Presumptions and Hard Lessons
by: Warren Glover
Since my disturbing conversation with Detective Arivolo at the RSL Club after the inquest into Rut’s death, I had finished painting the interior of my old house and had begun to heat strip the old peeling white paint from the exterior walls. The old timber was as dry as a bone and needed an oil-based paint generously slapped on and applied with a stiffer than normal brush so it could work the oil deeply into the absorbent wood. It would be hard but satisfying work. It was the house of our last months together. I wanted to make the rickety old place feel rejuvenated and remind me of her. I had no plans other than that……..well, one other thing. I wanted to return to the routine of three nights a week at the RSL with friends, the game of golf on Sunday mornings and the early morning fishing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before work.
No trace of the old sweater ever showed up and Detective Arivolo had gradually become a little friendlier. Frankie’s corpse remained at the bottom of the ocean. And so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, invulnerable, one might say. Not a skerrick of suspicion [except for Arivolo] ever landed on me, my best defense strategy, it seems, had worked very well. And so my life was progressing as it pleased me, slowly, smoothly, unspectacularly.
My good luck had been spread pretty thinly over the past couple of months, so I should not have been surprised when its end was heralded by two casually attired men attired also with grim expressions lounging against my front gate when I returned from golf that Sunday. They introduced themselves as Jim and Pat, friends and business associates of one Frank Blaine, known as Frankie to most of his acquaintances. It seemed that he had disappeared mysteriously owing his employer a considerable amount of money. They were simply private citizens acting on their mutual employer’s behalf ln trying to discover what had happened. as the police and the coroner’s reports had hardly anything to say about Frankie. Could we go into my house and discuss this problem?
“I’m sorry, no way. Whatever I know of this Frankie is in those two reports. I was never a customer of his. I never met him.”
“That’s strange”, said Jim, “Because he had contacted our office about the predicament your wife’s death had got him into and that he had to move base to a larger town about fifty miles north where his presence among a larger population could be hidden better.” He spoke with the natural authority of a boss, certain of his facts and used to dealing with underlings. Yet there was no apparent threat in his manner, “You see, he said that he had one debt to collect from the dead woman’s husband before getting out.”
I felt a cold chill suddenly. I should have seen this coming, at least as a possibility. “I – I’m sorry but I never met him, I never met this Frankie.” I tried to appear as an innocent involved by accident in all this but not very convincingly according to Jim’s altered expression of appearing to chew his words before saying them, even-tempered but immovable and confident with his knowledge of the facts. “Maybe the police were on to him and pushed him into running before he could collect.” I offered but I was sounding less convincing each time I said something. Solid ground beneath me was turning soft. “Do the police know you’re here, asking around?” That sounded like desperation talking and I regretted saying anything past outright denial. The simplified psychology of confrontation would have convinced Jim I was lying. He’d done questioning like this many times, he was sure of himself and I wasn’t. That’s the difference between us. I had ventured into new territory overconfident of my ability to control the scenario as it played out and not practiced well enough to see all that was coming and all that I had left behind unaccounted for. I was not up to this, out of my depth and beginning to be afraid. The twenty seconds of silence had now turned to extreme discomfort. With thumbs in my belt, I did my best to subject them to a withering stare in return, determined not to look away. That’s all I’ve got to say, goodbye to you.” And I walked through the gate to my house and went in.
They hadn’t tried to stop me. I watched through the flimsy curtains as they drove off. It had been a profitable ten minutes for them. Feeling pretty much disgusted with my performance as an accomplished master criminal, I retrieved my golf clubs from the car and stowed them in the steel locker in the back verandah which also holds my father’s .303 WW2 rifle, several boxes of ammunition.and cleaning equipment for the weapon. The locker’s top-shelf also housed issues 1 to 24 of Playboy magazine still in their mailing wrappers and envelopes sent to him by a war-time friend who lived in Hawaii before his death. They had been bequeathed to him in his dead friend’s will and brought to my Dad by military shuttle. I.m still waiting for a bank security vault to have a box big enough to keep them.
My hands shook a little as I poured a vodka stiffener and looked out to sea. How much longer would I have to relish the beauty of this view and its moods ranging from transcendental awe to furious terror? I could not forgive myself for the presumptuous stupidity in embarking on such a dangerous career, convinced by hubris how clever and ruthless [?] I was, so assured of my brilliance in a world overstocked with criminals more capable than I. My eyes watered and I cursed myself for such a pointless, futile gesture of regret. I showered and forced myself to go to the RSL where I failed to inspire any genuine camaraderie.
They didn’t give up easily. I received phone calls to agree on a meeting anywhere I chose. They exuded
the honey of co-operation and absence of aggression. No matter where I went, I encountered one of them and he would wave a friendly greeting. As for the house, after a bit of gutter mending, I had begun on the rear wall facing the sea and the boat shed, which was more recent and had never been painted. So apart from the phone calls and the feigned friendship, life was smooth and relatively quiet………..until three days ago
After early Saturday morning fishing, three of us drove to the three-monthly race meeting at Cool Spring race track. It was a fairly informal affair with a minimum of professional and mostly trainee and amateur riders. Its history harks back to the times when work-horses were profitable stock. especially before and during the first world war and tens of thousands were required for cavalry units fighting in the Middle East. Over the following years, as the market for them dwindled, a couple of dozen all told made it to capital city race tracks. The Cool Spring Race Meet was the industry’s last hurrah, whereby a couple of breeders made part of their livelihood from annual auctions and the paultry prize-money from the eight-event quarterly unsanctioned race meeting. A rep from the big city’s governing body for horse racing sometimes attended by invitation because the grog and food were free. The Saturday night dinner had a state-wide reputation for the local pub and the race club going dry sometimes when supply fell seriously short of demand. The local brewery for supplying the north coast and hinterland performed heroic feats in unscheduled deliveries to forestall protests over management’s lack of foresight. Brand loyalty was legendary because of this.
Inevitably, my two nemeses were there. Between the first and second races, they cornered me behind the pavilion where the stables were.
“We’re doing you a favour”, Jim, the negotiator smiled as affably as he could, given that his face had not ever been one to express affability easily. He was uncomfortable being affable. He and Patrick both wore spotless, blindingly white cotton shirts already damp at the armpits, blue denim jeans and broad-brimmed, country-styled hats with a capital city Jockey Club badge fixed to the band. “Do as we say and we’ll be away to the Big Smoke tomorrow morning. You’ll never see or hear from us again.”
The opportunity was worth looking into. “I’ve got nothing to say about your Frankie. I’ve told you repeatedly that I never met him.” And tempted as I was to say more for emphasis, I bit my tongue and stared back in the hope that silence was emphasis enough.
“By now, we don’t care. But our friend has a remarkable reputation for collecting an outstanding debt and will not allow that reputation to be stained by failure. Under the circumstances, we think you’ll see this problem from his point of view and agree to help us collect that debt with a little help from you.”
“What sort of help do you want. If it’s illegal forget it.”
He raised his hands, palms facing outwards. “No, no, no, Strictly above board. How much money do you have?”
“A bit over a hundred, why?”
“There’s a runner in the seventh race, number four, Prickley Pear. It should start at fifteen to one. Here’s two hundred bucks. Put one hundred and twenty on the nose with one bookie of your choice and a hundred and thirty with another bookie. It will cost you fifty bucks to see the end of us. What d’you say?”
The pros and cons appeared fairly simple. The bookies were not locals and they came here to take money from the punter. The bets were not large and would not start a panic. “OK, I’ll stand the loss just to see you two away, far, far away.” I put the two hundred in my pocket. “What guarantee is there that it will win?”
“No promises, no guarantees in horse-racing, but it’s pretty close to a cert. Let’s just say that it will be, as the vet says, chemically fit. Don’t ask questions that you don’t need to know the answer to.”
“Well, should I place the bets at different times or together, or……….?”
“How you do this is your choice. Follow orders, obey the rules and keep your nose clean. We’ve kept this as simple as possible, so no mistakes, OK?”
At race four, I put twenty for a place on the second favourite and lost. At the fifth I put one hundred and twenty on race seven and twenty of my own on the same runner, Prickly Pear. Just before race seven I put a hundred and thirty plus the remainder of my own money in a separate bet as before.but with a different bookie, Everything went as smooth as silk………too smooth? I felt out of my depth but what had I done that could be suspicious? It seemed I was looking for failure and regretting not finding it. I found the two friends I’d come with at the bar and we exchanged some small talk about the fish we’d caught and the bets we’d made. We went down to the fence to watch race seven. Suddenly, I was nervous again. The finish was close but Prickly Pear was called the winner by half a length and relief left me almost light-headed. Begging a call of nature, I collected from the bookies and met Jim and Patrick behind the stables.
On my way back to the bar I encountered Detective Arivolo. He, also, was affable, but genuinely so. “I just got some interesting photos of you and your new friends, friends of Frankie the pusher too, did you know that? But of course you did.”
I could not stop the blood draining from my face. I knew despair was written all over it. “Can’t you leave me alone? I’ve done nothing wrong!”
He smiled at my feigned innocence. “Can’t help it. On my beat, two serious, sorry, potentially serious crimes have lain unattributed in my files and that keeps nagging at me.” He guffawed to call attention to the unintended pun. “No pun intended really, because this really is an issue about life and death and how my standing in the community is affected.” He moved to stand in front of me and raised a finger of admonition. “You acted on impulse and gave little thought to how others see you, especially others who earn a living being skeptical about outward human behavior.” As we walked into the hot sun he adjusted his broad-brimmed hat and I noticed that he was almost bald. Let’s go and join your friends and resurrect the rest of a pleasant day at the races.”
“How can I when you’re constantly biting at my heels, waiting for me to slip up, as they say? Those guys came to me with a proposition to pay my dead wife’s debt to their boss. I know she owed it, she told me. They’ve been hounding me for weeks, did you know that? But of course you knew.” He nodded knowingly.and smiled as if he actually sympathised with my predicament. “We’ll talk about that later, come on, all this back and forth is making me thirsty and the brewery has kindly included a case of James Squire in their usual delivery to the racing club. I’d like to share it with friends, my shout, OK? Oh, by the way.”, he snapped his fingers, I expect to interview your wife’s long lost sister on Monday. I’m sure she will have lots to say about what your wife was thinking in the days before her death………..AND, and, Frankie’s car, that’s actually the clincher. We have a fingerprint off the button that operates the opening and closing of the windows……….it’s yours”.
Jake And Beth Find Love
by: Warren Glover
The night was still steamy and in the smoke-wreathed air of the room Jake Poole sat, elbows on the table, beads of sweat running off his nose onto the newspaper he’d been reading. He was scared and he’d run his last race. Pretty soon, they’d be coming and he was too tired, too dispirited, to run any more. The superannuated refrigerator in the corner had given up the ghost with a loud crackle and a smell of brimstone as insulated wire burned from the inside. An allegory of his own fate? No ice for the scotch, No coolant for his burning throat, Even the menthol in the cigarettes had become tasteless.
A spluttering snore from the mass of twisted sheets on the bed briefly distracted him, She was dreaming of something happy he hoped. No need for her to be scared like him. He was perfectly capable of being scared enough for two people. It wasn’t fair for her. She hadn’t been in on the scheme from the start. The security van hijack, three guards disabled cleanly, then one of them has to get so damned stupid as to fight back, an old guy in his late fifties for sure, but fit as a professional wrestler. A blow from a shot-gun stock had quietened him…….forever, in fact. And now it was murder during the commission of an armed robbery.
Now a week later with a key from Central Park Self-Storage the only thing connecting him and the three others to the money, here he was waiting for the last chapter to unfold, guilty of turning on them and disappearing. It had seemed so easy with the proceeds locked away and he, a single and resourceful criminal in possession of three-quarters of the loot in his car. Panic had struck them after the old guy got quietened. Bags of bank notes were thrown into the closest car and they vacated that scene just as fast as they could, trying desperately to drive at normal speed and look casual at traffic lights that took forever to change.
But right now he was beginning to feel like the unshaven fugitive villain in a b-grade black and white movie. Beth stirred and spluttered a stifled snore, then she sat up scratching her scalp. “What time is it?”, she yawned, looking at her own watch. She rose and put on the coat that lay at the foot of the bed. ” Give me fifty and I’ll get a couple of cold six packs from across the road. Need cigarettes?”
He gave her the money. “Yeah, get two packs.” And he gave her a twenty as well. From the second storey window he watched her walk across to the bottle-shop. There were no strange cars in the street. He was turning back to sit down when a set of headlights appeared at the top of the hill. Suddenly he was afraid for her. They’d kill her if they knew who she was. The car moved slowly and parked outside the hotel. Doors opened and closed quietly and three black figures looked up at the lighted window. he was already at the table feeling the handgun under the newspaper and adjusting his chair to face the door squarely on. He jumped to the window hoping she was still in the shop…..yes, he could see part of he beige coat through the shop window.
A stair squeaked, then another, then the shuffling and clumping of feet on stairs as all considerations of stealth were abandoned, They were unhurried. He kept looking at the shop, eyes riveted on her coat, Stay there, for heaven’s sake, stay there he muttered to himself. Only when the sounds reached the second floor did he sit at the table. Shortly after, there was a knock on the door. He sat, silent, unmoving, making no sound. Another knock. then a voice. :”Come on Jake, open up. Let’s talk.”
He fingered the handle and trigger of the gun beneath the newspaper. The doorknob moved. it wasn’t locked and the door moved slightly open as if the arm alone was there and the body belonging to it was not. “Jake mate, we’re here to talk. We understand why you ran. Can we come in and talk?” The door opened slowly and a smiling face peeped out. “No violence mate, just a talk, do you mind”. Two more smiling faces emerged and eventually, the three stood there looking slightly embarrassed at being intruders. Ray was the negotiator, Zig with the slight squint and Mitch, tall and slightly stooped. The Negotiator continued, “Mate, you’ll understand I hope that we came through our anger and decided to forgive ya if you were to recip…recipic.”
“Reciprocate!” grunted Mitch, “reciprocate”, he repeated in milder tone, annoyed that he might have seemed angry. “We hope ya can believe us Jake, I mean, I’m dyin’ if I’m lyin’. ya know?”
“We got no weapons Jake, look.” and Zig opened his parka to reveal a singlet, leaving it open. “Nice little room ya got here,” he added, looking around appreciatively.
Ray the negotiator. took charge again. “It’s like this Jake, We reckon you did the wrong thing without thinking of the consequences. Just give us the money and we won’t kill you. We reckon you gotta pay for your theft from us but we’d rather not bury you at sea or somethin’ like that. We’re not cold-blooded killers, mate. You can keep any money you spent but that’s it, OK? Where is it, Jake? Just come with us to collect it and we’ll drop you off wherever you like.”
Jake scanned them in silence and then smiled.”You know I’m not that stupid, Ray. While I’ve got the money, you’ve gotta keep me alive.” She would have seen the car and reckoned they were in the room. What would she do? Then her voice from the open door
Hey, fellas. Just in time for a cold beer.” She moved toward the desk, her coat over her shoulders. As she put the two six-packs there she threw off the coat, she was stark naked. The four of them gaped, eyes wide, “Got your cigarettes Jake, menthols, two packs, right? She put the colourfull bottleshop plastic bag down and drew out a packet, then put her hand into the bag for the second pack.”That guy put the second pack in here?”, she asked casually as she drew out a .32 automatic and shot each of the three intruders through the heart. They had gathered close and were easy targets. The noise in the still night was deafening and the two just stood there. Jake was speechless anyway.
“Come on Honey. We don’t want blood on the carpet. Get these bodies into their car now! Drive it back up the hill and park it there. I’ll put our stuff into the four-wheel drive and follow you………”
by Gaynor Hill
Truda hesitated, how much time should she leave? An hour? Two hours? Three hours? Three hours. Yes, just to be on the safe side. She stepped out onto the doorstep pulling the front door closed behind her.
The black and white chequered tiles of the garden path glistened, slick under her feet with the wet day. Truda paused when she got to the gate and looked back at her little terraced house. She’d had such hopes when they’d moved there thirty years ago. The dark green door with its brass knocker had made the house look solid and reliable, a safe place to set up home and start a family. Three miscarriages later, she’d given up hopes.
It was Bill’s fault of course. Truda had married him because she hadn’t known any better. Her father had been a lovely man, tall, thin, silver haired, a gentle soul. Truda had been named as a result of his indulgence. Her mother had seen a character called Truda in a war film and been touched by the tragedy of the heroine’s demise. When Truda was born, her father had forsaken his Celtic heritage and the tradition of family names for the sake of his wife’s happiness. An idyllic childhood had done nothing to prepare Truda for the reality of men.
Drizzle misted the air and Truda adjusted her headscarf not wanting the damp to undo the several hours in curlers she’d endured that morning. Bracing herself against the gloom, she set off in the direction of the high street.
Twenty minutes later Truda could see the lights of O’Hare’s, glowing soft and golden through rows of small, square window panes. The Newsagents looked warm and inviting like something out of a Christmas scene in a Dicken’s novel. Truda pushed the door open and, the merry jingle of the shop bell announced her arrival.
The shop appeared empty so Truda waited, occupying the time by perusing the large jars of sparkling sweets displayed on the shelves behind the counter. Strawberry bonbons, tom thumb pips, winter mixture, pink shrimps, flying saucers, chewy nuts… Mrs O’Hare slowly shuffled into view from behind a display case. “Good afternoon, Truda. Your usual?” she asked.
Truda usually bought Bill’s tobacco from O’Hare’s but this time asked for the Radio Times and a quarter of sherbet lemons. Mrs O’Hare made up and bagged the order in her slow and trembling way. As Truda reached out to pay, the old lady grasped her hand with sudden strength and said, “Do take care of yourself, dear.” Behind her, Truda felt a rush of cold air as the shop door opened and another customer entered to the jingle of the bell. Grateful for the interruption she smiled softly at Mrs O’Hare and, releasing her hand, turned and slipped back out onto the leaden street.
Any other day, Truda would have left the shop feeling ashamed and tearful. But not today, today she was taking care of herself. She had started to feel lighter as though she had stepped onto another planet where the air was thinner and gravity didn’t press so heavily upon her. She checked her watch. Twenty-five minutes. She popped a sherbet lemon into her mouth and set off again.
Truda’s mouth flooded with the sweet, sharp flavour of the sherbet lemon and it surfaced memories of a sunlit garden, purring bantams and her father bringing treats home on pay day. How long since she’d had sweets? Bill wouldn’t let her buy anything in the way of luxuries. He’d say, if she had money for luxuries she obviously had too much, and her meagre housekeeping money would be lighter the next week as a result. There was always enough money for his tobacco and cider though.
Despite the thickening drizzle, Truda slowed her pace a little. She still had two and a half hours to kill and she certainly didn’t want to get back home until Bill was gone.
Ten minutes later, Truda found herself outside the Astalet Café. The fluorescent light from inside spilled out onto the puddled pavement but the windows were cloudy and opaque, preventing her from seeing inside. She had to push hard against the door to open it but was immediately rewarded for the effort by the steamy, welcoming warmth within.
The Café was about half full, noisy with conversation and the clinking of cutlery. No one looked up as Truda entered. With her head down, her lone, middle-aged, female form was too unremarkable to cause interruption. The smoky aroma of crisping bacon curled through the air around her as she cautiously approached the counter.
The waitress behind the counter was taller and younger than Truda, voluptuous but with a hardness of demeanour that didn’t match her soft, inviting form. Truda thought she must have been beautiful in her youth, but now her dyed hair was a shade too dark and her lipstick a shade too red for the pallor of her skin. She looked up at Truda’s hesitant approach and, without even the slightest change to her fixed and pursed expression asked, “Yes please?” Truda ordered an iced bun and a cup of hot chocolate. “I’ll bring it over,” said the waitress. Truda was thankful for the woman’s casual indifference.
She found a small Formica table for two and eased herself down into one of the hard, orange, plastic chairs. She had started to ache and the throbbing at her temple drummed a familiar rhythm. She would have a long, hot bath when she got home. Not the two inches of tepid water she was usually left with after Bill had exhausted the immersion. A nice, deep bath with bubbles.
The waitress delivered Truda’s order abruptly and with the same impassive expression. The bun looked a little hard and the chocolate thin but these stolen half hours in cheap cafés had become her only respite from home and it was that, rather than the food, that she came for. She’d had friends once but Bill, boorish and volatile, had driven them all away.
The bun was sticky so Truda looked around to see whether there were any serviettes. She noticed a group of workmen at a far table looking at her. They seemed vaguely familiar and she thought that perhaps they worked with Bill on the construction site. That would explain why they were in the Café mid-afternoon, work on the site having been halted that morning due to the bad weather. The workmen looked down quickly and in unison as soon as they realised she’d noticed them. They silently busied themselves with the plates before them and Truda fancied that one of them reddened a little. She wondered whether she needed to touch up her makeup.
To avoid any further embarrassment, Truda fixed her gaze on the café window. She couldn’t see much, condensation filmed the panes blurring her view of the world outside. Truda tried to think about how her life would change now but anything beyond the next few hours seemed hazy and unclear as though her future also lay beyond the cloudy glass. She contented herself with thinking about the evening. She had laid a fire early this morning. It only needed a match to its rolled up newspaper bed and it would be roaring in no time. She’d light the fire first so that the house would be warm by the time she’d had her bath. Then she’d settle to watch the television, her feet up on the stool and her knitting in her lap. She’d have her sherbet lemons to finish and no one to please but herself. Her heart rose and she remembered what it was to be happy.
A square, illuminated clock hung on the café wall. Truda could see the large bright blue numbers clearly from where she sat. Half an hour had passed whilst she’d finished her food and looked as far ahead as she was able. Plenty of time for another hot chocolate and a look through the Radio Times.
After her second hot chocolate Truda braved the stares and sympathies of strangers to do her little bit of shopping. Ed Turner and his son, Ricky, were serving in the butchers.
Ed gave her a sad smile as she approached. “Looks like you need a good steak,” he said quietly.
“Just two chops please, Ed,” Truda replied.
She noticed Ed adding a couple of extra chops to her order and, worried that she might cry, turned her attention to the far end of the counter. Ricky was serving one of the young mums from the Estate. He flashed a sparkling smile at the giggling woman and winked as he handed over a pound of sausages. Just like Bill.
Truda had met Bill in The Trafalgar. She had made a new friend at work, Peg, who had persuaded her to go out that Saturday night. Truda’s mother said Peg was “no better than she should be” and Truda had felt a little nervous in her company. She had walked up to the bar behind Peg, holding on tightly to the hem of her friend’s flimsy blouse with her fingertips. As she timidly took in the unfamiliar surroundings, Bill had caught her eye and winked. Later he had caught her heart.
Bill’s eyes were the pale blue of a winter sky and their contrast against his thick dark lashes made his gaze intense and unnerving. His body was muscle hard and nut brown from carrying hods of red brick and cement in the summer sun. Truda had never met anyone so self-assured, so certain of their worth and their due. When she was with him she felt less fearful, less daunted by the world. Love-blind she mistook his arrogance for confidence and his vanity for self-belief.
A week after their wedding Truda found she had scabies. Bill told her he must have caught them from a toilet seat but Peg soon put her right about that. She saw him clearly that day but it was too late, for better for worse.
The giggle became a cackle summoning Truda back to the present. She put the chops in her bag, thanked Ed and continued with her tour of the shops. All in all, she managed to kill another twenty minutes.
Truda took the longer route home, her slowing steps belying her increasing pulse rate. Even so, she was twenty minutes short of the three hours by the time she reached the house. It was getting dark and the street lights had come on revealing rainbows in the oil flecked gutters below. Everything seemed quiet and Truda couldn’t see any light coming from inside the house. She paused at the gate and tried to calm her racing heart.
As she opened the front door, Truda strained to hear any suggestion of life within. Silence. A flick of the hall light switch revealed things to be exactly as she’d left them. Had he gone? Truda winced as she put down her shopping bag and hung up her coat, every movement now recalling the morning’s assault. She turned towards the mirror to take off her headscarf and clasped her hand to her mouth to mute an involuntary sob. Her eyelid had swollen to the size and hue of a ripe plum and the colour had bled across her temple and cheek. Almost hidden by the swelling, she could see a flash of crimson staining the white of her eye. It wasn’t the worst she’d looked after Bill had lost his temper but it came pretty close.
Truda walked towards the kitchen. She could see Bill’s feet sticking out from behind the kitchen table, his work socks still crusted with sand and concrete from the site. He never changed his socks when he got home from work but traipsed muck through the whole house until after supper when he went up for a bath. She moved closer so that she could see the whole of him. He’d gone alright, well and truly. She’d seen death before. Her father had died in his sleep one evening and Truda had found him the next day when she went to the flat to check on him. He was sitting in his armchair with his head bent forward as though dozing, a half finished cup of cocoa on the table beside him.
Bill had not made a good end. He’d come home mid-morning, angry about losing the day’s work and toting a two litre bottle of cider. Truda had known what was coming and, an hour later, it did. After the first blow she’d turned to the kitchen wall and braced herself for the onslaught but he’d only landed a few more punches. It had taken a moment for Truda to realise he’d stopped and, when she’d turned around, she’d seen him sinking to his knees before her. One side of his face was drooping like a candle softly melting in the hot sun.
She’d known what was happening. Mr Jackson next door had suffered a stroke last year. He had recovered but his face still looked a little uneven. Mrs Jackson had lauded the ambulance men for reaching her husband so quickly, every minute counted with a stroke. You had to get help quickly.
Truda had watched Bill fall sideways to the floor. His eyes, pale as water, had been open and there had been a flash of fear in them. She’d made to move toward him, to help him, but as their eyes met she’d seen the fear pass and malevolence return.
She’d turned away to fetch her coat. How much time should she leave?
Cal The Younger’s Wand
by Warren Glover
Cal Sage was named after the man that found him as a baby. Cal was a dwarf in a circus troupe and suddenly he became Big Cal to the baby, Little Cal. At six years Little Cal exceeded the height of his adoptive father, but the distinction remained, immutable, inevitable. At sixteen, Little Cal was a lanky six-footer with no inclination whatsoever toward limiting his perpendicular expansion but Big Cal, his beloved Dad, was at death’s doorway and begging safe entry through whenever the moment was right.
At this moment, right or not, Cal the Younger’s thoughts crowded in on him about the very large chest of his father’s containing the wonders accumulated over the span of a life=time spent entirely in a circus environment. Both Cals loved the circus life and the opportunities it offered. The opportunity of peering into that very large chest soon filled his thoughts. It affected the diligence that he normally applied to his work. He was eighteen now, old enough to vote, to join the army and die for his country, old enough to look inside the very large chest that he would very soon inherit. “Dammit!”, he muttered to himself, “an adult can resist so much temptation before it rules his life.” he resolved, I”I can’t allow that to happen, I must look into the very large chest before it rules my life!” He went in search of Hugo the Escapologist Extraordinaire.
“You undo all kinds of locks to escape from your predicaments. If you can open the big old padlock on my father’s very large chest, I’d be very grateful,”
“But I’ve always got a key in my mouth or hidden in the elastic of my shorts,” protested Hugo. “I’m an honest man, I’m not a lock picker.”
He found Mojo the Magnificent a couple of caravans down. Mojo was the sad sack clown, the born loser who had a talent to make people laugh at another’s misfortune. His other talent was as a mechanic. His real name was Frank. The Younger Cal told Frank how his life could be ruled by his father’s very large chest and that as a responsible adult it was up to him to show that responsibility by being responsible. The mechanic smiled, “I can lend you a four-pound hammer and a chisel. The hammer’s fairly blunt but the chisel’s sharp enough because I sharpened it yesterday.”, he paused, then added, “they’re your responsibility, return them promptly and undamaged.” Then he whinced and rubbed his cheek as a mild toothache took a savage turn for the worse.
Cal ran back to the caravan that he shared with his father and hit the large old padlock with the chisel and hammer. The lock was unmoved by the experience but the very old wood reluctantly released the very old screws that held the entire assembly in place. The whole thing just fell off. Aware of the spectacular possibilities, and dimly perceiving images of shiny golden doubloons and sparkling emeralds of green and rubies of red, he took a deep breath and opened the hinged lid. His nostrils quivered at the aroma of old clothing mixed with a faint whiff of naphtha. The Young Cal placed the clothing on the floor of the caravan hoping to reveal fabulous surprises beneath but no such revelation greeted his increasingly desperate gaze. Finally, in the deepest depths of his perception, at the very base of the very large chest interior, was a sorcerer’s wand, black lacquered wood carved intricately between glistening zircon studs, maybe eighteen inches long and thicker at one end with indentations carved for fingers to hold. He took out the wand. gripping firmly……..it wriggled between his fingers!
His instinct was to drop the wand immediately but his fingers would not let go. He shook his hand violently and the caravan wobbled dangerously on its brick pillars and squeaked and rattled alarmingly. Saliva dribbled from his lower lip, which sagged open. “WHAT THE BLAZES!” He yelled in fear Frank the mechanic had followed Cal in case he could have been of some help leaped backward in fright as the caravan threatened to fall on him.
“Hey! You alright in there Cal? What’s happening?” He took hold of the door handle and wrenched it open and with wand clenched tightly, Cal turned to his friend, inadvertently pointing the offending instrument at him. The mechanic was instantly transfixed so that instead of falling backward he was suspended halfway between being upright and lying flat on his back on the ground.The panic in his eyes pleaded with Cal to fix his awful predicament. Struggling to gain his composure, Cal, with commendable foresight, gestured with the wand slowly, indicating that he wanted his friend let down slowly. then realising it would be better for him to stand up, quickly adjusted the direction of the wand upward and poor Frank leapt in the air and remained there until he was assisted slowly to earth by a highly nervous Cal the Younger. Holding the wand’s length in his left hand he withdrew it from his right and laid it gingerly on the table.
“Bloody hell, Cal”, spluttered the mechanic, struggling to regain his own precious composure while wondering amid a flood of thoughts, just what was going on. “What have you got there? What is that thing?
“It was in the very large old chest,” I think it’s a magician’s wand……………only it’s real! Look!” He took up the wand and gently pointed to the four-pound hammer lying on the floor, It moved. So he carefully raised the tip of the wand and the hammer obeyed the upward command until he deposited it on the tabletop. There was no weight in the lifting, the hammer could have just as well been a table-tennis ball or a feather.
“Hey! Hey, my toothache’s gone. It must’ve been the thingamy there, the magician’s wand. No more pain! Where did that thing come from, do you know?
“No, no. I just found it. It must’ve belonged to my Dad, it was in the very large old chest. I wonder what else it’ll do.” He almost picked it up but decided that having some kind of plan for its use before touching it.might save some embarrassment. Being a young man of good intentions, concerned with the welfare of his co-workers, well brought up and well mannered, the thought occurred to him that perhaps there were some here in the circus with an ailment that may respond to his wand’s beneficial properties. Yes! The bearded lady cut herself shaving yesterday and wore an unsightly bandaid on her neck. What a sensation it would be to make the wound disappear. He hied to her caravan and knocked on the door, calling to her through a slightly opened window. “Lady Leticia, are you there?” There came the creaks of well-worn bedsprings and a muttered indecipherable curse. The door opened and a shapeless form topped by a generous black beard with mutton-chop whiskers and a moustache, as tall as he but with incendiary eyes that could boil water, stood before him.
Cal the Younger forced a cheerful smile, “Is your shaving cut any better my lady? Somewhere under all the frills and flounces around her neck he was sure the cut remained an offensive blight on her femininity, “I think I can fix that for you right here and now. Would you like me to…….?” His voice trailed away, smothered by the thunder of her hostile silence. Lady Leticia was a formidable figure in every inch of her six foot height. She had the grace of a tigress and the demeanour to match. The tender caresses of lovers and husband, the joy of sprogs underfoot, these had been denied her and thus the tender, feminine aspect of her nature remained un-nurtured, latent and withered.
“Please Lady, let us see if I can fix your cut neck.” Cal began to unwrap the wand from his sweater and showed it to her. “It won’t hurt, I promise and ……”, Cal was at a loss for words, she was disturbing his concentration, “It, it won’t cost you anything for me to try…….I, I, I just fixed Frank’s toothache…….” and his voice petered out. But without a word she pulled away the collars and scarf that hid her injury, revealing a wad of cotton wool held in place over the cut by sticky tape. Slowly Cal approached and held the wand’s tip against the cotton wool, picturing in his mind an unmarked neck, then pulled away the tape. The wound had disappeared!
By the time breakfast was over in the mess tent it had become widely known among his friends that he had developed a routine for a new act and would be demonstrating it shortly with a brief and informal performance right there in the tent. But Cal had a better idea. He was on his motorbike heading for the hospital. Cal’s astonishment at the ease of healing Lady Leticia’s wound had led to an excited, involuntary movement of the wand for a second it had brushed against her magnificent facial decoration. At that moment they both became astonished for now Lady Leticia was no longer a bearded lady and Cal the Younger was the beneficiary of her not inconsiderable wrath. It seemed prudent at that juncture to remove his presence from her’s and travel with speed on a mercy mission to save his nearly departed father. Feeling acutely responsible for disfiguring a bearded lady, on the way he pondered the power of the wand and concluded that the instrument could read his mind. It increased his discomfort because he at least knew of himself that frequently he was not conscious of thinking anything. He thought of Frank’s toothache, the offending molar had not been removed, only the pain had disappeared. If the wand had touched the tooth would it have sent the molar on the same journey as the pain? Perhaps Frank would let him experiment. It would provide an answer that Cal believed was important in the proper use of this strange power. Just as important to him right now was how to use this power to cure his father of a fatal illness and how to appease the awful rage of an unbearded bearded lady.
Cal the Younger stood by his father’s bed and tears welled in his eyes. The kindest person he had ever known lay there with an oxygen tank standing beside the bed-head. Several tubes carried life-giving things to him from bags suspended overhead, “Dad….dad, you awake?”
The deeply sunken eyes opened suddenly and focused on his face. “Son, is that you? Cal, I hope I’m not dreaming, take my hand.”
He took the small figure’s left hand in his own and squeezed gently, “Tell me how you’re feeling.”
“Feel a whole lot better with you around, son, how are you going?”
“Dad, I’ve got to tell you something……..I….I broke into your very large old chest and found this.” Cal held up the wand.” I know I was wrong, Dad, I’m sorry”
His father’s eyes widened. “My god, What have you done? Has anyone been hurt?” The wizened face became animated and eyes sparkled. “Tell me, tell me! Have you hurt anyone with that cursed thing?”
“No, not really.”
Cal the Elder was unhappy with the final word, “really”, it always presaged a confession of disaster and mayhem, as his son had used it. The young face peered intently at him, seeking exoneration, some word of comfort. “What in the hell do you mean by REALLY?” But just as quickly as the rising anger in him grew, he suppressed it and squeezed his son’s hand. “Just tell me what happened, son.” He made a big effort at smiling, “Just tell me, ok?” Pictures in his mind of a circus in flames, wild animals leaping everywhere with a child in each jaw.and living torches running in panic in all directions subsided, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, “There’s no panic is there? Just tell me, son.”
The Younger man obliged. “Lady Leticia’s lost her beard and, and Frank’s toothache is gone!”
The Elder could not prevent a guffaw of laughter escaping. “Ha, haha!”, he spluttered, trying not to trivialise his son’s anxiety. “Well, the Bearded Hellion is naked! Bit peeved, is she?”
“Pretty much”, said Cal, so relieved of his tension that he was infected with his Dad’s mirth. He began to see the humour behind his adventures with the wand. Yes! it was very funny and he began to giggle uncontrollably.
The arrival of dinner rapidly put something of a damper on the glee. And so it eventuated that under the proprietary supervision of a pretty young nurse, young Cal began transferring the pudgy grey, tasteless mush from a bowl to his father’s mouth for eventual swallowing. This was a process that the worthy parent endured with stoic and enforced enthusiasm for his son’s sake. Meanwhile, the son, with equal enthusiasm, plied his task innocently oblivious to the lascivious feminine gaze of a young lady in white uniform.
Big Cal, over a period of weeks staged a heroic recovery unparalleled in medical history. With the help of Little Cal he was back at work with the circus on light duties and T-bone dinners. At some time during this period, his hemorrhoids disappeared. The hospital supervisory committee put this remarkable recovery down to the creamed spinach and portwine jelly with gritty custard, not omitting, of course!, the water flavoured with two percent of cider vinegar [cheaper than lemon juice in bulk]. With the extra time on his hands, Big Cal instructed his son in the basic essentials of witch’s wand waving, himself have been tutored by that doyen among the coven, Dessicata the Barren.
It was a totally different exercise placating Lady Letecia. Minus her facial hair. she felt semi-naked and avoided public places. In refusing to look at her repugnant naked face she could not be convinced that she was not an unattractive woman. There were few in number among the circus crew whom she counted as friends and to whose counsel she would give attention. The wand itself was powerless it seemed in matters of the heart and other emotional burdens. It was at the moment of greatest despair that Mojo the Magnificent appeared on the horizon. He had on occasion at one time or another seen her on one of her infrequent visits to the mess tent and found in himself an itch of interest in this Lady Amazon, Independently, he had approached the source of his ardour and they had dined at a distant Colonel Sanders’ that had no mirrors.
The wand proved a failure at revealing winning numbers, winners on the track and winning strategies at Texas Hold’em
The rest, as the reader well knows, is history.
by William Borker
Jack and Pam lived in Adelaide, South Australia. They were a retired couple, and their children all grown up and moved out of the family home. It was a large house they lived in, and as is the case sometimes with retired couples, the place felt a little too quiet and empty, especially for Pam.
So it was with some pleasure that Pam one day received a request from her sister – who lived with her husband on a remote cattle station in the far north of the State – asking if their daughter Ann could come and stay with her Aunt Pam and Uncle Jack. It seems Ann had finished her schooling – mostly through correspondence classes in the outback – and now she had received a scholarship to attend university in Adelaide. This of course was great news, but she would obviously be needing somewhere to stay in the city.
Pam talked it over with Jack and lost little time in replying to her sister, saying yes, they would be delighted to have their niece Ann come and lodge with them. In Pam’s case, it would be a welcome change to have someone else around the house, and Jack had no objections and thought the little extra cash could come in handy.
A few weeks later Ann moved in. To some extent, she was something of an unknown to Jack and Pam, as they had seen little of her during her childhood, growing up in the outback. She was a lithe and healthy young girl with bronzed limbs and a flowing mane of hair bleached blond by the sun. And as much as Ann was unfamiliar to Jack and Pam, so the city life was something of an unknown to Ann. But despite her sheltered life on the cattle station, she soon adapted to the hustle and bustle of the city, using the public transport system to get herself to and from uni each day, and it wasn’t long before Ann had settled in very nicely with her new family and routine.
Now, Jack really had only one passion in life, and that was his darts. Every Wednesday, at 7:30 pm on the dot, he would leave the house with his favorite set of arrows in his top pocket and walk down to the Newmarket Hotel for the weekly match. He was a man of simple pleasures. Noting this weekly routine, Ann one day asked her Aunt Pam if she might – while Uncle Jack was out of the house – take advantage of the large spa bath they’d had installed. Such luxuries were not available in the outback. “Of course, pet”, said Pam, “You go and run the water and I’ll get you a nice fluffy bath towel from the cupboard.”
When she returned with the towel Ann was already undressed, and as Pam took in her curvaceous figure, she thought to herself: if the girl never makes anything of her academic career, she could certainly make an impression as a model. But she couldn’t help noticing that something appeared a little odd: that apart from the beautiful flowing locks on her head, Ann appeared to have not another hair on her body.
That night as they lay in bed, Pam mentioned this observation to Jack. “Bah”, he said, “that can’t be right. The girl is nearly eighteen, isn’t she?”. Pam was not one to be contradicted, and after a short pause she presented an idea to prove her point. “Well, if you don’t believe me”, she said, “you can always pop back from the pub next Wednesday, and check for yourself. Come in the back gate around nine and I’ll leave the blinds open just a bit, and you can see for yourself.”
The following Wednesday Jack headed off to his darts match as usual, and Ann once again took the opportunity to take a long soaking bath. Once again Pam brought in a large bath towel and once again Ann unselfconsciously undressed in front of her. But this time Pam’s curiosity got the better of her, and she nervously ventured to find out a little more about the girl’s remarkable condition. “Erm, Ann, I was wondering, do you ever shave yourself?”. Ann giggled, and said, “Of course not, Aunt Pam. Only men shave, don’t they?”. “What I mean is”, continued Pam, trying to be tactful, “You have no hair anywhere below your neck”. “Well no”, said Ann, “Should there be?”.
Rather than trying to explain, Pam took off her knickers, hoisted her skirt and lifted one foot up on the side of the bath, fully exposing her pubic area to her niece. “Oh, I see what you mean, Aunt Pam”, she said, looking a little concerned. Pam wished she hadn’t brought the subject up and tried to placate the girl. “It really doesn’t matter”, she said, “lt’s nothing to worry about”. And she left Ann to get on with her bath.
Pam was already in bed reading her novel when Jack got home, and as he climbed into bed and turned his back on her, she could tell he was not his usual jolly self. “Did you win tonight, Hon?”, asked Pam. “Yes”, replied Jack, “The team won too. We’re now top of the league”, he said with a complete lack of enthusiasm. “That’s good”, said Pam. The silence was deafening. “Well”, said Pam, “did you come back at nine, like I said?”. “Yeah, and you’re right, as usual”, muttered Jack miserably to the wall. After another long silence Pam finally enquired quite sharply: “What on earth’s up with you?”. Jack rolled over to face his wife, and lifting himself up on one elbow, he asked, “Was it really necessary, Pam, for you to expose yourself to the girl like that?”. Pam tried to conceal a smile. “Oh Jack,” she said, “You’ve seen me like that plenty of times before”. “Yeah”, replied Jack, “I have – but the rest of the darts team hadn’t.”
A TRAVELER’S TALE
by: Warren Glover
The Traveler’s Club was run-down wherever human hand could contrive such a state and threadbare where it wasn’t run down and where threadbareness could thrive. The large drinks and reading lounge evoked all these features but managed to present a welcoming and comforting air to members who prized an overstuffed leather chair in which one could deeply relax for a few brandies. Four members considered themselves extremely lucky then that four such chairs were available not far from the fireplace which had been put to good use on this cold evening. They were in low earnest conversation with one of their number, a man of unremarkable appearance except for his eyes. Sir Oswald Danes, by name, he was, in fact, a remarkable traveler. Intrepid and fearless, He had seen more than most men would see in three lifetimes. His collection of artifacts to date, in 1905, numbered several thousand items and had elicited praise from the many savants who had accepted his invitation to view them. His most recent venture had hospitalised him on his return to London and only a week had passed since his release and return to a customary robust good health. Yet his friends noticed something in his eyes, some swore they saw fear there, others scoffed at the idea, and the faint down curve in one corner of his thin mouth, he was in his young sixties, a natural sign, surely.
The Traveller, pleased to be among friends, and lubricated enough with good brandy, fell silent briefly at a friend’s request for a report on his latest adventure and smiled somewhat cruelly. And the friend, unused to the piercing gaze of those eyes, himself, fell into a rather embarrassed silence. Only the gentle prompting of a brother-in-law brought the Traveler to speak and the tale he laid before us soon acquired our rapt attention.
The Traveler’s small party of three had disembarked the aged steamer from Hong Kong at the French colonial city of Hue, an entrepot to the interior of Cochin China. The weather was oppressively hot and steamy. They were on foot for no wheeled transport could negotiate the narrow rope-bound bamboo bridges that crossed the numerous swift mountain streams. The higher they reached the less troublesome were the myriads of flying insects. They seemed to relish the rare pale flesh as a celebratory feast to be exploited with all haste. The three bearers prepared the evening meal, freshly caught fish and some eggs from vendors in the village where they were to spend the night. The villages on their route were numerous until they reached the region of mountains not even the most zealous Jesuit had ventured into. Four days later they slept at the last. habitation. A wild boar, shot by one of the bearers, was presented to the head man but his gratitude was tempered by a level of suspicion toward the party that later bordered on the hostile. Only with great difficulty were they able to negotiate for a place to sleep. No urchins played or stood around gazing curiously at the newcomers. No voices, no laughter, no sound from anywhere except the clicking, squawking and grunting of the night in the jungle ahead. None of the party slept easily and with the morning they were confronted by two bearers who wanted to be paid off. They were obviously afraid and no inducement could change their mind. So only four people continued the journey.
The jungle path was not well trodden and great care was needed to follow it. The trees now were gigantic by comparison, black trunks bigger in circumference than the reach of three men, huge branches festooned with pale moss hanging in long strands, shafts of bright sun piercing the eternal gloom. Leaves rustled from no breath of breeze, twitters and croaks mocked efforts to identify their source. Progress was slow. Each of them took turns to carry the bearer’s rifle and held it close, thankful for its presence. The atmosphere was oppressive and claustrophobic, breaths came in short sharp bursts and heads turned swiftly at the slightest sound and eyes widened in anticipation of some frightful sight. Suddenly the undergrowth seethed with life and before the small party stood some short powerfully muscled natives, some twenty of the fiercest warriors any of them, experienced travelers themselves, had ever encountered. Their leader boasted a neck ornament of shriveled heads. All were heavily tattooed and brandishing large knives or wicked clubs. Their savage eyes blazed with hostility.
“Stand your ground and look straight back at them!” the Traveler barked loudly, “Give me the rifle.” He extended his arm and held it waist high pointing at his adversary, walked up to him dodging the slashing knife and jabbed the man with considerable force in his ample belly with it. He exhaled audibly, screaming as he collapsed to his knees. The yelling stopped and the welcoming party stood dumbstruck. Then just as suddenly as they fell silent, they began the cacophony again, even louder. The chief, thinking retreat to be his safest option, crawled back between his cohorts’ legs. The Traveler moved toward the next closest antagonist and did not have to dodge a killing club blow for its wielder retreated behind some of his fellows and resumed his invective from a safer distance. Without warning poisoned darts sped swiftly from long bamboo blowpipes in the trees. The visitors were struck each at least once where they were most vulnerable, the head and neck. Extracting the small missile was ineffective. Once it broke the skin, the smallest amount of poison in the blood rendered each of them semi-paralysed and close to unconsciousness within two or three minutes. Their lone bearer tried to flee, himself screaming in fear, but was dropped to the ground by an expertly aimed club. Several warriors, expressions suddenly gleeful, ran forward, ignoring the Traveler, to the twitching body and with a few deft strokes, removed his head using a large knife. The entire group was by now exulting in the acquisition of a new trophy while their visitors collapsed, semi-conscious, where they stood.
The warriors lifted the nearly unconscious trio separately onto a companion’s back and walked triumphantly to their village an hour or so away, three long pigs and a trophy head richer than they had been an hour before. The Traveler, his face almost touching the neck charm of the chief directly in front could not escape the foul odour. Did that beautifully preserved head, perfect in every detail, wink at him? He succumbed to unconsciousness wondering and not caring very much either way. His last thoughts were of his companions. Had they, like him, survived so far?
When he awoke it was a slow process that returned his faculties to him. It was dark and somewhere close a large fire sent flickers of light between the slats of a roughly built hut through the roof of which he could see the stars. He and his two companions were lying on their backs on mats. Heads were still firmly attached. When he tried to stand his head nearly exploded with the pain. He was not tethered in any way and his head’s discomfort was a good reason why. He crawled to the two still figures and confirmed they were breathing comfortably.
Sir Oswald Danes, dedicated traveler and collector of interesting artifacts, contemplated his situation and found it was in need of improvement. He tried to concentrate but realised only dimly that he was in possession of such a poverty of information that focusing his thoughts produced nothing of value. Male and female voiced were raised in chanting. Peering through the gaps in his hut wall he saw sets of tiny gongs being struck with a padded stick and sets of tiny bells harmonising in an appealing melody. The door of the hut opened and the chief with a few helpers stood there. He pointed to his prisoners and they were dragged away toward the fire. The two unconscious companions awoke and, wild-eyed, in terror and struck dumb, they struggled against their captors’ powerful grips. The three were tied to stakes then from a woven basket the chief drew out a large squirming spider. impaled it on a stick and held it to the flames. Its hairy body blazed momentarily then its seared, bulbous body was pressed hard to the face of the Traveler and instead of a loud, gutteral protest bursting forth, his mouth was filled by the spider’s warm body juice. He tried to spit but the spider’s body covered his face. The imperative to breathe forced him to swallow involuntarily, He growled loudly in revulsion and swung his head from side to side but there was no altering his situation. It was done.
Screaming in protest, his companions suffered a similar fate. The pale yellow liquid dripped from their chins and covered their faces. The Traveler called to them by name and, as loudly as he could, told them they had not been poisoned. Eventually they quietened and, accustomed to suffering the discomfort and revulsion of rituals of the strangest kinds at the hands of their primitive brethren on other occasions, they assumed a stoic demeanour designed to impress their captors. The ritual, while outside previous experience, cold have been decidedly more unealthy given their lone guides’ treatment.
A drum’s deeply resounding cadence, beginning slowly, now quickened. Human figures, silhouetted against the large fire, swayed and gyrated and seemed to change shape. Then, to his utter horror, they did change shape. Suddenly a leopard leaped upon a monkey, a wild boar squealed loudly and lashed out with his tusks at the cat’s companion. A deer, no bigger than a fox terrier, whistled in panic and sprang through the flames chased by a large lizard. The Traveler, halucinating beyond his ken, cried out and called again to his companions. They too were transfixed by the awful spectacle and gave him no heed. Women, drawing near to the fire, were bringing more baskets of spiders and the entire village was repeating the ritual on themselves. They fell silent from their dancing and stood immobile, heads cocked askew as if listening intently, as if awaiting an event that they knew was inevitable but not entirely welcome. Within a few minutes their expectations were met as a low hiss began slowly to increase in intensity until, as from a giant voiceless throat, the hiss whistled and roared and echoed back from the distant mountains. From the direction which they faced, fifty or so yards away, the dense jungle stirred and rumbled, branches broke from trees and foliage whipped and lashed about. A huge head three times the size of a Nile crocodile’s protruded out and a forked tongue, twice the length of a man and as thick as his body flickered in their direction.The dragon’s eyes reflected the fire and the hissing reached another crescendo as it moved forward, dewlapped neck pulsating with the effort of announcing its presence, its enormous tail flailing the air. The Traveler had seen the dragon lizards that roamed the Netherland’s East Indies’ island of Komodo.and had addressed The Royal Geographical Society on his experience. A skull, fully twenty inches long, occupied a prominent place in one of his most treasured exhibition cabinets at his home. Here, in the wilderness of Cochin China, was a specimen of reptile the size and weight of an African bull elephant! Maybe two!
The Traveller’s natural scientific curiosity immediately brought to his mind the question as to the preferred diet of this obviously carnivorous beast and whether its taste was catholic enough to include humans. Only the briefest of observations confirmed to him that this was very likely the case, for it snacked on a tethered goat and three or four squawking chickens. He struggled to free himself from the stake, hoping that his struggling movements and the screams of terror from his companions failed to attract the dragon’s attention.
It was at this point that the Traveler broke the spell and, somewhat non-plussed, the group returned to the club’s threadbare lounge and the spluttering fire, now only islands of red embers in a lake of white ash. He was leprous-pale, seemed exhausted and gave only flashes of how he and his companions escaped the dreadful nightmare of the dragon, the hostile natives and that impenetrable mountainous green hell. Obviously, his memory was trying not to hark back anymore to the awful events he had related to them. A last round of brandies was called for from the yawning waiter and he seemed to regain a small measure of his authoritative demeanour. The liquor went some way to restoring his colour and bringing back his natural loquacity. He was known to all as an accomplished story-teller. He made a gesture toward a briefcase beside his chair as if to confirm its presence and simultaneously an expression of doubt clouded his visage. The brother-in-law asked rather ingenuously if there was anything of interest he remembered and could relate to the group.
He would be remiss, he said, if he did not reveal to them an inadvertently acquired souvenir and some medical test results that were as yet secret. Upon being pressed, he spoke thusly…….The hospital advised him that there were vestiges of a powerful hallucinogen in his body and that he sometimes, while in their care, had relapsed suddenly into a hypnotic state and relived parts of his recent adventure. His companions observed an intensity in him that had been absent just a moment before. The Traveler’s eyes shone as his fingers dealt with the lock then the hasp of his briefcase and drew out a wooden box about the size of a folding chess board. He set the box on the drinks table and opened it carefully.and slowly and lovingly, the contents the better to be seen.
To a man they gasped and exclaimed in astonishment. Reaching for his brandy, He held up the necklace that had been around the chief’s neck. But this time the chief’s shrunken head was on the necklace. The Traveller was smiling broadly, his eyes were glistening fiercely but seeing things a thousand miles away, He put the talisman around his own neck and gave himself up to the hallucinogen and once more walked through the dark green jungle of the mountains in Cochin China.
THE BEST DEFENCE
by: Warren Glover
A storm was whipping up out to sea as I ambled along the shoreline, a left hand pocketed and the right clutching a metre-long stick of driftwood, feeling slightly wasted from the previous night, hoping the rain held off until I made it back home and simultaneously knowing my luck was never that good and never had been. The breeze had strengthened noticeably in the last ten minutes, whipping up spume from the crashing waves that dampened my singlet and flecked my face with salty droplets. It was getting chilly enough for me to unravel the old football jersey from around my waist and pull it on. The continuous cloud, choking the horizon from north to south, engulfed the lighthouse on distant Astrolabe Point in its curtains of rain. I was alone on the beach, the Last Man on Earth smothered by the elements. Each instant ran together like a typewriter tapping out a letter, dots of time blurred into a line, each dot a tiny thumbnail of my life. ME on a deserted shore, a black and white illustration accompanying the title of a futuristic story, a lone, tiny figure with no foreseeable future.
I threw the stick away as I trudged upward into the weed-tufted dunes. The clouds were nearly overhead and crackling with hostility back-lit by neon flashes like a faulty tube. Gusts picked up the dry sand. It stuck to my salty face and hair. I had a problem that cluttered and churned my brain, It made focusing impossible. She’d gone back to the shit that had separated us in the first place three years ago. Now she was doing anything to score because I refused to give her extra money. When the house-keeping and rent disappeared in two days over the last week I decided we couldn’t stay together any longer. We had parted because of her problem. All of our savings had been squandered on shit and then clinics, on more shit and more clinics. I had softened when she begged to come back but now I needed to work out a permanent separation. I couldn’t focus any better than that, no matter how I tried. Perhaps that’s why. with no single path to concentrate on, killing her came to me as an option quite early. My first and natural feeling about this made me discard such an action. Did I still have some deeply held love for her, or was the thought of physically doing it repugnant to me? I couldn’t separate them,
Another two days of screaming incoherently, tearful soft-voiced begging and hour upon hour of her absence, not knowing in whose arms or in what grubby industrial doorway she lay, I came to the decision that her death was the best solution, no matter how I felt. I had a life here in this town, a job and friends. I loved the area, the beach, the fishing and at forty I still had a lot of life to live and not all of it alone! I was still a law-abiding, worthy citizen with an unblemished record. But more and more the answer came back a firmer and firmer “yes”. If the only option of taking her out of my life, meant taking her life, then that decision was easy now. My brain ached from the assault I was making on it. Not aware of what I was actually doing, I was forcing an unwilling focus and it hurt. The ache spread to my eyes and I was seeing spots of black. Lightning crashed with an explosion above my head, the noise momentarily deafened me and I fell to my knees, mind almost a blank, only wondering if I’d been struck. I wobbled to stand, staggering and falling against an ancient wire fence. more than anything, I wanted to lie on my couch, sleep, sleep and sleep forever. The wind was hurtling in from the ocean, up the beach slope and across the dunes laden with sand and spume. Huge drops of driving rain came with it. There was no division between sea and sky and lightning crashed distantly, revealing the lighthouse on the point
Night was closing in as I entered the house as quietly as possible. It was an old weatherboard job and it creaked every time you moved. She was unconscious on the couch in front of a silent TV showing an old film noir of Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It was the only light in the room. Smoking had given her a permanent wheeze when she breathed and a drying trickle of saliva glistened on her jaw and chin. The usual paraphernalia associated with addiction was on the small coffee table, it looked like she barely had time to loosen off the soft rubber tubing before slipping into unconsciousness because it was still around her arm. Her face, though a little puffy, still retained the remnants of good looks. I stood there looking down at her and a sudden panic filled me. Should I strangle her? It could be over in a matter of minutes, what held me back? She would die soon enough in some squalid corner. And then I knew what to do. An overdose and she would go quietly deeper and deeper until she simply stopped breathing. It would be painless, my involvement minimal, almost at a distance like pressing the change channel button on a TV remote control. I needn’t even be in the same room when she died or even in the house for that matter. Better she dies of misadventure and the entire episode could be finalised, closed, no loose ends. Her disappearance would see the case remain open for years with my fears and police suspicion gnawing at me………that, I couldn’t take. I must be seen as a victim, a concerned and grieving husband battling to get his wife back from the horrors of addiction. I emptied the contents of two tiny packages into the spoon. Using tissues from a dispenser I handled the necessary operation so that her fingerprints were undisturbed. A minute later I burned the paper wrappers and tissue in the sink and flushed the ashes away. Then I sat in my lounge chair and watched the rest of the movie until I fell asleep.
The TV was hissing loudly and a monotonous whine designed to awaken a sleepy viewer gradually insinuated itself into my consciousness. My mouth was as dry as old cardboard and tasted as though the cat had given birth to a litter of kittens in it. My left arm was asleep and began tingling like hell when I moved it. She was there on the couch but there was no wheezing. Her chest was still, her carotid artery was still.
She was gone forever.
An emotion something like grief swept over me almost wrapping around me like a blanket. I had murdered to preserve my sanity. It had been all about me. I took a bottle of home-distilled ouzo from the cabinet and gulped two mouths full of the aniseed-flavoured liquid. My throat constricted under the sudden assault and I coughed and spluttered and sprayed the aromatic spirit into the air. I momentarily panicked but quickly realized that resort to some kind of stiffener under the circumstances would hardly be interpreted as a sign of guilt.
I picked up the phone and dialed the emergency number and in grief-stricken tones, I pleaded for an ambulance for my beloved wife.
When the paramedics told me Ruth was dead I called the police. They took down the details from me and the paramedics. It seemed so matter-of-fact a proceeding that I had to force a tear or two and sniff a lot. My hand shook as I tried to pour some ouzo into a glass. It was not difficult for me to be nervous. I WAS nervous and felt an increasing sense of panic, A trickle of the liquid ran down my chin. The uniforms watched me now and then, in between taking photographs, maybe assessing if I exhibited symptoms of guilt or fear. For most of the time, I buried my face in my hands and sniffed, tried the odd sob but said nothing except answers to questions in as few words as possible. As they stretchered Ruth out to the ambulance I rose to follow.
“Ruth”, I murmured and walked toward the front door like a zombie, not hearing the voice of the sergeant asked me to remain seated. The other one took my elbow and guided me back to the chair. Suddenly I burst into tears and genuinely sobbed
“Ruth!” I called. I couldn’t stop crying. I hated what I’d done to her, I hated the pusher for what.he had done to her, I hated everyone. I groaned and growled obscenities deep in my throat and smacked myself hard on the head. To stay sane it was vital that I apologise to her. My voice broke as I called her name again. The sergeant moved toward me as I rose from the chair. He was a tall wiry figure and moved with an economical gait that seemed to require no effort at all. He advised me against leaving the house in my current state, mentioning an unknown amount of alcohol I had drunk and the emotional instability I was suffering. He placed a small business-style card on top of a pamphlet that the medics had left on the coffee table and asked me in a surprisingly kind, even gentle, manner to call into the police station the following day to complete the formalities. Then I should go to the hospital and make the necessary arrangements for my wife. In thirty minutes or less it was over and I was alone in the house. The sounds of the storm were dissipating, there was no thunder or lightning. Out at sea it was black. Waves broke loudly on the beach and large raindrops banged intermittently on the corrugated iron roof. The closed-in back verandah was a feature of the old house that I liked. Standing there staring into the night’s blackness, I sipped at the glass of ouzo and watched as the clouds broke apart and dissolved. Gradually moonlight returned to the scene. I didn’t feel lonely, it was simply relief that I felt from head to toe as it gradually replaced any feelings of guilt. Another day or two and it should be over.
The police interview, by Det. Arrivolo, left me somewhat uneasy. Photos of the coffee table showed no paper or aluminium wrapper for the drugs Ruth had taken. Photos of the kitchen and bedrooms were no more helpful. If, as I had said, my wife had left herself no time to dispose of these things because the rubber tube was still on her arm, where were they? Had I disposed of them for some reason?
For a moment, facial expression unchanged, I considered admission of their destruction. But that would have tainted my innocence and an unblemished involvement in these events was still my best defence. I shook my head, looking him straight in the eyes, “No, nothing like that. I wasn’t here when she……..,” I hesitated, coughed and rubbed my eyes, “……when she injected herself. I’ve got no idea…..you’ve checked her purse or bag or whatever was within her reach? Somewhere under or in the couch she was lying on?”
He sighed, “No, the officers or the medics would have found it.”
“Then I can’t help anymore, I’m sorry.”
Det, Arrivolo posed a few more questions that established his skepticism and that he was unsatisfied. I received the usual request not to absent myself from the township without checking with him first. An autopsy was being conducted and I’d be a key witness. It occurred to me that another day or two and events were going to become even more strained. I didn’t sleep well for the next couple of nights. I wanted to be rid of this, I felt surrounded and that I was losing control. On the third night after the police interview the phone call came that scared me. Ruth’s pusher wanted payment for the shit that had killed her. She had convinced him to give her credit just this once and would pay double for her next score. Now with Ruth’s death, things were too hot in this little town and he’d have to move on. An accidental overdose or worse was rumoured and dangerous people were becoming worried. I should have the money tomorrow. At 3 pm he’d collect the cash at my house. And no funny buggers, I could be easily suicided or made to disappear so that it would look like I had killed myself from grief or fled from fear of being charged with murder. My boat could be made to disappear just as effectively. With a coolness that surprised me, I considered my options. Was my situation improved if the pusher continued his operations uninterrupted or if he disappeared? Uninterrupted he was a loose cannon. What might he know of Ruth’s habits? What might she have told him about me? Worse still, what lies might she have told him in order to get a bit of sympathy? What chance was there of blackmail? If he disappeared without a trace it would first be suspected that he purposely made himself scarce. The police could search for months and not find him if he was moderately resourceful. If I made sure by disappearing him permanently then no one could be certain either way. It would be a mystery that the police would not spend a lot of time on. Then again, did the police know the pusher’s identity? Might they search high and low for him because he sold Ruth the shit that killed her? I suddenly became aware of myself staring into space and seeing nothing, mouth agape and dry and starting to dread the fact that I had insufficient answers for questions I needed answers for.
My watch indicated it was nearly bank closing time. I had about twenty minutes to get some money for the pusher tomorrow. I withdrew a thousand dollars, bought a couple of cans of cheap paint and the usual accessories from the hardware store and a slab of cans. I was hungry but there was heaps of food in the house.
In the morning I laid a thick plastic spreadsheet on the TV room floor and furniture and began to paint the ceiling pale blue. I was rolling a creamy beige colour on my second wall when the doorbell rang. It was ten minutes to three.
If anyone looked less like a pusher it was this sixty-six-centimetre cherub, but I smiled a welcome and motioned him inside. He shuffled his feet as if embarrassed.
“Sorry, but I don’t have much time. Just give me the money here and I’ll be off.” He put his right hand into his jacket breast pocket and narrowed his eyes. I managed to look impressed, but I wanted as few people as possible seeing him here.
“I want to do a little business with you while you’re still here” I whispered, glancing left and right up the road to emphasise the secrecy of my business.
He mimicked my action and nodded and followed me down the hall toward the TV room
“Money’s in my windbreaker hanging behind the door.” I went behind the door and grasped the hammer hanging there, “What do you think of my colour scheme?” He took his eyes off me to look around and I brought the flat side of a claw hammer crashing down on his head. I felt his skull break but his scalp remained intact. He collapsed on the spreadsheet. So this was the bastard that ruined my chances of reconciliation with Ruth. I felt no compunction whatsoever about taping his mouth closed and putting a plastic bag over his head and taping it airtight. Double assurance that none of his blood would be found anywhere in the house, I had some compunctions though about whether I could stand by and watch him suffocate so I hog-tied him and his knees as well, then went out to his car and drove it to a sheltered spot near the railway station steering with one hand on that part of the wheel nearest my lap, and wiping it clean afterward. His fingerprints were undisturbed. there was nothing in the boot or on the back seat, then I jogged the four kilometres back to the house and he was stone dead when I got there. The clock on the wall above the TV showed four-fifteen.
I took everything out of his pockets. He had a couple of ounces in small two-gram packets inside a very old Craven A cigarette tin in his jacket’s breast pocket, a small notepad, a cheap folding knife too small to be a weapon, some papers and letters, in fact, his trousers’ pockets bulged with them. This confirmed to me that he planned on high-tailing it out of town for parts unknown and had his worldly possessions in his pockets. He wore a money belt under his shirt with three thousand eight hundred dollars in it. Everything, including his keys, but excepting the money, went back into his pockets or around his waist. Then I wrapped him in a small spreadsheet and tied it around him tightly. All this fitted neatly into two heavy-duty garbage bags. In my boat I had a couple of metres of anchor chain that I could weigh the body down with. I could have bought the chain yesterday but that might have looked suspicious. I checked his weight by lifting him and nearly threw him over my back, he was surprisingly light.
Two factors involving luck convinced me that today I was on the right track. Firstly, the pusher’s car was an automatic. And as it got dark the moon was hidden by some threatening clouds. At midnight I carried the body down to the rickety old boathouse, tied three metres of anchor chain around it and knotted the chain twice as I wound it on. Running as quietly as I could it would take me an hour to clear the bay and another hour to clear the reef and arrive at really deep water where even the nets of fishing trawlers never reached the ocean bed. About three quarters across the bay the first raindrops began to fall. Once I crossed the reef there would be a swell that could swamp my small boat. Take the body home or dump it inside the reef? I decided to take the risk and cross the reef. I hit full speed on the outboard.
An hour later and I was close. The wind was still only slight and the swell friendly enough, but I knew this lull before the storm would not last. Lightning flashed on the horizon. Ten minutes later, I heaved the package overboard. made a tight turn and at exactly the correct instant a high swell towering six feet above my head tipped the boat sideways. Three-quarters of the way through the turn I was thrown backwards and sideways. Suddenly I was struggling to retain my balance but with nothing to grasp hold of my momentum smacked me hard against the gunwale and catapulted me arse over tit overboard and the upturned boat threatened to come down on top of me. If there was any of my good luck in the kitty it showed itself by the swell flattening out and the boat stayed upright. I hit the water on my back and sank several feet before the flattening swell brought the surface closer to me and I breast-stroked to the surface. Another huge swell loomed on my left. The boat rose on its crest and moved slightly toward me, then I rose on the same swell and was carried further away from it than I had been when I hit the water.. There was an eight or ten metre space between us. Water had trickled down my breathing passage, I was desperately gasping for breath and unable to get air to my lungs. On the basis of this I reckoned I would drown pretty quickly if my circumstances failed to change dramatically. Coughing and spluttering I tried hard to concentrate on swimming toward the boat. Panic was rising in me. The sweater I had put on before leaving the boathouse was weighing me down. I coughed loudly to clear my throat, again, then again and somehow I was able to do this while staying afloat. Some air got to my chest and gasping frantically to keep myself from losing consciousness, I leveled out and swam in deliberately slow strokes toward the boat, now fifteen metres away. I made very little headway. I’d lose this struggle if I could not get myself out of the heavy sweater. Treading water, I tried to pull it over my head but half-filled my mouth with salt water in the process. The swell was becoming heavier and the boat was moving further away. If I didn’t get to the boat I was done for. I sank beneath the surface as I stopped treading water and pulled with all my strength to get the damned thing over my head. My lungs were on fire. I was losing the struggle and sinking, sinking.
In the final effort that would save me or finish me I gripped the hem and tugged. It broke and the sweater slipped over my head and I dragged my arms free, Just as I reached the surface a wall of wind raced across the water and I gulped air into my burning chest. The boat was now at least twenty metres off. The wind was blowing it in my direction, at least that’s what should be happening. I leveled out again and with slow deliberate strokes began to make progress. The swell was now rolling in all directions and was foaming on its crests. Lightning back-lit the black clouds almost overhead. Suddenly, a picture of Ruth flashed into my mind, it seemed real, her lips were moving. The rain hit like a sledge-hammer and splashed water into my eyes and mouth. I could see the boat was nearer and increased my stroke rate. Ruth was urging me on. I could hear her voice through the din, It must have taken fifteen minutes of hard swimming to get me there to reaching up to grab hold of the gunwales. Hands seemed to grab hold of mine and drag me upwards. It was a joyous feeling and I screamed her name.. My shoulders, my hips and legs, were aching and a cramp suddenly constricted my left calf muscle. Panic seized me again but made the effort to drag my body into the boat all that easier. She had helped me, she had loved me. I rolled around on the deck with the swell and couldn’t get to my feet but finally dragged myself into the half-cabin and clambered up to stand on my good leg. The cramp seemed to have reached its perfect constriction and refused to budge. Rain was collecting in the boat and the swell was becoming higher. It was imperative that I make a move for less destructive weather. It was then that I saw the lighthouse on Astrolabe Point through the sheets of rain. Slowly I navigated between the mountainous swell, sometimes over it and sometimes nearly under it. Something, someone, kept me afloat, kept me safe. Slowly my calf muscle stretched back to normal with the constant pressure of standing, but I was scared, really scared. If I didn’t return before daylight, suspicions might be aroused as to what that crazy guy in the old wooden cottage was up to. Except for what I did to Ruth, it was the worst time in my life.
The storm passed as I entered the bay, the swell gave up its savagery and I raced the sun to the boatshed. Early trawlers would wait until the seas calmed before going out so it was only one fisherman that I passed but he was a mile away and had no way of knowing who else was out, He would be hand-fishing the reef and the relative shallows. Lights were on in a few homes up toward the town. I was safe, almost certainly. Then I remembered my sweater. Would it escape the fishing trawlers’ nets? Would any of the crew take much notice if it was caught? I sweated and almost cried in frustration as I tied the boat, ignoring the six inches of water in it and crawled onto the landing stage. All I’ve been through, it might well be all for nothing. I figured what good luck might have been in reserve had been used entirely in my little adventure and the dash home. I showered and rubbed myself all over fiercely then stood in my briefs in the enclosed verandah, a stiff ouzo in my hand, and looked out to sea. The sun’s light was revealing the horizon line. The elements and Ruth, it appeared, had not been totally against me. Just mostly. And I couldn’t work out whether this was a good thing or a bad one. She had saved my life and I had destroyed hers. Tears streamed down my face as I stood there and I confessed audibly how much I still loved her.
I slept and dreamed until mid-day with Ruth beside me then waking to have a lonely emptiness replace the love, and for a late breakfast ate a whole slice of rump steak seared black on the outside and still mooing on the inside, a small can of beetroot and the juiciest Beefsteak tomato in the world. The next day I resumed the interior painting. Adding to my melancholy was the playing on the radio of the theme of Watership Down, a song that, in our more agreeable periods, we both felt an affinity for. It buzzed in my brain all night
The scheduled coronial enquiry into Ruth’s death began a week later. I was summoned to attend and with the distracted, half-interested attitude of a man uncertain of how to act and who has yet to come to terms fully with his loss and loneliness, I attended and was surprised at the routine-ness of the proceedings. In the witness box I was treated sympathetically and the verdict of misadventure or suicide was handed down. By one o’clock we were all vacating the small courthouse, stepping out into a warm sunny day with no more cares in the world. I didn’t want to go back to the house, I felt too lonely. So I stood there in the sun unsure of what to do. I wasn’t expected back at work. Someone took hold of my elbow firmly.
“Feel like a beer? It’s a warm day and if we try we can make a happier day out of what’s left of it. What do you say?” It was Detective Arrivolo and I was naturally surprised. He had been the only witness to not be sympathetic to my plight when the opportunity arose.
“Sure, if you can put your suspicions aside.” I looked at him directly, no fear, no trepidation
Almost jovially, he smiled and scratched his stubbly chin, “Oh, I’m always suspicious. Part of the rules for being a detective. You see, if I assumed everyone was innocent then from that basis I should, unintentionally of course, hunt for information to confirm my bias.” He looked out to sea, shading his eyes. “That’s a slow and tedious approach not often productive. Much better if I take the assumption that everyone’s guilty. Funny, isn’t it? I must take the approach that our hallowed legal system condemns. Here we are.” he said as he held open the glass doors of the RSLClub.
Seated by a window overlooking the bay, with a cold glass dripping condensation, he rubbed the descending droplets away. It was a James Squire boutique beer, almost black with the creamiest head I had ever seen “Sometimes it’s the littlest things that escape our attention. Well not so much escape but in fact don’t attract enough attention.” He raised his glass, “Cheers,” and took a mouthful, swallowed and followed with a loud exhalation. “My goodness, that’s worth every cent.”
“I don’t know the brand, but I’ll try it some time,” I spoke with half a smile, attempting some kind of friendship or at least something devoid of antagonism.
He took another mouthful and gave a genteel belch. “Anyhow, I think I’ve figured out how you did it.”
At my open-mouthed but soundless protest, his eyes narrowed but there was no malice in his expression. You made a mistake in destroying the wrappers, burn them in the sink did you?”
I must have looked rather foolish, dumbfounded, “I…I…don’t know what you are talking about. You think I killed my wife? I….I loved her despite the drugs, I’d never….. and my voice trailed away. “I’m sorry, I don’t have to listen to this garbage.” I rose to leave.
His eyes were riveted on mine, “Just remember, murder cases are never closed, there’s no statute of limitations on murder investigations. You amateurs think you’re so clever.”
by: Sara Loitz
I am eight years old, carving a face into the sapling outside my bedroom window-two notches for the eyes, a pair of pricks for the nostrils, and a furrow for the mouth. If I stare at it for too long, I can almost see it move.
As the tree grows larger, so does its face. The lips grow long and sensuous, the nose begins to jut, shallow divots on either side suggesting nostrils. The eyes crack open, dark pits peering out from a crown of drooping leaves.
“It’s staring at me,” I tell my mother, indicating the face outside my window. “The tree.”
“That’s odd,” my mother remarks, scarcely glancing up from her hamper. “Almost looks like it has a face, doesn’t it?”
She goes back to folding my laundry. Over her shoulder, I see the tree wink.
I hang curtains over my window, but I can see its shadow through the thick gingham, hear the rustling of leaves that almost sounds like words.
I spend a week sleeping underneath my bed, buried in a nest of pillows and throw blankets, because I don’t like the idea of the tree staring at me when I can’t stare at it. When I start to ache from sleeping on the floor, I begrudgingly go topside.
I am thirteen. The tree has doubled in height. Two gnarled branches sprout from the bole, grasping at the clouds with spindled fingers. Whorls in the wood suggest pupils, ears, a mild case of acne. I sympathize, and spend a whole night skiving the rough bark back to its accustomed smoothness.
I am sixteen, and the first boy I’ve ever liked is underneath me, and I am kissing him. His breath catches.
“What?” I ask.
“That tree,” he says. “It’s looking at me.”
I pivot sharply, earning a startled grunt from the boy. The tree’s lips are peeled back, revealing twin rows of notched teeth.
“Oh, that,” I say. “Just ignore it. If I close the curtain, it’ll think it won.”
That night, the tree sprouts legs. This development worries me. I remind myself that trees have roots; it can’t uproot itself without divesting itself of its only source of nourishment.
The tree seems to realize this. Consternation furrows its craggy brow.
I am eighteen, curled up on my bed with my last high school yearbook, when the tree finally speaks.
“Lily,” it rasps. Its voice sounds like the bottom of a canoe scraping over gravel. “Lily, you’re going to college soon.”
“Yes,” I reply. “And good riddance. I’m tired of living next to a peeper.”
The tree sighs a sigh like a thousand rivers rushing over stone. “Windows look both ways. How do you know you’re not the one who’s peeping at me?”
It’s a fair point, I acknowledge.
I’m off to college a month later, determined not to give the tree another thought.
My dorm room is on the fifth floor. The window offers a view of staggered buildings, a volleyball court, walkways paved with manicured turf. I feel uprooted, but not in a bad way, nor a particularly good one. It is different here, and all the trees are faceless.
The tree cannot find me here, I think, and let this thought lull me into fretful sleep.
I awake to find the tree towering over my bed. Its branches brush the ceiling, its leaves and limbs shriveled, its face desiccated almost beyond recognition. It looks like it has been starving.
One branch stretches toward me as though frozen in time-an arm. Something dangles from its brittle fingers, and I reach out and grasp it.
“You forgot your sweater,” it says.
THE SPIRIT OF EMULATION
by: Fernando Sorrentino
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas C. Meehan
Among the inhabitants of the apartment building on Paraguay Street, where I live, the spirit of emulation is quite intense.
It’s true that for a long time they limited themselves to rivaling one another in dogs, cats, canaries or parrots. The most exotic among them never went beyond little squirrels or a turtle. I myself had a beautiful German shepherd named Joey that was just slightly smaller than our apartment. However, besides Joey – and this was something completely unknown -, there lived with my wife and me a lovely spider of the species Lycosa pampeana.
One morning, at nine o’clock, while I was feeding my pet, the neighbor from 7-C – whom I had never even seen before – came by to borrow my newspaper for a moment, for who knows what confused reason. Afterwards, without managing to leave, he just stood there for a long time with the newspaper in his hand. He was staring, fascinated, at Gertrude, and in his stare there was something that made me shudder. It was the spirit of emulation.
The next day he came by to show me the scorpion he had just bought. In the hallway, the maid of the people who live in 7-D overheard our dialogue on the life, habits and feeding of spiders, scorpions and ticks. That very afternoon her employers acquired a crab.
Then, for a week, there was nothing new of note. Until one evening when I happened to be on the elevator with one of the neighbor women on the third floor: a languid, young blonde with one of those vacant stares in her eyes. She was carrying a big, yellow purse, the zipper of which was partially broken: every little while, through one of the breaks, there would poke out the tiny head of a golden yellow lizard.
The following noon, as I was returning from the grocery store, the bags almost flipped out of my hands when I bumped headlong into the large ant bear (or anteater) which was being lowered from a truck, en route to the doorman’s office. One of the many onlookers who had congregated there mumbled – in a voice loud enough to be heard – that in truth the ant bear was not a real bear. The attorney’s wife looked startled at this, and ran, trembling, to take refuge in her apartment. I didn’t see her reappear until a few days later when, with a radiant and disdainful face, she came out to sign the receipt for the freight delivery men who had just brought her an American brown bear.
My situation was now becoming untenable. The neighbors denied me their greetings, the butcher refused me credit, and I was receiving insulting anonymous letters every day. Finally, when my wife threatened me with separation, I realized I could no longer endure an insignificant Lycosa pampeana a single day more. I then entered upon an unprecedented round of activities. I borrowed money from several friends, I became indescribably frugal, I stopped smoking… In this way I was able to purchase the most marvelous leopard you can imagine. Immediately, the fellow in 7-C, who always followed right in my footsteps, tried to outdo me with a jaguar. And, although it may seem illogical, he succeeded.
What hurts me most is dealing with people who lack aesthetic sensitivity, people who don’t perceive quality, people who are merely quantitative. There wasn’t a single neighbor who bowed before the superior beauty of my leopard; their understanding had been blinded by the greater size of the jaguar. At once, all the neighbors, spurred on by the boastful air of the jaguar’s owner, gave themselves over to renewing their animals. I had to recognize that my humble leopard no longer provided me with my former status.
In the face of stealthy telephone conversations my wife was having with some anonymous gentleman, I saw that my only alternative was ironclad. With no remorse whatsoever, I sold the furniture, the refrigerator, the washing machine and the floor-waxer. I even sold the television. In short, I sold everything that could be sold, and I bought an enormous anaconda boa constrictor.
A poor man’s life is hard: for only three days was I the hero of the building.
My anaconda boa broke every dike, it destroyed every sense of moderation, it brought down the most respected conventions. In all the apartments there now multiplied lions, tigers, gorillas, crocodiles … Some even had black panthers, those panthers they don’t even have in the municipal zoo. The whole building resounded with roaring, howling and chattering. We spent the nights awake; it was impossible to sleep. The intermingled odors of felines, quadrumanes, reptiles and ruminants turned the atmosphere unbreathable. Huge trucks brought tons of meat, fish and vegetables. Life in the building on Paraguay street became a little dangerous.
After a very long time, I had a disturbing experience when I once again shared the elevator with the languid, young neighbor woman on the third floor, who was now taking her Bengal tiger out for a walk around the block to go pee-pee. I recalled her lizard that stuck its tiny head out through an opening in the zipper. I felt moved to tenderness. How far behind we had left those first, difficult and quixotic days of scorpions and crabs!
Finally there came a moment when nobody could be trusted. The doorman, under the tense surveillance of several of the apartment owners, washed his two-horned rhinoceros with soap and water out on the sidewalk, and then – as if nothing had happened – he herded it into his apartment. This was more than the man in 5-A was accustomed to putting up with; a few hours later he triumphantly ascended the stairs, leading his hippopotamus by its bridle.
The building is now flooded and semi-destroyed. I am composing this report on the roof, in unfavorable conditions. Every so often, I’m startled by the plaintive trumpeting of the elephant that lives with the people in 7-A. I’m writing with my watch in view, since, at eight-minute intervals, I must take shelter amidst the ruins of the stairway so that the jet stream of vapor ejected by the blue whale in 7-C does not ruin these pages. And I write with a certain uneasiness, being, as I am, under the imploring gaze of the giraffe in 7-D, which, by sticking its head up over the wall, never ceases, for even one second, begging crackers from me.
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.