AFTER THE WINK
by: Carolyn Steele Agosta
It starts out so harmlessly.
I don’t really mean anything by it, I’m just in one of those moods. I mean, when you’re 42 years old and have 3 kids and a husband and responsibilities, who figures on finding excitement, too? Other than bad excitement, like when you have to hit the brakes hard and all your blood vessels get a quick yee-ha.
It’s true, I’ve been noticing men a lot lately. Their arms, particularly. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve suddenly become fascinated with men’s arms. Forearms, lightly furred, with those lines of tendons and the swell of muscle below the elbow that women just don’t have. And men’s hands, square and capable. I see them everywhere. In restaurants, at gas stations, in the middle of the aisle at the freakin’ K-Mart, for god’s sake. It’s embarrassing to know I’m lusting in Lawn & Garden.
It’s not just the young men either, mind you. I’ve been noticing older men, too. Men in their 40’s and 50’s, men who maybe think no woman is looking at them that way any more. Mostly I like the ones who still have plenty of hair and rugged looking faces, who look like they still get some, you know? Ponytails too, on older men, catch my attention. Here’s a guy who thinks young, I figure. I could be wrong. Maybe he’s just a guy who hates going to the barber.
Anyway, I’m sitting there at the coffee shop, I’m reading a book by Robin Hemley and it makes me laugh out loud. I look around to see if anyone notices and there’s a man smiling at me. He’s good-looking too. He’s sitting at one of the tables, reading a magazine, and it’s not just any magazine, not about motorcycles or computers or entertainers, it’s the New Yorker. The guy’s literate, for crying in the sink.
I give him a little smile. Going back to my reading, I shift in my seat, cross my legs, straighten my back a little. Knockers up, my aunt used to say. I rest my chin on my hand, arching my neck a little. That’s body language for “I’m interested”. Or something like that. A customer near the front makes a huge mess by dropping her coffee, the tray clattering to the floor. I take a quick glance at Mr. Attractive and he’s looking at me. So I smile. And then, God help me, I wink.
Now it’s just a little wink, just an acknowledgement that he’s there and I’m there and we both see the humor of the situation and that, perhaps, we’re somehow both a little more in the know than the average joker and already have this little connection, but that’s all it is. I swear.
But it’s enough.
Because next thing I know, he’s picking up his coffee and his New Yorker and he’s coming over to me, doing that little raised eyebrow thing to ask if he can join me and I’m nodding, nodding, thinking I don’t quite believe this. He asks me about my book and I ask him about his magazine and I mention, modestly, that I’m a writer and he mentions, modestly, that he’s a musician, and even though we’re really a bookkeeper and a systems analyst, we understand that we’re not defined by our paying jobs. I tell him my name and he tells me his and it’s one of those names I always admired. He has a little bit of curly black/grey/white hair coming out of the collar of his shirt. His eyes crinkle at the corners and his forearms flex as he leans forward on his elbows to talk to me in low tones that require that I lean forward too. I smile to show my dimples and hope that I don’t have coffee breath and we keep talking. About books and music and the theatre. About the way that parking is getting impossible in this town and how traffic is ridiculous. He mentions that he lives near South Park and I mention that I’m over by the university and pretty soon our coffee is cold and it’s somehow gotten to be an hour later.
It’s really time for me to leave and he walks me to my car, which thank heavens is decently clean, with no McDonald’s Happy Meal figures on the front seat. He mentions that he’s going to the poetry slam next Friday because his friend is playing flute for some poet and I mention that I’ve never been to a poetry slam and he says I should try it. So I say maybe I will and I drive away with my hands perspiring on the steering wheel.
I have no complaints about my husband, that has to be understood. He’s loving and thoughtful and sexy and he picks up his socks and puts down the toilet seat. But on Friday night I’m at the damn poetry slam, trying to look like I’m enjoying it but really keeping an eye out for Mr. Handsome only I don’t see him and feel like a fool and I’m just getting ready to leave (I mean it, I’m only giving it five more minutes) when he walks in. And he winks at me.
The place is crowded and noisy, people are talking to each other and completely ignoring the woman in purple tights and purple hair who is bellowing some poem about spaghetti, and when he takes my elbow and leads me away to a quieter corner, a little thrill runs right up my arm. He asks if I want to get out of there and I nod and suddenly my knees are way too loose and I’m afraid that if I walk, they’ll bend backwards, the wrong way, which would not be attractive at all.
I manage to pull myself together and we get in our cars and I follow him to a bar, which is quiet and lowlit and has a nice band playing oldies. We talk and dance and his arms go around my waist, which has mostly been used to apron strings and babies’ monkey legs and my husband’s arms. Which are also nicely hairy and brown and have those good flexy muscles. Which I’m trying not to think about just like I’m trying not to mention that both Mr. Gorgeous and I are wearing wedding rings. Because we are, and we’re not kidding ourselves that this is anything but an exercise in visibility.
You see, it seems to me that after 40, you become invisible. Oh, you’re still there and people see you but they don’t really SEE you. They see this person whose daughter is now an adult and whose mother is now a child and who’s supposed to hold everything together. A person who couldn’t possibly have desires and doubts and unfulfilled longings. A person who is still, improbably, perhaps imperceptibly, a person.
I take a good look at Mr. Still-Has-It and I can see that he still loves rock’n’roll and still would look good behind the wheel of a Corvette and still has a bit of anxiety about how he looks to a younger woman. Which I am, to him. So I smile and flirt and he flirts back and it feel real good. We dance and I think about how strange it is to be in the arms of someone else, another man, a man who is a bit taller and bulkier than my husband, with a different voice and different lips and different eyes. It feels so weird, and then it feels even weirder when he kisses me, which he does, right there in the middle of the dance floor. I haven’t kissed another man on the lips in over 20 years and now his mouth is on mine, and it’s different, a different touch and taste and style. More than that, it’s real, I’m really here and I’m doing this thing.
I start to shake, start to vibrate like a goddamn tuning fork, until he probably thinks he’s such a good kisser that I’m going into orgasm, but actually I’m about three counties away from an orgasm. I’m just shaking with fear because I realize that I’m thinking about a lot more than kissing and that scares the hell out of me.
He laughs a little, softly, in a pleased sort of way, and I blush all the way to my fingernails and we go back to the table. He’s looking at me and I think, yes, look at me. I’m not ready to be old, to have all my fun behind me. I want to shimmy when I dance, and wiggle when I walk. I want a man to look at me and get a little yee-ha of his own.
Then I begin to think that maybe this is why people cheat in the first place. To have this warm glow that comes from someone else’s eyes. To remember who they are and not to be the person that everyone thinks they are and, a little bit, not to be the person they know they are.
I look at him too. I see a man who’s just as scared as I am of becoming invisible. Or being seen as past it, on the far side of manhood, as being old. So I reach across the table and take his hand (good hands, wide and blunt-fingered, the hands of a man who can fix things). I stroke his wrist and tell him without saying it that he’s still pretty sexy-looking and makes my mouth water. I think about all the things I’ve never done and all the things I’ll never be, and I wonder if it’s too late.
A rush goes through me, starting with my lips, making them feel warm and full, and I think, damn, what a hell of a time for my first hot flash. But it’s not a hot flash. It’s the realization that I’m not going to do a thing. Because among all those things I wanted to do with my life, this wasn’t on the list.
I give Mr. It-Might-Have-Been a quick kiss on the cheek. I’ll have daydreams for a while about him, play with thoughts that should send me to confession, and keep the memory of his kiss for those days when I can’t jump-start my own desires. I drive home and sit for a moment in the car, looking up at the light in the bedroom window.
You know, sometimes a wink is really just a nervous tic, a sudden twitch of muscles contracted in error by a misguided neuron, an accident of synapses gone awry. The muscles keep twitching until something clicks over and they smooth out, like a skip in an old 45 rpm record, and everything goes back to normal. The way it should be, I guess. The way it is. The way the music plays best.
by: Warren Glover
Tas Webb had put his time in. Six months in rehab and here he was, the last session of therapy when everyone either just said goodbye or sat in the semi-circle and listened to grand plans for the future or just sat on the bench seat at a loss for anywhere to go once out the door. He had driven a taxi working nightshift before being caught using and dealing and had made a lot of money only some of which the cops found. The six months at the clinic was the final period of a two and a half year sentence. There was a smell of pizza wafting in the open doorway and the clatter of motorbikes over the hum of traffic. He rose from the plastic chair and walked toward the door. It was sunny outside after a light shower. He was half way across the room when he saw her, she had been looking at him and their eyes met for an instant. She had not been in his group so it was not just her figure and face that intrigued him. He veered toward her, confident, one corner of his mouth slightly smiling.
“Hungry?” he asked as he stood beside her, looking down into her brown eyes. They were rather big and expressive, sparkley. Without smiling she nodded a yes.
“Is there some place nearby? I could use a beer as well.” She rose and picked up the jacket draped over the back of her chair. “We might as well share a late lunch as eat alone.“ Her manner was matter of fact without being friendly. She was advising him that her company was more than he should expect to enjoy, for her he was the best of a few boring alternatives. A week later they were inseparable and the rehabilitated Tas Webb was coasting along on cloud nine with plenty of money in a bank’s safety deposit box. Lyn’s aloofness collapsed after four drinks but she was no pushover and no scatterbrain, but there was something he couldn’t quite identify buried deep in her pattern of behavior, a sort of hunted or haunted way about her. She always let him enter their apartment first and turn on the light before she entered completely and closed the door. It was a month or maybe more before she opened up to him when he inquired for the fifth time about her edginess and dislike of dark corners and the dark space under the bed. A year ago, on entering her darkened apartment, she had been attacked from behind and repeatedly violated and beaten over several days before friends, worried by her disappearance and absence from work, beat down her door. The assailant escaped but he’d made no serious effort to hide his face from her.
She endured the honest solicitations of her friends and the police. She knew her captor would not be apprehended. She moved to another apartment, tried to put her shattered life together and move on. She kept her old job in order not to lose friendly faces and support. And gradually her life became more easy, constant tension slipped away and four months after her ordeal he returned. Thinking she had probably moved to another state secretly, severing all ties with the locality and its possible continued threat, neither her friends nor the police were prompted to rush to her new apartment when they noticed her absence. He stayed for three days and slept only when he was sure she did also. On the third day when she awoke he was gone, leaving her cuffed and chained. Eventually she loosened her gag and screamed for help. She managed to convince her neighbours that her predicament was the result of bondage sex gone wrong and a prank by her lover with whom she would remonstrate when he returned to the apartment for dinner. She wanted none of the cloying and carefully phrased counseling sessions, the routineness and lack of sympathy of the authorities and finally of her friends she wanted no pity, no tension and doubts and no suspicions and avoidances from male colleagues and friends. She took to hanging around drug rehabilitation centres hoping her tormentor might seek help there for his habit [she suspected he had one] and/or for his pathological behavior.
All this she poured out in one night of release that left Tas speechless. What words were adequate and what emotional response appropriate? He hugged her. A loud sob racked the unbearable silence and she collapsed in his arms as he sat her on the lounge. Seated beside her he waited, holding her tightly to his chest. Emotions he’d never felt before rose up inside him. Nothing in his life mattered more than relieving….no, obliterating, her anguish and terror. He whispered words of encouragement and support and they sat there hardly moving.
On the following day, Saturday, in the morning, they went for a drive to a beach resort south of the city, watched the hang-gliders leaping off the precipice high above the approaches and licked triple-flavoured ice-cream provided by a motorised vendor. The breeze was stiff onshore and cool enough for them to stay in the car. Later they drove down to the beach, walked slowly in the sand with Lyn clinging to him. She was pensive and calm as if she had resolved a troubling problem to her immense satisfaction. She even brightened his own mood by giving him a faint smile, catching his eyes with hers and keeping them as if trying to impart a silent message.
The highway narrows to the width of a suburban street with single lane traffic each way when near the city. Shops on either side until the railway station square where old tram lines branched south and south-west and where four major suburban roads converged. Tas stopped for pedestrians heading for the station when she clutched his bare arm so tight that her fingernails made him whince.
“That’s him!” Her lips were moving but no more sound came. She pointed a shaking finger. In a low whine. almost whispering, “That’s him, that’s him!” Her hand covered her mouth as if to stifle a scream that he would hear. He was average height, sloppily dressed, straight slightly long blond hair. Hands deep in jeans pockets and carrying a misshapen back-pack he walked with a bouncy step away from the station entrance toward the city. The lights changed and Tas moved the car forward. Fifty meters along he eased the car into a parking spot and getting out, he turned to Lyn.
“Stay in the car, I’ll be back, but whatever you do stay here.”
All his thoughts seemed to focus on confronting this guy, looking him in the face, see fear and recognise the suffering he was soon to endure. In a side street beside the post office they approached a narrow service alley. Tas moved forward quickly and punched him hard in the kidneys, catching him under the arms as his legs buckled and dragging him into the darkening alley. The guy was in agony, gasping and dry-reaching. Lying on his side, he turned his head to see his assailant, lips moving in a ridiculous fish-like way. Tas broke his neck with the heel of his shoe then rolled him on his back. No pulse. He rifled the body’s pockets, put everything in the bag and walked swiftly to the main street where he crossed the road and sauntered back to his car. He answered her enquiring expression.
“You won’t be seeing him again, don’t worry any more.” He leaned sideways to kiss her lips then calmly moved into the slowly moving traffic.
“Wh-what did you do?” She asked tentatively, almost as if she really didn’t want to know.
“Everything’s ok honey. You mustn’t worry any more. That terrible episode in your life has been cancelled out.”
She moved across the bench seat and cuddled his arm, kissed him on the cheek and sighed quietly.
Tas felt good, in fact he felt more than good. The Bulldogs had won the Grand Final and Banana Fritter had won the Thungaboola Gift at twelve to one in the space of just over a month. Lyn went back to work and although he had never seen her as her old self he assumed that she was about there now. He could see no reason why her edginess arose sometimes but he took to dismissing it as genetic or something like that. It was five months almost to the day since…..when they got word that her invalid mother had accidentally fallen down some stairs and was on the critical list in hospital. It was a drive of almost two hundred miles but of course they went and got there thirty minutes before visiting hours finished in the evening. Despite the quick shower he took before leaving Tas felt tired and sweaty. He had not slept well the night before and he’d have killed for a cold beer as he stood around while Lyn got the location of her mother from Admissions. The smell of antiseptic reminded him of the time he’d spent in prison rehab. The hospital aircon didn’t work very well and he’d have killed for a smoke. He motioned to Lyn and indicated he was going outside for a smoke, she nodded and he walked out. It was a small country hospital, all one floor, maybe thirty beds at most but the gardens were beautiful. He sucked the still warm clean country air deep into his lungs and drew a cigarette from the packet, Crickets and cicadas chirruped and a romantic magpie gurgled a few beautiful liquid notes that reminded him of his childhood. Against a molten gold sunset a group of gum trees stood in black contrast. He was about to flick the lighter when a wardsman came up to him and indicated he should return to the waiting room.
“I’m the doctor of the lady your friend was enquiring about. I’m afraid I had some bad news for her and she’s fainted.”
Tas frowned. The doctor was middle-aged, looked freshly scrubbed and his white jacket had seen a lot of service “Where is she….my friend I mean. Is her mother……?” His voice trailed off, he disliked the sound and the confronting sense in the word “dead”.
“She passed away twenty minutes before you arrived.”
Is she alright? My friend, I mean. Can I see her?”
In a smaller waiting room Lyn was lying on a three-seater lounge. He knelt beside her and took her hand, then looking up at the medico asked,”Is she ok to wake up, is that alright?”
He needn’t have asked. There was a sob and she sat up clutching at him urgently. He held her very tight.
Lyn was inconsolable as he drove home. It began to irritate him but he curbed his temper because her sniffs and noisy breathing kept him alert. But he was feeling really tired and began to yawn. The weather had closed in and with no moon it was very dark. A very light drizzle spotted the windscreen and for a while he lost track of time and just kept the car on the road, easing around the slow curves, concentrating on the centre line, he saw nothing but the line and the road and heard nothing but the swish-swish of the wipers. Lyn had fallen asleep.
The kangaroo had left its run too late and Tas felt as if he had struck a brick wall. Momentarily his grip on the wheel slipped and the car ran over the struggling kangaroo. The front wheels snapped full left and flipped the car onto its side and it kept rolling and rolling. Lyn screamed and went silent. Tas tried to count the rolls before he blacked out , 3 4 5, it didn’t matter.
There were people around him, there was activity and sounds. The light was bright, so bright. He clenched his eyes closed and blacked out again.
Much quieter this time. He still couldn’t open his eyes but he smelt disinfectant and bleach. His head ached slightly and he found it harder to breathe except through his nose. He slipped in and out of consciousness.
Without being aware of it he was struggling upward toward the light when consciousness began to return, Like a diver kicking his way to the surface, Then suddenly there was light and his eyes came unstuck. Light flooded into his mind and all was fuzzy until focus came and faces came out of the blur. Someone was holding his hand but out of his line of sight and his neck was rigid. He squeezed and a female voice gasped, “Tas, Tas, A face appeared, Lyn! She was ok…..she was ok but there was a bandaid on her forehead and a series of scratches on her cheek.
“They called me when the monitors indicated you were coming out of the coma. How do you feel Hon, oh don’t try to answer you’ve got a broken jaw”. She was smiling, then her face showed deep concern. “The doctor’s on his way up, we’ve told him you’re awake on his pager. He told us to let him know as soon as you showed sign of coming around.” He could only grunt and murmur but his tongue was mobile. He tried to say her name, he wanted to know how much injury he’d suffered. She indicated she understood and at that instant a young female face with a stethoscope around the neck intruded.
“Mister Webb try not to talk, your jaw is broken. As well you have a broken leg, a severely bruised neck, two broken ribs, your right arm is broken and so is your nose.”, she touched his hand and smiled and then cheerfully announced to all present, “but there’s nothing that we can’t fix. You’ve been pretty lucky considering the damage to your car.”
The car was bad luck but his surviving the crash was luckier he thought and considering his injuries, Lyn was luckier still. When he woke the next morning she was sitting beside the bed. She had a small writing pad and a biro to give him. Writing left-handed would not be easy but he’d do it, he was regaining his self-confidence without realising how damaged it had been until now.
Responding to his squiggled writing she advised, “Two to three weeks and we’re in Westmead hospital………no, no idea how much……..the car’s at Penrith police station for towing away to a wreckers…………Yes, they’re waiting for you to tell them what you want done with it.” A nurse came up to whisper in Lyn’s ear……..”another visitor?” She turned toward the ward’s entrance and motioned the man in. He was in short sleeves with a jacket over his arm.
“Mr Webb? I’m detective Hendricks.” He put his jacket on the foot of the bed, flipped open his badge wallet and took from under his arm a shabby looking back-pack encased in plastic, “This item was found in the boot of your car wreck. It’s an important piece of evidence in a murder investigation. Can you explain how it came to be in your car sir?”
(Last Part) LUCKY TAS
by: Warren Glover
Being the closing chapter of the author’s acquaintance with this interesting couple and
a relating of the means by which a pair of star-crossed lovers made their way in the world.
Tas grimaced and the pain of it almost numbed him. He fought against the panic of being so helpless, against being inundated with guilt that the copper could read in his reactions. But the cool manner of Lyn, her calm voice in control, stemmed his rising panic. She tied the bag to her attacker and knew what he had done,
“Dammit, Tas, I said we should have left that damned bag where it was.” She turned to Hendricks, “My partner can’t talk with a wired up jaw and he’s broken his wrist so he can’t write. Have you spoken to the hospital people about his injuries? He won’t be moving anytime soon with the injuries he’s got, can you come back tomorrow?” She recognized the dangers in concocting a story on the fly and gave Tas a surreptitious wink of confidence. She took his plastered right hand and wrist in her own hand. “Don’t worry honey, we can sort this out, we’ve got nothing to hide.” and gave Hendricks a look that was simultaneously protective and expecting of understanding, that their plight was dumb bad luck and required gentleness under the circumstances.
Hendricks took it in his stride. Eight year’s experience in serious crime plus two homicide convictions under his belt left him unmoved and with suspicion undiminished. This investigation would require enthusiastic co-operation from the medical staff. He was prepared to be patient and as unobtrusive as possible. Time was on his side. But he’d never developed a tolerance for hospitals and the odors of bleach alternating with disinfectant floor cleaners. He wanted to leave but possessed that self-discipline that aroused a feeling of martyrdom, of enduring the discomforts and hostilities for the reward of a job well done. Despite the air conditioning, a trickle of sweat ran down his back. It was Saturday and his son was playing in the under twelves rugby league side for the Eels in an hour and a half. He’d sworn to be at the oval. The oath had been given to Marjorie his wife so his personal welfare and a happy fulfilling weekend was part of the deal. Which reminded him, he must buy a bottle of King Hill red before the bodega closed.
His eyes narrowed as he surveyed the couple. Webb had a record for distribution, but never anything violent had attached to him. There was a persistent rumor of a large amount of unrecovered cash in the case that sent him to prison……….There had been holes, in that case, holes that Webb had not taken advantage of as if a quick conviction and case closed had been his aim. It occurred to him that patience might create opportunities if Webb’s full recovery was a distant prospect. Suddenly he realized that those present were looking at him expecting a reaction. The doctor had been running through Webb’s list of injuries and he had been day-dreaming! “Thank you, doctor, thank you…….I hope perhaps tomorrow I might have a brief word with you, there’s always routine stuff needed to complete a file but there are no third party issues so it won’t take long.”
The doctor consulted his watch and thought for a moment. “Look, I’m going for a bite, no lunch yet. Come with me now to the canteen and we can sort that out straight away.”
Hendricks was loath to leave his two suspects alone and was uncomfortable with the arrangement but he could scarcely refuse so expedient an offer to co-operate. Reluctantly he took up the opportunity though it was obvious he could not be present every minute these two were together. Forgetting momentarily his appointment at he the Eels’ oval, he wordlessly cursed the way things were happening, but a kid’s football match was not an excuse to interrupt an investigation. He might be a bit late. Those two could fairly quickly agree on a story. There would be no one to contradict them, no witnesses to the murder and none to the car accident. But if inconsistencies between the two about the bag could be found…….. Webb’s inability to communicate in the precise detail that a collusion through speech could achieve was a weakness for them that he must work on. And there was the other side of Webb’s activities. Possibly a bucket of cash and an attractive woman……..a femme fatale no less. He felt pleased with himself for the first time that day.
The first thing Lyn did after Hendricks and the doctor departed was to write in large letters on her pad. HEAD INJURIES – YOU’VE LOST YOUR MEMORY, ACT ACCORDINGLY. Their eyes locked and he mouthed the letters “OK”. He had little choice but took a lot of comfort from her performance in front of Hendricks. Forcing his aching brain to function he reviewed what had happened. Then he motioned to her with his left hand and she leaned close to his face. In a faint, guttural whisper he spoke, ” No one should know we can talk to each other. I must know what you’ll be telllng Hendricks. We must have stories that agree in every detail but not so precisely that we sound rehearsed.” They talked for nearly an hour.
No matter what Hendricks did he could not find a flaw in their story that did not have a credible explanation. Webb’s temporary memory loss was consistent with the physical injuries he had. No witnesses were found to the murder, the victim was a back-packer tourist that had arrived in Australia only three weeks earlier from Sweden, his female companion had returned there after interviews showed she knew nothing. They and eight others rented an old terrace house in McDonaldtown. The dead man had been a bit of a clown but popular mainly because he was able to acquire things in an unconventional manner. Most of them had been helped by him. In the six weeks Webb had been in hospital Hendricks had found nothing against any of the people even remotely involved with the victim. It seemed he faced the prospect of a motiveless murder, something he had never faced before. Other cases gradually impinged on the time he spent and diverted his attention. The back-packer murder dropped out of the current files and, with a number of others in a box in a corner of his office, waited to be activated by a new lead from an uninterested public.
Tas, on the other hand, was his old self. Despite Hendricks’s suspicions, he was in the clear, though the faint likelihood of the detective’s reappearance was a remote cloud on a distant horizon.
A year later they decided to drive back to the site of Lyn’s mother’s grave.
For several weeks Tas had suffered some very uncomfortable attitude from his beloved. She was edgy, easily provoked and quick to turn his good intentions into suspect ones. The injustice of it rankled with him and began to affect his attention toward the heavy Friday morning traffic on the expressway through the outer western industrial and semi-rural suburbs. Sudden lane changes a kilometer before exits had claimed several of his friends in the old taxi-driving days. Memories of a few hairy experiences of his own kept him alert only sometimes. Before entering the town he pulled over and parked. He could take the icy silence no longer. “For chrissakes Honey, how did we get to this stage…….how can you be so unhappy? To tell the truth, it’s driving me crazy!”
There was no response, She sat straight-backed, lips moving as if talking secretly to herself.
“I’m really puzzled Lyn. We should be adult enough to know we can’t go through the rest of our lives like this.” Tas felt his anger rising and quietly firmed his resolve to maintain control.
She rarely wore cosmetics, her kind of face didn’t need any, so the tears rolled easily, she sniffed and fiercely rubbed the tears away with the heels of her palms. Still no words. He reached for her and turned her face directly in front of his. Her eyes were sad, there was defeat in the down-turned corners of her mouth. At that moment she seemed indescribably beautiful to him, he had no resistance and kissed her passionately, tasting her tears, feeling the strain and stress in her. She gently pushed him away and fixed her gaze on the open glove-box. Slowly, distractedly, she drew out a tissue and wiped her face. “The contraceptives haven’t worked. I’m pregnant, you bastard.”
He was stunned. No experience in his rather eventful life had prepared him for this. “You….you’re pregnant?” She nodded, as if the melancholia of the moment was best preserved by silent witness. He wanted to shout, to say in one all-encompassing word, that he was overjoyed, shocked, worried and thrilled all together. “But Honey, babe, don’t be sad, for chrissakes, it’s great, wonderful……..” His enthusiasm wasn’t getting through. It was an ill-considered reaction. “Hey, wait, let’s calm down for a minute. Tell me, did you think I would take that for bad news, that I would somehow be unhappy?” It occurred to him that perhaps any explanation might contain facts he would not like to hear and for this reason he interrupted her as she took a breath to speak. “No! No, no, say nothing. Just believe I think this is the best thing that’s happened to me in my whole life. Now, tell me what you think.”
It was obvious to him that she was plumbing emotional depths probably never reached before and felt a strong reluctance to breach so private a feature of herself. I…..I….don’t know. At first, I thought my life was shattered to bits. Do you honestly think this is the best thing……..” her voice trailed away.
“I’ve never lied to you Honey. That’s the first, second, third, the billionth reaction from me. I’ll never think it’s anything but the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Lyn continued, “……….that’s ever happened to you? In your whole life? She pressed her palms to the sides of her head, “I mean….our way of life is over. We’re not married, you know, domesticated. We’ve always done what we pleased and now…….we’re tied for the rest of our lives to ………” She spread her arm to signal the unworthiness by comparison with the hedonism of their current lives.and how carefree it had been, Now, now cares abounded at every turn. Another human was entering and soon would encroach on their lives, demanding with the righteous backing of a highly moral society that it receive not only their undivided attention for roughly the next twenty years of their lives but a considerable portion of their pelf as well.
“Honey, Let’s pay respects to your Mum, fill up the car, buy a slab from the bottle-shop and get quietly tipsy on the carpeted floor of an illicit motel room. That’s when we can talk about the future. You like Sean Connery don’t you? I wouldn’t mind watching The Hunt For Red October again.” Unfortunately, a heavy call upon the resources of the motel’s video library mandated they watch All At Sea, the swansong of Lemmon and Matthau or Up In The Air, in the making of which was expended enough time and money to build a hospital. He took both.
They spent two nights at the motel. In the bright light of a new day Lyn had not rid herself of reservations about the future and, Tas had to admit, he entertained a few qualms as well, especially when the full implications of the pregnancy came under the close and penetrating scrutiny of an intoxicated inquiry convened on the carpeted floor of an illicit motel room. By tacit agreement the pregnancy was not mentioned during the drive home. It was around mid-day when he found a parking spot in High Street just around the corner from the Observer Hotel. They ordered a jug of iced lemon tea, home-made for those who knew to order it. Tas opined it had a touch of ginger syrup in it, Lyn reckoned cardamom. Over the space of half an hour it dwindled to about an inch of plain ice-water. As Tas rose to visit the Gent’s, Lyn’s hand gripped his rolled-up shirt sleeve.
“Hang on Honey, I’m not going far, just to the Gent’s”
Her response was a stifled, hoarse scream, “Sit down, sit down! It’s him! Oh my god, it’s him! She was keening like a kitten in agony. She buried her face in his chest, sobbing, “Oh my god, oh my god. Is he looking this way? She pointed surreptitiously in the direction of a table at the other end of the line. “In the safari suit…..eating a salad.”
Tas was already wetting himself.
This is the last event in the lives of Tas and Lyn of which the author is aware. I have no reason to doubt that the two lovers married and lived fulfilling productive lives and that their child became a worthy member of society. With two such parents there is even less reason for doubt. Whether Lyn was able to rid herself of her demons is unknown also. Some small comfort can be drawn from the absence of a string of “motiveless” murders making headlines in the national dailies over the ensuing years. There is at least one law-enforcement bloodhound who, in my opinion, would have noticed a trend.
The author would have been failing in his duty to his reader if he neglected to discover the denouement as it played out at the Eels Rugby League under twelves match that Saturday. Detective Hendricks arrived on time to greet Marjorie and to cheer his son’s side to a decisive win. Having kept his oath the detective’s weekend was most likely a happy and fulfilling one. This is evidenced by the case of King Hill red now being delivered to his doorstep every month.
On a Red-Eye Heading East
by: Ken Elkes
Last weekend, Daniel spent 43 hours straight with his daughter Esme. Nearly two whole days. Nearly. Now he is 30,000 feet up on a red-eye heading East, looking at a picture she has posted online – a ‘selfie’ and the shadow of his face. He is not tagged.
Planes, hotel rooms, toilet cubicles off quiet corridors. These are the sliver-thin places where he finds a little time, like a fisherman standing in a fast flowing river, hoping to hook something beautiful, reel it in, hold it for a while.
He spends these moments ‘liking’ her uploaded images – the lemon drizzle cake she made, Esme with a ginger-haired girl he doesn’t recognize, her new patent-leather shoes. Or typing funny comments about cold feet, hair braids, boys in spectacles; thumbing love into the holy blue glow of the screen, as if a string of 0s and 1s were invisible threads that joined them.
Another flight, a few weeks back. A stewardess, greying and flat shoed, saw a picture on his laptop. She asked: “So, is that your daughter?”
The picture wasn’t her, not really, he said. None of it was, the patchwork of messages and posts and the slow, twitching images of video calls.
“Zoom in. Just zoom in and see just how pixelated she gets,” he said.
When she turned away wordless, he regretted his candour, the potential rudeness. He was relieved a little late when she brought him a whisky, unasked, leaned in and told him it was on the house, saying she had kids, was divorced, understood.
Today the stewardess is different, young and brisk, and he sits quietly, held down by the weight of the laptop and the phone, silent, in his pocket.
Finally, he lets himself think about last weekend. That fat, cold Friday, Daniel had driven through a blizzard to his ex-wife’s house and taken Esme back to his too-hot, too-small new place where they scoured peanut butter straight from the jar and gazed at the ghost prints of birds in the snow.
When the snow relented Esme insisted they go out, so they bought a plastic sled and drove out to the hills near to where he grew up. When they crossed a bridge at the foot of the slopes, Daniel stopped and told Esme about how snow changed the sound of everything.
“Listen to the stream, I mean really listen to it,” he said and was silent for a long time, until Esme pulled on his hand, said she wanted to have fun.
He watched her sail down the hill, time after time, worrying about the cold and the night and what they should eat when they got back.
Then she said “let’s build a snowman” and they worked together, heaving a great ball of snow around the bottom of the hill, a lesser one for the head. He gave up his scarf and his hat and Esme made a face from twigs. When they had finished she adjusted the cap to a better angle, then patted its belly.
“Looks like you dad.”
Against the hum of the plane’s engine, Daniel remembers how, as they were leaving, he turned and saw the swathe of grass they had exposed all round the snowman, bright green, incredulous in its colour.
He stares out at the vast fields of clouds that stretch, white and unending, to the horizon. He thinks about what lies below.
By now the snowman would have melted and the deep, bright grass would be an unremarkable piece of field. Maybe someone walking there might see a hat and scarf, a pile of twigs. They might wonder, just for a moment, about who left them there and why.
He didn’t take a picture of the snowman, neither did Esme. There had been no profile update, no location marked, no online record uploaded, filed or shared. But when Daniel closes his eyes he can hear the trickle of a stream dulled by snow, the sharp pipe of his daughter’s laughter in cold air. He can smell crushed grass and he can feel the wondrous weight of tiredness in his limbs as he carried his own sleeping daughter to bed that night.
The Hunter and The Bear
by: Caitlin Timmerman
One day in late November, just as Pyotr the Bear was sitting down for his evening meal of black bread and beans, his front door burst open and a man stepped through. The man stomped his fur boots on the welcome mat to shake off the late-November snow, and he took off his blue woolen cap. Then he spotted Pyotr sitting at the table, a spoonful of beans clutched in his right paw.
“You’d better run,” the man said, lifting his rifle. “I’m a hunter.”
“You had better run,” Pyotr replied, grinning so that his teeth showed. “I’m a bear.”
The hunter put his gun down slowly.
“You’ve no right to be here,” he said. “This is a Guide’s Cabin. It’s for people.”
“You’re not a Guide.” Pyotr tore off a hunk of black bread and started chewing on it. “You’re a hunter.”
The man’s shoulders slumped and he leaned against the doorpost.
“I’m not much of a hunter, to be honest. I haven’t caught a thing to eat since I left home. I’m tired and hungry.” He glanced at the bear’s neatly spread table. “Hey — do you have any more of that bread and beans?”
Pyotr did, in fact, have plenty of bread and beans: it was the first day of the week and he had just made a fresh batch. However, he didn’t know how he felt about sharing his food with a hunter.
“Please,” the man begged, and with that he collapsed into Pyotr’s rocking chair.
“You do look pretty hungry,” Pyotr admitted, “And tired. I suppose that if you promise you’ll only stay for one night, I could share my food with you. But only this once!”
“I’ll leave in the morning,” the hunter promised.
But overnight it snowed twelve inches in the wild woods of Siberia, and all the paths were blocked.
“I guess you’ll have to stay for breakfast,” Pyotr growled.
They had ham and blueberry muffins and leftover beans, plus a pot of tea, because it was cold outside. After breakfast the hunter pulled out his harmonica.
“You play too?” Pyotr exclaimed.
“Only ‘O Susannah,'” the hunter replied, “But I’m pretty good at it.”
“‘O Susannah’ is my favorite,” said Pyotr.
So they played duets of “O Susannah” until lunch. In the afternoon it was still too snowy to go anywhere, but Pyotr thought it wouldn’t hurt to head out front and make snow angels: so they did, flopping down in the fluffy snow and waving their arms and legs back and forth. The hunter, whose name was Nikolai, laughed and said that Pyotr’s angel looked more like a monster; Pyotr said that Nikolai’s angel looked more like a worm. Then the hunter made a snowman and put his blue woolen cap on it, and wedged his hunting gun into its snowy arms. Pyotr made a life-sized snow bear to stand beside the snowman, growling through its icicle teeth.
“That was fun,” the hunter said in the evening as he tucked into a warmed-up bowl of beans and black bread. “Can I stay another night?”
Snow fell steadily in the wild woods of Siberia for three and a half weeks. Every day Pyotr’s windows were crusted with a thick new layer of frost; every day the snowbanks rose higher against the green door of the snug little cottage. There was no question, now, of Nikolai going anywhere. Pyotr and the hunter learned three new harmonica songs and improvised twenty variations of ‘O Susannah.’ Nikolai learned how to make black bread and beans, and he taught Pyotr how to turn some of his blueberries into a dark, runny jam.
One evening after the dishes were all done, Pyotr asked,
“Why do you hunt bears?”
Nikolai thought about that, turning his teacup around on its saucer.
“Why do you attack people?”
“I don’t usually. Only when I’m in a bad mood.”
“Well, if you didn’t attack us, we wouldn’t hunt you.”
The hunter and the bear sat in silence for a moment, watching the snow fall down, down, down like feathers from a great pillow-fight.
“I only get in a bad mood because you hunters tromp around in my woods with your guns. How would you feel if someone came into your home, making loud noises and killing things?”
“Not very good, I guess,” Nikolai admitted.
Pyotr finished his third cup of tea and sat watching the hunter with his baleful brown eyes.
“Listen,” Nikolai said suddenly, “There’s not much I can do about the other hunters. But for my part, I promise you that I will never shoot another bear.”
“In that case,” Pyotr replied, “I promise you that I will never attack another human.”
“It’s a deal!” Nikolai exclaimed, and extending his hand, he shook the bear’s enormous paw.
When the first crane of spring flapped past Pyotr’s window, its huge white wings as white as the melting snow, Nikolai knew that it was time to leave.
“Thanks,” he said, standing awkwardly in the doorway. “I had a good time.”
“You don’t have to go,” Pyotr replied. He coughed gruffly. “I’ll miss you.”
“I know. I’ll miss you too. But I’m not a bear — I have a family, and friends in the village. I have to make tea for my wife, and tuck my children into bed, and play the harmonica in the village band.”
Pyotr pondered these words. He wished he had a family, and friends, even though this wasn’t normal for a bear. He wondered if perhaps he wasn’t as much of a bear as he had thought he was.
“You can visit me,” Nikolai continued. “That will certainly surprise the villagers. We can pick blueberries — there’s a great patch just behind my house.”
Pyotr smiled as he thought of picking blueberries: it had been a long time since he had sat in the sun, swiping the tiny berries with his huge paw.
“I guess I could do that,” he said.
So it was that Pyotr the Bear and Nikolai the Hunter became friends, not just for a season, but for the rest of their lives. In the summer Pyotr would visit Nikolai, and together they would pick enough blueberries for an enormous pie, big enough to share with the entire village. When the villagers came together to eat their slice of runny, sticky, sweet pie under the summer stars, they would stare in awe at the huge bear who sat like a statue beside Nikolai, carefully licking his paws.
And in the winter, just as the first snow was beginning to fall, Nikolai would put on his blue woolen cap and head out towards the wild woods of Siberia. Somewhere in the midst of the forest, he knew, there was a small, snug cabin where his best friend was playing “O Susannah” while a pot of beans sat boiling on the stove.
by: Jon Langford
“Hello, sir. How may I help you?”
“I’d like to return this alarm clock, please.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The alarm doesn’t work.”
“How do you mean?”
“The alarm makes no sound.”
“Did you troubleshoot using the manual?”
“And it still didn’t work?”
“Okay. Do you have the receipt?”
“No. I can’t find it anywhere.”
“Then I can’t give you a refund.”
“Oh no, you misunderstand. I don’t want a refund. I just want to exchange it for one that works.”
“Okay. Do you have the original packaging?”
“No. I threw it away.”
“I can’t do an exchange without the original packaging.”
“It came in a plastic clamshell. I had to hack it open with a knife. I don’t understand. Why do you need the packaging?”
“Our policy for all exchanges is that the product be returned in its original packaging.”
“It was just a load of ripped up plastic. Why would I keep that?”
“In case you needed to return the item.”
“I didn’t think an alarm clock would break after a few weeks. So you’re telling me you can’t do anything to help?”
“To do anything I need some proof of purchase.”
“I’m proof! I’m telling you now that I bought it here. In fact, I think you might have even served me.”
“Did you register the product warranty number online?”
“Ah well, that’s a problem. How did you pay for it? Cash or card?”
“If you’d paid on card you could’ve got a statement from your bank proving you’d made a purchase here and on what date.”
“Well, I paid cash.”
“The thing is, other stores sell this brand too. You could’ve bought it anywhere.”
“I could. But I didn’t. I bought it here and it doesn’t work and you owe me an alarm clock.”
“When did you buy it?”
“A few weeks ago.”
“Our exchange policy is twenty-one days so you might be out of warranty anyway.”
“I bought it last month sometime. I don’t remember the exact date.”
“We’ve been selling this model for a couple of years now.”
“Are you saying I’m lying?”
“No, sir. I’m simply saying that you might have bought it twenty-two days ago and in that case, even with a receipt and the original packaging, I wouldn’t be able to do anything to help.”
“So now I just have a faulty alarm clock forever?”
“Well, you could send it off to the manufacturer with a letter explaining the problem.”
“It was made in China. That’s more hassle than it’s worth.”
“Then I would suggest taking it to a repair shop.”
“That sort of thing usually costs more than what you paid for something in the first place.”
“Can I speak to the manager, please?”
“The manager’s off today.”
“Then can I speak to whoever’s in charge?”
“You already are.”
“Is the manager in tomorrow?”
“When’s he next in?”
“It’s a she.”
“Okay. When’s she next in?”
“I’ll come back Monday then.”
“Very good. Can I help you with anything else today, sir?”
“I doubt it.”
“Okay. Would you like to open a store card? It’s completely free and you get five percent off every purchase.”
“No thank you.”
“If you open one today you get a free gift.”
“What’s the free gift?”
“An alarm clock.”
The Cricket War
by: Bob Thurber
That summer an army of crickets started a war with my father. They picked a fight the minute they invaded our cellar. Dad didn’t care for bugs much more than Mamma, but he could tolerate a few spiders and assorted creepy crawlers living in the basement. Every farm house had them. A part of rustic living, and something you needed to put up with if you wanted the simple life.
He told Mamma: Now that were living out here, you cant be jerking your head and swallowing your gum over what’s plain natural, Ellen. But she was a city girl through and through and had no ears when it came to defending vermin. She said a cricket was just a noisy cockroach, just a dumb horny bug that wouldn’t shut up. She said in the city there were blocks of buildings overrun with cockroaches with no way for people to get rid of them. No sir, no way could she sleep with all that chirping going on; then to prove her point she wouldn’t go to bed. She drank coffee and smoked my fathers cigarettes and she paced between the couch and the TV. Next morning she threatened to pack up and leave, so Dad drove to the hardware store and hurried back. He squirted poison from a jug with a spray nozzle. He sprayed the basement and all around the foundation of the house. When he was finished he told us that was the end of it.
But what he should have said was: This is the beginning, The beginning of our war, the beginning of our destruction. I often think back to that summer and try to imagine him delivering a speech with words like that, because for the next fourteen days mamma kept finding dead crickets in the clean laundry. Shed shake out a towel or a sheet and a dead black cricket would roll across the linoleum. Sometimes the cat would corner one, and swat it around like he was playing hockey, then carry it away in his mouth. Dad said swallowing a few dead crickets wouldn’t hurt as long as the cat didn’t eat too many. Each time Mamma complained he told her it was only natural that we’d be finding a couple of dead ones for a while.
Soon live crickets started showing up in the kitchen and bathroom. Mamma freaked because she thought they were the dead crickets come back to haunt, but Dad said these was definitely a new batch, probably coming up on the pipes. He fetched his jug of poison and sprayed beneath the sink and behind the toilet and all along the baseboard until the whole house smelled of poison, and then he sprayed the cellar again, and then he went outside and sprayed all around the foundation leaving a foot-wide moat of poison. Stop them son of a bitches right in their tracks, he told us.
For a couple of weeks we went back to finding dead crickets in the laundry. Dad told us to keep a sharp look out. He suggested that we’d all be better off to hide as many as we could from mamma. I fed a few dozen to the cat who I didn’t like because he scratched and bit for no reason. I hoped the poison might kill him so we could get a puppy. Once in a while we found a dead cricket in the bathroom or beneath the kitchen sink. We didn’t know if these were fresh dead or old dead the cat had played with and then abandoned. Dad cracked a few in half to show us that they were fresh. Then he used the rest of the poison to give the house another dose. A couple of weeks later, when both live and dead crickets kept turning up, he emptied the cellar of junk. He borrowed Uncle Burt’s pickup and hauled a load to the dump. Then he burned a lot of bundled newspapers and magazines which he said the crickets had turned into nests.
He stood over that fire with a rake in one hand and a garden hose in the other. He wouldn’t leave it even when Mamma sent me out to fetch him for supper. He wouldn’t leave the fire, and she wouldn’t put supper on the table. Both my brothers were crying. Finally she went out and got him herself. And while we ate, the wind lifted some embers onto the wood pile. The only gasoline was in the lawn mowers fuel tank but that was enough to create an explosion big enough to reach the house. Once the roof caught, there wasn’t much anyone could do.
After the fire trucks left I made the mistake of volunteering to stay behind while Mamma took the others to Aunt Gail’s. I helped Dad and Uncle Burt and two men I’d never seen before carry things out of the house and stack them by the road. In the morning we’d come back in Burt’s truck and haul everything away. We worked into the night and we didn’t talk much, hardly a word about anything that mattered, and Dad didn’t offer any plan that he might have for us now. Uncle Burt passed a bottle around, but I shook my head when it came to me. I kicked and picked through the mess, dumb struck at how little there was to salvage, while all around the roar of crickets magnified our silence.
The Hollow Spot in my Head where a Bullet used to be
Two spoons. A dried-up apple. A roadmap of Slovakia.
When I walked through those doors… That’s what was in my suitcase. Rattling around.
I don’t remember packing the suitcase.
I don’t remember walking through those doors.
They keep a record of everything, here.
I’ve been here for 1488 days.
Outreach Arms was built in the 50s — the building. It was a beer bottling plant back then. When the economy got lymphoma, the plant sat empty for a decade. Then a philanthropist, Allan Eddy, turned the brick building into “the largest men’s shelter, chapel and soup kitchen in the nation.” A one-stop destination for the indigent. Mr. Eddy ran the place for twenty years. When he got lymphoma, his daughter Brenda took over.
Until last week, the basement was still filled with beer bottles. Practical glass bottles that didn’t know their destiny was to sit empty in the dark for forty years.
If I even think of those bottles for a second…
I get depressed as hell.
The first thing I remember anyone saying to me…
It was the old guy. Orville. At lunchtime.
The only open spot was across from him.
He ate like a freed POW. His beard was 3’2. The tip dipped into his bowl the whole time.
He grabbed my hand.
“A dream,” he said. “Your old life. Tell yourself it was a dream. Then believe it.”
The mole between his eyes was as big as an eyeball.
He released my hand. And leaped back onto his soup.
I just wasn’t hungry.
I had a headache, that first year. I couldn’t think, so I listened.
“Everything we have is donated. There’s a wishlist but companies give us what they can.”
One company donated a thousand bags of shredded coconut. We could’ve filmed a Christmas show.
Another company donated expensive leather notebooks. They looked good enough to eat. I took one because the library had just donated pencils. I thought sketching might help pass the time. Or writing things down…
Food tastes better if you complain about it.
Men with wrists as hairy as Orville’s scare the hell out of me.
Jerry glued two cigarette butts together and grinned all day.
I guess it helped a little.
Death came around once a month. Dr. Death. Dangstoff — an old German. He might’ve been Russian. He gave us penicillin if we needed it. The government — or I’m not sure who paid for this.
“Anything hurts?” he’d always ask.
“Just my head,” I’d always answer.
“As long as I can remember.”
“O-kay,” he’d say. And go on to his next patient.
Brian occasionally knocked his head against the wall, all day. These were brick walls. Sometimes he needed stitches.
“Try wear helmet, o-kay?” Dangstoff would tell him. Then he’d give him a shot of penicillin. After getting his shot, Brian typically stopped hitting his head for a while. And started biting his arm.
I guess it helped a little.
Orville didn’t finish his soup. Not this time. His beard fell into the bowl, then his face.
There was a service for him in the chapel. The chapel’s non-denominational but there’s an eight-foot crucifix above the door.
Father Paul said the usual stuff.
He scattered Orville’s ashes in the back alley, after.
“It’s what he wanted,” Brenda said to me. Then she passed me a ziplock bag. There was a watch in it.
“He wrote his will last week, on a soup label. I guess he knew.”
I didn’t even know Orville wore a watch. He was that hairy.
It wasn’t a nice watch and it didn’t run.
I put it on anyway.
The bald guy looked forty but said he was seventeen. He was drunk.
Brenda unzipped his backpack and reached inside.
Out came a black comb. A raffle ticket for a ’76 Mustang Convertible. A bottle of beer.
Brenda opened the record book. And wrote it all down.
In my notebook, I sketched the backpack and the bottle.
Then I wrote down, “Oh, Lord.”
Death didn’t come around, one month. I guess he died.
His replacement was a young Egyptian. Mudada.
When Mudada stepped up to me… He kept looking at one side of my face, the other.
“When did you have your stroke?” he asked.
“I don’t remember having a stroke,” I said.
He sent me for a CT scan.
There was a bullet in my brain. Just barely sticking in the cerebellum. The skull had healed years ago.
“When did you get shot?” Mudada asked me.
“I don’t remember getting shot,” I said.
After the surgery, I was a new man. No more headaches. I still couldn’t remember getting shot but I remembered having a chequing account with $10,000 in it.
I bought new shoes. A nice suit and tie.
I bought a battery for Orville’s watch. That’s all it needed.
I found an apartment close to downtown. A cheap apartment is expensive as hell. I searched for work like a madman for a year. A skull will heal but the hole in your resume…
The third time the landlord knocked, my heart fell down into my shoe.
I folded my suit and tie, lowered them into my suitcase.
I walked through the doors of Outreach Arms.
This time, I remember.
We were running out of space. Outreach had been getting ten or twelve guys a month, for months. It was built to house a few hundred men but there were close to a thousand, now. Sleeping in hallways. Laundry hampers. The army donated ancient cots but we needed space.
So Brenda got us to clean out the basement. She even paid us a little.
It took weeks to clear out all the bottles. A million bottles, there must’ve been. They were filthy. There were mice in a lot of them. We tossed them into a dumptruck.
When I tossed the last box of bottles…
It was 3:00 PM, but I went to bed.
I didn’t want to be around people.
They moved us to the basement. All us older guys. The young ones stay upstairs. The hopeful cases.
It’s dark down here. The lights are burned out. The bulbs are obsolete. Even the army doesn’t have any. Brenda thinks we might still get some, eventually. Maybe.
All we can do is wait.
The Open Window
by: Frank Stockton
In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric. He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts. He was greatly given to self-communing, and, when he and himself agreed upon anything, the thing was done. When every member of his domestic and political systems moved smoothly in its appointed course, his nature was bland and genial; but, whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of their orbits, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight and crush down uneven places.
Among the borrowed notions by which his barbarism had become semified was that of the public arena, in which, by exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured.
But even here the exuberant and barbaric fancy asserted itself. The arena of the king was built, not to give the people an opportunity of hearing the rhapsodies of dying gladiators, nor to enable them to view the inevitable conclusion of a conflict between religious opinions and hungry jaws, but for purposes far better adapted to widen and develop the mental energies of the people. This vast amphitheater, with its encircling galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance. girlplays
When a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to interest the king, public notice was given that on an appointed day the fate of the accused person would be decided in the king’s arena, a structure which well deserved its name, for, although its form and plan were borrowed from afar, its purpose emanated solely from the brain of this man, who, every barleycorn a king, knew no tradition to which he owed more allegiance than pleased his fancy, and who ingrafted on every adopted form of human thought and action the rich growth of his barbaric idealism.
When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king, surrounded by his court, sat high up on his throne of royal state on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a door beneath him opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheater. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike and side by side. It was the duty and the privilege of the person on trial to walk directly to these doors and open one of them. He could open either door he pleased; he was subject to no guidance or influence but that of the aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance.
If he opened the one, there came out of it a hungry tiger, the fiercest and most cruel that could be procured, which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces as a punishment for his guilt. The moment that the case of the criminal was thus decided, doleful iron bells were clanged, great wails went up from the hired mourners posted on the outer rim of the arena, and the vast audience, with bowed heads and downcast hearts, wended slowly their homeward way, mourning greatly that one so young and fair,
or so old and respected, should
have merited so dire a fate.
But, if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the most suitable to his years and station that his majesty could select among his fair subjects, and to this lady he was immediately married, as a reward of his innocence. It mattered not that he might already possess a wife and family, or that his affections might be engaged upon an object of his own selection; the king allowed no such subordinate arrangements to interfere with his great scheme of retribution and reward. The exercises, as in the other instance, took place immediately, and in the arena. Another door opened beneath the king, and a priest, followed by a band of choristers, and dancing maidens blowing joyous airs on golden horns and treading an epithalamic measure, advanced to where the pair stood, side by side, and the wedding was promptly and cheerily solemnized. Then the gay brass bells rang forth their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the innocent man, preceded by children strewing flowers on his path, led his bride to his home.
This was the king’s semi-barbaric method of administering justice. Its perfect fairness is obvious. The criminal could not know out of which door would come the lady; he opened either he pleased, without having the slightest idea whether, in the next instant, he was to be devoured or married. On some occasions the tiger came out of one door, and on some out of the other. The decisions of this tribunal were not only fair, they were positively determinate: the accused person was instantly punished if he found himself guilty, and, if innocent, he was rewarded on the spot, whether he liked it or not. There was no escape from the judgments of the king’s arena.
The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?
This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most florid fancies, and with a soul as fervent and imperious as his own. As is usual in such cases, she was the apple of his eye, and was loved by him above all humanity. Among his courtiers was a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens. This royal maiden was well satisfied with her lover, for he was handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom, and she loved him with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong. This love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to his duty in the premises. The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king’s arena. This, of course, was an especially important occasion, and his majesty, as well as all the people, was greatly interested in the workings and development of this trial. Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of the king. In after years such things became commonplace enough, but then they were in no slight degree novel and startling.
The tiger-cages of the kingdom were searched for the most savage and relentless beasts, from which the fiercest monster might be selected for the arena; and the ranks of maiden youth and beauty throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges in order that the young man might have a fitting bride in case fate did not determine for him a different destiny. Of course, everybody knew that the deed with which the accused was charged had been done. He had loved the princess, and neither he, she, nor any one else, thought of denying the fact; but the king would not think of allowing any fact of this kind to interfere with the workings of the tribunal, in which he took such great delight and satisfaction. No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the princess.
The appointed day arrived. From far and near the people gathered, and thronged the great galleries of the arena, and crowds, unable to gain admittance, massed themselves against its outside walls. The king and his court were in their places, opposite the twin doors, those fateful portals, so terrible in their similarity.
All was ready. The signal was given. A door beneath the royal party opened, and the lover of the princess walked into the arena. Tall, beautiful, fair, his appearance was greeted with a low hum of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience had not known so grand a youth had lived among them. No wonder the princess loved him! What a terrible thing for him to be there!
As the youth advanced into the arena he turned, as the custom was, to bow to the king, but he did not think at all of that royal personage. His eyes were fixed upon the princess, who sat to the right of her father. Had it not been for the moiety of barbarism in her nature it is probable that lady would not have been there, but her intense and fervid soul would not allow her to be absent on an occasion in which she was so terribly interested. From the moment that the decree had gone forth that her lover should decide his fate in the king’s arena, she had thought of nothing, night or day, but this great event and the various subjects connected with it. Possessed of more power, influence, and force of character than any one who had ever before been interested in such a case, she had done what no other person had done – she had possessed herself of the secret of the doors. She knew in which of the two rooms, that lay behind those doors, stood the cage of the tiger, with its open front, and in which waited the lady. Through these thick doors, heavily curtained with skins on the inside, it was impossible that any noise or suggestion should come from within to the person who should approach to raise the latch of one of them. But gold, and the power of a woman’s will, had brought the secret to the princess.
And not only did she know in which room stood the lady ready to emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened, but she knew who the lady was. It was one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of aspiring to one so far above him; and the princess hated her. Often had she seen, or imagined that she had seen, this fair creature throwing glances of admiration upon the person of her lover, and sometimes she thought these glances were perceived, and even returned. Now and then she had seen them talking together; it was but for a moment or two, but much can be said in a brief space; it may have been on most unimportant topics, but how could she know that? The girl was lovely, but she had dared to raise her eyes to the loved one of the princess; and, with all the intensity of the savage blood transmitted to her through long lines of wholly barbaric ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door.
When her lover turned and looked at her, and his eye met hers as she sat there, paler and whiter than any one in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her, he saw, by that power of quick perception which is given to those whose souls are one, that she knew behind which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady. He had expected her to know it. He understood her nature, and his soul was assured that she would never rest until she had made plain to herself this thing, hidden to all other lookers-on, even to the king. The only hope for the youth in which there was any element of certainty was based upon the success of the princess in discovering this mystery; and the moment he looked upon her, he saw she had succeeded, as in his soul he knew she would succeed.
Then it was that his quick and anxious glance asked the question: “Which?” It was as plain to her as if he shouted it from where he stood. There was not an instant to be lost. The question was asked in a flash; it must be answered in another.
Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.
He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.
Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady ?
The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way. Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him?
How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started in wild horror, and covered her face with her hands as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other side of which waited the cruel fangs of the tiger!
But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door! How in her grievous reveries had she gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair, when she saw his start of rapturous delight as he opened the door of the lady! How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen him rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling eye of triumph; when she had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame kindled with the joy of recovered life; when she had heard the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the happy bells; when she had seen the priest, with his joyous followers, advance to the couple, and make them man and wife before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away together upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the hilarious multitude, in which her one despairing shriek was lost and drowned!
Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?
And yet, that awful tiger, those shrieks, that blood!
Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been made after days and nights of anguished deliberation. She had known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the right.
The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?
The Open Window
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window – ”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention – but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
by: Frederik Pohl
I am sitting on the edge of what passes for a bed. It is made of loosely woven strips of steel, and there is no mattress, only an extra blanket of thin olive-drab. It isn’t comfortable; but of course they expect to make me still more uncomfortable.
They expect to take me out of this precinct jail to the District prison and eventually to the death house.
Sure, there will be a trial first, but that is only a formality. Not only did they catch me with the smoking gun in my hand and Connaught bubbling to death through the hole in his throat, but I admitted it.
I—knowing what I was doing, with, as they say, malice aforethought—deliberately shot to death Laurence Connaught.
They execute murderers. So they mean to execute me.
Especially because Laurence Connaught had saved my life.
Well, there are extenuating circumstances. I do not think they would convince a jury.
Connaught and I were close friends for years. We lost touch during the war. We met again in Washington, a few years after the war was over. We had, to some extent, grown apart; he had become a man with a mission. He was working very hard on something and he did not choose to discuss his work and there was nothing else in his life on which to form a basis for communication. And—well, I had my own life, too. It wasn’t scientific research in my case—I flunked out of med school, while he went on. I’m not ashamed of it; it is nothing to be ashamed of. I simply was not able to cope with the messy business of carving corpses. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to do it, and when I was forced to do it, I did it badly. So—I left.
Thus I have no string of degrees, but you don’t need them in order to be a Senate guard.
Does that sound like a terribly impressive career to you? Of course not; but I liked it. The Senators are relaxed and friendly when the guards are around, and you learn wonderful things about what goes on behind the scenes of government. And a Senate guard is in a position to do favors—for newspapermen, who find a lead to a story useful; for government officials, who sometimes base a whole campaign on one careless, repeated remark; and for just about anyone who would like to be in the visitors’ gallery during a hot debate.
Larry Connaught, for instance. I ran into him on the street one day, and we chatted for a moment, and he asked if it was possible to get him in to see the upcoming foreign relations debate. It was; I called him the next day and told him I had arranged for a pass. And he was there, watching eagerly with his moist little eyes, when the Secretary got up to speak and there was that sudden unexpected yell, and the handful of Central American fanatics dragged out their weapons and began trying to change American policy with gunpowder.
You remember the story, I suppose. There were only three of them, two with guns, one with a hand grenade. The pistol men managed to wound two Senators and a guard. I was right there, talking to Connaught. I spotted the little fellow with the hand grenade and tackled him. I knocked him down, but the grenade went flying, pin pulled, seconds ticking away. I lunged for it. Larry Connaught was ahead of me.
The newspaper stories made heroes out of both of us. They said it was miraculous that Larry, who had fallen right on top of the grenade, had managed to get it away from himself and so placed that when it exploded no one was hurt.
For it did go off—and the flying steel touched nobody. The papers mentioned that Larry had been knocked unconscious by the blast. He was unconscious, all right.
He didn’t come to for six hours and when he woke up, he spent the next whole day in a stupor.
I called on him the next night. He was glad to see me.
“That was a close one, Dick,” he said. “Take me back to Tarawa.”
I said, “I guess you saved my life, Larry.”
“Nonsense, Dick! I just jumped. Lucky, that’s all.”
“The papers said you were terrific. They said you moved so fast, nobody could see exactly what happened.”
He made a deprecating gesture, but his wet little eyes were wary. “Nobody was really watching, I suppose.”
“I was watching,” I told him flatly.
He looked at me silently for a moment.
“I was between you and the grenade,” I said. “You didn’t go past me, over me, or through me. But you were on top of the grenade.”
He started to shake his head.
I said, “Also, Larry, you fell on the grenade. It exploded underneath you. I know, because I was almost on top of you, and it blew you clear off the floor of the gallery. Did you have a bulletproof vest on?”
He cleared his throat. “Well, as a matter of—”
“Cut it out, Larry! What’s the answer?”
He took off his glasses and rubbed his watery eyes. He grumbled, “Don’t you read the papers? It went off a yard away.”
“Larry,” I said gently, “I was there.”
He slumped back in his chair, staring at me. Larry Connaught was a small man, but he never looked smaller than he did in that big chair, looking at me as though I were Mr. Nemesis himself.
Then he laughed. He surprised me; he sounded almost happy. He said, “Well, hell, Dick—I had to tell somebody about it sooner or later. Why not you?”
I can’t tell you all of what he said. I’ll tell most of it—but not the part that matters.
I’ll never tell that part to anybody.
Larry said, “I should have known you’d remember.” He smiled at me ruefully, affectionately. “Those bull sessions in the cafeterias, eh? Talking all night about everything. But you remembered.”
“You claimed that the human mind possessed powers of psychokinesis,” I said. “You argued that just by the mind, without moving a finger or using a machine, a man could move his body anywhere, instantly. You said that nothing was impossible to the mind.”
I felt like an absolute fool saying those things; they were ridiculous notions. Imagine a man thinking himself from one place to another! But—I had been on that gallery.
I licked my lips and looked to Larry Connaught for confirmation.
“I was all wet,” Larry laughed. “Imagine!”
I suppose I showed surprise, because he patted my shoulder.
He said, becoming sober, “Sure, Dick, you’re wrong, but you’re right all the same. The mind alone can’t do anything of the sort—that was just a silly kid notion. But,” he went on, “but there are—well, techniques—linking the mind to physical forces—simple physical forces that we all use every day—that can do it all. Everything! Everything I ever thought of and things I haven’t found out yet.
“Fly across the ocean? In a second, Dick! Wall off an exploding bomb? Easily! You saw me do it. Oh, it’s work. It takes energy—you can’t escape natural law. That was what knocked me out for a whole day. But that was a hard one; it’s a lot easier, for instance, to make a bullet miss its target. It’s even easier to lift the cartridge out of the chamber and put it in my pocket, so that the bullet can’t even be fired. Want the Crown Jewels of England? I could get them, Dick!”
I asked, “Can you see the future?”
He frowned. “That’s silly. This isn’t supersti—”
“How about reading minds?”
Larry’s expression cleared. “Oh, you’re remembering some of the things I said years ago. No, I can’t do that either, Dick. Maybe, some day, if I keep working at this thing— Well, I can’t right now. There are things I can do, though, that are just as good.”
“Show me something you can do,” I asked.
He smiled. Larry was enjoying himself; I didn’t begrudge it to him. He had hugged this to himself for years, from the day he found his first clue, through the decade of proving and experimenting, almost always being wrong, but always getting closer…. He needed to talk about it. I think he was really glad that, at last, someone had found him out.
He said, “Show you something? Why, let’s see, Dick.” He looked around the room, then winked. “See that window?”
I looked. It opened with a slither of wood and a rumble of sash weights. It closed again.
“The radio,” said Larry. There was a click and his little set turned itself on. “Watch it.”
It disappeared and reappeared.
“It was on top of Mount Everest,” Larry said, panting a little.
The plug on the radio’s electric cord picked itself up and stretched toward the baseboard socket, then dropped to the floor again.
“No,” said Larry, and his voice was trembling, “I’ll show you a hard one. Watch the radio, Dick. I’ll run it without plugging it in! The electrons themselves—”
He was staring intently at the little set. I saw the dial light go on, flicker, and hold steady; the speaker began to make scratching noises. I stood up, right behind Larry, right over him.
I used the telephone on the table beside him. I caught him right beside the ear and he folded over without a murmur. Methodically, I hit him twice more, and then I was sure he wouldn’t wake up for at least an hour. I rolled him over and put the telephone back in its cradle.
I ransacked his apartment. I found it in his desk: All his notes. All the information. The secret of how to do the things he could do.
I picked up the telephone and called the Washington police. When I heard the siren outside, I took out my service revolver and shot him in the throat. He was dead before they came in.
For, you see, I knew Laurence Connaught. We were friends. I would have trusted him with my life. But this was more than just a life.
Twenty-three words told how to do the things that Laurence Connaught did. Anyone who could read could do them. Criminals, traitors, lunatics—the formula would work for anyone.
Laurence Connaught was an honest man and an idealist, I think. But what would happen to any man when he became God? Suppose you were told twenty-three words that would let you reach into any bank vault, peer inside any closed room, walk through any wall? Suppose pistols could not kill you?
They say power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And there can be no more absolute power than the twenty-three words that can free a man of any jail or give him anything he wants. Larry was my friend. But I killed him in cold blood, knowing what I did, because he could not be trusted with the secret that could make him king of the world.
But I can.
A Drama of Our Time
by: Fernando Sorrentino
Translated from the Spanish by Michele Aynesworth
It happened when youth and optimism were my boon companions.
The breezes of spring came wafting down Matienzo street in Las Cañitas around 11:00 o’clock on a Thursday, the only day of the week that my teaching schedule left me free. I taught Language and Literature in more than one high school, I was twenty-seven and full of enthusiasm for books and imagination.
I was sitting on the balcony drinking maté and rereading, after a lapse of fifteen years, the enchanting adventures of King Solomon’s Mines. (I noted sadly that when I was a boy I had enjoyed them much more.)
Suddenly I felt someone watching me.
I looked up. On one of the balconies of the building facing mine, at the same height as my own apartment, I spied a young woman. I raised a hand and waved. She waved back and left the balcony.
Curious to know where this might lead, I tried to get a glimpse inside her apartment, with no result.
“This will go nowhere,” I said to myself, and returned to my reading. I hadn’t read ten lines before she was back on her balcony, this time with dark glasses, and she sat down on a deckchair.
I began feverishly making signs and gestures. The young woman was reading — or pretending to read — a magazine. “It’s a ruse,” I thought; “it’s not possible that she doesn’t see me, and now she’s posing so I can enjoy the show.” I couldn’t quite make out her features, but I could tell she was tall and slender and her hair, dark and straight, came down to her shoulders. Overall, she seemed to be a beautiful girl, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five years old.
I left the balcony, went to my bedroom, and peered through the shutters. She was looking in my direction. So I ran out and caught her in flagrante delicto.
I sent her a big, pompous wave which demanded a response. Indeed, she waved back. After such greetings, the usual thing is to strike up a conversation. But of course we were not going to shout across to each other. So I raised my right-hand index finger to my ear and made the rotational movement that, as everyone knows, meant I wanted to call her on the telephone. Sinking her head into her shoulders and opening her hands, the young woman indicated, again and again, that she didn’t understand. Bitch! How could she not understand?
I went back inside, unplugged the telephone, and took it out to the balcony with me. I brandished it like an athletic trophy, raising it overhead with both hands. “So, little airhead, do you or do you not get it?” Yes, she got it: a toothy smile lit her face like a flash of lightning, and she nodded affirmatively.
Fine. I now had permission to call her. Only I didn’t know her number. I would have to find out using body language.
I went back to making complicated signs and gestures. Formulating the question wasn’t easy, but she knew perfectly well what I needed to know. Naturally, as women will, she wanted to have a little fun with me.
She stretched the game out as long as possible. And, at last, she pretended to understand what had doubtless been clear from the beginning.
Using her forefinger, she drew hieroglyphs in the air. I realized she was drawing the numbers as she would read them, and that I would have to “decode” what I saw as if seeing them in a mirror. Thus I obtained the seven numbers that would put me in touch with my good-looking neighbor from across the way.
I was pleased as punch. I plugged in the phone and dialed. At the first ring, someone answered:
“Helloooowww!!” a deep male voice thundered in my ear.
Surprised, I hesitated.
“Who’s there?” added the booming voice, with a touch of anger and impatience.
“Uh . . . ” I mumbled, intimidated. “Is this 771 . . . ?
“Stronger, señor!” he interrupted, unbearably. “I can’t hear nothing, señor! Who d’you want to talk to, señor?”
He said “stronger” instead of “louder,” he said “I can’t hear nothing” instead of “I can’t hear anything” ; he said señor in the tone you use to call someone an idiot. Terrified, I stammered:
“Uh . . . With the girl . . .”
“What girl, señor? What girl are you talking about, señor?” The thundrous voice now carried a note of menace.
How do you explain something to someone who doesn’t want to understand?
“Uh . . . With the girl on the balcony.” My voice was a tiny sliver of glass.
But this didn’t move him. On the contrary, he became more enraged:
“Don’t bother us, señor, please! We’re working folks, señor!”
An irate click ended the conversation. For a minute there I was speechless. I looked at the telephone and began cursing it between clenched teeth.
Then I spoke harshly of that stupid girl who hadn’t taken the trouble to answer the phone herself. Suddenly I decided it was my fault for calling too soon. The man with the booming voice had answered so quickly, the telephone must be within reach, maybe even on his desk. That’s why he’d said, “We’re working folks.”
And what about me? Everybody worked, that wasn’t so special. I tried to picture him, giving him awful features: he was fat, florid, perspiring, and potbellied.
This stentorian-voiced fellow had served me an unconditional defeat by telephone. I felt a bit depressed and wanting vengeance.
Afterward I returned to the balcony, resolved to ask the young woman what her name was. She wasn’t there. “Of course,” I deduced optimistically, “she’s standing by the phone waiting anxiously for me to call.
With my spirits somewhat renewed, but also with trepidation, I dialed the seven numbers. I heard a ring; I heard:
Terrified, I hung up.
I thought: “This troglodyte can tyrannize me just because I’m lacking one thing: the name of the person with whom I want to speak. I must obtain it.”
Then I reasoned: “In the Green Guide there’s a section where it’s possible to use the telephone number to find out someone’s name.
I don’t have a Green Guide. Large companies have the guide. Banks are large companies. Therefore banks have the guide. My friend Balbón works in a bank. Banks open at noon.”
I waited until 12:30 and called Balbón.
“Oh, dear Fernando,” he answered, “I’m overjoyed and comforted to hear your voice . . .”
“Thanks, Balbón. But listen . . .”
” . . . that voice of a young man with no cares or obligations, duties or responsibilities. Lucky you, dear Fernando, drifting along on the happy tide of life, not allowing external events to disturb your peace. Lucky you . . .”
I can’t prove it, but I beg to be believed: I swear Balbón exists and that, indeed, he talks like that and says that kind of thing.
After having endowed me with such imaginary charms, he proceeded to portray himself — without giving me a chance to talk — as a sort of victim:
“In contrast, I, the humble and negligible Balbón, carry on today, as I did yesterday and will tomorrow, and for centuries of centuries, dragging a heavy cartload of miseries and heartaches across this treacherous planet . . .”
I had heard this story a thousand times.
My mind wandered as I waited for the litany of complaints to reach an end. Then suddenly I heard:
“It’s been nice talking to you. Take care, now.”
And he hung up.
Indignant, I called him back.
“Che, Balbón!” I reproached him, “Why did you hang up?”
“Ah,” he said, “you wanted to tell me something?”
“I want you to look in the Green Guide, see whose name corresponds to this telephone number . . .”
“Hang on. I’m looking for my fountain pen, I hate to write with pencils or ballpoints.”
I was eaten up with impatience.
Finally, after several minutes, he said, “That number belongs to one CASTELLUCCI, IRMA G. DE. Castellucci with double ell and double cee. But, why do you want to know?”
“Thanks a lot, Balbón. I’ll explain some other time. Bye now.”
Now at last: I had in my possession a powerful weapon. I dialed the girl’s number.
“Helloooowww!!” thundered the caveman.
With no hesitation, but with sonorous and well-modulated voice, and even a certain peremptory note, I enunciated:
“I’d like to speak to Señorita Castellucci, please.”
“Who’s calling, señor?”
This habit of asking who’s calling gets my goat. To unnerve him I said, “This is Tiber’ades Heliogábalo Asoarfasayafi.”
“But, señor!” he sputtered, “The Castelluccis haven’t lived here for at least four years, señor! I get so many calls for the damned Castelluccis, señor!”
“And if they don’t live there any more, how come you asked me who’s . . .?”
I was cut off by a furious click. He hadn’t even allowed this minimal protest against his despotic behavior. Well, I wasn’t going to let him get away with it!
Quick as a flash I dialed again.
Enunciating slowly as if I were mentally deficient, I asked:
“May I pwease tawk to da Castewussi famiwee?”
“No you can’t, señor! The Castellucis haven’t lived here for at least five years, señor!”
“Oh, gweat! Dat’s you, señor Castewussi . . . How you dooing, señor Castewussi?”
“No, no, señor! Listen to me, señor!” He was about to blow a fuse. “The Castellucis haven’t lived here for at least seven years, señor!”
“You dooing OK, señor And your widdle ones? Don’t you wemember me, señor Castewussi?”
Castewussi?” I cordially insisted. “And da wife? And your widdle ones? Don’t you wemember me, señor Castewussi?”
“But who are you, señor?” In addition to being terrible, the monster was curious.
“Dis is Bawwie, señor Castewussi.”
“Barrie?” he repeated, disgustedly. “Barrie who?”
“Bawwie, señor Castewussi, da qwerk in da wibwawy.”
“What?! The library?!” He hadn’t understood me very well: it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
“Bawwie, señor Castewussi, Bawwie Wudder.”
“Barrie Rudder? What Barrie Rudder?”
“Bawwie Wudder, da one dat got one eye cwossed and can’t see wit dee udder, señor Castewussi.”
He exploded like an atom bomb: “Do me a favor and get lost, you idiot! Why don’t you just shoot yourself, clown!?”
“I can’t, señor Castewussi. My aim is cwuddy, señor Castewussi. Da wast time I wanted to shoot myself in da head I accidentawwy killed a penguin dat was in da Antawktic, señor Castewussi.”
There was a moment of silence, as if, having gone raving mad, he was breathing in all the oxygen in the atmosphere so as not to die of apoplexy.
Patiently, I waited.
Then, at the peak of fury and strangling on his own rage, the fiend launched his heavy artillery at me, screaming, hurling the words so fast they were tripping over each other:
“Go to hell, you siphilitic, blennorrhagic piece of Siberian shit, you mental misfit, you crusty pie-faced wanker, you parasite, you useless imbecilic son of a whore-faced loon!!!!”
“I am so gwateful for dose compwements, señor Castewussi, muchas gwacias, señor Castewussi.”
He slammed the phone down with a violent bang. A pity, for I was enjoying his insults. It was delicious to imagine my enemy: red in the face, perspiring, tearing his hair and biting his knuckles . . . maybe even the telephone had been damaged by being banged so hard.
I felt something close to happiness. It no longer mattered that I couldn’t talk to the girl on the balcony.