainwater fell on him and he was electrocuted.”
“That sounds logical,” Hammett said. “But it won’t wash.”
He knelt down and picked up a cord.
“Morlant’s guitar wasn’t plugged into the amplifier,” he said. “So he wasn’t electrocuted here.”
Basham knew that it was all over but the shouting.
“Now,” Hammett said with a nasty grin, “tell me how you really killed him.”
i think i should break
up with sean
i mean he’s been a real dick all week
and chris said that i needed
to make a choice
and i don’t know
what to do, you know
like alcohol makes
you do some stupid things
and i didn’t like want
to do what i did with chris
but that party
shit, i just think maybe
sean’s being a dick
because his grades are for shit
and chris like unloaded
on me yesterday
and told me that he never
wanted to get married
or have kids
like what the fuck?
but it probably doesn’t
even matter anyway
chris isn’t catholic
so there’s like no way
i’ll ever get him to church
and i can’t bring a guy
home that won’t go to church
my mom would flip
but i think sean was
just being a dick
and at least he goes to
church on sundays
alcohol makes you
do some dumb things
this is my stop
so i’m going to get off the phone
text me in like five minutes
John Grochalski bio
John Grochalski is the author of The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, in the area where you can still buy a pint of beer for under four bucks.
The Two Good Friends
John Clayton Young
“When we get back to Boston, they’re going to call us names.”
“Why in the world?”
“For staying closeted down here.”
“That’s Boston, not Peru. And it’s not as though we asked to get handed off to the Baptists.” A beat of contemplation, then Luke went on: “Do you think they are Southern Baptists here or . . . even more conservative?”
Cal chuckled. “Either way, honey, do you want them to be privy to what we do in the dark?”
“You are the one who’s going to flip his wrist when he’s not meaning to.”
“Me?” said Cal as his unpacked the button ups one by one, each one seeming more and more unnecessary. “I’m surprised they let you onto this work-farm with your Donna Karen.”
“You never did know fashion. All my stuff is Dockers. Here—this toothpaste is yours.”
They relished this first moment of solitude they had had since Lima, two days ago. Their two other roommates—El Greco and Carlos—were eating lunch in the cafeteria down the hill. The rest of the students would show up at the start of the semester in another week.
Only now, after having been dragged around Arequipa for two days with the Baptist bandwagon—giving testimonials in their very respectable Spanish as to what brought them to Canyon Country—they had their first moment to let loose the devout concentration and let the conversation come. It was also the first moment they had had to unpack.
“So what’s the verdict?” asked Cal, a year older, a perhaps tad wiser, with a little better control of emotions as well as Spanish. “Give it to me straight.”
“Well,” said Luke, heaving a sigh, “we’ll really have to see how much time we have with the kids in the school, how free we’ll be, and how soon they’ll let us out of this dive. I am ticked that they promised us an apartment especially on our own dime. It stinks in here. Smells like Raid.”
“I agree. I think they really broke their word on the housing since they said we would have a place to ourselves. I’ve got the email. I say that we can jet whenever. True, we did commit to the local Methodist crew—or at the Methodist VIM’s in New York, but it was just laziness on the part of their “Peru Crew” to hand us off to the Baptists after we’d already bought the tickets. This place reeks. We put our lives on hold to teach English to their kids, paying our way, and they want to put us through the wringer like seminary recruits. No warning that we need sheets, pillows, soap. And did you know we’re two kilometers away from the nearest minimart or phone or taxi or water! Can you say Opus Dei?”
“So we give them how long?”
Cal blew out his breath and shrugged. “As long as we want. No longer. Quick ride to the airport, fly to Lima, spend the night, and so forth.”
“Unless . . .”
“Unless the teaching turns out to be fruitful.”
“But did you catch that the school is on the other side of the city? Fifteen soles away, according to Carlos.”
Luke shook his head. Then smiling and looking down, he reached below his towel and picked up his brandy flask. “Want some now?”
“Are you nuts?”
“Don’t you dare do it now! They’ll smell it!”
“You are so dominant! You never let me drink my booze anywhere!” He tossed it below the towel again and then turned his attention to what passed for a bed and tried to fit a rough blanket over the mattress. “You don’t think they suspect?”
“About the brandy?”
“No, genius. About us?”
“No. How could they? But nothing physical for now!”
They worked silently for a few minutes in rumination. Luke continued: “You know what they would say back home? Dan and Jeff? They would skin us alive and they aren’t even militant.”
Cal chuckled without looking at his partner of seven years (both were twenty seven). He stopped what he was doing, dropped a stack of clean boxer briefs on the half clothed bed. And he did not look at Luke as he responded. “What would they do? Seriously! Hold hands in the cafeteria down there where the boys and the girls can’t even sit together?” His tone was not entirely pleased.
He closed his eyes, and for the first time in two and a half days, a wave of anger pushed the blood hard upon his optical nerve: a sign saying Breath! or you’re going to have a popper of a migraine.
Opening his eyes, he tried, but with lungs three-fourths full, he got the stench of pesticide smack in the mucus membranes. It was that crap that the stupid El Greco was always spraying to kill flies.
“I hate to say it, Luke, but this faking is almost as though we aren’t even together, but apart.”
Luke took a gander out the window, and seeing the coast clear, stepped to his partner and put a hand on his neck where it met the shoulders and rubbed. The touch made Cal smile.
“You comfort me,” said Cal.
The sound of a dopey ditty told them to separate. El Greco came bopping in that moment singing.
He was such a goof—this “Greco” with none of the majesty that Cal associated with the tall and svelte Greeks he’d known. How he’d gotten the name was a stupid and convoluted story. El Greco was short and stubby—nether lean nor chubby, but somehow both. Unsubstantial and soft. But it could have been that Cal’s perceptions of him were tainted at that moment with the taste of his deception. He talked about ironing his shirt and then started a repetitious ditty, looking through his clothes.
Cal, done with the unpacking for now, leaned on the post of the bunk bed and said to Luke in an easy-breezy tone in English, “But who’s to say UMCOR would have been any better?”
“Then,” said Luke with a smile in an equally fluffy tone to belie his angst, “we should have gone with your tribe, hon!”
Cal chuckled, then said with a finality that was to end the English conversation: “Too bad the Nazis got here before we did. Not many Semites in Peru.”
And though they were—it’s true—masking their irritations, what irritation they harbored was dominated by that wont mood they shared—thankful optimism—young and together and hale and hearty.
“So, Greco . . . how was lunch?”
It was so odd calling him that, though it was how El Greco preferred it. But to Luke it would have been like someone calling him Jew Boy . . . or Gay Boy.”
“Rico, but you two didn’t eat?”
“We ate downtown,” said Luke.
“It was good too,” added Cal, wondering why he was trying to sell El Greco on how good it was.
“Well,” said El Greco, oblivious, kind of shuffle dancing from his white shirts (they only wore white with black pants) to the ironing table, “you should have waited to eat Peruvian food.”
Luke and Cal looked at each other.
“Funny you say that, Greco,” said Luke (and Cal thought Oh no!). “But we would have liked to, but because Carlos had asked us to accompany him across town for an hour (which ended up being three or four hours), we were worried we were going to miss lunch, as we had missed dinner yesterday and lunch the day before. So Cal and I ate a few bread rolls for lunch. Carlos apparently ate with you and the pastor and the rest.”
Obnoxiously, naively, El Greco laughed and said, “Oh, yeah! It’s too bad you guys ate while you were in town!”
“Yeah,” said Luke, “too bad.” He didn’t mention that they had also bought Carlos something to eat too.
“So what’s next on the agenda, Greco?” asked Luke.
“I’m going to wash my clothes, and then I’ll just study until the célula tonight. Hermano Alfredo is talking.”
Cal looked at Luke who was straining internally. Cal stifled a chuckle with a cough.
El Greco, who was all comedy, smiled and asked, “What’s funny?”
“Oh, nothing. Sorry. A bug flew in my mouth.”
“So sorry! I’ll get them!”
And in the moment that they understood that he was going (again) for the MataMoscas bug spray, they cried in unison, “No, no!”
“Enough with the MataMoscas, Greco,” said Cal. “I think it’s starting to make me twitch.”
The goofy Greco slapped on his own face a really unhandsome grin. It was so . . . ill plastered that Cal felt bad for wondering if El Greco wasn’t mildly handicapped.
At least he stopped what he was doing and shrugged.
“So,” said Luke, scratching his forehead with his finger, “uh, a célula tonight, huh?”
“Yeah. Uh, what time is it?”
“And everyone’s going?”
“Of course.” The tone was neither taken aback nor angry, but just to stay Of course!—Why wouldn’t everybody?
But they were really tired of these células. Neither Luke (who had always attended Methodist Bible study) and Cal (who always attended for his partner) had never seen anything like these células. Apparently, the better the speaker did, the more he (invariably a he) talked at the audience and never with them. They’d been to two in the last two days.
“When do we eat dinner?” asked Luke.
“About nine, nine-thirty.”
He was looking at the flies again—focused on them, starting into space.
Space Cadet was a much better nickname for him.
“Well,” said Cal, draping his light jacket over his shirts to protect them from El Greco’s MataMoscas. “I’ll tell you what. We ate lunch earlier than you did—and, Greco, we haven’t had any time to sponge—so we are going out for dinner.”
A look to Luke and it was confirmed: if they went downtown alone, they could look at hotels.
“But you don’t want to eat here?”
“It would be nice, but after the célula tonight, it will be late. And, as Luke said, we’ve missed more than one meal.”
“But while we’re gone, Greco, you’re not going to spray that MataMoscas again, are you?” The superficial tone was light, but he really wanted an answer. “It smells like a chemical plant in here.”
And laaaughs, as though Space Cadet was a laugh track. “No, no, no! Okay!” and laaaughs!
Cal nodded. “Okay. Greco. We’re heading out. But we’ll be back.”
“And, uh, I’m sure we’ll be back for the célula, but if for some reason we get held up, then . . . well, just don’t worry, okay?”
“But I’m sure you’ll make it back!”
Cal gave the sign to Luke. “So we’ll see you!”
“Have fun with the laundry,” said Luke.
And this made Cal just have to ask: “By the way, Greco, where is the laundry machine?”
“No!” Laaaughs! “You use the basins by the stream! Do you have soap, or can I lend you some?”
The second taxi ride downtown at least brought them to the conclusion that the seminary lodging wasn’t going to fly, since, here they were escaping from their own rooms to be able to eat, to relax, to be alone, and to have a place to crack their books. The dorm—or, better said, the common sleeping room—was a downer. Were they to rest their heads against the pillows they didn’t have—or were they supposed to lie on their backs and hold their anthologies over their heads? Or were they supposed to sit in the seminary library that had never yet been open? And were they supposed to acclimate (and enjoy?) the pervasive stench of chemicals that floated around the place.
So they were escaping to find new shelter.
Shortly before three, they started their search, radiating out from the Plaza de Armas, looking for an affordable hostel that would last two weeks. Less than seventy soles a night for both was their limit, but three nights at this price would have purchased a month’s rent in a single bedroom apartment had one been procured for them.
They discussed it as they walked: “We get a place for two weeks. If they can’t find us lodging in that time, or if we find it and they’re unhappy about it, we blow.”
The Plaza de Armas was undeniably beautiful—with its incomparable sun to illuminate the fauna and the cathedral and the restaurants and the buzz of lovers, pigeons, tourist masses—but hundreds of thousands of gringos had learned of its majesty long before Luke and Cal, and for them the extreme UV index which lasted until seven or eight at night was not their cup of tea right now. Its wash bleached them, and they would have preferred a quiet classroom over the lingering Plaza sun any day.
On a street a kilometer away from the Plaza, they found a room for their two weeks and their budget. The native concierge opened their door to show them a spacious bedroom and a sanitized bathroom. Down to the grout was white. “And the water,” said the concierge, “is always hot!”—which they doubted, but for about $25.00 a night, could trust.
At nearly seven o’clock, there was no way they could have obtained their possessions, left the seminary, and arrived the same night in the hotel. So they planned for the next day, and the concierge said it made no difference.
And stepping into the increasingly balmy air (which would ultimately grow cold in the desert night), they walked with a little more bounce, and even the skyline and the cobblestones—instead of throwing the sunlight into their eyes like a javelin—reflected the orangey glow of heaven.
They stopped at the corner of Santa Catalina and the street they had just come—and inching towards the wall to stand away from the human traffic, stopped to assess.
“It’s seven,” said Cal.
“Do we rush back, go to their célula, and hope they feed us? Or do we royally tick ‘em off and have a nice meal here, for cheap, blow off the célula, and maybe, if we can get to where no one can see us, steal a kiss?”
Cal gave back an easy, cool smile and knew that he looked good to him in the shade he wore as twilight neared. It meant the world to him that Luke had done for him what he had tried to do for Luke. Luke loved church, so Cal had gone. Cal loved languages, so Luke, knowing a little Spanish, had worked up sweat on his face by studying—and after several years spoke it very well. It didn’t matter a comino that Luke didn’t have a Hebrew education, or French, or music. He loved him even more than if he had been a perfectly matched erudite because then he would have lost that his own rough charm, an organic, natural coolness.
“Honey, let’s eat.”
They were glad they did. Just off the Plaza, they had stuffed peppers and Arequipenas, and at 8:30, after a couple Inca Kolas to get rid of the beer smell, they stuffed themselves into one of the clown car taxis and headed again to their outskirt destination—not really wanting to return.
It was hard to pin the mood of El Greco when they saw him again. He was undoing his tie from his white shirt and doffing his polished shoes. Skittish to begin with, he just seemed a little more uppity now.
If he was angry about the célula, then they’d welcome his complaint.
Cal thought he would probe: “Too bad we missed the célula, hermano. We were engaged with some business and didn’t get finished until 7:30.”
His habit was to speak very formally in Spanish. It generally did more good than harm.
“I understand,” said El Greco, oddly pausing his disrobing to make a point to look at first Cal and then Luke.
“And,” said Luke, volunteering what Cal hadn’t, “we ate lunch early—earlier than everyone else—and needed to be sure to get dinner.”
The Greek again made that special pronouncement, and because neither of the boys felt comfortable with the Greek professing his comprehension of something they doubted he comprehended, they turned their attention to their own hygiene matters.
The Greek started singing a song, something to do with trust—but he was really mush-mouth, especially when singing, and Cal didn’t get half of it.
He asked them if they wanted to join him for dinner, and only since it was the least meal they could share and since they had declined to eat lunch with the group, Cal and Luke agreed to accompany El Greco but not eat. When they arrived at the cafeteria, they were involved with a winding conversation at the locked doors with Carlos. Nothing in the conversation indicated that dinner would be served soon.
They gave it an hour and called that politeness enough. The desire to sleep trumped the need to socialize. They politely excused themselves saying that they would like to do some reading before bed, but thank you for the invitation.
With relief, they jumped into the filthy beds, and each took a book in his hands. Thirty minutes of this, and then lights out.
They had gone days before now—in El Salvador and in Mexico—without having kissed or touched much; it was no brutal hardship since it was necessity in Latin America and they could make it up later. But as they put their books down, the moment delighted them when they found themselves in a corner of the room invisible to all the windows.
A quick kiss was all, but it was enough.
The lights went off. And when they were in bed, with a chuckle, Cal spotted the brandy flask Luke had. He raised it and said, “Here’s to that kiss! I love you!”
“Cal. Cal. Cal, wake up!”
It was day. No. No. It was night. But the brain-frying fluorescents radiated into his eyes. But—the question of the hour seemed imperative, as though he couldn’t get any thought in order before he got that one.
“What time is it?”
“You just fell asleep.”
“Why are you waking . . .”
“Cal. I don’t feel good. Something is wrong.”
“What?” And the sizzle of the fluorescent lights coursed through his heart. “What?”
“The brandy. Something is wrong with it.”
Cal was now entirely awake as though ten minutes of sleep had been sixteen hours.
Jumping out of bed, bare feet on the repulsive floor, he pulled Luke to the bed and looked first at the eyes. Somewhere he’d read to look at the eyes. The pupils were the same size. But still, still, he wasn’t thinking clearly.
Luke spit a mouthful of saliva on the ground with a splat!
“I’m drooling. And my heart is pounding.”
Cal stifled a plea to God to help them. He wanted to kiss Luke’s lips, hold him, assume him in a hug that would absorb all bad. But still he dared not touch him for fear of hurting him.
“It’s tripping. Tic-tic-tic-tic-tic.”
“God help us.” It managed to come out this time, and he thought, To the hospital. But how? Have him walk?
That wouldn’t do.
Then ask for a ride? From THEM? Demand it, rather!
But who was there who had a car? Not even the pastor—and certainly not any of those lingering seminary students who washed dishes to eat. And perhaps to confirm, he could find El Greco, and ask if anyone had a car, and shake him back and forth until his head rolled off and then stomp it like a pumpkin.
But El Greco wasn’t in his bed.
And whether he was thinking clearly or not (although as of now he was sure that he was) the answer and only option stood clear.
“Let’s get you to a hospital. The only way is by taxi. I’ll run and get one. Can you wait for me?”
On Luke’s face sat the look of an uncertain puppy, which the capable young man had never shown before to his partner of so many years.
God! How I would take this for him if I could!
And though the thought of leaving Luke’s side scared him, not to go meant isolation. The fear pulled him towards the door as it was.
“In fifteen minutes,” he said in going, “—no more.”
And in the second it took him to get out the door, there was not an opportunity to look back.
And down the hill where they dinned—(Or celebrated?)—there was nothing to see. No one was in sight. All was quiet, and he felt nausea with the possibility that he talk to them, consult them, plead with them for an ambulance.
And he ran—how had he gotten his shoes on?—ran up the hill, past the guard house while saying nothing—and he ran, ran down the dirt street with the cart load of wadded, half-burnt diapers dumped at its shoulder, down the road by which ran parallel a stream in which people washed and drank, down the dirt, stony road over which he and Luke had had to haul their suitcase the day they had arrived because Carlos expected them to walk and hadn’t offered a ride—down the road over which reigned the majestic volcanoes: Misti, Chachani, Ampato. And the moonlight gave him enough to go by to channel his furious, acidic energy into a sure sprint down the two kilometers to the road.
At the street lined with traffic, a taxi jetted past though he half dove in its way with his hand out.
Headlights. Taxi, maybe? Cars enough. A taxi would come, right?
The hour? He had no watch, but it was no later than 11:00. Maybe 11:20, but who knew and what did it matter? There were cars enough.
A taxi. Didn’t stop. Honked at him. “You ass!” he cried, but looking back at the curb, he saw that he was standing in the street.
A lull in traffic. There will be more.
“Anger won’t serve. Anger won’t do.”
Lights. A taxi? Yes. Here!
It pulled over. “Señor,” he said climbing into the passenger seat, “my friend has been poisoned by—“ and he had to think of something that wouldn’t care the driver but something that was serious. “—by insecticide, by accident. And, and—” and the reality hit him.
He knew what had happened, and he knew that it was El Greco and what he had poisoned him with. He gritted his teeth.
“A hundred soles to get him, down this dirt road here—“ He indicated whence he’d come. “—and another hundred soles to get him to the hospital, if you go fast!”
The driver did not complain. Jammed into gear, his econobox bounced over the rutted road with more alacrity than Cal could have wished. Each jar went into the frame of the car and into the frame of Cal. Over this forsaken stretched they’d had to haul their cargo in, and now the most valuable cargo was coming out.
“Go to that light post,” said Cal, pointing. “I’ll talk to the guard.” The automobile gate was down. Cal had his window lowered well beforehand.
To the guard, “My friend is sick. I’m obtaining him.”
The guard, another seminary student paying off his tuition, looked confused. Cal loathed the oaf.
“We need in! Open up!”
Without qualm, Cal would have stepped out and not stopped beating the guard if it had served in any way, but the confused student at last moved to open the gate—apparently still not having understood—and lifted the bar.
“Okay,” was all Cal said. The driver gassed it, jumping a score of yards beyond, and Cal told him to halt. He bounced out of the seat and ran around the side of the darkened dorm building to the single lighted room.
The door was open, but Luke called Cal’s attention from the dark. “I’m here,” he said, sitting plastically on small stood he had drug outside, away from the room. “I needed fresh air.”
“How are you?”
For the circumstances calmly enough, he replied, “No better.” The quantity of saliva in his mouth obscured his words.
“Can you walk?”
“I think so.”
“Hold onto me.”
And it didn’t do much good, but that Luke’s arm around his neck and shoulders helped talk some burden from Luke’s own feet.
Quickly enough, they left and left all, even the lights on and the door open without a thought. And from the door they rounded the corner to the waiting cab.
For some reason, that it was yet there was a shock—as though any good luck at this point in this labyrinth of wrongs was a shock. And as he put his partner in the backseat, a fearful thought closed his throat and squeezed his chest.
And turning, he found again a shock—a real shock: that the gate was still open.
Both men in the back seat, the driver started the car again and backed fully the dozen yards he’d come.
“Keep going,” said Cal. “Don’t stop.”
The driver obeyed without a word.
The guard looked on doubtfully as the car passed.
“Stay calm, Luke.”
Luke nodded, his head inclined. Cal had his arm around him.
Cal got the impression that Luke couldn’t say anything because his mouth was full of saliva.
No. Every warning label he’d ever seen said not to.
Luke was sweating, horribly. The collar of his t-shirt was saturated. Cal put a hand to Luke’s forehead and found what he’d feared. Fibril. He wiped the sweat just from above the eyes. Cal removed his arm but put his hand on Luke’s knee.
“Relax. We’ll be there in two snaps. I love you so much.”
He’d said it in English, betting that the driver wouldn’t understand. To have been turned out of the cab because the driver knew they were homosexuals would have been bad, but just as bad would have been if Luke had lost consciousness before Cal had had a chance to say that to him.
The driver didn’t respond.
And the money? Had he even grabbed his wallet?—Oh dear God!
Yes! There is was!—because, he remembered, he’d been sleeping with it in his pockets for safekeeping.
One, two, three bills worth a hundred soles each. He passed two. “Two, and the third if we get there fast!”
The driver nodded. He was driving at maybe fifty, sixty through a downtown street that still had people trying to cross it. Cal regretted having said anything since the cabbie was doing all he could.
Cal reached past Luke to roll his window down for him. When the driver slowed to proceed through a red light, Luke leaned his head out and let all the saliva fall with an audible splat. He rolled himself back in and, in opening his mouth, was already drooling again.
Sweat just away from the eyes.
At the same time it seemed that only mere minutes had passed while it seemed that the process was taking far too long. But how should he know? The zone of the city to him may as well have been Calcutta.
But a sober reckoning calmed him. Only a few minutes yet.
And before the sensation of horrid anxiety crested, the driver halted in front of an unpretentious building that only was distinguished by one smog coated placard: CLINICA.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” And he dropped the last 100 on the front seat. “Please wait for us for five minutes, just in case.”
“Of course!” said the driver who raced around to help them as he could. But by then Cal had already run around to Luke’s door and had gotten him halfway out.
Cal hauled his friend up the curb. In spite of the cascading sweat and the heart in his chest chopping like a machine gun, Luke was doing well enough keeping up with the steady pace of Cal after being hauled from the cab although his eyes were dulled and stupefied.
“Steps. First one. Oh! Good.”
And then steps served as minor obstacles only—until, en route to the glass doors illuminated greenly from behind, Luke just bent double in a bow, almost with his head on the sharp concrete ledge although his legs remained rigid. Had those legs given out, Cal never could have kept the 5'11" frame of his partner from toppling.
But with this slight shade of good fortune in a picture of gloom, he’d been able to stoop down, put his shoulder in his partner’s crotch, and hoist him in a fireman’s carry—something he had never in his life done before. And he lifted.
This, without a thought of the taxi driver behind him or the hospital staff in front of him.
The weight seemed insupportable—but realizing he could not put him down, he stepped and stepped again until he was at the landing, and then at the glass door.
And now the damn door. And the fact that no one was behind them to offer a hand. The two facts pained him.
With right hand, he clutched the seat of Luke’s pants and sacrificed the aid and support of his left hand. With this, he jeopardized all by reaching, reaching for the handle, and opened the door.
The scream flew from his lungs and rattled his teeth as well as the halls.
And someone—a nurse—came running—an orderly beside. The latter was a middle aged indigenous with skin almost black in a white uniform.
As they neared, he slid Luke down his front, carefully, standing him on his feet. He held him as he said—
“He’s been poisoned. Fibril. Insecticide ingested. Needs a doctor.”
The nurse then split down the adjoining corridor while the orderly pulled a wheelchair from behind the reception desk and while he hauled to Luke. “Set him in,” he said, helping.
The nurse was running back. A man who was surely a doctor—light skinned, donned in a white robe and tie—ran too.
The orderly pushed the wheelchair quickly towards the corridor that lead straight back from the reception desk.
Cal never left his side, his face bent low to Luke’s who had his eyes closed in a wince. And then came the vomit.
Cal sprung his face back horrified for his partner and snapped his vision around to find where the doctor had gone. But the doctor was just reaching them after having run.
“What happened?” asked the doctor in English.
“He’s vomiting!” Cal shouted back in Spanish. “He was poisoned! They put it in his drink: insecticide. He told me his heart is racing. And look at the sweat. And the saliva. There has been a lot of saliva.”
He’d shouted it all because it was the only way he could manage while trotting. Other nurses had popped their heads out of the adjoining corridor, and down this passageway the orderly pushed the wheelchair.
“We go to the emergency room now,” said the doctor in Spanish. He put his fingers on Luke’s neck.
Cal was hysterical, grabbing at the doctor, screeching, mumbling in English during his inhalations.
The orderly rounded the corner, and the doctor, grasping him, said “a solas”—which made the orderly let the amassed nurses take the wheelchair from him while he himself turned around to block Cal.
“Are you mad? Let me in!”
The orderly said nothing, just strained against him.
“Let me in!”
The orderly who was just a little shorter but much thicker than Cal, had his head lowered as though sure he was going to get nailed in the nose. The sight made Cal a little calmer since he did not want to hurt the man who, like the taxi driver, had done something for his Luke. He only slunk away with an impotent feeling and a reverberating howl and fell on his knees.
A half hour later, the doctor came out and first introduced himself. Fountain water sprung from Cal’s stone countenance.
“Your Spanish is excellent, so that is what I’ll speak. He told me his name is Luke Craft. Is that correct?”
“And your name is Dryfus?” The doctor didn’t have to consult any notes which was a very good sign of his intelligence.
“Yes. My surname.”
“And you are his friend?”
“Your friend is stable. His heart rate has lowered from that which is considered dangerous after the administration of a drug called Pralidoxime. We are monitoring the fever closely. His temperature is currently at 39.5 degrees, which is awfully high, but we will wait to see what it does before taking action.” The doctor was a slender man, slender in the face and maybe a vegetarian. His skin was very white for a mestizo (if he even was a mestizo) although he was certainly Peruvian. “He is receiving an IV which he will keep at least until tomorrow.”
“Will he recover?”
“Prognosis is good, but he has been poisoned—poisoned enough to send him into a shock. Will you tell me a little more?”
American volunteers, tricked into staying at a seminary where they had affronted the roommate with the brandy flask and therefore reaped the nastiness of a prank involving MataMoscas. That was all there was to tell. But . . . could El Greco or someone else have suspected?
How could they have? And why mention the relationship to the doctor who probably had similar prejudices.
“The next step is to call the police,” said the doctor. “I shall do that from here.”
“You are planning to stay, yes?”
“You can bet your life, doctor. May I see him?”
For the time being, the answer was no, but there was good enough reason. At 3:00 a.m., he was allowed to slip in for a few minutes.
They had changed his clothing—or at least his top. His bangs were matted to his forehead, swept sharply to the left, probably done by the nurse. The eyes were open by slits, though he smiled upon seeing Cal. Cal took his hand and squeezed. Luke smiled a little more.
“I feel better,” he said slowly. “But let me just rest. Stay by me, though. Sit by me.”
And Cal did and whispered in his ear frequently that he loved him. The doctor himself slipped in every few minutes, continuing his monitoring, verifying blood pressure, taking temperature. And Cal sat patiently at the bedside, watching, until he was called out to talk to the police.
The detective chewed gun and wore a black leather jacket. His cranium was large, body small, and demeanor and manner miniscule. He doubted and seemed hostile to the story. When Cal mentioned the name of the seminary, the cop furrowed his brow and said, “Lemme tell you sometin bout that seminary: one o’ de best.” Cal pulled his head back as though smelling something fowl, and concluded with a brief reiteration of the facts: that a student had poisoned Luke. “I fin’ out tomorrow,” said the cop.
Cal knew he wouldn’t. But two intelligent professionals was a lot to ask, and he was happy at least that the doctor was the competent one.
After four, he reentered. Luke’s eyes were closed. Two beads of sweat stood on his forehead. Cal used the nurse’s towel to daub them.
Twenty minutes later the doctor came in. Now his own brow shone with sweat in spite of the dry air. His fair skin shone pale.
“How is he holding up?” asked Cal.
Verifying, the doctor said, “Heart rate is down, which is good. Temperature remains near 39.5. We will continue to watch.”
“The policeman didn’t seem very interested,” Cal offered.
The doctor with his hand on Luke’s neck looked to Cal and remarked, “Lamentably, you will find that is often true of Peru, Señor Dryfus. It depends on the office, but if there is no immediate recompense for the officer, then he may either pursue or decline.”
“And with us?”
“This happened in the seminary?”
“Then if your friend makes a full recovery, which I suspect he will, then you will not have much hope for legal justice.”
Cal shook his head.
The doctor went on—“You two are very good friends, aren’t you?”
“As good as they come, doctor.”
“I see.” A pause. “God bless your faithfulness. One doesn’t see it every day.”
Around six, at dawn, he fell asleep in the chair and for several hours oscillated between wakefulness and dreamless sleep. The nurse, doctor, the face of Luke asleep.
Cal’s own body felt poisoned when he finally forced himself awake, but he was sure that it was the stress and the worry and the hatred that had envenomed him.
It was noon when he was on his feet again, and the doctor came in to say that he was leaving but would be back at midnight, and that Luke would remain in the hospital for at least another day or two.
Around two in the afternoon, with Luke sleeping, Cal got into a taxi.
“Hermano Cal,” said the guard as Cal stepped through the open gate, “the pastor wants to speak to you.”
But the first thing would be to find El Greco. Cal felt hard and mean and immune to hurt.
At the corner of the dorm building, he turned to see if the guard had followed him or if anyone was watching, but he saw that he was alone.
At the threshold of where the horror had occurred the night before, he flung open the door to find only the smell of the pesticide . . . and no Greco.
To the bathroom, and the smell of more chemicals, the omnipresent smell here, assailed his nostrils. But the bathroom was empty.
Outside, with a panorama view, he saw nothing—no one except for some goofy student he’d had nothing to do with, bopping his way across the field.
At the cafeteria, on the way to the office, no one—the doors locked. And the offices were closed except for the one that belonged to the head pastor.
Only there, there only.
The pastor and associate pastor sat within.
Cal stepped inside.
He did not speak.
“Have a seat, hermano,” said the pastor, rising from behind his desk. The associate pastor, a slender and nervous man, also rose.
“I’ll stand,” he said dryly.
The pastor nonchalantly nodded and asked the associate pastor to close the door.
Both pastors sat.
“You wanted to see me?” asked Cal.
“How is Luke doing?” His tone was pacific, concerned.
“He is in the hospital, incapacitated from poison.”
The pastor shook his head. “Brother Javier,” he said referring to the associate pastor, “has just come from the hospital. “I am sorry this has happened.”
The associate pastor nodded.
“And?” asked Cal.
“Brother Greco got ahead of himself. He did something that was inexcusable; and we are still in the process of penalizing him.”
“And what did he do?”
“Last night, after you two had left the seminary, he confessed to us that he had put his bug spray in Luke’s drink. Now he is reaping the remorse which he had sown as a seed in his crime. Rest assured that he will not do the same again.”
“You freely admit it?”
“Not to do so would be an offense to you and him.”
“Then let’s hand him over to the police. And we will give him a trial.”
The pastor took a breath.
“It is not that we believe that we as a group are above or apart from the law. Not at all. It is that in this case, since your friend will recover as we have been told by the hospital staff, we are more effective than the law. In this case. With El Greco. Not with everyone, but with him, there is no doubt.”
“And of what does the punishment consist?”
“Education. Prayer. This is more than it sounds.”
“Nevertheless, I say that for me and for Luke that is not enough.”
The pastor was silent. The associate pastor would not say a word.
Still with that pacific and hopeful tone, he asked—
“What is that you want, hermano? The crime will never be repeated. He is in pain. Your fiend is recovering in the hospital, and no punishment will better his health. If you want vengeance, then you may seek it—we will not stop you—but it will make nothing new and good grow.”
The adrenaline mingled with fatigue, and he was sure that he could have bounded over the desk, clutched the pastor by the throat, and held the associate pastor at bay until vengeance was had. He was sure of it. But what damage he could do would only bolster them and their flimsy logic in the eyes of their crew.
He had lost. Luke had lost—but thanks be to God only by a margin that, although hurtful, would probably not be permanent. Cal did not buy what the pastor was pushing, but there was no hope of seeking anything more.
He turned to go without a word.
The pastor spoke again—
“Hermano, know that your friendship and loyalty to your friend have touched us and have shown us a better example. I mean it.”
It was his turn to laugh—heartily—at the cosmic irony.
“Between him and me,” he said, “there is a love that you cannot fathom with your agenda and which you will never understand.”
All signs were improving.
“In thirty-six hours,” said the doctor at midnight after having come on shift again, “you will be able to take him from here and board a flight to Lima. From there, get him home. Contact his doctor. I’ll give you my report to take with you.”
Cal nodded. After a long beat, he thanked the man.
“You are welcome.” Perhaps sensing that Cal wanted to say more, he hesitated to listen. Cal spoke what he had not planned to say—
“Some . . . person put poison in his flask because he thought it was a sin that Luke had alcohol. I wonder what they would have done if they had known that we are homosexuals.”
The doctor’s expression did not change.
“I do not know,” he said. “I do not know. But I know that any loving God would smile to see how you have behaved, Señor Dryfus—and would roast over the coals anyone who used his name as a gimmick to salvation while poisoning others along the way.”
I don’t quite remember dying. There are those who see their end approaching and are often thrust forth immediately into their transition. Others are eased slowly through the dark curtains; and as the veil gradually pulls itself back, they begin to see strange and wondrous things. However, few are actually aware of when their precise moment comes. All that we remember, I believe, is what we felt moments before our final breath. Furthermore, perhaps that’s all that matters. Perhaps it is within that fleeting emotion that whatever is left of us is carried beyond that decaying flesh. That vessel that’s so perfect in its function yet so flawed in performing the task that really matters to us; that really matters to me. I felt peace as I approached the end. However, I don’t remember dying anymore than I remember falling asleep.
I often ached for freedom. That’s all any of us ever really want. The moment we are born we are slaves to never ending wants and needs. Our mothers’ milk; our favorite toy; acceptance amongst peers; a warm body next to us in bed. And within death? What did I need once I unbound myself from the frivolous chains of petty desire? The sudden transition from being utterly consumed with wants, although we are often unaware of it, to being free of all fear of ever being without can be an uncomfortable shock to one as unprepared as I. Ana poured me a cup of tea to calm my nerves.
“Our guest has almost arrived,” I heard from across the table. Sitting motionless in the solid oak chair, I held the warm steaming alabaster cup between my palms. As I stared deep into its swirling black depths, I thought about the time that had passed since I entered the room and found myself sitting at a modest rustic dining table with an elderly woman sipping tea across from me. Time is so strange here. It seems to exist as simply an illusion to keep a newcomer from going insane. It’s imperfect in the sense that it’s almost impossible to determine the length between ordinary events. How long had I been sitting there? When I thought about the question, I once again remembered the feeling of peace as I approached death; but it seemed so long ago. Ages ago. Like when recollections of a dream suddenly come rushing back hours after we’ve awoken. We wonder how we’ve gone throughout the day without that memory, and when it returns it seems to dominate us. And even though that illusory experience occurred merely less than a day prior, it seems so distant that it may as well have been a memory from our youth. I’ve often noticed that memories of childhood seemed almost indistinguishable from that of dreams. That is an unsettling consequence of existing in this state. Unsettling, not exactly in an unfortunate manner. In fact, it can be both a blessing and a curse.
Ana smiled, gently lifted the cup to her lips and slowly sipped. She had the kind of eyes that squinted to near slits when she gave even the most modest grin. Her hair was gray and wavy, but very fine. It was shoulder length and parted slightly to one side. However, her most obvious features were more abstract. She radiated patience and wisdom. Her every movement was that of refined elegance. As I looked upon her in my clouded state, distant memories of her image slowly made themselves known into that moment. I had been here before. Although our last visit was within a dream. It was just an illusion. Ana lifted her eyebrows and slightly tilted her head disapprovingly. It was obvious she was listening in on my thoughts. Perhaps our previous rendezvous wasn’t just a dream. If my presence in this cabin was indeed real, maybe she had brought me here once before while I was still alive. She smiled again and took another sip as if to silently agree. Rather mysteriously, the room seemed to shift as the memory of our past encounter returned. Something foreboding lingered in the air.
Before that time, and as I was still living, I dreamt myself walking through a dense forest headed west. I knew this because the sun was setting off into the distance before me. It was peaceful and calm there, and I stood entranced by the halcyon sunset. Observing the surrounding woodland, any entry or exit had been completely lost. And as I came to the realization that the night would soon consume the woods around me, I became feverish with anxiety; with fear. Fear of whatever unknown terrors that would be lurking within the darkness. Overcome with panic, I raced toward the setting sun, begging it to grant me just enough light to find my way out of that confusion. A soft plume of smoke gently reflected the diminishing daylight on a hilltop just as I came within its sight. Beneath the smoke, a tiny chimney attached to a wooden roof. The remainder of the cabin lay hidden amongst the tree line. I ran as fast as my feet would take me. The forest suddenly stirred into agitation, seemingly reacting to my haste. Underneath the sound of my pounding heartbeat and wheezing gasps, I could hear the thrashing and growling of the denizens of our nightmares. Before me, within the light, the world remained pristine. Behind me, however, the earth had come alive with madness. The cabin came into view and a light appeared inside as if to beckon my arrival. Suddenly there were footsteps; matching my own and yet seemed doubled in nature which I took as an indication that something behind me was on all fours. I dared not turn around as I was certain that the greatest horror full of gnashing teeth, blood spattered fur, and flailing claws would be waiting for me. As the final sliver of sunlight extinguished behind the hills, the door, at last, came into view. Thank God it was unlocked.
I stood firmly against the other side of the door with the full intent of using myself as a barricade against the inevitable crash from the outside. Nothing came, however. Reluctant to move away, I tried to take deep breaths in between my erratic gasping. Sweat was beginning to drip into my eyes and mixed with the tears I didn’t even realize were there. I wiped them away with my right hand and immediately put it back onto the doorknob lest something would take the opportunity to push it open. As my breathing stabilized, I took a moment to look around the room. It was a single room log cabin that was dimly lit by a bronze lantern that rested on an oak dining table near a port window. The beacon that led me there. A steaming white cup sat waiting on the table. To the left there was a cast iron wood burning stove that heated the home from the outside chill. Next to the stove was a wooden bed frame fastened together from logs that supported a stuffed linen mattress. On the other side there sat another piece of log furniture; this time a couch with leather hide upholstery. I appeared to be alone, and since there were no terrible sounds emanating from outside the door, I began to suspect that I had imagined it all.
“You’d be correct.” A voice manifested from beside the dining table as I was focused on the stove. I shrieked in horror and could feel the tears beginning to swell up once again. There stood an elderly woman before me who was not there moments earlier. She smiled despite my agitation. “All of your fear will follow you to this place,” she said. “Everything you hide becomes known. All of your damaged thoughts that you push away in an effort to cope will resurrect themselves and force you to acknowledge them.”
“Who are you?” I began to feel lightheaded.
“Ana,” she said pleasantly. “And I’m so glad you’ve come.”
I then awoke in my bed. That was many years ago. And although I’d lived and forgotten countless dreams since then, that one experience stayed firmly imprinted into my mind’s eye. It was the only dream that never felt like one in my waking hours. It always felt like a recent memory. So why is it that I’d sat there, now dead, at Ana’s table for what seemed like hours and was unable to recall something that I’d never been able to forget? Sensing my thoughts, Ana offered an explanation, “There is a lucidity that comes gradually when one makes this transition.” Her voice was like clear water. So smooth and precise. Although it seemed like she was speaking barely above a whisper, I could hear her words as if they were being funneled directly into my head. “It’s like easing into a hot bathtub. If it’s done slowly, the experience comes without shock, and can even be enjoyable.” She giggled slightly at her analogy. Those eyes once again became little slits.
“And before?” I asked, “Years ago when I dreamt I came here?”
“There is always an opportunity to purge oneself before death. That is the hidden desire of all souls in all lives.”
“To purge ourselves?” I was more confused now that we had begun a conversation, and the identity of our forthcoming guest suddenly became of great concern.
“Life is suffering,” she spoke. “You thought of this often. People are so afraid of being without, that they become capable of unspeakable things. Acting upon that capability exposes us to even more destructive emotions; anger and hate. When we dwell on these thoughts, they take on a life of their own; quite literally. In this place, where thoughts become tangible, the lives you’ve created return to their creator.”
“But why?” The air pressure in the room seemed to drop, and I was beginning to understand why Death had brought me back here.
“How else do we learn of the consequences of our anger and hatred?” Her words dripped with wisdom, “What we give out, we must be prepared to take in. Peace comes through empathy. We return to innocence once we experience how our thoughts have effected others.”
I stood up from the chair with increasing anguish. The serenity that I felt upon death was diminishing. “But I faced those monsters. I faced them years ago in that dream.”
Ana laughed seemingly uncontrollably. It was the first time she slipped from her impeccable posture. “No, silly.” She quickly regained her composure and became more serious than ever. “You ran away.”
And with that there came a knock at the cabin door. Actually, it was more like a tap. The first terrible thought to enter my head was that of a skeletal hand gently tapping upon the door with a bony fingertip. Moreover, with my awareness of the demonic creatures that lay in wait outside those four wooden walls, I instantly became consumed with fear for my immortal soul. It was becoming apparent that Ana would no longer protect me. And even though I never believed in Hell, I felt with certainty that beyond that door were its fiery gates.
“I cannot open this door for you,” Ana said. “You have to invite it in and acknowledge its existence.” She remained calm and seated, unaffected by my sudden delirium. That bony finger tapped once more.
“And if I refuse?” I asked with sharpened fury.
“That is your choice. Some stay in this room for centuries.” Unmoved by her own implications, she slowly sipped her tea again. “Remember, my dear, everything is in transition. Nothing lasts in its current state forever.”
I pointed frantically toward the cabin door as the knocking continued. “But what is it? What’s out there!”
“Your fear. Your baneful thoughts. In life you recognized a balance. You discovered that in every situation there is one who dominates, and one who submits. Feeling as if this knowledge granted you enlightenment, you sought to dominate others. But is was fear, child. Fear drove you to anger and hatred.” Her eyes softened and at last she looked sympathetic. “And now it has come back to you.”
Confused and annoyed by Ana’s rhetoric, I began looking for something to defend myself. I glanced at the lantern and the oil within that slowly burned. I thought about breaking the glass and setting the entire cabin ablaze. The idea of taking Ana with me into an inferno seemed strangely pleasant. I tried to block out this thought as I was sure she would be listening. However, she stood up anyway revealing a stern gaze. The once gentle tapping at the door now seemed more forceful; more impatient. Ana slowly walked towards me in a floating, almost ghostlike manner as my fear within intensified. I felt duped. She was no longer my guardian angel, but the queen of monsters. Hell wasn’t outside that door, it was right here; and Ana was the Devil.
Her face appeared to sag at this thought. Her lips parted slightly and her eyes widened. It was as if she was in pain. Small teardrops billowed within the corner of her eyes. Now standing before me, Ana’s hand raised to meet my cheek. Her skin was warm from cupping the tea, and she gently pushed my hair behind my ears. Her cold monastic demeanor replaced with that of a loving mother. “You’re not being punished, my dear. Even the most pious must face their anger.”
I fell to my knees and wept uncontrollably. My legs, so weak with terror, finally gave out the moment Ana’s sympathetic tears trickled down her face. I had lived my life as a beast. Giving in to petty desires and materialism, I ignored that faint voice that called to me when all was still. That voice that tried to push me along the path not taken. I thought, as I approached death, that without the limits of our flesh, all would become clear; that there would be no more suffering. But even in this state I was defiled and wretched; and Ana knew it. She always knew it.
“I’m so sorry,” I cried. The mysterious visitor had given up on forceful knocking, and now violently shook the door handle from outside.
Ana slowly kneeled down to me, pushed my tear soaked face into her chest and held me close with her chin resting delicately on my head. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You lived your life the best way you knew how.” My sobbing calmed just slightly, and I peaked over her shoulder at the shaking cabin door. Sensing that I was finally ready, Ana, tilting her head close to my ear, whispered her final words of advice, “In this place, you cannot fight fire with fire. Hurtful emotions only feed off of one another. If you wish to conquer the undesirable, you must confront it with its absolute opposite.”
I’m sure in that instant I didn’t quite understand what she meant. However, I spoke anyway, fearing that within any other moment I’d be unable to. I felt with certainty my soul would not survive this. And yet, I could bear the chains of guilt no longer. If there was such a thing as the total annihilation of the self, it would suit me better than an eternity lived in fear. My voice crackled, “Come.... Come in.”
Ana kept me in her arms with her back to the door as it flung open. There was no impact as if it was kicked. It ripped off of the hinges like violent gale force winds had suddenly concentrated their fury upon that single point. Over Ana’s shoulder I saw only darkness. It was like tendrils made of the very fabric of night. They crept in attached to the walls and consumed everything in their path; blanketing everything in impenetrable blackness. It was surrounding us, leaving only a few feet among us untouched by the gloom. Through the darkness, and where the doorway once stood, I could hear the floor creak with movement. Something was walking our way. My breathing quickened and I at once regretted that brief moment of valor. I moaned in agony and held tightly onto Ana’s arms. Stoic as ever, she remained still and calm, even as the dry, mummified and partially skeletalized hands reached out from the shadows and around her delicate neck. In an instant, and without much effort, Ana was thrown from my grasp and forcefully tossed into the darkness. She made not a sound as she disappeared; captured by the nocturnal chaos. And I was certain she was lost forever. I, on the other hand, remained, feeling completely resigned with no wish to prolong the inevitable suffering with resistance. That is until I saw the abhorrent visage of the creature emerge from my own disbelief. Its skin was dry and had flaked off in pieces. Its eyes were equally devoid of moisture and looked like cracked glass. They were dead, and yet at the same time burning with the eternal rage that charged its existence; that granted it the spark of life. There were strands of hair still attached to the remaining skin barely draped around its skull, as if clinging to a memory of a life forgotten. Its mouth was agape, and although I’m certain the hollowed monster no longer had lungs, it heaved as though the hate inside was forcing itself free. Brown, cracked teeth were exposed behind where lips had withered away long ago. The stench emanating from its empty depths sobered me instantly. I no longer wished to become nothing. I wasn’t sure what the creature had in mind as it clutched its bony fingers around my neck. Would it be satisfied with just my asphyxiation? Or would it attempt to devour me; consuming my very essence to nourish its own?
Regardless, every instinct within screamed at once. And with strength fueled by adrenaline, I slipped my arms under and between its own, and forced its grasp free from my neck. With a rage that mirrored the creature’s own, I kicked the beast off from me as I fell back onto the floor. It didn’t take long for the demon to recover, however. I still lay on the floor as it manifested from the blackness. Its corroded flesh crackled with every move. Within a brief moment, time seemed to slow down upon a staggering realization. Enthralled by its maddening gaze, I imagined detailed features upon the monster; what its face would be without the disfigurement. With a gasp in terror, it became apparent that it was my face the creature bore. My face, twisted and decayed from a life of fear and anguish. In my ignorance, I ignored Ana’s assertion that the abomination was my own anger and hatred sprung into existence with a life of its own. But, it was true. And my rage, as it attacked me, only empowered the demon; made it stronger. The monster lunged forward once again, catching me as I struggled to my feet. Flesh, dried and turned to dust, sprinkled into my eyes. With a howl, it sank its rotted teeth into my shoulder. The shock from the pain was unbearable and I shrieked hysterically; for there was a sickness within the bite. A disease of aberration that I could feel slipping into my veins. A murky poison coursing into my blood, assimilating me unto itself. But I refused to give in. I refused to become one with this tainted madness. There had to be another way.
That faint voice was with me again. The voice, buried deep in my subconscious, revealed itself as it often did during my life. It spoke the words Ana left with me before the door was open. I wasn’t certain if they were just a memory or if she was still with me, encouraging me from the darkness. But I had finally realized what those words meant. I could not survive this fueled by fear and rage. In this world, unbound from the physical laws, one cannot conquer by force the evil manifested from our hearts.
I closed my eyes and thought of something from my life that always brought me perspective. Something that, in a strange way, always brought me peace. It was a photograph of a young Laotian orphan girl, scarred and blinded by shrapnel. I had found it in a magazine article that discussed the conflicts in that country. Looking at her sad face during times when I felt my lowest always helped me realize that those that suffer from our wrath and hatred are not always the ones that we meant to receive it. Lost, impoverished, and physically impaired was she; and I often felt unconditional compassion for the girl. How I longed to comfort her and assure her that life didn’t have to be full of such misery. As I saw her in my mind’s eye, I found it impossible to feel hatred; not even for those responsible. She was a victim of circumstances. A confused child caught in the crossfire of men’s struggle for dominance. Her pain was a result of humanity’s fear of being without, and I silently promised her that no one would ever suffer because of my own misgivings.
I whispered into the monster’s ear, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you. I know now. I know why we suffer.”
Within an instant the pain stopped. I opened my eyes. No more darkness within the cabin. No more darkness bleeding into an open wound. In fact, the wound no longer existed leaving not so much as a scar in its place. The demon was gone as if it had never existed. The door was firmly shut and remained intact on its hinges. The lantern lighted the room from its perch upon the table. Our steaming alabaster cups were still in their places. And sitting before her tea, was Ana smiling.
Enormous joy swelled up within me. I was so afraid mere moments earlier, but I had conquered a lifetime of regret, discontent, and rage by simply understanding what drove the monster borne from it. Ana stood up and hurried over to grasp my hands. Her smile was so bright I could barely see the tears of happiness forming within her eyes. I held her hands close to my heart and breathed out the remaining anguish inside, fully convinced that it would never return. Through the port window near the table, a light emanated from outside. It was not an immediate flash, but a slow dim that grew into piercing white light. Ana turned toward the door, and it slowly creaked open. The brilliant light engulfed the room. Furthermore, it seemed brighter than a thousand suns. We looked directly into it, however, wide-eyed with no pain at all. The embrace of that light was the most peaceful experience I had ever known. It was so warm and inviting, and I knew the instant I saw it that I belonged with its source.
Ana stepped away from me, still filled with glee, as if to encourage me toward the door. I realized she would not be coming with me. She had cared for me throughout my life and my time there in the Inbetween. But, my journey was my own. I was a child barely able to crawl. And without holding me up, she taught me how to stand. I took a step closer to the door feeling the liquid luminescence pull me toward its center. I held her hand as we exchanged a silent goodbye. Thank you, Ana.
Ed McCall lay recumbent on the aged lawn chair and gazed out at the undulating horizon line of mountains and the bruised and bleeding twilight sky, fancying seeing the flight of the Valkyries en route to Valhalla. He looked out at the tarn and imagined himself flying over, glimpsing of his reflection in the water as he sought his place among the chosen soldiers in heaven beyond the majestic mountains. Living in the mountains was too expensive, but living near the mountains was another story. It had been his dream to have a mountain view to gaze upon in the evening. He felt and heard the rusting lawn chair creak as he shifted his weight to reach for his drink. The condensation around the bottom of his glass left a ring of water on the concrete. He looked over his shoulder at his prized roses sprawling languidly throughout a pair of gates, the shapes of harps and mirror images of each other. He had rescued them from his late uncle’s estate near the coast and had rust proofed them and painted them a pewter color. They stood regally at the back of his house and the rose vines were intertwined around the vertical lines of the gates in an astonishing arabesque. Damn if he hadn’t struggled to coax the roses into the luxuriant display they had become. At least one had a chance to achieve something beautiful with flora, if not fauna. Particularly the human type. Especially the sister type.
He cursed and sipped his drink, a virgin. He was still in the habit of not drinking alcohol, even though he had weaned off of his antidepressant, an SSRI, two months ago with the support of his therapist and doubt of his wife – don’t you think it’s too soon?
He wished he could throw down a bottle of pills tonight after a visit with his sister, Laura.
He heard dishes clattering in the kitchen. That was his wife, Ellen. Her pattern was to attack chores when there was emotional disquietude. Damn if I’m going to help. And damn if I don’t wish I had some bourbon, even a glass of red wine. He fancied feeling the cloud of burgeoning intoxication sluicing through his brain. He sipped his virgin ginger ale and envisioned a valkyre carrying him towards the mountains, a reward for his fortitude, a chance for adulation or immolation.
His lawn made a slow descent half an acre to the edge of some wild brush which wound more steeply down a hill and abutted a dense line of pine trees. From there the wilderness marched out five miles to the mountains. A quarter mile before the base of the mountains was the tarn, a beautiful small lake one had a clear view of from his rear patio.
It would be a fine place to die, Ed ruminated. One could lie before the regal roses and draw up the soil, take a last look out at the mountains and then snuff it. What a magnificent tombstone!
Stop it, he thought. Those are thoughts we must avoid to beat the SSRIs. I think you’re ready, the therapist had said. I do too, Ed had replied, smiling. A drink would be spiffy now. He licked his lips.
“Are you going to sulk out there all evening?” Ellen asked, breathless from the chores that were ascending her to martyrdom.
“Sweetheart,” he began, gritting his teeth, “I am enjoying our view. I am not sulking. Thank you.” He felt his left temple throbbing.
“You’re sulking,” she said and returned inside.
The idea of hurling his glass after her was indeed a satisfying one, but temperance ruled out the deed, the repercussions of which would be ultimately unprofitable. He stood and drained his sweating glass, felt cold drops fall on his chest. The sun had set and the waning light seemed forlorn tonight.
As soon as Ed trudged through the door, Ellen called, “Your phone’s ringing.”
He walked over to the china hutch on which he always laid his cell phone in the evening and picked it up. He gazed at the incoming number. Oh damn. It was his sister, Laura. She must have thought of some new jeers with which to jab him. Some new aspersions to cast upon his existence. It must have been a fruitful drive home.
There was static and crackling, a poor connection.
“Hello,” he ejected.
“I need you.” A long pause, crackling.
“What is going on?” He heard fury in his voice, but his stomach was starting to turn with worry. He heard fear.
“Accident. Bad accident.”
“Please help me. Don’t let me alone here.”
“Where are you?”
“Did you call 911? Did you call 911!”
“I think so. I’m afraid. I’m afraid to go. Please help me.”
“Where are you?”
A pronounced silence was interrupted by a sucking sound. When Laura spoke, it was with great difficulty. “I’m not far off the highway. Off the exit.”
“Just hold on and I’ll be right there.” Ed flipped his cell closed, ran for his shoes, and jammed his feet into them.
“What’s going on?” His wife stood, looking alarmed.
“She had a car accident.”
“What hospital is she at?”
“She’s not, she’s still in her car. I don’t even know if she called for help.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“No,” he yelped and slammed the door behind him.
After backing out of the driveway and accelerating towards the interstate, Ed dialed the emergency number on his cell which he noticed was only a quarter charged. He tried to describe the accident and approximate location and the make and model of his sister’s car. He was now accelerating down the on-ramp of the interstate. He had about fifteen miles to go before the exit. Ed brooded over images of the trip to her apartment, wondering where she may be along the way. She must have wrecked on the secondary road on the way back to her apartment. But where? Would it be obvious when he passed by? If she was down an embankment or ravine or a deep ditch she may not be visible at all from the road. Not unless she caused some damage to a fence or something on the way down. Skid marks maybe. He would be scrutinizing every skid mark and road blemish the entire route. Good Christ, what if she had hurt or killed someone? He had served her wine with dinner plus two refills.
“You stupid bitch!” he screamed in the car, hurting his vocal chords. Heeeeere she iiiiiisss, Miss Muck-it-up! They had to have her over for dinner on a Friday night because if she wasn’t invited over at least once a month, she called, wondering why they had abandoned her. Then came the rails about her work life, the complaints about her personal life, her lamentations about their dead mother, and then, eventually, could you loan me some money? Loan. That was funny, because loans were supposed to be paid back and damn if she had repaid a dime. He looked down at the speedometer and saw he was pushing 90. He cursed and backed off the accelerator.
Ed thought of the time she fell off her bike when they were kids and he got blamed for distracting her and causing her to crash. He remembered the tears streaming down her flushed red cheeks and her mouth a maw of shrieking pain. He remembered the thick line of blood running from what would become a permanent scar on her left knee. It may as well have been his fault for all the pity he felt for her. He remembered her getting dumped right before her high school prom. She sought him at work when he was a stocker at the local grocery store trying to pay his tuition at the community college. She had been drunk and crying and he almost got fired. He thought of how much he detested Laura when their mother suddenly coughed up the money to pay for her to attend four years at the university when Ed had busted his balls working and saving two years at community college before being able to transfer. He never did forgive his mother for that. She had assured him that his father had wanted it that way. Your sister needs more help, she had explained. As if he needed the elucidation.
His cell rang and he answered it quickly. It was his wife.
“Where are you?”
“Look, I’m trying to find her, get off the line in case she’s trying to call.” He ENDed the phone and cursed. He shouldn’t have snapped at her, but he was still torqued from earlier. She was just trying to help. His sister had a way of making him yell at everyone. Except mom. Who had deserved it most.
Of course, Laura was flunking most of her classes her first semester and when their mother died the following year, she dropped out. Ever since then she had clung to Ed like a bacterial infection, an organism impervious to medicine’s strongest antibiotics. An emotional MRSA incarnate, engendered by the overuse of placation through the years.
He felt guilty for hating her. His forced civility lasted only so long at visitations. Every day there was some degree of worry expended on his part. One couldn’t help but resent her. Then after becoming enervated from needles and irrational worry she has to go and do something worth worrying about. He checked the mile marker and saw he still had three miles before the exit.
Why couldn’t she give him some more information? She didn’t have any trouble talking while drunk at his wedding. I hear he sucks in bed – liiiterrrruuullleeeee! He punched her name on his cell’s memory page. Maybe she could give him more detail about her location.
It just rang, crackling rings as though he was barely catching a signal. It was difficult to get a signal in this part of the foothills. He saw the exit ahead, slowed, and veered off the highway.
His cell began beeping the signal for a low battery.
This particular highway was a two lane blacktop with many twists and turns, a serpentine route if ever there was one. Her apartment complex was about six miles away.
The phone rang. It better be- his sister’s number was displayed.
“Where are you?”
“Are you coming?” she whined.
“Dammit, can’t you tell me better where you are? Is there an ambulance there yet?” The cell beeped low battery.
“I’m so scared.” She was sobbing.
Yeah, fall apart now.
He fought back a curse. She may have a head injury. She may be going into shock. More sucking noises. It must be the connection.
“I’m on 23 now, headed your way. Just sit tight,” Ed said.
“I’m so scared. I need you.”
“I’m on the way,” he said and realized he should keep her on the phone and try to get her to describe her surroundings.
“I don’t like all this fog. I’m getting lost in it.”
“Dammit, listen to me. Don’t wander off. Stay right with your car. There should be help there any minute. Stay right there with the car.”
“I wish I could.” The connection fell silent.
The battery had died.
He ejaculated a salvo of curses and beat the roof of his car with his balled right fist. He stomped on the accelerator, but quickly forced himself to back off. It would be harder to find a trace of where she crashed. The sun had sunk well behind the mountains now and it would be pitch black within a half hour. He felt sweat dripping down his trunk and a torrent of blood coursed through his temples.
He imagined himself driving endlessly around the serpentine road, mile after mile and inch after inch, scouring and searching for a sign and finding nothing, all the while his blood pressure and pulse rate would rise and rise. He could feel his heart ramming his ribs. He had to find something soon! Didn’t she say it was just a few miles off the highway?
His eyes caught the flash of emergency lights around the bend ahead.
Oh my God, this is it.
The road made a sharp curve to the left and apparently his sister hadn’t. An ambulance was parked with its back facing the woods and one police cruiser was parked fifteen yards back from the ambulance. The guard rail on the curve was battered and wrenched apart, illuminated by the rear lights of the ambulance and the headlights of the police cruiser. Ed pulled in behind the police cruiser. The officer was dropping hazard flares along the road and hastened over to him.
“Sir, you need to move on. This is an accident scene.”
“It’s my sister,” Ed mewled.
“Sir, you need to move on...”
“It’s a little red Corolla, one female passenger. She called me.”
The officer scrutinized him. His tone sharpened which made Ed’s heart beat faster.
“Did you say you received a call about the accident?”
“Yes sir. I came to help her. She’s scared. I’m her brother.” His head was swooning. He heard a wrecker approaching, its diesel engine growling through the trees.
“Sir, who called you about the accident?” asked the officer.
“Where is she?”
Ed bolted toward the gap in the guard rail and felt the officer’s strong hand grasp his arm but slip. He precipitated down the hill and saw the smashed front end of the car. The driver’s door was open. In fact, it had been removed.
Consciousness was fading rapidly, but his mind worked feverishly, taking in the details that would be emblazoned in his memory.
The officer was yelling, grasping his back. The flash of the emergency lights bounced around like a red sonar, casting a bloody pall of illumination onto the driver’s seat. He was losing feeling in his legs, sound was disappearing. He had time to wonder how she spoke.
She was crumpled beneath the steering wheel, her left leg broken in multiple places. Her mouth must have rammed the steering wheel for her jaw was almost completely removed. It hung there in an unending silent death scream, her eyes wide open, her head tilted back on the driver’s seat.
How the hell did she...?
Ed heard another noise as he pitched forward onto the ground. His cell phone was jangling in his pocket. The ground leapt forward; the sensation of falling, crashing, and rolling assailed him and blackness followed.
* * *
Ed looked over at the digital clock. It displayed a red, glowing 3:04 a.m. His wife had fallen asleep with her arms around him. He remembered he had gone to bed with his clothes on. The police had called his wife to pick him up and the paramedic had checked his vitals and searched for any signs of injury from his fall. The police officer had arranged for a tow truck to deliver Ed’s car to his house. Things were trying to return to their normal positions despite the chaotic minds of their human owners.
That immutable, grisly image. He never wished a fate such as this for his sister, despite her rankling at times; he had never wished for her to perish like this. Tears spilled down his cheeks.
It wasn’t just the image. His mind had been rejecting the idea since he saw the image, but he could escape it no longer. He crept out of bed and into the living room. He sat on the couch in the dark living room.
He had cursed her as she had lain destroyed in her car.
Was there a toll for cursing the dead?
She had gone off the road, crashed though the rail, and smashed headfirst into the large oak tree. Based on the damage to her body, death must have occurred immediately. So...
How was she able to call him?
Remembering the sight of her, the image of her jaw nearly removed, hanging slack. How was she able to talk to him if she wasn’t killed outright?
He recalled the sucking noises and shook his head. Was it his sister trying to talk to him with her jaw unhinged? His body shuddered and he gagged.
What was that noise? There it goes again.
He walked into the kitchen to locate the familiar noise with increasing anxiety. He knew what that noise was.
His wife must have plugged his phone in to charge overnight. It sat on the shelf where he usually kept it. Now the face of it was lit. A musical signal entreated him to look at a new text message. He opened the phone.
Y did u leave me
He closed the phone and placed it back on the shelf. He remembered his anxiety pills and walked over to the counter and reached up into the cabinet. He took two out and crushed them in his teeth, drank nothing. He felt himself passing out and lowered himself to the floor so he wouldn’t fall. He lay there on the floor for some time, heart pounding, eyes seeing his surroundings in gray patches. His eardrums felt turgid.
Why did I leave you?
Ed was awakened just before dawn from Ellen shaking him, yelling. He let her help him to his feet and lead him to the couch where he lay down. Ellen was soon yelling on the phone.
“Give me who’s on-call, now!” She slammed the cordless phone into the charger. About fifteen minutes later the phone rang. She vociferated into it and hung up. She checked her watch. Ed wondered if he should look at his cell again.
“Who was that?” he heard himself say. He didn’t recognize his weak voice.
“I called your psychiatrist. I’m getting you a prescription, but the damn pharmacy doesn’t open for two hours.”
“You know you shouldn’t have quit your antidepressant! If you had still been on it you would be doing better than this.”
He wanted to stand up and strangle her. Better yet, saunter over and leisurely punch her to death. “Do you not understand what –”
“I understand you shouldn’t have quit your medication! You’ve got to have something and right now.”
“I saw my sister’s face torn off. I think I have a fucking right to be upset –”
“I’m not going to hear any arguments! I put up with you so depressed you could hardly move for months! Years! I’m not going to have that again!”
She stormed away. He wanted to grasp her arm. He fancied his hand sinking her upper arm and squeezing the yielding, fatty tissue. He scowled as she hastened into the bedroom.
<>II’ll show her.
He paced over to his cell and picked it up. He checked Text Messages and clicked on the last one:
What the hell was that? Is that what he saw last night? He checked Incoming Calls on his cell’s menu and saw two from his sister’s number. He checked the time of their reception and noted they arrived the day before yesterday.
He felt a surge of blood in his head, but it was relief. Perhaps in his stupor he thought he read a message from his sister, but it was just some sort of scrambled mistake. He had gotten mistaken calls before. The signal was crazy up here near the mountains. Ed deleted the calls and text with shaking fingers.
Maybe it is a good idea to get back on the meds for a while, get some counseling. I really could use it. She doesn’t deserve to put up with the old me. I had gotten past that. I know what I have to do now. Don’t let it get so bad before getting help.
Don’t let Laura win again.
He started to go apologize to his wife but hesitated. He remembered what she had said when he got off the meds.
I’m very skeptical.
Oh, you bitch.
It’s as though he was supposed to take the damned pills the rest of his life. Didn’t she care that it made his head foggy and that he couldn’t concentrate or remember things the way he used to?
It made him put on about thirty pounds of fat. Was that desirable? It took him about six weeks to detox off the SSRI; it was hell. He had insomnia, crawling skin, and the head fuzz. Why should he get back on that damn med now? He just saw his sister smashed to pieces. Wouldn’t anyone take a jolt from that?
Her freaking jaw was hanging loose. Christ!
He wanted to get up and run, but couldn’t. The anxiety had returned fiercely. He went into the kitchen and got himself another anti-anxiety pill. Wasn’t this good enough for her? Want me to pop a hundred more? Then I’ll curl up in the fetal position.
“I’m going out to get a few things,” she announced, rushing through the house. “I’ll be back in a little while. Call the cell if you need me before I get back.”
The cell. He wanted to tell her, show her...what?
“Honey, I...” If he said anything she might have him committed. She might actually freaking do that. It wouldn’t be hard given his history and current behavior. I’m a nutter.
I talked to my sister after she was smashed to death in her car. I talked to her. Even though she was dead. Even though her damned jaw was almost hanging off.
Ellen was staring at him.
“Please be careful. I’ll be okay.” He hadn’t spoken to his sister, had he?
She leaned forward and gave him a hug. He hugged her back hating the feel of her. Her arms were slack and the affection perfunctory. Damn it. It wasn’t her fault. She was trying to help and tired of his bull.
He suddenly remembered she was a witness to the first call he had gotten when Laura should have been dead. The call that sent him running out of the house. Ellen had forgotten all about it. Of course Ellen hadn’t heard Laura on the phone.
When her car pulled out of the driveway, his cell phone jangled the arrival of a text message. Bbbbbllluuuueeeaagggghhh!
Maybe she forgot to ask me something and didn’t want to stop and come back inside.
The text announced something else.
I need u 2 cum Im scared
He closed the phone and sat it down and took another anti-anxiety pill. He remembered the half filled bottle of bourbon above the counter. It felt cold in his hands as he took two long slugs.
“Hidey-ho!” he screamed and punched the wall. “So good to hear from you!” He looked at the text message. Why doesn’t she just talk? Did her jaw fall completely off?
Im coming U r coming w me
When Ellen came home she found Ed sitting in the tub with his clothes on and the shower running and the empty bottle of bourbon lying between his legs. The end of the bottle was pointing at her like a sick reminder of spin the bottle; kiss me, baby!
Ed said, “Don’t answer my phone. I want to kill it.”
She gasped his name, her feet rooted to the floor.
He leapt out of the shower, soaking wet, and treaded back into the kitchen. “Did you get the pills?”
She nodded and pointed at the white prescription bag.
“You think I need these? Yeah?” He hurled the bag against the wall, followed by a splatter of water from his wet arm.
“My freaking sister is calling me over and over. No, I’m sorry, she’s now text messaging me. Here, go look at the phone. She thinks I’m still supposed to go protect her. Still! I don’t know where she is!”
Where are you going you bitch. I’m not crazy and I’m not taking those crazy fuck pills, dammit. No!
He started to chase her out to the car, but remembered there was more booze up in the cabinet. A couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of vodka if he remembered right.
Right as vodka fucking rain, he said unscrewing the lid.
The cell phone sat solemnly in its proper place on the china hutch.
He heard tires shriek on the driveway.
It was dark. He was nude in his old gray robe and sitting on the couch. He wasn’t really sure where his wife was. Probably with her friend, Judy. The one with the rich husband. The rich husband who always offered them a ride on his pontoon boat up at the mountain lake. The rich husband who always ogled his wife’s tits and licked her thighs with his darting eyes. He was a corpulent bastard who thought he was hot to trot. Ed wondered if he should trot a shotgun up his ass some time.
The cell jangled. He had been holding it for hours. He flipped it open. New Text Message. Do You Wish To Read Now?
Ed pushed OK.
R u ready
He closed the phone and finished the bottle of wine, a rather good Merlot he had been enjoying. It was great at room temperature. Weren’t reds supposed to be consumed at room temperature? Ellen always dropped a couple of ice cubes in it. She preferred a chardonnay anyway. He was crushing the phone in his hand.
How am I going to get my heart to stop pounding? Please stop. Please stop.
Where is she? Where did Laura go?
She’s not calling me. She’s not calling me. I just need help. I need help. When the booze wears off I’ll take the crazy pill, I’ll make it up to her, I will, I swear I will. I will. I love you, Ellen.
He wept, rolled onto the couch, and lay on his back, feeling his tears stream from the corners of his eyes. One tear rolled down beside his nose and was nearly sucked into his nostril when he sniffed.
I’ll call her tomorrow on the bleeding cell. I’ll call her and tell her I’m getting help right away. I’ll take the pills. I’ll talk to the shrink. I’ll do it. I need help really really bad so I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I want my heart to stop goddamn pounding. Stop please. Stop please.
There was a bright flash from outside, clearly visible through the rear sliding glass door. There must be a storm coming. He waited for the thunder.
The cell sang instead.
Faster pounding of his heart. The cell was still in his hand, the fingertips white from gripping it. He had meant to call his wife earlier, but didn’t, knowing he would sound incoherent and plastered.
Maybe it’s Ellen.
He opened the phone. There was a text message with a photo attachment:
He hit the down key and his pounding heart became a trip hammer. There was something familiar about the grainy photo, lit by the flash of the phone’s camera.
He gaped at the rear glass door and tried to stand.
It took two weeks before Ellen could speak to Judy completely about that next morning. She had already told her about finding her husband lying on the floor next to the coffee table with a gash on his forehead and a daub of coagulated blood matted in the carpet. The autopsy had revealed a massive myocardial infarction as the cause of death, thus the dearth of blood on the floor from the head wound. What she hadn’t told Judy was that Ed’s right hand had been grasping his cell phone. The battery was dead. Days later she had charged it, wondering if he’d tried to call her or someone else. She had turned her phone off that night and would never forgive herself for not being available to him.
She had checked his Incoming Calls and saw unlisted several times, plus an unlisted under Text Messages.
She opened the unlisted text and saw:
Su>x n b:ed
She hit the down key.
What she couldn’t understand, nor previously speak of, was why there was a picture of his prized roses on the iron gates outside by the rear glass door.
Hair Of Dog
I’ve never been slapped so hard in my twenty-seven years of life. Come to think, I’ve never been slapped at all. I’m . . . I’m . . . stunned.
How odd, there was no accompanying sound, no thunderous clap of Frank’s massive open hand slamming against my face. But he did slap me, or maybe it was a punch. I didn’t actually see it. All I saw was his face, flushed with rage, eyes bulging and teeth bared, inches from my own as he spat screaming insults and threats too heavily punctuated with the phrase, “fucking bitch!” All I saw was his rage. And then? A bright flash of purest white. It was sudden. And now, it lingers.
Ringing. Then ringing turns to whining. The whining swells into a shriek, a series of shrieks, one after the next, the high-pitched shrieks of a four-year old. My brother. I remember, the whole world froze that day. Everyone in the park turned to stone, some standing on the walks, some sitting on the grass or in swings or on benches, but all of them staring statuesque at Teddy, my screaming, shrieking, whining little brother. Mother was one of those who sat on benches, frozen like the rest. I remember how pale her face was, and how cartoonishly large her eyes had grown. And I remember the strong taste of blood.
It’s back again, that bitter, coppery taste. Might be just a split lip, or maybe something worse, like a broken tooth. My jaw may be broken, but I’m not worried about it at the moment. I’m not thinking clearly, because it feels like my face has just exploded. The pain is excruciating, very sharp along my left cheek. And there’s a searing heat at the base of my skull that spreads down, between the shoulder blades. I wonder vaguely if it’s possible to knock a head completely off. And about then, I fully understand. In some form or fashion, Frank has just hit me. This is a first.
Mother never struck me, not from anger, not for discipline. At least, not before. But she didn’t need to with me. As far as children go, I was an angel. Mostly. I’ve heard it from her own lips a thousand times: “Bethany was always such a sweet, quiet, playful little girl. Always happy. Always so eager to please. And she just loved playing with the other children.” I’ve heard it told a thousand times, this testament to my gentle nature, while the skeptical eyes of others would study me for any outward signs or symptoms Mother must have missed. And in those tighter, more confiding circles, there were her concerns of bad parenting (which included Father’s frequent and lengthy business trips) followed by the overabundant reassurances by those presuming to be in the know. This wasn’t her fault. It was nobody’s fault. Well, Teddy never saw it that way. Neither did I.
“Get up, you big fucking baby!”
I don’t know how long Frank’s been crouched over me, yelling. I don’t know because the whining that became Teddy’s shrieks is finally fading away and the solid white sheet over my eyes is dissolving into colors and shapes again, blurry at first, but now drifting into focus. There he is, my loving, devoted, dashingly handsome fiancé. My attacker.
“Get up! I didn’t hit you that hard—yet.”
He’s still shouting, but the bulging eyes and purple hue have subsided, probably out of fear. Frank’s a big boy. He works for a deconstruction company—they gut buildings, salvaging anything saleable before the wrecking ball levels them. He swings a sledge hammer most of the day, then works out fanatically at the gym before dinner every night. And he won’t admit it, but I’m pretty sure he’s juicing. I just bet he is. Explains the rage. Well, there’s also the newscast, and maybe he’s got that all figured out, but I doubt it. Anyway, Frank is huge. Maybe he’s realizing how bad my death would look to a police investigator.
“Get the fuck up, Bee. Go clean off your face, and I’ll pick up this fucking mess.” What a gentleman.
Frank’s glaring down at me. I look up, still dazed. I’m flat on my back, one leg across our now broken coffee table. He must have knocked me out cold. The excruciating pain and bloody taste and broken table and me on my back . . . all signs point to yes. He watches me while I struggle to get up, practically daring me to be injured. I fight through the pain and dizziness of standing. And say not a word. A flip of the bathroom light switch reveals the mess of long dirty-blonde hair sticking to my bloody face, the puffy pink beginnings of bruises, and yes, a missing molar. Frank is a big boy.
Teddy was a big boy at age four, a strong contrast to me in so many ways. I’ve always been tiny. But still, at six, I was bigger. That day, I was bigger. And older. They say I should have known better. That’s what they say. Fuck them.
I’ll have to do something about my tooth tomorrow. It’s too late tonight. It’s too late for a lot of things. Frank came home too late. Again. He’s drunk. That’s new, and I just bet I know why. That sexy mamacita bitch stood him up, and he took it personal. So, he finally stumbled in, and I caught him on the sofa, watching TV with the volume down real low, just like the sneaky bastard he is. I catch him being sneaky, and he lays into me. He lays into me? Jesus! Now here we are, too late for fighting, too late for confrontations. Just. Too. Late.
Teddy was a big boy, with a bad temper and the very worst of tantrums. He was my opposite in many ways. He was loud, aggressive, and had the distinct markings of bully in the making. I watched him bully the other kids on the playground, tried to step in and police it. Mother was chatting with the adults, the other mothers, and told me to handle it. So, I tried. Teddy bit me on the arm. It hurt. I cried. Then Mother said . . .
The TV is off now. Frank’s in the bedroom, undressing. Lamp light glints off a thick gold rope-chain around his neck. I used to think that chain was sexy. Tonight, he just looks like a big, dumb thug in gaudy thug jewelry.
We climb into bed without a word. I’m not surprised to soon feel his hand on my shoulder, carelessly caressing flesh that will be swollen and blue and mottled purplish black tomorrow. He’s an ogre. Why has it taken me three years to realize this? Kissing my neck, he doesn’t see my smile. He doesn’t get the irony. I had to be knocked out to wake up. That’s pretty damned funny. He’s reaching under my tank top, groping, pawing a breast. Just like Frank. Just like an ogre. I want to throw up. Instead, I let him grope away.
Teddy was a bully in the making back then. No one gives me credit, but after that day in the park, after all the screaming and the shrieking, after our trip to the emergency room and the stitches and bandages that resulted in a stub where his pinky had been (I spat it out and gave it back as a peace offering), after all was said and done, he was a better person in the end. He’s a better person now. Of course he doesn’t speak to me. None of them do anymore. But I did my part. I made Teddy a better person.
Frank has me on my back, painful as it is, and pulls at my panties. This is where I’m supposed to lift so he can work the panties down my legs and we can have make-up sex. Only we haven’t made up, because he’s an ogre and doesn’t know the meaning. My fiancé is an ogre. A bully. He grabs at my panties, but I coax him onto his back instead. He notices I’m grinning—a big, toothy grin—and mistakes it for arousal. As I work my way downward, kissing along his chest, his sculpted abs, ever downward still, I can’t help giggling at this man’s stupidity. Did the newscast not announce how his Latino slut girlfriend was murdered?
“If he bites you, sweetie, just bite him back.” That’s what Mother said.
On the Rock
Richie coasted down the hill in his chocolate-brown Plymouth Duster and turned into the shopping center. Three cars were parked in the middle of the empty parking lot. Their drivers lolled against the fenders with ankles crossed, smoking and drinking from bottles in paper bags like they owned the asphalt. Richie knew them from school, who didn’t – Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien. They had just graduated.
Richie cranked up the Lynyrd Skynyrd on the eight-track, checked the windows were rolled down and pressed on the gas. The engine rumbled. As he sped past the three guys, he glanced in the rearview mirror – they didn’t even turn their heads. Douchebags.
He spotted a parking slot under a light. He braked and spun the chrome steering wheel with the heel of his hand so the Duster stopped dead within the white lines. He got out and stood for a second to admire the wax job he had spent the afternoon on. The car gleamed. He had bought it three months ago with his dad pitching in a thousand bucks for his seventeenth birthday. So it wasn’t Mark’s 357 Mach II Mustang, Butch’s sleek black-and-gold Trans Am or Lenny’s metallic blue Challenger with a white double-stripe, but that was why he had signed up to take auto shop as his senior year elective instead of art. He’d make his ‘72 Duster into something those assholes would have to look at - deck it out with a spoiler, jack up the rear suspension, give it a cool paint job with the money from his job at the car wash.
Twirling his keys on his forefinger, he sauntered over to the blacked-out storefront of Palace Games. It was just after nine and summer’s darkness was settling into a Friday night thick with invitation. The manager was letting the last customers out of the Grand Union supermarket and locking up behind them. The arcade and a dusty fabric store were the only other tenants in the strip mall. The rest of the windows bore “for lease” signs and curls of whitewash.
Richie swung open the door to Palace Games and was greeted by a blast of cigarette smoke and the driving bass line of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” He fished a couple quarters out of his jeans pocket and jingled them in his palm as he roved. Clicks from the air hockey, foosball and pool tables and the tinny bells of pinball filled the air. Kids crowded around the new Space Invader game machines. Keith was nowhere around. He was probably at the Dairy Queen waiting for Charlene to get off work. He’d been asking her out for two weeks and she kept turning him down. Richie had told him to give up already, but as Keith pointed out – what did Richie know about girls? He’d never had a girlfriend.
Richie knew all the kids from school, by sight if not by name. Except for two girls wearing tight Sassoon jeans playing the Star Trek pinball machine.
Neither looked up when he sidled up to the machine and shook out a Marlboro from the soft-pack, plucking it out with his lips. He shot a look at them over the lighter’s flame. The one playing had wings of brown hair hanging in front of her face as she leaned over the machine in concentration. She was as tall as Richie. The other was baby-faced, shorter and a little chubbier, with a dirty blonde Dorothy Hamil haircut.
The ball rolled into the chute. “Game over” flashed on the board.
“Agh!” the one playing threw up her hands. Her hair fell back revealing a long, pinched face.
“You did good, Lisa. You scored a lot more than last time,” the short girl said.
“Nah, I did shitty.”
“Yeah, that’s not bad,” Richie said. They noticed him for the first time. “Mind if I take a shot?” They moved aside and he slid a quarter into the slot. As he hoped, they stayed to watch. The silver ball popped into the launching chute. With the cigarette dangling from his lips, he pulled back the spring-loaded lever as far as it would go and released it with a twanging thud.
Richie was good at pinball. That and welding sculptures out of scrap metal with his dad’s oxyacetylene torch. Everybody thought his stuff was weird, except for Mr. Sampson, the art teacher who was always encouraging him to enter contests. He had won a couple. But the prizes didn’t mean much to his father, a welder at the Ford plant up on Route 17. His dad would stand with his hands jughandled on his hips, head cocked, as he considered his son’s contorted shapes. “Good seams,” he’d say finally.
“But what do you think of the form, Dad, the expression?” Richie would ask. That was how Mr. Sampson talked. He’d say things like the “expression of the piece,” “the evocation of emotion,” “the resonance.”
“Well, it’s a piece of fine cutting, just like I taught you,” his dad would answer. Then he’d take Richie to the salvage yard and they’d pick out bits of metal for Richie’s next welding “practice.” At least, Richie got to keep making his sculptures but he wished that just once his dad would see the creation, not the welding.
The ball zinged from pillar to pillar as bells pinged and tinged. Aware he was on show, Richie put extra effort into swiveling his slim hips one way then the other, depending on which flipper button he pressed, and thrust his pelvis forward when he hit both at once. Points kept mounting to an impressive total at game’s end.
“You’re really good at this!” the short girl said.
“Yeah, look at those points,” the slim one added.
“I’ve been playing a long time.”
“Oh, that’s why,” the slim one said.
“I haven’t seen you girls ‘round here before. What school do you go to?”
“We’re sophomores at Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” the short one said.
“How ‘bout you?” the slim one asked.
“Indian Hills.” Richie jerked his thumb in the general direction of the high school.
“What grade are you in?” the slim one asked.
They nodded. Silence fell. “So, ah, what are you girls up to tonight?” Richie looked at Spock’s ears on the machine’s backboard and felt his own ears get hot. “Want to go for a ride? My car’s outside.”
The girls looked at each other. The slim one leaned into the short one’s ear, then straightened. “Okay,” the short one said. “But we have to be back by eleven-thirty.”
“Sure, no problem. I’m Richie, by the way.”
“Lisa,” the slim one said.
“Vicky,” the short one said.
They walked out into the parking lot. Richie looked for the muscle-car trio, but they’d gone. Figured. Just when he had girls to show off.
“Our parents think we’re at a birthday party tonight,” Vicky said. “They’d never let us come down here by ourselves.”
“So you’re playing hooky.” Richie got in and leaned over to pull up the passenger side lock. He was glad when Vicky slid in first on the bench seat, then Lisa.
“Richie, can you cop us some beers?” Lisa was combing back her feathered hair.
His hand accidentally-on-purpose brushed Vicky’s knee as he put the car into drive. “Er, sure. I’ll have to find my connection.”
Richie drove down Oakland Avenue, past the car wash where he worked, to the DQ next to the bowling alley. He hoped Keith was there. He’d know what to do. He pulled into the DQ lot. Keith’s Chevy Nova was parked three slots down from the entrance, as usual. He exhaled.
“Shit!” Lisa suddenly slid down in the seat. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going by the bowling alley? My dad bowls every Friday night. Get down, Vicky. He knows I’m with you.”
She grabbed Vicky’s arm and tugged her. She hit the floor, too. “Don’t worry, Lis. He’s probably inside.”
“I’ll be right back,” Richie said.
Keith was sitting with a soda and playing drums with straws on the table. Charlene was wiping down the counter.
“Hey, man, how’s it hanging?” Keith said.
“Cool. Any luck?” Richie gestured his head toward Charlene.
“She’s coming round.” That’s what he said every time.
Richie slid into the booth and leaned over the table. “Listen, I got two chicks in my car ready to party hardy.”
Keith stopped drumming and looked out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”
“They’re on the floor in the front. They’re scared their old man might come out of the bowling alley and see them.”
Keith grunted and resumed drumming. Richie slapped his hand down on the straws. “They want to get some beers. What the hell do I do?”
Keith removed Richie’s hand and drummed. “Go hang out at the back door of Oakland Liquors and ask someone to buy you a six-pack.”
“I never did that before.”
Keith gave him an oh-come-on look with raised eyebrows. “Man, you are such a dork.”
“Come with. Charlene’s not going with you and you know it.”
Keith looked at Charlene’s bobbing ponytail as she wiped down the ice cream machine. “What do they look like?”
“I have first dibs.”
“Let’s book.” He slipped out of the booth. “Later, Charlene.”
She looked up surprised. “Hey wait, Keith…” The door closed on her.
They laughed. “’Bout time you showed her - dork,” Richie said.
Richie had struck out twice. It wasn’t as easy as Keith had made it out to be. One man gave him a dirty look, another told him he should know better than to drink at his age. Richie lit a cigarette and inhaled. Smoking scratched his throat but he liked hanging out with the crowd in the smoking courtyard at school so he kept doing it.
Laughter rippled from the car. Keith was having a good time with the girls while he was making a fool of himself. But he’d look even more foolish if he returned empty-handed.
“Hey, what’s taking you?” Keith yelled out the window.
Richie shot him the middle finger.
A Harley pulled in. A guy and a girl dismounted, pulling off their helmets. They both had ponytails. Bingo.
Seven minutes later, Richie trotted back to the car with a paper bag containing two six-packs of Lowenbrau. Much to his annoyance, Keith was sitting in the backseat with Vicky. Lisa was riding shotgun.
“Party time, kids!” Richie’s tone was a little too hearty.
Keith grabbed the bag and handed the girls beers as Richie put the car in gear. “Let’s go to the rock,” Keith said.
“At night?” Richie was dubious.
“We’ve never been to the rock, have we, Lisa?”
“No, let’s go.”
“Don’t worry, man,” Keith said. “The trail’s clear. Here, have a Lowie. Loosen up.”
“I have a flashlight in the trunk, I think.”
Lisa shuffled through his eight-tracks in the glove compartment and held one up. “I love this album.” She slid the tape in. The Allman Brothers’ twangy guitar riffs filled the car as it left behind the “Welcome to Oakland, New Jersey” sign. The road darkened as it wound up the mountain.
When “Ramblin’ Man” kicked in, Richie belted out the lyrics while Keith put on an air-drum show on the front-seat back. The girls laughed and joined in the chorus. Richie chucked his empty out the window as they rounded a bend. Keith did the same, grabbing and tossing the girls’ empty bottles, as well.
“I didn’t finish that one yet,” Vicky protested.
“Spit and foam at the bottom. Have another one.” Keith stuck his head out the window and wolf-howled. Richie howled even louder. The girls giggled.
They pulled into the entrance to the Ramapo Mountain Reserve, parked and got out. “Wait up, nature’s calling,” Keith sang out as he walked to the edge of the woods and unzipped. The girls giggled some more. Richie opened the trunk. He was pretty sure his father had packed a flashlight in his emergency kit. Yep, good old Dad. He switched it on and shone the light around the lot. The beam caught three cars parked on the other side, cars he knew.
“Let’s gooo,” Keith called. Richie turned his attention to the trail.
They followed the bouncing cone of yellow light along the path. The rock lay about a mile up the mountain. It was a huge slab of stone that sloped down to a lake surrounded by pine trees. Rangers seldom bothered to make the trek up there so kids used it as a hangout to get high.
The trail narrowed as it grew steeper and stonier. The girls panted and stumbled. The boys grabbed their hands and pulled them along.
“Wow, this is really far,” Lisa said.
“Yeah, this is kind of creepy,” Vicky said. “I don’t know if I like this.”
“Almost there,” Keith puffed.
The climb finally gave way to a “Swimming Prohibited” sign. They stood at the water’s pebbled edge catching their breath. The moonlight glistened on the lake’s black surface. The trees were dark silhouettes. The air was still and summer-sticky. Richie’s spine prickled. A crash of glass and a whoop of laughter from down the shoreline suddenly startled the solitude. Richie remembered the cars.
“Party up ahead. Let’s go.” Keith started down the narrow track along the shore. Richie and the girls fell in behind him.
A few minutes later, they climbed onto the rock. Richie looked around. No one. Then a grating rumble sounded from higher up. He shone the flashlight up the slope. Three beer bottles rolled down. Three figures appeared after them.
“Hey move out!”
“You’re in the way!”
The group moved out of the path of the bottles. Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien emerged from the darkness as they raced after the speeding bottles, which curved into each other at the bottom with a clank.
“Woo hoo!” Mark said. “Mine won.”
“Who’re you fooling, man, it was mine,” Lenny said.
Butch leapt down to the stone where the bottles had rolled to a rest and crashed them against the rock. Only Keith laughed. They sat down and opened beers.
“Butch, quit that shit!” Mark said.
Lenny walked over. “Hey, you guys want to party?”
“You got the brewskis, we got the weed,” Mark said.
“Yeah, it’s decent stuff,” Lenny added. “Sinse.”
Lenny and Mark squeezed in next to the girls. Butch sat next to Lenny, who rolled a joint from a baggie of pot. A pint bottle of Jack Daniels came from somewhere and was passed around. Richie felt like he was floating, watching the scene from on high. These guys would never give him a second look, not at school, not in the parking lot, not even in the smoking courtyard. Now he was sitting here, partying and bullshitting with them like they were buddies.
After a couple joints, shots of JD and a beer, Richie’s head was fuzzing. Voices blurred into a cloud. His closed his eyes and saw the star-speckled sky on his eyelids. He forced them open and wondered vaguely how he was going to get back to the car. He looked around. Keith was lying on his back with his knees up. Butch was rolling another joint. Mark’s arm had disappeared around Vicky’s back and she was leaning into his shoulder. Lenny and Lisa were making out. The night that had seemed in the palm of Richie’s hand had slipped from his grasp. He elbowed Keith.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Keith grunted. “What? Yeah.”
They stood. Richie’s head swam. He grabbed the flashlight and lurched down to the lake, crouching to splash water on his face. The cold wetness broke his stupor. He slurped a palmful of water to wet his cotton-mouth and spit it out. Keith stumbled behind him. He threw some water on his face and shook his head.
“Jeez, that reefer was wicked.” Keith’s voice sounded like it was in slow motion.
They jumped off the rock on to the trail, which was shrouded in shadow. The moon had brightened, bathing the lake in a pearly silver glow.
Richie switched on the flashlight, took a few steps then heard a noise. A chill ran like mouse feet over his back. He turned and shone the flashlight. It was Keith, leaning on a tree and retching. He straightened and wiped his mouth with his T-shirt.
“Yeah…now that I barfed.” Keith croaked. He walked to the lakeside and splashed more water on his face and rinsed his mouth.
The flashlight was faint. “Not much battery left,” Richie said. “If we hurry, we might make it before it goes dead.”
A scream pierced the air. A girl’s scream. Richie and Keith froze.
“Hold her!” Butch.
“Leave her alone!” Lisa.
What the fuck was going on?
“Shut the fuck up!” Lenny.
A girl’s sobs. “Leave us alone!” Lisa.
“Shut your fucking mouth! It’s your turn next.” Butch. A slap. A cry. “I told you, shut it.”
Keith and Richie looked at each other. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Keith said in a loud whisper.
“What do we do?” Richie whispered back.
“We got to go back.”
“Are you shitting me?” Keith grabbed the flashlight. “They’ll think we’re part of it.” He set off down the trail. Richie was still paralyzed. “Richie, they’re just goofing off. Come on.”
He hesitated, then followed Keith. They skidded down the first steep stretch, then Richie paused and listened. All was silent. Keith turned. “What the fuck are you doing? Come on, man. We don’t want those guys on our asses.”
“I don’t know, Keith.”
“Those girls were going along with anything. You saw them.”
Richie couldn’t move.
“Listen, if you want to be a dork, then that’s your fucking problem. See ya.” Keith moved off at a fast clip.
The flashlight’s beam bobbed into the darkness. Keith was probably right. The girls were looking for trouble. They were likely playing some stupid game. He’d go back and find them all laughing and joking. He’d look like a real douchebag. Richie forced his legs into a trot to catch up with Keith, but a lump formed in the pit of his stomach.
The rest of the weekend, Richie worked his hours at the car wash then slumped on the couch in the basement watching “All in the Family” reruns.
“You feeling all right, Richie?” his mom called down the stairs.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Ma.”
As the laugh track played on the TV, Richie played the night over in his mind. The screams. The crying. “It’s your turn next.” Something bad happened. He knew it in his gut. He should have gone back. He should have told Keith it was a lousy idea to go to the rock in the first place. Why did he ever listen to him?
Maybe it was just the pot that spooked him. Those guys would never have done anything to the girls, would they? They were just goofing off, got carried away, like Keith said. And those girls really did ask for it. They wanted to go to the rock. They were making out with those guys. He wasn’t responsible for them. Or was he? He drove them there. Maybe, he thought, he should sell the Duster, then he’d be permanently grounded and nothing like this could happen again.
Richie felt a weight on his chest that made it hard to breathe. He suddenly remembered experiencing that once before, when he was a skinny ten-year-old playing in the sea at Wildwood, letting the waves dance him around like a piece of driftwood. It was fun for a while, then the waves got rough, crashing over him and pushing him under. As soon as he got his head above surface, another submerged him. The water slammed against his body. He started thrashing and flailing. He couldn’t remember how he got out.
Monday was a good day at the car wash. Richie made fifteen dollars in tips and Mr. Stavros told him he was doing a good job. Feeling lighter than he had all weekend, he strode into the kitchen after work and opened the fridge.
“Get out of there - dinner’ll be ready soon.” His mother spoke without looking up from the newspaper she was reading at the table.
“Just milk.” He grabbed the carton, poured himself a glass and gulped.
“There was a gang rape of some teenage girls over the weekend up at Ramapo. Says the investigation is ongoing.” His mother turned the page. “I always told you kids got up to no good up there.”
Richie spluttered on the milk. His mother looked up in alarm. “You okay?”
He wiped his mouth with his forearm. “Went down the wrong way.”
He rushed into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, burying his face in the pillow. Gang rape. He was responsible for two girls getting raped by three guys. Was he an accessory, an accomplice, a witness? Why didn’t he walk past those girls at the Star Trek pinball machine? Why did he have to show off? Why him?
Richie didn’t feel like eating, but he didn’t want questions from his parents so he shoveled down his dinner and retreated to the basement. “Laverne and Shirley” was starting when he heard the doorbell chime. A minute later, his mother opened the basement door. “Richie, some boys are here to see you. Mark, Butch and Lenny.”
His stomach sunk. “I’m not home, Ma.”
“I already told them you are. They said it’s important.”
Richie punched the cushion. He hauled himself up the stairs and out to the front porch, carefully closing the door behind him. His parents were in the living room, playing along with “Jeopardy.”
Mark stood on the porch. “Hey Richie, got a sec?” Mark cocked his head toward the driveway, where Butch and Lenny hovered. They walked over. Richie shoved his hands in his pockets.
“So, ah, you know the other night, well, nothing really happened, you know,” Mark said.
“You didn’t see nothing anyway, right.” The way Lenny phrased it, it wasn’t a question. Mark shot him a shut-up look.
“We’re just saying because those girls were real wasted, man, and they might be going around saying stuff, but they were real easy, real teases, you know. Nothing happened like they might be going around saying. And you were there, and your buddy Keith, so they might have got all us guys mixed up. It was real dark, you know what I mean?” Mark arched his eyebrows.
Yeah, Richie knew. He was trapped. He wanted to yell “what did you do to them?” He wanted to knock that smartass look off Mark’s face with a right hook like his dad had taught him with the punching bag slung up on the tree in the backyard. He slapped at a mosquito on his arm instead.
Butch took out a hunting knife and cleaned his fingernails with the blade tip. The steel glinted. His old man was the police chief. Mark’s dad was a lawyer. And Lenny, rumor had it that Lenny’s father was in prison. His mom was a drunk who lived in the trailer park down by the river and went with all the town badasses. Richie’s chest felt like it was bursting. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, I really don’t remember much of that night. I was pretty shitfaced.”
“That’s what we kinda figured. We just wanted to make sure,” Mark said. “So now we got that all straightened out, we’re cool, man, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Richie’s skin squeezed his bones.
“Let me know if you want some help with that Duster,” Mark said. “We could do a real cool paint job on her, a nice racing stripe or some flames on the fenders.”
“Yeah, sure,” Richie mumbled.
“It’s been real, Richie.”
Keith. He had to get to Keith. He waited til they left then he got in the Duster and cruised down Oakland Avenue, keeping right on the speed limit. He pulled into the Dairy Queen. Richie could see Keith through the window, scarfing down ice cream at a booth. Richie walked in. Charlene was serving cones at the walk-up window.
“Man, where you been hiding?” Keith’s spoon clattered into the empty banana split dish. He pulled a napkin from the dispenser and wiped his mouth. Richie slid into the booth.
Keith leaned over the table. “Charlene’s going out with me after work tonight. Told ya I’d get her. Take it from me - girls like the chase.” He grinned. “I took a bottle of Southern Comfort from the liquor cabinet. The old lady’ll never miss it.”
“Cool.” Richie grabbed the salt shaker and spun it. “So Butch and them just came by my house.”
Keith lowered his voice to a whisper. “I told them I didn’t see nothing, hear nothing, I was wasted off my ass. I don’t even remember how I got home. That’s what happened.”
“But we heard them, the girls screaming and all that.”
“Richie, we left, we didn’t hear jack. End of fucking story. You say any different, we’re going to land in a major pile of shit, capisc’?”
Richie unscrewed the salt shaker top and poured the salt onto the table. There was something soothing about watching it flow into a perfect white mound.
“Would you quit that? Charlene’s going to think I did it.” Keith glanced over his shoulder and swiped the salt under the table. He grabbed the shaker out of Richie’s hand and screwed on the top. “Besides, no one’ll ever believe us over them. Remember their old men.”
“It was your fucking idea to go to the rock in the first place.”
“Don’t go dumping this shit on me, man.” Keith jabbed his finger at Richie. “You were the one who brought those girls here and begged me to go with you. They were sluts, let’s face it. They were looking for trouble. They got what they deserved.”
“Keith, I’m closing out the register. I’ll be done in five,” Charlene called. “Can you bring over your dish?”
“Sure.” Keith stood. “Think about it, Richie. You’ll see I’m right.” He grabbed the dish and walked to the counter.
Richie went home and opened the garage door. He got a wrench out of the toolbox and unscrewed the Duster’s rear bumper. He put on the welding mask and gloves and fired up the oxyacetylene torch. He twisted and melted the bumper into a contorted figure until his arms ached.
That night, Richie dreamt of the rock. He lay on top of Vicky, thrusting at her with his pants bunched around his knees and blood from her nose smeared on his cheek. Butch, Lenny, Mark and Keith were watching. He wanted them to see how tough he was, to see he was one of them, so he drove harder. Vicky’s face grimaced in pain. The guys were smiling, he smiled back. She opened her mouth and released a scream. He woke in a panic as he humped the mattress. Sweat plastered his T-shirt to his body. His stomach churned.
The next night after dinner, Richie went into the garage and dismantled the Duster’s front bumper and grill and started welding. His mother peered through the half-open door as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. Her brows knitted. A few minutes later, the door flung wide open. His father marched in, a rolled up newspaper in his hand.
“Son, what in God’s name are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”
Richie focused on his seam. His dad whacked the newspaper hard on the tool bench. “Richie, you pay attention to me when I’m talking to you! Turn that torch off!”
Richie didn’t stop. He father took two steps and furiously twisted off the spigots on the oxygen and acetylene tanks. The torch’s flame fizzled. “Get in the house!” Richie, still wearing his welding mask, got up and turned on the tanks. His father’s face went as red as a boiled crab.
“Richard, get-in-the-house-now!” His dad’s arm shot out, pointing to the door. Richie lifted the torch. Its 3,000-degree blue flame spit directly at his dad. His father reeled back and crashed into the garbage cans.
“All right, if that’s the way you want it. I never should’ve given you the money for that car. You’re goddamn spoiled!” He hauled himself up and went into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, he almost killed me with that torch! I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
“It must be girl trouble,” his mother said. “He’ll get over it.” The door closed. Richie kept welding.
The next night, Richie came home from the car wash, took his dinner plate into the garage and started working on the hub caps. His father entered and sat on a milk crate.
“Son, you can tell your old man – you got some girl knocked up?” Anger rose in Richie’s throat. He wasn’t going around knocking up girls. He ignored the question. “Jesus, Richie, this is crazy.” His father combed his hair with his fingers and rubbed the graying whiskers on his chin. Then he heaved himself up and retreated to the kitchen.
“It’s that goddamn fag art teacher,” his dad said. “I’m going to fix this once and for all.”
The next night, Richie went into the garage and flicked on the light. It was empty. The welding equipment, his sculpture - gone. He got into the Duster and banged his forehead against the steering wheel. The blows reverberated through his skull. His life was a disaster. He slid the key into the ignition and backed down the driveway.
He roamed downtown for a while, then decided to head for Burger King. He parked and walked in.
“Hey Richie!” Mark, Butch and Lenny were sitting at a table, trays of burgers and fries in front of them. Shit. He briefly considered walking back out, but he’d look like a wimp. He nodded at them and ordered a Whopper, fries and shake. Maybe they’d be gone by the time his food was ready. But they weren’t.
“Richie, over here!” Mark waved at him. He felt obligated to sit with them.
“You doing some work on the Duster? I saw it when you drove in,” Mark said.
“Kinda.” Richie bit into his burger and chewed. It tasted like cardboard.
“We’re going over to borrow a swimming pool, if you want to come.” Mark said. The others chuckled.
“I like that – ‘borrow a swimming pool’,” Lenny said.
“The Politanos are away so we have a little swimming party there at night. The house is set back. No one sees us,” Mark said.
“Sure,” Richie heard himself say. His chest was constricting again, the waves were buffeting him. He couldn’t
“I want to pick up Veronica on the way,” Lenny said.
“We know what that’s about,” Butch said slyly.
“You betcha!” Lenny made an obscene gesture. They all laughed. Richie put down his Whopper. He couldn’t eat any more.
Richie knew his father would kill him for trespassing on someone’s property and using a pool without permission. He was turning into another Mark, Butch or Lenny. He realized he didn’t want to be one of them – and he didn’t want to let down his dad. Then he remembered. He remembered it was his father who had plucked him out of the water all those years ago. That was how he got out of the waves.
A calmness overcame him. He stood up. “I just remembered. I gotta do something.” He picked up his tray, looked the three guys straight in the eyes, and drove home.
Richie entered the living room. His father was in his recliner, half reading the paper and half playing along with “Jeopardy” on TV.
“Dad, you gotta minute?”
There were not many coat check girl jobs left in the city. Margaret got her position at a gentleman’s club downtown. Not the strip club variety, but the old, conservative men with money type. The building was over a hundred years old and looked it, in terms of architecture and interior design. The place had a musty odor on the inside and the few members who survived were decrepit and smelled like their coats were washed in mothballs.
There were advantages to her job. Because she didn’t have much to do, it gave her time to study. She was trying to become a nurse, and had taken the job a month earlier to supplement her student loans. Also, most of the members liked to flirt with her, in their ancient ways, and usually tipped her pretty well. Especially, one member, named Devon Lang. He sometimes tipped Margaret twenty dollars for just hanging up his coat and scarf. He flirted more than all of the other members. But Margaret didn’t mind. He was rather distinguished looking, well dressed, and seemed younger than the other members, although he was probably just as old or older than they were. He smiled nicely and had nice manners, something most of Margaret’s twenty-something boyfriends lacked.
It was Monday and very slow. Margaret had finished her studying and was just sitting on her stool at her window staring into space. She was dying for some distraction or excitement. Just at that moment, Devon Lang stepped up to her window. Something about his demeanor perked Margaret up. He seemed like he was in a good mood, on top of the world for some reason. He did not give her his coat, just standing at her window smiling and almost winking at her.
After a long, silent pause, she could not help herself and asked him, “What is it, Mr. Lang? You look like the cat that ate the bird.”
“I’ve got a big deal working today,” he grinned.
Margaret was surprised that he was still in business, or working. She assumed that all of the members were retired, including Devon Lang, based on their ages. “A big deal? What?” she asked. “What kind of business are you in?”
“Can’t really say,” he said. “Very hush, hush,” he added, putting his finger to his lips, playfully, in the hush sign.
“Come on,” Margaret almost pleaded. “Tell me. I’m so bored today. I love secrets.”
He thought for a moment, keeping Margaret in suspense. “You really want to know?” he teased.
“Yes, yes,” she smiled, a little giddy. “Tell me what your big deal is. Please.”
“Okay, okay,” he finally gave in. “I’ll tell you what my big deal is...”
“Yes, yes, tell me,” Margaret anticipated. During the beat before he told her, out of the corner of her eye she noticed the other members hovering nearby, seemingly from out of the woodwork, looking on. “That’s odd,” she thought for an instant, absently, caught up in hearing Devon Lang’s big deal.
“My big deal, my dear...” the words hung on his lips, his face abruptly appearing very scary and dark. “My big deal is...you.”
Before Margaret could react, laughing or screaming, Devon Lang opened his coat and she was sucked through the window and into a dark abyss seeming to emerge from the core of his body. He gave a sigh of ecstasy as Margaret disappeared into him. The other members stood in frozen, also ecstatic postures, drawing energy from a split second wave of light that flashed from his body. As the light ebbed, Devon Lang closed his coat and all went back to their strange, regular business.
By the next day, the club had another coat check girl. Also young and vital.
I stuck my foot in my mouth
when I said I didn’t like breast implants.
When we fooled around
you made sure I wasn’t aware of them,
but after you told me
all you did was press them into me,
two hard lumps spooning against my back.
At first I thought I could live with them.
They were part of you and if I loved you
I had to accept them, learn to love them, too.
You were right, they looked great,
as long as you sat upright,
but on your back or side, or above my lips,
they broke my suspension of disbelief,
and when I kissed and squeezed them
it was as if I was making love to a synthetic doll.
So I avoided your breasts and did you from behind.
But this didn’t last because soon
I began to avoid you altogether.
It was the first time in their marriage that they had been apart. Natalie had gone with her best friend from high school days and beyond, to Ibiza Spain.
When Natalie came back, she looked great. Really great. She had a fantastic tan.
But no tan lines.
“Don’t even think about it, Billy. There were no men there. We found this really private beach and went for it.”
“Does Pam have tan lines?”
“I can have her come over and you can look for yourself.”
“Let me think about that.”
“Better yet, check this out.”
She went over to her computer, plugged her camera in, and pulled up some photos of a magnificent shore, lapped by foamy whitecaps emerging gracefully from a turquoise sea. Sure enough, there were no men. There was one amazing shot of Natalie and Pam laying side by side on a beach blanket wearing only sunglasses and tanning lotion. His imagination had fallen far short of how beautiful Pam’s body was.
Natalie caught him staring, mouth agape, eyebrows arched in wonder.
“The sand is so white.”
“Right. Like you were looking at the sand. Hey! I just got an excellent idea.”
She stood him up, got around behind him and playfully pushed him into the bedroom, not that he offered much resistance.
She proved for the next several days to be insatiable.
“Good grief, Natalie. What did they feed you there on Ibiza?”
“Dreams, Billy. Dreams.”
Of course, they both had their work schedules. But it seemed at least for those first few days after her return, Natalie managed to avoid any professional commitments in the evening and was there for him, ready and able to make love as often as was physically possible.
She had to catch up at work Saturday during the day but they had a phenomenal evening. Sunday they actually had slept in a bit, the consequence of being up half of the previous night pursuing carnal bliss.
Natalie woke first and looked at him. Eventually his eyes opened and she cuddled up to him, placing her lips teasingly against his ear and whispered.
“Happy Valentines Day.”
“Hmm. That’s right. I forgot. You got back on Valentines Day.”
“There’s something else, Billy.”
“I want a baby.”
“I think the stores are open today. We can go after breakfast.”
“I’m not kidding.”
They talked about it over brunch at Anna’s, as they then walked through town afterwards, during the drive through along the Hudson River and Hudson Highlands State Park, and finally that evening at home over dinner. Billy did the cooking and proudly served a blackened dish he claimed was genuine Livorno-style lasagna, and a circular cardboard-like object which was supposed to be Sicilian pizza.
There was no doubt that they both wanted to have children. The whole question was timing. That they didn’t seem to agree on.
“I’m too young to be a father, Natalie.”
“No you’re not.”
“I’m only twenty two.”
“A perfect age. You’re young, energetic, yet mature, established.”
“Like I’m going to be some burnt out shell of a human being at 25 or 28, a moneyless bum sleeping in a dumpster behind Home Depot.”
“If it’s a boy, you can name him. If it’s a girl, I want to call her Lilith.”
That had a familiar ring. Wasn’t Lilith some Amazon queen his mom was telling him about? Or was she a biblical terrorist that had all of the kings in a tizzy?
“Lilith. Lovely name. If it’s a boy, I want to call him Chairman Mao.”
Natalie laughed and jumped on top of him and proceeded to nearly cause heart failure by tickling him so relentlessly. It was obvious she was not going to stop without a commitment.
“So are we on, papa Billy? Are we going to make a baby? Are we? Are we?”
“Ha ha ha ha . . . if you don’t stop tickling me . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll be dead . . . ha ha ha . . . and that’ll be . . . ha ha ha ha . . . please . . . ha ha ha . . . I’ll do anything . . . ha ha ha . . . just stop . . . ha ha ha . . .”
“So that’s a yes?”
“Yes . . . ha ha ha . . . yes, Natalie.”
And they went to work.
At making a baby from scratch, that is.
Should have been simple. But it eventually turned out to be hard work. Very hard work.
It has confounded some of the best medical minds of the 21st Century, why fertility rates have been gradually declining over the past fifty years. Those from three generations back claim ___ obviously exaggerating, of course ___ that back in those days, post-World War II, and on into the featureless 50s, getting pregnant was supposedly easier than catching a head cold. Teens seemed especially at risk. Schoolgirls were cautioned about sitting too close to boys for fear that sperm would somehow leap forth, magically pass through clothing and skin, and home in on the cowering uterus like some precision-guided weapon, resulting in unwanted pregnancies.
Then came the 60s. A measurable decrease in fertility rates among both males and females started around the same time that the Beatles and the British invasion of pop musicians took over the radio airwaves, and has continued to this day. Egg production in women is still off, miscarriages continue to increase, sperm counts are down.
No connection could be established between the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and the other British bands, and the inability of couples to make babies back then or now.
So what precipitated the subtle but steady decline in fertility rates? Was it the cancelation of the Ed Sullivan Show? The unrequited romancing of the apparently still virginal Annette Funicello by any number of viable suitors on the Mickey Mouse Club? Chubby Checker and the twist? Lingering physiological effects from the hoola-hoop craze of the 50s? Radiation from the spaceships landing in Nebraska and Indiana abducting illiterate corn farmers and road-weary truck drivers?
The plausible connection turned out to be the enormous numbers of chemicals, artificial substances, plastics, and man-made pollutants which were slowly introduced starting in the 50s but were dramatically increased in both quantity and variety during the 60s, and are being increasingly used today. These include food additives and preservatives, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, cosmetic chemicals, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, household cleaners, detergents and dry cleaning fluids, auto exhaust and industry pollution, industrial solvents such as acetone and trichlorethylene, the new generation of paints and varnishes, carpet and furniture fire and stain retardants, synthetic fabrics and clothing treatments, dioxyn, PVCs, plastic food and beverage containers, even monosodium glutamate, on and on the list goes.
This man-made inhibition of the natural reproductive process has spawned a fertility industry ___ both specialists within the ranks of the conventional AMA-approved health service providers and those working in naturopathic and other alternative treatment environments ___ raking in far in excess of a billion dollars a year.
Of course, Billy and Natalie weren’t aware of any of this when the decided they would try to get her pregnant. They just did what they normally did, with a little more focused effort the five or six days that were midway between her periods.
Away they went doing what came naturally for three months or so. Understandably they were both rather surprised when their energetic efforts produced no results in the embryo manufacturing department.
At first, their lack of success was taken with a lightheartedness, both of them assuming it was an anomaly which would soon pass.
“Maybe you’re firing blanks, Billy.”
“I’m definitely firing something.”
“You are definitely hitting the target.”
“Practice makes perfect.”
As the weeks and months passed, however, the whole subject became charged, more and more the trigger for arguments or tears.
“You don’t want a baby. That’s it, isn’t it Billy?”
“Natalie. Of course I do. I said I did. But whether I do or not, it’s not like I’m holding back. You can see for yourself that I’m doing my job.”
“Then how come I’m not pregnant?”
“How should I know? Maybe you fried your uterus in Ibiza. Maybe you got sand in the works. Don’t point the finger at me.”
“Billy. Please stop bringing up my trip like it was some negative thing. It wasn’t. It was a very good thing. It got me to a good place. It got me to where I am now.”
“Frustrated. Angry with me. Yeh, that’s just great.”
Natalie’s eyes turned red and started to pool, as her lower lip quivered slightly.
“Billy. I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I know it’s not your fault.”
Actually, it didn’t appear to be either of their faults. The doctors couldn’t find anything awry. None of the five fertility specialists they had consulted, stretching from the Hudson Valley to New York City.
Billy’s sperm count appeared normal, in fact, better than normal. The quality of the sperm appeared fine. No two-headed mutants, none with tails missing, none suffering from lethargy or lack of swimming skills, no union organizers urging a sperm walkout or sitdown strike.
Likewise, Natalie checked out. She was ovulating like clockwork, producing the approved and recommended number of eggs, there were no blocked Fallopian tubes, no cross winds, no feminist demonstrations or marches going on in there.
The experts were stumped.
Of course, they had a solution. A very expensive solution. With no guarantees.
This was a multi-phased program of hormone doping, fertility drugs, taking his sperm and concentrating it to increase its statistical effectiveness, and further closing the statistical hit-miss gap by either inserting the sperm into her fallopian tubes or removing one of her eggs and performing in vitro insemination then replanting the fertilized egg in her uterus.
It was all so scientific and calculating but unscientifically unpredictable. They could end up with twins, octuplets, or a swaddling bundle of air. Who was to say. The doctors couldn’t.
Billy and Natalie could see the five-figure bill for services coming from miles away.
Monetary issues aside, they couldn’t imagine turning over what should be the natural unfolding of the miracle of life, to a bunch of lab coats surrounded by stainless steel tables, test tubes, oscilliscopes, pipettes, ultrasound scans, Petri dishes, electronic imaging equipment, electrophoresis separators, and whatever else the medicine men would drag out of their expensive bag of tricks. It was about as romantic as changing the motherboard or putting more RAM in a computer.
They decided at least for now, to continue their reproductive Olympiad, which despite the growing anxiety and tension introduced by their absorption and obsession with getting her pregnant, they both still thoroughly enjoyed. At the same time, they would try to increase the prospects of babymaking in their lovemaking by introducing some less-expensive, hopefully effective alternative assistance.
Their bedroom stand now included a vaginal thermometer, homeopathic medicine, and a small glass dish of opaque pink fertility stones. Both Billy and Natalie were taking specially formulated vitamin/mineral/herb supplements, respectively designed to fortify the male and female reproductive systems ___ his was called Inseminator Rejuvenator and hers Motherhood In A Bottle.
One day Billy pulled up on their computer a page from a website which was trumpeting the efficacy of various crystals, and showed it to Natalie.
The Shiva Lingham Stone is from the sacred Narmada River in Onkar Mandhata, one of India’s seven holy sites. Villagers gather this unique Crypto-crystalline quartz from shallow river beds. In Tantra, the shape embodies masculine energy, dynamic expression and knowledge. The markings named Yoni (sacred sanskrit word for vulva), depicts the feminine energy, wisdom and intuition. Together, the female energy arouses the masculine urge to create. As such, the Tantric Lingham unifies the dualistic (male female) world into harmonious balance. Place a Shiva Lingham in the Relationships/Marriage area of your home to increase fertility and to bring you closer to your partner.
“Well, there’s the solution to our problem if I ever saw it.”
Though they laughed about it, the true extent of their desperation was evident when they immediately ordered one. When it arrived Air Express, it was given a guest-of-honor place in the center of the headboard shelf of their bed, next to a faux-ancient scroll containing a Sanscrit fertility mantra they obtained from a local store, with a name printed in gold leaf on the front window, which only a few months ago they used to make fun of . . .
Things New Age: Your One-Stop Enlightenment Shop
They also went out of their way to eat healthy. More salads. Less fat. More fish. Less meat. They eliminated wine with their meals and never ordered cocktails when they went out with their friends. Five times a day, Natalie was drinking an unpleasant-tasting herbal tea consisting of Chasteberry, Red Raspberry Leaf, and Nettle. Billy had virtually eliminated coffee from his diet since he read that there were studies suggesting that coffee had deleterious effects on sperm production. He switched to vitamin C-enhanced peppermint tea.
Unfortunately, none of this seemed to work. The only ones who seemed to benefit were the manufacturers and outlets who pocketed seemingly exorbitant profits for a lot of worthless crap, which they used to generate and hawk new, promising, pricier, but at the end of the day, equally worthless crap.
By August, they were exhausted. It wasn’t the sex but rather the anticipation, disappointment, the regiment and monotony of the “fertility rites” they had created, the evident futility, and last but not least, the heat. Whether it was global warming or just a anomalous seasonal shift, the end of the summer was turning out to be a scorcher.
They lay in bed, sweating and sweltering, panting like dogs in the desert, after a pleasurable but nonetheless draining session of lovemaking, during which they often thought more about whether his sperm and her egg were going to end their Cold War standoff and finally get together, than to abandoning themselves to the carnal ecstasy of their union.
When the end of Natalie’s most recent menstrual cycle again declared that she was not pregnant, an announcement signed in blood, Billy tried to make light of it.
“Maybe we should just get a dog.”
“I’m not having sex with a dog.”
“I meant for me.”
“You want to have sex with a dog? I feel a little threatened.”
“Dogs are man’s best friend. No one ever said that about babies.”
“Wait! We’ll get two dogs. A male and a female. And watch them. Maybe we’re doing something wrong.”
“I don’t think my ego could handle it. What if they got it right the first time?”
“Ohmigod! You’re right. I’d have to kill the bitch.”
“I’d have the vet remove his balls. That’d show him!”
They laughed but their laughter was hollow. Hollow to the point of melancholy.
And though neither of them said anything, each invisibly was waving the tearful white flag of resignation. An impregnable sense of hopelessness had slowly but surely sunk in. This was the first failure of their relationship, the first tangible setback of any importance.
They never officially gave up. Thus, they never discussed a next step, either adoption or designing their lives together around childlessness. They never acknowledged they might be entering a next phase. A phase without a baby of their own making.
They clung to some thin, frail thread of optimism. After all, there were countless stories of couples trying and trying again over years, even decades, then finally producing the long-desired child. Billy and Natalie had many years ahead of them. The waiting and trying and trying again theoretically could define them as a couple, as it had many other couples.
But they both somehow knew this wasn’t going to happen.
Something had changed. They both sensed it.
The baby thing was over and done.
And what about them?
Was it over?
Practice makes perfect.
In all things.
John Rachel Bio
John Rachel has a B. A. in Philosophy, has traveled extensively, is a songwriter and music producer, and a left-of-left liberal. Prompted by the trauma of graduating high school and having to leave his beloved city of Detroit to attend university, the development his social skills and world view were arrested at about age 18. This affliction figures prominently in all of his creative work. He is author of two full-length novels, “From Thailand With Love” and “The Man Who Loved Too Much”. He is currently living in Japan.
Take Life By The Nut-Sack
Jason A Wilkinson
And run with it until the putrefied bits slip
through your fingers
causing infections to spread
like gossip over them
staining your clothes
Run with it until it dries in your hands
though it were no more than powder
and the hair upon that scrotum
has desiccated beyond recognition
Until you no more notice the stench of it
than that of a dead fly
entombed beneath the azaleas
and pedestrians are obliged to wear protective gear
lest you should contaminate them unawares
Run with the precious nickel bag
twisting every last demand from its host
-bury your nails in supple flesh
if only to exact more and more
Take Life by the nut-sack and wear it on a chain
next to the promise rings and that fake shark tooth
your uncle Dougie swore came from ‘a big one’
he caught off the coast of Jamaica last spring
Take Life by the nut-sack and treat it like a prostitute
dragging it through the streets
at the ends of frayed tethers
Use its head for a battering ram
against hard-to-open doors
Take Life by the nut-sack without compunction
or the occasional hangover
Take Life by the nuts
and unto those testes
do what Conscience dictates
must be inflicted upon no other.
We need wings not words to fly,
but these are the words authority gives us
as flying lessons . . .
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
They say:Life’s hard, then you die,
You have to learn to turn the other cheek,
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,
For every cloud has a silver lining,
And every coin two sides,
Because the glass can be 1/2 empty or 1/2 full,
So if life hands you lemons, make lemonade,
After all, hind sight is always 20/20,
And this hurts me more than it hurts you,
Who said life’s fair?
You’ve made your bed, now lie in it,
For only time will tell,
And anything is possible if you put your mind to it,
Because you’ll never know if you don’t try,
And one person can make a difference,
But no one can change the world,
And don’t take matters into your own hands,
Or speak unless you’re spoken to,
Respect your elders and learn your place,
After all, who said life’s fair anyway?
They do:They say this as they cringe,
Under their protective boughs,
Pushing us out of the nest without wings,
And only words to help us fly.
The House in the Dream
I dreamed of the house again, on its golden yellow rise—the white frame house on the Nebraska hillside, snug amid rich, rolling farmland, now rife with corn, falling in quivering green arches to the wide brown river lined with cottonwoods and shrubbery, where the rabbits live. It is early morning, and the sun is just now brushing the broad east porch, conquering the chill with a small, easy sweep.
The bleached oak floors of the front hallway gleam now, though yesterday they were cluttered with babies and their blocks and their bears, and older children had tea parties under the twin walnut trees that shade the south porch. The house smelled of bubbling cheese and frying onions and chicken baking, seasoned with peppers and my own precious herbs, grown on the broad window and out back, among the stones.
We played with the blocks, and we played with the bears, and I talked like Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear, and squealed like a very frightened Goldilocks, and sweet voices pealed with laughter and echoed back and forth against the walls, and little arms hugged me, and huge eyes watched while I scratched all their names with a hickory stick in the shady spot that’s always a bit muddy, even in the dry season. Then I made pies from the fat pumpkins that grow in untidy rows behind the spinach and lettuce and tomatoes that thrive because I am the mighty enemy of aphids and spider mites. And the pies are sweet with honey from my own beehives, and with a bit of molasses for bite. The children, and the grownups too, are delighted when I whip sweet cream into thick, sugary clouds to crown each slice, and I don’t skimp because nobody likes to run out of cream before they run out of pie.
The cousins scrub the pans and plates and rub the glasses to a high shine in the ancient farmhouse sink, mottled white enamel with a small chip in the drainboard; and someone sweeps the crumbs that fell beneath the old oak table. The children grow quiet with their books and bears and blankets, and the grownups have a glass of light, clear Brownville wine, or coffee, rich and black from a climate where the sun burns hot but shade is plentiful. A breeze whispers messages from heaven: “joy” and “bliss” and “peace.” And night falls but cannot break the skin of happiness.
Now, in the dawn, the house is too quiet, too tidy, and I long for the busy noise of little feet slipping up and down, up and down the stairs on important errands—fetching paper and crayons, this trip, it seems; and for the echo of voices off the polished oak. And then I smile, for today I may prune roses and clip hollyhocks for lush bouquets, and fight with aphids, and write stories, and select the best pumpkins for the gold-brown pies for next time.
But I wake up in the dark, alone, and wonder,
who am I to dream such dreams of white
farmhouse and close family?
Mary Campbell Bio
Mary Campbell is the author or coauthor of five books and the ghostwriter or editor of dozens more, on topics ranging from prostate cancer to desert-wildflower gardening. She wrote and edited print promotional materials for the University of Arizona for more than twenty years, both as an employee and as a freelance journalist.
Mary originated, and for five years researched and wrote, the ABCNEWS.com “Small Business Builder” column.
Mrs. Campbell attended Stanford University as a music major before transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and graduating from the University of Arizona, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in music.
She is an enthusiastic supporter of the ARTery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “making the arts accessible to everyone,” including the American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classrooms program popularized in the feature films Mad Hot Ballroom and Take the Lead.
Mrs. Campbell has written dozens of hymns, anthems, and gospel songs in addition to short fiction and poetry. The mother of three and grandmother of seven lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska.
It is the saddest thing.
Pluto is no longer a planet.
It has been usurped from its title.
He was always the outcast,
the farthest out.
And when the planets went to dances and social events,
he was the odd man out.
The lonely one.
They paired up two by two all the way down.
But Pluto had no pair.
He was hopeless.
He was the smallest, and the least interesting.
No rings, and no atmosphere.
Absolutely no signs of life.
Pluto, my friend.
You were always my favorite.
Dear Tech Support:
Last year I upgraded from Girlfriend 7.0 to Wife 1.0. I soon noticed that the new program began unexpected child processing that took up a lot of space and valuable resources. In addition, Wife 1.0 installed itself into all other programs and now monitors all other system>activity. Applications such as Poker Night 10.3, Football 5.0, Hunting and Fishing 7.5, and Racing 3.6 no longer run, crashing the system whenever selected.
I can’t seem to keep Wife 1.0 in the background while attempting to run my favourite applications. I’m thinking about going back to Girlfriend 7.0, but the uninstall doesn’t work on Wife 1.0. Please help! Thanks,
A Troubled User. (KEEP READING)
REPLY: Dear Troubled User:
This is a very common problem that men complain about. Many people upgrade from Girlfriend 7.0 to Wife 1.0, thinking that it is just a Utilities and Entertainment program. Wife 1.0 is an OPERATING SYSTEM and is designed by its Creator to run EVERYTHING!!! It is also impossible to delete Wife 1.0 and to return to Girlfriend 7.0. It is impossible to uninstall, or purge the program files from the system once installed.
You cannot go back to Girlfriend 7.0 because Wife 1.0 is designed to not allow this. Look in your Wife 1.0 manual under Warnings-Alimony- Child Support. I recommend that you keep Wife1.0 and work on improving the situation. I suggest installing the background application “Yes Dear” to alleviate software augmentation. The best course of action is to enter the command C:APOLOGIZE because ultimately you will have to give the APOLOGIZE command before the system will return to normal anyway.
Wife 1.0 is a great program, but it tends to be very high maintenance. Wife 1.0 comes with several support programs, such as Clean and Sweep 3.0, Cook It 1.5 and Do Bills 4.2. However, be very careful how you use these programs. Improper use will cause the system to launch the program Nag, Nag 9.5. Once this happens, the only way to improve the performance of Wife 1.0 is to purchase additional software. I recommend Flowers 2.1 and Diamonds 5.0! WARNING!!! DO NOT, under any circumstances, install Secretary With Short Skirt 3.3. This application is not supported by Wife 1.0 and will cause irreversible damage to the operating system.
Best of luck, Tech Support
Ceramic Frogs Copulate in New Mexico
on a glass shelf,
a pair of ceramic frogs endowed
with perfectly rendered representations
of human genitalia, male and female.
If they were to ever copulate
the world would be overrun
by ceramic tadpoles.
“We picked them up in New Mexico,”
the genial hostess explains, amused
at my mixed expression of fascination
An odd sort of memento.
Has New Mexico become infested
with swarms of ceramic frogs?
Genetic mutations brought on by
A-bomb testing in the 50’s.
I am determined, more than ever,
to never visit the West. That vast
empty landscape and blank canvas
upon which any black history can be written,
I need trees, the intimacy of small towns
every few miles. Though, I expect,
even in the middle of the Mojave
there’s a fast food franchise
with shimmering golden arches,
and a super-department store
with shelves lined with row after row
of ceramic frogs.
The Masters? Hell no! Not even the Minors!
In fact, this is not really a golf tournament at all; it’s something like a summer camp for grown people, rich people, mostly middle aged, country club types who say they want to improve their golf games, but mainly just to get away from home and rub elbows with the pros (and this staff stretches the term a bit) and then crow about what they learned when the go back to their own clubs and bug their own pros about it.
The few of us pros working this gig won’t make much money out of it, but we accomplish pretty much what all these rich duffers accomplish: a week in another scene, then have it written up in our local papers - credits, you know.
But the main reason most of the pros come to these things is the women. Women among the attendees outnumber the men four-to-one, and most of the few men who do come are with their wives (and even some of the wives are on the make!). And some of these middle-aged girls are not all that bad.
I stay away from that kind of stuff nowadays. Not that I’m immune to some middle aged charm, but Darlene is different from my other wives and I just don’t want to mess things up with her. And she’s too sharp for me to try anything. Even at three hundred miles away, somehow she’d know it if I got any on the side!
But right now I’m amused at watching Randy and Rusty, who have somehow set their sights on the same prey!
Randy and Rusty are two not too terribly unfriendly rivals who work as pros in clubs not too far apart. These two are as different as daylight and dark, and they have always been respectfully at each other’s throat.
The subject of their current contest is Mrs. Maxwell. She’s a honey blond on the sunny side of fifty, but, damn, she’s a traffic stopper - nice long legs, great hips with the belly held in check, a face that’s movie-star pretty, and a gorgeous chest.
And she’s a natural for conquest, what I call a mourning castaway. We’re in the fourth day of our tourney, and last night she worked herself up in the line to have a tryst with Joe-Joe Randal, our star, our only pro who still actively goes on the pro tours.
Joe-Joe was the centerpiece they built this camp around. You know, “Tips from a touring pro”, though he’s not often seen out on the links giving any tips, rather just coming out and hitting a few drives and a few putts and having his photo snapped.
He is seen around the club in the evening, though, holding up his reputation as a stud. I mean he’s one fellow who looks like he belongs in a country club. Everything just right: no flab around the middle, tanned just up to the right point, hair and clothes looking like the magazine pages.
So he flits around with a different old girl each night, giving her a little bit of heaven, so to speak.
But most of these old girls get the idea right on the mark: one moment with the grand prize and then and move on. Gain. No Pain. One in the memory book.
But not Mrs. Maxwell (no word on whether she’s a widow or a divorcee or trying for cuckold). She just somehow felt that once Joe-Joe tasted from her cup, he’d just naturally stick with her, exclusively, at least until the end of the tourney, or maybe adding another weekend.
So there she is on the links, pouting, moping, slicing (even a danger to the others when she picks up a wood), a mourning castaway, with Randy and Rusty moving closer and closer, each with a championship shoulder for her to cry on.
And as they moved closer to the moment of truth, the time for the kill, I could see that the lady, deep in her hurt, fighting back her tears bravely, was indeed ready for the plucking - but as to which of these predators she would submit, I saw no clear answer. (Hell maybe the three of them? Nah!)
Then she broke down. A compulsive fit of sobbing, no less ready to be bedded down, but for the moment needing to shorten the public spectacle.
And, of course, in a case like this, Rusty always wins.
Rusty is allowed to go with her into the Ladies Room.
Broken Heart City
J. J. Brearton
I drove into town—
wasn’t exactly lost
but looking for something.
The buildings--the people--
I wasn’t ready for them.
Got lost, thrown away,
somehow got a grip on you.
Just too many things--
too many--too many things,
I know I wasn’t paying attention.
I said the wrong thing.
I never was good
at saying things.
Never had much practice.
Didn’t know what to say.
All that trouble.
All the things that happened,
and you just got away from me.
And now you’re gone.
I remember your lipstick--
but now all I have
are big buildings
and nowhere to go.
I know I was a fool
just like the fool
who says he hopes to see you
some day in that crazy place
called the Kingdom of Heaven.
Same place, just without the buildings.
And she got out of her car, walked across her driveway, and walked up the stairs to her porch, trying to enjoy her solitude, trying not to remember that he followed her once again. She thought she was free of him; she thought he moved on with his life and that she would not have to see his face again.
Why did he have to call her, on this one particular day, years later, while she was at work? Maybe if she could have been suspecting it, she might have been braced for it. But then again, she didn’t want to think about it: she was happy that she was finally starting to feel as if she had control of her life again.
It had been so many years, why would she have expected him to follow her again? Didn’t she make it clear years ago that she didn’t want him waiting outside her house in his car anymore, that she didn’t want to receive the hang-up calls at three in the morning anymore? Or the calls in the middle of the night, when he’d stay on the line, when she could tell that he was high, and he’d profess his love to her? Or the letters, or the threats? No, the police couldn’t do anything until he took action, when it was too late. Why did he come back? Why couldn’t he leave her alone? Why couldn’t it be illegal for someone to fill her with fear for years, to make her dread being in her house alone, to make her wonder if her feeling that she was being followed wasn’t real?
All these thoughts rushed through her head as she sat on her front porch swing, opening her mail. One bill, one piece of junk mail, one survey.
It was only a phone call, she had to keep thinking to herself. He may never call again. She had no idea where he was even calling from. For all she knew, he could have been on the other side of the country. It was only a phone call.
And then everything started to go wrong in her mind again, the bushes around the corner of her house were rustling a little too loud, there were too many cars that sounded like they were stopping near her house. Her own breathing even scared her.
I could go into the house, she thought, but she knew that she could be filled with fear there, too. Would the phone ring? Would there be a knock on the door? Or would he even bother with a knock, would he just break a window, let himself in, cut the phone lines so she wouldn’t stand a chance?
No, she knew better. She knew she had to stay outside, that she couldn’t let this fear take a hold of her again. And so she sat.
She looked at her phone bill again.
She heard the creak of the porch swing.
She swore she heard someone else breathing.
No, she wouldn’t look up from her bill, because she knew no one was there.
Then he spoke.
She looked up. He was standing right at the base of her stairs, not six feet away from her.
“What are you doing on my property?”
“Oh, come on, you used to not hate me so much.” He lit a cigarette, a marlboro red, with a match. “So, why wouldn’t you take my call today?”
“Why would I? What do I have to say to you?”
“You’re really making a bigger deal out of this than it is,” he said, then took a drag. She watched the smoke come out of his mouth as he spoke. “We used to have it good.”
She got up, and walked toward him. She was surprised; in her own mind she never thought she’d actually be able to walk closer to him, she always thought she’d be running away. She stood at the top of the stairs.
“Can I have a smoke?”
“Sure,” he said, and he reached up to hand her the fire stick. She reached out for the matches.
“I’ll light it.”
She put the match to the end of the paper and leaves, watched it turn orange. She didn’t want this cigarette. She needed to look more calm. Calm. Be calm.
She remained at the top of the stairs, and he stood only six stairs below her. She sat at the top stair.
“You really think we ever got along?”
“Sure. I mean, I don’t know how you got in your head -”
“Do you think I enjoyed finding your car outside my house all the time? Did I enjoy seeing you at the same bars I was at, watching me and my friends, like you were recording their faces into your memory forever? Do you think I liked you coming to bother me when I was working at the store? Do you -”
She paused. “You were what?”
“I was logging everyone you were with into my head.”
She sat silent.
“At the bars - I remember every face. I remember every one of them. I had to, you see, I had to know who was trying to take you away. I needed to know who they were.”
She sat still, she couldn’t blink, she stared at him, it was just as she was afraid it would be.
And all these years she begged him to stop, but nothing changed.
She couldn’t take it all anymore.
She put out her right hand, not knowing exactly what she’d do if she held his hand. He put his left hand in hers.
“You know,” she said, then paused for a drag of the red fire, “This state would consider what you did to me years ago stalking.”
She held his hand tighter, holding his fingers together. She could feel her lungs moving her up and down. He didn’t even hear her; he was fixated on looking at his hand in hers, until she caught his eyes with her own and then they stared, past the iris, the pupil, until they burned holes into each other’s heads with their stare.
“And you know,” she said, as she lifted her cigarette, “I do too.”
Then she quickly moved the cigarette toward their hands together, and put it out in the top of his hand.
He screamed. Grabbed his hand. Bent over. Pressed harder. Swore. Yelled.
She stood. Her voice suddenly changed.
“Now, I’m going to say this once, and I won’t say it again. I want you off my property. I want you out of my life. I swear to God, if you come within fifty feet of me or anything related to me or anything the belongs to me, I’ll get a court order, I’ll get a gun, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you away forever.”
He held his left hand with his right, the fingers on his right hand purple from the pressure he was using on the open sore. He moaned while she spoke. She stood at the top of the stairs looking down on him. He slowly walked away.
She thought for a moment she had truly taken her life back. She looked down. Clenched in the fist in her left hand was the cigarette she just put out.
A vegan (VEE-gun) is someone who does not consume any animal products. While vegetarians avoid flesh foods, vegans dont consume dairy or egg products, as well as animal products in clothing and other sources.
This cruelty-free lifestyle provides many benefits, to animals, the environment and to ourselves. The meat and dairy industry abuses billions of animals. Animal agriculture takes an enormous toll on the land. Consumtion of animal products has been linked to heart disease, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and a host of other conditions.
so what is vegan action?
We can succeed in shifting agriculture away from factory farming, saving millions, or even billions of chickens, cows, pigs, sheep turkeys and other animals from cruelty.
We can free up land to restore to wilderness, pollute less water and air, reduce topsoil reosion, and prevent desertification.
We can improve the health and happiness of millions by preventing numerous occurrences od breast and prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and heart attacks, among other major health problems.
A vegan, cruelty-free lifestyle may be the most important step a person can take towards creatin a more just and compassionate society. Contact us for membership information, t-shirt sales or donations.
po box 4353, berkeley, ca 94707-0353
MIT Vegetarian Support Group (VSG)
* To show the MIT Food Service that there is a large community of vegetarians at MIT (and other health-conscious people) whom they are alienating with current menus, and to give positive suggestions for change.
* To exchange recipes and names of Boston area veg restaurants
* To provide a resource to people seeking communal vegetarian cooking
* To provide an option for vegetarian freshmen
We also have a discussion group for all issues related to vegetarianism, which currently has about 150 members, many of whom are outside the Boston area. The group is focusing more toward outreach and evolving from what it has been in years past. We welcome new members, as well as the opportunity to inform people about the benefits of vegetarianism, to our health, the environment, animal welfare, and a variety of other issues.
The Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology
The Solar Energy Research & Education Foundation (SEREF), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., established on Earth Day 1993 the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST) as its central project. CRESTs three principal projects are to provide:
* on-site training and education workshops on the sustainable development interconnections of energy, economics and environment;
* on-line distance learning/training resources on CRESTs SOLSTICE computer, available from 144 countries through email and the Internet;
* on-disc training and educational resources through the use of interactive multimedia applications on CD-ROM computer discs - showcasing current achievements and future opportunities in sustainable energy development.
The CREST staff also does on the road presentations, demonstrations, and workshops showcasing its activities and available resources.
For More Information Please Contact: Deborah Anderson
email@example.com or (202) 289-0061
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