welcome to volume 86 (September 2010) of
down in the dirt
Alexandira Rand, Editor
internet issn 1554-9666
(for the print issn 1554-9623)
http://scars.tv - click on down in the dirt
what is veganism?
The unhappy live
In an empty world.
Time crawls like a snail.
It moves too slowly.
A Nation of Citizen Expurgators
G. Tod Slone
Education has taught citizens
today not to cherish vigorous
debate, democracy’s cornerstone,
but rather to serve as little censors.,P>
has been enabled.
All comments must be
approved by the blog author.
First prize was an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood with the woman of your choice and as much money as you would ever need. That meant you could just pick a woman, any woman you wanted, even if she belonged to someone else, and you could have millions of dollars and your picture would be in all the papers and they would interview you on television and everyone would listen to what you said and you’d get invited to the White House and then you’d live in a mansion with thirty-six rooms and have a staff of twenty people and your own plane and a dozen cars. Everyone entered the contest. You’d have had to be crazy not to.
John entered the contest. He was a short order cook in a greasy spoon in Brooklyn. He lived in a rented room and had seventy-five dollars in the bank. He liked action movies and popular music. He was a high school graduate and had served in the navy. His parents were still living and he had an older sister.
Charlie entered the contest. He was a used car salesman in Memphis. He was married and had two children. His wife was a receptionist in a dentist’s office. They had a dog. He subscribed to Reader’s Digest and was a Titans fan. On their twentieth anniversary he had taken his wife to New York, where they had gotten mugged.
Joe entered the contest. He was a laid-off welder at Ford Engines in Cleveland. He was divorced. His wife had run off with his best friend. He bowled and drank a lot of beer. He weighed 325 lbs. His nickname was Tiny.
Tom entered the contest. He was a bellhop at a downtown Boston hotel. He had a season ticket to the Red Sox games. He was a heavy bettor. He slept with a whore named Flo twice a month. He had six brothers and sisters.
Dick entered the contest. He was a truck driver in Alexandria, Virginia. He had married late in life and had no children. His wife had a heart condition. They lived in a mobile home and were having trouble with their medical insurance.
Harry entered the contest. He was a lumberjack in Portland. He had four sons. The oldest one was studying horticulture at the state university. His wife had worked at Wal-Mart for a while and liked to watch Oprah and Dr. Phil on daytime TV. They were still paying off their mortgage.
For weeks and weeks everyone talked about the contest. The President himself had said that anyone could win, regardless of race, religion or color. Everyone wanted to have millions and millions of dollars and the woman of his choice. There had been previous contests and everyone could see how well the winners were doing. Some of them played basketball and others sang songs, some traded in pork bellies and others traded in junk bonds. Some became powerful people. You could be a Supreme Court justice or governor of a state or the chief of staff or a talk show host or even a senior analyst at CNN.
John wrote in his entry form: “I want to win an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood with the woman of my choice and all the money I will ever need because that is the American Dream. The woman of my choice is Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Aniston. If I had millions and millions of dollars I would buy everything that rich people have and live in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills.”
That was more or less what everyone wrote, though not necessarily choosing Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Aniston. Charlie chose Andie MacDowell. Dick chose Julia Roberts. Tastes differed. Joe wanted to live in Shaker Heights. Tom wanted to live on Beacon Hill. Everyone wanted a Porsche.
Charlie had a satisfactory marriage and his kids were doing all right but he was not satisfied with his lot. “There’s more to life than this,” he would tell his wife on certain occasions. “Like what, hon?” she’d reply, and he’d be forced to say, “Oh, I don’t know.” Charlie had always daydreamed about having millions and millions of dollars and the woman of his choice. He daydreamed before he fell asleep at night and when he woke up in the morning and during the commercial breaks in the football games, and sometimes he tossed a football around with the kids.
After the layoff Joe hadn’t worked for a year. He’d had to sell the house in the divorce settlement and had used up most of the equity. He felt betrayed and brooded a lot. He needed those millions of dollars and the woman of his choice to get his life back on track. Otherwise he thought he might do violence to himself.
Tom also daydreamed about winning millions of dollars but had always thought it might come at the track or the card table. He spent a lot of time reading the scratch sheets and looked like a jockey himself. Tom knew the contest was a swindle. All contests were swindles but you entered them anyway. When he was a kid he’d had a post office clerk standing by with his stamp in the air in one of those earliest postmark radio contests and still he’d lost. The experience had soured him. Until then he had believed in his dreams.
People won all kinds of prizes in America but the big prizes were hard to get. Everyone wanted them, so the competition was fierce. Some people said they didn’t care if they didn’t win because there were more important things in life than being rich like honor and decency but deep in their hearts they did. Some people took losing pretty hard. When it turned out they hadn’t won the tears filled their eyes. “That’s the only chance I’ll ever get,” they said.
Dick was tired of driving a truck. The money was good but he was on the road most of the week and with a sick wife he needed to be home more. Winning millions of dollars would have changed his life. He’d make sure his wife got proper care and maybe buy her a house and go off to Hollywood with Julia Roberts. Then he’d see.
Harry had the four sons to put through college and he was barely scraping by. The wife looked worn out while he was a healthy type. If he had millions and millions of dollars he’d maybe send her to the beauty parlor and let her get some new clothes. Then she could sit around with her sister gossiping all day while he took the woman of his choice out on the town.
John had gone out with a woman for a while and for a while it had looked pretty serious. She was a few years older than him and had been around the block. She stayed with him one or two nights a week in his room, where they were squeezed together on the narrow bed so that neither of them could really sleep and sometimes he just sat in a chair smoking until the morning and wondering how it was going to end. Neither of them had any prospects so maybe they made a good pair because they drank together and got maudlin together and he got to thinking that maybe her mind was a little shot. Sometimes he’d buy a big bag of groceries and some wine and fix her something nice when she came over and that was romantic just like the movies. In any case it hadn’t worked out because he’d caught her with another man and there’d been a fight and he’d broken a bottle over his head and was lucky he hadn’t killed him and was lucky they didn’t call the cops.
Charlie had had a rough spot when the commissions weren’t coming in and for a while they’d had to get by on what the wife was making, which wasn’t much, and Charlie cursed all the dentists in the world and all the automobile distributors in the world who kept raking it in and living off the fat of the land. That was the spell when he got cynical and took to muttering under his breath when he saw the fatcats and fast talkers on TV. “Did you say something, hon?” his wife would purr. Despite being a tiny woman with veiny arms and legs, she was a real southern belle, wrapped in a cocoon of sugary sweetness like cotton candy. They sat in TV chairs side by side with just a little table between them where they kept the snacks. The kids sat on the sofa and kept the snacks in their lap.
Joe’s brother lent him some money to tide him over and he got an apartment in a three-story walkup in a rundown neighborhood full of empty buildings and abandoned warehouses. He tried to get a job bagging in the supermarket but they didn’t give it to him because he looked too fat to work with the public so he ended up doing janitorial work in a ballbearing factory for a cleaning service. Every Sunday he had dinner with his brother and his family. His sister-in-law tried to cheer him up because he looked so depressed and told him all kinds of amusing stories about her clients in the beauty parlor where she worked as a manicurist. Joe wasn’t amused. The clients reminded him of his ex-wife, who’d had red hair and red toenails and kept her bra on when they made love.
Tens of millions of Americans entered the contest, maybe even a hundred, maybe more. The organizers were pleased. The sponsor was pleased. The President was pleased. “This is what makes America great,” he said between foreign policy speeches. “It makes me proud to be an American to know that anyone can win millions and millions of dollars and the woman of his choice. That was what our forefathers had in mind when they framed the Constitution.”
When he wasn’t at the race track or the ballpark Tom usually spent his free time in the poolroom where his bookmaker sat at a card table in the back sorting slips. It was a pleasant environment, populated by high school kids and working stiffs like himself. Tom didn’t play much pool. He was more interested in placing his bet and then stood around like everyone else watching the action with half an eye and only occasionally getting interested and putting down a sawbuck or two. The regulars all had the green poolroom pallor and Runyunesque nicknames like the Genius and Max the Ax and Tooty-Fruity. Tom was sometimes called Phil after the old Philip Morris ad. They were maybe a colorful bunch but they sure as hell weren’t going anywhere.
Dick did long haul driving and knew the waitresses on highways all across the land. They told him their troubles and he told them his. That’s how it was on the road. Everyone had troubles. For years he was faithful to his wife but then she’d gotten sick so sometimes he’d take one of these waitresses back to her bungalow or trailer and they’d have a few drinks, usually with a kid sleeping in the other room, and go to bed. Once he was hijacked and got pistol-whipped. They caught the gang but he couldn’t identify anyone. One of the cops called him chickenshit and one of the hijackers winked at him. That riled him. He’d have nailed them if he could. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. Dick was his own man. He’d been a brawler in his younger years. He’d fought with everyone, his brother who thought he’d been screwing around with his wife, which he was, his brother-in-law who called him a thief, which he wasn’t, and finally his old man, who he popped in the mouth before taking off for good. Fuck them all, was what he said.
Harry liked the outdoor life. He had a great crew and liked to hang out with them more than being at home. His wife was a nag. The boys didn’t need him anymore. He’d set them straight fast enough and they had become God-fearing young men who never failed to call him sir. He liked hunting and fishing and killing things. He liked the way the deer dropped when he caught them between the eyes. He figured he could survive in the wilderness if it ever came to that and could see a day when the forces of good would be arrayed against the forces of evil and people like himself might have to take to the forests. They’d talked it over in the crew and swore they’d stick together.
People went about their business but they were thinking about the contest all the time. Previous winners appeared on television and shared their experiences with the viewing audience. Some endorsed products and some delivered learned opinions sitting around big tables from morning till night. Whenever you saw someone on television you could be pretty sure he had won unless it was someone talking about what not winning was like. Some of those who didn’t win went to jail but sometimes someone who won went to jail too. That was odd. People really couldn’t understand it. Not even the President understood it. He said as much answering a reporter’s question before flying home for a short vacation.
When John got out of the navy he’d been full of hope. He thought he’d find the right woman and a good job and be set for life but it hadn’t worked out. He’d bummed around for a few years, moving out to Chicago and then going down to New Orleans by way of Louisville and ending up in Miami where he’d worked for a while doing maintenance in a beachfront hotel until he got into a fight and they fired him. Then to New York where he’d signed up with the merchant marine as a utilityman and shipped out on an oil tanker running raw petroleum to the West Coast and then a coal barge coming out of the Great Lakes and then down to Norfolk and then New York again. Once he thought he’d be a chef but though he’d been a ship’s cook no one wanted him in the good kitchens. He was a helper once in a fancy restaurant but they fired him after two days when he came in smelling of alcohol and he waited in the alley and slugged the chef when he came out for a smoke and that got him 90 days but didn’t stop him from brawling and boozing until he felt the juices draining out of him. John was starting to lose confidence in himself. He figured this was his last chance. He had no real friends now. There were a couple of people in the building he said hello to but that was it. It was just a rooming house with a lot of transients that he rented by the month instead of by the night or week. He was glad he had his day off in the middle of the week. When he’d had his day off on Sundays he’d go nuts and spend the day reading the papers and watching TV. Now he went into Manhattan from time to time and walked around. There were plenty of good-looking women in Manhattan in expensive-looking clothes but he couldn’t get near them. That was why he wanted to win all those millions of dollars.
Charlie wanted to take the family to Disney World when the commissions started coming in again but the experience in New York had made his wife balky about traveling. She liked it just fine where she was and the kids would just as soon spend their time with their friends. They went to Graceland instead. Charlie regretted that he would go through life without seeing Disney World and started thinking about all the other things he’d never done. He’d started working on the lot just a few years after getting out of high school and had married Ginny soon after and they had bought the little house with the seedy lawn and that was it. They’d had a fine old time for a couple of years and then the kids had come and they had settled in and twenty years had passed and he had nothing really to show for it, just barely enough for a rainy day and the lines getting deeper and deeper in Ginny’s face and the veins getting stringier and stringier in her arms and legs and he himself feeling under the weather occasionally and barely able to crank up the arm to toss the football around. Sometimes Charlie felt like an enormous weight was sitting on his chest and he couldn’t breathe and dreamed about being at the bottom of a pile of big bodies and no one getting off and not being able to move his arms and legs and feeling the panic coming over him. That was what his life was like, he thought. He couldn’t get out from under the pile.
Joe had known Christine in high school but had never gone out with her. He wasn’t fat then but somewhat stout and she was a fairly popular girl with big tits that were the talk of the school, a kind of standard by which boys measured the size of their hands. They’d run into each other at someone’s wedding and he’d reminded her that they’d gone to high school together and she’d remembered him well enough and there was a brief courtship and satisfactory honeymoon but after they settled into the house he’d bought he’d had to negotiate her out of every article of clothing she wore to bed and the bra stayed put. At first this had been a kind of coyness but as time went on she barely tolerated his now distinctly corpulent body on top of her for the 30 seconds or so it took him to detumesce and then pushed him off with a look of disgust. Then one day she was gone. Joe took it hard and on top of that he was laid off too which she led him to understand at the divorce hearing at which she got half the house only confirmed the wisdom of her move, as though she had been prescient and had known enough to abandon a sinking ship burdened with more cargo than it could safely bear. His best friend took her to another state. His other friends consoled him. He put on another 50 lbs. Fat women didn’t appeal to him and thin women wouldn’t go near him. Things just went from bad to worse. He felt like a giant beach ball rolling down a hill.
If anyone wanted a whore at the hotel for one of the rooms it was usually Tom who took care of it. He just gave Flo a ring. She didn’t necessarily come herself. If she was busy she gave the trick to one of the other girls. Tom thought of himself as having a special relationship with Flo. She never took money from him up front and she’d let him kiss her on the mouth which made him come in two seconds flat, which may have been her intention though he liked to believe it wasn’t. Tom was small in every respect. He’d always been self-conscious with women despite his bravado at the front desk. She called him her little boy and liked to ask him when she was in an especially playful mood if this was his first time and he had to swallow his pride and play along. Aside from Flo there was nobody, but otherwise he led a busy life. He’d been sleeping with whores since he was a kid and hadn’t been with a straight woman more than once or twice. Straight women wanted to get under your skin and run your life. He’d been crazy once about a pint-sized girl who drove him wild and she’d seemed just right for him, they would be two little people in their own little world, but she wanted things too, things he didn’t have to give, and the thing had run its course. That had been his best shot. He knew there’d never be another unless a miracle occurred.
Dick took good care of his wife when he was home. He pampered her and sat her outside with a blanket on her lap when the sun was out. Sometimes he fixed the meals. She was pretty much an invalid now and her hair was gray like his and they hadn’t slept together for years though sometimes he could tell she wanted to. She’d been an active woman, running a little stationery shop. He was driving a van for one of her suppliers at the time and that was how they’d met. He’d moved into her neat little apartment and then they’d bought the home, figuring they might do some traveling but except for a trip to the Grand Canyon they really hadn’t been anywhere. Now Dick had been everywhere and he was tired of it. He’d wanted to start up his own trucking operation but the wife needed a transplant and they weren’t fully covered so he went on running the long hauls and put aside as much as he could. One of his neighbors in the park had had a similar problem and his wife had died. It wasn’t something he wanted to think about.
Harry had lived in Portland all his life and aside from a few trips to Las Vegas and L.A. had never been out of the state. He’d married his high school sweetheart after missing out on a football scholarship and they’d had the four boys and lived in a house full of hunting trophies. Harry’s father had been a hunter and a lumberjack too and was always telling him how the country had begun to change just about when Harry was born and those Kennedys got in the White House and brought the hippies and pornography to Washington. You could get the pornography on TV now and sometimes Harry sat in the den late at night with a bottle of beer just for the extra hot look they gave you in certain movies, the young breasts and the big nipples and the woman wide open, and then woke up his wife and got between her legs before she knew what was happening. Once he’d caught one of his sons with a girl in the house and threw the girl out and beat the living daylights out of the boy calling him a hippie scumbag. That had straightened him out. His wife didn’t like him hitting the boys, or hitting her for that matter, but as soon as everyone knew his place there wasn’t any need for hitting. Harry was out of work for long stretches of time and had tried professional wrestling and local lumberjacking competitions for a while. He’d also worked as a tourist guide and dreamed of running a tourist camp out in the wilderness for tenderfoots who wanted to impress their women. He could show them a trick or two. But all that took cash he didn’t have. Not having cash made him surly and mean. Other people had it, why couldn’t he?
The better the economy did, the President said, the more winners there would be. That was a simple law of economics. Things always started moving at the top and then worked their way down. In the end everyone shared in the wealth. Therefore he was cutting taxes for the rich. That would serve as an incentive and consequently there would be more contests and more sponsors and more people getting rich. A reporter asked him if he was going to enter the contest himself. “I’ve already won,” he said.
John worked mornings or nights. That meant 6:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. or 4 p.m. till 1 a.m. They switched every week, or sometimes, for whatever reason, he’d work mornings or nights two weeks straight and once for a solid month, like when Mac, the other cook, got married and wanted to be with the wife at night. When he worked nights the whole day was shot. He’d get up late in the morning and hang around the house until it was time to go to work, at the most doing a little shopping or maybe his laundry. When he worked mornings he could lead a normal life, which meant having a proper dinner and maybe seeing a movie and afterwards stopping in at a bar and having a couple of beers. Mostly he stayed home and watched TV, which he figured was what most people were doing with their time. He didn’t mind working nights on weekends since he had nothing special to do so sometimes he switched with Mac at the end of the week and did two straight weekends at night. He envied Mac, who it turned out had been in the navy too. He had married a waitress from a place down the street where he’d tried to get a job before landing at the greasy spoon and they were able to coordinate their schedules so they’d be together most of the time. Their whole life seemed to revolve around getting their hours straight. The waitresses at the greasy spoon were nothing to look at and most of the time he was busy slicing and weighing and washing and scrubbing if he wasn’t actually cooking so he was on his feet for hours at a time. He wore a chef’s hat and a dirty apron and lined up dishes at the service window for the waitresses to take away. At first he’d liked taking orders, never knowing what was coming next, the tuna on rye or the poached eggs or the cheeseburger, but there were only so many dishes on the menu and after a while it didn’t matter what he got, he was on automatic pilot most of the time, his mind a total blank. At the end of the shift his feet and back ached and he felt the grease all over his skin. When he got home he couldn’t sleep right away but had to decompress for an hour or so, so he took a shower and watched TV for a while. He worked for a little more than the minimum wage with minimum benefits and nothing for nights. The waitresses gave him something out of their tips. Dishwashers were a problem. They came and went. Once he’d had to do a double shift for nearly a week sharing the dishwashing with Mac. Everyone treated him like a hero and Mr. Lipmann, the owner, gave him an extra fifty bucks. Mr. Lipmann would come by with his wife from time to time wearing his expensive camel’s-hair topcoat and leather gloves and smoking a cigar. They never ate in the place and who could blame them.
Charlie was a social type. That was why he’d gone to work on the lot. His wife was social too. They were always having barbecues on their seedy lawn or getting invited to barbecues on other people’s lawns. Charlie played cards once a week and jumped down to Tunica a few times a year for the riverboat gambling. He wasn’t really much of a gambler but he liked the milieu. He liked crowds and parades and festivals. Ginny was on all kinds of church committees. There were plenty of people in Memphis just like them and they all got along fine. Once in a while Charlie got depressed, even when the commissions were coming in. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. There’d be some incident on the lot or the roof starting to leak or a death in the family. When he got depressed he sat around drinking and muttering for a spell. Ginny didn’t notice such things. She was always bright and cheerful, seeing the world in rosy colors. Nothing upset her and nothing surprised her, or if something did it was hidden behind her languorous locutions. Charlie was more vocal though he seldom raised his voice. More often than not life confused him. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting ahead or why the years were passing by so quickly with so little to show for them except a bald spot in the middle of his hair and a little paunch and the creaky joints. If something didn’t happen soon it wasn’t going to happen at all, he knew.
After all the entry forms had been received by midnight of the appointed day a panel of three judges began to read them. They were to be judged most of all by sincerity. Spelling didn’t count. However, as most of the entry forms were identically phrased, or pretty near so, and in any case the judges couldn’t possibly read the millions of entry forms pouring in every day, even with an army of assistants to help them out, it was deemed advisable to devise a system of random selection. The system was approved by the President himself and put into law by Congress. The system devised was to blindfold one of the judges and have him or her wade into the ocean of entry forms that were being stored in the Los Angeles Coliseum and pick one out. A certified public accountant was on hand to make sure there wasn’t any monkey business. In this way everyone had an equal chance. The winning entry was kept in a vault until the announcement of the results.
Joe showed up at the plant at 7 a.m and started on the toilets on the factory floor. Some of them got stopped up good and proper, not like the executive toilets upstairs. He figured the big boys didn’t want to have their shit all over the place and look like ordinary mortals. Aside from which, they were scrubbed down about every 20 seconds whereas the downstairs toilets were only cleaned after the shifts where you’d have ribbons of used toilet paper trailing along the floor and big turds swimming in the bowls. He still retched from time to time. He’d developed various techniques for cleaning out the bowls, holding his breath or going in with air freshener first, but nothing really helped. When he finished the toilets he took a break and then he started washing down the floors in all the corridors. He wore a nylon jumpsuit that made him sweat and had the name of the cleaning service stitched on the back and all the pockets sewn up tight to make it hard to steal. He got the minimum wage with full benefits and time and a half for overtime and his crew boss was a regular guy so he really couldn’t complain. He would rather have been welding but the automation had come to the big plants and there was little chance he’d ever find work as a welder again unless he retrained and maybe worked in a garage but he wasn’t too nimble anymore and knew he’d have trouble on the floor. He knew he was developing a heart problem, his breath was short and he could hardly get up stairs. His body was a burden. He was carrying it around like a sack of potatoes. It was doubtful if the woman of his choice would give him the time of day in his current shape and he thought it might be a good idea to lose some weight before winning those millions and millions of dollars so at least he’d get off to a good start and then of course he could hire a personal trainer. From time to time he thought of Christine. He had desired her and regretted losing her. He had desired many things in his life and had gotten few of them. Christine had been one of those things with her big tits that he hadn’t seen or touched more than once or twice and that had only lasted for a while. He’d always liked eating though and hadn’t stinted. That had been the only real satisfaction in his life. Over at McDonald’s he could put away three or four burgers at a sitting and a gallon of coke. At the plant they gave you subsidized meals that always left you hungry so he’d have two of them. The first time he’d gone to a whore after the divorce they’d had to reposition themselves for a quarter of an hour until he could get it in. Fortunately she’d been a patient girl. Joe’s life didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He’d wanted to build something but he hadn’t. He was back to square one, so to speak, and for him too time was running out.
Tom had made some killings in his time. He’d had his ups and downs. In the hotel he was someone to be reckoned with. He wasn’t a physical type so he had to get by on finesse and personality. There were some pretty girls at the front desk but he knew they didn’t see him as a romantic option so he let them call him Phil and giggle behind his back knowing that sooner or later they’d find out who he was and change their tone, not that he’d ever be in a position to take advantage of them or even thought to. All he wanted was respect and that was what he generally got. In addition he got around $400 a week plus tips and the occasional sawbuck for services rendered above and beyond. Half of that he needed to live on and half for the gambling. When he won big he went on a binge and blew it all in a day or two and felt good. When he lost big he regrouped and bounced right back. He wasn’t an introspective type and the gambling and hopping kept him busy and Flo was a kind of bonus he had to look forward to. Whenever he got to feeling sad he would shake it right off. He felt sad about not being the type who could knock a woman off her feet or make himself heard outside the poolroom or the bellhop station. The first time he’d hopped had been at a summer resort in the Berkshires when he was 16 and some fool in the personnel department kept asking him if he’d brought a truss and a few of the women seemed interested in him but apparently had second thoughts in the little silence just before they handed him his tip so he had to settle for the skinny whore from the nearby town who they whisked through the security gate passing her off as a guest and even got into the dining room to fatten her up but the lines were too long and when he got back to the city he started looking around for a classier act and finally found Flo who told him about her johns when they lay in bed and they had a laugh about that and he sometimes stroked her cheek as he might have stroked a wife’s and missed the intimacy when he went to bed alone and was sad then too.
Dick’s wife encouraged him to make it up with his family. She was a genteel woman who had tamed him in many ways and he never cursed in her presence and people noticed that he was a different man when he was around her. He thought it was unjust that she should have been stricken in this way and might die but she never complained, she just sighed and smiled in her apologetic way. However, he had no desire to make it up with his family, he only regretted not having one of his own. There were just the two of them and the years going by. When he was on the road he forgot he had a wife and lived a trucker’s life, bedding down in the sleeper behind the cab in a row of trucks at the side of the road and living on hash browns and greasy burgers. He’d always liked trucking, he’d liked the power behind the wheel and the rough men on the road and the women at the pit stops but now it was a chore and people saw that he was slowing down and asked him what was wrong and he opened up soon enough and they commiserated with him and cursed whoever it was who made the rules by which they lived. On the short hauls Dick ran down to Richmond, which was a city he loved. There’d been a woman there before he met his wife, it had been the great love of his life, it was so long ago but he could never forget her fiery temperament, she was a like a gypsy woman under the hot Southern sun, but she had married a doctor and they had gone north passing out of his life and he often remembered her and wondered what she looked like now. He’d never told his wife about her but she had told him about a man she loved and how he’d used her and how it had made her shy of men for many years until Dick came along and she knew he would be good to her because he was at heart a gentle man made hard by life and he had to admit that this was true, life had made him hard, it hadn’t been fair to him, or to her.
When Harry got the call from the probation officer at juvenile hall he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. One of his boys and a friend had tried to rob a 7-Eleven store with a toy gun and had then run out with the hysterical store clerk right behind them and it wasn’t long before the cops had them in cuffs with their faces in the gutter. The first thing Harry wanted to do was strangle his wife whose mollycoddling had undone every lesson he’d ever taught them. The second thing he thought of doing was to tell her that the boy could rot in hell for all he cared. But at the hearing, after a titanic effort on the part of the lawyer his sister-in-law had found for them and a great show of contrition with many tears on the boy’s part, he was released into their custody. Harry didn’t talk to him for a month. The four boys and his wife would sit around the dining room table almost every night talking in whispers and he was excluded and felt put out and cursed them all when he was a little drunk and waved his hands around in the familiar threatening way but it didn’t have any effect, they ignored him and waited for him to run out of steam and go away. Being together like that gave them courage. Harry would kick the furniture and knock things off the table and then have some more beer and fall asleep in his clothes and no one would bother waking him up and in the morning he’d stink and feel even meaner and slam the door when he left the house and not come back till midnight and sometimes sit in the den all night drinking and cursing.
The contest was sponsored by a beer manufacturer so that each entry form had to be accompanied by a great many bottle tops while TV commercials showed previous winners drinking the sponsor’s beer. In this way the beer manufacturer hoped to increase sales and retrieve old bottle tops which could be reused in the beer manufacturer’s bottling plants and therefore produce considerable savings in view of the tens of millions of bottles of beer that were consumed each day by consumers throughout the land and the tens of millions of entry forms that were arriving at the Coliseum. This ingenious link between the consumption of beer and the dream of winning millions and millions of dollars was mentioned by the President in his talks with the Russians as an example of how a modern Western economy worked.
People who did not consume the sponsor’s beer or win contests were shown in an unfavorable light. They were never seen having a good time or surrounded by beautiful women. They drove battered cars and had bad posture. Often they were seen being searched by state troopers or the local police. They had low credit ratings and were turned away at the better restaurants. This made more and more people enter the contest and drink beer, further stimulating the economy, though for reasons the President couldn’t understand the dollar kept dropping against all known currencies.
John seldom saw his family. His sister had three kids but she was living in Pittsburgh. Her husband was managing a supermarket there and they were doing fairly well. His folks had retired to Orlando. It seemed to him that they had more or less written him off. His folks had never shown him any real love and he had always fought with his sister. In effect he was alone in the world. Sometimes he felt sorry for himself and drank himself into a stupor but most often he was sober and got through the day without doing any damage to himself or others. When he drank in company he sometimes became expansive and convivial, talking about the things he’d seen like a seasoned traveler and people listened and told him he’d had an interesting life and he’d say, “Yeah, that’s for sure,” and tip back his drink in a cocky way and get a nice lift for a moment or two before he came crashing down again. He’d used drugs for a while and that had given him a lift too but he was clean now, he’d known it could kill him and had taken himself in hand right after he broke up with that woman and preferred to drink, which was cheaper, though he knew that that could kill him too. When he’d gotten out of jail he’d checked into a cheap hotel and lay on the bed smoking and staring at the ceiling where the neon lights from across the streets kept blinking on and off and made patterns like the bars on a prison wall and he went downstairs and found a whore and felt better than he’d felt in years. But the good feeling hadn’t lasted a day. It never did. He’d had these few good days in his life and the rest had been like prison days or shipboard days or days in the greasy spoon. He was just punching in and punching out now. All his dreams were like wads of crumpled paper.
Charlie’s boy was studying business administration at the community college and the girl had gotten a job in Walgreen’s and neither of them was around a lot. The girl had a boyfriend too, a gangling, pimply type who looked like he had hayseed in his hair but it turned out he had a basketball scholarship at the University though he wasn’t a starter or anything and the girl went to every game and both Charlie and Ginny started watching the telecasts looking for him on the bench and the girl in the stands and once they saw her jumping up and down and had a big laugh about it and when she came home told her they’d seen her on TV and treated her like a celebrity because nothing like that had ever happened in the family before. Down at the lot they did TV ads but Charlie had never been in one. He was a good salesman. He had an easy manner that inspired confidence and aside from the few rough patches did pretty well though not well enough to lift him out of his circumstances and thought of himself as being stuck on the lot for life, not liking his boss who never had a good word to say and treated him like an indentured servant. Ginny, on the other hand, loved her job and thought her dentist was a god. A word of praise from him and she’d float around the house as though he’d pumped her full of laughing gas. She only worked the mornings and had her own car, devoting her afternoons to her social life. They ate dinner together at seven and the kids too if they were around and chatted for a while before settling down in front of the TV though if Ginny got on the phone it could be for hours. She had a sister in Georgia and another one up north. Charlie’s brother and widowed mother still lived in Memphis and they’d get together from time to time for a family day with the barbecued pork ribs. Charlie’s brother had a boy with leukemia and they were at the hospital a lot and sometimes his wife looked like a wreck so he didn’t envy them though his brother was the head of a regional marketing office and had a $400,000 house in Germantown. Life was like that, Charlie reckoned. It always managed to knock you down, but most often it didn’t let you get up.
Joe daydreamed about Christine sometimes, mostly about getting off her bra, tearing it off her and making her do whatever he wanted, and sometimes about hurting her too the way she had hurt him. He knew they’d looked funny in the street together and she was ashamed to be seen with him. He was just 5’8” so he’d been a roly-poly type, shaped a little like an egg, even before he put on the extra pounds, and she was a knockout with her big tits and all in all perfectly if solidly made. Joe had thought once of becoming a professional bowler but he wasn’t good enough. He had wondered what you had to have to put you in a different class. Was it some endowment, or just character? Bowling might have been his ticket out of the factory but it wasn’t, he was just another little fat man with a bowling bag who could put together a few strikes when he was in the zone. The country was full of such people and some of them were cleaning toilets just like Joe. Christine’s family hadn’t liked him though he’d been making good money and they’d put the pressure on him to get the house with all his savings and hadn’t put in a cent themselves so she was a gold digger at heart though with half a brain she could have done a lot better for herself from the start. Go figure it, he’d tell his brother, and even got to thinking that maybe there was something to him after all, a notion he was disabused of soon enough. For sure she’d been sleeping around and sometimes she’d tease him too, walking around in a slip or a nightie and not letting him touch her. They were married just two years. There’d never be another woman like her, or any woman, he was sure, and he needed one just as he needed those millions of dollars to help him forget who he was, as he had in those first few weeks when he thought she loved him. Scrubbing his hands and climbing out of the nylon suit at the end of every shift he’d put the toilets behind him and have a couple of beers with the crew. Then he’d walk all the way home for the exercise and to save the carfare. He could hardly make it up the stairs and knew he’d have to move before he found himself stuck somewhere and needing the fire department to get him out. This didn’t stop him from consuming 5 lb. bags of potato chips and endless quarts of ice cream as he half lay on his king size easy chair and watched the bowling on ESPN. And then to sleep on his king size bed.
Tom was honest on the whole though he’d stolen from a few guests when the opportunity presented itself. And once a drunken guy had handed him a hundred dollar bill instead of a five. And once he and a few of the hops had rolled a drunk behind the hotel at three in the morning. But that was in his younger days. He didn’t go in for the rough stuff. He preferred to work with his head. The hotel belonged to a chain now and had been remodeled and upgraded and Tom had thought he might make captain but the new management had passed over him and that had embittered him somewhat though they told him how much they appreciated his long service and hoped he’d continue there for many years to come. The hotel had been a favorite of ballplayers once and once he’d spotted some Seattle Sonics on the subway who he knew were staying at the hotel and they looked lost so he took them there himself and they couldn’t thank him enough and they had stood in the lobby together for a quarter of an hour just shooting the shit and he told Flo about it and the other hops and was still telling the story today and lots of other stories about the ballplayers and the women who followed them around and people listened because he was on the inside like one of those reporters who hangs around politicians and can give you the lowdown on everything and you can’t contradict them because they’re there. Once some guy had come sniffing around the station and Tom had wanted to tell him off but was lucky he hadn’t because he turned out to be some vice president in the chain, he’d asked them all kinds of questions, and one of the hops got fired the next day, and once Flo got her face messed up by one of her johns and Tom wondered where her pimp was but he never came around and the whole thing was a mystery until she told him the john was a sadistic cop. Tom had seen it all. He was on the inside but he was on the sidelines too. He wasn’t part of the big show. It was other people who made the world go round.
Dick and his wife had long talks when they sat outside on Sundays and he could see that she was resigned to her fate and worried about how he’d manage after she was gone and urged him to marry again and Dick didn’t want to tell her how easy it was for him to manage without a woman though he had to admit she’d given him something he hadn’t had before. He missed the days when she’d had the stationery shop and had been so efficient and independent and yet waited breathlessly for him to get back when he was on the road like a schoolgirl really and tried so hard to please him. She seemed to like the idea of having a rough-hewn husband and he of course liked the idea of possessing a genteel woman and she loved to listen to his stories of the road which were like stories from adventure books and loved to watch him eat amazed and delighted that he could consume so much food and he loved to watch her in the shop where everything was laid out so neatly in a perfect little world like a little house of dolls. They were just the two of them alone in the vast land closing out the night in the safety of their mobile home which he would know how to defend if it ever came to that. And at the same time it seemed to him that there was another country just out of reach, a fabulous land where dreams came true. He never saw it in the flesh, only on the TV screen and in glossy ads and movie theaters and yet he knew it was real, so many prizes waiting to be claimed by the lucky few. He’d wanted those prizes when he was young and then he’d settled for something less and now he wanted them again.
Harry brooded and let his wife go her own way and took less interest in what the boys were doing, withdrawing the little he had invested of himself in them like a disgruntled customer closing a bank account. The older boy had a girlfriend and they came around the house and he was civil. His real life was in the woods. Families emasculated you though he affirmed their worth and wouldn’t hear of anyone knocking traditional values though he’d never been a churchgoer or a real family man, just someone who ruled a woman and four boys with an iron hand, but a patriot for sure. He had a flag raised outside his house and in the woods the men talked about how the country was going to the dogs. This was the real life, in the woods, logging and hunting and drinking beer and coming out for the barbecue on the Fourth of July and getting a little big in the belly and having arms like hams and not bothering about the fine print and the verbal sparring of pasty-faced little men in thousand dollar suits but cracking heads when the logs got jammed. Harry was bitter and disgruntled and tended to be short-tempered now. For a while his circumstances had seemed ideal, four sons and a pretty wife, and men had envied him, but then it all seemed to fall apart, there was nowhere really for him to go, the boys breaking away from him, the wifely charms fading fast. He brooded and drank more than he should have but he stayed afloat like millions and tens of millions of men like himself and pulled himself along like those sea turtles making their way across the beach with their heavy shells to drop their eggs in the sand and disappear.
Millions and millions of Americans waited for the results of the contest. So many dreams were on the line, more dreams than you could count. John waited. Charlie waited. Joe waited. Tom, Dick and Harry waited. Someone called Gus won. Everyone else lost.
Three Kinds of Monster
Sometimes you have everything and the bastard still walks.
That was my big worry with the Amy Torres murder: that Dane Lowenstein would walk away again with that sad, innocent look on his movie-star mask, as if he couldn’t understand how anyone would ever accuse him of such a crime.
I practically lived at Homicide, making myself a trembling, coffee-stealing pain in the ass; and despite Anthony Payne’s frequent pats on the back and therapeutic assurances that “We got him, Jack”, I didn’t trust the system to work.
Dane Lowenstein had murdered before, in exactly the same way, and he had walked. Anthony Payne was a good detective; he was a black man, tall and imposing and forged in the world of assumptions, where women clutch their purses when they pass him and unfamiliar cops study him in his crisp suit and tie. Anthony had been around long enough to see through the blond Nordic charm of a creature like Dane Lowenstein. But a jury had not been able to before—could they now?
Most of the detectives hated but tolerated me. A private investigator (they called us Creepers), was a mere step away from criminal in their code. They hated my hanging around and my sarcastic interference and my doubting of their abilities. I was the creeper who had put them on the trail of Dane Lowenstein, and so they naturally thought I was trying to steal their thunder on this case; and as I said before, I really was making myself a pain in the ass. I tried to make them see that I only wanted justice, but most of them had been around long enough to roll their eyes at the word.
“Justice is revenge with a married name, Jack,” Anthony said to me; his wood-colored eyes reminded me of alcohol and cigarettes and sleepless nights. “You’ve been obsessed with this toad too many years, Brother. Now pat yourself on the back and relax. Go home, watch porn or something. You’ll get your revenge, Jack, I promise. We got this boy. Don’t worry; he’s going away for good.”
“I don’t care if it’s justice or revenge, Anthony. I don’t care about credit. I don’t even care what your colleagues think of me. All I want is for this bastard to pay. Tell me he’s going to pay--Brother.”
“My colleagues are pissed because you nailed the guy and they didn’t.” Anthony laughed, but there wasn’t much humor there. “I can’t tell you what we got, Jack. But believe me, it’s enough. He’s in the cage downtown, he ain’t going anywhere.”
Anthony didn’t have to tell me what they’d found, I already knew: fingerprints from a glass in Amy’s apartment, a hair fiber on her couch that matched Lowenstein’s DNA.
But it only proved that he was there in her place. That alone didn’t prove he was the killer. I had seen a jury turn away from hard evidence before and sigh at Lowenstein’s angelic face and decide that He couldn’t have done such a thing.
“You need to let it go now,” Anthony said to me. “Let the system work, Jack.”
“What, are you all at once a champion of the system? Do I have to tell you, Ant, about the system?”
Anthony sighed and stared out the windows at the city, an orderly grey and green promise of civilization: “We got this pretty-boy, Jack. You were right all along. He can smile and charm any jury in the world, but he ain’t walking this time; too much evidence, I don’t care how many women are sitting in those chairs.”
“With Dane Lowenstein, there’s never too much evidence,” I reminded him.
“Go home, Jack. Celebrate in your own—way.” Anthony rubbed my shoulder with his gentle paw. “Leave it be for awhile.”
I walked into the bright day, stepping down the granite steps of the City-County building, where prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys marched past like carefully-dressed machines—home to what?
I stopped at Walmart on the way to get a quart of whiskey, the cheapest, Canadian Club. I wondered what club I was joining. I suppose it wasn’t a true quart, because the Canadians used the metric system, didn’t they? But it would work.
I unlocked the cheap brass bolt to my apartment and shoved open the plywood door. The sun was still blazing across a mild spring sky, and I twisted shut the plastic curtains, gaining some darkness, some promise of oblivion.
I mixed the cheap whiskey with cheaper Coke and settled down in my daily ritual to the gods of oblivion. Pot would help, it would make me feel better; but I was out, and it seemed too much of a chore to call Stacey and get more. I had plenty of cigarettes and enough booze; that should be enough for today.
I stared at the plastic curtains that covered the windows of my smelly apartment. The sun wanted to get in, to maybe penetrate darkness with light—God wanting to get in. I sipped the whiskey and coke and waited for oblivion. God could wait until He finally gave me justice.
After all, it was God who had created the 10 year old boy who skillfully shot the eyes out of birds with his bee-bee gun; who tied kittens onto his mother’s clothesline so that he could douse them with gasoline from the five gallon plastic jug his dad kept in the garage for the lawnmower; who at age 15 had been caught by a neighbor feeding baby rabbits into his dad’s wood-chipper, laughing his joy at the squeals and frantic cries of the little things, nodding his handsome, ash-blond head at the crunched bones, the bloody-hairy red spittle that vomited out of the roaring machine.
Hey, God, thanks so very much for Dane Lowenstein.
Anthony Payne, a seasoned detective, had suspicion in his eyes whenever he talked to me about this case, why it was driving me so crazy to see Dane Lowenstein caged forever. But I couldn’t tell Anthony the truth. I’m not obsessed with justice; I’m a simple loser who makes his living spying on people, putting the final period to divorce papers, showing folks the ugly truth for money—that’s all I am.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m good at what I do. I abuse pot and alcohol when I can (which is always), I smoke way too many cigarettes and maybe hope some day my vices will kill me. But I’m good at what I do. And now I’m at the pathetic point where I only want my life to mean something. I only want to remove from the world a monster, so that he can never again destroy another innocent human life. I tell myself this as I sip at the whiskey and stare at the glowing plastic window. I can die with a smile if I know I’ve saved some innocent in the future from the horror of that monster. So there, God.
(A lie, maybe).
Amy Torres wasn’t innocent, not in the Christian sense. She had her problems, her demons. She had drug problems, that’s how I—met her; and she had performed sex for money. I knew this when I spied on her years ago, and gave her husband cause for divorce. This was before I fell in love with her.
Well, that was years ago, and my delusions about the monster Dane Lowenstein wanting revenge against me were just that, paranoid delusions. It was a coincidence that he targeted her because—or was it?
I had tried to nail him for a similar murder two years ago, the bloody butchery of a young college girl; and he had walked, giving me a brilliant and knowing wink outside the courthouse as he passed into the sunlight. How could he have ever found out that I was in love with Amy Torres? No, I was giving this creature too much credit.
Or was I? Things like him never forget. Things like him find an arch-enemy and discover secrets somehow. They delve into their foes, making a study, finding secrets. Things like him do not forget enemies, and I knew Dane Lowenstein was smart—brilliant even. Could he have known that I once loved Amy? I couldn’t underestimate something like him, an evil energy. Every morning I would stare at my ragged face in the mirror and remind myself that he was smarter than I was.
They say that only once in your life do your eyes see the one you will truly love forever. It was like that with Amy. And I ruined her life, leaving her in wretched misery while her relieved husband wrote me the check.
I loved her and she hated me, and I went on knowing I would never get her face out of my mind. It was like the tragic scene where you see your destiny in the face of another, where you see redemption and hope and promise, even some magic; when God gives you the one chance to take the right path; and then you walk away from her down the wrong path because you destroyed her and she hates you; and then you simply get drunk. And then your drunken mind knows suddenly that you have missed happiness, you have missed everything, and it will never return. That was what it was like with Amy Torres. Now she was as dead as we all will be, dead under the ground, skeletonizing like the eyeless birds Dane Lowenstein had once brought to ground. I could only have revenge now, I could never have redemption. If Dane Lowenstein tortured and murdered her to get revenge against me—or not—if it was a cruel coincidence or not, my only reason to exist came down to revenge. If I met Dane Lowenstein in Hell I would at least have that. I would never have Amy. Jack Smith goes on with his work because he’s a born Creeper, nothing more.
Now that I’m fairly drunk, let me tell you about Dane Lowenstein and what I know of creatures like him: In the old days it was simply said that some people were good and some were evil. But our modern world began to take a closer look at subjects like Dane Lowenstein, and they questioned such knee-jerk assumptions about good and evil. Psychiatry in the 20th Century made many studies of these strange individuals—walking, breathing demons—and they came up with a name: Psychopath.
The term felt right, because it explained away so many fears: it was not evil or the devil at work inside these individuals; it was a traumatic childhood that had made them so deviant, so sadistic.
A tormented childhood was what created evil people. This explanation felt good, because it gave the promise that things could be reversed, that proper treatment could cure these unfortunate folks and mold them into good human beings.
Babies are all born innocent, psychiatry assured the fearful public. Childhood trauma was to blame. This was not far from the religious view, except religion blamed Satan and not trauma. No one ever believed that a child could simply have been born evil, religion and psychiatry be damned.
Who can say what is true?
Psychiatry eventually decided that it was counter-productive to label these unfortunate individuals psychopaths, the term was too scary, too judgmental, too—Alfred Hitchcock. A better term was sociopath, more buttered-up and acceptable: a class of suffering people who had no concept of right and wrong, of conscience. If they made others suffer, it was only because they themselves were suffering—childhood trauma, low self-esteem, that sort of thing. Evil never butted into their theories, and that was a good turn for evil. It is always content to sit and wait when academic folly gives it what it wants. Yes! We only need to be treated, to be understood—then we’ll be good.
Following his arrest for the murder of Carla Houseman two years ago (a student at the university), I was determined to interview Dane Lowenstein: At the time I was considering—shamelessly--researching a book on sociopaths; and while he was in custody I depended on Anthony to let that happen. Dane had to agree, of course. I knew he would—I knew sociopaths that well; their need to encounter “experts” who really didn’t know shit. Anyway, two years ago I sat with the beast in a bolted-down yellow-and-green steel cage at the state mental hospital and gazed into his shark-blue eyes. I had to prepare myself for the possibility that this guy might actually walk away free from the horror he had done, he was that convincing. And I saw in his eyes that he recognized me as his greatest enemy. He was delighted that I wasn’t a true badge; only a private investigator with a license you could get from a magazine.
Such a dimpled, charming smile he gave to me—any girl would quickly melt. He could have been a model, a movie star:
“Glad to meet you, Jack,” he said, not bothering to extend a hand. “So you’re the knight on the horse.”
“I’m the knight on the horse, Dane.”
He studied me, and I felt weak, feeling a cold power beyond mine.
“You get paid for window-peeking, Jack. Who paid you to look into me?”
“Nobody. It’s pro bono for the world, to get you locked away.”
“I won’t be locked away, Jack,” Dane said calmly. “I’m innocent.”
“You’re innocent. Let’s see....you know, I’ve heard that before.”
He let out a charming laugh: “That’s right.” His handsome face studied me. A bright Nazi power bloomed in his eyes, a god certainty. I was a bug he was having fun with. “I’ve never killed anybody, Jack. My apologies, but that’s the truth. I don’t kill people. I’m not a murderer.”
“I can read lies,” I warned him.
Dane Lowenstein nodded and studied me, his blue eyes blinking with thought. “You’re not a badge--sorry. You always wanted to be, but you had to settle for Pretend Cop.”
“That’s right; I’m one of those irritating little private investigators who dig where the cops don’t. I’m not ashamed of that .”
“Did you get your license from one of those cereal boxes?”
“I got my license from your mother’s ass,” I told him. “Don’t try to con a con, Dane. That’ll be good advice where you’re going.”
“I’m going home, Jack,” he said, smiling at me. “And then what?”
I took a long breath. How much did he know about me? How could he know anything about me?
“I am a con,” he said at last. “I’m a good con, so? I do my research. But I’m not a murderer. I can’t stand the smell of blood. You’re the P.I. who dug up all this evidence against me, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Dane, I am.”
“Ah. Well, you dug up the wrong guy, Jack, because I never killed Carla Houseman or anybody else.”
“Is that why you’re under psychiatric evaluation, to see if you’re sane enough to stand trial?”
“I’m sane enough to stand trial—and I’ll be found not guilty, Jack.”
His blue eyes fondled mine. He brushed a strand of Hitler blond hair from his face. “Two reasons, Jack,” he said. “One; I’m a con, a better one than you. And I know from experience that the easiest person in the world to con is a psychiatrist. I’ve been evaluated by a lot of psychiatrists, and they’re all educated to the point of being morons. It’s no big trick to con a psychiatrist; they’re all desperate to prove that they’re real doctors. And two: I’ll walk because I’m innocent. I’ve committed crimes, and so have you, Jack. But I’ve never murdered anybody.”
And he did walk.
I poured another 80/20 whiskey and coke into my plastic glass, trying to snip the past from my memory. I’ve come up with the theory that there are three kinds of human monsters. The first is the most harmless: he’s the one who has no conscience but also fears violence. This sneaky and cowardly human will take from the innocent what he needs and feel no remorse; a scared worm who makes sadness for a living but goes no further, because violence and death are too far. These creatures can’t make you believe much.
The Second ones are those who take and feel no remorse; who create pain and suffering not because they want to, but because it is necessary at a certain moment. They will kill you if you get in the way of their evil, their bank robbery or whatever, but they will not kill you if you stand aside. If you let them do evil they will spare your life—if you try and stop them they will kill you. These creatures don’t care if you believe in them or not.
Dane Lowenstein was the third kind of evil: That is evil that wants evil; that demands it. These are creatures that kill not because it is necessary but because it is fun. Evil is not the price of doing business, it is the reward. For these things evil is crack cocaine, and everything that exists does so in order to give to them the greatest thrill of all, the pain and suffering of living things. These are the ones who can make you trust anything.
I don’t believe in vampires, or even monsters. I use the name not in any supernatural sense. I don’t believe anything supernatural exists. However, I’ve been in this business long enough to know that evil suffocates our planet. I wish it were not so, but it is. And my drunken, loser existence only hangs onto the hope that I can somehow fight against evil. Call it revenge, call it a last gift to Amy Torres, the love of my wretched life--I don’t care what you call it.
I stared at the floor. A great sociopath like Dane Lowenstein, with so many physical powers and sexual powers....you women who are reading this would believe what he told you, he would make you believe. Call me a sexist, but you would believe. His power is to make you believe.
Let’s call them sociopaths if that watered-down term pleases you. I can tell you this; and it all has to do with our sick television society: the ugly ones, brilliant or not, are sitting on prison bunks; the beautiful ones, but stupid, wind up girl-boys on the same prison bunks. However, the beautiful and brilliant ones can go on and on torturing and destroying, and society will forgive them, because we never see beyond their beauty, their charm. It is as if our television brains want them to go free.
These are the true monsters. They can lie to you all day, and all day you will believe them.
A monster tortured and destroyed the only woman I have ever loved. I know who the monster is, and I used every skill I have to bring him to you, the good public, although none of you will ever know it. You the jury will see Dane Lowenstein, and you’ll be captivated by his beauty and bewildered, dimpled face. You’ll never in your life believe that this blond cherub could have torn apart another human being, a young girl who wanted love, in who’s eyes I finally saw love.
But listen to this: These creatures have the ability to beguile you, to force you to see that what is not true is true. I’m now getting drunk and falling into oblivion. Goodbye for now. But listen: There are real creatures stepping over this earth that can make you believe that evil is good. I’ve met so many of them that my stomach burns and wants to puke up. Call them psychopaths or sociopaths or whatever you want. But don’t be fooled.
I prayed that the jury would be wise enough to see this. Then I fell into oblivion.
Thank you, God. Beyond all hopes and prayers, Dane Lowenstein and his attorney made the biggest mistake of their lives at his trial:
My biggest fear—and Ant’s, I knew—was that Lowenstein would admit that he knew Amy Torres, that he had been to her apartment, yes, but that was all. He knew her, he had touched a glass there and left a hair sample—but he had not killed her, he could never do a thing like that.
The jury might have believed his solemn, beautiful face when he demanded to testify on his own behalf.
Instead, he performed the stupidest act he could have—and it left me stunned. He denied ever knowing Amy Torres. He denied ever being in her apartment. He accused the police of planting the finger-printed glass and hair sample. He denied having ever met the victim.
His lawyer made a lame attempt to convince the jury that the water glass with his client’s fingerprints all over it was not consistent with the other drinking glasses in Amy’s apartment (as if that carried any weight). And regarding the hair fiber—well, DNA was a questionable science at best....
After so many nights of misery and worry, I finally glimpsed hope. I smelled the impossible blood of victory. When the word uttered from the jury foreman “Guilty” splashed over me like a warm ocean wave, I slumped in my chair, shuddering with relief—I welcomed God again.
Dane Lowenstein stood now, finally, like one of the frightened baby rabbits in front of the judge, in front of God and humanity, all of his power suddenly gone. The demon would be caged, and another monster would be deprived of its feeding ground. I dared not believe that I had won.
I had not saved Amy, so the verdict was bitter at best; I would take flowers to her lonely grave and say how much I loved her, and I was sorry, sorry, sorry....that was all I could do now.
“It’s over!” I slapped hands with Anthony when he came up to me. We watched Dane Lowenstein shuffle away, handcuffed, into oblivion. “I love you, Brother. We finally saw justice this day.”
Anthony looked at me, his eyes sad. “You got your thing, Brother,” he replied.
“We need to celebrate, Ant. Let’s go have a drink.”
“Naw. I’m not in the mood for celebrating, Jack.”
I saw that something in his eyes. But it didn’t worry me. The great monster of my life, Dane Lowenstein, was gone, shuffling away in steel chains, his blue Nordic eyes stunned with disbelief. I would drink tonight to his downfall, to Amy’s beautiful face, to the justice that I never believed I would ever see. I would drink to God tonight, and thank Him for what I never thought I’d see—justice.
A sociopath has unique abilities to make you believe that a lie is the truth. Anyone can fall prey, even the smartest juror. No one is immune to these creatures—I know that from bitter experience. Thank God these were jurors who actually read the evidence.
But enough of that for now: The world was suddenly wonderful again. Ant had his suspicions, as I knew he would. But I had planted seeds and covered bases that I knew would stay covered.
I had killed for love, and I promised myself that I would never kill again—but you never know about love.
The Rabbit Hunter
Gerald King was down on one knee, his whole body still, partially hidden by a large oak tree. Dressed in a mix of brown and dark green clothes, hunter’s clothes, he seemed to blend into the trees and bushes around him. He was holding his rifle in his hands, pulling it tight into his shoulder to protect himself against the kickback. One eye was closed, and with the other eye he was looking through the scope of the gun, watching his target closely, and waiting for the perfect time to shoot.
The rabbit, blissfully unaware that it was perfectly positioned between the cross hairs of Gerald’s rifle, hopped around playfully. Gerald tracked each of these movements carefully. He didn’t want to let his target out of his sight.
When the rabbit stopped moving, Gerald didn’t hesitate, he pulled the trigger. He was an experienced hunter, and he knew when the perfect opportunity to fire came along.
Rabbits were a hard target to hit, but that was part of the challenge for Gerald. He had hunted deer before, but he preferred a smaller target as he got more satisfaction when he hit it. His love of rabbit meat, particularly in a stew, also had a part to play in bringing Gerald back to this same area of forest on the mountainside every week, located about two hours’ drive from his house.
Of course he had to put up with the protests of his wife at home, who objected to his killing of the “cutesy rabbits”. He simply ignored her objections. He loved hunting and nothing would stop him from doing it. Surprisingly enough his wife still prepared and cooked the rabbit meat for him, despite her strong anti-hunting views. His ten year old daughter was not so quick to overlook his favorite past-time. When she found out that he killed rabbits for fun, she cried for a week. Gerald had to eventually promise never to do it again. Of course he never intended to keep this promise, and whenever they had rabbit stew for dinner, Gerald and his wife told their ten year old daughter that it was chicken. A lie that she so innocently believed.
Gerald followed the same routine each Saturday with military like precision. Up at 6am, a quick breakfast, prepare a lunch, pack his gear into the back of his range rover and set off for his favorite hunting spot. He always arrived promptly at nine and spent the whole morning, and some of the afternoon, there.
Occasionally he came across other people. Sometimes other hunters and sometimes people up there for a quiet place to pop off a few rounds at plastic and glass bottles placed around the forest. But mostly he had the place to himself. He enjoyed the solitude and feeling of being at one with nature. But more than anything, he loved the feeling of being a lone hunter.
The view was also breathtaking. The mountainside overlooked the coast, giving a very good view of a beach about a half mile further down the coastline. Gerald often admired the view when he took a break from hunting to eat his lunch, always the same, ham and cheese sandwiches washed down by a couple of beers.
He had being hunting rabbits for years, and he had become a very good shot. He squeezed off a round. The rifle let out a large bang which echoed in the quiet of the forest, and then everything fell silent again. He hit the rabbit right in the center of its body.
“Gotcha”, he muttered.
He lowered his rifle and stood up. He then put the strap of the rifle over his shoulder, picked up his back pack and walked towards the now dead rabbit.
When he got to the rabbit and confirmed that it was indeed dead, he nodded his head once in satisfaction. Although he loved to hunt and kill them, he hated to see them suffer. On several occasions he had to break a rabbit’s neck that hadn’t quite been finished off by the bullet. It always took some of the shine off his day.
He knelt down beside it and opened his backpack. There was a plastic bag inside it which he took out and opened up. Inside the bag were two rabbits that he had killed earlier that morning. It had been a good day so far.
Gerald picked up his latest success and placed it with the other two rabbits; he then closed the plastic bag and placed it back into his backpack.
Although Gerald loved hunting, it wasn’t his favorite part of Saturday. His favorite part was still to come. The part which let him release so much of the tension and pressure that had built up in him during the week. When he got to really forget all the shit that those fucking assholes in work shoveled on him every day of the goddamn week.
Oh yes, he loved this part of Saturday, he loved it even more than killing the cute little rabbits that his daughter cared about so much.
He sometimes thought that if he didn’t have his Saturdays, he would go insane.
But he did have Saturday. Thank God he had Saturday.
He stood up, still with his rifle slung over his shoulder, and picked up his back pack. He started to walk towards the part of the forest which let him release so much tension, anger, and pressure. The part that had a perfect view of the beach where he could gaze down at the people, who along with the rabbits played an integral part of his Saturdays.
As he thought about them swarming on the beach, his step quickened.
Gerald came to his favorite spot. It was at the edge of the forest, an area densely covered with trees and bushes. He had to get down on his stomach and crawl for about twenty yards until he came to the very edge of the wooded area. From here he could look down from his high position on the mountain. It gave a perfect view of the beach. The same beach that Gerald sometimes looked down at when he took a break from hunting to eat his lunch.
At the end of each Saturday, Gerald crawled through the thick bushes to his own secret hiding area. It was here, hidden among the dense bushes and trees, that Gerald released all the tension and stress that had built up in him during the week. It was in this position each Saturday, hidden to the world, gazing down on the small figures on the beach, which gave him such an incredible sense of power.
Gerald needed something to make him feel powerful. He worked for an electrical appliance company that sold the usual necessities, washing machines, ovens, that kind of thing. He was in charge of customer service. In the beginning he liked the job; Gerald was a people-person, after all. But as the years went by, and he listened to the constant complaints and bitching of customers, customers whose asses he had to kiss, Gerald began to hate people. He began to really despise them. He often sat in his office imagining how it would feel to slowly squeeze one of his customer’s necks, watching their eyes bulge and tongue sticking out of their mouth as the life left their bodies. He might have cracked and tried to live out this fantasy, if not for his Saturdays.
Gerald’s boss made work even more unbearable. His name was Jim Sheridan, but he insisted on being called “Mr. Sheridan“, or “Sir“. Gerald hated his boss. He hated his goddamn kiss ass attitude towards the never ending line of bitching customers. “The customer is always right, Gerald....Gerald, make sure that customer is satisfied....Gerald, if we lose that customer it’s going to come down on you.”
Fuck the customers, Gerald often thought, although he could never say this. “Yes, Mr. Sheridan”, was more appropriate.
Gerald also hated the way his boss constantly talked about his daughter. His perfect little princess who was going to graduate from University with honors. Gerald was sick of hearing about her every day, not to mention seeing her fat face peering out of countless picture frames in his boss’s office. Gerald hated the customers, but at least they changed from day to day. But he always had the same goddamn boss who managed to do something each day to increase Gerald’s loathing of him.
Thank God for Saturday. It was the same every week. Gerald would go home from work on a Friday evening, his shoulders hunched over, in a bad humor from putting up with people’s bullshit all week. But by Saturday afternoon he was a new man again. He had released all of that pressure, and he was ready to take on the world once more.
As he lay on his stomach, hidden among the trees and bushes, he could already feel the stress leaving his body. He took his rifle in his hands and aimed down to the beach. He took a moment to adjust the sight, as the beach was a little distance away. He then looked through the scope again.
It was a beautiful June day and the beach was full of people. Some swimming, other’s working on a tan. The most common beach activities of reading, listening to music and building sandcastles were all being carried out. But as Gerald looked through the scope of the rifle, he didn’t see people having fun on the beach. He saw more potential customers.
He panned the rifle around the beach, the cross hairs of its scope slowly drifting over the unsuspecting bathers. He stopped when he found a suitable target. A man in his forties with swim trunks digging into his love handles, arms already turning red with sun burn. Gerald put his finger over the trigger, preparing to fire, taking very careful aim.
When he was ready he muttered something to himself. It came out just above a whisper and if anyone had of been passing by, they wouldn’t have heard him. It was a phrase that had become part of his Saturday ritual. Saying it made him feel powerful. It made him feel...above everyone else, especially the customers and his boss.
“I have the power of life and death”, he breathed, “I have the power”
He pulled the trigger.
The rifle made a clicking sound. But there was no loud bang to break the silence amongst the trees. And the people on the beach continued on with their lives, oblivious to the fact that Gerald was watching them through his rifle. In fact, nothing at all happened, because the rifle was not loaded.
Gerald knew that if he wanted to, he could kill whomever he pleased. He had that power, and having that power released all of the week’s tension. He didn’t need to make the kill, having the power to do it was enough.
He continued to scan the beach, picking out the kind of people he hated, the kind of people that reminded him of his customers. And each time he muttered the same phrase to himself “I have the power of life and death, I have the power,” before pulling the trigger.
With each click of the trigger, more and more tension and stress left his body and he felt better. He usually picked out about twenty people before he was satisfied and went home. This day would have been no exception, except for one little thing. As he scanned the beach, he came across a person that he knew personally. Someone he knew but despised. That person was his boss, Jim Sheridan.
Gerald watched him through the scope as he sat on the beach, sucking down the last few drops from a bottle of beer. Gerald then noticed somebody with him, a young girl with blonde hair wearing a bikini that was far too small for her resulting in flabby love handles hanging over the string of the bikini bottom. Gerald recognized her immediately from the photos in Jim Sheridan’s office. It was his daughter. Little miss perfect. There was an older women sitting beside her. Her skin was wrinkled leather from too much sun over the years and her face was partially obscured by her peroxide blonde hair. Gerald guessed that this was Jim’s wife.
The rabbit hunter lay still, staring at them through the scope of his rifle. His mouth dropped open and his face was blank, as if he had drifted off to another place in his mind. After a long silence, he started to mutter his chant again.
“I have the power of life and death. I have the power.”
He repeated this to himself again and again. And as he did so, he reached into his back pack and took out a box of bullets. He began to load the rifle, all the time repeating that same phrase to himself, the blank expression still on his face.
Gerald lay still for a long time, watching Jim and his family. The gun was loaded now. He was taking things a little further than he ever had before. He had never pointed a loaded gun down at the beach. He had never needed too. But now that he was watching his boss, he knew that simply having the power was not enough. He wanted to hurt his boss, to destroy him.
The thought of just getting up and leaving passed fleetingly through Gerald’s mind. He knew that it would be the sensible thing to do. Things were going a little too far now. Some part of him was still with it enough to realize that much. But then he started thinking of the things his boss had said to him in work that week.
“Get off your ass and look after this customer, Gerald”.... “Don’t just sit there with that stupid expression on your face, Gerald, we have customers to look after.”
His memory threw these words at him, each of them hitting him like a slap in the face, and thoughts of leaving were quickly smothered by an intense anger. His finger moved over the trigger as he thought about what to do next. He hated the man he currently had in his sight. He wanted to hurt him. But he didn’t want to kill him. It would be over far too fast. He wanted to make him suffer.
Suddenly an idea came to mind. A smile crept across his face, and he pulled the trigger.
This time the rifle did make a noise.
Jim, who was having quite a good day up to then, didn’t hear the shot. There was a lot of noise on the beach. Children were laughing, people were talking, and music was being played over stereos. It was a few seconds before he fully understood that it was a gun that was doing all the damage. A moment earlier he had been looking up at his daughter, who stood in front of him debating whether or not she would go back into the water. Then her head seemed to simply explode. He felt something splash over him; which he would later realize was blood and parts of his daughter’s skull and brain. Then his daughter dropped to the ground.
Jim crawled over to her body and when he saw her lifeless eyes beneath her destroyed skull he burst into tears. He still didn’t know what happened; he just knew that his daughter, his little princess, was dead.
The other beach goers surrounding Jim were stunned. They hadn’t heard a shot either and many of them thought the girl had fainted. That was until they saw the blood and pieces of brain that had scattered in the sand. Still nobody ran. They still had not realized that it was someone with a gun that caused all the commotion.
When Jim’s wife became aware that something had happened to her daughter she got up and ran to her side. She just had time to see her daughter lying dead on the ground, and had just enough time to hear her husband get half way through a sentence “I don’t know what happ...” when Gerald fired again. This time Jim’s wife was the target. The bullet hit her square in the chest, penetrating her heart and killing her instantly.
Jim stopped mid-sentence. He didn’t want to believe what he had just seen. He didn’t think he could believe it. Things like this don’t happen in real life. You don’t take your family to the beach and then watch your daughter and wife be killed in front of you. Things like that just don’t happen. Only on this particular day, Saturday the fourteenth of June, they did.
By now the onlookers had realized that something was wrong. Although they hadn’t heard the shots, they saw two bodies lying on the ground, one with an open skull and the other with an open chest. Some realized that only a gun could do this damage, whereas others didn’t know what was causing it, they just knew that they had to get away from there. In any case, the people began to run.
Jim couldn’t run. He couldn’t even move. He began to understand what was happening. Someone had targeted his family. His wife and daughter had been killed, and he was next. Jim expected a bullet to come at any second. Only the bullet never came. He was left kneeling over the bodies of the two most important people in his life. It probably would have been better for Jim if Gerald had taken a third shot and put him out of his misery. But that wasn’t part of Gerald’s plan. His plan was to ruin Jim Sheridan’s life, to bring misery on him, and he felt that he had adequately achieved just that.
Overlooking the carnage he had caused, from his position on the mountainside, Gerald lowered his rifle. The realization of what he had done began to sink in. He hadn’t just clicked off a few empty rounds. This time he had actually fired, and he had killed two people. He felt remorse, but not for the people that he killed, or for Jim Sheridan, whose life he had ruined. He felt remorse for himself because he knew that his life, as he knew it, was over. The police would link the bullets back to his registered rifle. Everyone knew that he spent Saturdays in this particular piece of forest land on the mountain. Everyone also knew that he didn’t exactly like his boss. In fact, he hated the fucker.
The thought of prison scared Gerald. He knew that he wouldn’t survive in a place like that.
“Shit,” he muttered, as these thoughts ran through his head.
He started to feel sick in his stomach where there was a constant churning sensation, as if someone was stirring the contents of his stomach with a spoon. He thought of his wife and daughter and a huge wave of pain and sadness washed over him. What the fuck do I do now? He thought to himself.
He realized that he no longer had any power, that he never really had any to begin with. In fact, those shots hadn’t just destroyed Jim Sheridan’s life. They had destroyed his own life as well. He realized that there was only one course of action to take. He simply couldn’t face prison, he just couldn’t.
He thought once more of his own wife and daughter, took a deep breath, and put the barrel of the rifle in his mouth.
We tried to fill the silence of the late night interstate with CDs and the familial banter that becomes so much a part of life after thirty years of marriage. The one thing we didn’t want to mention was the reason for our trip – yet another opinion from a world-class oncologist, one who would confirm or deny the masses, which were supposedly destroying my brain.
It had been a difficult six months filled with illness and fear, with nervous glances from Sue and moments of terror for me.
I had been surprised by the extent to which my illness evoked concern in others. Perhaps it was not so much the concern that surprised as the range of opinions and proposed cures that flooded in. Names of physicians and hospitals were the most common suggestions and the ones, which Sue and I had expected, but there were others, far less predictable.
My cousin Monica, who had gone off to Alaska for three years, lived by herself in a cabin far to the north, and returned east with two small children and breasts grown dangerously pendulous with too much nursing and too little bra use, suggested a change of diet. “Eat fish and berries only,” she had written. “Become like our cousin the grizzly, for they are the healthiest of animals.”
“Become like our cousin the grizzly,” Sue had mimicked; “she’s gone native.” I laughed, too. Briefly before the pain in my gut cut me short.
Joan, Sue’s sister, the religious one, had sent a list of shrines throughout the world. Lourdes and Saint Anne de Beaupre were at the top, but the list went on for pages. “Take a sabbatical,” she advised. “Make a pilgrimage. Pray for Her intervention.”
“Sweet,” I commented trying to be accepting.
“Nuts,” responded Sue. “She’s gone over the edge.”
Another suggestion had seemed even farther over that edge. One of my students from two years previous had heard of my illness and sent me his suggestion. “If you will allow the student to instruct the professor,” he wrote, “you will find in Brazil a man named Jorge Maravilhoso Fantastico. He truly is marvelous and fantastic. He is a faith healer, he has removed tumors from many, he has cured very many. You will find him in Rio Preto da Eva, just north of Manaus. He can cure you. Of that I am positive.”
I wrote my ex-student to thank him for his concern and, promising to keep his suggestion in mind, I tossed the letter the basket.
Most of the letters I received went into that basket. It wasn’t emptied into the trash, but it wasn’t kept for use either. I think that it was a way of keeping a list of those who would ultimately be sent another letter, one from Sue announcing my death. We didn’t say that, of course not. We never spoke of my death; we never spoke aloud of the fear that haunted us both.
There was, however, one letter that was not tossed into that basket. It had come that morning postmarked in Dubai, half way around the world.
The letter was from Bernie des Reichtums. Bernie had been my best friend in grade school, middle school, high school, even the first two years of college. Then we had drifted apart. He had become interested in wealth while I had stayed true to my interest in literature and writing. Bernie had gone on to head a large bank, to live in Manhattan, London, Paris, and Dubai, while I had spent those next thirty-four years studying and teaching in small college towns.
We had lost touch, a thought which had sometimes saddened me enough to make me think of writing him. But, each time I had been taken short by the realization that I had nothing to say that could possibly have meaning to a man of the financial world. I had kept track of Bernie simply by reading the papers. He was often in the news. How he had learned of my health problems or my whereabouts, that was more puzzling. I had certainly existed in obscurity.
Bernie’s letter was short and to the point. It offered neither assistance nor advice, only a cryptic comment. “Sometimes only the underworld can give us what we need. I shall do what can be done for my old friend.”
As she was packing our overnight bag, I showed Sue the letter. “He always seemed weird to me. I never liked him.”
“You never really met him,” I countered defensively. “He came to our wedding and left early. I don’t think ten words passed between you.”
“Maybe not, but it was clear he didn’t approve of me or for that matter of you. Anyway, this letter is weird, and I think he’s weird, too.”
I put the letter into my desk drawer. Perhaps I would write back, perhaps not; but I knew that Sue would not want to write Bernie, not to tell him that I had died or for any other reason.
We had gotten a later-than-planned start. A bout of nausea had hit me just as we had been ready to leave. Then, as Sue tried to make up some of the lost time by speeding, the weather had changed. We had been creeping through the fog and mist for two hours. I could see that she was tiring quickly.
“I think we’d better stop for the night.”
“And get something to eat.”
“God, yes. Aren’t you?”
I had vomited most of my dinner, and I realized that I was starving. Funny how I hadn’t thought about food before. “Yeah, very.”
In the translucent reflection of our headlights I saw the signs for an exit. “Shaman is coming up,” I observed. “Funny, I’ve never noticed this exit.”
“You’ve never driven this slowly on the interstate.”
“True. The sign says there’s food and lodging.”
At the bottom of the ramp was a sign for the Shaman Motor Inn and two fast food places. We followed the arrow, passed the two burger joints – both of which were closed – and pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
There was an air of squalidness about the place, a feeling which was enhanced by the flashing red neon sign promising hourly rates and the drive up window for registering. Sue pulled around so that my side of the car abutted the window. I rolled down the car window, felt the cold moisture of the mist filling what had been our warm cocoon, and rang the bell. A disembodied, accented voice responded. “What do you want?”
“A room for the night.”
“Wait, I’ll be right there.”
We waited. It wasn’t long. A slim Indian-looking man came to the window. He was fully dressed; his clothes had the rumpled look of having been slept in. “What do you want?” he asked again.
“A room. My wife and I are heading to the city, but we need to take a break.”
“Yes, yes. I can do that,” he said.
Sue gave me a poke. I looked over, and she mouthed the word “food”. I nodded.
“That will be fifty dollars for the night.”
“And a five dollar deposit for the key. You return it when you leave, and I give the money back.”
“Do you want to watch television?”
Tired as we were, I still thought we might need some help falling asleep. “Yes.”
“A ten dollar deposit for the remote. You return it when you leave, and I give money back.”
“Fine.” I counted out the $65 and slipped it into the slightly opened window opposite me.
“Room 235. First room on second floor.”
“Is that non-smoking?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“All our rooms are same. People smoke in all.”
“Can we get one farther from the road?” And from that damn sign? I thought.
“235 is only one I have. Nice room.”
“Fine. What about food?”
“No food here.”
“No, I mean is there somewhere we can get something to eat?”
“Too late, restaurants closed now, till morning.”
“Perhaps there’s someplace we can just buy snacks.”
“All night convenience store at gas station one mile up road.” He handed me a registration card and a pen. “Fill out form, please.”
I filled in the few questions and handed it back to him. He examined it closely as if it contained military secrets. “Mr. And Mrs. Chardean?”
“Mr. And Mrs. Chardean, yes. You will have good night.” He closed the window and disappeared into the darkness of the office.
“Unpack or food first?” I asked already knowing the answer. A few minutes later we were looking for edible food in the grungy convenience store.
“Did he say this was a convenience store?” Sue quipped. “I’d call it inconvenience.” The sandwich ingredients looked as if someone had been culturing molds. Many of the packages were well-past their ‘sell by’ dates. I wondered when the last customers had been there.
Finally, desperate, we picked a few of the less deadly looking items, paid for them, and headed back to the motel. It seemed that the fog had grown thicker and that the flashing red light promising hourly rates had become correspondingly brighter.
Neither the two cars leaving the lot as we pulled in nor the maid pushing her trolley of cleaning supplies and linens at that late hour raised our sinking spirits. But, fatigue and hunger had more than taken their toll; we had to have some rest.
Sue carried the overnight bag and the brown sack with our meager provisions while I tugged myself up the stairs.
I turned the key and pushed the door open. By the dim yellow lights of the balcony and the flashing red of the sign, I saw a light switch. The pallid overhead crowded with dead flies revealed a double bed covered with a faded and slightly torn spread. There was a stained table with two water-spotted drinking glasses and a foam ice bucket. Next to it were two rickety chairs. On the walls were two prints; they were as faded as the spreads and quite incongruous; both were scenes from The Bible. I looked more closely; they were labeled: “Ruth - Wither Thou Goest” and “Jesus: Curing The Lepers.” Between the beds was another small table – also stained; it held a telephone and a copy of The Bible placed there by The Gideons. The low, double chest of drawers looked as if it would disintegrate if someone were rash enough to unpack into it. On its top was a television, the only thing in the room that looked modern. There was a placard announcing: “For special pay channels push menu on your remote.”
“I can only imagine what the special channels are,” Sue observed.
“They probably exceed our imaginations.”
“I wonder how many of them were filmed here ...”
“Featuring unsuspecting guests,” I finished the thought for her.
“I have to use the john.” No matter where she was, no matter how ugly, depressing, or even filthy the surroundings, Sue always used the bathroom.
She walked across the room to the partially opened door. “This is as grungy as the rest of the place,” she observed as she closed it. She reopened it immediately. “Tom, you’ve got to see this.” She was laughing.
I followed her into the bathroom. She closed the door and pointed at the floor behind it. On the floor was a pair of women’s panties. They were covered with bright red hearts with arrows through them. They were so silly that I at first ignored the hygiene implications.
“I wonder how long they’ve been here.”
“They must give the place a proper cleaning at least once a month.”
We both laughed at that idea.
“I hope she had pants, or her butt must have gotten real cold.”
“I wonder if she missed them.”
“The finest lingerie.” She paused. “I still have to piss.”
I left the bathroom and pulled the spread down on one of the beds. The blanket beneath it was stained and ripped. It looked like a refuge from a war. I pulled that down, too, and revealed sheets colored a dingy gray by many hours of use and many halfhearted washings. The pillows were rock hard inside their off-gray cocoons.
I heard the toilet flush and the water in the sink running. She came out and went over to the food. Opening a package of trail mix, she offered me some. I took a handful and munched it down. I opened a bottle of cola, the product of some company of which I had never heard. It tasted terrible.
“God, what a face.”
“You try the stuff. No, on second thought, don’t.”
She did anyway. “That’s awful!”
“This isn’t going to be a good night.”
She laughed nervously. “I don’t even want to get undressed.”
“Yeah.” We hadn’t lain on the bed yet, but I could already feel unnumbered insects and microbes climbing up and down my skin. “This place is disgusting.”
“On its good days.” Sue scratched herself vigorously.
I pulled the beige plastic curtains closed. There was a sag where the fabric had pulled away from two hooks, and the yellow lights of the balcony and the red blinking sign still lit the room. We lay down together on the bed that I had partially stripped. I could feel the bumps in the mattress and the lumps in the pillow. “I hope we can sleep.” I rolled on my side and draped one of my arms around Sue’s shoulder.
“I love you,” she murmured.
“I just wish there was more I could do.”
“If there was only some way I could make it disappear.”
“Believe me, I appreciate how much you’re already doing.”
“Like driving to the city, like coming to every one of my doctors’ appointments, like spending the night in this horror hole.”
“This, I will grant you, is a bit above and beyond.”
I laughed. “It sure is.”
I waited for Sue’s response, but she said nothing. Her breathing hadn’t settled into the gentle rhythm of sleep. I knew she was either thinking or praying or, more likely, both. Finally, she spoke. “I just wish I could make you well.”
“I love you, too.” Then there was silence. In the blinking, partial darkness I could hear that gentle rhythm taking hold.
I didn’t fall asleep. I was too busy worrying about the future – mine if I was to have one, Sue’s if I was going to die.
Some time later, Sue padded her way to the bathroom. I heard the door close and the light switch click. Then she screamed. I’d never heard Sue scream in terror before. I sat bolt upright and stared at the bathroom door. It took a moment or two before I could make my legs respond. Swinging them off the bed, I stood up and started toward the bathroom. I stumbled on one of my shoes, nearly fell back to the bed, then ran across the room. Throwing open the peeling door, I blinked in the harsh light and saw Sue. She was staring into the toilet. It was filled with red liquid. There was a sickeningly sweet smell. I reached over and flushed. The liquid moved slowly, not as if the toilet was clogged but as if the viscosity of the red liquid was much greater than water.
“Blood?” Sue asked.
“I don’t know.” The liquid that came from the reservoir was the same smelly red stuff that I was trying to flush. I put the cover down and turned.
“Jesus,” I yelled. I was looking at the panties, or rather where the panties had been. They had been replaced by a pair of blood red men’s briefs. The crotch, where the scrotum would have been if someone were wearing them, was cut away and appeared to be oozing blood.
Sue turned to look. “God, let’s get the hell out of here.” She fled from the bathroom; I followed only taking time to slam the door in my wake.
“Let’s get out of here.” She repeated with even greater terror. She ran to the door and pulled. “It’s stuck.”
I had grabbed the bag. In this moment of terror I had new strength and energy. “Let me try it.” I tried the doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. I dropped the bag and used both hands. The knob wouldn’t budge. With all my strength I pulled on the door. Nothing!
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. The blinking of the hourly rates sign seemed to be mocking me. I moved to the window and pulled back the plastic drapes. Behind them was a brick wall from which the mix of dingy yellow and red lights seemed to emanate. “Damn them!”
“Who?” Sue asked.
“I don’t know. I have no damn idea.”
“What are we going to do?” She had slumped down on the bed and sat there holding her head. I sat down next to her. “The phone?” It was more of a question than a suggestion.
“Good idea.” I looked at the dialing instructions and dialed “0” for the “motel operator”.
A voice – not human, not metallic, something best described as plastic – answered. “The word shall set you free,” it said and then repeated and then repeated.
“Hello,” I shouted into the phone.
“The word shall set you free,” the voice said yet again.
I hung up and reread the dialing instructions. I dialed “9” for an outside line. The same voice answered. It started in the middle of its message. “shall set you free. The word shall ...” I hung up.
Already knowing the outcome, I tried dialing a room number, “234”. “you free. The word ...” I slammed the receiver down.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. Let me think.” I crossed the room and started to bang on the wall. There was no response. Desperate, hoping to open a hole, I picked up one of the chairs, tore off a leg and banged it against the wall. I felt it bounce back in my hands. I wasn’t hitting plasterboard; the wall was as solid as the bricks I saw through the window.
Again I sat down next to Sue. She put her trembling hand on my leg. I looked down at my feet.
“I have to go,” Sue muttered. There was desperation in her voice. She got up.
“Where are you going?”
“I told you: I have to go.” There was so much pain, so much stress, so much panic in the “have to”. She was headed toward the bathroom.
“You can’t go in there.”
“I have to.” More pain. I’ll lean over the bathtub.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you want me to come in with you?”
“No, it wouldn’t help. I’ll be ok.”
I watched Sue cross the room. Her gait was slow but determined as if she were on her way to a sacrifice. She closed the door behind her, and I turned my attention to the room. I thought about trying the phone again. “What had that plastic sounding voice said?”
“The word shall set you free.”
“What word?” I questioned myself. “The word: what was the word?” Then, for the first time I thought of The Bible sitting on the night stand. For the first time I noticed what was written across the cover:
YOU SHALL KNOW THE WORD
AND THE WORD SHALL SET YOU FREE.
I picked the book up hoping for – even expecting – a key to unlock the door of the room. I ruffled through the pages, stopped here and there, found nothing. I decided to try a new tack. Standing up, I held the book over my head and flipped it onto the bed. As I had hoped, it landed open. I looked at the pages. It was from “The Book of Ruth”. I perused them for a while, trying to find the secret. Suddenly, I became aware that Sue had been in the bathroom for a long time.
I rushed to the bathroom door and knocked. She made no response. I turned the knob, the door swung open. Sue was not there. “Sue!” I yelled already knowing that she could not respond. I held my nose and lifted the toilet cover. The bowl was filled with clear water. Whirling around, I realized that neither the briefs nor the panties were any longer there.
“What the hell’s going on here?” I asked myself as I walked across the room to the door. Even as I walked, I knew that this time it would open. It did. For some reason I went back to The Bible. I closed it and put it back on the nightstand. As I did, I saw the cover. The words had changed.
I SHALL KNOW THE WIFE
AND THE WIFE SHALL SET YOU FREE.
In helpless confusion, fear, and rage, I threw the book at the mirror. It bounced off and dropped to the floor. The pages flipped open. Without looking I knew it was again open to “The Book of Ruth”.
With a sense of expectant terror mixed with a strange feeling of relief, I looked out the window. I did so somehow knowing that it was no longer blocked by bricks. I could see daylight making its way through a cloudy sky. The rain had stopped, but it still was threatening. I picked up the phone and dialed 9. When a new tone started, I dialed 911. An officer would be right over. I’d report Sue missing, but I knew it would do no good. I picked up the bag and brought it to the car. I sat in the driver’s seat and waited for the police.
“You leave already, Mr. Chardean?” The receptionist had crept up behind me like a ghost.
I spun around. “Where’s my wife?” I demanded.
“Wife, Sir. Did not see a wife, Sir. No wife with you, Sir.”
“The hell ....,” I started. But, I knew it was useless.
“Do you have the key, the remote?”
“They’re in the damn room.”
“Then I can not return your deposits. You must bring them to the office.” He turned away.
There was no way I was going back into that room. That was what I told the police officer who appeared twenty minutes later. He went up without me, came back, and said that the room appeared normal. At my request he had brought the key, the remote, and The Bible.
“Mr. Chardean, I really don’t see what I can do. If you want, you can file a missing person’s report after twenty-four hours.”
“Come with me to the office,” I pleaded. “Look at the registration card. Sue couldn’t have just disappeared out of that bathroom. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Frankly, sir, not much of your story does make sense.” I stared at him. I felt old, and he looked like a schoolboy. “Well, what about The Bible?” I asked. “Is that a normal cover?”
He held The Bible out – front cover up. it said “Holy Bible” and in smaller letters near the bottom: “Placed here by The Gideons.” I stared at it, at him, and then back at the book.
We went to the drive-in window and summoned the rumpled clerk. He took the key and the remote and handed the officer fifteen dollars. With no resistance he handed over the registration card.“The registration card,” I repeated with a begging tone that seemed foreign to my own ears. “I know I put Sue’s name on that card.” The policeman looked at the yellow form.
“Is this your handwriting?” he asked. He held the card. I had the fifteen dollars in mine; it felt too dangerous to put the money in my pocket.
“Yes.” I looked at the card. Only my name appeared. “Somebody must have changed the card.”
“But it is your handwriting!”
“Look, Mr. Chardean, you said you had a doctor’s appointment later today. Right?”
“Well, obviously you must be pretty nervous. Maybe you just had a spooky dream and can’t get by it. I suggest you keep your appointment. Then, call home. Your wife is probably waiting by the phone to hear the results.”
“My wife ...” I started to argue and then realized there was no point. The only thing I was going to convince him of was that I was crazy. “Look, you may be right. Thanks for your help.” I tried to make it sound honest even though I was thinking, “He’s in on it. I know it.”
When I pulled onto the highway ramp, I debated whether to go home or to keep my doctor’s appointment. Something told me that I didn’t need a second opinion anymore. I knew the cancer was gone – that it had disappeared with Sue. But, I really didn’t want to go back home. I didn’t want to face friends, to tell them what had happened, to try to explain Sue’s disappearance; and most of all I didn’t want to face life alone. “Whither thou goes, there I would go, also,” I thought as I pulled onto the main road and headed for the city and its medical specialists.
“There’s no sign of cancer,” the doctor said.
That was what I had expected. “Thanks, that’s good to hear,” I lied. Meanwhile, I was wishing that I could die – that I could go beyond the mystery to wherever Sue would be waiting.
I left the doctor’s office and sat in the car. I hadn’t cried before. It had all seemed too unreal. But, now I gave in to the horrible sense of loss. I knew Sue had somehow sacrificed herself for me. Now, I would have to face life without her.
On the way home I looked for the exit to Shaman, but I must have missed it. “Just as well,” I thought. “I wouldn’t want to go back there.”
My mind drifted to the basket full of letters. Did I have to write all those people. No, probably not. I stared at the road and the bare trees that lined it. Not winter anymore, I thought, but not yet spring. Strange, like limbo. Suddenly, desperately, I wanted spring; and I wanted Sue. Oh, I wanted her.
Bernie’s letter. That one I’ll answer. I wonder ...
Our neighbor was walking her dog when I pulled up to the house. “How you feeling, Tom?”
“Better, physically much better.” I paused. “But, Sue didn’t come back with me.”
“Sue? I don’t think I’ve met her. Have I?”
Kenneth Weene Bio|
Kenneth Weene is a New Englander by birth and disposition. He grew up outside of Boston and spent his summers in Maine. Although he lived for many years in New York and now resides in Arizona, Ken has never lost his accent nor his love of the northeast.
Having gone to Princeton, where he studied economics, Ken went on to train as a psychologist and to become an ordained minister. Over the years he has worked as an educator, pastoral counselor, and psychotherapist.
Married to Roz Weene, artist and jewelry creator, for over forty years, Ken is a strong believer in the joy of love.
Ken’s writing started with poetry, and his poetic work has appeared in numerous publications – most recently featured in Sol and publication in Spirits, and Vox Poetica.
An anthology of Ken’s writings, Songs for my Father, was published by Inkwell Productions in 2002. His short stories have appeared in Legendary, Sex and Murder Magazine, The New Flesh Magazine, and The Santa Fe Literary Review.
In 2009 a novel, Widow’s Walk, was published by All Things That Matter Press. All Things, which has also just published Ken’s second novel, Memoirs From the Asylum.
Pills and Other Necessities
The kettle is whistling. I reach for our cups; I am making tea for Irma and me. Her mug is the one that reads: “I like poetry, long walks on the beach, and poking dead things with a stick.” She bought it while we were on vacation and I can still hear the roar that escaped her lips in that campy Five-and-Dime. She had stood before me in her bathing suit, moist with sea water, a Hawaiian print skirt wrapped around her then very slender waist (I had marveled at her waist since I had never learned to tie anything around mine so that it would stay put and also because my own waist hadn’t been that small since I was twelve), sand still dotting the tops of her feet, facing a rotating rack. Head back, wide mouthed, she had laughed while I watched her in profile. Then she had whipped her head around and flashed me a grin as she read the mug out loud with glee, grasping it in her hands with the sort of familiarity one has with a mug one has been drinking morning coffee from for years. That mug was hers before she had purchased it in the same way that I was hers before we had met.
My mug Irma had bought for me one holiday as a joke, and her jokes had a funny way of sticking. It was partly the way they were often based on truths that few were willing to admit, let alone say. Mine read: “Talk to the brains of this operation, she’s right over there,” and it had an arrow. Of course, since the mug was round it was hard to tell which way the arrow was pointing and it seemed to be pointing right back to the saying, which suggested that the person holding the mug ought to be a woman and that the mug owner was actually complimenting not diminishing herself. This is partly what Irma loved about it – she loved double entendres. Half the joy of everything came from double meanings, substitutions, and innuendo. In my case the mug meant that Irma’s morning routine was to debate on which side of me she needed to sit in order for the mug to mean what she had intended. Some jokes never get old.
I pour the hot water over the chamomile bag in Irma’s mug and the black tea bag in mine, and then I shuffle into the sunroom. My mug has three shots of Gosling’s Old Rum waiting at the bottom. It is early, only 6 a.m., and the sun is just beginning to shine through the shady oaks behind our house. It is Sunday, our lazy day for tea drinking, leafing through the magazines and catalogs that stack up during the week, and reading from our regularly mounting piles of books that hold various bookmarks haphazardly poking this way and that. Irma’s current stack includes a book of contemporary poetry; a physics and a DNA book for laypeople; Breakfast at Tiffany’s – she loves the character Holly Golightly and rereads the book once every few years; Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do; How to Fight Cancer and Win; Beating Cancer with Nutrition; The Cure for All Cancers: Including over 100 Case Histories of Persons Cured; and a complete collection of the poems of John Keats. The Keats’ book tops the stack and is marked at his “This Living Hand,” by one of her favorite headshots of me. The poem is speculated to be Keats’ last, and possibly to have been written for Fanny Brawne, the woman with whom he was in love:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
While in the poem the lover ought to wish to trade her life for his, as with everything else, Irma’s interpretation held a slightly different twist.
To the left of Irma’s book stack is mine, which includes various books on fly-fishing, philosophy, and history. On top of my stack is a new bookmark: Irma’s laminated obituary which ran in the paper last Sunday, and which kindly arrived from the funeral home in yesterday’s mail.
Images of Irma, me, and Irma and me adorn the white bookcases that lean against the south wall. They are held in various frames Irma decoupaged herself, carefully selecting from magazines, flyers, and advertisements images and words that she felt aptly and humorously described a particular scene. There is one of us, arms around each other’s waists, on the beach in the Outer Banks. She decoupaged the frame with images of seashells, crabs, and other ocean life she had clipped, but she had also added the phrases “catches biggest fish,” “great bass,” “best crabs,” and “eat here.” Like Irma’s mug, the phrases are connected to arrows that point waggishly this way and that.
When I first met Irma she was working in the library at my university. I’d see her behind the counter, long, straight, dark hair, bangs hanging in front of her big brown eyes. She was impish and shy. She’d always been scuttling around in the stacks, busying herself to intentionally avoid interaction. One day I was returning a stack of books late in the evening; I had been working in my office grading papers until about 10:30 and I carried some books over on my way home. As it was nearing 11:00, closing time, and it was a Friday night, no students were studying and the library was empty. Irma was sitting uncharacteristically relaxed, feet up on a footstool reading Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. She didn’t see me come in and so I had the luxury of observing her, if only for a moment, completely at ease and un-self-conscious. When she saw me, she leapt to her feet, fumbled a bit, gestured toward the empty chairs and tables, and said apologetically that it had been “entirely dead” since about seven. I dismissed her concern with being found out and launched into inquiries about her interest in Nietzsche, what other books of his she had read, and if she could recall any favorite aphorisms. Her demeanor entirely changed. She became outspoken, gesturing wildly and speaking rapidly, only partly aware that I was her audience. From that moment on I was hooked. It soon became apparent that so was she.
When Irma got cancer we talked about how things would inevitably go. How she would decline, what we would do before that happened, what actions should follow her demise. Now I am sitting in our sunroom, numb, contemplating the next act of our play. To the right of my stack of books are the bottles, about thirty total. In the twenty-three years we were together, we kept a large Tupperware container on the top shelf of the closet, in the back, with the remainder pills for every prescription we had ever filled. The container includes painkillers and antibiotics for toothaches, urinary tract and kidney infections, severe headaches, sprained ankles, and the list goes on. The day Irma died, I added to the container the remainders of the litany of drugs they had tried on her until the very end, when the drugs were then administered simply to keep her out of her misery, and pills done away with in favor of a drip system that meant she didn’t have to wait a moment for some inevitably overburdened nurse to administer the next morphine fix. If only I had that drip system, what I am about to do might be simpler.
By now the rum is having its fully desired effect. I stand and head to the kitchen to add another three shots to my mug. On an empty stomach, my head is foggy enough for the walk to the kitchen to be an experience in slow motion. I remove the tea bag and the fresh pour mixes with the residue at the bottom of my cup, only slightly watering down the taste of the Gosling. Standing at the kitchen counter, flashes of Irma flood my mind. At first I hear her laughter, see her dancing, smiling, and then there are the images of us making love, fast and furious, slow and intense, and then our wedding day, the birthday when I presented her with a trip to Paris, and then our last moments. I close my eyes, holding the counter fiercely, and try to resurrect her touch on my skin, the feel of her face on the tips of my fingers as I glide them across the surface of her cheek and down to her chin. I’m swaying my head back and forth deep in memory, attempting to summon the sensation of her lips touching mine. It’s been a week and it seems like forever since I last held her. How can I summon those eyes, the intensity and depths of them? How can I bring them back, gaze into them, embrace her?
I remember how she had looked at me since that first conversation in the library. Her affection for me had never waned, and neither had mine for her. She could send messages through her gaze that were mutually understood, and I can clearly recall how she reminded me of our pact during the last day she was able to talk. Her voice was drowsy and stilted, the energy each word took evident in her concentration. “Adrian,” she said, “You — don’t live — without me — because — you — feel — you — must,” she had said with deep determination, and with the sort of tone a mother might use when telling her child that just because the other kids are jumping off a bridge, he doesn’t have to (though in characteristic Irma fashion her inference was the opposite). “You — meet — me — on the — other — side.” “You – re – memb – er — where — they — are, — right?” “I know, top shelf, to the right of your winter sweaters. I haven’t forgotten,” I had said.
Staring at the bottles, I take another swig from my mug. It is so quiet that I can hear myself swallow. The sun now warms the room and every glance about reminds me of her absence. Her mug is full, her books unmoved. Her afghan is tossed over the back of her chair, as though at any moment she is going to come in laughing about something, sit down, glance at me with that grin, pick up her mug, and begin chatting to me enthusiastically about what she finds so humorous. How many Sundays did we spend in this room? How many times did she come in just that way? Now it seems like so few, and yet they resonate so powerfully. How many days in a year? How many weeks? How many Sundays? How many years did we have this routine? It has all vanished so quickly, her scent is still fresh on the wool afghan. I reach over and pull it to me, ball it up, and bury my nose in a bunched section. Breathing deeply, I close my eyes and envision her.
Death will not unite us. I know that. We both knew that. There is no afterlife, and who would want one anyway? Why go on for an eternity as something not fully human? I want the feel of her skin, the touch of her lips, the smell of her. I don’t want some ethereal vapor that I cannot even grasp. I want to be me and I want Irma to be her. I want this life, the life we knew together. An eternity spent not as myself and not with her as herself — that’s a worse hell than living without her. What I want is the absence of pain, absence of grief, absence of absence. To wish for an absence of memory would be to undo all that came before – the beauty, the sadness, the joy, and the treasure of a life spent with Irma. I don’t want another life with someone else. I don’t want another life with her somewhere that is not here. I want to take what I have had, to savor it, rejoice in it, and to end with it in my arms. If I could wish for anything it would be eternal recurrence.
I begin unscrewing the caps of the bottles and dumping them out one by one. I want them mixed together. I don’t want to know what I am ingesting, exactly. Precision isn’t the point. An onslaught, that’s what we had always hoped would do the trick. Part of me wants to be sober, to dump the contents of my mug down the drain, to face it and her with a full awareness of the act so that in my imagination I am fully there. But if I am going to do this right, do it as we had planned, then I need as many competing drugs in my system as possible. The anti-depressants I’d been prescribed since Irma’s death (and which I haven’t yet taken), the painkillers, the alcohol, and whatever else is in these bottles that I can’t even begin to recall. Years of a life spent together are bottled up in these miscellaneous prescriptions for illnesses entirely forgotten. It’s strange how time is spent. I have no capacity to remember why, exactly, Irma was prescribed amoxicillin, but there it is, clearly printed on a label with her name. I strain to recall an episode in 1998 when she would have been prescribed this drug, but I don’t know. That’s not what I know about Irma. What I know about Irma is how she affected me. What I know about Irma is what she became in the time we were together, how she learned to show everyone else those impish qualities I loved, how she went from being a shy woman behind a desk at the university library to standing totally unaware in that bathing suit in that Five-and-Dime, completely in herself, without any visibly apparent insecurity.
Irma had her insecurities, but in the time we had been together she had flowered into something unbelievable. She had just let more and more of herself out every day until everyone around us fell in love with the Irma I had been in love with since that first Friday night.
Irma and I didn’t tire of each other; we didn’t want separation. It wasn’t how we were made, at least not together. We realized early on that we didn’t want children, if only because we knew they would need us and take us away from each other. We didn’t want anything in between us. We had friends, but we socialized with them together. We had jobs, and we of course went to those independently, but every other waking minute was spent together. We thought about children a few times, but each time we were reminded of what it would really mean, forever. We also knew that if one of us should die, we would have to go on for the sake of the child or children, and that was not something either of us wanted to have to do. We knew that we wanted to live together and die together. We didn’t want any forced separations, any body, any life, any thing to get between us.
We were together less than a year when we realized we would live together and die together, but we didn’t yet know how to make it a reality. It was just something we both understood, and it was one of those understandings that we conveyed just by looking at each other whenever we watched a movie about a spouse or lover dying or whenever we read or heard about the same. All we had to do is glance at each other and we knew: that was never going to happen to us, not quite like that anyway. We knew we couldn’t control how we would die or when, but we knew that, if we didn’t die together in some sort of catastrophe, it wouldn’t be long before we would find each other again, if only through release.
Then when we’d been together about five years, Irma came across a poem by Richard Cranshaw titled “Epitaph.” I placed a copy of the poem beside the bottles last night before going to bed. Last night I listened to the music we loved, slept for the last time in our bed, and found that poem and copied it on our personal copier so that it would be here this morning for me to read again. I remember when Irma first discovered it. She brought it home and stood in the kitchen, reading it to me, tears filling her eyes and her voice cracking:
To these, whom Death again did wed,
This grave’s their second marriage-bed;
For though the hand of Fate could force
‘Twixt soul and body a divorce,
It could not sunder man and wife
Because they both lived but one life.
Peace, good Reader, do not weep,
Peace, the lovers are asleep.
They, sweet turtles, folded lie
In the last knot that Love could tie.
And though they lie as they were dead,
Their pillow stone, their sheets of lead,
Pillow hard, and sheets not warm,
Love made the bed: they’ll take no harm;
Let them sleep: let them sleep on,
Till this stormy night be gone
And the eternal morrow dawn;
Then the curtains will be drawn,
And they wake into a light,
Whose day shall never die in night.
That was when we figured out how to do it.
Of course the poem isn’t literal, we would never be buried together. Irma and I wanted to be cremated; Irma already has been. Her ashes are sitting in an urn to the right of my arm. I brought them home on Friday.
I had gotten things in order at the funeral home, done what they call “planning.” I paid ahead for my cremation, wrote down what my wishes were. Sam, at the funeral home, had been very kind. He wasn’t sure if I was ready to make such decisions, thought perhaps that I was rushing things, or maybe wanted to wait a few weeks or a month to go over such details since I had so recently handled the details of Irma’s demise. I assured him now was the time. I explained that it offered me some comfort knowing that these details would be taken care of, and that, while we wouldn’t be buried together, he would know what my wishes were: to have my ashes scattered in the same place Irma’s had been. I told him a private ceremony for Irma was planned for a few weeks from now and that I would get the details to him shortly, and if he could please place them on file, he would know what my wishes were for my scattering.
Yesterday afternoon I drafted the letter to the funeral home explaining where Irma’s ashes were to be scattered, along with my own. I hand wrote the letter so there would be no suspicion of foul play; I included a copy of my driver’s license as verification for the signature. I sent the letter certified. It would arrive on Monday, tomorrow.
Irma and I had spent many lovely afternoons in a nearby park sunning and reading by the lake. It reminded Irma of the English Lake country, the home of the English Lake poets. We would pack a picnic, share a bottle of wine, read, and learn about botany and insects together. Those afternoons had always been exclusively about us. Hardly anyone made use of that area. The park was large and most people stayed in the areas by the playgrounds, campgrounds, grills, or the large lake where there was fishing, boating, and skiing. It was a bit of a hike to get to this little lake, and there were no activities to be had on it. There were no bathrooms nearby, no playgrounds, no people. It was our quiet place where we escaped the world and retreated into what made us us. We found solace in our togetherness in the peaceful quiet of that place. That was where we would be scattered, together.
The rum is starting to wear off. It is nearing 11:00 a.m. I get up to get the Gosling bottle, and this time pour a mug full. It is past teatime. I don’t typically drink Gosling, it’s an expensive rum, but I bought it for this special occasion. I want to celebrate.
I return to the sunroom with the bottle of Gosling and a 2-liter bottle of water. I top off the tea in Irma’s mug with a little Gosling – we clink mugs, or at least I clink our mugs.
I stare at the dumped pills from the bottles. There are a lot of them. I’m hoping I can take them all. When I was a kid I had trouble taking pills. At first my mom had crushed them up in sugar water, then she had made me practice by swallowing M&M’s. Irma was worried about that, but she had us both practice every day by taking a multitude of daily vitamins. When the healthy practice began it was so we could both live forever, and also because we didn’t yet know which one of us would go first, so we both had to practice swallowing those pills.
I organize the pills from small to large. I figure I should start with the large ones, just in case I begin having difficulty swallowing. That’s what Irma, in the end, had suggested. Another swig from my mug, and the play begins.
I walk to the filing cabinet and get out my Will; then I walk to the bookcase and take down Nietzsche’s The Gay Science; then I go to the stereo and cue up one of our favorite CDs: Queen’s Greatest Hits I & II. Some of the songs are long, and I am hoping that by the time the music stops, I will have too. I carry my Will, Nietzsche, and the remote back to the couch. I place the Will on the table. Opening the book, I take a straight swig of the Gosling and read aloud On the Last Hour, aphorism 315: “Storms are my danger. Will I have my storm of which I will perish, as Oliver Cromwell perished of his storm? Or will I go out like a light that no wind blows out but that becomes tired and sated with itself – a burned-out light? Or finally: will I blow myself out lest I burn out?”
I sit back on the couch, place Irma’s afghan over me, and hit play on the remote. I listen to track nine on disk two first, “Who Wants to Live Forever?” Then I begin to rhythmically swallow pills in beats to the music, “...who wants to live forever, when love must die...,” alternating between the Gosling and the water.
I am thinking about the Keats’ poem and extending my hand toward Irma. I am imagining her joking with me about wanting more than my hand, as she would, if she were here (and she is), certainly play on the synecdochical image of only my hand reuniting with her.
As I swallow, drink, and sway to the music, I become more and more sleepy, woozy, foggy-headed.
I take a last look at the prescription bottles, and as I close my eyes, I imagine Irma sitting beside me, head cocked to the side, saying with an impish grin on her face and that knowing look in her eyes:
“There are some things that can’t be prescribed.”
a Simple Misunderstanding
Jerome Quinth didn’t believe in much. A practical man from the “show me” state of Missouri, he grew up believing in himself and what he could accomplish with his own sweat and hard work. He respected religion but couldn’t say he “believed”. As for things like fairies, elves, gnomes, trolls and demons, he considered them ignorant superstitions from the past. Believing in such stuff was for chidden and gullible savages.
Once, at a party, he was asked about UFO’s. He surprised even himself with his vehement opposition to the subject. “If there really are intelligent aliens flying around out there, they should land in Washington and make proper contact with the president. Why are they playing hide and seek like a bunch of nutty children?”
When someone pointed out that maybe aliens would be hard pressed figuring out whom to contact, Jerome snapped, “If they can’t figure out where Washington DC is, well then I don’t suppose they’re all that intelligent after all.”
With such an attitude, it is remarkable that Jerome Quinth would be the one to make first contact with the beings from Lepton Six. As near as authorities could piece together from the charred remains, the historic event happened innocently enough on one of Jerome’s daily walks through the park near his home. This under-used municipal park, a short walk from his suburban house, offered a small nature trail that meandered through a few acres of woods. The trail was broad and well maintained sporting a few benches and labeled trees.
Jerome liked the trail and knew its every hill and shrub. He also knew all the little side paths that led off of the well marked loop into the brush. These smaller paths, no more than deer trails, led to what Jerome thought of as his secret places, little clearings and places in the woods only he knew.
It was on one of these little used paths that he first saw them. At first glance the Leptons looked like a cross between a garden gnome and a land crab. They had a large human like head on a multi legged body giving them the appearance of scuttling when they walked. They stood about two feet tall on six sturdy legs and wore colorful tunics criss crossed with belts. From these belts dangled strange pieces of apparatus to which the aliens were continually referring. The Leptons seemed to have just recently landed. There was a saucer shaped craft of some sort which the aliens were busy covering with brush. Jerome couldn’t help but make a small gasp when he first spotted them and that noise alerted the aliens to his presence.
After drawing what Jerome assumed might be weapons, Jerome raised his hands and stood still in what he thought was a non-threatening manner. What Jerome didn’t realize was that on Lepton Six, cattle stood on two legs and often put their arms over their heads. Jerome was immediately regarded as a lower life form but since the Leptons had traveled many quadrillions of miles to get here, the correlation with Lepton cattle wasn’t certain. So the Lepton leader decided to give the strange cattle-like creature the intelligence test of communication.
One of the aliens scuttled forward and fiddled with one of its gadgets, finally producing an audible series of grunts, whistles, and squeaks which to Jerome’s untutored ears sounded exactly like the sounds of dolphins. Jerome had a CD at home with whale and dolphin noises and he was willing to bet money that these aliens were attempting to speak to him in dolphinese. The speech went on and on for some twenty minutes while the aliens and Jerome stood in bored but respectful silence. When the speech was done, Jerome did his best to say something in dolphin back to the aliens. However, not being as fluent in dolphin as he wished, he could only reproduce a few random clicks and whistles of his own. He soon quit as he felt silly and had no idea what he was saying.
The aliens, who had erroneously assumed that dolphins were the intelligent life form on this planet, had come prepared with a pre-recorded speech of welcome expressing such lofty sentiments as universal peace and harmony between the races, shared cultural exchanges, and trade opportunities. Jerome’s feeble squeaking and whistling response were translated into Lepton as mostly gibberish interspersed with the one annoying phrase of “fuck you, banana” which the aliens quite rightly found insulting.
Unaware of his faux pas, Jerome switched to English and offered up a little speech of his own which went something like this: “Hold on there little fellow. I can’t make out a word you’re saying. We speak English here in Missouri, ENGLISH. You speaka the English?” He said this slowly and loudly as if speaking to deaf children instead of beings who had just traversed the stars. The aliens fiddled with their translators and tried communication again this time producing something Slavic or Russian as far as Jerome could tell.
“Don’t you guys have English on that gadget?” Jerome tried to say something in his rudimentary High School French and pidgin Spanish. He even tried a few half remembered words in Latin picked up as an alter boy when he was ten, “Pax vobiscom. Espiritu sancti. E pluribus unum?” Having exhausted his fund of real languages he tried imaginary ones saying in pig latin, “Elcomeway to Earthay.”
The alien device wasn’t quite up to the task and the Leptons were convinced that they had encountered either a moron or a semi-intelligent beast at best. It was getting late. Jerome was loath to leave the aliens but he was already late and Mrs. Quinth would have supper ready and give him an earful if he was late. Besides, both parties were frustrated by the encounter. Jerome motioned that he would return soon but had to go. “I will return with food and drink,’ he gestured. The aliens remained curious about this big beast. They weren’t sure what it was but it looked harmless enough. All its frantic gesturing meant nothing to them. When Jerome left the Leptons returned to their chores.
Back at home, Jerome kept his discovery of the aliens to himself fearing that Irma, his wife of 32 years, would think him delusional. After doing the dishes, he put some rice, beans, and chicken in a left-over container, filled a gallon jug with water and called out to Irma that he was going for a walk. Irma was just settling herself in front of the TV didn’t bother to reply.
Back at the landing site, the Leptons had completely camouflaged their space ship and were busy trying to communicate with a squirrel. Jerome felt slightly annoyed that the aliens didn’t recognize him as the crown of creation, but he did his best to hide his injured feelings and announced his arrival in the clearing with a hearty, “Hey, I’m back like I promised.” His voice scared away the squirrel which annoyed the aliens who thought they were getting somewhere with the creature. “I brought you all some food and water.”
Jerome laid out the victuals—rice, beans, some salad and a chicken thigh. The Leptons approached the food warily. At first the Leptons reacted with horror at what they saw. The red beans looked exactly like their larval young and they were mortified to see them cooked as food. The chicken thigh likewise offended their cultural aversion to consuming flesh. Jerome wondered why the aliens didn’t fall to and eat the meal he so generously offered. He pantomimed picking up food and putting it to his mouth. He made “mmmm” sounds of enjoyment. Finally one of the aliens removed a gadget from its belt and scanned the food. The reading on the screen caused a great amount of chittering. The aliens were relieved to see that the suspected larva were vegetable but nauseated by the dead chicken. In the end they refused to touch any of it. Jerome insisted and offered the chicken to the nearest alien who smacked it out of his hand and staggered back revolted. The result was hurt feelings all around.
Jerome next poured the water into a small bowl and offered it to the nearest alien. In his ignorance Jerome had chosen a non-living electro/mechanical Lepton android. Contact with water was a danger to this hybrid life form and could dissolve the creature’s delicate hydrophobic clone-bonds causing it to require costly repairs. A quick acting Lepton knocked the water from Jerome’s hand averting disaster. The ceramic bowl shattered but still managed to splash some water on the android causing it to run screaming toward the woods. A yellow ray from a Lepton gadget froze the creature in mid scuttle and several members of the crew carried it into the ship.
Jerome was saddened by the out right rejection of his hospitality, but was distracted from dwelling on it by his fascination with the yellow ray. He tried to induce a Lepton to take a shot at one of the many squirrels running around the clearing. The Lepton misinterpreted Jerome’s gestures as either hostile or rude. Mistrust was clearly developing on both sides.
Jerome, to his credit, made one last attempt to show his good intentions. Once again he excused himself and hurried home. “Where have you been?” asked Irma. This time Jerome ignored her and called Jingles, the Quinth’s miniature poodle. “I’m taking Jingles for a walk,” he called.
“You’re going out again? you’re going to miss Jeopardy,” Irma cautioned.
“I’ll be right back. I’m taking Jingles for a walk.”
He clipped the leash onto Jingles’ harness and the little dog pranced alongside Jerome back to the clearing. When Jingles saw the aliens he began barking continuously unnerved by the strange sight and smell of Leptons.
The Leptons were puzzled seeing an intelligent four legged creature in obvious thrall to a two legged bovine. They turned their translators on Jingles trying to understand the poodle’s yapping to no avail. One thing was certain, a four legged creature should not be constrained and the Leptons demanded Jingles be set free using a variety of gestures which left no doubt in Jerome’s mind that he best comply. He reached down and unhooked the leash. The result was immediate and explosive. Jingles ran around barking until he stumbled upon the discarded chicken thigh at which point he stopped barking and began eating. The Leptons approached. Jingles, who thought his chicken dinner was being threatened, curled back his lip and snarled menacingly. The Lepton, taking this new vocalization for communication, turned on its pre-recorded dolphin speech and approached closer than Jingles thought prudent. The dog attacked and would have done the alien a grievous injury had it not been brought down by a blue ray that reduced the poodle to a pile of charred fur.
Jerome was horrified at the sight of Jingles getting vaporized and reacted with a cry of anguish that the Leptons misinterpreted as hostility. They assumed defensive postures, ray guns at the ready. Jerome ran over to the smoking scraps and cried, “Now look what you’ve done. You’re going to be sorry when Irma finds out.”
Actually it was Irma who turned out to be sorry when in her grief she charged the bewildered aliens. They were forced to defend themselves and unfortunately vaporized her. Later, if for no other reason than to shut him up, they vaporized Jerome too.
Two days later, the Leptons realized their mistake. The cattle-like creatures were the dominant life forms and there were several billions of them. They had severely botched the whole first contact thing and would have to explain their murderous behavior to the authorities who were bound to come looking for the Quinths. After a hurried consultation with their home world, the Leptons re-boarded their saucer and returned to space. They would try again on another planet in the vicinity.
The police discovered the charred remains of the Quinths and were mystified as to the cause of death or the motive. The case remained unsolved for several years until scientists could finally understand how to get a forgotten Lepton recording device to play back the incident and the whole sad story fell into place.
It is hoped that the lessons learned from this unfortunate encounter will help the next one go a little smoother.
She was not there today. What were they going to do with their Saturday afternoon? Why the hell else would you want to go to this mall? Fourteen-year old John watched cars sloshing through the parking lot on this cold March day. Musac was pumped into the long corridor in front of the shops: what sounded like Lawrence Welk’s version of Strawberry Fields Forever clashing with the Bach on his I-pod. The intoxicating smell of sauerkraut, coming from the deli, mingling enchantingly with the musac.
John’s friend Joe (a year younger than himself) and his eight-year old brother James had been spending Saturday mornings and early afternoons at Eastwood mall for months now. A small strip mall, one of a billion spread across the American landscape like pox; there were seven or eight stores: drug, post office, office supply, deli, greeting cards and a Chinese restaurant. And of course, clothes—mostly catering to the typically rotund American, pretending they were sexy—and the ubiquitous cell phone dealer. A long enclosed arcade or gallery—protecting shoppers from the mid-west elements—stretched in front of the long row of shops, brown and tan tiled floor, complete with benches and obsolete pay phones.
The boys first became aware of her last fall, an old Indian woman walking back and forth along the strip, bending every few steps to pick things up off the floor. She was seventy at least; she wore a gray over-stuffed winter coat over her pink sari and gray tennis shoes. She wore her gray hair in a bun and wore thick glasses (to help her see the floor better, no doubt).
One day Joe noticed it was coins she was after: so of course, they had to drop some here and there—in strategic locations naturally—and watch her pick them up. This was beyond hysterical, the pinnacle of humor (if you were a thirteen-year old boy). James, their lackey, would be sent to the various shops to have one and soon five-dollar bills—their habit was growing—changed; the merchants foolishly assuming that the money was being spent at their stores—but why all the change? John told one questioning clerk that paper money was too modern; he preferred coin. The man only stared. There was a business transaction going on that did not include the mall shops. The boys exchanged capital for their new friend’s services... Adam Smith couldn’t complain.
Anyway, there comes a time when making James try on bras, turning off the bathroom lights on old men and calling the operator on the pay phone to ask her what color underwear she was wearing, just didn’t cut it anymore. Even yelling “rat!” in front of the Chinese restaurant and watching James squeeze his whoopee cushion behind old women began to lose its savor.
Joe, nothing if not subtle, started dropping the coins right in front of her and then practically throwing them—even hitting her shoes. She would simply pick them up, never paying the boys the slightest attention (probably laughing all the way to the bank). John—who fancied himself intellectual—saw it as a symbiotic relationship; she was well paid for a few teenage laughs.
Joe rolled his eyes at that.
She wasn’t there today however, and wouldn’t be next week or the next. Their friend being the only draw, they soon lost interest in the mall. Joe would now spend his Saturdays watching sports on TV, and John would be at the library. James would spend the day whining because he wasn’t with his idols (what sort of taste could you be expected to possess at eight?)
John usually stayed over at Joe’s house on Saturday nights, to carry on their war with Joe’s older sister Renée. All the previous summer sixteen-year old Renée would lock Joe out of the house while their parents were at work. The boys, armed with squirt guns would storm the citadel, trying to pick locks or pry open windows. John liked to imagine that this was Troy besieged, though this rather neglected, unkempt, filthy colonial was no royal Ilium; and this was no Helen or Hector inside the fortress. She was an Achilles; this Iliad was backward. Joe would launch an assault, he would start it, and Renée would brutally finish it. Joe would scream at John for help while being annihilated. Confronting the stronger and considerably heavier opponent toe to toe, John knew, would be suicide. John would employ what he called light cavalry maneuvers, stick and move; float like a butterfly... He easily out distanced her like fleet-footed Hermes when she turned on him. This Achilles had no weakness; her heals were impervious to their darts (or water pistols).
The winter though, had been quieter, as was natural for an ancient war. Subtler campaigning, special ops—commando raids: smelling salts under her nose while she slept, she hiding in Joe’s closet to jump out at him. She knew that Joe, not the bravest to begin with, was particularly terrified of his closet: a flight of stairs behind his clothes led to the attic. Neither side was able to claim decisive victory. Only small Pyrrhic victories on the boy’s side; not worth the sound thrashing Joe received—John was less convinced—during or after the peace talks.
On a Saturday night in April, James came over with John to spend the night. John’s mom persuaded the boys to let James come—he had been begging for weeks—and they reluctantly agreed. James was happy until bedtime (although there really was no bedtime) and was almost as scared as Joe was. Maybe playing with the Ouija board and listening to a Vincent Price recording wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Joe and James fell asleep around twelve; John, the night owl couldn’t fall asleep, so he just laid back listening to the Brahms third symphony. Joe said that that kind of music should be able to put anyone to sleep. John ignored the Philistine.
John could hear the ping or tap noise again coming from the ceiling when he came back into Joe’s bedroom after using the bathroom. Joe had been hearing it for weeks, what sounded like a metallic thud on the attic floor, then a reverberation or settling. John dismissed him—he was always freaking out about something—until he heard it himself a few times. “Renée”, Joe said. “She goes up in the damn attic trying to scare the shit out of me. She’s getting revenge for the smoke bomb we lit under her bed. The bitch waits till I fall asleep, and then sneaks her fat ass up the steps. I don’t believe I can’t hear her.”John figured she must have snuck in while he was in the bathroom, assuming he was asleep. He woke Joe—they would get her.
They crept slowly up the stairs, trying to be as quiet as possible, which wasn’t easy on the creaking steps. They were nervous and trying not to laugh, water pistols at the ready, and a secret weapon—the Trojan horse: Joe had taken a container of pepper spray from his mother’s purse; this was the perfect occasion to deploy it. Tonight, it was business, he wasn’t gonna get the shit kicked out of him. No, not tonight—she would get what John called her Waterloo. She wouldn’t be screwing around in the attic anymore.
Turning on their flashlights when they reached the top of the stairs, they scanned the room. There were only a few places she could be hiding: under an old kitchen table or behind one of the boxes of Christmas decorations. They split up, going to opposite corners of the attic. John’s heart pounded as he looked behind the boxes, bracing himself; he whistled the Brahms, trying to be nonchalant. The flashlights threw up shadows, making them wince; each one was Renée, her formidable bulk lunging murderously out of the darkness.
Come on out bitch!” Joe knew cussing would make her betray her location; she would threaten to tell their mother who frowned on such language, like many contemporary parents—you can bomb your school, you can worship Satan, but you had better not use foul language while doing it. John began giggling, they were walking around the attic carrying water pistols in the dark, Joe swearing at his sister. John relished the ridiculousness of it—everything being funny in the middle of the night. John’s house was clean, quiet and well ordered—civilized. Joe’s was like crossing Hadrian’s Wall, the Wild West—Here Be Dragons!
After several tense minutes of searching, there was only one hiding place left—under the sheet-covered table. They approached together, phalanx formation; lifting the sheet—pepper spray leveled, ready to fire.
She wasn’t there—the lights showed nothing but the table legs and the other end of the sheet that hung down between the far legs and the wall; and that was where she jumped out from.
“Haahh!” she screamed.
“What the...” Joe began. They both fell back. The pepper spray was dropped and rolled out of reach. John, as he regained his senses wondered if she spotted it, but she seemed too busy laughing.
“You bitch!” Joe squealed.
“You’re gonna wake everybody up,” Renée yelled back. “And you better watch that fucking mouth, or I’m gonna tell mom! Goodnight boys, you should’ve seen you’re faces—wimps!” Renée practically skipped down the stairs laughing.
Back in Joe’s room, they began orchestrating their next maneuver. They could not seem to be able to get the better of this Hannibal. Nevertheless, like the Romans after Cannae, John thought, they refused to accept defeat. John couldn’t believe that James had slept through the commotion above him.
Joe was back asleep by three; John who was half-asleep on the top bunk heard the noise again around that time. Surely, he would have been awake enough to notice Renée sneaking back up those steps—didn’t she sleep?
He heard the floor creak in the hall; he sat up and looked through the open door—Renée stood in the hallway, facing Joe’s room; he could not make out her face very well. He could however, by the dim hallway nightlight, see the gray winter coat she wore over her nightgown.
The next moment he jumped violently, practically out of his skin, the shock made him lightheaded, for a moment he felt like he was knocked outside himself. A crash in the attic: the unmistakable sound of coins—hundreds of them hitting the wooden floorboards, like a jar or piggy bank being poured out.
An Act of Mercy
There was nothing wrong with the cab, a modified and repainted used car that had already seen more than a lifetime of careless use before being put back into service ferrying people around the city. Of course it goes without saying that the cab was late, even though they had intentionally given the dispatcher a time fifteen minutes earlier than when they actually wanted to be picked up. Mr. Bergen said nothing about it, highly surprising for someone who, for the past seventy years, had tended to complain about anything that went even slightly wrong. Of course, he had already complained, without effect, about this entire enterprise.
For most of the ten mile ride they sat in the back seat of the cab, stolidly refusing to talk, while Mrs. Bergen scratched their cat Mitsy under her chin. The cat was positioned facing left so that her one good eye was pointed towards Mrs. Bergen. The cat was very old and didn’t like to be handled by someone she couldn’t see. The merest touch on her blind side could set her to hissing and spitting. Occasionally the tabby would rub a cheek against her hand and Mrs. Bergen would wiggle her fingers. It was a little game they both enjoyed.
“We don’t have to do this,” Mr. Bergen finally said. They were still a half mile from the doctor’s office and could still turn around. “No one asked me whether we have to do this today. Or at all.”
“That’s because all you think about is length of life,” she said, “and not enough about quality of life. There comes a time when the decision has to be made.”
“Not by us,” he said. “It’s not up to us.”
His wife laughed. “So now you believe in God?”
“There doesn’t have to be a God,” he said. “Life is enough. It goes on as long as it can.”
“With pain and fear?” She lifted Mitsy up for a moment to rub the scraggly fur against her cheek. “How much is enough?”
He watched as she carefully put the cat back into the towel she had placed in her lap for the cat’s comfort and the protection of her clothing. There was already a small urine stain on it, but fortunately not the result of a full discharge. The cat, who had come to them as a lively kitten, always mewling and scratching, had gone through all the stages of life and was now a shell of her once vital self. She spent all day on the often urine soaked newspapers spread out on the table near her favorite window, not even descending to the floor to use her litter box. In the past two years she had given up looking out the window and no longer reacted to the birds that flitted to and from the feeder hanging just outside. In her prime she would stiffen with excitement and tremble as she prepared to spring at them, although she had already learned that they were out of reach. Now she would not even get up on her shaky legs to approach the window. She just lay there waiting for Mr. Bergen to come and change the sheets for fresh newsprint while Mrs. Bergen held her. Afterward she would be returned to the table and a fresh meal put down for her. She would then be left alone to rest until it was time to do it all over again.
The cab left them at the doctor’s office and went off for its next run. Waiting time was not in the Bergen’s budget. Their discussion from the cab continued in hushed tones in the waiting room as it seemed unseemly to let the staff or the other people waiting to hear them argue the way they had to the back of a cabdriver’s head. No progress was made in changing Mr. Bergen’s mind before they were called into the inner office. Mrs. Bergen carefully put Mitsy, still on her towel, down on the table.
“Hello, Mitsy,” Dr. Cooper said, leaning down to pet and nuzzle the animal while carefully staying in range of her one good eye.
“So,” the doctor finally said, “all questions answered, all doubts put aside?”
“Maybe the two of you feel that way,” Mr. Bergen said, “but not me.”
“Leo,” Mrs. Bergen said, “we’ve decided. It’s time.”
The doctor reached out and took Mr. Bergen’s wrinkled hands in her own. “I know you were against this,” she said, “but even you must know that there comes a time when ...”
He pulled his hands free of her gentle grip. “I know, when quality of life is more important than length of life. That’s all I’ve heard for the last two months. It’s so easy for you two, isn’t it?”
“We’re fully aware of the gravity of the decision,” the doctor said. “Maybe I’m more used to it than most, but I assure you that it is not cruel, or unjust, or even unfair. Life has been lived and now there’s nothing left but to bring it to an end with dignity and compassion. I promise you it’s the kind thing to do. Can you trust me on this?”
Mr. Bergen looked from the doctor’s kind eyes to the determined ones of his wife and knew that, yes, the decision had been made and that it was truly time.
Dinner was a little late that evening with only the two of them there. The house was unnaturally quiet and Mrs. Bergen realized that the expected sounds of food being consumed were missing. She looked over and saw that, in her confusion, she had placed the dish in the wrong place. She moved the bowl from Mitsy’s blind side to within sight of her good eye. In a few moments the cat began to delicately lap at her food.
Guess you think you’re smart cause you caught me. But you didn’t catch me, did you? Not really. You just found me after Frankie ratted on me. But I can tell you one thing, Mr. High and Mighty Detective, Frankie didn’t tell you the truth about what happened that day. If he had, you wouldn’t be talking to me now, wouldn’t be considering me a suspect at all. So to answer your question, Mr. Detective, no, I don’t mind talking to you, but you’re going to get the whole story, not just pieces of it that don’t really explain why I did what I did...not Frankie’s altered version of it—the one, I’m sure that makes me look like the bad guy. So you go ahead and get your little pad and pencil out. Get ready to hear the reaal story. Then we’ll see who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
I was spending part of my summer vacation at my grandma’s house when it happened. Her name is Pearl Marie Johnson and she lives on County Road 86, right down the street from the old high school. But you already know that, don’t you? That part of that county falls under your jurisdiction and you pretty much know everyone that lives there. Well, you might know some things, Mr. Detective, like the persons involved, and the bare bones of the story, but you don’t know why I was visiting my granny, do you, and it never occurred to you to ask. All you had to do was look at how bad my home life was and you’d understand. The two weeks I spent every summer at Granny’s was the only thing that kept me going the rest of the year. When your daddy’s dead and your mama’s a falling down drunk your life is one crisis after another and if you’re the oldest child, well, you’re only one around to cope. So while you’re listening to my story, keep in mind I was only a child at the time—a very troubled, unhappy child.
What woke me up that morning, the day it happened, was the thud thud of the wringer washing machine outside my bedroom window. The room was chilly—Granny’s house had only one small heater and that was in the living room. But I wasn’t worried about the early-morning frost on the ground or the fact that it would be a good two hours before the day warmed up enough to play outside. I was toasty warm, safe and secure under the heavy homemade quilt on my granny’s bed. I turned over and looked outside to see Granny only yards away, right outside the window, feeding wet clothes into the wringer.
“Granny,” I yelled, then grinned when she gave a startled jump. She leaned over to peer through the tattered window screen.
“Go back to sleep, child, it’s barely seven o’clock.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
She returned to the washer, the thudding noise resumed. “Then go.”
“It’s too cold.”
Granny disappeared from sight for a moment as she bent to pick up the laundry basket, then reappeared with the heavy basket resting on her hip.
“I’ll hang these and then light the oven for biscuits. Kitchen’ll be warm soon enough. Go pee real quick and then get back in bed.”
But the floors, I knew, would be icy cold under my bare feet and my need wasn’t yet quite critical enough to brave the cold walk from the bedroom to the bathroom, so I snuggled once again under my cozy quilt and dozed on a sweet cloud of contentment. I’m at Granny’s house, my sleeping self told me, and I have the entire two weeks ahead of me. I must have slept for about fifteen minutes because the next thing I knew Granny was standing by the bed.
“You want bacon or sausage with your biscuits, child?”
“Bacon,” I said, and then, before I could talk myself out of it, flung the quilt aside and put my feet on the floor. The bathroom was even colder than the bedroom, but by the time I peed and then got dressed, the oven had taken the chill out of the kitchen. I had just finished my breakfast when Frankie knocked on the back door. And of course he Jane with him.
Now, Frankie is the same age as me, not even a month older, and his life wasn’t much better than mine, only his mama wasn’t a drunk. She didn’t even have that excuse for being a lousy mother, she just was. She didn’t give a flip about Frankie or his little sister, and if any parenting was to be done, it had to be done by Frankie. I’m not excusing Frankie for what he did that day, but the truth is that if he had had a decent mother, none of this would’ve happened. Frankie was ten at the time, like me, and Jane was six, and from the time she learned to walk she was attached to Frankie at the hip—he couldn’t go anywhere without her. She was about as spoiled as anyone could be, everything always had to go her way. She thought she was a little princess and the rest of us her subjects.
The moment she walked in the door, Jane started demanding things. She wanted breakfast, Granny should fry up another pan of bacon just for her...she wanted all three of us to play paper dolls with her...she wanted an empty coffee can, one with a lid, so she gather acorns.... Little brat, to this day, even after what happened to her, I still remember how much I hated her. Every summer, it was the same thing—she would practically ruin my entire visit because if I wanted to play with Frankie I had to put up with her.
Frankie was looking all sheepish and apologetic during all this, like he always did when Jane was pitching one of her hissy fits, and I was thinking I was glad to see him, but why, why, did he always have to have Jane with him? But Frankie had a piece of good news that day—Jane might be going with Aunt Maude to visit her grandma.
“Might?” I asked him. “Is she going or isn’t she?”
Well, it turns out that Jane had planned on going, even brought her suitcase, which was right outside the door. But when they passed Granny’s house on the way to Aunt Maude’s, Frankie had made the mistake of mentioning my visit, and Jane had decided that maybe seeing me would be more fun than going to her grandma’s with her aunt. Bottom line: maybe she’d go or maybe she’d stay, she was still deciding.
I glanced at Jane as Frankie was explaining this and barely resisted the urge to slap the smug look off her face. Although she was only six, she was very well aware of the fact that I detested her, that I fervently wished she would go to her grandma’s and let me enjoy my time with Frankie. It turned out that Aunt Maude was leaving at the stroke of nine, Jane or no Jane, and my guess was that Aunt Maude didn’t enjoy Jane’s company any more than the rest of us and was looking for any excuse to leave her behind.
I sent a pleading look to Granny, the only adult the room, the only one who could perhaps salvage this situation.
Granny spanned the short distance between the sink and the kitchen table. Frankie and I looked at her hopefully as she perched on the edge of the remaining chair.
“Jane, you know your grandma’s looking forward to your visit. Why, I expect she’s got all sorts of treats already bought for you. Pretty dresses, toys...”
“Dolls,” I interjected.
Granny nodded. “I seen that pretty doll she bought you last summer. I bet she’s got one even prettier lined up for you this year.”
Frankie shifted restlessly. “We gotta hurry, Jane, it’s getting close to nine.”
I shot a quick glance at the kitchen clock. Eight twenty five, time was running out.
“Okay, Jane,” I rose from the table and walked to the kitchen door as if the decision had already been made. “Let’s leave now and we can gather acorns while we walk.”
Frankie, too, hopped up from the table. “You got an old coffee can or something, Miss Pearl? Has to be pretty big, lot’s of acorns between here and Aunt Maude’s.”
Granny leapt to her feet. “Got one that’s just the right size, still has the lid and everything. Jane, you can carry the can. Frankie or Pammy’ll carry your bag for you.”
Jane, still at the table, glanced at us suspiciously, then shrugged.
“Fine,” she said imperiously. “we’ll gather the acorns, but I still haven’t decided whether I’m going or not.”
There was still a little nip in the summer morning air as the three of us set out walking, but by the time we had gone about a half a mile, I could feel the promise of the heat that would arrive about mid-afternoon. The walk seemed to take forever and I was aware of the minutes ticking away as Jane stopped every minute or so to pick up acorns. Frankie and I took turns carrying the heavy bag, talking incessantly about Jane’s upcoming trip as if there were no doubt that she was actually going. Jane, however, seemed to see through this little ploy. “Still haven’t decided,” she would say, then grin at the expression on our faces.
Okay, Mr. Detective, we’re at the part you want to hear about. My guess is that you will discover that my version, the true one, will differ from the one Frankie told you. Now you’re going see just whose fault it really was.
We were getting close to Aunt Maude’s house, only a few minutes before the ten o’clock deadline, when Jane spotted an old well a few feet from the side of the road. She stopped abruptly, sat the half-full can on the ground, and pointed at it.
“Wanna walk on the well.”
Frankie and I, too, stopped in mid-step.
“You want to do what?” Frankie asked.
“You can’t walk on a well, Jane,” I said, my heart sinking. In the time it took to argue, Aunt Maude would be long gone.
“I can walk around the top of it, seen kids do that in the movies. Just lift me up and let me walk around it a couple of times.”
Frankie set the bag on the ground as he and I shared a resigned look. As usual, the easiest thing to do was to simply let Jane have her way.
“A coupla times around, Jane, then you go to Aunt Maude’s without arguing.” Frankie said. “You gotta promise.”
“Sure,” the little liar answered—promises, she knew, were easy to break.
Jane was easy to lift and Frankie held her hand as they circled the lip of the abandoned well. I stood nearby, tapping my foot, peering at the rising sun. The summer morning was warming rapidly, it was getting close to nine, and if Jane didn’t get off that well, my entire visit with Granny would be ruined.
“Frankie!” I yelled. And that’s when it happened.
When Frankie turned at the sound of my voice, he swung Jane off balance. For a split second she teetered on the edge, swiveling her arms wildly, on the verge of falling, not the few feet to safe ground, but in the other direction—into the deep, abandoned well.
“Don’t let go!” I screamed to Frankie. But he did.
I remember thinking how deep that old well was because it took forever to hear the splash. But it wasn’t really a splashing sound we heard, Mr. Detective, it was more like a thud. That well must have been virtually dry and the thud I heard was the sound of Jane’s bones breaking.
I ran to the well and peered into it, but Frankie just stood there, his eyes staring blankly at the horizon.
“Jane!” I screamed. “Jane, answer me! Dear God, if you can hear me, say something!”
“She ain’t gonna answer,” Frankie said, his voice flat and emotionless. “She can’t, she’s dead.”
I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him viciously. He didn’t even flinch. Although his head was bobbing violently, he continued to stare ahead vacantly.
“Frankie, listen, we’ve got to get help!”
“Won’t do no good,” he answered tonelessly. “She’s dead.”
I released my hands from Frankie’s shoulders and began to wring them helplessly. I had no idea what to do now that this ordinary summer morning had turned into such a disaster. I knew Frankie was right—Jane was dead; she was alive only a minute ago and now she was dead.
I took Frankie’s head in my hands and stared at him until he made eye contact. “Frankie, listen, we’ve got to get help.”
“We call for help,” he answered in his flat voice, “cops’ll come, people’ll ask questions. They’ll blame us for what happened.”
“But I didn’t do anything!”
“Won’t matter, your mama’ll still make you come home.”
Oh my God she will, I remember thinking. She’ll be happy for the excuse to make me come home, to cope with the things she can’t cope with, to handle the problems that she can’t. I’ll wake up tomorrow morning, not in Granny’s bed, looking forward to a day of blissful peace, but at home, the last place I wanted to be. I let go of Frankie’s head and stared at the sky as I tried to think. There was only one way to go here, I finally concluded.
“How long was Jane going to stay at her grandma’s?” My question was almost a whisper.
Frankie’s eyes lost their vacant look. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Week, maybe little longer.”
There was a moment of silence. Frankie looked downward, scuffling his feet on the dusty ground.
“And how often does your Mama phone to check on her?”
Frankie didn’t even look up as he gave a little snort. The answer, of course, was that she wouldn’t put herself out any to check on her at all.
Frankie continued to stare downward as I did some more thinking. I knew that reporting the accident was the right thing to do, but I was a kid, Mr. Detective, and at the time the only thing that mattered was that I had my little vacation with my grandma. That’s why I did what I did.
“Frankie,” I said, my voice still a whisper. “Pick up the bag.”
Wordlessly, he bent to retrieve Jane’s heavy bag from the ground. I watched as he lifted it over the lip of the well. I closed my eyes as I waited for the thud.
Okay, yes, you’re right. We lied to everyone when we told them that we left Jane at the edge of Aunt Maude’s yard and then turned around to go home before we saw her go in the door. Lying was wrong, but that was the only thing I did wrong. I wasn’t the one that let go of her hand. You can’t arrest someone for little lie like that, can you? No, I don’t know what conspiracy means, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with me. Listen, there’s no need for punishment here. I’ve been through enough, Mr. Detective—I’ve been hearing that thud in my mind every day for the last nine years.
Deborah L. Reed currently resides in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her daughter, grandson, and two dogs. She is a retired Science teacher who now works in Code Enforcement.
I was Captain Nemo.
You were Captain Ahab.
With our nets, and our trays,
Pipettes and Microscopes.
We wanted to find White Whales.
Battle blood-crazed sharks.
Sever the arms of a giant Octopus.
But, instead we found Aliens in miniature,
whole universes in a grain of Sand.
And, back at school, we put our finds on a graph,
Measured the Alkaline levels in the water,
And thought about the ripples we had made,
For tiny creatures we could not imagine.
We laughed at the five year olds,
Collecting Frog Spawn in a Jam Jar,
And realised that we too, would soon be too big
For our small pond.
But, now a large pond separates us,
We keep in touch through a bigger net,
You caught your White Whale,
Found contentment on a calmer sea,
Whilst I am still drifting,
Looking for something to anchor me.
Fun with Dick and Jane
Before he’d even identified the sound, Dick’s stomach clutched with fear. The sound stopped, but it was too late – his brain had already come up with a label for it. It was the short, high-pitched scream of the second last step leading downstairs to the living room. Dick hadn’t heard that sound in three months, at least not when he wasn’t the one causing it. He sat paralyzed, his back to the staircase.
The only sound was the blonde on television carefully inserting compassion into her voice as she read the next story on the teleprompter. Dick sensed the presence behind him. He tried to tell himself it couldn’t be, but he was still frozen, unable to move, his mind stuck on the panic mantra of Oh God Oh God Oh God. He remembered only too well what usually followed that stair screech, or at least what had followed it over the last two years. It was usually a vase, or a plate, or a picture frame or something that would explode against the wall above the TV.
This time there was no explosion. And the silence was worse. He knew she was standing at the base of the stairs, knew that she knew he had heard her, and she was just.... letting him sit.
He glanced at the end table without moving his head and what he didn’t see there caused a fresh wave of terror to wash over him.
Sitting on the end table was a small dish shaped like a sunfish that one of his brother’s kids had made for him in a sixth grade ceramics class. It was where the key rings were usually kept, and sometimes a wayward paper clip or coin wound up there as well. And for the last three months, it had held one other item. A delicate gold ankle bracelet with a charm hanging from it on which the words “I Love You” was engraved in script. It had ended up there the night they were supposed to attend the Emmys because she had come late from the studio and had forgotten to take it off upstairs when she was quickly getting ready. On the way out the door she remembered it was still around her ankle and had bent down, removed it, and tossed it into the sunfish. She normally wore it all the time, but that night it clashed with the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Harry Winston loaners around her neck and wrists. She normally would have put it back on as soon as she got home, except she had never returned home. Dick did, but she was no longer with him. She was in custody by then.
Dick had never removed the ankle bracelet from the sunfish. Some part of him knew that she had been the last one to touch it when she put it there, and that knowledge made him reluctant to touch it himself. Not out of disgust, or fear, but because some part of him still loved her. Not the way she was now, but the way she had been five years earlier when they’d married. He could still close his eyes and see her on their honeymoon in Acapulco, her raven hair dancing across her face as she grinned happily at him, naked except for the fine gold chain around her ankle flashing the slanting afternoon sunlight at him from the big king-sized bed.
The sunfish was empty.
“Honey, I’m home!”
Her voice broke his paralysis and he leapt off the couch, whirling to face her.
She stood at the base of the stairs and through his fear he was still drawn to her beauty. She was dressed in denim shorts and a gray sweatshirt. The gold ankle bracelet was linked just above her right foot, as usual. The 9mm handgun from their bedside table was in her right hand, aimed slightly below Dick’s stomach.
“Jesus,” Dick said.
“No, still just Jane,” she replied. The gun was rock steady. “Well, Dick, I’m surprised. With it only being Thursday, and with a couple of hours to yourself, I thought sluts-her-name - Carmen, isn’t it? – would be here.”
“God damn it, Jane! How many times do I have to tell you there is nothing going on with Carmen?! Or anyone else, for that matter.” Dick had raised his hands without even realizing it.
“You should never argue with a woman when she’s pointing a gun at your dick, Dick.” She giggled at her own joke. Dick didn’t. “Was there a picture of me on the news? I didn’t hear. I was upstairs.” She waggled the gun a little as if to explain what she had been doing up there.
“No. They didn’t even identify you.”
“Fucking news people. Well, the cops must not have told them. The networks would kill baby seals to lead with Jane Harmony, prison escapee.”
Dick was silent. She was right. Before her shocking arrest and incarceration Jane had been the host of the number one afternoon television talk show in the country, “In Harmony”. For the last eight years, thousands of couples had walked into her studio and bared their marital problems to a panting America while Jane counseled them back to bliss. And America loved her for it. What America didn’t see was Jane Harmony, colossally failed wife and mother, control freak extraordinaire, husband beater and heroin addict. Until she was arrested for possession during a routine traffic stop on the way to the Emmys, that is. Then America got a close up view of Jane Harmony heading to prison and Seinfeld reruns in her afternoon time slot.
“What happened to the other two?”
Jane had been looking around the living room and snapped her attention back to Dick when he spoke. The gun was still zeroed in on him.
“Your fellow inmates. They got caught. You didn’t. Why not?” Dick’s mind had started to work again. He had to figure out how to protect Nell. That’s the only reason he could think of that Jane would come back to the house.
“They agreed to the dangerous part of the plan. They failed. I didn’t.” Jane did everything but shrug. She sounded bored.
“How did you get them to agree to that?”
“Oh, Dick, it’s easy to make friends in prison.” She smiled but her eyes went blank. “Everyone wants to be in Harmony.” She laughed and the sound made Dick’s teeth rattle. His lips drew back in disgust and he thought he would scream. Then he thought of Nell and everything morphed into rage. This perversion of a human being, this monster wanted to take his little girl. No. That wasn’t going to happen.
Jane saw his features change and she took a small step backward, her heel touching the bottom step. She raised the gun and put authority into her voice.
“All right Dick. Where is she? Tell me. NOW!”
“Fuck you, Jane.” Dick lowered his hands and took a step towards her. He had no idea what he was going to do.
His ears exploded and he fell to the ground as Jane fired the gun, and a clock on the wall shattered. Jane brought the gun back to bear on Dick. He looked up at her, the fear filling him again.
“Get up and shut up, Dick. Tell me where she is. I won’t change my aim next time.”
Dick stayed silent. His ears were ringing. Where the hell where the neighbors? Christ, the whole world must have heard the shot.
Jane raised the 9mm and grasped her right wrist with her left hand to steady it.
“I’m counting to three, Dick. One.”
“You won’t shoot me. If you do, you’ll never find her.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Dick. I found you, didn’t I? All I’ll have to do is wait for her to come home. Two.”
Dick stared at her. He felt something warm in his lap and realized with dismay he had wet his pants.
“OKAY, okay.” Dick was breathing hard. “She’s at the Baxter kid’s birthday party. She’s going to be gone for another two hours.”
Jane looked thoughtful. She raised the gun and tapped it against her cheek.
“That’s right. It’s Jesse Baxter’s birthday, isn’t it? Well, we’ll just have to wait for Nell to come home.” She looked at him on the floor, and noticed the stain. “Oh for God’s sake, Dick, be a fucking man, will you? Did you actually wet yourself? Christ, I should shoot you for being a disgrace to males everywhere.”
Dick stared at her malevolently.
“Under different circumstances, I’d let you change your pants, but I don’t want you out of my sight until Nell gets home. So you get to lay there in your own piss.” She looked at him with active disgust, a look he recognized. From his position on the floor he glanced towards the living room curtains, and out them, and surprise raced across his face before he caught it and forced terror to replace it. He cowered on the floor the best he could.
“I..I’m sorry, honey. Look, just let me change, okay? I’ll cooperate with you, I promise.”
“You are such a sorry piece of shit, you know that?” She started to pace slowly back and forth, her look growing meaner by the second as the heroin addict took control of her mind and body. Dick tried not to watch the gun in her hand. The gun made this risky, but he didn’t see any other way. “Just think about it, Dick. You’re lying in your own piss because you can’t even stand up to your wife.” She started pacing faster. “And I’ve only been home for... thirty minutes!”
“Honey, listen, you’re right, I’m sorry..”
“SHUT UP SHUT UP JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Dick watched as she paced wider and faster, wider and faster, only a few more feet, please God please oh pretty please God....
Dick covered his head as he saw Jane raise the gun and point it at him. Her voice seemed to take on an echo when his ears exploded with gunfire for the second time.
Dick didn’t notice he was crying. His sobs sounded more like dry screams as the living room door burst open and the SWAT team poured in, covering the room with their weapons in jerky motions. One of them ran to Jane’s body, which had been thrown over the back of the couch by the force of the sniper’s bullet. The last thing Dick had seen before covering his head was Jane walk in front of the living room window. Her ranting and pacing always went together, and once he had seen the man dressed all in black hiding behind the chimney of the house across the street he knew that if he could get Jane to walk in front of the window he might have a chance.
The news people might not have Jane’s name, but the cops sure as hell did. And where is the most likely place an escaped convict might go, especially if she had a three-year-old daughter? Home sweet home.
Dick slowly picked himself up, not hearing the officer asking him if he was all right. He was staring at Jane’s body. At her ankle. The fine golden chain with the charm that said “I Love You” was flashing the slanting afternoon sunlight at him.
He went each week to gather inspiration. A warehouse. Rusty, aluminum sheets hastily-fitted to a crumbling frame, the termites feasting on its bones. A buckled roof; a simple length of damp wood covered in sprawling ivy.
Kelly was usually there when he arrived, but not tonight. Instead, a stranger was perched on the decrepit stairs slowly pulling at an unfiltered cigarette, letting the smoke stream casually from his nostrils and up into the flickering glow of a nearby street light. A tangled row of train tracks paralleled the adjacent street.
“Have you seen Kelly?” he asked the bearded stranger.
“Naw. Just in the area hopin’ he’ll drop in. Said he might be round by seven.” He nodded and allowed silence and the distant rumbling of a train to take over the conversation for awhile.
“You celebrate Halloween this year?” he asked the bearded stranger when the silence became too thick to bear.
“Naw, not really. Bunch of churches hosted what they called a ‘Jesus Fest’ that night, so not too many trick-or-treaters.”
“Yep. Almost like goin’ to Sunday school on Halloween. Don’t seem right, does it? Guess they must think dressin’ up as a vampire and panhandlin’ for candy upsets the Lord somethin’ considerable.” The strangers laughed nervously for a moment until another vehicle pulled up to the warehouse and flicked off its lights. Vic popped out of the car with an unlit cigarette pressed behind his ear. He limped over to the two gentlemen, a standard, wild-eyed smirk on his face.
“Howdy, gents. Kelly said he’ll be round by 7:30...8:00 at the latest. My brother’s never been known as the punctual type.”
The bearded stranger nodded his approval while taking another deep drag from his smoke. Then he asked Vic, “How come you’re limpin’ so bad tonight?”
“Ah, the old wound’s actin’ up on me again. Got myself bit by a brown recluse a ways back. Sucker was hidin’ in one of my socks. Doc told me the bite was necreo-lithic or somethin’. Said the poison’d start eatin’ away at my skin.”
“You mean necrotic?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Gave me some kinda medicine for it. Bout a week later, damn leg was blown up puffier than a birthday balloon. So, I went back to the infirm-ry. Doctor says, ‘you waited too long, you gonna die.’ I told him it’s time I find a doctor with a little more faith in me. Took a whole doggone year to recover from it, but I’m a whole man again, but for the slight hobble.”
Vic lit his smoke as the streetlight continued its lazy, flickering dance. The same train that was but a mere vibration in the distance was now bouncing down the tangled tracks and past the warehouse. “Whole thing reminds me of a joke I once heard,” he shouted over the racket. “Two guys campin’ out in the woods and they come across a copperhead. One guy backs up, but the other ain’t so quick. He just stands there and that snake jump up and bite him right on his manhood. His friend told him to wait at camp while he runs off to the doctor’s to find out what to do. So he asks the doc, ‘What should I do? My friend just got bit by a snake.’ Doc says, ‘Well, you need to take your campin’ knife and cut a small slit above the bite and suck out the poison.’ So the man heads back to camp to see his friend. When he gets there, the friend is in pretty bad shape. Asks, ‘Well, what’d the doc say?’ Friend looks him square in the eye and says, ‘You gonna die, man.’”
They commenced to laughing and leaning on each other and coughing up little puffs of smoke in between until Vic’s phone rang.
“Oh, is that so?” he replied after listening to someone speak for a few moments. “Ok. Well, I’ll let ‘em all know.” He deposited the phone back in his pocket and gave both strangers an apologetic glance. “Look’s like Kelly’s held up. Don’t know if he’ll be able to make it tonight.”
The train was trailing off in the distance again. “Well, got me a few things I need to get done tonight,” said the bearded stranger as he slinked off across the tracks and into the darkness. The other stranger nodded and shook hands with Vic. He didn’t get what he’d come for. And yet, somehow, he had.
“Tell Kelly I’ll catch up with him next week,” he said. Then he hopped in his car and drove off.
Eating the feces off the land
Eating the feces off the land,
because after man, there’s nothing.
Man’s killed it all, now ain’t that grand?
There’s nothing but destruction &
the song of horror that I sing,
eating the feces off the land.
It’s all strewn with the waste of man,
with the foul mess of everything.
Man’s killed it all, now ain’t that grand?
God sees it, His rages expand
to find man in his filthy fling,
eating the feces off the land.
No longer can the sad earth stand,
to which the sorry demons cling.
Man’s killed it all, now ain’t that grand?
eating the feces off the land ...
Ms. N. A’Yara Stein
for Dana Adams, 1970-1995
When you were sick, I’d wrap strips of flannel
coated with Vicks around your thin, yellow neck.
I’d buy you ice cream, facial lotions,
huge mounds of chocolate, silk scraps for your coppery hair.
You’d cry and I’d fold you in my arms,
pull you to the window at twilight,
everything darkening, falling, silver.
Like children, we coveted some place called Paradise.
But it was the lonely oceans of night that bathed us in foam,
made us incandescent, looking fragile and obvious.
The waves would rush us each time we tried to stand.
We thought no god could hear our shrieking.
Gardenia hits, its hot scent thrusts into each curve of my nostril.
Gripping a braided edge of mahogany, I turn,
face your mother, your uncles, our friends.
They look at me and do not know our truth: I was the one to take you in,
initiator to the sea of woman, though we were yet girls.
Sometimes, you called me idol. I adored you.
Back at the house again I hear scotch split apart ice,
my black dress stiff and shiny as if to say
this just glosses over the real issues.
Smoke another cigarette with me in that crazy lime green turtleneck,
vintage ‘76 and more of a presence than you ever were
the slender slip of you like the case of a calla lily:
At Coffee with the Euthyphro Dilemma
Maryann, Dawkins, and Harris are at coffee...Maryann pops off with...
Maryann: It is a true fact that love...treating the other as self...is the highest value.
Dawkins (pre-Moral Landscape): Nature neither knows nor cares. Nature just is.
Maryann: Agreed. But the being to which this true fact corresponds is not constrained to the physical universe.
Dawkins (pre-Moral Landscape): You have to cultivate love...make it up as you go. Relying on some imaginary being outside yourself is a recipe for religious atrocity.
Maryann: Although that seems like a noble cause, why would you want to ‘cultivate’ love? Would you say it is a basic human need, like Maslow?
Dawkins: *thinking about where she is going with this before he answers* *Harris throws him a copy of The Moral Landscape*
Harris: *saving* Yes, which is part of why there can be true facts about values, without the need to refer to a being to which those true facts correspond.
Dawkins (post-Moral Landscape): *to self* I’m beginning to like the sound of this. *to all* I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too.
Maryann: I would agree that science can study the moral center of the brain, figure out which genes work together to build a being who experiences empathy, study which chemicals make us feel and act more pro-social—I agree science can describe the “fact” of valuing. But you’re also saying science can go beyond just describing what’s going on when we value....to actually determining what type of valuing is actually...really...best?
Harris and Dawkins: Sure. And it beats all the atrocities we’ve had to put up with from religion.
Maryann: But scientists, some of them explicitly religious, and all of them implicitly religious (none being without a worldview) are just as human as the rest of us. Secular governments own their own share of atrocities. Isn’t this just an attempt to neutralize the “Moral Law” argument for God’s existence, that we all intuitively know and hunger for a “real good”? I’m no fan of nailing morality to the pulpit, but is confining it to the laboratory a better alternative?
Harris: Indeed, the most common defense one now hears for religious faith is not that there is compelling evidence for God’s existence, but that a belief in Him is the only basis for a universal conception of human values. And it is decidedly unhelpful that the moral relativism of liberals so often seems to prove the conservative case.
Maryann: So now it’s liberals versus conservatives? Sam, this seems rather divisive. So what ‘do’ you make of Dawkins’ hunger to cultivate “pure, disinterested altruism,” of Maslow’s putting self-actualization as the highest of basic human needs, of the Golden Rule being found in all cultures throughout history? Doesn’t this imply there is a being who is and does what we should all be and do...a being to which a “true fact” about the “highest value” corresponds? How do ‘you’ define well-being, anyway? Are we free to choose it?
Harris: No, free will is an illusion, but this will all be answered in the book.
Dawkins: Yeah, I’ve read it.
All: *long sips of coffee*
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 289-0061
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