With every mile Johnny drives, Lester Cronin is closer to dead. Nobody knows this yet but me. Nobody ever talks about what happened to Grandpa Eddie anymore, like the whole family just forgot all about it. But I never will. The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life. I’m just coming home to take care of business first.
Officially I’m on active duty until September, but I had enough leave time left to out-process two months early. Dad and Johnny picked me up at Detroit Metro in Johnny’s Delta 88. We get the first view of the Mackinac bridge coming up from I-75 and the sky stretches out around the ivory suspension arches. The blue of the lakes blends together with the blue of the sky, reaching up toward the clouds. Our windows are down and the damp, dense air tastes cool and fresh, not like the thick Georgia heat I just left.
Dad sits in the middle of the backseat, crowded in by Johnny’s blue sweatpants, duffel bags and two pairs of basketball shoes. Johnny got a scholarship to play at Hillsdale but he spends the summer at home, up north with the rest of the family. There’s only three beers left in the case of Busch that Dad bought at the Shell station in Pontiac. He cracks one for himself and passes another up to me.
“Bet you’d like one of these, eh Johnny?”
Johnny jerks the wheel just hard enough to wet Dad’s t-shirt with Busch.
“Colonel Henry ain’t doing so good, Buck,” Dad says. “The hard life’s finally catching up with him. Walks with a cane now.”
“What’s he, ninety-two?” Johnny asks.
“Ninety-four in November,” Dad says.
“Might still have a good run left in him,” I say.
“Looks rough since the last time you seen him, Buck,” Dad says. “Something in his eyes, like the fight just ain’t there.”
“I’ll never count Henry down ‘til he’s out for good,” I say.
“Your Grandma Clio’s doing great, though,” he says. “Women get the better end.”
Grandma Clio’s a good thirty years younger than Henry and she had a rough time keeping up with him until a few years ago.
I didn’t see Grandma Clio or Henry last year when I came up for Christmas. Spent Christmas Eve with Grandma Gloria. The old two-story farm house looked more faded and beat-up than I remembered. The white outside walls are stained with time and weather and the barn is in even worse shape—a cold wind blowing down from Ontario would take it down. It was good to see family but it’s not the same as it used to be. Dad’s side used to be close, now everybody’s doing their own thing. Cousin Gwen spent Christmas Eve with her boyfriend’s family, something nobody would’ve done when Grandpa was alive. After Grandma downed her fifth shot of Kessler’s she told Aunt Alexa that Gwen could forget about spending next Christmas Eve with us.
There’s not much room in the old house anyway, with all the new grandkids running around. It’s a big enough house for a regular family, but not for us Metzgers. It gets really loud with all the little shits running around with jingle bells and crying to open their presents. I had to step outside every ten minutes or so just to clear my head. Right before dinner, Dad, Uncle Karl, and I all sat out on the porch a good half hour in sixteen degrees and wind. We passed around the Seagram’s and chopped beef ’til they called us in for dinner at ten. Uncle Karl couldn’t hardly walk by then and the raw beef and cracker crumbs were frozen to his moustache. Aunt Julie was so embarrassed that she grabbed him by the ear and drug him into the back room. Later on, Karl kept telling me, “See what happens when you get married? Don’t do it, Buck.” He must’ve said it about twelve times and Aunt Julie kept giving him a look like he murdered her sister or something. I bet Karl got it good back home. Sure as hell didn’t get laid.
We’re still a half hour from the house but I can taste the cedars and the evergreens, the fresh Lake Huron water. Down below Johnny’s side of the bridge is Fort Michilimackinac and on my side the public access beach; at least a hundred people are running around with coolers, beach balls and beer. There’s sailboats and freight ships under the bridge where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan and the ferries spray white foam from their engines on route to Mackinac Island.
“Ever wonder why Mackinaw is spelled with a “W” in Mackinaw City and every time you see Mackinac on the other side of the bridge, it’s spelled with a ‘C’?”
“It’s so the Buckeyes, Fudgies, and Trolls learn how to say it right ‘fore they cross the bridge,” says Dad.
I’ve been a lot of places in the last four years and there’s nothing so clean, nothing so green and fresh as the U.P. shoreline. In some towns around here, like ours, they got no-franchise laws. It keeps everything like it was in the old days, but there’s not many new jobs and no new business. When I was a kid, places like St. Ignace seemed big, but across the bridge all we’ll see is a town smothered in spruce and birch, no city sprawl, just small blue or white houses scattered in the dark green hills.
“See that cement support there,” says Dad. “There’s a body in there. Under the tower. Mason fell in when they were pouring cement. Nothing they could do but keep on pouring. My old man worked with a guy, Steve Pitt. He seen it happen.”
Dad’s been moonlighting—working construction and at the loading docks again. There’s been steady work there for a few years now. When me and Johnny were kids, he used to do a lot of odd jobs on the side. For a couple years, he worked the woods steady. He’d pay Johnny and me five dollars each to go with him and trim the limbs off the big trees with a bow saw and stack the wood. One summer he was working out by Bear Creek. Johnny and I would bring our poles and flies and go after trout when we finished the work. A couple times, Dad’s chainsaw dulled and he set it down and joined us at the creek. Mom always said you could never shut him up before he got drafted, but that’s the first time he really started talking to us.
“It’s your first day of freedom. We should keep this buzz going. Hit the Skunk House or the Channel Marker. It’s still happy hour.”
“Maybe we should get back and see everybody,” I tell him.
“Your Mom’s working ‘til late and your brother Tommy’s fishing with your uncle Karl. You’ll see everybody else soon enough. Plenty of time.”
“We should go to the casino,” says Johnny.
“How you gonna get in?” Dad asks. “You ain’t twenty-one yet.”
“What casino?” I ask.
“I got it covered,” Johnny says.
“There’s casinos up here now. At the reservations.” Dad grabs Johnny by the sweatshirt sleeve. “Where’d you get a fake ID you little son of a bitch?” Dad lifts his hand to cuff him but he slaps his own knee and starts to laugh. “Just like your old man.”
We take the scenic route through St. Ignace, downtown, past the bus stop where I left for the Army almost four years ago. We stop at the IGA for a twelve pack and sandwiches.
“Just enough to get us there,” says Dad. “They got free drinks in the casino.” He turns to Johnny. “Made it past the bridge—guess you can have a couple now.”
Johnny cracks his second Busch by the time we pass the exit for home. He keeps the Oldsmobile on a straight course north to the Sault.
When I was nineteen, we did a training mission out in Death Valley, at the NTC. It was my second trip out there. First time we flew, the second time we came back on busses. We stopped in Vegas for a few hours and most of the guys hit the casinos or the whorehouses. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t get into the casinos, but there were slot machines everywhere. I played some at a McDonalds and a couple in a gas station. Sergeant Sullivan said it wasn’t a problem unless I won a big jackpot. Then I’d need somebody to claim it for me. If that happened, he said we’d split it. I lost my last twenty-five bucks, except for a quarter. I bet that last quarter and won back five bucks. When the busses lined up to leave for Georgia, Sergeant Morgan didn’t make it back to the convoy in time. They said he was with some red-haired midget prostitute. Next time we saw him he was Private Morgan.
The Sault casino is darker than the ones in Vegas, but there’s enough glass and bright lights to make it glow purple in the night sky. The hotel that’s connected is bigger than any I’ve seen in this city, even though it’s half the size of the smaller Vegas casino hotels. The electric beams around the lower section light the outer doors like gold.
“Who’s feeling the luck tonight?” Dad asks.
“I’m gonna tell you guys something, but don’t get pissed,” says Johnny.
He shows us the fake ID and it’s my real drivers license that I thought I lost two summers ago when we were swimming out at Detour State Park.
“You little cocksucker.” I grab his collar and Dad grabs my arm.
“What’s done’s done,” he says. “Johnny, you’re gonna sit your ass in the car a good hour, then you try to get in. You get arrested, we ain’t bailing you out till we got our fill of free drinks, got it—dumbass.”
The casino is bigger inside than I thought it would be. Except for the cigarette smoke, it smells clean and new, like cedar and carpet shampoo. The floor is red, gold, flat and hard. The entry looks like the fancy hotels where we had our battalion Christmas parties. Instead of dress blues there’s workers all around in their white shirts and dark red bowties. Most the gamblers wear t-shirts, ball caps, jeans and flannels. The security guard stares at my ID and looks back at my face a few times before he lets us in. Johnny might have a problem when he tries to get in. There’s animal mounts all around the front area and a statue of a Chippewa warrior next to some steel-framed display cases with old black and white pictures of Ojibwa Indians fishing the St. Mary’s. Besides that, it’s not much different than the Vegas casinos. What I saw of them from the lobbies.
“Let’s hit the blackjack table,” Dad says. “Don’t tell the old lady, but I lost my overtime check on those quarter slots last week. Slot machines are for suckers. Least with blackjack you got a fighting chance.”
Soon as we sit down, there’s Johnny beside us at the blackjack table.
“Told you to wait a while,” says Dad.
“It’s cool. Heather works here. Saw her coming in for her shift and we walked in together from a side door. Lend me a couple twenties. I’ll double it in an hour.”
“I’ll give you twenty. Only got forty here. Need to hit the ATM.”
Dad and I both change twenty and bet the two dollar minimum. Johnny goes straight to a dollar machine. It’s not long before Dad’s down to his last four bucks. He gets a pair of sevens and the dealer’s showing a four.
“Split ’em,” he says. He draws fours on both. “I need to double down on these. Johnny, give me back my twenty, you motherfucker,” he yells out toward the dollar slots. Johnny can’t hear him through the Bob Seger cranking from the lounge speakers and the ringing of the machines.
“Sir, we’re gonna need you to calm down,” says the dealer. He waves in the security guard.
“What you need, four bucks? Here.” I slide the tokens toward him.
“Sir, there’s no exchange of tokens at the table. This is your warning.”
Dad cracks his knuckles. “I see how it is. You don’t want me to double down. Just hit ’em you little prick.”
A fat security guard with greasy hair taps Dad on the shoulder. “You’re cut off sir. Any more language like that and we’re gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Dad draws a jack and an eight. The dealer busts. “You motherfucker,” Dad says. “I should’ve won double.”
The guard grabs Dad’s shirt collar and jerks him out of his chair. Three more security guards come running over. Dad’s chair falls to the floor and his beer pours out all over the felt.
“Look what you done,” says a second guard, this one female. “Get his ass out of here before I call the cops.”
“He didn’t do shit. It was your boy here,” I tell her.
“You need to leave too,” she tells me.
“What did I do?” She doesn’t answer. I look at the dealer and he just he looks away. “You can’t do this—it’s not right,” I say.
“Are you gonna leave the premises or do we need to escort you out?”
“Check the cameras,” I say. The dealer and the guards ignore me.
I grab what’s left of my tokens and join Dad in the parking lot. Johnny’s nowhere around. The two guards are still walking back to the door.
“I’ll be seeing you around, you fat bitch,” I tell the fat one. He reaches for his club but the other guard stops him.
“And I’ll be looking for you,” he tells me. His body starts to shake but he’s not afraid. Wants to prove something here and now.
“It’s not worth it,” says the female guard. “They’re not worth it.”
One night, down in Columbus, Georgia, a couple fat-fuck bouncers like this guy kicked my friend Doug out of Ernie’s Roadhouse. Opened the door with Doug’s head. Me, Roberts, Morgan, Diaz and Rizzoli waited till they closed up and then we followed one of them to his apartment. We put his bald head through the window of his own Camaro. His scalp was hamburger by the time the glass cracked and shattered. He curled up on the sidewalk like a baby and just started crying.
When all the apartment lights started coming on, I thought we’d be busted for sure but we squealed out in Rizzoli’s truck just when somebody opened the door and started yelling at us. My chest got real tight and I had a hard time breathing. My hand was cut and bleeding from the window glass. On the way back to Fort Benning, we passed a state trooper and I thought for sure we’d get pulled over. Somebody must’ve seen the truck and the plates. By the time we got back, my buzz was gone and I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t slept right since. The bouncer had it coming. I never felt bad about what we did. It’s just scary to think how easy it is for somebody to come after you when you don’t expect it.
That’s how it is too, like that kid in Bosnia, Samson. He was alert to everything in the field, but he didn’t see it coming when that fuel truck ran him over. A few feet here or there, could’ve been any one of our sleeping bags. There’s just too much shit like that to think about. Most the time, I have to drink myself to sleep if I can sleep at all. Then I wake up sudden like the time the blue Kevlar fell from the ammo shelf in that Bradley, right on my forehead and damned near knocked me unconscious. I’m shaking good now, and breathing heavy, but it’s not fear—more like adrenaline.
Dad and I wait by the car for a good half hour but Johnny never comes out.
“Let’s get a drink,” Dad says.
There’s still a mismatched seven pack of Busch and Old Milwaukee in the backseat of Johnny’s car but we don’t have the keys. We walk out to the gas station across the road from the parking lot. Dad wants Kessler’s but they don’t sell liquor.
“Let’s go into town and get a pint,” he says. “We ain’t got nothing better to do.”
It’s at least a couple miles to downtown, but we head out into the dark down Shunk Road.
“Your Ma gets home in an hour,” Dad tells me. “Gonna be pissed we’re not there yet.”
“Maybe the casino wasn’t such a good idea,” I tell him. “Johnny might be in there all night. What’s that on your arm?” It’s the first I notice of the blood on his sleeve. It looks purple on his faded red t-shirt.
“Must’ve happened when that fat fuck pushed me out the door. He’s lucky I’m so drunk or I would’ve kicked his ass.”
“We could give him some payback.”
“When we get back to the casino parking lot, we’ll stake out the place, figure out what car is his. Then we . . .”
“I ain’t sitting around all night trying to find his car. Loser like that ain’t worth that kind of payback. Should’ve knocked his ass out in the parking lot. That’s what he deserves.”
It’s not too long before we come across a party store. There’s no houses around, just the flashing neon sign and a flood light in front of a garage door. Looks like someone just turned an old house into a store. The purple-green light from a bug zapper shines over the rotted screen door entrance.
“Evening, gentlemen,” says a white-haired lady with brown oval frames. She’s only about five foot two but must weigh close to two hundred pounds.
“Hey there,” says the old man. “Don’t suppose you got a pint of Kessler’s for me?”
“It’s Saturday night. Sold out the pints but I got a fifth if that’ll do you.”
Dad grabs a brown paper bag of venison jerky and a box of Swishers. The lady puts it all in a bigger brown bag with the fifth. Dad snags his red t-shirt on the screen door latch. It rips a good size hole before the door springs back against the frame. The sound echoes like a rifle shot over the field and the neon sign shakes above us.
We finish off more than half the Kessler’s by the time we make it to the St. Mary’s river, ducking into alleys and side streets along the way for shots. Somehow we end up on Portage between the Edison plant and the country club.
“We should probably head back and find Johnny,” I say.
“Let’s take a break here. Just for five minutes,” Dad says. He starts walking toward a bench when a blue Chevy Silverado pulls up.
“William, is that really you?”
Most people who know me call me Buck. A handful of friends call me Billy or Billy Buck. Only people who ever called me William were Great Grandma Aideen, Mrs. Gurov and Stacey Larson. I’m a couple years older than Stacey, but we used to hang out. Met her at a baseball game about ten years ago. Her brother Ben was the catcher on my team, little league through high school, ever since they moved here from Marquette.
“What are you doing out here, William?”
“Came with Johnny. He’s still at the casino. The old man and I got tired of blackjack so we took a walk. What are you doing?”
“Dinner at the club. They asked me to play in a quintet. Hey, you guys want a ride somewhere?”
“Which way you headed?”
“Just on my way home. Kind of hungry though. Want to grab some food?”
“Alright.” Dad’s slouched over the park bench. I help him to the truck.
“Is he okay? You guys had a few,” Stacey says when she gets a good whiff.
“It’s those free drinks at the casino,” Dad says.
Mom must be back from work by now. She’ll be pissed off for sure that we’re not home, but we can’t do much about it since Johnny’s our ride. More than anybody, Mom was there for me while I was on active duty, sending me letters and taking care of my business back home. Last time I talked to her, it was from a phone booth in Columbus. The whole time I was riled up, trying to handle the idea of going back to civilian life. She was trying to calm me down with all her logic, but I just got more frustrated. She put up with me until I mentioned getting payback for Grandpa Eddie, then she told me I was acting just like him and Lester Cronin so I hung up. When we get home, I’ll try to explain everything—that it wasn’t her, just the stress. Then I’ll never mention what I’m thinking again. People don’t seem to like the truth much, especially mothers.
Stacey wanted to eat at the Palace but it was too full, so we decided to go across the street to Frank’s Diner. Dad’s passed out in the truck. “Just let me rest a couple minutes,” he told us three times. “Then I’ll come in for a burger.” He’s done for the night.
We cross the street by Maloney’s and turn left toward Frank’s. There’s a group of young stoners in flannels and black sock caps. Must be college guys, but they’re trying to act gangster. They eye up Stacey when we walk past. The one with the nose piercing gives me a bad look. I feel their stares from behind us until we get to the glass door of the diner. It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mixed together while a brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth.
“Ever eat here before?” Stacey asks me. She sniffs in the greasy air and cringes.
“All the time before I left. Food’s great here.”
“Just be the two of you,” the hostess says. She’s cute but has a pudgy face and braces that make her look younger when she smiles. Her brown hair is tucked into a dark hair net and her face is spotted with acne.
“Your Dad okay out there? I feel bad,” Stacey says.
“That’s what you get when you pass out early in my family.”
“He looked really tired. Didn’t get much sleep?”
The waitress sets down two glasses of ice water and two plastic-covered menus.
“They got up early to pick me up at Detroit,” I tell her. Truth is, it’s the Kessler’s that knocked him out. I’m tired as hell too, but I can’t sleep lately. Last three days I slept one hour.
“What’ll you have?” the waitress is blonde. She’s about Mom’s age and looks familiar. With our family you never know.
“I’ll have the Fat Frankie,” I say. Stacey squints at me.
“Great choice,” says the waitress.
“Sounds real healthy,” Stacey says, “but I’ll have the roasted turkey, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with a Fat Frankie,” I tell her when the waitress is gone.
“So you just got back today,” Stacey says. “How does it feel to be a free man again?”
Her eyes are hungry and locked into mine but they’re glossier than I noticed ‘til now. She must’ve had a few drinks at the club or maybe toked it up with the other musicians. I kissed Stacey at a party in high school and she even wrote me a few letters when I was gone, but not much ever came of it. Something will come out of this situation, though, the way she’s looking at me.
“I saw Blake Braune the other day,” she tells me. “Asked me if I knew how you were doing. I didn’t realize you’d be getting out so soon.”
“Me either,” I tell her. “I took all the leave time I had left so I could get back in time for the fall semester. How’s Blake? Only seen him once in the last four years.”
Most people think Blake and I are close since we played on the same teams together, hung out with the same crowd. Truth is, I haven’t been thinking much about him or the old crowd for the last couple of years. While I was gone, the platoon brothers were my family.
“I don’t see him much, she says. Seems fine. Last week I had to pick up a hammer for my Dad at Cronin’s hardware and I ran into him and Jason.”
“That place is still open. I was kind of hoping they burned it down by now.” She gives me a funny look and I realize she doesn’t know the rumors about Lester Cronin killing Grandpa Eddie. She doesn’t know how much I hate old man Cronin so she must think I’m crazy. The name Cronin makes all the hair on my body stand up and I feel a tingling over my scalp. We don’t say a word until the waitress comes back with our plates. Stacey might still be looking at me the same way, but I can’t focus on her eyes. Faraway places and people and times I’ll never see again flash through my mind. Sitting down at the booth made my buzz more intense and the room starts to spin around us.
“Here’s your dinner,” says the waitress. “You want light mayo for that turkey?”
“How about mustard?” Stacey asks.
The waitress nods. “Be right back with that. Enjoy.”
Stacey stares down my Fat Frankie and fake gags before she smiles at me.
“Hey, this is good shit,” I tell her. “Want to try it?”
“I don’t eat red meat,” she says.
“Your loss. Don’t tell me you don’t like a good burger once in a while.”
“When I was a kid. Now it just makes me sick to think about it. Red meat comes from smart animals. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel as much pain, right?”
It’s the kind of bullshit we tell ourselves to justify our stupid theories about life. It’s the kind of lie we tell to sleep better at night. Most people don’t bother calling other people’s bullshit for a lot of reasons. I’d be stupid to call bullshit when a beautiful girl like Stacey looks at me the way she’s looking at me now, so what I tell her is, “You might be right.”
Her lips curl. I feel her leg brush mine under the table. She reaches out to touch my arm and it calms me as much as I can calm. There’s a loud noise from the kitchen, like the chop of an axe or the sound of a mortar fragment on metal. I jump up from the booth enough to bang my right knee on the wood. First she looks at me, scared, then we both laugh like it’s some kind of joke. I feel the cold in my chest and sweat over my whole body while I nod and watch those beautiful red lips move.
That Janet Williams hadn’t liked children all that much she blamed on the boy’s mother. Children annoyed her, frankly—all that incessant energy, the enthusiasm for obnoxious music and inedible food, their general and relentless neediness. When pressed, however, she would admit there was something special about this one, this Danny, her five-year-old grandson. On that day—that god-awful day—he’d mostly amused himself, trying out all of the chairs in the living room, plopping himself on the new loveseat and scootching his little bottom around, testing it for comfort, twisting his face around like a bad actor portraying a food critic. Goldilocks with nappy hair.
“There’s not a thing wrong with that sofa,” she’d admonished him as the phone rang. He’d blown a quiet raspberry to demonstrate his immunity to her goading.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, boy.”
The call had been from Keisha, the second of the day from her, her voice reminding Janet of some other time, although just then she had been unable to put her finger on when that might have been.
“Mama,” her daughter had sighed—a happy sigh. “Mama, His will be done, has been done. All praises, all praises.”
“None of your foolishness tonight,” had been Janet’s response. That girl, her sanctimonious ravings. Who needed it? She never knew what it might be with her daughter, had never known. The new thermostat didn’t work. Cryptic passages in obscure books of the Bible needed interpretation RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Mama, please how do I crisp these collars? He wants them just so, like all the deacons have. You know how Jerrold gets.
Me, me, me, me, me.
“What do you want, Keisha?”
“I’ve sent them across, Mama. My angels. Sent them across to Him.”
The boy in Janet’s house made sputtering noises and blew spit bubbles. Maybe this was normal for boys. She reminded her daughter that another of her angels happened to be right here in her face, right this very minute thank you very much, and that all day long he had been giving her the fish eye and various other exotic expressions.
“Damn boy’s about to eat me out of house and home,” she told her. Danny mugged shoveling handfuls of food in his mouth. Janet tossed him another pack of Skittles, which he caught with his teeth. No lie! He tore the packet open and dumped what looked like half into his mouth. You’ll choke, she mouthed—wondered if that sounded less like worry and more like a wish.
Through the phone she heard something that might have been singing, but it was hard to tell. When Keisha had been the age of her son, she “sang” entire operas to herself, part Diana Ross, part screaming banshee. Janet heard something about tempests raging and peace, the phone line flattening all of it to a sad monotone.
Keisha’s earlier call, before noon, Janet remembered. Same phone, here on this counter, beside it, a to-do list—things to be accomplished before the trip to Rend Lake with Wes. She’d warned this girl (hadn’t she?) that she had no time for mess, that a weekend away with her (potential) new stepfather was more important than anything that she, her sorry-ass husband or any of their crumbsnatchers had cooked up. It would have been the weekend that Janet closed the deal, and on the list had been the tools of her trade: the makings for a knockout supper, fine champagne, a sexy CD. Wes enjoyed a soprano sax.
What became of that list? That boy had better not be over there scribbling on it.
Now, across the wire, her daughter sang something about being here and how because of that the rest of us need not worry.
“Keisha,” Janet prompted.
“We are bathed in His glory,” came the reply.
Enough! Honestly these people and their drama. What hope did Janet have but to snag this man (any man!) and convince him to move as far away from this crew as they could find. Tasmania. Tuvalu. Some place with bad phone service.
“Wes and I want to be on the road early, so I need to go to bed. Is one of you coming to get this child? Or I could send him in a cab.”
I’ll bill you.
Danny hummed and sang and pretended to draw. Mostly he looked around the room at nothing in particular, a million miles away, no doubt. Couldn’t be more like his mama. Sometimes.
For what it’s worth his mama had been lucid during the earlier call.
I need you to pick Daniel up after kindergarten. Keisha, classic demand mode—damn anyone else’s needs. Another childhood trait, it had been. Get me a new dress for school. Eggs for breakfast, and they better not be runny.
Please, Janet would remind her. Puh-leeze. Again and again and again, she’d remind her, and Keisha would always look at her as if she had been speaking another language.
“They’re like angels, Mama. Wrapped in white, that He may receive them.”
Miriam, Sarah, and baby Hosea—and they had been angels, too. Bundles of brown beauty, perched on their parents’ laps in some Sears photo studio, dressed to the nines, posed in front of a neutral backdrop, muted earth tone smears. Big brother, bigheaded Danny, beaming, down on his knees, in front.
“Keisha?” Janet insisted. The girl just hadn’t sounded right, but when had she ever, really. “What’s the matter, Baby? Talk to mother.”
Just then Janet remembered what the air-thin whispers put her in mind of. Years ago (time passed so quickly!) she had dropped Keisha off at some teenage friend’s house. (And who knew what that girl’s name could have been. Since she had married Jerrold Davis and joined New Purpose she had cut off her friends from “the world.”) Keisha had called from the party, pointedly whispering into the receiver. “Mother, they’re doing things here.” “Things?” Janet had prompted, and in reply all Keisha had said was, “You know. Things.” Her voice had been full of both fascination and horror. The rest of the call had been mostly breathing and giggling from Keisha’s end. “Do you want me to pick you up?” “Are (whatever her name had been)’s parents there?” More giggling and wheezing. “I can be there in five minutes. Keisha?”
“Talk to me, Baby.” She’d said it back then, and she’d said it on the terrible day, too.
“It’s Jerrold, Mama. He’s so heavy. I must prepare him to be received.”
“Keisha? OK, sweetie, mother’s coming right over. I’ll get the boy together and . . .”
“Uh-uh. Don’t bring that boy over here. Don’t.”
“You heard me, Mama. Do not bring that boy over here.”
“All right, Baby. It’s all right. Mother will do whatever you need. Just talk to me. Keisha?”
Some nasal humming. (Could that have been a sob?)
“There’s someone at the door, Mama. The deacon. I called him.”
“Keisha, don’t hang up. I’ll wait. Don’t hang up.”
“Blessings, Mama, on you and your son.”
Keisha? Baby? Keisha.
The phone clicked off.
They waited and the boy spun on the barstool. What a compellingly odd person he was—even back then he had been so. Butterscotch-colored with a large blocky head that he would grow into when he inherited his father’s good looks—which he would. He’d grow into the strangeness, too. He’d use it to attract people, to endear them.
On that night he had hummed and he’d spun and he’d hummed. Hadn’t he been listening to her conversation? Hearing his mother’s name called in alarm by her mother: Wouldn’t a normal child know to be alarmed?
She paced. Now and again she’d look down and there he’d be, right up next to her, head tilted back like a turkey in the rain, ear-to-ear insipid smile like a primitive cartoon.
Then again it had been a good thing, after all. Certainly on some days oblivion is a form of grace.
Hadn’t she herself packed it all away since that night? Press clippings. Memorial cards. A tiny teddy bear she’d plucked from atop the mountain in front of his family home, black button eyes, its bow of white ribbon crumpled and stained with blood-brown chocolate.
Words lingered: Premeditation. Cyanide. Insanity.
Images, too. Three tiny coffins (So small! Who imagined such things?) arrayed around a large one. Cameras—dozens upon dozens—aimed at her and at the boy. She’d layered a shawl across his face.
More than anything: the blank-eyed bliss on her daughter’s face. Try forgetting that.
When the doorbell rang, it, as expected, had not been her daughter.
“Ms. Williams? Ms. Janet Williams?” A policeman. That deacon, the young one, from their church.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid . . .”
She’d put her hand up—the universal sign for just-one-damn-minute. They reeled back, as if her fingers contained lightning bolts.
“Danny. Daniel!” Sometimes he didn’t seem to know his own name. Keisha had that, too: selective deafness. The boy stopped his spinning and humming and dropped from his most recent stool, staggering like a drunk, overcome by the sudden motion of the room. When the spinning stopped he seemed to recognize the deacon and made to rush for the door.
Get him out of here. That had been her instinct. Go take a bath. Fish through the smutty books in my underwear drawer. Find my purse and steal me blind. Just get the hell away from here. Now.
She held up the same hand that had stopped the officer to stop the boy in his tracks. She concocted some errand—some picture to be torn from Essence.
“Leave the magazine on the bed when you’re through.”
The boy had called out something to the deacon, but on her life she cannot remember what he had said. He knew something was up (don’t they always) but considered the look on her face and decided to comply. She had set her jaw and affected the slightest of squints; it was the face she used on recalcitrant employees at the phone company. Foolproof, dependably so.
“That’s a good boy,” she encouraged. God, how she hated easy compliance. They’d work on that, the two of them would.
She turned and faced the men.
What she remembers most from that night was feeling sorry for them. What an awful thing, what a grim business: the giving of bad news. The officer had been young—perhaps barely out of the academy. Peach-fuzzy, he was. Blond, chunky build, ex-military—his haircut announced that.
The other man, the deacon, she had seen glowering self-importantly next to the pastor of New Purpose. A friend of Jerrold’s, she remembered, but she couldn’t retrieve a name. Something Germanic perhaps. Barely out of his teens, clean as a whistle and self-righteous as a snake. Good Lord, could there be anything more smug than a handsome young man who thought he had God’s ear. That night he had a bruised quality about him, like someone off an all-night flight from Tokyo.
Instead of sadness she saw fear in their eyes; and she was the cause of that fear, she knew. What, after all, would she do when they told her what Keisha had done?
As it turned out, not much. Hang her head. Accept a hug from the boy deacon. Note the probable next steps: autopsy, funeral arrangements, jurisprudence for her daughter. Lots and lots of media, they warned, and she agreed that would be the hard part.
But, really, until they spoke their truth, these men had no idea how she might respond. None. And for a moment—just for a moment—she savored her power, the sheer deliciousness of it. How often in life did you have a man—two men—at your absolute disposal? What wouldn’t a man do for you in a moment like this—and she could see in their eyes that the longer she held them off, the harder it pained. Once, maybe twice in her life she’d had this power. Sex with her now long-dead husband. He’d be helpless—she’d stun him, he’d buy her the moon. And then there was that nasty piece of work down at the office—a lineman—up to his whiskers in gambling debt, rude and evil, him sniveling in a chair in her office, his fate in her hands. Beg me, she’d thought to herself. Beg me and maybe I’ll save your worthless behind from the unemployment line. She’d stared the bastard down while he cried like a little girl—the same way Keisha would always do, in fact—swearing, as would Keisha, off his bad behavior, promising to be good forever. She had reared up, slightly, up over the worm. Who cowered. She’d had to dispose of that chair (one indiscernibly shorter than her own that she’d kept across from her desk—for the little people). He’d peed his pants a little, ruined the damn thing.
The eyes of the frightened: They were peerless. In front of her, these two men: Waiting for my fangs, boys? You! Blondie: in that kitchen and clean up the mess my grandson left on the counter. Preacher boy! Yes, you, hot stuff: Up on that roof and clean those leaves from the gutter. In the bedroom when you finish, the both of you. I’ll be waiting—and I’d better not be disappointed.
On occasion over the years—rarely—she revisited this moment in the doorway. She’d entertained the identical pedestrian fantasies that all her fellow humans did: She’d frozen time right there. Wouldn’t life be . . .
Except Janet, good determinist that she was, could never finish that sentence. Janet had been nine when she had settled on the stoicism that would shape her entire life, and she had told her mother that her path in life contained no choices. Her proof had been the fact that all of the things that had happened to her had in fact happened to her. The other choices had not. Her mother—who had as much as made a religion out of resolute common sense—had ordered Janet to stop talking nonsense. Frequently and never with anything remotely resembling tolerance she would cut off Janet’s little pseudo-philosophical ramblings at the nub, handing her a clean dishtowel and ordering her to get on with the matter at hand—another philosophy that had always served Janet well. So be it, then. She’d put these men off as long as a person decently ought to.
Like the big girl she’d always demanded her own crazy-ass daughter be, Janet squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and nodded to the men, signaling that it was time for them to take their best shot.
Cecelia stole it. It was my Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake recipe and she walked away with the win. I normally wouldn’t make such a fuss. I’m not one to complain or point fingers. But in this case, I can’t keep quiet. I just can’t shut my big mouth. That blue ribbon means my winning recipe is going to the Minnesota State Fair, and going without me. That ribbon, and all that came with it, should have been mine and mine alone.
Let me tell you a thing or two about Cecelia Bentz. She was my best friend for twenty-two years so I think I can speak freely. Cecelia Bentz is no baker. She can cook a very nice Thanksgiving dinner—turkey, potatoes, the whole nine yards. Sure, she can cook, but she cannot bake. Cecelia uses all-purpose flour for almost everything and pre-made mixes for everything else. Once I began to bake, I asked her kindly to make the sides. Leave the desserts to me, dear. And up until one week ago, she did.
What makes her deceit so hard to swallow is that Cecelia was my only rock in the whole world when Roger died this winter. She was at our home when his heart gave out, and lucky, too, because I was away for a few hours, bargain shopping at the outlet mall. Later in the hospital, when his heart beat fast, trying to recover, she stayed right by my side, right by his bed, the whole time. She took the rotating shift at night to let me sleep. When I needed black coffee from the cafeteria or a hot shower at home, she stayed with Roger until I returned, never leaving him alone, not for one minute. She was such a true, kind friend.
“He likes it when you hold his hand,” she said and took his left, smoothing the frail skin with her fingers.
“He does,” I said. On my side of the bed, an IV pierced the top of his hand. I rubbed his forearm, slowly smoothing the black hair.
When it was time, when my Roger passed out of this world and his soul took up communion with the angels in heaven, she sobbed and I sobbed and we held onto each other there in the hospital room.
Cecelia’s the only reason I got through all of that. I’m still getting through.
This whole horrible ordeal with the recipe happened a week ago at the Cyrus County Fair. The fair has been a constant in this part of the state for over one-hundred and twenty-two years. I am proud to say that I have attended thirty-seven of those years and my Roger, thirty-six.
Roger was a man of many passions. In the beginning, he was interested in classic cars. He spent hours with them, admiring long lines of buffed pick-ups and shiny convertibles. I’d often find him under the hood, studying the parts that made them hum. If it wasn’t there, I’d catch him in line, waiting on some kind of sugar. He had an insatiable sweet tooth. I liked the corndogs, myself. But not Roger. He ate funnel cakes and elephant ears and any color of snow cone. He ate roasted almonds and honeyed fruit and miles and miles of pink cotton candy.
A few years after the car shows, Roger took up the banjo and put together a small band. They played on the bandstand, which in those days was more like a houseless porch than a stage. They played for four nights in a row, and it was crowded each and every night. Another year he decided to buy an old junker. He tore the doors off, gave it a spray with cheap green paint, and entered himself into the demolition derby. I was less than pleased, saying Hail Mary’s in the stands while I balanced two babies on my knees, trying to soothe them during the crashes and the cheering. He didn’t win but he didn’t hurt himself either, thank the Lord.
When the kids were older, we took them to the Midway. They twirled in fat strawberries until they were almost sick, then ran over to the dragon trains for a quick bounce up and down along the track. The two were terrified by the ghosts inside the haunted houses, but they walked through them over and over again. The Midway isn’t what it used to be, I’m disappointed to say. After I accepted my red ribbon this year (or I should say, after I was denied the blue), I found myself wandering around the fair in a sort of daze, seeing everything differently. The rides looked worn, used. They had chipped paint and stiff gear shifts. They were all plugged in, with enormous hose-like extension cords, to small electrical boxes throughout the fairgrounds that sat in puddles of mud.
I walked home through the cemetery and stopped to visit Roger’s grave. It was the brightest one in the whole yard, newly planted. There was a small splay of red flowers on the stone, no doubt from a close friend. Roger was loved by everyone, but no one as much as me. I left a snow-cone there that matched the flowers. His favorite flavor—cherry. I walked away before I could see it melt.
I loved the fair but never cared much for rides, so when Roger and the kids were off spending our summer allowance zipping and zapping around the place, I would sit on a straw bale outside the Midway or on an empty bench under the bingo tent, and watch people. That was always my favorite thing. You learn so much about people just by watching them. An otherwise miserly old man will give his granddaughter ten dollars just for a funnel cake and fries. A frazzled mother will finally find peace as her children wait in line after line after line. A young couple will take each other’s hand, but not before looking around to make sure no one else is watching. I could sit and watch for hours. And for many summers, I did just that.
This was all long before I had any idea that the kitchen could be an enjoyable place, one not just for mashing potatoes and washing dishes. I remember the first time I tried to bake a pie, when Roger’s mother came to visit. It was a disaster. A right disaster. Imagine this: mother-in-law and my bawling new baby rushing into the street while the whole kitchen is thick with black smoke. And me, trying to fight it off with a dish rag, burning my eyes out. A wet, sopping mess. I know now that I misread the baking temperature and my pie boiled over. Much over.
Roger didn’t encourage much baking after that, bless his heart. He learned to satisfy that sweet-tooth somewhere else. He came home with a box of doughnuts or a sweet pie or cookies by the bakers dozen.
It wasn’t until about ten or so years ago that I took another swing at it. I wanted a hobby. Roger had yet another one, cross-stitch this time. He sat in the living room, bent over the tiny needle and thread, wearing his reading glasses—the ones that made me smile every time he put them on because they were purple and made him look so young and so handsome. He stitched each little ‘x’ perfectly. He had patience like a saint. I was better with trial and error. I think that’s why, when it came, baking came so naturally.
I began with cookies. These were simple because you could burn a whole batch and still have something more to work with. Fool proof. After mastering cookies, I tried pies again. In the summertime, northern Minnesota overflows with berries. Blackberries are my favorite, and raspberries. The pies went well. And when one boiled over and black smoke started to rise out of the stove, I didn’t panic like I had done when I was younger. I simply asked Roger to please stop sewing and take the batteries out of the fire alarm and open a window.
I made bars, too, the staple of any picnic or potluck. I was quite inventive. Spiced Pumpkin Praline Bars in the fall. Sweet and Sassy Lemon Bars in the summer. Orange Blossom and Lavender-Scented Cheesecakes in the spring. Double-Fudge Devil Brownies in the winter.
People said, Oh Ellen, these date bars are divine, and These lemon drop cookies are better than anything my grandmother ever made, and This angel food cake makes me feel like I’ve died and gone right straight up to heaven. I always smiled and thanked them. It is important to be humble, especially when one knows she has a gift.
At Easter one year, after eating my Christ is Risen Coconut Cake, my Baptist cousin Mindy suggested that I share my God-given talent by entering into a competition. At first, I thought, No, I couldn’t possibly. Then I asked Roger, and he said, Do it. So I did. Roger got sick that spring, but he was still a great sport. He tried eleven different kinds of bars, small portions, of course (careful of his heart), before I settled on the one I would enter. I remember it to this day. Chocolate Potato Chip Jumblers. A fat brownie bottom with a creamy peanut butter middle and chocolate-covered potato chips crunched on top. The judges loved it. I won first place.
I’ve won plenty of blue ribbons since then. Let me make it clear, once again, that this whole thing isn’t about the ribbons or the title. Or the fact that the winning cake this year from the Cyrus County Fair is entered not only into competition at the Minnesota State Fair, but also has the chance to launch the baker onto a segment of a weekday edition of “Morning Brew with Mark and Emiline,” the most popular morning talk show out of Minneapolis. It isn’t about any of the prizes or the prestige. It is about honesty and truthfulness and what is good in the world. It is about being straight and owning up to one’s wrong-doings, one’s lies, one’s deceits. It is about my cake.
Last summer I entered my Sauerkraut Surprise Cake in the competition. I was hesitant at first, but Roger convinced me. His new thing was Pilates and he stretched and curved his spine into a “u” and said, Do it. The sauerkraut is meant to be a novelty, you see, something to tickle the eater’s imagination. You can’t actually taste it. The judges thought it was clever and delicious and gave me a red ribbon, second place. Adeline Sumner won the blue with the same German Chocolate Cake she had entered for the last five years. I heard someone say she won first because she had severe pneumonia and wouldn’t last through the winter (which she didn’t) but I paid no mind to those rumors, nor did I spread them along. I do not approve of gossip—it’s just secrets spread around and around in mean little circles.
This year, though, I was sure I’d found it. The winning recipe, the perfect dessert. Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Pound Cake. Rich. Delicious. Baked to perfection. An easy win. Had it not been for Cecelia’s stolen dessert, my cake would have shown supreme.
The Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake was one I tried on Roger a year ago. He loved it. I remember watching him take the first bite, licking homemade raspberry jam from the fork. He asked me to make it again the next week. And I did. I made it for one month straight, anything he wanted, then, when he wasn’t feeling well. After that, I didn’t bake it again until the funeral.
The night before Roger’s funeral, the house was full and all asleep with family and friends from out of town. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t spend one more minute lying in my bed alone. So I went to the kitchen. My hands moved as if from memory, pulling the flour and the sugar and the baking soda out of the cupboards, sifting and measuring and cutting cubes of butter. I made that cake from memory alone. And I believe Roger was there, beside me, helping me get it right, just how he liked it. When I drew it out of the oven, golden brown, perfectly risen, I began again. I mixed another batch and then another. I must have pulled three more out of the oven when I was startled. It was Cecelia, in the door of my kitchen. It was 4:15 am.
“You’re already awake,” she said.
“How long have you been there?”
“What are you doing, Ellen?”
I looked around my kitchen.
“It was his favorite,” I said, and then sobbed into the batter.
Cecelia stood firm in the doorway. I kept mixing, and I was crying, too, faster and faster. The fourth cake was overcooking in the oven. I could smell it.
“Stop it,” she said.
Then louder. “Stop it.” Again.
And just like that, he wasn’t there anymore with me, Roger, his spirit. It was as if he had simply gotten up and left out the door into the early morning. I stopped stirring.
“He’s gone,” I said.
Cecelia’s eyes filled. She came out of the doorway and hugged me, so tight, as if I would fall down to the floor if she let me go. When I finally pulled the last cake out of the oven, it was black in the pan.
Cecelia was there for me again, early this summer when I felt the clutter of the house pressing in on me, and I asked her to come over and help me get rid of some things.
“What should I do with his crossword puzzles?” she asked, and handled them gently.
“Don’t you do it, dear? Any patterns you like, just go ahead and grab.”
“His Pilates tapes?”
“Take ‘em if you want, or get rid of them.”
“The pressure cooker?”
“You’re much better with jams and jellies than me, it’s all yours.”
Cecelia made small piles around the room. She worked slowly. I could see she was still upset for me, the way her eyes watered.
She held up his eyeglasses. Those special purple spectacles.
“Those I need,” I said. “Those I’ll keep.”
I held them in my hand for a long time before setting back to work.
“What about the miniature tractor and trailer made of green spray-painted nuts and bolts?” she said.
I snapped my head back over a heaping stack of Sunday papers and cocked an eyebrow. We laughed and laughed together amidst the piles of Roger’s things.
We met last Wednesday for coffee, Cecelia and I, like every Wednesday since we became friends. I was telling her all about my Peanut Butter Swirl Cake when she ran out of coffee filters and walked down to the grocer for more. While she was gone, I decided to make myself useful, folding some laundry and washing up a few dishes. When I was putting away the crystal, I found a pair of glasses sitting in a small bowl in a tall cupboard. I nearly crushed them with the gravy boat. When I took a closer look, I saw that they were Roger’s. The same silly purple frames. I was so happy to find them. I thought they were lost. I had cried for two whole hours on the floor of my bedroom thinking about them being gone.
When Cecelia came home, I told her how I found them bunched in with some dishes, accidently packed away with the canning supplies from earlier that summer. I hugged and thanked her, with a happy tear still in my eye. We didn’t get to have coffee after all that morning. Cecelia didn’t feel well once she got back from the store. I fixed her some tea and filled up a hot water bottle. I tucked Roger’s glasses into a pocket in my purse and went home.
We haven’t spoken about the cake incident. She hasn’t called to apologize. I’m not about to make the first move. I am too upset. Hurt, really. I suppose she’ll say she forgot it wasn’t hers, even though it was written on a card that said, “From the Kitchen of Mrs. Roger Ellroy.” Last time I checked, that was me.
I have spoken with Cecelia twice though, since the fair. Not by choice, but by the good Lord’s will and intervention. We belong to the same prayer chain. The first time she called about a prayer for Mrs. Baker, the diabetic. She tried to get me to say something, explain why it was I hadn’t called, hadn’t accused, hadn’t asked her for an answer.
“What did I do?” Cecelia pleaded over the phone. “Tell me, Ellen! Tell me what I have done?”
I just kept right on with my Hail Mary’s. I prayed extra loudly. The prayer chain is no place for that conversation. The second time she called—when Timothy Niles broke his leg jumping off a wet trampoline—it was much colder. We said our prayers and hung up like we didn’t even know each other, like we had picked up the phone for a wrong number, an unfamiliar voice down a long distance line.
It doesn’t make me happy to say these things, to tell what I know, and say what I’m saying. Cecelia was my friend, my real true best friend. And to me, that means something. I can’t shut up, not this time, can’t allow her to get away with taking something that doesn’t belong to her. I can’t just allow her to parade around as if it were hers, as if I had never been there, behind the whole thing, all along. That recipe was mine. It was mine, you can see that now.
The spa was located in the hills, behind the town’s famous billboards.
“The farthest spot on known earth,” her husband said, looking over the brochures. “No fast foods for miles.”
Her husband helped her pack, while she stood to the side eating Dorito’s. The afternoon sun shone on her as she got in the car and slammed the door. Her husband waved. When she pulled out of the driveway, he called out to her. “Relax enough, so you can ovulate and then we can get back to business.”
The drive took an hour. The spa was a large white building with the mountain behind, hugging it. On the right side was a pool. On the left side was a room with bay windows overlooking the coast. In the middle, as she pushed through the revolving doors was the entrance and a table set up of fresh organic food and juices.
The women in white coats smiled and their voices sang like angels on acid, welcoming her to an experience that’ll transform her.
“Listen to your body,” they said as they showed her to her room. Her room held large windows that faced the mountain. The pine trees pressed against the glass, bits of sunshine filtered in.
She asked for coffee.
They looked at each other. “Why do you need coffee?”
“Because I’m tired.”
They smiled. “If you’re tired, then go to bed or rest in the sauna or go for a swim in the pool, perhaps.”
As she swam in the hot pool, swimming one lap after another, she could hear the wolves howling. She slept that night, hearing them whimpering and scratching her window.
Early morning, they gathered in the great room, prepping themselves for yoga. While they stretched and cried out to Mother Nature, she asked if anyone else was concerned about the wolves. Did the wolves ever pose a problem?
“Don’t listen to the wolves,” they told her. “Listen to your body.”
“But doesn’t anybody else hear the wolves?” She looked around at the other women in the room. Their eyes closed, deep in thought, deep in breathing; inhaling and exhaling.
The lady stood up and walked to her, placing her hands on her shoulders. “What is it your body’s saying? Listen deeply. What is it your body’s telling you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then on to the dogwood pose, shall we? On the count of three…”
On the third day, she asked for coffee. “Why do you need coffee?”
“I’m tired. I got a headache. It’s a caffeine withdrawal headache. I know it.”
“Don’t listen to your brain. That’s your brain talking. Listen to your body. What is your body telling you?”
“It’s telling me it wants coffee.”
They smiled. “No, it isn’t.”
At the five o’clock spiritual exercise, she stayed in her room. They came into her room, concerned. “I just don’t feel like it,” she said as she filed her nails and cut them into tiny perfect curves.
They gently took the items out of her hands. “Take a rest. Remember why you came here. You came to rest. You’re doing too much. What is your body telling you?”
She asked for a shaver. Her hair was growing back from the last wax and the shaver she brought had already turned rusty. They took the rusty shaver from her, threw it into the bin. “You don’t need to worry about things like that. That is not important. What is important is your body. What is your body saying?”
She sat on her bed’s clean white sheets, watching her nails grow long, curling inward. She watched the short bristled hairs on her legs grow. She gathered the tangled hairs on her head and twisted them up into a messy bun.
That night, it thundered. The wolves howled. The power and lights flicked off. They gave them candles and told them to rest, to call out to Mother Nature and to listen to the body. “What is it that your body is trying to say to you?” they asked, looking into her eyes.
She moved the dresser in front of the door and threw the heavy white candles thick as bricks through the windows. The glass shattered. The rain came in, filling the room. The pine trees tumbled forward, touching her feet.
The mice came, crawling up her body. Sparrows flew in. Together they poked and pecked into her tall matted hair that sat atop her head like a wobbly castle. She laid on the bed and opened her legs. The rabbits wet and white came into her vagina, burrowing and digging to keep warm. The wolves pranced in on tiptoes. They stepped over her body; stepped over the mice, rabbits, sparrows, and came to her neck. They snarled, exposing large teeth. They leaned forward, biting deep into her neck.
The women were outside, pounding on the door: “Listen to your body. What is it telling you? What is your body trying to say to you?”
She closed her eyes and listened.
Back to Table of Contents
Just a name
Rosa, a girl in a story, a name I happen to like. She’s a girl with a father who follows her to the ends of the earth as she follows a story, a myth, an incantation.
She is trying to be a virgin and a diplomat, like Gertrude Bell.
She would also like to be a mad heroine, like Isabelle Eberhardt.
Her parents would like her to finish her homework.
She covets the gypsy’s wide skirt, the nun’s collar, her mother’s braid.
She rides up on a horse, plants her bloody hand on the wall of a church, makes her mark.
In the street, she breathes polluted air, lets her father, a man, buy her a drink made of almonds. Says merhaba, says teshekur ederim, turns away from her father. Wants a boy. Wants a penis.
Experiences a moment of 21st century doubt.
The blind doctor
She leans forward in her chair. Can he feel her movement?
She leans, examining him, sees waves break over his gentle face.
She sees him but he can’t see her.
She trusts his x-ray vision, a function of his heart.
Tells him what she wants: a boy, a penis, (a heart).
Her mother in a braid, her mother in pigtails.
Her brother, a genius or a fool.
They’re all fools.
She twirls in her skirt, her hands tilted toward god.
Naked beneath her skirt, she is breezy.
What would Gertrude Bell say?
Isabelle Eberhardt, where are you?
What does Rosa know about Gertrude Bell?
That she was a highly accomplished virgin, an adventuress, (never an adulteress), a linguist, a diplomat.
She’s in the desert, immaculate and alone:
She walks white sand until it’s in her throat and lungs. Coughs sand like granulated sugar, can’t stop rubbing her eyes.
The Bedouin boys appear and dance the depth-negating dunes.
Their bodies are short, wiry, powerful. (She realizes a new incarnation of her own every hour.)
In the almost-cold dawn, they offer her the thinnest version of bread she’s ever eaten, just-baked over hot stones. She takes the bread, aiming for diplomatic distance, can’t help but offer them a glimpse of her eyes, which sparkle.
Her head is covered in yards of white linen.
His heart, his eyes
The blind doctor leans; Rosa watches interest arrive on his face.
His heart is oval-shaped, with honeycomb compartments, each containing a patient, a little like her. She’s young; she lives on the bottom floor. (There’s an old man with a hack who lives above.)
She wants to touch his blind eyes.
Isabelle Eberhardt would do it; Gertrude Bell would not.
One of these days. In the meantime, bide your time.
(Isabelle Eberhardt is another type of desert woman entirely.)
Forgive my violent emotional weather!
If I’d travelled dressed as a man!
The land and I are one; one with the land.
Call me ……
Does the body answer to the soul?
That hero is long dead, but I’ve read the book.
Not sure I fully understand about soul, but bliss, I do.
I would not convert to Islam.
I do not have six languages at the tip of my tongue.
Refuse to go back to your civilization.
Is this confusion or wisdom, Dad?
This good horse, these camels.
Her life now, as I read it, is finished, closed. But her life as she wrote it is unfinished.
Let me have my unfinished life.
Freak or trouble-maker?
Where are the Bedouin boys?
The blind therapist creates a gaze through modulation of voice . Without the distraction of sight, he tends not to be deceived.
His theory of truth: that it’s layered. He has a range of stylized sounds that act as his eyes and offer solace or neutrality.
Parker Williams, a boy in the ring.
I’ve caught a live bird in the hand.
Have you ever been to the Sahara? Walked a desert? Ridden a camel? Known anyone who’s worn a veil, died old, still a virgin?
Are these the wrong kinds of questions to be asking?
(What do you see?)
What is a genius?
He is silent.
Rosa hides her smile behind her hand, unnecessarily.
She sees orange and red, the greens and yellows of fall harvest pumpkins: something from her childhood, intruding.
Her doctor can’t see. Does that mean he has no brilliance?
–Where are you now?
Like a window, he always knows when to ask.
Rosa wishes she were a doorman, but without having to open and close.
She wants to travel across the desert on a camel.
Her father could come and retrieve her, if he dared.
Her mother and brother would stay home, banned.
She watches the blind doctor navigate the glass of water; she watches the level of the liquid against clear glass.
She shifts in her chair, pretzels her legs beneath her.
She covets the bull’s-eye of genius but would be satisfied to look behind the doctor’s eyes, to see what he sees.
Would she trade her allegiance to the idea of Gertrude Bell for the talents of a Macedonian firewalker? Will she ever lose her virginity? (Is it negotiable?)
She has a friend who eats only white things.
She is unpoked, buttoned-up, all-one. A miserable donut (no hole). Without being punctured, how can she know her center?
When certain cars pass in the street, he is forced to lean in toward the patient and focus more intently to catch what is being said.
He is all ears.
The pores of the walls open, listening.
The layers of sound divide—he zeroes in on the layer that speaks to his heart: endless longing.
He leans forward, retreats, collects the room’s sounds in a basket in his head. The sounds run through, leave gold.
The child is running against time, her legs are tied to the moon’s shadow.
Someone presses hard on a horn. It floods the room.
She dreams she sees him on the street, walking quickly, with a stick.
She runs and catches him just as he turns into his building: Hi!
He knows her voice, turns toward it.
She leans toward his face, finds his hands on her eyes.
She fills his cups with tears.
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They called it a boo hag. It’s what Eva said was haunting her when I got her on the phone six years after I’d left Miskwa. I felt the same way every time I talked to her—nostalgic a little, but hurting with secret embarrassment—and it was always at some odd hour of the night when the city noises kept me up. I always found myself wanting to hear her talk about ghosts and demons. She was still living deep in the bog in her grandma’s old house, but she was no more Gullah than I was, and whiter than French bread. Still, the stories of the Gullah folk burrowed deep in her, and they were stuck in there just as firm as when she was four foot tall and barefooted.
“I don’t want to go to sleep,” Eva said. “See, they all knew what it was when I told them the symptoms.”
They, meaning the Gullah folk, her friends and neighbors, the men and women who came to help her weed her sandy garden in the summertime, boiled seafood in big pots and ate in each other’s yards in big crowds, I’m guessing. They liked Eva, white Catholic girl she was, though they probably thought she was fragile, that she’d crisp like a rose petal on a hot window.
“I have these awful dreams,” she told me. “And I wake up in the morning all achy, with my back on fire. Mrs. Legare says that’s a boo hag, a nightmare spirit. It gets hold of you and it rides your bones all night.”
“At least something is riding your bones.”
“Oh, Jim, hush your mouth,” she said. She laughed, but there were tired pieces to it. “It’s the bad kind of riding, not the good kind.”
I wanted to joke a little more, but she listed off what she’d put together to take care of the boo hag, everything Mrs. Legare had told her she’d need: a glass bottle, a bundle of broom straw, a cork, a needle.
“You stuff the broom straw down into the bottle,” Eva said, “and the boo hag gets distracted ‘cause she has to count it all, every last stick. When you get up the next morning, the boo hag will still be in the bottle counting, and that’s when you stick the needle in so she can’t get out. Mrs. Legare said she’d help me.”
“Eva, you should go to a doctor if you’re hurting in the morning,” I said. “Don’t let them give you voodoo fixes.”
“Jim,” she said. Her voice got weird, like dead leaves breaking. “Doctor don’t know anything about this.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Jim,” she said. “There’s one other thing they said I had to do. Please don’t let this make you sad.”
“I’m already sad. Tell me what the real problem is.”
“Jim,” she said. The fact that she’d said my name three times made me wonder if she trying to secure me in a trance. “The nightmares are always you.”
Eva never was an accusatory person, so it stabbed like a spearhead to hear her say that, to dredge up what she knew wasn’t my fault. I had to leave Miskwa. I told her that plenty times enough. My city was all brick, and my apartment was all brick, and sometimes I’d go out and pull off wisteria and put it in a vase on my table so I could smell it when I walked in. Mysterious wisterious. But it always wilted, and that was how Miskwa was. Try and put it to use and it falls apart. She knew I felt this way.
“Why is it me?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, her voice hushed. “I wanted to tell you that, because I think this has to be the last time I talk to you.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” I said. “You can’t blame me for your dreams.”
“I know,” she said.
“You can’t blame anyone for dreams.”
“I have to go, Jim.”
It was abrupt as it was ridiculous. Once she said this, she told me goodbye, gave me a kiss through the telephone and hung up. I sat on my couch feeling stung and itchy and angry. I was the boo hag; that was basically what she said, and she had to cut me out to get rid of it.
For three days, I tried calling her and the number wouldn’t go through. I let my feelings fester, let those feelings go to work saying hello and goodbye to people and places, hello goodbye coffee shop, hello goodbye parking structure. And I thought for a long time about Eva. And at the end of the week, I packed up my car and drove the nine hours back to Miskwa.
The bog was still as dark and untouched as when I’d left it, the dead railroad tracks still there, the live oaks with the Spanish moss and Mr. Tomlinson’s bookshop on the corner of Main and Redtree, the place where I’d first read all those stories with characters that leave on journeys. The idea of getting out of town had been a seed then, and as I got older, it grew, until it had rooted its tendrils. No matter what wild, scary world you entered into, leaving town was what ambitious young men did when they grew up.
Men who weren’t ambitious ended up like John Flynn, who was working at the front desk of the Bed-n-Breakfast. We’d been friends in high school. I’d sent him a postcard from my vacation in Fresno, and he’d sent me Christmas letters and pictures of his daughter, but we hadn’t kept up much more than that. Still, he recognized me fast as I pulled out my wallet. He stared, stood on his toes, and leaned over the countertop.
“What are those shoes?” he asked. “Those are the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen.”
“They’re my knock-around shoes,” I said. But that was a lie. They were gray and pink tennis shoes and they had pigeons embroidered on the tongue, and when I found them in a basement space thrift store I looked them up and learned they’d been designed by a famous R&B singer and were worth piles of money. I wore them all the time in defiance. But Flynn’s smile made my ears burn, and I felt ashamed for wearing shoes in defiance.
Flynn was wearing a vest, but he looked good in it. His glasses were rimless and studious-looking, and there was a gold chain in the front pocket, a watch that had undoubtedly been his father’s. I heard its tick tick tick as he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and embraced me, the edge of the countertop digging into my stomach.
“If your folks could see you, God rest ‘em. How much money you making?”
“Enough of it,” I said.
“Why’re you here?” he asked. “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been fine, considering,” I said. For a moment, I hesitated. Did I tell him about Eva? I had driven for nine hours and had thought of little else, and yet still I had no clear plan for what I would say to her, for how to express what I wanted. What did I want from her? Phone calls, at three in the morning. Stories about Miskwa. It would sound stupid if I said this aloud to Flynn.
Fortunately, he didn’t give me a chance to explain my reasons. He’d already gotten out the log book and was writing my name down.
“How long you staying?”
I hadn’t thought about it. “I don’t know.”
He seemed to sympathize with my bewilderment. “How about I put you down for one night, and then we can work the rest out later.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m putting you up with Colonel Pickery.”
“Oh,” I said. Colonel Pickery had been disemboweled by Yankees in 1864. Many war ghosts had their stories sealed in Miskwa.
“Don’t worry. He won’t bite,” Flynn assured me. “He might breathe on your face a little while you’re sleeping.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Good to see you, Flynn.”
I went upstairs to unpack my things. Flynn followed me, though I didn’t realize this until I about-faced and saw his broad-shouldered frame in my bedroom doorway, a Frankenstein’s shadow. I grabbed at my chest.
“I thought you were Colonel Pickery,” I said through my teeth.
“Nope,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Jesus, what is it?”
“My shift’s over in ten. The bar’s right where you left it. Just wanted to let you know.”
I went with Flynn to the bar. Nine hours driving, and a few drinks will sound good to anybody. I felt the pressure of everyone’s eyes on me, knowing me, not knowing me. I had changed a lot. I looked like a gawking out-of-towner in stupid shoes, and I walked behind Flynn as if trusting him to lead me, even though I knew where we were going. Then people started looking closer, and it was “Jim? Jim!” and that was an hour gone, and by the third time this happened it was dark, and I knew I wasn’t going to have time to go over to Eva’s that day.
Flynn and I hugged the bar like it was our child. He played in some of the whiskey he’d spilled.
“You should see my little girl. She is a beanpole.”
“I saw the pictures,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”
“Shit,” he moaned, suddenly recalling something. “I should’ve called the wife.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Ah well. She’ll be just as pissed if I call her now than if I wait and show up later. Another one, Richie. That’s the stuff.”
I had not drunk this much in a long time. My face flamed with love and appreciation for Flynn and his company. It was getting hard to feel self-conscious.
“Flynn, I came here because of Eva,” I said.
Flynn looked at me, one sleepy eye quivering. “Eva?” he said. “Eva?”
“Yes, Eva. We’ve been keeping in touch for years, but she cut it off recently, and I need to talk to her about it.”
Flynn looked straight ahead. “That girl Eva. Really, that girl. I love that girl. I do, but if her gramma was still alive, she’d be shamed.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said.
“I know it. If the devil himself showed up at her house, she’d ask him in for dinner. I’m just sayin’. Not my place to judge her. God’ll judge us all. But I’m just sayin’.”
I could tell that Eva was still a strange bird to everyone in town. It wasn’t that they disliked her. For the most part, it seemed, they felt sorry for her, and a little disappointed in the company she’d chosen after her grandmother passed. I’d heard about how the churchgoing crowd in particular avoided her at the grocery store and watched on with stern, lemon-sucking expressions when she shook her skinny hips at the spring festival dances. They would say they were not racists, that they very much appreciated people of color so long as they behaved at least a little bit like “normal” folk and didn’t partake in backwoods hoodoo. Any pretty young girl like Eva who subscribed to such beliefs should simply know better. Their own children had gone off to school. If they were not wildly successful, they made a little money, but Eva had regressed deeper, drawn in, covered herself over with swamp vines.
“Have you heard how Eva’s been lately?” I asked. “How she’s sleeping?”
“She told you about the boo hag, I’m guessing,” Flynn said. “They say she caught it in a bottle, like a firefly.”
“It worked?” I said.
“People been going over to the house to see it. She’s been fine since. No pain. Sleeps like a dream.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Sure as I am about anything.”
The alcohol boiled in me. Flynn began making a noise in his throat and was seemingly unaware of it.
“Flynn, come with me to talk to Eva,” I said.
“I’m thinking ‘bout it now, and I’m worried I’d lose my nerve.”
“That’s why you came back here in the first place, yeah? Nine hours, and you’re too chicken-shit to go by yourself?”
I was ashamed. Flynn spoke the truth, and I knew it. I would have to go and alone.
At two in the morning, Flynn stumbled toward the bus stop. I stumbled toward the bed and breakfast. When I walked up the stairs to my room, my skin went cold and my mind turned into all sharp edges. I felt sure for a minute I’d walked through Colonel Pickery.
Eva stole stories. She’d been that way forever, growing up with her grandmother in the bog. Her parents were dead. My parents were dead. With that fact alone, we had much in common. For three years I lived with her and her grandmother, then later with my aunt in town, who now raised horses in Montana (this had apparently been her greatest dream, as people in Miskwa often dreamed about vast, mountainous places).
I knew Eva and her grandmother had always been well acquainted with the lowcountry people, the soothsayers like Mrs. Legare, the poor drifters who came in from Charleston. Eva loved stories, particularly the Gullah folktales. She’d listen to them, lock them away inside her, claim them as her own.
These weren’t Eva’s stories, and they weren’t even Gullah stories originally. Since she told me about the boo hag, I’d read up on Baba Yaga and the old hags from Europe, archaic, centuries-old monsters. But Eva stole the stories anyway, made them real. She’d tried to steal my story too, keep me here, drink me down to make me a part of her. Because of that, I had always seen Eva as a nymph or demon that would pull me back to Miskwa, a boggy past I would have to shed like a cicada skin. I’d never imagined that she would have to shed me.
When I finally saw the old house, the wisteria had overtaken it. After six years, it had engulfed the front porch and was snaking its way up the chimney, a chokehold of thick vine and sweet blossoms. I ran my hand over Eva’s wind chimes. Soft sound.
She didn’t come to the door when I knocked, so I went around back. There, I found her in the garden.
Eva was still thin and her hair was blonder than I remembered it. She had an eyelet blouse tied in a knot at her belly, and if she stood straight, she would only come up to my shoulders. A pair of gardening gloves swallowed up her hands, and the cucumber vines curled around her feet as she walked, grabbing at her. She went stiff when I called her. Her eyes focused, then grew puzzled, not welcoming and not hateful, but cautious, feral-like. An old girlfriend from town used to hate that, calling girls in romance novels feral, but Eva was feral and barefooted.
“Jim?” she said. “Jim, it’s you?”
“It is,” I said.
I stared her down, from the crown of her head to her dirty ankles, and my organs went like stone. I’d thought about plenty of things to say on the way over there, but I now I found myself hung up on “It is” like a fool. Eva looked down at my shoes.
“Those are nice.”
“No,” I said.
“No, they’re hideous,” I corrected her, and I told her about the R&B singer who’d designed them, but she didn’t understand.
“Oh,” she said. She looked around her at the garden. It hurt me that she seemed so uncomfortable. “I’ll get tea,” she said. But when I tried to follow her into the house she spread out her hand against my chest and her fingers sparked against the bone and it hurt.
“No, you—” she said, harshly at first but then recovering with politeness. “You stay out here. You don’t want to see my messy kitchen.”
So I sat on her back porch and waited for her. The place smelled like musk and turpentine, and there were some paintings sitting around: trumpet flowers, crab pots, sunsets on the swamp and such. Eva hadn’t told me she’d picked up painting, but if she had, if they were hers, she’d probably be trying to sell them in town. That kind of stuff would sell here. I didn’t like the paintings and I couldn’t figure out why—normally I’d be endeared by them. Then I heard Eva moving around in her kitchen and I realized I was feeling kind of annoyed with her. She was keeping me out because she didn’t want me to see the boo hag.
She came back out with a bamboo tray of ginger tea.
“Why’re you here?” she asked.
I sipped and winced as the tea burned my tongue. “I wanted to see you. After you hung up, I didn’t like how it ended.”
“That it ended,” she said. “You didn’t like that it ended.”
The correction was cool, no rancor behind it. This bothered me.
“That it ended,” I said.
“You didn’t want it to end,” she said. “What were you getting out of it?”
“I am getting plenty. I’m getting plenty now. I like that I’ve come to see you, that I get to see you. And you haven’t forced me off your property and that’s a good thing. It’s good that we’re talking, that I came back here.”
Eva looked at her hands. She looked toward the paintings. “You came to hear about my dream? Nobody wants to hear about dreams.”
“But I do,” I said. “They say you caught that—thing. The boo hag.”
“I did. It’s on a shelf in there, in the kitchen. But I don’t want you to see it. It’s—” she smiled slightly, maybe the first trace of irony I’d ever seen from her. “It’s pretty ugly.”
We sat apart from each other and an old warm static came up. When we first made love, we were both twelve, and maybe that’s young, but there wasn’t much to do in Miskwa besides sex and storytelling. We did both. It hurt her, but she stayed my girl all through high school, right to the very end. End of the world. Now I could feel my edges tugging; if I let her, she could pull me back in easy, but I wouldn’t let her.
Eva tilted her head and closed her eyes. “Do you remember the night we stole whiskey from Flynn’s freezer? When we drank all the way to the bus stop and we got on, like we were going to go somewhere?”
“I remember. You got sick and passed out.”
“I got sick and passed out,” she said. “But in the dream we’re on the bus, and it goes off the road into the swamp. And we’re sinking, right, we’re sinking? And the water and mud are coming in. And you’re an eel.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Eva gave me a warning look.
“I realize on the bus that you’ve always been an eel,” she went on. “You’ve got—little hands, little wiggly hands. And I knew in the dream that they were eel hands. You slipped into the water and disappeared, and I was still stuck in there drowning. And I remembered, ‘It’s like the time you told me we should go to Memphis together, and I panicked because I was afraid, because I knew I couldn’t swim the roads.’ That’s what I thought—in the dream. Then I’d wake up still feeling drowned.”
When she had finished, I applauded quietly. She stared as if I’d cursed her mother.
“Real heavy symbolism,” I said. “But sometimes an eel is just an eel.”
“You’re not taking this serious. You’re making fun of me.”
“No,” I said, laughing. “No, honey. It’s serious, I know.”
“I think you should go.”
“Eva,” I said, leaning forward so that I seemed more serious. “You can’t just push me out. It’s too sudden. You’re the only real tie I have left to this place, the only deep tie.”
“It wasn’t sudden. I’d been telling you for years that it hurt to keep talking to you.”
I could have told her what she said wasn’t true, but honestly, I didn’t remember.
“You didn’t listen,” she whispered. Then she said again, “I think you should go.”
As I looked at her with her little white dress and dirty ankles, I got a strange image of me picking her up over my shoulder and carting her back to my car like a cartoon caveman. Man kidnap woo-man. Man keep woo-man in apartment, drink coffee, shop at basement thrift stores. Then I was laughing again, even though she’d hurt my feelings, and I could feel Eva getting angrier and angrier as we sat there.
“What can I do?” I asked. “I want it to be there still. Our connection. Tell me what I can do, please.”
“Stop begging,” she said. “It’s all sealed up. It’s done.”
She folded her arms, and I hated her so much that I had to laugh at that too. When I returned to Bed-n-Breakfast, I told Flynn I was staying another night.
Under cover of darkness—I’ve always kind of liked that phrase, as if you get to wear the night like it’s a hooded cloak or something—I returned to Eva’s house. From her driveway, I saw that all the lights were out, the wisteria vine protecting everything from the stark moonlight, and the only sounds were the crickets and the quiet clink of the wind chimes. On the porch, I found the key hidden above the lintel, where it had always been, unlocked the door, and went inside.
I trembled as I moved through the house, hoping I was being quiet but it was hard to tell—all I could hear was the thump of my heart in my ears, scary-exciting. At this point, I knew what I wanted from Eva, and I figured out she’d told me how to get it. Maybe she wanted to give it up, some part of her at least, though I knew what I was doing was hateful and selfish, I knew that—maybe city-living does that, or maybe it’s always been in me, the way every place where we live is in us. The inside of Eva’s grandmother’s house had stuck with me especially because those were the grieving and growing years, and I knew every worn patch of shag carpet, the woman’s paisley furniture and linen curtains, the ceramic owl where Eva used to hide cash and cigarettes, brass umbrella stand, amber ashtray, all those precious objects we’d use as our prizes in questing games. So little had changed.
In the kitchen, I saw the boo hag on the windowsill above the sink. There it sat between a pink conch shell and a rag doll Eva’s grandmother had sewn for her. I took the bottle and held it up to the moonlight.
The thing inside, half-hidden in its bundle of straw, was gray and stiff, shriveled to the point where you could make out the bony limbs and body, but not the face, which had sunken in. Her arms hugged her ribcage. Wisps of yellowish hair, frail as onion skin, clung to her scalp. She was like an old woman, as threatening as a moth pinned to corkboard. As I pinched the needle that held her in, her smushed face flinched. One white eye opened and trailed up to meet mine.
I heard a cry. Eva was there, standing in the kitchen doorway, dressed in a long cotton night shirt.
I held the bottle up and shook it a little. “This is it?” I said. “Kind of remarkable, really. Kind of…sweet. I mean that for real, I think it looks sweet.”
“Jim, give it to me,” she said. “Give it to me, please!”
She grabbed my wrist. Around we went like dancing partners and she put up a good fight, but still, I was taller than her. I pulled out the needle. I pulled out the cork. The creature inside uncurled like an insect from its cocoon, twisting, squeezing herself out the bottleneck until she disappearing in the open air. Eva screamed. She searched around for the creature, but she had gone, flitted out the open window to hide in the garden. Eva took the empty bottle from me and smashed it in the sink.
“I hate you,” she said.
“You don’t really,” I said. “Or maybe you do. But you won’t always.”
“I can’t stand it,” she said. Already, she looked far more wretched than she had looked earlier that day, with the sun shining on her white dress.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I was sorry, for real, but even so I slept good that night. Even with the Colonel Pickery breathing on my neck, I slept like stone. The next morning, I felt very awake and very sober as I drove the nine hours back to the city.
Patsy Smith left Rochester, New York on a sunny Saturday morning intending to drive all the way to California. But after three and a half hours, crossing through an Indian reservation, she got lost. On a long, straight road, where there hadn’t been a route number for many miles, there was a sudden break in the forest and she saw a small building with cars and trucks parked in front. She turned in to ask directions.
Pulling the door open, she smelled beer. She saw men with their backs to her sitting at the end of a room on bar stools, and close by, a few small tables and chairs that were mostly empty. The door snapped shut behind her and in the sudden darkness all she could make out were the neon beer signs. She stood still, waiting until her eyes adjusted. It was nineteen sixty-eight. Patsy was sixteen. She had an old car, a hundred dollars, a pillow, a blanket, a pair of broken-in lace-up boots; that was the total of her possessions. But it was all she needed.
The man sitting at the table closest to her was the only one who had seen her come in. He stared at the girl with bare feet, filthy pants, long curly hair, and a wide pale face that even at that moment in a strange place, had an oddly quixotic expression.
Patsy was remembering a fact from seventh grade New York State history. These Indians, the Seneca, were called Keepers of the Western Door. They were protectors. Maybe that was why she had chosen the route that went through their reservation, and now, having lost it, maybe that was why she felt so confident standing in the smoky room.
The men at the bar, a row of dark backs with dark heads, talked quietly. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the man sitting by himself at the closest table. A shaft of light, coming from a small window, settled on his shoulders and made the rest of the room unimportant.
Patsy Smith stayed by the door, covered in shadow, but lit up, inside, by the beam of the lone drinker’s attention. She had left her home in a rush and on this first afternoon that she was on her own, she could already see that when she was away from her family, she, as a separate and independent person, would matter. The man in the light was slowly standing up. He didn’t look at her, but she knew she was the reason he’d gotten to his feet, and not the bathroom or some peppery old geezer sitting at the bar.
“Help you?” he asked.
It was not a friendly face. It was too hard for that. But he looked at her straight on, the raw flat angles of his cheeks glistening.
“Did I miss a turnoff or something? Route seventeen? I think I lost it.”
There was a flicker of amusement at the corners of his mouth and he said very slowly but in a proud tone, “You most certainly did. This is the beginning of the end of everything you could call familiar. So why not stay for awhile?”
Her warning system had been defused long ago. So it didn’t make her nervous to be the only woman in a room of stoop shouldered old men with a younger one who spoke in riddles; in fact, it sent an excited shiver down her spine. She joined him at his table and had a beer. And when he asked her a question, she told him a few things about herself: that she was going to California, that she had major plans, that she didn’t know exactly where in California, but that was only a detail. He told her about Handsome Lake.
“He’s the prophet who saved the Seneca from the white man. His visions restored our people.”
“Handsome Lake,” she repeated, her brain foggy from beer on an empty stomach. “That’s not your name, right, that’s someone else?”
“Well I’m Patsy Smith.” She extended her hand, aiming all of her enthusiasm into his dark, simmering eyes.
“Uly Jojockety.” He said it softly and without any salesmanship, but he did offer his hand, and when she took it, she could feel the dry grittiness of his palm and realized how far she was from the land where people with soft palms named Smith ruled over her.
“So who is this Handsome Lake? Does he have a Bible, sort of, or a radio program?”
He laughed. “No, this was long ago, 1799.”
“You’re kidding.” The way he’d spoken she’d thought it was now. “So…how do you know about him?”
“You see, we’re not like you. What we have is a straight line that goes from this day now to his first vision in 1799. The now, the here,” he touched the top of the table, “it rests on what happened before.”
“That’s really far out,” she said, thinking to herself that you might want to remember old Indians, but old white men it was probably better to forget.
Sometime later, she left him to go outside to pee. And while squatting behind the building, her ass visible to anyone who might walk past the row of trash cans, she was startled by a crackle of leaves and looked up. There he was, looming over her, his face more craggy from the ground up. Apparently, a lady’s bare squat didn’t prohibit a man’s gaze.
“No need to be embarrassed. Nothing new about a woman pissing.”
She pulled her jeans upwards, careless about what he might see, and he said, “but girls from Rochester, now I thought they only used toilets.”
She was stung by that word, girls. “Some maybe,” she answered, “not me. I’ve been doing this forever.”
She had her third beer leaning against the trunk of a cottonwood that was as ancient probably as the events he spoke of. He told her about the United States government stealing ten thousand acres of the most fertile Seneca land, river land that had been protected since 1794, in a treaty signed by General George Washington himself, how they’d removed his family and a thousand others. Just to build a dam that could have been built somewheres else. But no, Indian land was their choice. The good people of Pittsburgh, three hundred miles away, needed protection, by the US government, from the inconvenience of high waters in the spring.
“They burnt our house down, cut our trees, gave us a handful of dollars, and stuck us in a little white box with all the modern conveniences we didn’t want. They took it all. No more fish, no more fields, no more forests, no more longhouse. No wait,” he held up a finger, “let me be fair, they moved the longhouse. So then they said, what do you Indians have to gripe about? Okay? What do you Indians have to gripe about? And now do you know what they’re saying? They’re saying, wait and see, we’re going to lay route 17 right through your reservation and cut it in half. You saw how it stopped, right?”
“It just sort of disappeared,” she said. “And then all these little roads you were supposed to follow were really confusing and I got lost.”
“Exactly. That’s because we will not let a foreign government make a highway through our land.” With his hand on his chest, he intoned in a solemn voice, “I pledge allegiance to the Seneca Nation to frustrate the United States Traveler forever and ever.”
She laughed, happy to collude in such vehement anti-establishment feelings.
The sun was sinking. Rays of light were scattered by the leaves that laced the blueness of the afternoon. She knew she was drunk. But only partially was it alcohol. The rest of her euphoria was caused by the situation, the fact that her parents had no idea where she was, that she hadn’t had anything to eat since dinner the night before, and that a man with a kind voice and a long ribbon of hair, a man who was of people who had things worth remembering, was becoming her friend. Just then, his hair was brushing her arm, his full purple lips were parting slightly to ask, “How old are you Patsy Smith?”
“I’m old enough to know what you want. And I’ll tell you something, Handsome Lake, I want it too.” It came out just like that, one whole piece, smooth as something memorized. But she had never before said anything like it. She watched his face, gauging the effect, and then, with the same quiet authority the first violinist in the orchestra lifted the bow and laid it across the strings in preparation to begin the symphony, she raised her arm and set her long, pale-fingered hand on his blue jeaned thigh. Every Saturday of her entire life, her mother had gone to the Rochester Philharmonic. And so it was on that beautiful afternoon she was sitting in the audience, straight-backed and focused, as her daughter, who cared nothing for classical music, was sprawled on the ground a hundred and forty three miles south, orchestrating, with the same drama and promise, slender fingers on a stranger’s thigh.
But the Keeper of the Western Door leaned away. He sat back against the tree trunk and said, “There’s nothing special here. Nothing romantic. What we have is poor land and complicated weather. This is the place, Patsy Smith, where all hopes are destroyed, all expectations are lowered, and every vision of the future is worsened. I’m warning you. Anyone who survives crawls away injured. So do you really know what you’re doing? Because the only thing to recommend me is the before and the here, the this.” He put a lean hand on the ground underneath him. “But not the after. Clear on that?”
She loved the sound of his voice. She could just lie down and listen to that kind of poetry all her born days. Uly Jojockety was a teacher. He would teach her everything she needed to know. She removed her hand from his thigh, unzipped her jeans, and pulled them down, flinging them off with a heroic flourish. Oh, the terrible wrongs that had been done to him and his people!
But then, as his body moved over hers, cutting out the light, there was a moment that dropped out of the progression. She knew she would remember it. It was before anything happened, when she was still a girl from a suburb of Rochester escaping difficulties at home. And then, as those rough hands discovered her, she watched herself become someone else, someone she hadn’t met before, someone who was outspoken, a woman who would be comfortable in her life, who would feel for others. She’d say, sweetheart, honey, baby cakes, announcing her affection for whomever it was she spoke with. That person would take over. She would lead her from one sorry man on the earth to another, moving from Salamanca, New York to Olean, Batavia, Buffalo, always keeping to the clouded western side of the state until she’d had enough of other people’s troubles. The wisdom was hard-earned. And when she was in her fifties, having been through it all — children, booze, narcotics — her body would cease its raging.
But that was the future. It would take thirty-seven years to get there.
Listen to Megan Staffel’s reading of “Saturdays at the Philharmonic” below…
Megan Staffel explains that this untitled painting by Annabeth Marks feels connected to her story because it “expresses female sexual longing.”
Father Jed’s head was stuck in Lent. He said these words to himself as a kind of talisman. Otherwise, his head would have split in two. He sat on the chancel with Father Benedict, the assistant pastor, up on the priest’s seat. Why was he so torn up on the night of the Easter Vigil? It was the most joyous mass of the year. The choir, the drummers, the brass ensemble, the woodwind players, the readers: everyone had been preparing for this night since the doldrums after Epiphany. The church was dark, completely dark. It gave Father Jed a thrill to think of one of those perpetual latecomers stalled at the vestibule. The dark made things scary. The dark made the first reading, the story of Abraham and Issac, scary. The dark made the second reading, the story of the Red Sea parting, even scarier. What kind of God would exact such a price on humans? Father Jed knew that doubt was acceptable. Doubt was of a piece with faith. You could not have faith without doubt. Faith was active, dynamic, but doubts on the night of the Easter Vigil? It was unseemly, as unseemly as the young men from Our Lady of the Martyrs, who hefted the cross of Good Friday on their shoulders across the Safeway parking lot, knowing full well they were in a Jewish neighborhood. Father Jed couldn’t see any of the faces of the people. Their candles were snuffed out. The Chilean wine palms shadowed the windows from outside, purpled, ghostly. Then the lights went on. Sister Ray was incensing the chancel and transepts, with the bowl she held high, her troop of six dancers behind her. They were leaping, reaching, turning, flashing through the smoke. Their gestures said, Our God is a good God. Our God is a friend to the stranger. The incense stung his eyes. It was so strong in the air that he tasted it on the back of his teeth. Someone coughed. The dance had seemed like a good idea back in February, long before the saguaro had bloomed by the front doors. Dance always had something of risk about it. Maybe this time someone would fuss to Bishop Ren, which was exactly what his parishioners wanted, something to get riled up about. And yet Father Jed wanted to slide down the priest’s seat, cringing in embarrassment for everyone assembled. Had the dancers listened to the readings? Had the people? Apparently not, as everyone facing the sanctuary looked hot with delight. They were so ready to sweep the rigors of deprivation aside. They were so ready to get out of that desert, though most of them had chosen to live in one, air conditioned. It took everything in Father Jed not to leap out of his seat, dash into the sacristy to turn off the lights. What would Sister Ray and her dancers do if they couldn’t see the seats? He imagined the startled gasp, the strangled cry. Now see who your God can be, Father Jed thought. He gripped the arms of the priest’s seat. Had he said those words aloud? He couldn’t tell outer from inner anymore. Oh God, dear God.
By the third reading, God said, “I am taking you back,” and Father Jed felt his eyebrows crisp as the responsorial psalm wended its way toward E minor. What had he been thinking? Had those ghastly thoughts sculpted his face? He looked out at the parishioners he was closest to—Juan Fernando in the second row, Daisy two rows behind Juan Fernando, Dean all the way in the back, face half-concealed behind a column—for reassurance, but none of them looked back. Surely his friends would let him know, these friends who had shared everything with him from their Xanax dependencies, to their breakups, to their bitter little affairs late into the evening as they walked along the arroyo. But none of them looked back at him. They were looking at the feet of Father Ben, which were just slightly off the floor. He was giving the sermon. He was doing his usual, linking Terminator 2 to Flannery O’Connor to one of the psalms, and managing to connect them with bleak, expert joy. Everyone was looking, as if by sheer looking they were keeping his feet in air. Father Benedict did not look down. He did not know what was happening any more than he knew what he was wearing on his feet, one shoe black, one shoe brown. The mismatched shoes didn’t appear to matter to anyone, which might have been why Father Jed got down on his hands and knees and crawled across the carpet toward Father Ben, with his own black shoe in hand.
Listen to Paul Lisicky’s reading of “Lent” below…
You never know you want to live until someone tells you that you will die. For four years, Leenck had worked from home processing accounts for an investment firm. Leenck was dying. Suffice it to say, he was painfully aware now that he was dying. He had already gone to the bank and withdrawn all of his savings: at the counter waiting for this manager or that supervisor to sign this or that form, the teller had looked at him that morning as if she knew, as if she, too, knew he was dying. It was as if everyone were staring at him. When Leenck arrived at his home, he telephoned his lawyer and told him to find a house for him to rent in Santa Monica, a small house near the beach, a house where no one would notice him. And within a few days, Leenck packed some of his clothes in a duffle bag and drove to the new place. It was that simple. He had no family in the U.S. His family had written him off for dead ages ago. He had no one who would notice him missing. His co-workers didn’t even know what he looked like.
Leenck had no intention of getting to know Santa Monica. What he knew of it he knew by driving through it on his way to the new house, a place described in the real estate ad as a charming bungalow. One bedroom and one bathroom, a living room, a small kitchen, a patio and a strangely large yard, and still the new place seemed enormous to him, larger than he felt he deserved. The house came partially furnished. It had no table and chairs in the kitchen, and there was no dining area. The same yellow linoleum covered the floors in both the kitchen and the dining room. It was yellow, though it was easy to tell it had once been off-white. If one wanted to eat, such a thing would have to be done standing in the kitchen or sitting on the couch with the coffee table functioning as dining table. But there was a bed, a couch, said coffee table, and a plastic lounge chair in the back yard. There were overhead lights but no lamps, and Leenck had no intention of remedying that fact. The beach was exactly an eight-minute walk away. And despite wanting to stay locked up inside the house, Leenck found himself walking down to the beach twice a day. It became a habit for him, a kind of pilgrimage. It was always the same. He would walk down his street, make a left-hand turn, and walk over the pedestrian bridge to the beach. Sometimes, he would walk on the pier, but mostly he just walked or stood on the sand.
Orange juice and sparkling wine: what more could one desire for breakfast? Each morning, Leenck drank a cup of instant coffee and then filled a tumbler with ice followed with a quarter glass of orange juice and the remaining three quarters of the glass with sparkling wine. The walk to the beach then followed. On some days, he would even forego the coffee. There were times when he would stay at the beach for hours. On other occasions, he would walk around for fifteen minutes and then walk home. He saw some of the same people at the beach almost daily. There was the old man who always wore pastel blues and pinks who sat on the rotting bench eating a bagel each morning. He was a man of few expressions. There was glum and glummer with only a mild change in his face as he ate the bagel. And there was the Chinese woman who did stretches and quick jabbing movements with her hands, jabbing at the air as if at birds only she could see, birds attacking her. There was the homeless man who wandered aimlessly muttering something about cats and cleanliness. There was the young woman briskly walking her small dog, a dog that always appeared better groomed than she did, at least four pink or red ribbons in its fur as if the mane on its head were in fact a hairstyle. The sun would be far behind them all, on the other side of the city. There would be light in the sky, but no sun. The sand would be a filthy grey dotted with trash, but at least the trash changed daily. The ocean would be there with its insistent noise and smell. At least there was this one constant. Leenck knew what he would find at the beach. He knew what each day brought. And each morning, on his walk, he wondered if his final day had come, if that very day was the one.
Some people, when faced with death, find themselves possessed with an undeniable urge to do things, to do everything they had ever wanted to do but had never found the time. They travel to distant lands. They jump off of bridges into murky water. They rappel down cliffs, fly in helicopters, dive in shark-infested waters, venture out on walking safaris in the bush hoping to hear the Lion’s unmistakable grumbling roar. They live and live dangerously because they know they are about to die. But Leenck was not one of those people. He wanted to die privately. He was absolutely certain about this. He wanted to die alone. He wanted to disappear the way an actor playing the Buddha might in an old movie.
“Hey man. You okay?” The voice startled Leenck, even though he had no idea what the man had just said to him. He turned around and stared at the man.
“I’ve seen you out here before. Man, you almost walked into that garbage can.”
“Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking. Sorry.”
“No problem, man. I do that sometimes, too. I’m Carlos. Carlos.”
“Hi Carlos, Carlos.”
Leenck was always amazed at the way Americans could just strike up conversations, how they always seemed to want to talk. Leenck believed that silence bothered Americans. And yet, this was the first time anyone had spoken to him at the beach. Leenck mumbled a few more things and said he had to get going. On the way home, Leenck wondered why this man had talked to him. Once home, Leenck went out on the patio, sat in his single lounge chair and fell asleep. When he woke up, it was already late afternoon. It was time again to return to the beach. On the walk to the beach this time, Leenck noticed the creamsicle-colored blooms of the hibiscus in various yards. He wondered why anyone would plant such odd plants. He could hear the crackling of the telephone wires overhead once he made the turn toward the beach, knew that the humidity must be fairly high that afternoon. Slowly, he found himself filled with anxiety that Carlos would still be there. He was worried that maybe even someone else might talk to him. And so he stopped, turned around, and walked back to the house.
“When did the pain start? What did you first notice?”
“I fell off of my bike a few weeks ago, and ever since then I have been sore.”
“Where are you sore?”
“Here.” Leenck pointed to his left side just where he felt the last of his rib bones just under the skin.
“Did you take anything for it?”
“I took some Advil, and it helped a little. But I think I broke a rib.”
“Well, we will take a look. But this doesn’t sound like a broken rib. Sounds as if you bruised a muscle there.” The doctor emphasized the word “bruised” as if Leenck might not have noticed the word otherwise. He had a way of emphasizing words that made Leenck feel as if he were a complete idiot.
Leenck did not like doctors. In the old country, in the town where he grew up, there were no doctors. There was the old woman who was the teacher. She knew how to help people. She would touch you and tell you things about what hurt you. But these American doctors, they barely ever touched you. And when they did, they wore gloves as if they were handling raw meat. Doctor Peterson was probably a nice man, but to Leenck he was distant and calculating. He said little besides asking his various questions and, honestly, he had only seen him once or twice. Despite his distrust, Leenck always did what the doctor said. He took the pills three times a day. Even when they made him nauseous, he took them. He tried taking them with milk or when he ate something, but it didn’t really help. He took the pills for two weeks, and they didn’t help in the slightest. They only gave him a dry mouth and a sometimes-dizzy feeling in his head. When he returned to the clinic, the doctor seemed surprised that the pills hadn’t worked. He sent Leenck for a CT Scan. Leenck sat in the waiting room outside the radiology department. And then he sat in a smaller waiting room inside. And then a nurse took him into the room with the giant donut-shaped scanner, placed a needle in his arm and had him lie down on the table, the room smelling a little like burning rubber. Above his head, he could see a red light on the top of the large ring that encircled the table. The table inched though the ring and then slid back out, the light sometimes green and sometimes red. And then, he felt the warmth of something rushing through the needle and into his arm, and then he felt the table inching through the giant donut a little more. Ten minutes later, a young man told Leenck his spleen was very large and that he needed to call Doctor Peterson immediately.
For Leenck, that was not the beginning but the end. He called Doctor Peterson. He did more tests, had blood drawn, suffered through seeing a woman doctor who rammed a large bore needle into his hip and pulled bloody fluid out into a syringe. He was warned of the pain but felt nothing. He was 36 years old, and he was dying. This is all he could remember about the woman doctor. He couldn’t even remember her name.
Leenck hated the grocery store. There were just too many people darting around grabbing things and throwing them in carts: too many people talking to themselves about what they needed to pick up, how many, what size, etc. It irritated him to see people like this. It irritated him when people spoke to themselves out loud. He felt it was a weakness of some type, a weak mind. He wanted to order groceries and have them delivered, but that would mean having to set up phone service. And this was unthinkable to Leenck. Phone service, connection: what was the point? But he needed orange juice and more sparkling wine. He knew exactly where they were in the grocery store. He bought the most expensive orange juice and the least expensive sparkling wine. As Leenck walked down the aisle toward the produce where the orange juices were shelved in a refrigerator, he saw Carlos. Leenck knew that Carlos also saw him and wondered how he might turn without making an incident. But it was too late.
“Hey, you the guy from the beach. We talked. I’m Carlos.”
Leenck knew exactly who Carlos was. In fact, Carlos was the only person Leenck had seen who had dared to disturb him.
“I don’t think you ever told me your name.”
“Is that Scandinavian?”
“You know, I am not really sure. My parents weren’t Scandinavian. But they aren’t around for me to ask them.”
Leenck had both told the truth and lied in the same breath. His parents were in the old country, but they were very much alive despite the fact Leenck made it sound as if they were dead.
“Oh, sorry about that. My folks are gone now, too.”
Leenck was trying to walk away now, but Carlos followed. Carlos was talking about his family and how he had lived in the U.S. for so long now.
“You are not American?” Leenck asked.
“Oh no.” Carlos laughed. “I grew up on a small island in the Caribbean. My father’s family is from Spain. My mother’s family was Spanish and Indian.”
“But you don’t have much of an accent?”
“Neither do you…”
Leenck had reached the checkout and became aware now that all he had was the sparkling wine and the orange juice. He grabbed a TV Guide and threw it on the belt along with the beverages. But Leenck had no television, and he couldn’t explain why he had done that, not even to himself. When he paid for his items, he nodded at Carlos.
“Good talking with you, man. Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Yeah. “ Leenck was already worried he would see Carlos again.
At home, Leenck fixed himself a tumbler of mimosa. He drank it all in one sitting and fixed himself another to sip while sitting in the back yard. The grass was withering in various places, but lush and green in others. The yard looked like a patchwork of greens and decay. The fence was unpainted on the side he could see. From outside his yard, the fence was white, almost pristine. But inside the yard, it was an unstained and unpainted fence that looked like it was rotting. The water from the sprinklers had given the fence a reddish rusty complexion. Leenck thought about his parents. And then, he said out loud “No, they are not Scandinavian. They are most certainly not Scandinavian.”
“You have a leukemia. This is a cancer of your white blood cells.”
“How do we get rid of it?”
“Well, we can try to control it with chemotherapy…”
“Chemotherapy. Drugs that will kill off some of your cancer cells.”
“But you said control it. You cannot get rid of it?”
“No, this is a chronic leukemia. We cannot cure it.”
“So, I’m going to die of this.”
“Well some people live a very long time with this.”
“What is a long time? What does this mean for me now?”
“Right now, we just need to focus on the diagnosis and getting started with chemotherapy.”
“But… But, this is…”
“But nothing. We need to get started because your spleen is filled with cancer cells.”
“I just need some time to think about this.”
“We need to get started. You don’t have a lot of time to think about this…”
Leenck woke to find himself scratching the scar he had on his left leg. It had been a long time since he thought about this scar or how he got it. And it seemed as if it were all a dream, the way he had tried to impress his father by tying a wire around his leg to show how far up a tree limb one should tie it off before cutting it. But it wasn’t a dream, and the scar reminded him of that, reminded him of the old country and the simple way of life in which he had been raised. To Leenck, he had not been raised in a cult but just raised differently, raised to understand a more simple way of life. And he wondered about his parents, wondered if they were still alive. But Leenck knew they were alive. People in his family lived into their 90’s if they were needed in the town. Yes, they were alive. He knew they had to be alive. He could practically see them doing their every day routines when he closed his eyes.
Leenck got up and went into the kitchen and made some instant coffee. He drank it quickly and made himself a mimosa. He took the drink out on to his backyard patio and sat there in his boxer shorts. The fence was definitely rotting. He swore he could almost smell the wood rotting. And he got up and started walking around the backyard barefoot. Leenck walked around and around the backyard in circles. And when he got tired, he stopped and took off his boxer shorts and threw them on the ground. He stood there naked sipping mimosa from his tumbler with the sunlight warming his entire body. He stretched his arms and back. He slowly turned around and around inspecting the rotting and hideous fence. He walked over to it and started walking along it around the yard. As he walked along the eastern edge of the yard he noticed one of the boards in the fence was loose and hanging at a slight angle. He had no idea why he wanted to look through the space opened in the fence. Call it a childish curiosity. Leenck lowered himself on one knee and looked through the crack into his next-door-neighbor’s yard. Lying on a towel on the grass in a pair of tight square swimming trunks was Carlos. Carlos lived next door. Leenck bolted upright, ran over to his boxers and picked them up before running into his house and closing the glass sliding door behind him. He leaned against the glass door and downed the rest of his mimosa. He put his boxer shorts back on. He made himself another mimosa. That man from the beach, from the grocery store, Carlos, lived next door. To Leenck, this was just not possible. To Leenck, this was a terrible joke.
“This is Sheila from Dr. Weiss’s office calling for Leenck Woods. Please call us when you get this message. Dr. Weiss feels it is very important for you to come in for your treatments. We have left several messages for you, and the doctor is concerned. Please, if you have any questions or concerns about your treatments, please call us so you can speak to one of our nurses.”
This was the last message Leenck heard on his answering machine before he left Los Angeles. He had screened his calls for several days after he attended his chemotherapy training sessions. Poison. He believed they wanted to poison him. Not in the nefarious way they do in a movie, all plotting and scheming and then the fatal scene with a woman, always a woman, standing over someone. No, not like that, but he knew that chemotherapy was merely poison. He wasn’t going do it. He couldn’t get himself to do it. He had decided to die. He had already gotten the house to rent in Santa Monica. He had already sold off all of his stocks and bonds and withdrawn all of his money from his various accounts. As he walked out the front door, Leenck spoke out loud: “This is Leenck from the Office of the Dying. I feel it is very important for me to die, and am therefore refusing chemotherapy.” He stopped and thought about what he said. “Hmmm. Maybe I should phrase it differently… This is Mr. Woods. I have opted not to receive the treatment.” As he said this he closed the door behind him. The power would be turned off that afternoon. He had no intention of ever calling Dr. Weiss’s office. He never did.
“You live next door to me.”
“Is that why you talked to me here that morning?”
“No man, I talked to you because you looked down and you almost walked into a garbage can.”
“But you knew I lived next door to you.”
“Yeah, I saw when you moved in. You didn’t bring much with you.”
Leenck looked down the beach beyond Carlos who was sitting on a bench in front of him. Some children were throwing a Frisbee and yelling “Fuck!” every time one of them didn’t catch it.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“About what? About living next door?”
“Yes, why didn’t you…”
“Look man, when I first met you, you didn’t seem to want to talk. You practically ran away.”
Leenck turned and started walking away. In the distance, he heard, once again, “Fuck!”
“What is up with you, man? Is it a bad thing that I live next door?” Carlos yelled as Leenck was already a good fifteen feet away from him.
Leenck didn’t answer, nor did he stop walking.
“I know you are sick.”
Leenck stopped and turned around. “What?”
“Dude, I know you a sick muthafucker. You drink all day long.”
Leenck didn’t respond. He stared at Carlos and then turned and began walking again.
“I’m just kidding with you, man. Jesus. What’s up with you? I’m just joking with you.”
“I’m sick. I’m really sick.”
Another of the Frisbee kids yelled “Fuck!” followed by “This Frisbee is fucked up!” followed by “Who the fuck even makes this shit ass Frisbee!”
Leenck had no idea why he had admitted to Carlos that he was sick. He just kept walking. He had not told anyone he was sick, and Carlos was the last person on earth he had imagined telling this particular fact. It took him about 8 minutes to get to his house. He felt feverish. He felt warm, flushed almost. When he got to his kitchen, he fixed himself a mimosa. He felt sweaty and now the fever seemed to be consuming him. He took off his shirt and realized it was wet with sweat. He had walked home slowly, so he hadn’t expected this. He stripped down in the kitchen to his underwear. Sweat ran down his temples. As he walked into the living room, the doorbell rang. Leenck wasn’t thinking. He opened the door to find Carlos staring at him. Leenck stood in his own doorway half naked and covered in sweat. He swayed slightly while standing there. He knew then that he was collapsing. It started in his knees. And then he felt his hand gripping the door. And then, and then he woke up on the couch.
“You okay, man?”
“You passed out cold, man. You just fell.”
“Where? Where am…”
“You’re on your couch. I caught you before you hit the floor, man. I carried you over here.”
“Wow, you’re a really thankful guy.”
“Seriously, you have to get out.”
“What, you think I never seen a guy in his underwear?”
“You need to…”
“Man, I was joking about you being sick and all. But you really are sick. You need to see a doctor.”
“I have already been to doctors.”
“But you sick and should probably see a new doctor.”
“I am sick. And I’m dying.”
“That’s just the sickness talking smack, man.”
“No, listen to me. Everything dies, and now I am dying.” Leenck surprised himself with this statement. It sounded almost as if now he were in a movie reciting a script. The poison had set in and in the next scene he would be clutching his chest while he vomited up yellow-green foam. He knew this was melodrama, but he could not stop himself.
Carlos looked at Leenck with the deepest concern on his brow: “I know an old woman. You need to go see the old woman, Cassie. She can help you.”
“No one can help me.” Again, Leenck marveled at the drama of his short outbursts, declaimed as if he were on a stage. Why, he thought, was he speaking like this?
“Cassie can. She cures all kinds of people. I can take you to her. She lives not far from where I grew up. All we have to do is fly to Antigua and then charter a boat.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Days later, Leenck felt better. The sweats had passed. He got up, showered, and went outside. He pulled the plastic lounge chair from out of the shade and positioned it at the bottom of the few steps to the patio, positioned it in direct sunlight and then lay down on it.
“Why you all naked in your backyard, you perv?” came the voice from the other side of the fence.
“Why are you looking through a crack in the fence into my backyard? So, who’s the pervert?”
Carlos laughed when he heard this. “Man should be able to do what he wants in his own place.”
Before Leenck could answer, Carlos had climbed over the fence into the backyard. “You okay, man?”
“I’m fine. I didn’t collapse or anything. I walked out here and can walk back inside.”
Carlos walked over and sat down on the steps to Leenck’s patio just behind him.
“Do you often sit down with your neighbor when he’s completely naked in his backyard?”
“You’re the one who’s naked!” Carlos responded.
“But it is my backyard, my own place. Remember? Man should be able to do what he wants in his own place.” When he said this, he mimicked Carlos and the pattern of his speech, but Carlos did not seem to mind.
“I don’t got a problem with you being naked. If you want I can turn away or get something to cover you.”
“Doesn’t matter. Nothing exciting here. Just an average guy.”
“Yeah, you not a porn star or anything.” They both started laughing. “Have you thought about what I said?”
“About what, my not being a porn star?”
“Cassie, the old woman. Will you let me take you to see Old Cassie?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because she can cure you. She has been curing people of all kinds of disease for as long as I can remember. Scary old woman, gifted healer.”
“She can’t help me with what I have.”
“She has cured people of heart disease, diabetes, MS, even Alzheimers. She even cures people of cancer.” Carlos watched to see Leenck’s response. There was none.
“She can’t help…”
“What is wrong with you, man? What do you have?”
“It isn’t important. I just know she can’t help me.”
Leenck got up and walked up the steps past Carlos and into the house. As he stood in his kitchen mixing a mimosa, Carlos came inside.
“Ah, your vice.”
“Nah, just the drinking.”
“You’re gay, aren’t you, Carlos?”
“Most guys wouldn’t casually talk to another guy who is naked and drinking in his kitchen.”
“No, Carlos. Not gay.”
“Then how did you know I was gay?”
“This is California, Carlos…”
“Oh man, I’m not coming on to you or anything.”
“I didn’t think you were. It is just that my being naked didn’t bother you. And you have helped me and worried about me. Most men don’t give a shit about other men.”
For the first time since they had met, Carlos felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. He could tell the blood was rushing to his face and could feel the warmth of it in his cheeks. “I think I better go.”
Leenck could see Carlos blushing, and something inside him enjoyed the discomfort he was producing in Carlos: “Why, because I am standing here with no clothes on? Because you keep checking out my dick? I might not be a porn star, but I can see you checking me out.”
“Man, your skinny ass self ain’t all that… I gotta go, man.”
“Why, you getting turned on? You want some of this?”
“No, because there is something wrong with you, man. You not right.”
“We need to get started with chemotherapy.”
“Shouldn’t we run another test? I mean, are you 100% sure?”
“Yes, we are sure. I have scheduled you for your chemo class tomorrow. We really need to get going on this.”
“How long do I have?”
“I just don’t have an answer for that.” As usual, when she said this, the doctor turned away from Leenck and refused to look him in the face.
“What if I do nothing? What if I don’t do the chemotherapy?”
“Then you’ll die.” The doctor said this with a matter-of-fact tone that seemed to Leenck almost graceful. There wasn’t even the slightest change in the expression on her face, which remained flat and virtually blank. She stood up from her chair and walked over to a sink and washed her hands. Leenck found this strange seeing she hadn’t examined him while she had been in the room. But he knew it was likely just another way for her to avoid looking at him.
“But even if I do the chemo I will eventually die, right?”
“Well, we all eventually die. But you don’t want to die like this.”
“Maybe the lab test is a mistake.”
“It is not a mistake. We have gone over this already.”
Leenck could hear the growing frustration in his doctor’s voice. He decided to simply agree with her. He would go to the chemo class. He would tell her what she wanted to hear. Leenck knew he was good at that, good at telling people what they wanted to hear. He had been doing that for his entire life.
From the boat, Leenck could see the darkness of the island in the distance then the island itself. It had been six months since he first met Carlos. Now, here he was sailing to some small island near Antigua. There were too many shades of blue in the ocean between him and the island. Each seemed like a different possibility. Carlos was inside the cabin talking to the captain. He knew what Carlos wanted him to do. He wanted him to go see the old healer woman who could make different illnesses disappear. But Leenck was afraid. He wasn’t afraid of the woman, but afraid of what she might do to him.
As the ship pulled closer and closer to island, he could make out the harbor and the various boats and small ships anchored there. There was the blue water and the white and blue boats. There were the houses on the hillside in a gaudy array of colors: flamingo pinks and crayon greens, odd teals and purples. As the boat approached the island, Leenck remembered his father crying in their house back in the old country. He remembered telling his father that he was not a carpenter and that he was not cut out to be a carpenter, that he was leaving the town and that way of life. And he remembered his father begging him not to do it, begging him to reconsider. His father told him that he would die from the inside out if he left their way of life. And now Leenck wondered if that wasn’t exactly what was happening. He had blood cells going crazy in his body. The cells were moving all through his body. From the inside out. His father had been right. He was dying from the inside out.
Why does a man think this way at the end? Why does he see in the past the glimmers of prophecy that likely were never meant to be prophecy? It is hard to say why. But Leenck saw now in his father’s last words to him the overwhelming power of prophecy. And those words repeated over and over in his head: “dying from the inside out.” And besides this prophecy, there was Carlos. Leenck knew Carlos had fallen in love with him, loved him, was deeply in love with him. He knew it. Leenck also knew he didn’t love Carlos that way and could never love Carlos that way. Sex with a man just didn’t seem like his kind of thing. And loving a man? That was beyond Leenck’s comprehension. He would likely have had an easier time having sex with Carlos than loving Carlos. Carlos was his friend, despite the fact he wanted no friends. And even then, Leenck could not decide if he even cared for Carlos as a friend. But Leenck knew he let Carlos love him, allowed him to fall in love with him. It was one of the few things Leenck could admit to himself. He allowed Carlos to fall in love with him, and he had no idea why he had allowed that.
“Nickel for your thoughts,” Carlos said while looking beyond Leenck at the island coming into focus.
“We should be ashore within a half an hour. My cousin has already arranged for Cassie to see us.”
“She is a really weird old woman. Man, the stories about her are legendary.”
“She’s still just a woman.”
“Some think she is a god.”
“I’m not sure I want to meet a god.”
“Well, you’ll see when you meet her.”
“I’m not going to meet her.”
“Man, what the hell you talking about?”
“I’m not going to meet her. I told you I would come with you, but I never said I would go see the old woman.”
“Leenck, you’re getting sicker. You’ve lost twenty pounds or more since I met you.”
“I wanted to see the island. I wanted to make the trip. I wanted to leave the U.S.”
“You can’t come this far and not see her, man.”
Carlos turned away from Leenck and walked back inside. As he got inside, he saw himself in a mirror and suddenly wanted to laugh. “Who was the sick muthafucker?” he thought, “Who is the real sick one here?” As he stared at the mirror, he became more and more angry. The captain’s assistant was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear him. Outside, the harbor was calm. There was almost no breeze skimming across it. The sky was overcast now. And out the porthole window, Carlos could see the mountain and trees that marked this place as his home, the place where he grew up. He went back up on deck to Leenck.
“Please, just meet the woman. Talk to her. You don’t have to do anything else…”
“Carlos, I am already dead.”
“Stop being crazy. Why you always have to be crazy?”
“Don’t you see? Don’t you see it? It caught up to me. It has been with me for so long that it has finally overcome me. I’ve been dying for my entire adult life. I just didn’t see it.”
“Please, Leenck, the boat is docked. Stop the drama. Just come see the old woman.”
“I won’t. I will not. I cannot leave the boat.”
“Don’t do this, Leenck. Don’t…”
“I have already done it.”
The water was getting dark in the harbor under the overcast sky. The clouds were gray and looked like dark dishwater. The air was unusually still. And Leenck waited for the tears in Carlos’ eyes. But the tears didn’t come. Leenck knew Carlos would cry. He wanted him to cry. And why he wanted this he couldn’t even explain to himself. But he wanted it, wanted this man in front of him to drop to his knees and beg him to go see the old woman, the tears streaming down his face. It would come to that. Leenck was sure of it.
The sky looked as if, at any moment, there would be thunder. The clouds darkened and darkened. The water of the harbor became a steely gray darker than the dishwater clouds above it. And Carlos turned from Leenck and made his way on to the dock. He did not turn back. He did not look back. He walked away at a slow and steady pace. And Leenck sat there coughing while seagulls scurried around on the dock fighting and arguing over garbage. And then the wind came back, the wind picked up, the wind suddenly sweeping the crushed plastic cups from the dock and into the water. And instead of thunder, all Leenck heard was the sound of palm trees, their fronds rustling in the distance, hundreds of palm trees tilting their fronds like flags in the wind. Leenck could see Carlos in the distance now, the tiny outline of him. He watched the outline to see if Carlos would turn around to look for him on the boat. He wondered if Carlos was now crying. Leenck felt tired, and he felt odd, his chest heaving more so than normal. He watched the tiny outline of Carlos get smaller and smaller. And then he could no longer make him out. And he knew he had not turned to look back at him. And then, tears surprised Leenck’s face. The tears came quickly and frightened him. Not once had he cried in the past twenty years. And the harbor got even darker. And his eyes stung. There was not a single rumble of thunder, just the breeze rustling the palm trees and the seagulls going mad over debris. The rain came down. It was forceful, cool and prickly as it hit him in the head and face. He thought he should move inside the cabin, but he sat there instead. He didn’t move. He was completely wet now, the tears on his face indistinguishable now. His chest tightened in a way he had never experienced in his life. The rain pelted everything, and the deck suddenly took on the dark stain of the rainwater, a stain not quite as dark as the heart, a stain not quite as dark as blood. Leenck stared toward the mountain trying to make out Carlos. But he could no longer make him out. His chest was heaving as the sobs escaped his own mouth. He looked at the door of the cabin and saw the Captain staring at him, and Leenck knew he was laughing at him, chuckling. But Leenck continued to sob. His head more and more dizzy, his chest tight and painful. And then he realized he was on his knees. And the trees in the distance seemed to be bluring into the rest of the landscape, everything bleeding together. And again, he looked for the figure of Carlos. On his knees, sobbing, Leenck felt his chest tighten even more. He looked for Carlos, but he couldn’t make him out. He kept looking for Carlos.