On Lovella Avenue

Photo: A pristinely manicured lawn, by Leonila Salinas.

I decided to go for a walk. I had been bedridden for several days from a fever and general malaise. Cause unknown. I felt being outside in the oppressive heat might rid me from the burden of my thoughts. So I set out on my journey, hobbling like an invalid. My hips tight and sore from lack of movement.

I tried to look at everything with different eyes. As
if I had never seen any of it before. Which was quite the contrary. I had taken
this route for several days before the illness had taken hold and left me
housebound. But I was surprised to find that actually, there were so many new
things to be discovered on this walk. On this day.

I noticed a pair of bright teal doors to a two-family
flat I’d passed by many times. But now they stood presenting themselves to me,
as if installed just yesterday. My eyes just never saw them. I continued on my
journey, eager to know what other hidden treasures remained undiscovered by my
negligent eyes.

My gait was awkward. Each step felt unnatural and
forced. Like a quadruped made to walk on its hind legs for show. I was almost
certain my legs would collapse underneath the weight of my body at any given
moment. I wasn’t heavy, my legs just felt abnormally weak. And they were, as was
everything else in my body. I just didn’t know it yet.

Feeling spontaneous, I diverted from my usual path. I
turned right down Lovella Avenue. What a strange name. I assumed I could cut
through this street to reach my regular trail a block or two down the road.
There were two small squirrels, I’m almost certain they were babies, running
back and forth in the street. Flourishing. This made me happy. Babies make me
happy.

As I approached, they scurried off to clear the way.
Further down the sidewalk I saw two more obstacles. A pair of black cats. But
unlike the squirrels, they were anticipating my arrival. They sat and stared,
waiting for me to approach them. When I finally did, the scruffy black one
asked to be petted while his friend looked on from a safe distance talking to
me in meows. I spent a few minutes with them. Contemplating their life. Hoping
they were safe, okay, loved, well-cared for. If I was more insane than I
already was I would have taken them home, but their presumed owner was standing
in the doorway. So I kissed them on their heads and went on my way. That’s when
I saw it.

An opossum. Blonde, not gray. Small. Strange to be
seen out in the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. It didn’t
notice me, so I called to it. Making kissing noises to get its attention. From
what I knew about opossums they were aggressive, so I was surprised that this
one did not seek to engage with me despite my best efforts. I watched it cross
the street. It didn’t look well. Each step it took seemed to take a great
effort. It seemed tired and I understood. My heart hurt, but I continued on my
walk. Past deceased worms on the sidewalk, bloated from the heat of the sun.
Whenever I saw them alive, I tried to save them. But for so many, it was too
late. This, I also understood.

Two blocks further down and I’d reached a dead end.
There was no indication of this when I made the initial right down Lovella
Avenue. I felt conned. All this walking for nothing. Just another dead end,
like my life. I turned around in frustration, ready to return home when I saw
it again.

It had made it across the street and was sitting by a
truck in the driveway of a pristinely manicured lawn in front of a pristinely
manicured house. Something I knew I would never have the luxury of owning in
this life. I said hello to the opossum as I had to the squirrels and the cats,
but the opossum said hello back. I paused. Unsure if my insanity had reached
its apex under the blistering sun and days of fever. But it continued on. It
was a she, I could tell by the voice. She asked me to stop for a moment and
listen to her.

I sat down on the lawn under the shade of a Dogwood
tree. She came closer and sat next to me. I was silent, waiting to hear her
story. She told me she was old, nearly two now, and tired. Not much longer for
this earth. Her last litter of babies had been poisoned by people and died. She
was dying from the poison, too. I felt sad for her, I could tell she was
hurting and I wanted to ease her pain. I asked her to sit in my lap and let me
hold her for a while as she talked. I would listen to her endlessly, for as
long as she desired.

She told me about her youth. She was born not far from
here, near a dumpster behind the supermarket off Clayton Avenue. She was one of
twenty-two joeys, but her mother only had thirteen teats and nine of her
siblings perished from starvation in infancy. Nature is cruel. Her childhood
was short-lived. She witnessed the death of her mother at four months old, hit
by a car filled with teenage boys having their idea of fun on a Midwestern
Friday night. “People hate us,” she said, “and I don’t know why. We just want
to live, is that too much to ask?”

Humans are cruel. I began to quietly weep and my tears
fell onto her matted coat, covered in dirt and fleas. I didn’t want her to die,
she was special, but I could feel the shortness of her breath and her weak
heartbeat. I told her I wanted to take her home and rehabilitate her and maybe
we could live together, happily ever after.

She told me she was ready to die. After watching her
babies succumb to the poison she didn’t see a reason to go on. All she asked
was that I sit with her and listen for as long as I could. She told me about
her adventures. After her mother died, her and her siblings had to fend for themselves.
Some set off on their own and she never saw them again. She stayed together
with three of her sisters and for some time they lived peacefully in a vacant
lot. She raised her first litter there in paradise, but land developers
purchased the lot shortly after and began construction so they had to move
again. With babies in tow, she was too slow to keep up with her sisters, so
they parted ways and she began her journey alone.

By then she was nearly eight months old. She had seven
babies in her first litter. She was successful in raising them all to
adulthood, which was an extraordinary feat for a first time mother. Now and
then she would cross paths with them around the neighborhood. Many had families
of their own now. They would stop and chat for a bit, but everyone was busy
just trying to survive. Not much time could be spared. She told me one of her
sons died from an attack by a dog. He was her first born son, Ico. I could hear
the sadness in her tone as she told me this. Her voice trembling and weaker by
the minute.

For many months after her first litter she lived
alone, taking refuge in a feral cat colony near the Recplex. People felt bad
for the stray cats and would feed them regularly. No one ever feels bad for
opossums. The cats were kind enough to share their food with her despite their
differences. Then one rainy day the local animal control came by and rounded up
all the cats, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, the food stopped
coming and she moved on.

She made many friends along her short journey, but
many of them also perished. Hit by cars, attacked by animals, hurt by humans.
Life seemed so unfair she questioned why it had to be like this. She struggled
for many months, deciding whether or not to conceive again. It didn’t seem
right to bring more babies into this world of chaos and suffering. But then she
met Aris.

They fell in love quickly and lived for many months
near the outdoor Home and Garden section of Home Depot. Eventually she became
pregnant and when she told Aris, he was elated. It was his first litter. He
left that evening to go forage for food to bring back to her and the growing
babies, but by sunrise he hadn’t returned and never did.

Alone and pregnant, she needed protection. She had
seen several neighboring opossums in the area and reached out for help. An
older female named Kaiza took pity on her growing belly and agreed to take her
in. Kaiza was almost three years old when she met her, ancient for an opossum,
and refused to have more babies. She had seen the horrors of man and could not
allow for the possibility of more suffering than already existed. She stayed
with Kaiza until the babies were born nearly two weeks later.

Not wanting to be a burden on her elder, she decided
to leave with her five babies in her pouch. She felt strong and hopeful she
could fend for them alone and set off to live in a nearby park. Her babies grew
in the park and played and had many experiences exploring the wonders of
nature. She had discovered a bag of food near the playground, a prize, that she
took back to her offspring, now big enough to venture outside her pouch. She
fed the five of them a cheeseburger, fries, and chicken nuggets. They were
happy at the feast their mother had brought home to them.

That evening two of her smaller ones fell ill. She
stayed with them the whole night, not wanting to leave their side to find more
food. By sunrise she awoke to her greatest horror. All five of them were cold,
lifeless. They died in their sleep from the food they ate that had no doubt
been poisoned. She stayed by their side all day. Crying. Feeling incredibly
guilty for feeding them the food that killed them. She found the scraps from
the bag and ate them ravenously. She didn’t want to go on in a world like this.

And now here she was, almost lifeless herself, laying
in my lap. To me, a small little baby. I cradled her and cried with her. I told
her I was sorry people were so cruel and that her babies were no longer
suffering. I told her I had so much I wanted to share with her if she would
only let me take her to a vet, but her breathing was labored and she told me
the end would be soon. I told her I would take her body and I would bury it in
my backyard so she would never be alone again, she would always have a place
with me. I asked her name to put on the tombstone and she replied with her last
breath, “Nila.”

I sat there motionless for some time. Sobbing into her
fur. Feeling like I’d lost an old friend, perhaps the only one in the world who
ever truly understood me. Eventually the owners of the house came outside to
move the car. I must have been a strange sight, crying with a dead opossum in
my lap. I stood up, holding her still warm body, and began to walk home.

About two blocks down the road I crossed paths with a
dead bird. Its head bent upwards unnaturally towards the sky. I didn’t have a
chance to meet the bird while it was still alive, but I picked it up all the
same and placed it gently on top of Nila’s body as I continued my journey home.

Maybe her name was Nila, too. Like the opossum.

Like me.




Another Year

Picture Credits: gfpeck

As he entered the workshop, the elves lowered their voices
and conspicuously changed subject. They made a show of doing this, of cutting
him out. They didn’t hate Santa, they were just frustrated with the long,
repetitive hours and needed someone to punish.

Bushy approached with a clipboard. Santa straightened his
posture and cleared his throat.

“How’s everything going?” he asked.

“It’s going!” Bushy replied with a giggle.

“You think we’ll be ready?”

“We’ve been ready for days.”

“Great. That’s … fantastic work.”

The sound of wrapping paper crunching and tape being yanked
and torn from industrial-sized rolls filled the temporary silence.

“Would you like to check the inventory?” Bushy asked. He was
extending the benefit of the doubt, assuming some official purpose behind the
visit. The truth was that Santa had nowhere else to be. It was the night before
Christmas Eve, their most demanding yet, and he was bored.

“You read my mind, Bushy,” he replied, merrily.

*

Santa eased himself into a red golf cart, his girth spreading
awkwardly over the driver and passenger seats. Bushy sat on his lap and
steered, while Santa worked the accelerator. Virtually all of the presents had
been wrapped. They zipped through aisles upon aisles of gifts, a multitude so
vast the eye had nowhere to land and focus. Santa’s gaze bounced between
packages of varying colours: festive red and forest green, earthy patterned
prints, reflective wrapping, shiny silvers and golds, glistening now even in
the weak, grey light of the storage facility. Yet beneath this dazzling display
was a homogeneity of presents: phones, consoles, tablets. Every year, the
variety diminished.

Bushy drove in silence. Santa wondered what Bushy saw when he
looked upon these gifts. Once, the elves had been artisans. Now, they were
procurers, dealing in abstractions: units, shipment dates, delivery logistics.
The rise of tech had at first eased and then ultimately emasculated their
profession. Did Bushy think about this?

“Do you want to see Zone B?” Bushy asked, once their canvass of Zone A was complete.

“No, no. It seems like you have everything under control.”

 Bushy smiled and
turned the cart around. “How’s the missus?”

“She’s gone to the South Pole for a few days.”

 “Alright for some!” he
said, with another mischievous giggle.

“There’s really no need for her to be here now. And, of
course, I need to focus.”

“You can say that again.”

“It’s for the best, I think.”

“Sounds it.”

“Actually, Bushy, I get rather … edgy on Christmas Eve.”

Bushy made no response.

“I get almost… gloomy,”
Santa confessed, delicately.

“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bushy said, keeping his eye on
the aisle.

“It’s probably nothing.”

 “Just pre-game
jitters, I’d imagine.”

 “Bushy?”

“Yes, Santa.”

 “How is morale? Among
the elves.”

“Morale?”

 “This time of year can
be hard—”

“Hard?” Bushy shook his head, uncomprehending. “I mean, from
what I can tell, this year everyone is jolly. Everyone is feeling pretty jolly
about the way things are progressing. I haven’t noticed any issues with cheer.”

“Great. I assumed as much. Just making sure.”

“Everything is fantastic,” Bushy said. His brows were lowered
as if he was continuing the conversation in his head, puzzling over its
implications.

They parked outside the workshop entrance. Santa lurched to
his feet and felt his weight slam down hard upon his knees.

“Rudolph has been looking for you,” Bushy said.

“So everyone keeps saying…”

Bushy seemed anxious to rejoin the others. They stepped
inside. The elves were working hard, carrying presents, stacking them, curling
reams of red ribbon. Despite all this motion, they appeared purposeless. For
all Santa could tell, they were simply moving objects back and forth. A
simulacrum of Christmases past. At some point over the years, Santa’s
enterprise had been subtly misshapen, stretched beyond its elastic limit. He
watched them for a moment more, then slipped away, unobserved.

*

He was shocked by the state of his bedroom. Mrs. Claus had
warned that she intended to do a “Deep Clean” before leaving, but this was much
more. There was new bedding, a new watercolour print mounted on the wall. She
had arranged an elaborate floral display above the fireplace, dusted the
surfaces and shampooed the rug. It was as pristine as a hotel room. And, as in
a hotel room, Santa wandered this immaculate space uncomfortably, aware that
every time he made contact with his surroundings he slightly dishevelled them.

He did not resent her absence. Her family missed her and he was bad company on the 23rd, always anxious and unsocial. It had been a sensible decision. Yet now this strange overture, as if they’d had a fight.

Several magazines were fanned across his desk, all featuring
Santa on the cover. She had left those too: a quiet prompt. He absently picked
one and stared at an artist’s rendition of himself flying across a moonlit sky.
Recently, his media image had altered. People were representing him as thinner,
corpulence no longer being associated with jolliness, but disease. Santa stared
at the flattering image and felt a strange mixture of vanity and self-reproach.

He turned his attention to the sled manifest, a document so
vast they had resorted to printing it on scritta paper, the same as is used for
Bibles. There were 994,412 people with the name “Scott” in the USA alone. Most
of them wanted iPads. It was said that one death is a tragedy and one thousand
a statistic. This principle could be applied to Christmas itself. At a certain
scale, merriment became unintelligible.

He attempted to focus. He could not. He called his wife.

“I’ve been thinking about population forecasts…” he said, the
moment she answered.

“Honey.”

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Jesus … 4.2
billion by 2030? They’re killing me.”

“Baby, no. We can’t go through this again…”

“I’m aware that I say this every year, but I have a really
bad feeling about tomorrow. About the feasibility.”

“That’s right, honey, you do
say this every year. And every year the outcome is the same: the job gets done.
Can’t you just, I don’t know, try to accept that you’re very good at what you
do? Try to take pleasure in it.”

He needed comfort. Comfort should be easy to give. He felt
that she was withholding it deliberately.

Of course, he knew this was unfair. The fact that she had
never been down a chimney, and he had, meant that on some essential, material
level, they were different. He had a sense of the 24th that was wholly his own,
stored somewhere deep, inaccessible. No matter how strong their marriage, how
extensively they talked, this difference would never be breached. No other
living thing could speak directly to his doubts. There was only one Santa: his
worries were uniquely his.

“You sound far away,” he said.

“I’ve got you on hands-free.”

“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Just, you know, futzing.”

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”

“Okay.” She paused. “You didn’t say anything about the room.”

“Right, yes. It’s … very dramatic.”

“You don’t like it.”

“I do. I’m just tired.”

“We can change it back if you hate it.”

“I don’t. Sorry, I’m just distracted. It’s lovely. Really.”

There was a pause, then she asked, “Have you spoken to
Rudolph?”

“I haven’t run into him today.”

“You need to make an effort.”

“Well, I’ll see him plenty tomorrow.”

“He thinks the world of you.”

“I’m aware.”

“He idolises you.”

Santa said nothing; any response would surely be petty. And
he couldn’t explain why he had grown so distant towards his friend.

“You should rest,” his wife said.

“Okay. We’ll speak tomorrow.”

“Yes…”

They both lingered. He had the impression that there was some
code-word that he’d forgotten to utter. Something that might dispel this
awkwardness.

“Nick—” she said, impulsively.

“Yes?”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” he assured.

“You’ll do a good job tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“Get some rest.”

“You too. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Nick.”

 “Are you alright?” he
blurted. “Is everything okay down South?” But by then, she’d hung up.

 There had been a time
when he and his wife flirted constantly and teased mercilessly. They had loved
to tease, to push the envelope. Their attraction seemed indefatigable so it was
thrilling to test its limits. On their third Christmas, back when Santa
assisted with workshop production, he’d pulled late nights. She’d once phoned
down from their bedroom:

“Mr. Claus, would you care to come up and join me in bed,” she’d
said in a throaty murmur.

“Not particularly,” he replied, sotto voce.

“You’ve got something better to do?”

“I’ve got a date.”

“With who?”

“My other wife. You knew about her right?”

“I didn’t. Well, I’d better call my boyfriend.”

“You’ve got a boyfriend?”

“He’s incredibly rich.”

“Bet he doesn’t drive a sled.”

“No, he drives a Ferrari.”

“Okay, you’ve made me jealous.”

“He’s ridiculously attractive. And the things he can do in
bed … my word!”

“Enough.”

“He’s fat too! I love fat men.”

Santa wore a vacant smile as he recalled the exchange and the
more heated exchange that took place after the call. These days, he and his
wife were cautious when they spoke. It was as if they had stood witness to some
disaster and each were complicit in its cover-up.

Santa’s shadow pranced about in the firelight. Otherwise, the room was very still. A piece of bark snapped. A displaced log fell with a muffled thud. The muted sound gave Santa the impression that he wasn’t in the room at all, but far away from it.

*

No matter how strong his practical misgivings, how tired his
body, how unsteady his faith, Santa always woke on the 24th with a burst of
energy. He opened his eyes alert, cognisant, like he’d not been asleep at all,
but had merely blinked between thoughts.

The carpet outside his door was muddied; forked hoof prints
trailed up and down the corridor.

“Either Rudolph is impatient to see me, or the devil’s come early for my soul,” Santa said, aloud, to himself.

He stepped into the snow. The sun glowed dimly, blurred behind a wash of pale overcast, like a cataracted eye.

The last of the presents were being loaded into the sled.
Prancer and Vixen stretched and limbered while the other reindeer quietly
gathered their thoughts. Only Rudolph, who was the youngest, moved skittishly
between the elves and his fellow reindeer, joyous to the point of agitation.
There was something about Rudolph’s cheer that made Santa increasingly
uncomfortable. Sometimes when they spoke, Santa felt as if he were guarding
himself against exposure, as if he were concealing an infidelity of some sort.
And sometimes, to his bewilderment, he found that he wanted to be exposed.

He took a sip of his coffee; it was already cold and
beginning to solidify in the mug. Rudolph bounded over, his nose blazing red,
his eyes watery and bright.

“Look at this manifest,” Santa said, before Rudolph had
chance to speak.

Rudolph made a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s a doozy!”
he replied, excitedly.

“Maybe we should sack it off this year!” Santa joked. He
rarely made jokes like that.

Rudolph laughed. “Why not? I’m sure nobody would notice!”

“Exactly! Yes, exactly.” Santa was laughing more now. “We
could just say: sod it. Go inside, watch a movie.”

Rudolph chuckled politely. He looked towards the sled.

“Maybe roast some chestnuts,” Santa continued. “Crack open
the whiskey…” The thought was incredibly funny. Santa really couldn’t stop
laughing. “We could pack up all these gifts and use them next year. Or not! We
could leave them here. Just abandon them. They’d be buried in snow by tomorrow!
A nice, jolly graveyard of gifts. Let the kiddies go hunting for them.” The
image was hysterical and exciting; little children bumbling around Arctic
pastures, fields for PlayStations with chilblained fingers.

He let go. Santa laughed until the corners of his mouth hurt and
his stomach hurt and tears streaked his cheeks. The sound was absorbed swiftly
by the acres of virgin snow, his laughter disappearing almost at the instant of
articulation. Eventually he stopped. The surrounding planes were silent.

“We really have to get going,” Rudolph said.

The snow poured. The sled and the elves and even Rudolph were
obscured behind the powdery white flakes. Santa appeared to be surrounded by
shadows.

“You ready?” Rudolph asked.

Over five hundred million gifts had been packed. Across the
world, children waited in feverish anticipation. The gifts would delight them
for a day and ultimately disappoint them. Eventually, they’d lose faith in
Santa, in presents entirely; they’d ask for cash. They’d be replaced. The
unceasing cycle.

“I just want someone to tell me that what I’m doing isn’t
completely mad,” he said.

“It is mad! We’re depositing five hundred and twenty-six million
gifts across the world in less than twelve hours!”

“I didn’t mean ‘mad’ in a fun, slang sort of way.”

“In what way did you mean it?”

“I meant in a literal way. As in insane.”

Rudolph’s nose dimmed slightly. “You’ll feel better once we
make a start,” he said.

*

They moved through the air, travelling into darkness. At
certain speeds, it is easy to confuse physical velocity with more abstract,
even spiritual forms of progression. Santa was familiar with this tricksy
phenomenon, he knew it was coming and yet he was unable to resist its effects.
For a moment, he felt like he was really going somewhere. In the distance, he
spotted a swampy patch of brightness. Aurora Borealis. The eerie light
unspooled for miles across the black sky; his skin glowed sapphire and his
green breath fogged before him. Santa felt humbled by the immensity of his
task. The desire to do it and do it well absorbed him completely; his worries
seemed suddenly small and light.

They started close to home, Greenland their first stop. The
proximal approach was risky, pitting them against the time zones. But it
divided their route into short spurts, which played to the reindeer’s strengths
and it spared them a long journey across the globe with full cargo.

They advanced steadily across the desolate landscape,
visiting humble abodes that had remained unchanged for generations. In one, an
old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her children were dead and her home empty,
but she prepared their stockings every year and Santa always filled them. What
she did with the useless gifts, he could not guess, but he felt for her. At
Christmas, sadness was a purer distillate and he did what he could to dilute
it. These first visits were always more emotional; later there would be no time
for details.

Next, Canada, venturing briefly into Alaska, then back
across. In the Southern region, their progress slowed, particularly in the
densely packed cities, where whole families lived only breaths apart. He moved
through Vancouver trippingly, stopping and starting stopping and starting,
distributing gifts in vast apartment blocks, dozens at a time. Once complete,
they’d lost significant cargo and the sled moved faster. Bolting into the USA,
the G-force pressed hard against Santa’s skull, pushing at his eyes, his
cheeks, his jowls. The sled trembled.

“How are we doing, Rudolph?” he cried.

“We’re behind.”

He worked harder. He filled his sack more heavily, reducing
trips to the sled. His mind went blank and his muscles thought for him. He was
a system of reflexes.

Santa scrambled down chimneys, fingers grasping for purchase,
fingernails snapping off, legs pumping. He discovered himself in a lounge:
garish, bright, decked out in white ornaments. The image vanished and he was on
the sled. The reindeer moaned as they peddled over a labyrinth of rooftops,
spritzed by a gentle rain. And then again. Ten houses. Twenty. Forty. In the
sixtieth, his leg cramped and he walked with a limp, hobbling towards a tree
which had, inexplicably, been placed in the bathroom. His sack, full of sharp
objects, gouged his back. Pain was progress. As the sack stabbed, he moved
faster, like a beast spurred.

“How are we doing Rudolph?

“It’s tight. It’s very tight.”

Faster still. He hurled presents towards trees, he pivoted on
his foot like a sprinter completing laps. He was in a squalid threadbare squat
in Brooklyn, reeking of old clothes, sweat. He was in a townhouse. A
brownstone. He was on Fifth Avenue. The sole of his boot flapped free and he revelled
in this, this validation of his labour. He fumbled across a ballroom, the men
were in black tie. A woman in a sequinned gown observed him panting towards the
ten foot spruce.

“How cute,” she declared, her accent waspish.

Some people could see him but most could not. Those that saw
him recognised him vaguely, like a figure in a dream. An experience of
translucence. He did not mind it now, on the job, but it haunted him after,
that sense of light travelling through him, of being half-vanished.

The air in Mongolia was wet and sweet. The air in Kowloon was
thick with pollution; a haze of petrol fumes settled on Santa’s skin. He did
not slow. They covered Hong Kong. His throat was sandpaper; it hurt to swallow.
Soon, his spit was just froth and there was nothing to swallow at all. Laos.
Taiwan. Rudolph’s nose pointed the way, a small and constant conflagration in
fields of dark.

The sun rose over Alice Springs, Australia, and bloodied the
sky. Santa witnessed it through bloodshot eyes. Time was short.

By Wellington, his muscles were shredded; his limbs loose and
disobedient. Hard to move quickly. Hard to be graceful: he bumped into a desk.
He shoved a couch from his path, rather than walk around it. His body
imprecise, a crude instrument.

When Santa deposited the final gift near the Slope Point, New
Zealand, they were all too exhausted to cheer. He coughed until he retched and
then wiped the sweat from his brow. Almost immediately, more sweat gathered. He
fell against the sled, staring into the middle distance. The landscape pulsed.
Lactic acid pickled his muscles. But he was done.

“Oh no,” Rudolph said.

Santa was too tired to acknowledge the remark.

“Oh dear,” Rudolph said.

“What. What is it?” Santa demanded.

“We missed one.”

Santa returned to the sled and there, in its shadows, was a
single square package wrapped in violet Crepe-paper. He picked it up, his heart
sinking.

To,
Tommy Baker
Love,
Santa

Beneath his signature was an image of Big Ben, indicating
that the present belonged in London, the other side of the world.

“It’s only four in the morning GMT. We could still make it,”
Rudolph said. Dasher’s head sank, and he studied the dirt ground. He looked
like he was about to cry. For a moment, Santa worried that he too might cry. An
image of himself weeping ceaselessly rose in his imagination.

“We could…” Santa said.

“Could”; the suggestion of an alternative. The air became
electric; a scandal, if not uttered, had been implied.

“We’ve never skipped a gift before! Not once!” Rudolph
laughed with strained joviality.

 The other reindeer
looked at each other guiltily.

The package was light – most likely a Kindle Fire. Given the
hundreds of millions of gifts they’d distributed, it seemed absurd that this
flimsy thing should be of any consequence. He turned it in his hands and
wondered how far it would fly if he projected the toy with all his strength.

And if he did? The reindeer would tell the elves. The elves
would talk amongst themselves. His dereliction would license theirs.

The reindeer watched him. Rudolph squirmed. Santa understood that he had, in his hand, the single loose brick that could upend the edifice. He could fail. He could choose to fail. Let the whole thing tumble. The prospect was dizzying.

“We’ll go to London,” Santa declared, solemnly. “And then we
will go home.”

*

They moved sluggishly from the Southern to Northern
hemisphere, the darkness disintegrating in patches behind them. Upon reaching
Europe, they turned west, traversing the sky like wearied vagabonds escaping a
long pursuit. The sled swerved and the air grew frigid. They pushed on. In
London, they travelled at an altitude and vantage that made the city seem like
an elaborate toy village; oddly fragile and easy to crush.

Tommy lived deep in a nest of council estates in Whitechapel.
There was no chimney, so Santa would have to enter by the door. He walked along
a narrow, concrete gangway on the fourth floor. In the courtyard below, a group
of teenagers were jeering and making trouble; grime music played from a muffled
car stereo.

A woman sat in the living room, cradling a glass of red wine.
She looked up, acknowledging him with only faint surprise, as if he were her
husband come home at an unusual hour.

“Hello,” she said.

“Ho ho ho,” he replied, somewhat anaemically. He had sweated
through his clothes many times and they felt stiff and filthy. The air around
his body smelled foul.

“Sorry … do you … I don’t know, do you prefer to do this in
private?” she asked.

“It doesn’t make a huge difference.”

He dropped the present under the tree. He noticed a glass of
milk placed on the ledge of a boarded-up fireplace. He paused. He was
incredibly tired; the night’s adrenaline was withdrawing, making him feel
strung-out, shivery. His stomach lurched at the thought of milk, at the thought
of putting anything into his body. Yet he had noticed the milk and she had seen
him notice. He took a sip and forced himself to swallow.

The room came into focus. Reams upon reams of red tinsel had
been tacked to the walls; it was the cheap plastic stuff. Several Christmas
cards had been strung up with dental floss.

The four-foot tree was shedding heavily. It was covered in
baubles and fairy lights that flicked frenetically from green to red to orange,
the abruptly alternating rhythm gave the space an unhinged quality.

“We’ve met before,” she said.

“Oh? Perhaps…”

“Suzie Baker. We met in ’78. I stayed up all night, staking
you out.”

“Yes! Of course.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m sorry. I have a photographic memory for children but
adults are harder to place. I do think I remember…”

“That’s okay.”

“I’ve seen so many faces,” Santa said, in a tone that seemed,
even to his own ears, strangely confessional.

“It’s okay, really. You’ve got a tough gig.”

Nobody had ever said that to him before. Usually, when he
spoke to clients, they talked about how enviable his job was. How he trafficked
in cheer, travelled extensively. So many
perks!
they said. Such fulfilling
work
. It was important for people to believe in the perfect job.

“It is tough,” he said.

“I’ll bet.”

“Next year I might send gift cards,” he ventured.

She laughed.

“What are you doing up?” Santa asked.

“Just clearing my head. It’s been a long year … I don’t
want to be mopey tomorrow. For Tommy’s sake, you know? Kids pick up on your
energy.”

“Children can be incredibly taxing.”

“They can.”

“They lose it with time, though.”

“What?”

“That sensitivity. By the time he’s thirteen, your jolliness
will be irrelevant. You’ll be able to take a break.”

“A break… Frankly, I could use a break from life. Will I get
one of those too?”       “Not one you can
come back from.”

Her eyebrows arched and then she peered at him. “I feel
guilty talking like this in front of you… I can’t be responsible for depressing
Santa.”

“It’s important to share these things. Incredibly important.
I’m actually in a similar position myself.”

She smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. I mean, from the
outside, you seem perfectly together.”

“Oh, I have doubts. There’s a lot about me that people don’t
realise.”

“Yeah?”

“I have a dark side.”

“You do, do you?”

“‘Santa’ is an anagram for ‘Satan’.”

She squawked with laughter, startling him; it was a strange,
unmelodious laugh, and incredibly charming.

 Suzie looked down into
her wineglass, as if remembering something unpleasant. He recognised something
in that expression. Santa was always remembering himself, always alighting
briefly from his moods and descending right back into them.

“I’ve been reading about introverts and extroverts…” he said.
He wanted her to stay with him. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with how
outgoing you are. It’s about energy. Extroverts draw energy from other people
and introverts draw energy from themselves. They find people draining. You seem
like an introvert. Like me.”

“I draw my energy from coffee.”

He laughed. “Can I sit down?” he asked.

“Of course! I should have offered. Sit. Please.”

Santa fell heavily into the chair opposite. She was a young
mother. Her face was thin, almost gaunt. There was a stain on her black and
white striped top and her jeans were furry at the knees, discoloured from wear.
The old clothes strangely suited her. He felt suddenly conscious of how his gut
ballooned over the armrest and he moved his arm protectively across his stomach.

His features burned red, then melted to a soft and forgiving
amber in the changing light.

“It’s nice of you to sit here with me like this. I didn’t
know your services extended to adults,” she said.

“It’s nice of you to host me.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course.”

“Do you get the blues when it’s all over?”

“Christmas, you mean?”

 “Yeah. Ever since I
was a child, taking down Christmas ornaments has always felt so depressing.
It’s strange, because I rarely actually enjoy Christmas itself – no offence.”

“Believe me, none taken.”

“But packing it up feels so morbid. Like I missed my shot at
something.”

 “I know exactly what
you mean. I’ve been thinking something similar. Christmas Present is …
slippery.”

“Even when I’m buying the ornaments, I’m already edgy,
worrying about how long it will take to put them away again, or how I’ll get
the tree to the skip.”

She tapped her wine glass. The edge of her nail struck the
rim; it produced a thin ringing sound that wavered in the air and made him
tense.

“It will be okay won’t it?” she asked.

“Certainly!” he replied. “Wait, will what be okay?”

“I don’t know … just, everything I guess.” She shrugged,
laughed at herself. 

“It will be okay.”                          

The affirmation appeared to hit home. Her body relaxed. He
had helped.

An image of Suzie naked flicked, almost intrusively, across
his mind. Then he welcomed it. He imagined her trembling in his arms. He
imagined being in hers. Sex with his own wife had become a thoughtless ritual.
They knew what each other liked and diligently performed. Their love was well
rehearsed, choreographed, and when they parted, the room seemed filled with
secrets.

Santa had an overpowering urge to share everything with Suzie.
To go deeper. To help more. He yearned for that.

“I feel—” Santa began speaking, before he knew what to say.

“People like me hide behind people like you,” she cut in.
“When I feel anxious, or incapable, I show Tommy cartoons of your workshop, your
reindeer. It helps—”

“—Powerless. I feel, powerless,” he said, finishing his
sentence while processing hers. “Everything I do…” he continued, unable to stop
himself. “Everything is dedicated to making people believe in something that
doesn’t exist.”

“Oh,” she said, tonelessly. “That’s no good,” she added,
after a minute.

A piece of tinfoil became untacked and dropped from the wall.
She got up immediately to right it. She fidgeted, but the tinsel would not
adhere and eventually she snatched it from the wall entirely and put it aside.

“There really are too many decorations in here,” she said.
“When Tommy’s a bit older, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe a tree. Something
small, that’ll be easier to clear up.” She sounded different. She had shut him
out. Suzie glanced absently about the room, as if she were alone in it.

“I should let you get some sleep,” he said. He did not wish
to leave.

“Okay.”

“Tomorrow will be full of cheer,” he added, impotently.

“Yes, I think so too,” she replied, politely.

Suzie saw him out, nodding as he left. The door shut quickly.

*

“Woah! What were you doing in there?” Rudolph asked.

“We had a waker. I chatted with her a bit. Spread some
cheer.”

“Like the good old days!”

“Yes. Like those.”

Now, finally homeward bound, the reindeer enjoyed a second
wind. They sang carols loudly, out of tune and out of synch with one another,
garbling the lyrics and laughing. Santa could not shake a nagging feeling. He’d
experienced this feeling once before, in the early days, when he’d left coal in
a child’s house. Thereafter, he abolished the practice.

In no time at all, their home was in sight. It was a strange
law of nature that he had observed often. The outward voyage is always slow and
gruelling; the homeward journey always abrupt.

Inside the elves were celebrating. Every year, their
festivities grew more decadent. Alabaster lay naked across his workstation and
several of his colleagues were wrapping him alive. As they spread shining gold
paper over his pale flesh, he laughed at them, at the rafters, at his situation
entire. One look from Santa could silence this scene. If they could sense what
he was feeling, they’d freeze and sober.

Glances drifted towards him. The job was done and still he
was expected to perform. Santa made a limp victory sign. They cheered. He
excused himself. The constant pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks bursting, the
quiet sizzle and drip of bottles overflowing, pursued him through the room as
he exited.

*

In his study, he considered playing a game of solitaire, but found it hard to move from his chair. He thought of Suzie. He had been ungenerous, and she was probably still awake. Already, he worried about next year and returning to that flat. Perhaps the room would be barer, stripped back: that would be his doing. And how would she treat him if they met again? Maybe she would greet him like a plumber, a necessary nuisance, watch him potter about the tree and hope that he worked quickly. The prospect frightened him. It terrified him.

After an indeterminate time had passed, Rudolph trotted in, his
nose pulsing wildly. It was truly an odd shade of red. A red that had no
corollary in the natural world. It was the red of American candy, the
corn-syrup, zero calorie, mass-produced sweets that rotted the innards of
children.

“You should be proud, Santa,” Rudolph stated. “This year was …
incredible.”

A talking reindeer with an obscene nose. This was his lot.

“I almost didn’t deliver that last present,” Santa stated.

“I know.”

“What do you make of that?”

“I accept it.”

“But what do you make of it?”

Rudolph considered the question carefully. He seemed to be
struggling with a thought that surpassed his faculties; it was like watching a
child contemplate death.          “Our
sled is empty,” he said in a measured tone. “Our gifts are given. These are the
things that matter.”

“I’m not so sure, Ru, I’m not so sure at all. I have this
idea of what I should be doing, how this should work, and every year I feel I’m
getting further away from it.”

“Well … maybe you should give up on that idea.”

There was nothing beyond the idea, just distribution plans.
How pale their offering. He needed to share this burden. He could not do
another twelve months alone. Yet the thought of Suzie gave him pause.

“Sometimes … to hold onto the things that really matter, we
have to let go,” Rudolph added. He concentrated. He remembered something and
exclaimed, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly!”

What was Santa to do with this? Penny aphorisms tossed into
the swallowing dark.

Rudolph waited for a reply. He shifted his weight from hoof
to hoof. Santa felt as if he could undo all of Rudolph’s Christmases with a
single, cool remark. One day he would.

“That’s a lovely expression, Ru.” Speaking came at physical
cost. “Where did you learn the phrase?” Santa asked.

“The elves say it whenever they’re cooking up a plan: hold on
tightly, let go lightly.”

“A lovely expression,” he said again.

Rudolph’s nose throbbed and he drew in close.

 Santa’s fingers played
along the velvet fuzz of Rudolph’s antlers. He pressed down on the soft bone
underneath, which was warm to the touch, which had the faintest pulse, and
massaged it gently. It yielded to the pressure like damp bark.

There was no living bark outside. Outside, the arctic tundra
ravaged trees, blasted their branches clean off, entire trunks snapping like
sticks of chalk in the subzero climate. Only here, in Santa’s home, could such
a small, warm thing survive the night.




Before he knew he was lost

Picture Credits: davidawsp

Even before the
man knew for sure he was lost, he was searching. He felt like he had walked
into a room, but didn’t know why. Instead of an occasional moment, an
occasional instance, every room he walked in, he felt like that, even if he
knew specifically why he had entered the room, something tickled his mind and
he wasn’t quite sure why he was there. He would go into the bathroom to take a
piss and, while he was peeing, be sure that there was something else he needed
to do, some other task.

He started writing
down his reasons for entering a room on his arm with a green sharpie. Pretty
quickly his arms were filled with notes like: get banana, or masturbate, or pay
phone bill. Soon the notes looked like old, faded tattoos. That was the best
part of the whole experience, as he had never quite been able to work up the
courage for an actual tattoo. The thought of a needle penetrating his skin was
terrifying, so invasive. Such a vulnerable position and irrevocable.

He tried to
pinpoint the moment that it began, the exact moment when he wasn’t sure why he was going, but it all felt too
nebulous. Had he felt this way when his mother died? When he moved again and
again? When he lost that job? He couldn’t remember, but a part of him wondered
if it had always been like that, if he’d always had a confused look on his face
after entering a room, and he felt embarrassed retroactively.

The green sharpie
didn’t help. Sure he could look down and see throw out dead mouse and know to throw out the dead mouse. The dead
mouse wasn’t the problem. It was the other feeling, suggesting that he was
missing something, that he should be doing something else besides just throwing
out the dead mouse. He thought that maybe there would be a clue in all of the
writing on his arms, like a pattern he could decipher. Maybe if he could
determine why he was going from room to room on a surface level, the subsurface
would begin to be realized.

He wrote down
everything on one long list, but nothing seemed out of place. If anything it
made the strangeness of what he was experiencing more pronounced. Did he never
go into a different room for a strange reason? Like just to go there? Or for
something out of the ordinary? This more than anything else worried him. He
became determined to figure out what it was that his mind was trying to tell
him. That wouldn’t be accomplished by staying in his apartment. He had read
somewhere on the internet about exposure therapy. A woman had been afraid of
water and they had taken her to the ocean. Not right away of course. At first
maybe watching someone sip out of an opaque glass, and then later pressing a
hand to a window pane while it rained outside. But eventually she went to the
ocean and the article or whatever it had been claimed she had swam. So maybe he
wasn’t quite afraid, maybe he wasn’t actively hiding in his apartment shivering
at the thought of going into the hallway. Not yet at least. And that was cause for fear. If he didn’t do
something soon, he was sure to become afraid.

He didn’t plan
anything, or pack anything. He just walked to the next room and instead of
walking back, he kept on. He walked outside, but that was worse somehow, and
the feeling lingered forcing him back inside wherever he could enter. So he
stuck to populated areas, areas with doors. He didn’t like it, but he forced himself
to do it. He was going to get his life back, whatever the cost.

Eventually after a
few weeks or months, he found an abandoned town. The eight-room, strip motel
would become his home for quite a long time. He could move from room to room
without going outside. It offered him a break of sorts. He could keep on with
his task without needing to move to a new city, without disturbing anyone. He
cleaned up the dead birds and settled in.

The previous
management had kept a huge stash of individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats,
and he was eating one in room six trying to remember why he had come to room
six when the door opened. I’m sorry. I
didn’t know this was occupied.
The man, a vagabond surely, stood there in
the doorway checking out the room and dripping from the rain. They stood like
that for a few moments, until the vagabond seemed to realize that the room was
clean and didn’t have any of the man’s things. Are you management? Can I have a room? I don’t have much money, and it
doesn’t have to be this one. This room, I mean.
The man considered it. The
vagabond was clearly on something and he shouldn’t enable that kind of
behavior, but on the other hand, the motel wasn’t really his. Who was he to
turn someone away? Particularly after he himself had been turned away so many
times in his wandering. And it wouldn’t hinder his daily activities; he could
just skip room six. He held out the confection. Rice Krispies treat?

The vagabond kept
to himself, apparently content. Occasionally, the man would pop his head in on
his daily tour, as he had begun to think of it, just to check on him. The
vagabond was passed out every time. He couldn’t help but wonder how he
continued to get high. Drugs run out. Wasn’t that the point? Both of the
vagabond’s arms at the soft, inner crook of his elbow were bruised with a
needle hole that wouldn’t quite close, like a cracked doorway. Once, when the
vagabond was passed out, he went in to make sure he was still breathing. He
was, and murmuring a phrase over and over in his haze: arrived now, now arrived.

The man couldn’t
stop thinking about the phrase. What did it mean to have arrived? Certainly in
all his walking he went places, he was in places, but he didn’t feel as if he
had arrived. To arrive meant a conclusion. To arrive meant to know. And knowing
would be a kind of bliss wouldn’t it? Maybe in that way, the vagabond’s way,
through the bliss, could mean an arrival. Maybe a conclusion.

He made a plan to
sneak in the next time the vagabond was passed out and see what he could find
out, but instead the vagabond walked right up to the man as he was debating. He
didn’t know what to say. How could he explain that he was planning on stealing
his drugs? The vagabond looked vacant, itchy, and far away. Take this, and no matter what I say don’t
give it back.
He pushed a small black bag, like a travel shaving kit, into
his hands. I can’t. I can’t, he said.
And he left and locked himself in room number six. The man looked inside the
bag and every bit of it seemed to shimmer.

The man closed the
bag and made his tour. He’d never used before. The needle loomed in his mind.
What would it be like, if he was able? Would he spiral out? His mother, God
rest her, had always claimed he had an addictive personality. What if she was
right? What if by stepping through this door, there was no going back? He
didn’t believe that, he couldn’t. There had to be a way back. But if he had
truly arrived, would he care?

Every day he
smashed a Rice Krispies treat into a thin pancake, almost like a wafer, and
slid it under the vagabond’s door. He wondered if the vagabond might have died,
but there was no smell. For now that was enough. The man knew that some things
were only conquered alone. 

One night, he took
everything out of the bag and laid it out. All the metal glistened. The needle,
oh-the-needle, was already filled with a mercury-like liquid that danced and
thrummed. It moved as if alive, and as he stared into it, he knew it would
never run out, not ever. Even after he was dead, it would still slowly dance
and thrum, and he thought that knowing this thing, pulling it inside him, would
be to know a small bit of eternity.

It seemed fairly
intuitive – just a prick and press kind of situation. He was scared, sure, but
to arrive, to finally know would be worth it. He made a night tour, and as he
walked by room six he was surprised to find the door cracked. He pushed it
open. The vagabond was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his
hands, but he looked up when the man entered the room. It’s still in me, even though I know it’s not. I can’t get away. Do you
still have it?
The vagabond looked so tired. There were a thousand things
that went through the man’s head and all of them false. And he knew then that
paths only diverge, they don’t end. They splinter like light through a prism.
You could head in the same direction and end up with a very different
trajectory. The man nodded. Come with me.

They started
walking, and were several miles away from the motel when the vagabond asked, why did you put it all the way out here? Did
it help to keep away? Did you use it? Of course you did. So you know, then. You
know that it will never run out.
The man didn’t answer.

After a while,
when it became apparent that they weren’t moving toward his gear the vagabond
asked, where are we going? and kept
looking over his shoulder, looking back, though, now, he couldn’t see the way.
The man still didn’t speak, but he did grab the vagabond’s hand and they kept
walking.




House Rules

Picture Credits: Arek Socha

The guest arrived at the door
and knocked so loudly it made Gail jump. He was unshaven, his skin had a grey
tinge, and he wore a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it she didn’t
recognise. He was carrying a cabin-size bag which Gail thought strange,
considering how far he’d travelled. He was much taller than her and his
handshake hurt; without thinking, she wiped her hand on her jeans. Gail’s
daughter Poppy stood next to her, and the guest reached down and ruffled the
girl’s hair. Gail put her arm around Poppy and ushered her closer to her side.

“Come in,” she said to the man
and sent Poppy to play. He followed Gail upstairs as she showed him to the
room. Gail asked him the usual questions, like: How was your journey? What
brings you to Glasgow? Where are you from? Gail knew the answer to the last one
already because the website had told her, but she found it was a good way to
learn about the strangers who stayed in her home. This one was American, and
she wondered where he stood on gun laws and building walls.

“I’m visiting my aunt,” the
guest said. He put his luggage down and surveyed the room, which had walls the
colour of sour milk, and a sheepskin rug on the floor.

“That’s nice – she must be looking
forward to that,” Gail said.

“Yeah, but she’s not very well.
She’s been in hospital for the last month.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Gail said,
and paused. “You’re probably hungry – I have a list of restaurants.” She went
over to the chest of drawers and pulled out a laminated booklet she’d compiled
herself, though she didn’t go out to eat much these days. The booklet was so
guests would give her good reviews; she also let them use the herbs she grew on
her windowsill and kept hand cream by the soap in the bathroom. The man thanked
her and flipped through it too quickly to read anything.

“I might try one of these
tomorrow. I’m pretty tired,” he said, and looked at Gail. She hesitated slightly
too long and then smiled.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she
said.

Gail woke up in the middle of
the night. She lay in the bed she used to share with her husband, finding she
couldn’t sleep. Until recently, Poppy used to crawl in next to her, and even
though she took up a lot of space for a small person, Gail missed her. She
could hear the man’s snoring through the wall and the bed creaking as he moved
around. Gail thought she should be used to people staying with her by now, but
she kept a pair of nail scissors by her bed just in case. It’d mostly been
young people travelling, but she’d also had the occasional business casual type,
who left crumbs on her kitchen counter, wet towels on the bedroom floor and
hairs in the bath. One girl played ‘Eye of the Tiger’ at three a.m., and another
cut her nails onto the living-room floor, and Gail kept finding the sharp white
crescents months after she had
gone.

There
were footsteps in the next room and Gail lay still, listening. The man went to
the landing, and Gail got up and put on her dressing gown. The guest locked the
bathroom door, and she crept out. He coughed, and there was the sound of his
urine hitting the toilet bowl. Gail was cold now that she was out of bed and
she shivered, suddenly aware of her bare legs.

“Mummy?”
Poppy’s sleepy voice came from her room, and Gail froze, not wanting the man to
know she was there. “I had a nightmare,” her daughter said. Gail went quickly
into Poppy’s room and switched on the nightlight. Gail and her husband had
painted the walls green before her daughter was born and the colour gave
Poppy’s skin a sickly tinge. She was clutching Sylvester, her teddy bear who
only had one eye. Gail smoothed Poppy’s hair and asked what the dream was
about. “Daddy,” she said. Gail hugged her and told her everything was ok.

There
wasn’t much to show the guest had been in the bathroom apart from a glob of
soap on the sink which Gail wiped away. She looked in the mirror to see her
hair was stuck up on one side and the inner corners of her eyes were crusted
with sleep. People told her she was pretty, and she searched for what they saw.
Gail prodded the corners of her mouth, held her skin taut. She splashed water
on her face and brushed her dark brown hair.

In
the morning, the smell of bacon frying made Gail nauseous. The guest clattered
pots and pans, and the radio was on. The man turned around and smiled at Gail
and Poppy, his teeth slightly crooked. “Good morning,” he said. He was standing
in the way of the cupboard where the cereal was kept. “Sorry,” Gail said, and
motioned towards it, and they both stepped the same way. They smiled awkwardly,
and she hoped that was enough to hide her annoyance. Gail poured a bowl of
cereal for Poppy who splashed milk over the table as she ate.

“Cute
kid. She looks like you,” the man said.

“Thanks.
Have you got children?”

“No,
just a dog called Badger,” he said, and pulled out his phone to show Gail
pictures of a black and white crossbreed. “I’m lucky my boss lets me bring him
into work – the regulars love him.”

“Do
you like your job?”

“It’s
fine, nicer than other bars I’ve worked in. I studied law years ago, but I
didn’t pass the exams.”

Poppy
announced that she was finished and clanked her spoon down on the bowl. Gail
wrapped her in a thick padded jacket, a scarf and hat, meaning most of her
daughter’s face was obscured. They both said bye to the guest, Poppy waving her
small hand at him.

“Why
does that man live with us?” Poppy asked once they were in the car.

“We’ve
talked about this, sweetheart.”

“Is
it because we’ve got no money?”

“Don’t
worry about that. Have you got Sylvester with you today?” Gail said.

“Yeah.”

“What
are you doing at nursery today, Sylvester?” Gail said, and Poppy laughed and
the two of them talked, Poppy pretending to be the bear. They fell silent after
a while, and when Gail looked in the rear-view mirror, she noticed her daughter
was frowning.

The
front door was locked when Gail got back. “Hello?” she shouted, but there was
no response. She kicked off her trainers, which were damp from the rain. Gail
switched on the kettle and found her favourite mug was by the sink, the dregs
of the guest’s black coffee still in it; she ran the tap and scrubbed at the
ceramic until she was sure it was clean. Gail paused, thinking she heard
footsteps, but there was only water bubbling in the kettle and the birds in the
garden. She went to the fridge for milk and there was the smell of food gone
off.

Gail
sensed there was someone standing behind her, and she turned to see the guest
still wearing grey pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt with a hole in the neck. “Boo,”
he said and laughed. Gail forced a laugh and looked at the guest leaning
against the door frame. “Excuse me,” she said, and he moved so there was just
enough room for her to pass. Her shoulder brushed against him, and she could
hear him breathing.

Gail
switched on her laptop and scrolled through her work emails. There was one from
a magazine saying they weren’t interested in an idea she’d pitched, and another
from her husband which she deleted. Gail sighed, still feeling the slow burn of
annoyance at what had happened in the kitchen. Why hadn’t she told the man to
move? “See you later,” his voice came from downstairs and she didn’t reply.

Gail
and Poppy were sitting at the table. Poppy was colouring in a picture of a fox
with blue pencil, scribbling outside the lines, and Gail was writing an article
about tea-tree oil. It was dark outside and there were flecks of rain on the
window. Gail’s hands and face were cold, and she folded her arms across her
body. The front door opened, and the guest coughed, phlegm in his throat. He
hung up his jacket, and his phone fell out of it, clattering to the floor. “Shit,”
he said, and Gail looked at Poppy to see if she’d heard.

“How
was your aunt?” Gail said. The guest was still wearing his scuffed trainers and
his jacket had a brown stain on it. He rubbed his face, his stubble rasping
against his hands.

“Not
so good. There were all these tubes stuck in her and she’s lost so much weight.
We always used to watch films when I visited and then we’d stay up talking, now
she doesn’t know who I am.”

“That’s
a shame,” Gail said, tilting her head.

“I’m
going to miss her. I don’t have much family left,” he said, his words slightly
slurred.

He
walked closer to the table and looked over Poppy’s shoulder. “Wow, you should
be an artist when you’re older,” he said.

“But
I want to be an explorer,” Poppy said, and the guest laughed.

The
house was quiet after Gail put Poppy to bed. She tried to write, but she
shifted in the chair, her back stiff. Gail looked at the screen, the cursor
blinking, and then switched off the laptop. She wanted to watch something
mindless on TV, so she padded to the living room. The door was slightly ajar,
and she found the guest reclining on the sofa. He wasn’t wearing a top, and
Gail tried not to look at the scraggy hairs on his chest. His laptop was
balanced on his round stomach and he shut it as soon as she walked in.

“Come
and sit with me,” he said. His forehead glistened, and the room smelled like the
man’s sweat despite the scented candles dotted around. He’d switched on the gas
fire, and Gail’s top stuck to her.

“I
just came to get a book,” Gail said, and picked up one from the table.

“Don’t
go so soon,” the man said and placed his damp hand on Gail’s wrist. She froze
for a moment, and then pulled her arm away.

“You’ll
need to leave a day early I’m afraid,” she said. She paused as she thought of a
reason. “Poppy isn’t feeling well,” she said, her stare hard.

The
guest went early in the morning. He shut the front door loudly, and there was
the jangle of keys landing on the door mat. Gail waited, and then got up and
went to the spare room. The bed had been made, although the duvet was lopsided
and the pillows slightly crushed. There was a glass of water on the bedside
table, marked with the guest’s fingerprints. Gail’s phone pinged and she saw
there was an email saying he’d already left her a review. She swiped the
notification away and pulled the sheets from the bed.

There
was a knock outside and Gail’s chest grew tight. She looked around the room and
couldn’t see anything the guest had left. There was another knock, more
insistent this time, and Gail crept downstairs, pausing midway. She could see
the outline of a person in the frosted glass panel of the front door, and
whoever it was looked much smaller than the guest. Gail exhaled, and opened the
door to see a woman who had hair like a dandelion. She wore thick tortoiseshell
glasses and blue eyeshadow; she held a walking stick in one hand and a lit
cigarette in the other.

“Sorry
to bother you. Have you seen my nephew?” she said.




The Nightingale and the Swallow

Picture Credits: Chiara Cremaschi

The one, transformed to a nightingale,
made for the forest, the other flew at the roof as a swallow.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses,
Philomela, Procne and Tereus,
Book 6, lines 668–669.

Laura’s got a boyfriend. Her first serious one. She’s lost it to him. I know this even though she doesn’t talk much anymore. We still share a room but she doesn’t like me getting into her bed these days.

“What
kind of name is Terence?” I ask.

“Isn’t
it awful? What possessed his parents? But he carries it off?”

Yes,
he does, but I remain silent. I don’t like the way she talks about him. And she’s
started to wear makeup. A bit of clear mascara – which makes her lashes look wet.
Lip gloss. She doesn’t need much. Her hair is thick and shiny and straight.
Mine is tight curls. Wiry. Almost pubic.

The
phone rings.

Dad
shouts up, “Laura. For you. It’s the tosser.”

She
takes the stairs two at a time. I can hear her breathy giggles in the hallway.
Dad won’t let her bring the phone upstairs.

“How
far have you gone?” Laura’s friends
crowd our room every day. An older boyfriend – in a band! She’s popular. I wish
they’d go home.

“He
likes it when—” she drops to a whisper. I grip my Jane Austen. I’m all fists
and ears. Straining to hear. She commands awed silences.

*

Laura
is two years older than me. When we were younger, we slept in bunk beds. A
couple of years ago Dad took them apart and set them side by side. I remember
descending the ladder at night and crawling in with her. She told me stories.
There was one about a girl who loved playing in the woods. The girl had no
interest in boys and all that. One day a god chased her. He really fancied her.
She ran away from him until they were both so knackered they couldn’t run any
more. She begged her dad for help. He turned her into a tree! I thought of her buried
to the waist in earth. Scabbed over with bark. Such a relief but also, like
being paralysed. Rough justice.

“That’s
fathers,” Laura says.

Laura also says, “So what if Ariadne found a way out of the labyrinth? I’d knock it down. I’d blow it up. Half-brother and all.” And, “Ariadne and Phaedra were sisters. Theseus had them both. Seedy bastard.” At this, we are quiet. Amazed at his cheek. Astonished by the thought.

Laura’s
started locking the bathroom door. She used to like chatting while she
showered. I sat on the brown cork tiles, which bowed around the toilet – swollen
and water-wobbled. It was in the bathroom that Laura taught me stuff. Like—
everyone pees in the shower. Like— wash inside your belly button or it’ll get
the same fermented whiff as front-bottom. Not long ago she’d say, “Come talk to
me while I poo.” She gripped my hand when she couldn’t get it out. Her eyes
would dilate when it came and she shivered at the pleasure of it.

*

There’s
a party at her friend’s house to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. Mum and dad
say I’m allowed to tag along. At first Laura’s pissed off – she had to haggle
for every extra minute of her curfew. I get it so easy. Riding her coat tails.
I’m allowed to go to pubs and clubs – the ones where we know we’ll get served –
Jeez, at her age, I had to be in at nine.
But she calms down. She lets her new friends play with me, like I’m a doll.
They make up my face and I sit like a plastic bust – a Girls World. They straighten my hair. Laura lends me a dress with a
low-cut neck.

I
have huge breasts but behind my bra they are clawed red in stretch marks – from
sprouting so fast. Last week, dad walked in on me getting changed. He did his
thing – he breathes really loud – like he’s trying to breathe fire. He stamped
downstairs. Through our bedroom floor, I heard him growl to mum. Her soft voice
– explaining what it is. That no boys have been scoring my tits. My red, red
beating cheeks—

*

Terence
plays the drums.

“Like
Animal,” I say.

“Grow
up,” says Laura.

He
likes bands from New York; mainly bands with no words; or bands with whole
tracks of reverb. Laura loves words but still makes us listen to his mix tapes.
She doesn’t tell him that she knows all the lyrics to Pulp’s Sisters EP. Secretly, she still flicks her
hands like Jarvis when we pogo our beds – “I know you won’t believe it’s true; / I only went with
her ’cos she looks like you—”

“Seedy bastard.”

“—My God!”

There
is a girl in Pulp, she plays keyboards. She is called Candida, which is also
thrush – a yeast infection you may get in
your vagina –
not a bird. Pulp are mine –
and Laura’s – favourite band. We worship Jarvis. I think Laura’s worse than Peter
for denying him. It’s like denying everything she is. But according to Terence,
Pulp are mainstream now they’ve been on Top
of the Pops
.

*

The
female nightingale is mute. Scientists don’t understand why. Most female songbirds
in the northern hemisphere don’t sing. Or they sing very rarely. It’s not that
they can’t. They have the organs and they know the tunes. They choose not to.

*

One
Saturday morning, I get out the shower and they’re on her bed. Dad says they’re
not allowed in our room without me to chaperone. They’re kissing. Loud. Dad
must be out.

“You
sound like you’re eating soup,” I say, snatching my dressing gown out of our
louvred wardrobe.

He
starts doing it louder.

That’s
my sister. She is not food.

His
feet hang over the end of her child-sized bed.

He
rolls on one side and looks at me. Laura sits up.

“You
look like Laura when your hair’s wet,” he says. I don’t think Laura should like
the way he’s looking at me. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“I
told you she was pretty,” she says.

“You
don’t notice under the Chewbacca wig,” he says.

“Don’t
listen to him. I wish I had your hair. Boys only tease when they like you,” she
says.

I
grab the wrong clothes. I’m blushing so hard my cheeks have swollen my eyes into
slits.

*

I
started blushing when I was eleven and my cheeks have been red ever since – for
one thing or another. My period came on my first day at secondary school. It
began as an ache somewhere between the bottom of my stomach and lower back. A
part I didn’t know I had. By lunch my pants were sodden. Like my crotch was
sweating the pain out. I headed down to D-Block Girls’, where hard year-tens –
all wet look perms and spray-crusted quiffs – compass-and-ink lines into the laminate
doors. Jeanie Wilson gives it brown. They
climb up and peer over cubicles. They time how long you’re in the bog and shout
that you’re having a shit. I was quick—

I
flicked the lock. Tights – rolled down. I knew what this was. I’m no Carrie – yet hadn’t expected those offal
blobs – like stewed berries. The blood wasn’t liquid. It was sticky and nearly
as solid as skin. Smell of raw meat and earth. I wrapped waxy paper around my
pants. It was the anti-bunging kind. The stuff they buy to avoid blocks. The
blood would slide off. I broke out – to find Laura. I knew where she’d be. She
was always in the library.

She
didn’t have any towels and neither did her friends. They weren’t due on. She led
me down the brown corridors under the gym to find the school nurse. Smell of
sweat, leather and plimsolls. Fluffy grey smell of pommel horse. She called us
in. Smell of TCP. A white metal cupboard stuffed with crepe bandages. The nurse
tied up my wet things in a scented bag. This
is a tampon
. She gave me cotton pants covered in tiny blue flowers –
primary school pants stuck to a winged pad. A leaflet – I stuffed in my bag. I
was late for French. The nurse pulled Mr. Roberts out the door. Mutters behind
hands.

When
dad picked us up he’d already been told. The nurse spent the whole afternoon telling.
Phoned home. Poor little thing. On her
first day
! Dad asked if I was alright.

“Fine.”

He
squeezed my shoulder and looked relieved. We drove home.

After
tea, Laura and I walked the dog to the park. Some boys from the estate:

“She
was scrating at school ’coz her fanny was bleeding.”

“Ignore
them.”

I
walked faster. Looked down. Said nothing.

“This
estate,” Laura said.

“Oh
God, Laura. The smell. Can you smell it? Everyone will know—”

“Everyone
does know. The nurse told them.”

“Oh
God.”

“Don’t
worry. Everyone hates her. She’s a witch. She’s got drawers full of STIs. Like
porn. She loves showing off knobs covered in warts.”

Even
while my pores were blowing bubbles of sweat and sticky red blobs were rolling
out of me – I could feel it sliding out! – Laura made me laugh. I felt lighter.

“Don’t
be ashamed.” She slipped into that voice.
Some women in India are shut in a hut while they bleed.
It was the same
voice she used to persuade me to skin-head Barbie with a pair of secateurs.

*

I
have a dream where we’re in the woods. Crouched where the root bowl of a fallen
tree left a hole in the earth. Amongst the crisp packets and cans, we cosy up. Bracken
blankets – playing house. Or soldiers in a trench. Camouflaged in fern. Laura jumps
on me, tickling my pits. I tip into the black earth. Flat on my back with Laura
straddling my legs –pinging at my knicker elastic. We are laughing so hard we can’t
catch the next breath.

“Show
me,” she says.

I
push my hands up my skirt and rip the towel out. Toss it on the ground. It
thumps the floor – swollen – fatted. Lying on the leaves – glistening black, like
a rabbit turned inside out. A spout boils and seeps – russeting the leaves
beneath me. Laura picks up a stick. She stabs it and raises it on the end like
a spit. She brings it close to her lips. Licks.

I
can’t remember the rest but I imagine her daubing her fingers in my blood – smearing
it down our cheeks. Budding her soft lips and perching them on my nose. And we track
through the woods, Laura holding the stick before us like an Olympic torch. And
we burst from the trees. And she lobs it, like a grenade, at the boys from the
estate. Unfurling in air. It flaps. It glides. It lands. When they see what it is,
they burst like pigeons or scraps of bonfire – combusting. I imagine it
springing to life and running after them. Snapping little teeth at their heels.
And Laura laughing. Us laughing like a couple of harpies. I try to make myself
have the dream again by telling it in my head when I can’t get to sleep. Or
sometimes I think about, “He likes it
when
—”. I feel that twitch between my legs. I want to touch it but can’t
make a sound because Laura’s awake in the next bed.

Sometimes,
when I look in our bedroom mirror, I’m startled by looking so familiar. And when Laura and I catch each other,
I see the same look on her face.

Laura
is clever-clever and school-clever. Her head of year loves quoting her Mensa
score in assembly. None of the teachers know my name, You’re Laura’s sister aren’t you? I like borrowing her status but
I’d like my own name.

*

At
the party I drink too much. Too fast. The floor is sloping. Laura’s friends
have all lost interest. I’m leaning on the door jamb between kitchen and
sitting room. I’m thinking about water. How much I need a glass. I’m also
considering fruit salad. There’s a cut-glass bowlful on the kitchen
worksurface. I want to push my tongue into it. Terence comes over. He taps up
my chin and asks if I’m alright? Laura’s probably asked him to look after me.
Her friends will be thinking how sweet.
Like a big brother. I feel sick.

I
tell him I’m spinny. I need fresh
air. He brings me a tumbler of water then he takes my hand and leads me into
the garden. There’s a brick outhouse at the end of a concrete path. It’s a bit
more than a shed. Terence opens the door and tugs me inside. It feels secret,
which makes my skin tingle, a feeling that’s halfway between scary and nice.
Like shimmying up to the highest branch and looking down – holding on tight and
shivering with the leaves. Blood fizzing; stomach churning. Like Christmas Eve
and the night before an exam. I can never split that feeling. I want to go in.

Inside
the shed: smells of lawnmower petrol and compost. Shelves of plastic plant pots.
Broken spider webs gummed with dust and pasted on the walls. Garden forks.
Spades. Rakes. Trowels. It’s cold – like a cave.

He shuts the door. I sit in a deckchair. When he turns around, he has
it in his hand. The end bulges. Shiny. Opaque like oiled meat; or like a skinned
animal – he looks so helpless. Holding it. His eyes saying please. Like when a
dog rolls over and shows their underside – the warm belly where the organs flutter
close to the surface. He touches the back of my head. Gently. He likes it when— I open my mouth?

I don’t think anyone sees us come back. I don’t think anyone misses
us. I don’t talk to Laura all the way home. Then it’s days of silence.

My heart is arrhythmic when he’s on the phone. I’ve developed a
rash on my chest – pink and white mottling. I’ve discovered that I can make
myself sick if I put my fingers in my mouth and tickle that wobbly droplet of
flesh at the opening of my throat. Warbling vomit.

I dream about that night. In my dream Laura pours the fruit salad
into my lap. Tinned peaches and pears sludged onto my legs. On Laura’s dress.
The syrup soaks through. When I stand up, my thighs are wet and sticky and I
leave a puddle of juice. Everyone laughs. I grab fistfuls of fruit and chase
her trying to get her to eat it from my palms. Grabbing her and trying to force
the grainy, mushed up fruit into her mouth. Her lips are pressed tight and she
snaps her head from side to side.

Days of silence.

After a week she corners me in our room. I’m lying on the bed. I’ve
let down the hem of my school skirt and I’m hand stitching it.

“What are you doing?” she asks. She sits on the end of the bed.

“Making it longer.” I’m doing invisible stitches. The way mum
taught me. I’m doing a pretty good job.

“Why? Have you been told it’s too short?” She picks up Bomber, the
heavy teddy that was mum’s, then hers, then mine. None of us can bear to throw him
out.

“No,” I say.

“It’s not too short,” she says. She puts Bomber under the sheets
and tucks him in at the end of my bed.

“I just want to,” I say.

“Why? You’ll be able to see the old holes. It’ll look shit.”

“I want it a bit longer.”

“But it’s long enough. It reaches your knees. What’s the point?”

I’m pulling the fabric as far down as it will go and rolling a
tiny hem.  She sits on the end of my bed
and slips into mum’s you-can-talk-to-me
voice.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m not angry with you but you need to tell me exactly what
happened.”

“Nothing.”

“But it did.”

“What?”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing.”

“You can tell me.”

I’ve run out of thread. I unwind the bobbin and suck the end of
the cotton to make it stiff. My mouth is dry. I rethread my needle and tie the
cotton in a knot. I push the needle under the very top layer of my skin on my left
index finger, not quite piercing or drawing blood. It’s a party trick – I pull
the thread through – look I’m stitching
skin
.

“Don’t do that. It makes me feel weird,” she says.

My skin snaps, leaving a frayed edge.

“He did something. I’m not angry with you but I need to know,” she
says.

“No. He didn’t.”

“He did. I’m not angry with you. I’m angry at him.”

She’s stands up and presses her back against the door. She folds
her arms. She looks like a bouncer. I sew my right index finger. Pop. More
frayed skin.

“I’m not angry with you,” she says.

“Please, please don’t be angry,” I say.

I don’t know what word to use. The only ones I know sound absurd. Stupid
words – I can’t use any – my throat has closed.

I tap two fingers on the back of my left hand. She understands.

“Two words,” she says.

I tap one finger on the back of my left hand.

“First word,” she says.

I fill my cheeks and expel the air – slowly – through pursed lips.
She folds to the floor and puts her head between her knees. “I’m going to be
sick,” she says.

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“It is my fault. I made him.”

I’ll take this blame if it makes her feel better. I want to make it
hurt less but I still want him to disappear. This will make him disappear. This
will make him disappear.

*

Long silence. Her breathing with her head between her knees. In.
Two. Three. Four. Out. Two. Three. Four. Her fists clench and unclench. The
breathing slows down. I unpick my line of stitches. Slowly, I peel the hem
apart and listen to the little pops of cotton. Penelope sewed by day and
unpicked at night. Weave. Unpick. Delay. Pricked,
pierced, sewn, unravelled.
I pull the knotted end and roll the spent thread
as tight as a hair ball and flick it onto the carpet.

Eventually, she looks up. Her eyes are red but her cheeks are dry.

“You’re coming with us to the pub tonight,” she says.

“God, Laura. No, I don’t want to see him.”

“Shall I speak to dad about—”

“No.”

She waits for me to say it: “I’ll come.”

We’re in the pub. I feel like I’m watching TV. She looks so pretty.
Shampoo advert hair. Her freckles scattered like sand on her nose. A couple of
his friends. Me. Her. I’m imagining what he’ll say when she tells him. He’ll do
one of three things: he’ll deny it (bad for him); he’ll pretend it was a
drunken mix up – comedy – like Shakespeare (bad for him); but he might… He
might not give a shit.

I start to think she won’t do anything. Maybe she’ll shrug it off.
But then she smiles at me like we’re in on something. She puts her hand on his
thigh. She looks at him and cocks him a lopsided smile that dimples one cheek.
She raises an eyebrow and stands up. He follows her out the fire escape. I look
at the dirty, flagged floor – tacky-black-beer-smears. My stomach muscles try
to curl.

It feels like an age until she slips back into her seat and gobs
something viscous into his half-finished pint. She does it casually. His
friends shuffle and laugh. With a black, plastic stirrer, she swirls it around
before he slopes in. Sucking in his stomach and tucking his T-shirt into his
jeans. Exaggerating sheepish – like everyone is counting his luck.

She says, “Come on. Drink up. On to The Bell?”

He downs it.

His friends fall apart.

“What?” says Terence.

Silence from us.

“She doesn’t swallow,” one friend says, which cracks them up.

She stands and turns to me.

“We’re going home.”

Laura leads us onto the amber-wet pavement. She doesn’t need a
ball of wool or pockets stuffed with pebbles. She doesn’t link arms. She walks
ahead and when we get to the bright lights of the house, I fall back so I don’t
have to see her wet cheeks.




Grave Matters

Officer Roberts shook his head as he surveyed the damage. Shattered stereo equipment, smashed television sets, shredded newspapers, tattered gloves, ragged mittens, empty potato chips bags, torn candy bar wrappers, banana peels, apple cores, pear pits, broken beer bottles, rusted razor blades, splintered soda cans, and heaps of unidentifiable household trash lay strewn across the tombstone shop. Rotten eggs were splattered across the cracked, overturned outdoor gravestones, and ugly curses such as “Die, you degenerate bastard,” and “Rest In Hell, scumbag,” were spray-painted across the front of the small wooden store.
Stan’s ‘Stones, a seldom-visited novelty tombstone store, was located in an otherwise vacant, weed-infested lot on the far side of town, a half-mile past the bus station and two miles from any other commercial or residential zone. Officer Roberts hardly recalled ever even driving past it when he made his daily rounds. When he received the early-morning report of a vandalism incident in Springmeadow, he thought that the target must have been the new casino, or one of the city’s seedy downtown bars, or perhaps even a house of worship; he never could have imagined that this strange store could have been the target of such virulence.
“This is certainly a very nasty thing that some lousy folks have done to you,” said Officer Roberts to the proprietor of the store, “and I assure you that we will do everything in our power to get to the bottom of this and bring these foul wrongdoers to justice. Now, just so I can complete my report, Mr. Kop…Kopinsky?”
“Kopchynsky,” the proprietor corrected him. Stanley Kopchynsky, a tall, well-built middle-aged man with a leathery, sun-mottled face and a thick, unkempt salt-and-pepper moustache that completely covered his unexpressive mouth, was wearing faded denim overalls over a fraying white t-shirt, open-toed sandals, plastic aviator sunglasses, and a flat-brimmed, red-rimmed baseball cap with a picture of a Heinz ketchup bottle stitched onto the front white panel of the hat. “But you just can call me Stan.”
“Yessir, Mr. Kop—…Stan…and you said you have been receiving hate mail as well? Is that correct, Mr. Kop—”
“Yes that is correct, officer. These hoodlums even popped the tires of my Harley. Here,” said Stanley Kopchynsky, handing him a folded piece of paper, “here’s one of ‘em.”
Officer Roberts slipped on his reading glasses and read:

Mr. Kopchynsky,
You are worse than smallpox, measles, polio, and the bubonic plague combined. You belong in the annals of the worst afflictions ever to torment humankind. Dying used to be a matter of dignity! Now, with your stupid jokes, you have ruined it! You have ruined death in Springmeadow! Shame on you, you piece of dirt!

“Now, that’s just one of dozens I’ve received this past year,” said Stanley Kopchynsky. “And that’s one of the more milder ones. Now, officer…for the life of me, I don’t understand why a good, hardworkin’ man such as myself—a man who served his country in ‘Nam, no less—would deserve this. All I try to do is bring a smile to people’s faces every day. My customers, they come to me ‘cause they darn had ‘nough cryin’ and tears and what not durin’ their relatives’ dyin’. They come to me sayin’, ‘Stan, dad’s hospitalization was bad enough. Why should his eternal memorial be so somber? Dad loved to laugh durin’ his life—wouldn’t he be wannin’ us to laugh even after he’s gone? When we come to visit him, he wouldn’t want us howlin’ and bawlin’—he’d wan’ us laughin’ and cacklin’. Give us and dad somethin’ we can laugh over, Stan, that’s all we ask,’ they say to me, officer. And why shouldn’t I? Ain’t there ‘nough cryin’ in the world every day? We really need more a’ that? I mean, here, for insistence,” said Stanley Kopchynsky, pointing Officer Roberts to one of the overturned tombstones he had been working on, “here’s one that a real nice, well-mannered family ordered from me last week:

Here Lies Marvin
Who lived a good eighty-four years (though by our calculations, three of those years were spent on the toilet, so do those really count?)

“And here’s another”:

R.I.P., Ethel
If you get hungry while waiting for the Resurrection, we left a Peking Duck take-out menu in your pocket. It says they’re now offering free delivery throughout the city.

“Officer,” Stanley Kopchynsky continued, as Officer Roberts jotted a few notes on his pocket-sized notepad, “you may not find these so funny, but these are what these particular families wanted, and everyone’s sense a’ humor’s different, you know? Here, for instance, this one wife ordered this one from me the other day for her just-deceased husband”:

R.I.P., Norman
Don’t worry, I’ll come visit you often—and I’m looking forward to it, because now if I start a conversation with you I’ll finally be able to get a word in edge-wise.

“And one guy’s ol’ college buddies and coworkers ordered this one”:

Here Lies Larry
And thank goodness for that—because none of us could stand you when you were awake. We just never had the heart to tell you. (Oh wait—yes we did…last week on the golf course, when we caught you cheating again. You putz.)

“Well,” said Officer Roberts, scratching his head and trying strenuously to maintain his composure, “don’t you think, Mr., umm…sir…that some people may be, well…offended, by your business?”
“Don’t see why they should be, officer. Can’t a family have a little laugh if they want to with their deceased loved one? Does everybody have to take everything so seriously all the time?”
Officer Roberts, politely nodding his head, eyed two more tombstones:

R.I.P., Agnes
In hindsight, when you said you were dying of laughter, we really should have taken you seriously. Sorry.

Here Lies Herbert
Who died as he lived—farting uncontrollably

As Officer Roberts left the littered lot and got back into his cruiser, he was only slightly embarrassed—but not completely surprised—to catch himself laughing.




Shrimp Woman


 

From the lake’s bed, she watches their legs: pink ribbons of skin and bone. Hunger swells as the birds wade deeper. Release of chemicals, flex of claws: she grabs, she bites. The flock escapes in panicked flight as she drags her prey to the muddy shore.

On land, she rips the bird’s mandibles with her teeth and she devours his tongue, clacking her jaws at the texture, the taste. Her fingers flex and pluck at the bird’s body. Wings tear. Bones crack.

When she has fed, she dips her head in the lake and watches the blood wash away. Her mind is calm, the hunger satisfied. She basks in the sun. Rodents come. Crows. Flies. Picking the bones clean. Days pass before she slips back in the water. Back to her place, down below.

Evening. Sun setting. Thin legs re-appear. One pair. Two pairs. Many pairs. She lies so still at the bottom of the lake and she studies the birds as they feed and wade. Their beautiful shapes. Such elegant curves as they straighten and arc. She admires them, worships them even, as they feed on her half-formed kin. All the while her hunger grows.

At dawn she sinks her teeth. The flock rouses, running on water, a great commotion. The one left behind – her catch – is female. Its glands are full of crop milk, a fatty surprise that coats her tongue. Pure nourishment. Milk for chicks. It floods her body with memories of softness in her body. Remembering the time when she was just like her kind. A cyst. A swelling. A hatchling in brine. Molting for legs, for eyes. Growing and shedding like her sisters and brothers. But in her, the hunger that left the others behind. They did not keep shedding their soft shells as she did. They floated away, towards the light at the surface. They became fodder. She kept growing and shedding again. And the hunger swelled in her. And she fed. And she grew. And her shell hardened, layer on layer, and her nails and teeth grew long.

She stays on the bank with the body for hours, a whole day. A whole night. But when the scavengers come, she does not let them have the bird. It has given her too much. She is beholden.

Days later, when the flock returns, she rears up, urging them away from their dead sister, away from the lake. She cannot imagine hunger’s return. It is pale and far away. A day moon in a blue sky.




Beth’s Not Crazy

PolkeBeth’s not crazy. She knows that never works, too pleading. But she’s not. When the bipolar diagnosis came raining down from Dr. Philip Kleinman, perched high atop his psychiatric Mayan throne, waving lithium and lexapro like a psychotropic scepter, she told him the same thing. And she doesn’t mean to sound so angry at Dr. Phillip (who nobody could call Dr. Phil per the syndicated Dr. Phil), nor does she mean to borrow Mayan imagery in case that’s offensive to anybody. But she’s not crazy, and she doesn’t have bipolar disorder, and she’s not saying that people who have bipolar disorder are crazy. You’re not crazy, and if you are crazy, it’s probably something unrelated to the bipolar disorder. That’s how she thinks about all of this now, you know, she’s sane like everybody’s sane, mostly and then not at all. It’s been three years since she’s on seroquel and guess what? Nothing. She sleeps like a baby, all pink and sprawled out, blissfully dreaming about maternal collarbone. Does she get fast? Yeah, she gets fast, but who doesn’t get fast? People want to get fast, you know at least in America, where everybody drinks coffee to go. They say in Europe, everybody siestas and you drink cappuccino with your multilingual lover for hours and it’s uncouth for waiters to bring checks early. Beth’s not European, you know, so maybe her manic depression is a culturally shared manic depression. All she’s saying is there’s a million ways to look at this thing, and she resents the one people land on requiring medication.

When she told Mark this, he just stared at her. He stared down at her from his 6-foot-3 roost and she looked up from her 5-foot-4 divet, and he just said, “Beth, not at all.” He looked at her in that moment almost exactly the way he looked at her after undoing her bra. All wide-eyed and slack-mouthed, his whole face a beehive of honeycomb “O”s, dumbfounded at the heights and depths of her humanity. With Mark, the heights used to be the things she’d say when they were curled up in bed, both soft and ductile from whatever it is sex does to bodies. The lows were the things she’d say in the long weeks when she was the fastest, every word wrangled feral from sleep deprivation. It didn’t matter that she was saying the same things in both places, or that she’s always said the same things.

Mark broke up with Beth soon after that conversation. He was weary, she was weary, but he was more weary. That’s how he got the breakup upper hand. She was still slightly more content in their splintered routine, two weeks shy of reaching the state of urgency that instigates the slow, surgical splicing of someone out of your life. He was there though, already bleeding at the triage counter as she limped a half-month behind. One night, when she returned home in her work-shirt and work-shorts with her hair up in a tightly wound work-ponytail, Mark had made an entire three-course Italian meal. They had bread and bolognese and tiramisu. It was the kind of thing he had done all the time a year prior when they had first started dating. Beth thinks breakups are always harbingered by a sharp return to whatever early-dating behavior ignited the relationship. It’s not a Hail Mary, too late for a Hail Mary. She dated a man named Noah before Mark and they fucked so much at the beginning, that kind of porous, shared-sweat, angry fucking that you do for hours, that becomes its own schedule with time to eat and work decided around it. At the end, they fucked a lot too. In the middle, they made love and she thinks that was probably the issue.

At the table, Mark’s there, lighting candles on the table and smiling up at Beth like he’s Lucille Ball. “Hey babe,” he kisses her on the cheek. “Hey baby,” she answers back. Beth never ascertained why she was babe and Mark was baby, or how these specific intricacies to terms of endearment take root. Growing up, her Mother called her Bunny and her Father called her Cheeseball and her Stepfather called her Beth. Affection is of a complicated etymology.

She knows what Mark’s doing. He’s making her a nice dinner so he can break her heart over rotini. Beth wants a last supper together and she wants that tiramisu to be an explicit part of their last supper. But Beth rejects the image of Mark standing over his sautéed bell peppers, made with some barely-googled New York Times recipe, speculating over the how and when of his directive. She wants to yell at him that she’s unhappy too and that this isn’t working and that his voice became grating as of last Tuesday. All these true things that will sound like false, desperate swings at salvaging fractile pride after he says them first. She supposes this kind of mutual, machinating smoke-screen would not be un-similar to how it would feel if he was going to propose. Is he going to do it? When is he going to do it? How will I tell my mother? But Mark isn’t going to propose because she told him she doesn’t believe in marriage so he never proposes and she never has to rethink her position.

He starts laying out the food on that canary-yellow tablecloth his Aunt Vivienne sent him. Vivienne says she sewed it, Beth says no way, Mark abstains. All the women in Mark’s family send him things twinged with domesticity, little monogrammed gunshots of their projected reverse-Oedipal desires in the form of slow cookers and little silver spoons. Their Mark is tall and handsome and steadily employed, forging the cast-iron home none of their husbands could. Like St. Francis, they drag ideological stones to their wasted church, or like Kevin Costner, they drag rubber bases to their dreamscape baseball diamond. But look, Beth doesn’t mean to sound so angry at them. They’re very nice women and they’ve always welcomed her, even his mother. Once Beth called Mark unweaned and he said she can’t stand seeing people want things.

“No one likes seeing want,” Beth shot back, “it hurts to see people lack.”
“That’s not what it is and you know that,” he said, in the rumbling, low-pitched voice he saves for when he’s soapbox certain, “you don’t care if people lack, you just care they ask for more.”
“No.”

“Baby, this looks delicious,” she says, because it does. It’s a cornucopia, a Rockwell print of American bounty if he ever painted unmarried couples moments before estrangement.
“Well, I thought you might be hungry.”
She pours two glasses of water and two glasses of red wine. They move to opposite sides of the small, round Formica table, which happens every night even though circles don’t have sides. They sit on the same practiced beat.
When they finish eating, Beth pirate- swills the rest of her wine.
“How was your day?” she asks.
“Good, good. Uneventful.”
“You never say that.”
“I always say that.”

Mark is 29. Beth is 23. He is an anesthesiologist. She is a waitress.
“How was your day?”
“It was nice, lunch was busy.”
“And how are you?”

When he asks, Beth can tell it’s not chit-chat, his question is a thermometer pricking incautiously into his perceptions of intemperate moods. It’s spoken softly and firmly, uncompromising in care and condescension.

“I’m fine.” She answers adolescently. She adds a daddy in her head.
“Really?”

Beth is furious. See Beth furious. She wants to scream at him and flip the yellow table and take a mallet to the eggshells he’s standing on, half an inch higher than her. But how can she give so satisfying an answer to “Really?”
Instead she says evenly, “We should break up.”




Garden of Motherless Children

 Reverend Dave spoons chili into plastic bowls at the homeless shelter. He counts thirty-five people today, the number getting larger as the nights get colder; this church-funded shelter the only place they have to go to in Chestertown, and only if they are drug and alcohol free—he fought against that provision when he was first assigned this parish five months ago, but several of the wealthiest members of the board overruled him. We’re not a rehab center, he argued—a waiting list at the local halfway house—we’re providing ministry, shelter.

Reverend Dave fills Marcus’ bowl. He’s just a kid, in his early twenties, his hands shaking. He’s being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the local mental health clinic that’s slated to be shut down next month due to state budget cuts. Reverend Dave’s been calling the governor, writing editorials—how can they just shut down a mental health facility without a back-up plan? Bussing has been suggested, but it’s hard enough to get some of these people to their appointments, let alone on a bus they have to ride on for nearly two-hours round trip.

He tells Marcus to come back for more if he’s still hungry. Marcus nods, but doesn’t make eye-contact, the whites below his eyes exposed. He takes his bowl, sits off to the side, alone, spooning the food into his mouth in a perfunctory way. Eating but not tasting.
Reverend Dave waits a moment, then goes over and sits on the bench beside him, not too close. “How’s the food?” he asks in a low voice.
Marcus is crouched over, shrinking into himself. He keeps eating, doesn’t respond.
“Sticks to the ribs,” Reverend Dave says.
A slight spasm runs down Marcus’ back.
“You okay, son?”
Marcus stops eating, glances at Reverend Dave, then stares back into his bowl. “I haven’t been drinking,” he says.
“God doesn’t discriminate,” Reverend Dave says.
Seems to me he doesn’t much care,” Marcus mumbles.
Reverend Dave looks around the room, faces full of need, despair—but there’s a warmth in the sharing of the food, comfort. “Look around you,” he says.
“I seen enough,” Marcus says. “I don’t want to see no more.”

Paula takes a sip from her wooden goblet, feeling like a queen in the blue lace gown that used to belong to her mother. She wraps the matching shawl around her shoulders, walks by the native garden she planted for the town; the Rudbeckia, Eupatorium, Boneset, Joe Pye all in bloom.

She sits down on one of the cast iron benches in the garden, ignoring the empty cans of beer scattered around. It’s Friday night, let the bums have their fun. She smiles at the rhyme, looks up at the sky, the lights from the town obscuring her view, but she’s determined not to let anything break the spell, the magic of the night. She had her first gallery show tonight, and even though she didn’t sell any paintings, people came to see.

They asked her to name this garden when she planted it ten years ago. She put in so many native gardens back then, when she was younger, healthier. There’s a small plaque in the midst of the Muhlee Grass: Garden of Motherless Children. She can feel her mother’s presence when she’s sitting here, alone, and she feels her, now, watching over her, protecting her. Like when her mother taught her how to swim in the Chester River, her mother’s arms beneath her body, support beams for her small frame. She can still hear her mother telling her that it’s all about the rhythm, the breath. And, later, when she was training to be a ballerina, it was that same mantra she would hear over and over again in her head.

Reverend Dave sits in Paula’s backyard, sharing a pot of red bush tea, her rooster walking freely in and out of the small cabin, that has no doors, only flowing white curtains; the wooden floor specked with paint, her art strewn everywhere, hung on every inch of the walls, as well as on the fence outside that separates her cabin from her landlord’s estate.

Reverend Dave feels more at home here than in the modern Rancher provided by the church. He lived in a commune for a while, taught Philosophy at the University of Montana, his calling as a minister nearly twenty years ago, when he was in his thirties, more from a desire to make a difference in the world than a matter of intense faith.

Paula pulls a tuft of tall grass busting through the fence. “Invasive,” she says, her shock of dirty blonde hair busting out of a pony tail. “These assholes come here and plant all the wrong things.” She takes a deep breath, exhales, pushing the air slowly down with both hands. “But at least it’s holding the soil down along the banks of the river—fountain grass seed floats down from the nurseries. I guess everything has its place. I’m tired of fighting. My ex-husband works at one of those fucking nurseries—it ruined our marriage.”

“Well,” she says. “That and he thinks I’m crazy.” She’s wearing a short hippy-style dress, her body strong, yet feminine. She used to be a ballerina, but has trouble with her joints now due to Lyme’s Disease. “I went to a holistic healer the other day and she has me eating clay,” Paula says. “Try shitting that out,” she laughs, a glint in her amber eyes.

Reverend Dave laughs with her, finding her immensely sane, but he knows that isn’t always the case. He gave her a ride to the mental health clinic last week, where she sees a counselor for bi-polar disorder, her meds constantly being changed; and she’s only allowed supervised visits with her three kids. After her divorce, nearly five years ago, she lived at the shelter on and off again for several years, now she volunteers there.

On the weekends she works at Divine Catering, but she’s no longer allowed to be a server. Her boss blamed it on her teeth, but it’s more than my teeth, Paula told him, I know too much about these people, who they’re sleeping with, how much they drink. They look at me and see themselves. Anyway, she said, I’d rather be in the kitchen—I’ve had enough of being on stage.

Paula’s wealthy neighbors up the street, in their brick historic homes, aren’t pleased with her outdoor art; flames and swirls of color on large canvasses that both mask and reveal disembodied faces—faces of horror, anguish. The kind of paintings that make you want to look away, and, yet, if you close enough, there are dragonflies, birds. . . small symbols of hope.

She sits back down in the arm chair across from him, around the fire pit, the back yard bordered by dense woods. “Marcus has been coming around,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “He sat here for nearly two hours yesterday, just staring into the woods.”

“He’s trying to process,” Reverend Dave says.
“The pictures will always be there,” Paula says. “They never go away.”

Reverend Dave nods. She told him about finding her mother when she was nine-years-old, hanging from an elm tree in her best dress—the black silk one with the red hibiscus blooms.

Reverend Dave stares at the blank computer screen, runs a hand through his waves of grey hair. He types, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord. Revelation, 1. 7 Sometimes it feels as if he’s been writing the same sermon over and over, like when he was a kid, practicing the same piano piece for his recital. fur Elise. It got so his fingers knew the notes on their own, that he no longer had anything to do with it. But then he played the piece perfectly and there was applause and it was over. This sermon seems never-ending. What drew him to Methodism is its doctrine that love of God is linked with love of neighbors. But it’s getting harder and harder to write this sermon, to deliver a message of hope and peace with so much hatred spewed in the media, at political rallies, behind closed doors. What he wants to convey is that history is repeating itself, that we are fighting the same wars, spreading the same hatred, creating the same suffering. What he wants to convey is that there is a divine plan at work in this cycle of eternal return, that it doesn’t mean the “death of God” as Nietzche proclaimed—it is not a means to an end; this never-ending cycle is not a substitution for God. It is God itself in the beauty of repetition. Repetition is the mother of mastery.

Paula understands. Marcus sits in her backyard with his eyes closed, listens to the birds, the bugs, the gentle rhythm of the wind chimes. Before he went to Iraq he had a girl in a blue cotton dress, the collar lightly scratching his hand when he held her breast. She used to email him every night, but then she said she couldn’t wait. She hooked up with one of his friends.

Paula comes out, sits down beside him, offers him a hit off her joint. He inhales, exhales slowly. “They discharged me last year—said I was mentally unstable.”

“Good for you—they’re the fucked up ones. I go to the clinic once a week, do stupid human tricks, pat my head and rub my belly, stupid shit like that. Last week they asked me to count backwards from a hundred by seven. I laughed at the counselor, told her to do it.”

She takes another hit. “If I don’t take their drugs, though, I don’t get to see my kids. I have to pee in a fucking Dixie cup to prove I’m taking the shit.”
“They put me on Prozac, but I couldn’t sleep,” Marcus says.
“I just gotta stay away from the Vodka,” Paula says.
Marcus nods. When he first got back all he did was drink, trying to forget.
Paula tells him about her native gardens. They’re like children to her, she says. She’s watched them grow over the years, change, take shape. “It’s all about letting nature take its course,” she says. “There’s a plan to it all—a beautiful plan—and we keep fucking it up, thinking we got better ideas. Fucking ego is all that it is.”
“The Iraqi people don’t even want us over there,” he says. One of his friends was killed by a hand grenade while spray-painting over a sign: Slow Death for U.S.A.
“We can’t even clean up our own mess.” She says, puts the joint out, walks inside. “You wanna beer?” she calls out.
“Sure,” he says. She let him use her shower, said he could crash here tonight if he wanted—she’s old enough to be his mother, but maybe that’s what he needs. Reverend Dave has been nice to him, but he had enough of people brainwashing over there, people telling him what to think, what to believe.
“So where you from?” Paula asks, handing him a beer.
“Jersey,” he says, popping the cap. “My parents were hoping I’d make a career of it over there. I got four little brothers and a little sister.”
“You’re lucky you got out of there alive.”
“Maybe,” he says.

Reverend Dave relaxes on the chaise lounge in Paula’s cabin while she cooks up Sunday dinner. He agreed to supervise the visit with her kids today. Thomas on his computer, a quiet boy, who seems, to Reverend Dave, a bit like Marcus; at the tender age of twelve he acts as if he’s already seen enough, as if he could easily retreat back into his mother’s womb. Tess, on the other hand, is full of life, earthy like her mother, constantly in motion, but there’s a sadness about her as well, a wisdom in her nine-year-old face when she watches her mother.

Paula swore she could cook and it smells heavenly, roasted duck in a glazed orange sauce, boiled potatoes with rosemary, collard greens smothered in fried garlic and butter. It reminds him of his parish in North Carolina. He didn’t last long there. In fact, he hasn’t lasted at any parish for longer than three years. It’s better not to form too close of an attachment with your parishioners, they say—although they’d like nothing more than for him to find a nice girl to settle down with, be an example of marital bliss. And keep the politics out of his sermons.

Tess is on the old spinet piano, now, sharply out of tune, but the minuet she plays with her light touch so lovely. Paula twirls out of the kitchen, stops at the chaise lounge, curtsies, holds out her hand to him. He hasn’t danced in over twenty years, and he’s certainly never danced a minute, but he stands up, bows, puts his right hand on her left hand, as if he’s been dancing this dance his whole life.

“One, two, three. . . One two three,” Paula says, taking small steps and he follows, tapping his foot three times now. He feels light on his feet, light inside.
“It’s all about the rhythm, Reverend,” Paula says, moving with such grace, her chin lifted, eyes guiding him. “The breath.”
Marcus walks down the stairs, his dark hair tousled, clothes rumpled. He stops at the landing when he sees them, the intimacy seeming to paralyze him.
They stop dancing, move apart.
“Thought you were going to sleep through dinner,” Paula says.
“Sorry,” he says, glancing over at Thomas, then Tess.
Tess has stopped playing and is staring at Marcus, her brown eyes wide, sizing him up. A twinge of jealousy runs through Reverend Dave. Marcus hasn’t been at the shelter the past few days, but he hadn’t suspected this.
Paula introduces Marcus to her kids.
He mumbles hello, his head down.
“Well, I’m hungry as a horse,” Reverend Dave says.
Paula gathers them around the table, and Reverend Dave gives the blessing; they pass the food around while Tess tells them about the grey pony she rides at the stables, a pony that only walks when it wants to and never bothers to run.
“Smart pony,” Paula says. “No one’s got him by the balls.”

Maggie, the director of the church board, sips the last of her tea at Reverend Dave’s kitchen table. She’s just finished going over the current budget with him. Barely any funds allotted for the shelter—most going for repairs on the steeple, and overseas, care packages for the soldiers. “You should also be advised that they want Paula out of that horrible cabin,” she says, looking over her red-rimmed glasses at him.
“Who’s they?” he asks, getting up and wiping off the spotless counter.
“Her neighbors.”
“All of them?”
“Well, the ones with influence.” Maggie says. “There’s a petition going around.”
He throws down the rag, turns around. “Saying what?”
Maggie waves her hand. “I don’t know, that she’s a menace to the community.”
“A menace to the community?”
“You don’t know her history, Reverend.”
“I know she’s been helping Marcus. Haven’t you noticed lately—he’s been making eye contact.”
She shakes her head.
“Of course you haven’t noticed,” he says, no longer hiding his anger. “You don’t look at those people. You and your silly committee of women would rather look away, just serve up the meals with your eyes closed.”
Maggie straightens her posture. “You know this has nothing to do with Marcus.”
He gets up, heads for the door.
“Reverend, people are talking—”
“You people never change,” he says, slamming the door.

Paula takes a can of Red, White and Blue beer out of her fridge, takes a long swig. She was walking home from her catering job when she saw her neighbors with their spades and shovels hacking away at The Garden of Motherless Children, raping and pillaging. She went into full warrior mode, fighting them off, chasing them back to their private fortresses. But she was too late. Most of her babies were unsalvageable. Fucking fountain grass that will soon take over the whole earth planted in their place. Neat little rows of Hosta that will soon curl up, wither and die—some plants, like people, aren’t meant to be in full sun.

Two police cars are parked in front of the Garden of Motherless Children. The policemen outside talking to several neighbors. Reverend Dave nods to them on his way to Paula’s cabin; he wanted to warn her about the petition, but he has a sinking feeling that he’s too late. He finds her out back, sitting in a chair, drinking a beer, painting her toe nails.
“Did you see?’ she asks, without a greeting.
He shakes his head.
“The garden,” she says. “They killed it.”
“What happened?” he asks, sits down in the chair across from her.
She continues to paint her toes, a lime green color.
“They called it scraggly,” she says. “Unkempt. It’s a fucking native garden, this is the time it’s re-seeding—you’re supposed to let nature take its course now, leave it the fuck alone. They came in with their picks and shovels, murdered it, planted all the wrong things. Pulled out the native asters and put in fucking mums that’ll never make it through the winter.”
“The cops are here—talking to the neighbors,” Reverend Dave says,
“I did what any good mother would do,” she say, her eyes flashing. “I fought them off.”
“Maybe I can talk to the cops.”
“It’s no use—they want me out of here. They’ll charge me with assault and battery. Trespassing.” She smiles. “I chased one bitch to her front door with a shovel.”
He stands up, grabs her arm, adrenaline rushing through him. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where?”
“Through the woods.”
“I have a two-person kayak, by the river, at a friend’s house,” Paula says.
They take off for the woods, plow through the invasive honeysuckle vine.
“It smells heavenly in the spring,” Paula says. “You got to give it that.”

Paula can barely walk, let alone run, her knees giving out, but her friend’s house isn’t far, and, luckily, her friend isn’t home. Dave muscles the heavy kayak into the water and off they go down the Chester river, like two fugitives, laughing at their daring escape.
“Where to?” Paula asks. She’s in the back, steering. Dave in the front, providing most of the momentum. He hasn’t used his muscles like this in a while, and it feels good, invigorating, an unusually warm day for late October.
“Your call,” Dave says.
“Let’s go to Muddy Pit,” Paula says. “I need to wash off the bad voodoo.”

Muddy pit is in a protected alcove. The cliffs above bearing pines, cedars, oaks, clusters of invasive Mimosa. A small man-made beach is on the shore, with stone steps leading up the side of the cliff to a secluded mansion.
“The owners trucked in the white sand,” Paula says. She slips off her Compost Happens tee-shirt, no bra. “But don’t worry—I know the people. They sail to the Caribbean in the fall.”
“Good to know,” Reverend Dave says.
Paula takes off her jeans, underwear. In the harsh, afternoon light she is not at all self-conscious; her body sagging in places, joints swollen, but her upper body is still strong, breasts small and firm. He feels an erection coming on, over a year since he’s been with a woman—sometimes he has to remind himself that he is still a man, that he has the same needs, desires of every other man.
“Come on in, Reverend,” she says, walking into the pit, her arms raised in the air, getting used to the water gradually. It doesn’t take him long to follow, his body not in the best shape either, a pot belly from all the church dinners, but he’s never been one to believe in perfect forms—imperfection the mark of humanity.
The water is freezing, but the air so warm, the mud deep, to his knees. For a moment he thinks he’s going to be sucked in, but then Paula laughs, her belly laugh, splashes him with water, and they start to swim.
“It’s all about the rhythm, Reverend,” she says. “The breath.”
Reverend Dave takes broad strokes, breathing with the universe, understanding that it’s within each breath, each pause, that we need to listen closely, tune ourselves to the rhythm.

Dave and Paula lie on the beach covered in mud from head to toe, baking in the sun. The water lapping at the sand, soothing, the tide coming in.
Sometimes, more than sometimes, Paula thinks about her mother’s way out, a final easing of the pain. But she would do it differently, like Virginia Woolf. She’d walk quietly down to the river with a pocket full of stones, sink into the river’s bed.
“Is Marcus still staying at your place?” Dave asks.
“He needs someone to hold him at night,” she says. “He gets the shakes, has nightmares. It’s like I’m holding him down, keeping him from jumping out of his own skin. That’s all he wants you know? To be free from it. That’s all my mother wanted.”
Dave reaches for her hand. “We’re free from it now,” he says.

Marcus walks over the railroad tracks to Paula’s cabin. She says the neighbors are trying to get her evicted, and he sees them staring at him, pretending to do yard work behind their brick walls. He tells her to ignore them, but he knows how impossible it is when people are watching your every move, waiting for you to slip up.
He walks inside, calls out for Paula, looks for her upstairs. He buys her a carton of cigarettes, a six-pack when he can, finding some work last week sanding floors. He knows it’s nothing that’ll last forever, but he’s not thinking about forever. His friend had a wife, two little kids. In a split second it was gone.
He goes downstairs, looks out back. Tess is sitting in one of the arm chairs, her body swallowed up in the green plaid of the cushions; she’s crying, the pain of it all in the dark of her eyes—just like the little girl over there. Her older brother was one of the boys in the base dump that night. Lock and load at ‘em. His hand was shaking. Private, Lock and load at ‘em now! The boy held boxes of unopened cookies, pop-tarts. . .
“My mother tried to kill them,” Tess says, sobbing. “They’ll lock her up again.”
“Who?”
“The neighbors—they tore up her garden.”
“What garden?”
She stares at him in disbelief. “The Garden of Motherless Children—didn’t you see?”
Marcus shakes his head.
It was so dark over there.
“Did you run away?” he asks.
Tess starts to cry again. “I have to be here—I have to help her.”
He takes her by the hand. “They’ll come looking for us,” he says. “We have to hide.”
“I know a place,” Tess says. She leads him through the woods to a large stand of bamboo. “My brother and me made a house,” she says. “My mom calls it the invasive haven.”
It’s a tee-pee made of bamboo with white sheets tacked around. They both crawl inside, jugs of water holding down a plastic tarp. A flashlight, a can of unopened Pringles, a warm blanket that Tess unfolds, wraps around them.
Marcus starts shaking, the memory coming back too hard, too loud. He is there again, on the ground, crosshairs over the boys’ forehead.
Tess opens the can.
He covers his head with his arms.
“Have a chip,” she says.
He tries to take one, but can’t hold on.
It’s okay, Tess says, patting his back, but it’s not okay, he knows it will never be okay, even if he was just following orders. The laser wire not enough to keep the children out. Shoot the scavengers, lock and load at ‘em.

Paula knows where to look for Tess, her ex-husband scouring the riverside, the cops searching the streets. She asked Dave to stay at the house, and then took off for the woods with a flashlight. She knows Tess will be waiting for her there, in their secret hideaway: the invasive haven. And she is. The blanket wrapped around her, her face smeared with tears.
She pulls her daughter close, holding her tight against her own pounding heart. “It’s okay,” she says over and over, calming herself more than Tess, who hasn’t yet said a word.
Paula lets go, brushes the hair back from Tess’ forehead.
“He told me to wait here,” Tess says softly.
“Who?”
“Marcus.”
“Did he hurt you?” Paula asks, panic washing over her again.
Tess shakes her head. “He killed a boy,” she says. “They made him do it.”

Dave and Paula found Marcus’ body washed up in a bed of Phragmites along the river the next morning, not far down from the Chester River bridge. They went out searching for him after notifying the police and coast guard that he was missing—the response being that drifters come and go in this town. It is nothing to be alarmed about. They tried to notify family members, but could find no relations. Marcus Rodriguez. The closest they came were men of the same name. Women who had born children of the same name. Paula invited them all to the service that she and Reverend Dave had in the Garden of Motherless Children, where they scattered his ashes, but it was just the two of them, and Tess, and a few bums that saluted him with their beers.




The Mother Turtle

 I am in a darker place than you could ever imagine. But I am closer than you may think; I visit your dreams, and one day when you wake you will come to find me. That is my hope.

When I was much younger than I am now, life was good. My ledge, just above the cave, looked across the bay and behind me the sun would rise from the mountain.

The villagers would watch for my signal. They would send a young boy or, less often, a girl. They feared that a girl would be scared of the night or tempted away by the sea – though I knew this could not happen. The girls would often lay their heads on my back and stroke me as though I were their sister, whilst the boys would sharpen their knives. They longed to carve their names on my smooth surface and chip away at the rougher parts of my limestone body.

One season they sent José: a gentle boy, not yet grown to his mother’s shoulder. I had watched him learn to swim in the sea, his glossy head dipping down and coming back up as he splashed and played in the waves. His mother would stand close by, ready to catch him each time he slipped beneath the surface.

I waited patiently for the child to fall asleep. He tried to keep his eyes wide open, wanting to catch the magic that his older brothers and sisters had told him about, but the lull of the incoming tide could not be fought. Only then did I turn to face the mountain. I was strong and agile, despite not possessing muscles, joints and bones.

The sun rose as it is inclined to do, and the heat on José’s back woke him. In shock he jumped up from where he slept. He could not believe that he had missed my turning.

‘I was only asleep for a little while,’ he said, disappointed. The child placed his hand on my back; he had been told that it brought luck to the family. I could feel his light touch from under the hardness of my shell.

‘Thank you, Mother Turtle, for the luck you will bring to our village. My parents send their good wishes.’ José knelt and prayed for a while before running back to the village to spread the news.

Once home José ate his breakfast of rice and beans. He listened as his father told stories of his own night spent waiting for the Mother Turtle to turn. José’s mother took her paint box from the shelf, and brushed delicate patterns onto her skin, so that everyone could see her happiness as she danced in the early morning light. He fell asleep once more with his head in his eldest sister’s lap and dreamt of Green turtles emerging from the sea.

For on the next night there would be no hunger, and in the evening after the gathering they would celebrate the sea’s harvest.

And as the moon floated above the rain-filled clouds, the villagers walked down to the shore with their woven baskets and strong fishing nets. José held his father’s hand, for it was his first time.

The turtles could be seen bobbing their heads above the water, graceful swimmers. But they struggled up the beach, their thick flippers heavy in the black sand, whilst tears washed away the salt and grit.

The villagers were careful not to startle them, giving the mothers time to dig their nests and lay their eggs.

José was entranced by the beauty of these ancient creatures.

‘How old are they, father?’ he asked. ‘How long will they stay?’ His father placed his large hands on the boy’s shoulders and hushed him. So they talked in whispers, admiring the heart-shaped shells and the huge gold-rimmed eyes of the turtles.

‘She has the map of the world on her back,’ his father told him, pointing to one of the mothers.

‘That must be heavy,’ said José, imagining the burden of carrying volcanoes, canals and jungles.

‘I’m certain it is,’ said his father.

She dug a pit with her front flippers and then a nest with her strong hind legs, making herself comfortable in the sandy hollow.

‘One mother can lay more than a hundred eggs,’ said his father.

‘When will the eggs hatch?’ asked José.

‘A few weeks,’ his father replied.

‘But they won’t all make it,’ said his older brother, Ricardo, as he joined them. ‘Crabs, rats, dogs, and mongooses might eat them first.’ He pinched José and laughed. José could feel tears stinging his eyes but he swept them away, not wanting his brother to see.

‘Don’t tease,’ said his father, protective of his younger son. ‘Quiet now.’ They listened to the mother’s heavy guttural breaths as she laid her eggs. She lifted her head as she dropped one after another into the deep hole. José counted one hundred and two in his head.

‘She must be tired,’ he whispered as the turtle covered the nest with sand and shuffled away.

His father beckoned to him.

‘Come. We must only take one or two.’ He showed his son how to dig slowly with his bare hands. José’s small spindly arms disappeared downwards until his fingers met the warm round shells. He pulled one out of the deep hole and brushed off the sand.

‘A little moon!’ Wide-eyed he passed an egg to his father who placed it carefully into the basket his mother had given them.  There was a soft silk lining to keep them from cracking.

‘Careful hands keep the eggs plentiful, large and unbroken,’ she had reminded them as they left the house, and promised to make turtle soup when they returned.

Now the turtles were making their tracks to the sea.

The most experienced of the villagers, an elderly woman, wandered amongst them. José’s heart thumped as he heard her talking about which turtles to choose. He hoped the mother he had taken from would be spared. The woman would find the oldest turtles, those who had already swum in the sea and borne a lifetime of eggs. These could be sacrificed.

José stood back in the shade of the palms and watched as turtles were picked up and placed in the nets. They looked as though they were swinging in hammocks as he did on hot nights.

Before the boy left the beach he turned towards me and raised his hand: the sign of thanks.

‘Sleep well, José,’ I murmured.

Back in the village his father and brother sent him to his mother’s arms. He was not old enough to watch, not yet. So José hid in the folds of her skirt as she assured him it would be quick. The meat would be adorned with only the finest ingredients, that is what she said.

As the rains began, I turned back to face the sea. Only I could ensure the turtles’ safe return. If the mothers glimpsed the light from the village they may lose their way.

 

As the years passed, the village turned into a town and there was little distance between the beach and its people. Only a single line of palm trees sheltered my back. The children no longer came to watch me turn. My body grew stiff and heavy.

José, though a strong swimmer, no longer dived into the sea. Instead, he sat in the cave below my ledge with a crowd of men who drank beer and talked too loudly about the price of meat, and where they might sell the eggs for the most profit. They waited until the turtles crept up the beach and then they strode out as though they were ready to fight. José, at the edge of the group, was the quiet one.

They were greedy; the men barely waited for the turtles to dig their holes before standing above them with knives and buckets. They stole the eggs first. José was hesitant, the last to dig, and he collected the fewest.

‘Is that all you’ve got, brother?’ asked Carlos, a burly man with lizards, bats and hummingbirds tattooed up his arms. He carried a bucket piled high with the glistening white eggs on his shoulder. José nodded, turned away and, head bent down, dug harder.

The men did not let the turtles move far from the nests. They scattered around the beach turning the animals onto their backs.

‘Come on, José – help me with this one.’ Carlos nodded at him to grab the turtle’s legs. Together they turned the creature upside down. The turtle’s belly was a creamy yellow colour. Jose saw that it was as soft as the shell was hard. He could smell seaweed and salt and he watched as the turtle moved its head back and forth; green turtles are unable to hide in their shells – José knew this.

It was a strange sight. The turtles should have been heading out to sea to feed, but instead they performed circus feats, their legs and flippers kicking the air.

‘Do you want to?’ asked Carlos. José shook his head and looked away as Carlos used an axe to kill the turtle. His father had told him that the heart beats long after the turtle is dead.

The man, who was unimpressed with José’s lack of appetite for the task, knelt down with his legs on either side of the turtle’s upturned body and began cutting into her flesh. The fat was green and smelt of rancid meat. José retched onto the sand and the man laughed as he continued to slice the creature’s stomach.

‘What about the shell?’ José asked. He kneeled down by the dark olive shell and ran his finger along the patterns.

‘Might be able to get a good price for it,’ said Carlos. José stood up. Maybe the men would not notice if he left it behind.

Legs and flippers would rot in the next day’s sun. Blood spread across the beach and mixed with debris washed in from the sea. No-one would bathe in the water until the rhythm of the tide had washed it away.

As José followed the men off the beach he glanced towards me. I wonder if he celebrated that night. Did he eat turtle steak with lime leaves and coconut milk? Did he tell his mother how many eggs he had collected?

 

José came to the beach many times after that, and as he grew older he learnt to cut the meat from the shell and collect many eggs without dreaming of turtles swimming in the sea. He had his own family to feed now.

A crack slowly crept along my side, and I had a chip on my flipper where a man in jeans had chiselled away a sliver of my stone. I did not see what he used it for, but he slipped it into his jacket pocket and called to a friend about the good luck of finding fossils and gems.

One summer José and the other men did not come to the beach. Instead bulldozers and cranes crept across the sand. I stayed on my ledge, not turning for fear the turtles would be swept away by the machines that placed concrete slabs all along the beach. Eventually I was struck from where I sat, and fell to the cave below. It was dark and peaceful, and for a while I could still hear the tide lapping the shore. I hoped that the turtles could still see me, but the land continued to move until it slid down and the cave opening closed.

Now I can no longer turn, and I have lost my sense of  land and sea. It has been said that when I disappear the sandy beach will slip into the water.

But you, José: you know my tale. You know where I am. And so I wait for your hands to pick me up and place me on the ledge once more. You can tell the story and keep me safe. Only then will I be able to show the mothers where to dig their nests and settle to lay their eggs.




Track

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It didn’t hit him until he got on the plane to go home. What had been a dull ache, a sort of friendly gnawing, as if an anxious little animal had taken up residence in his gut, twisted and morphed, hatched into something wicked, something that wrapped itself around his intestines and gave a cruel twist. It unmoored him, pushed him out from icy shores onto midnight blue seas, and then as soon as he adjusted to the ocean’s rocking, upon his creaky bow landed a dozen flaming arrows, setting his little ship ablaze.

His seatmate saw only a quiet gentleman sitting stiff and upright in his aisle seat, staring straight ahead, graying hair shifting just slightly as he turned and politely refused a beverage.

By the time the drink cart rattled on he had become separated from himself, watching from above his wracked journey. As the plane hurtled through the sky, sun glinting off dirty wings six miles up, catapulting him west in parabolic agony against the Earth’s rotation, he settled into a dissociative melancholy. When finally he stepped outside the terminal, blinking back Los Angeles sun, it seemed like the worst had passed.

And for 33 days it looked like it had. He settled easily back into his routine, waking up at 5:43, grinding two spoonfuls of coffee beans in four three-second bursts, hovering over his little Italian espresso pot and watching the golden brown liquid trickle for 21 seconds before dunking the base in cold water. He still smelled deeply before the first sip, and sighed after. The leather on his steering wheel felt the same on his palms, his desk chair still exhaled when he sat, his office phone rang in the same three-tone chime from the same northeast corner of his desk, and in its bottom right drawer the little bottle of shit rye whispered in his ear as it always had.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

Somewhere inside him there was something out of the ordinary, though whether something added or something subtracted was an open question. He felt like he had never descended from that flight, like a crucial part of him was still winging its way around the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, fighting gravity and time and nature, and he had been walking around with something else in its place, something hollow like the skeleton of a bird.

He floated for weeks in amniotic complacency, content to press through his chores, anchored by routine and an ascetic dedication to the bit of earth immediately in front of his toes. He saw the world as through a pinhole camera, and was able to engage with it as such. It suited him, and the vacuum in his abdomen inhaled no further.
Until one day.

He walked under textureless grey sky past squat little shops, a café with apartments on top, a menagerie of youth spread out across rickety tables. Next to the café was a parking lot, mostly empty at this point in the afternoon. In the parking lot was a man, light-skinned Latino in a blue ballcap, the parking lot attendant. The man picked up a full bucket, took a few steps towards the sidewalk, spilled its contents onto the ground. He went back to his stand, grabbed a large push broom, and began to sweep. The rough bristles scraped across jagged asphalt, picking up abandoned dime bags and soda cans, a banana peel and a dented tub of something awful. The smell was suddenly overwhelming, rotting food and crumbling cardboard and automotive runoff coated in noxious faux-lavender cleaning solution.

But it wasn’t the smell that buckled his knees; it was the sound. The scratching of the broom across rough parking lot concrete hit him with a staggering wallop both excruciating and familiar, and then he was spiralling back into agony. He was six years old and alone on the curb at his elementary school, the clamour of other children fading into the distance with the school bus, a rapidly dissipating wisp of black smoke and kids’ voices trailing behind it as it chugged down the hill and around the corner, his lunchbox and his purple sweatshirt flung by bigger kids over the fence into the neighbouring yard, irretrievable. There was no silver station wagon there for him, no sky blue SUV. He tipped backwards onto the sidewalk, bereft and deserted on top of a web of old gum and crude graffiti. Behind him in the yard the janitor pushed a broom across filthy pavement. He wept.

He was standing on a basketball court, 13 years old, holding his saxophone in a minor state of shock. She walked quickly in the other direction, her long black hair just reaching the hem of her white polo shirt. A man dragged a broom back and forth under the nearest basket, and empty Hot Cheeto bags pirouetted in the dust. He had said no, too scared to say anything else, constitutionally incapable of pushing out the thing he so badly wanted to say – yes, yes, yes, I want to go out – and already he felt the iron-grip anguish of regret kneading his chest cavity. He turned toward the chain link fence that separated school from street, three courts distant. She and her friends would boo and holler from the orchestra pit as he crossed the stage at graduation the next week. This time he made it home before the tears came.

That particular grief yanked him forward again, and the smell of coconut oil and sunscreen surrounded him. He was sitting on a patch of foreign grass in a quiet jungle, perched on the edge of a little pond cut out of jagged rock. Her hips swished as she walked towards him, smiling. He knew she was doing it on purpose, who would ever walk like that otherwise, but that did not deaden the impact. He was caught, snared on the graceful slope of her jaw, wrapped around her bikini like the strings tied into a showy little bow on each hip. It was cruel, really, the length of her, slender calves flexed as she tiptoed through the grass, her smile, sweet with the faintest trace of wry. He looked up at her, made eye contact, smiled back, blasted through his brain at light speed, reaching, grabbing, hands scraping at loose stones as he slid backwards, desperate for any purchase, anything interesting he had ever done, seen, thought, god, jesus, fuck, anything at all to say to her, to buy one fragment of one more second in the white-hot radiation of her gaze. He opened his mouth, desperately willing his terracotta tongue to twist his breath into clever shapes, into pointed vibrations, but what he got was a crack and a dull burble, a familiar whimper. She glided past, joined her group of Aussie friends, and he collapsed backwards, wrung out by failure and desire. He held his tears, flat on the outside, but in the pit of his stomach a lake of acid turned to a boil.

He found himself on one knee on the street corner, 61 again and casually waving his hand at gawking passersby, telling the kind-enough girl in her vintage dress and ballet flats that he was fine, that he just needed a second, that she could go on her way. And thank you.

He stood up, drained. He was wholly himself again, but somehow his whole meant less than before.
How fast does a man shrink, and why? He decided it was time to see the Doctor.

***********

He left the windows up on his drive even though it was a beautiful day. He liked the cold air blowing gently, conditioned. It was easier to appreciate the blue sky from the other side of shatterproof glass.
He crawled west over pockmarked streets past stores with bigger and bigger dreams. Liquor marts and laundromats and bright orange taquerias melted into the neon swirls and perfumed smoke of Koreatown which sharpened focus into mammoth estates and elfin boutiques in Hancock Park which sloped gracefully down into the jumbled curls of Hasidic Fairfax before crashing roughly against the walls of the Beverly Center, surrounded on all sides by a gridlocked moat of asphalt. He skirted it gingerly. The doctor was just beyond.

He parked in the lot and waited a long time for the elevator. He rode to the 8th floor alone. The doctor’s office was like every other, magazines and hotel art and gas station plexiglass window with tattered clipboard and pen attached by fraying white string, fat Latina woman talking loudly on her cell phone in the armchair by the door. The grisly texture of the clipboard nearly dislodged his fragile peace, its chapped cardboard and peeling laminate rubbing rough against his thigh and fingertips as he fumbled with his ID, wrote out his social security number, catalogued his allergies, focusing hard on the details to hold onto what was left of his brain’s dull thrumming. He was right to be there.

He sat on the tall exam bench instead of the short plastic chair while he waited in the office. He parted the tightly shut blinds to look at the roof of the adjoined parking garage. He counted four luxury SUVs, three hybrid sedans, two ‘90s era Civics, and then there was a knock on the door. He allowed the blinds to close as he turned.

The nurse came in, measured and classified each little piece of him. She attempted to contextualize out loud the numbers she jotted down, this seems normal and that feels about where it should be, this is in the 72nd percentile and that is in the proper range considering your height, weight, and age. It was empty babbling, filling his head with knowledge he didn’t need, forcing him to consider not only his own incredible frailty and the spectacularly complex systems required just to keep him upright but also his precise shape and standing in comparison to every single other being, here in this room, in this building, in this city, and in every place he had ever been, every other place he wanted to be, every other person he…. He became keenly aware of his beating heart, felt it reverberating throughout his body, pounding faster, faster, and then the nurse was done, gone.

He paced the room for a minute, shaking his head, picking out little pieces of the posters on the wall and reading them over and over, focusing on shapes, slowly allowing the shapes to be letters, letters to form words, words to form phrases. His heartbeat slowed, faded, and was gone.

The doctor came in with a practiced smile. He was older, late sixties and shiny bald on the top of his head. He had a jumble of gray hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck and he wore an all blue suit of scrubs instead of a white coat. He was full of energy, bouncing in and grabbing the manila folder in which the nurse had left her notes. He spoke sharply, in clipped little fragments as they chatted for a minute, hollow air pinging between them, and then the doctor asked why he was there.

He explained in rambling half-sensible circles about his miserable flight, his empty feeling, the dull grayscale of his days, and just as he was getting to the tipping point, the episode on the street corner, the doctor cut him off.
“You’ve been abroad, right?”
“Yes, I…”
“Equatorial?”
“What? Well, -ish. Closer than here. Equatorial I guess would be fair.” “Tropical? Comparable climate? Lifestyle? Cuisine?”
“Oh. Yes, sure. I think. I’m not much of an expert.”
“Right, well. That makes this easy then. It’s a parasite.”
“A parasite?”
“It’s not common, but it’s not rare either. It’s a funny thing. Just a little worm-like
organism, it lives in your digestive tract, but it plays with your body chemistry. The primary symptom is a sort of mild depression, a general malaise. Shitty game, really. But it’s totally fine, totally treatable. Simple antibiotics.”
Mesirow / Track / 7
“A worm-like organism in my digestive track?”
“T.” The doctor almost spat the hard T sound. “Tract. It’s a part of your body, not a place for racing dogs.” The smile that followed was as worn and rehearsed as the line itself.
“Oh. Right. Tract.”
“At any rate, I’ll write you a prescription for an antiparasitic. Shouldn’t take long. Please take every dose even if you’re feeling better before the end of the course. And then come back and see me afterwards. Bye now.”
The doctor left.

He showed himself out, back through the antiseptic hallway, through the waiting room, now empty. He thanked the nurse at the desk, told her he’d set his return appointment later.

His mind wandered on the ride home. He couldn’t focus on the road, and he coasted along in a daze, drawing horns from hopped-up kids and buttoned down men. He thought about Merlin, the giant golden retriever he grew up with, and the time Merlin had a tapeworm. He remembered his mother screaming at the sight of something wriggling in Merlin’s shit. He thought of the time he got ringworm in his 20s, a bright red circle on his left forearm, and the weeks he spent itching with embarrassment in long-sleeved shirts. But that wasn’t really a worm, was it? He thought about stopping for a sandwich, but then he didn’t like the idea of feeding his parasite. And he couldn’t decide what he wanted anyway.

He stopped at the pharmacy. He stood waiting, zapped into stupefaction by fluorescent light and elevator music, by the image in his mind of his little stowaway, coiled around itself in his guts, alone, unknowing, unseeing, unable to anticipate the chemicals headed its way in short order, the thing – whatever it was – inside the capsule inside the bottle inside the hand of the pretty young Korean woman who filled his prescription, walked over and handed him the medication, the poison, the medication, and broke him from his navel-gazing paralysis. He admired her long black hair, pulled back into a ponytail, in sharp relief against her bleach-white lab coat, and stole a glance at her breasts. He thanked her, hand on his pills, then felt a twinge of guilt. Or maybe it was hunger.

It was dark when he got home, and his house was silent, stuffy from a long day of still air, a day without even the gentle circulation of breath. He walked in, clicked on a light, and felt his chest tighten. For 25 years he had lived alone, and always he had taken pride in his cleanliness. He never left dishes out, never tossed a sweater onto a chair, never let his book stay where it fell as he drifted off into blackness. Tonight, coming home, his fastidiousness felt like death. He didn’t wish for a mess, didn’t hunger for chaos or unpredictability or spontaneity or wild outside energy, but he thought about it, turning over in his head the idea of a mess, playing out in his mind a life of disorder, what it would have felt like to walk in to shoes in the foyer, to a hairbrush on the mantle, to toys on the dinner table. It was a little beyond his reckoning, now. He walked to the sink, turned to his right and took his water glass from the cabinet, filled it from the tap, unscrewed his little bottle and took his first antiparasitic. The pill was big and a little sticky. It tasted slightly sweet when he first put it in his mouth, but when he swallowed it left a bitter trail down his throat. He set his half-full glass down, turned away and started toward his bedroom and his book. He paused, feeling the inexactitude, for a beat. Two. It was enough; he turned back, emptied and washed his glass. He dried it, then replaced it in the cabinet next to the other one.

***********

At 2:42 AM something burst. He awoke to find himself twisted in his bed, tangled in silken sheets, drenched with sweat despite the chill in the air, his open window. The moon shone in through the screen, casting a white-blue glow across his sparsely furnished bedroom. In the moonlight he burned and boiled, bitter acid searing him from the inside out like he was spinning circles in a microwave. His jaw ached from clenching, his teeth felt rough, mangled from hours of grinding.

But instead of forcing himself to go numb, instead of letting things fall where they would, instead of detaching himself he focused his attention. He isolated his suffering, thinking hard about what it was, what it meant. He visualized the pill he took before bed, the way it slid past his esophagus, landing with a splash in his stomach. He thought about the capsule dissolving, chemicals leaking out, being absorbed into his body, transported through winding tunnels of flesh to his digestive tract and to his parasite, wherever it was hiding. He thought of the parasite, under assault by foreign substance, lashing out, shredding his abdomen and setting fire to his nerves.

He thought about how far the parasite had come, from the tropical food in which it was born up thousands of feet into the air and around the globe at unimaginable speed, over and above a world it would never see and down into one it could never comprehend, carried across this vast city back and forth for weeks. Or maybe it had always been in him.

He thought about its death, the life to which he would return, and his life now. He thought about the pill, its payload. It wasn’t worth it.

This wasn’t the life he expected, not really the one he wanted, but it was a life. A life could be lived this way. And once again he honed in on his pain, letting it wash over him. He thought about her laugh, the curve of her hip, the soft skin at her waist, and he shoved off again, adrift on a sea of longing.




The Tea Ceremony

Shadowgate
Shadowgate

一期一会 (ichie go, ichie e)
‘This will happen only once’

– A Japanese Yojijukugo (four character proverb)
associated with the tea ceremony.

 

The sound of water. Silent lake, cackling stream, stylized song of winding river that feeds the roaring tides. Kumiko feels them, cleansing. They wash over her one by one, seeping into her, expelling all thoughts. The sound of water, boiling water. Eyes closed, Kumiko sinks into the sound, deep breaths, relaxing as she listens. It’s at a simmer now. Her fingers scan the misshapen mug before her, probe its imperfections. One discovers the long, elegant crack that splits the cup in two, traces its path, delicately. The water grows more excited, Kumiko more calm. Forgets the room. The cold, the dirt, the rattling that seizes each time a train creeps past. None of it finds Kumiko, hidden, in the depths of boiling water. The kettle whistles.

Legs lift Kumiko from her chair and carry her towards the kitchen. Hands rummage through the cupboard, take two bags of green tea, pour two cups. The first, a plain white mug, unnaturally perfect in its finish. This will be hers. Then, the cracked one, now much more comfortable in her hands. She lays it rest across the table, the sacred scar facing an empty chair opposite. Returns to her silence. Now, she feels the soft evening air against her cheeks. A clock that can’t be seen ticks, three hundred times before Kumiko’s palms stretch out to take the drink. Even then they do so slowly, cradling the clay, feeling its warmth crawl into her skin, wriggling towards her bones. The first sip.

Almost scolding the tongue, a familiar heat soothes her lips, throat, chest. A deep breath escapes. She returns the cup to its proper place and unwraps a small piece of chocolate she has been saving. Kumiko never understood people that put sugar in their tea, or held the bag in for such a short time that the water absorbed none of its bitterness. What was the purpose of making tea to then negate its essence, deny the flavour that defines it? Let tea be tea, let it show you how it is. She holds the chocolate between her smooth, slender fingers. Places it just besides her cup.

She moves with ritualized regularity. A sip of tea, a bite of chocolate, tea, chocolate, tea. Bitter and sweet meet only behind her lips, circle one another, like male stags vying for attention, they clash, horns locked in visceral combat, then – peace. Bodies tire, contort, softer now each finds its place. A tentative balance prevails. Another breath. The air sleeps. Kumiko sits, basking in the stillness. It caresses her skin, starting at the hands, moving up the arms, shoulders, scales the neck and soothes the scalp. So close to nothingness.

Only the steam prevents her leaving the room behind. Rising from the untouched cup across the table, taunting the still, the cultivated calm of Kumiko’s hand. It watches her, and she it, leaking unbearable silence.




For Eve

Patrick McFall
Patrick McFall

For her ache, she had discovered a cure. It was simple, and in comparison, pain-free. It worked on a basic principle: that a lesser pain is negated by a greater one.

(This was not how she had discovered the cure. The logic had occurred to her later, upon reflection)

To provide an explanation: One does not mourn a stubbed toe with a stab wound to the chest. Or, to reinforce the point, one does not bemoan athlete’s foot when faced with an aggressive, unrelenting cancer of the throat.

At least, not in the initial stages. It takes time and patience, to learn to truly appreciate minor ills.

This ache from which she suffered, then. It was felt chiefly in the lower stomach. Some referred to it as ‘heartache’, but for her, this was anatomically inaccurate, even absurd.

No. This ache was located, specifically, in the pit of her womb. It wrapped itself around her fallopian tubes and enveloped her ovaries, making them blueblack-inky-feeling. A constricting poison-ivy ache. The thick membrane walls of her womb were turned to ash; thick, dry and flaking, dead, from the grief of him.

(But enough about him! This must not be about him. This is about her cure)

First, then; some account of the time before the discovery of the cure.

She would lie awake, unable to sleep because of the dry heat burning up, curling the corners of her, in. Her scorched innards crackled and screeched at her until she would sooner have gone deaf than suffer the sheer endless-wall-sound of it, clutching her head and her stomach in turn.
Of course, though, it made no noise.

Clawing, gnawing, gnashing – these were the words for her now.

When she did sleep, it was frenzied – dream-filled and drenched. She would wake up unable to breath, gasping – ! – her long dark hair wrapped so tight around her throat that, had she remained in sleep another moment, she would have been strangled, blackblue bruises encircling. Similarly, from her tossing and turning, her trunk and limbs would be held fast when she awoke, wound up tight in a cocoon of greywhite, odoured bed linen.

It could take whole hours to become free. If she wished to at all. Sometimes it was easier to wait until the next. Milky light seeping limply through cold metal blinds, to remind her. Or the time after that, even. The ache made the acknowledgement of days entirely irrelevant. The stench in her bedroom would have been described, by an visitor – had there ever been – as intolerable. Sharp and tart, like licking copper coins, or chewing tinfoil.

Other information, from the time before the cure. To give an idea. Her eyes leaked thick yellowing liquid and stuck together when she blinked, so that she was forced to use her fingers, one from each hand, to pry them open, with a small, syrupy ‘pop!’. Her eyelashes grew thick and matted, until she was obliged (so as to be able to use her eyes effectively) to snip them off with a silver nail clippers. Alas, now when the ash from her womb would travel up through her body’s chimney pipes and out her mouth, causing a coughing fit, her eyes had no protection. They would smart terribly and her vision would turn pierced and grey and swirling-sooty.

Speaking truthfully, for her, to die would have been an enormous relief. She could not pretend she did not dream of it; savouring the sensation of it on her tongue, like diving headfirst into cool, seethrough waters on a stifling hot day. A floating free inside them, held by nothing, untouched and groundless; the pure nothing which she coveted. To be free of that screech! But to choose death was widely (she had heard in whispers, bulging eyes fat lips teeth, peering over hunched huddled shoulders in coats macs wrapped on streetcorners at bus stops drizzle) perceived as selfish, and one of her most terrible traits happened to be pride. As well as the desire to be loved.

She lived, therefore, in the time before the cure, a half-lived-lobsided sort of life – a limping sort of life – in the tick and hum of waiting rooms, in-between rooms, swaddled, squinting treacle-eyed, with her ache.

She had been told that time would heal her.

But now for something good to say.

She had always liked to cook. And to eat. More even than was necessary. She had, in her lingering confinement, grown fat. A general heavy thickening of the flesh, and soul, and mind. Dulling layers swelled across her bones, and thoughts. Food cunningly fooled her, however momentarily, into believing that she was becoming filled. Similar to the illusory satiating feeling afforded by semen entering, warming the tummy, or even that of a foetus, leeching and festering, malignant, in the womb. Food afforded a vague respite, if not a cure. Not as of yet.

Upon the eve of her discovery, she was to be found chopping onions at the kitchen sink. The sink faced a window covered in a thin film of grime. The light outside signified evening, although without particular direction or effect. Like a solitary soldier’s pathetic resistance against the pounding bootmarch of an invading army, the sickly light merely struggled, in its closing breath, to ward off marauding, gluttinous dark a little longer. The day was close to death. It was a time for eating. Her glutinous lashless eyes seeped more profusely than usual from the acid-air rising, the onion’s last defense.

She was going to make a tomato sauce with Italian sausage and rich egg pasta and eat it all up in her belly with warm blood-red wine. Wet liquid soft food to quench dry ash. That was her aim.

But briefly, before we proceed, something about her!

She had developed an odour that she was largely unaware of. She had no interest in it. It was not dissimilar to that found at the entrance to Underground train stations at night in summer – heat and engine oil and sweat and animal and piss and sex rising, with a hint of rose eau de toilette. Her skin was pink and grey, strictly only vague hard to see colours, oscillating in the spaces between the real, important ones. She wore a dress of faded navy blue, woollen and religious in its charmless simplicity. Her hair, as I have mentioned, was dark, snaking down her concave lower back into lank, matted strands. It did not invite one to run fingers affectionately through its lengths. Her eyes had once been green. She wiped them with the back of the hand holding the knife, not wanting to release the onion’s juices inside their lids.

There was a certain quality she held, impossible to put one’s finger on, that made men consider in passing, what it would be like to rape her. This, she was aware of.

Her ache ached so much that it took great resolve not to drive the sharp kitchen knife deep into the depths of her stomach and wriggle it around in an attempt to cut out its source. But this was nothing new. She diced her onions finely, and their odour combined with hers, creating a sensual savoury haze. The slight movements in the atmosphere around her eddied and swirled cinders and fumes. The oil was warming in the pan. The radio played freestyle jazz and she listened vacantly, through the din of herself.

It was in this absent ocean-floor state, chopping steadily, that she managed to bring the knife swiftly and expertly down upon the very base of the index finger on the left hand (the one kindly holding the back of the onion in place), severing it neatly and abruptly from the rest of her body. This was a surprise.

Ashen air escaped her mouth in a sharp rush, only to be sucked in again, quickly, between clenched teeth. She dropped the knife with a short clatter onto the countertop. Blood spurted in fits and starts from the twitching finger, and her brand-spanking-new, fingerless stump.

(The blood felt exposed – it had not expected to be revealed to the world at this moment. It had been coursing happily, secretively, through hidden tunnels and passageways, murmuring and giggling like ludic nymphs. It came now in limp rhythmic waves, an unenthused ejaculate, shamefully rouge, like the apple of a whore’s cheek.)

The radio played on – some song about love now. The oil began to emit a faint blue smoke, warning sign of impending fire – too hot, careful! She turned off the gas with her undeformed hand. She paused, allowing the room to settle. She held up her wound, and considered. Blood trickled down her wrist over her elbow, soaking into the cuff of her dress. It was wet and warm. She felt nothing.

She did not feel pain from the wound, certainly – but that is not the point. She felt nothing.

For as long a time as her memory was willing to unfurl, she had known that ache. Now, without warning, there was only numbness – that sought nothing. The realisation flitted behind her eyes. But she did not blink. Her face never stirred. She did not want to openly acknowledge, even within her mind. Someone would see. She felt at once fear, and delirious anticipation. She knew she must conceal the thought, the quickening of the heart; not allow herself to think outright. She breathed through her nose, slowly. If she was not careful now, her ache would awaken, turn back wide-eyed and enraged, from this cheap ruse. It would espy her budding hope, her creep-crawling relief, and with gleeful venom come crashing back down upon her, pinning her down, to resume with redoubled energy its merciless vigil over her crumbling, smouldering wombfire.

(At this moment, a cat-shaped blur leapt up onto the windowsill outside, and peered in with yellow orbeyes. It was attracted, from the wild jungle hedgerow depths, perhaps by curiosity, or the scent of blood, or perhaps a cat’s conscientious awareness of the need, at this point, for a witness. It mewed, and feigned a yawn, sleek pink-armoured mouth displayed, agape)

She felt nothing.

Without a word, without even a flicker across her long pinkgrey-rimmed face, she quickly, asidedly – as though barely conscioius of her actions, as though her thoughts were busy elsewhere, occupied elsewhere – bandaged up her loss. She used iodine and white porous cloth from the dusty first-aid kit, which had patiently awaited such a moment, atop the pine dresser, stood against the beiging wall to the right of the sink. There were, one might note, no framed photographs on her dresser, although there was space for some, had she cause for them.

She took up the knife. She did not wipe off what had recently been her blood, before resuming her exact fine dicing. The severed finger, turning a fashionable off-white now, sat untouched and unacknowledged to the left of her onion slices. The browning red blood had trickled in a small pool across the grooves of the board, dying the layers of onion skin a fleshy pink. Its metallic odour mixed well with the onion’s warm wholesome one. She did not choose to mention to herself what she was doing. The part of her mind in control of doing life’s actions and the part of her mind in charge of taking note of those doings were not in contact with one another just then. She had cut the line. It was easier that way. At this moment, she simply was. It was similar to that state of animalistic orgasmic rapture in which one can focus only on the feverish here and now, the sating of a primal need – but calmer, more controlled; much like the greatest acts of foreplay. She would not rush.

She reignited the gas-flame, and tipped onion shards into sizzling virgin oil. They hissed appreciatively in the pan, sending envoys of flavour to her nostrils and across the kitchen in thanks. They were accomplices in this. The cat-shaped blur watched indifferently. Paused to lick. She added crushed garlic and chopped tomatoes and a little squeeze of lemon, black pepper and salt and a few basil leaves. She added one teaspoon of granulated sugar. And she continued to feel nothing. On the radio, the song – something about people and life – evinced no apparent reaction from her. The sounds provided useful noise for any audience. Distraction. (Songs pull scenes together). But she realised, somewhere in the quiet places, behind her clanking mind, that she could hear it, clearly. There was no other sound. There was no screech, just then.

The sauce bubbled and reduced and thickened. She, with little difficulty, considering her recent disfigurement, opened the wine bottle that had been warming by the furnace, and drank deeply from the glass, standing over her pot, gazing. Her pasta was simmering and her table was laid. She had lit a long thin candle with a match. She took out her sweet Italian sausage from the fridge, and smacked the pack with a meaty thud onto the blood-infused chopping board. Her finger lay dead and unburied, slightly to the left. She had not actively remembered nor ever forgotten it.

She took her sausages, and cut them down the middle lengthways. She then cut them crossways several times, to create small chunks. She threw them all into the greedy hellpit-red sauce. Next, she took the finger – cool like an old man’s cheek – and slit it down the middle, from the fingerprint-tip to the amputated end. She put down her knife, and neatly removed the chipped nail from its redraw bed, and the long skinny bone from the centre. This, she put aside, for the hungry cat shape, watching. When she had completely divided it into two long halves – it was an elegant finger, she could appreciate that now – she chopped it up crossways into neat little chunks, and, with a swish of the blade, scraped them down off the board and into the pot.

Now, how to convey the following to you.

It was the greatest meal she had ever eaten in her entire life. Including the meals eaten in that long-forgotten time before the ache. It was intoxicating. When her plate was finished, she piled it up again, until every last scrap had been devoured and she had licked it clean. She opened a second bottle, and finished it. She ate with such furious intensity that she lost her breath. Sauce spilled down her chin and onto her chest, embedding itself in little caking dollops on her dress.

No earthly ecstasy had ever come close to this for her. Her eyes dilated and her body grew supple and soft and willing. She wanted all of it, thick and red and heady, and she ate it deep down into her belly. It flooded through her body heating it from the inside so that steam rose off her skin, making it glow a blazing cerise. Her palms and crotch and behind her knees grew stained and sodden with heady perspiration.

Her meat, cooked to perfection, melted in the mouth.

With each bite, she felt stronger. Fiercer. She felt by the end like she wanted to tip over the table and set the house on fire and fly screaming naked down the street, limbs asunder and eyes ablaze. She was invincible!

She laughed in the face of her ache. She could laugh with her head back, a gutteral rupture straight from the depths of her, booming, with no secret silent sounds of echoing despair, that sound travelling in rolling waves from the centre at a higher pitch; one heard only by animals, and visible, in violaceous shades, only to the fellow-afflicted.

She no longer felt nothing. She felt good. She grinned. The cat mirage was gone, having eaten its scraps, and so lost interest, or courage.

This is the point at which our story must be a montage of sorts. It can only now provide a sense of things.

She visited friends, she dined out, she chatted with her mother uninhibitedly, even giggling occasionally. She polished the hall mirror, she vacuumed the stairs and behind the couch, and her skin had never looked so good. She must have been using new products, because her hair had achieved a sleekness previously undreamt of. She bought new clothes from highstreet shops and organic cheeses from markets. She caught the eye of men who wondered what it might be like to rape her, and she smiled coquettishly at them, knowing. She wore the colour purple, and brushed her teeth twice a day, every day. She was so ravishingly engaging to the eye, that not one person noted her missing finger. It was so trivial, a nothing, compared to what she had gained!

She was the embodiment of femininity and her womb glowed a radiant gold that blinded the women around her and evoked that highly desired female affliction, envy. She was ripe and fresh and fertile, ready for plucking.

It lasted approximately two and a half months.

Without her knowing, a blackblue inky pearl of history and memory, too small and young to be seen by the naked eye, created itself from nothing inside of her, and attached itself, surreptitiously, to the moist wet welcoming walls of her motherwomb.

She went to plays by up-and-coming playwrights and tried oysters and laughed at comedy and read Shakespeare’s sonnets on trains. But the pearl grew, feeding itself on her throwaways, on the things she would rather not have, or acknowledge. Her house grew vaguely musty, and she found herself running out of clean underwear every now and again. There was hair in the shower drain, and she grew uneasy. She awoke once in the night, slightly restless. She tripped up in her heels when dancing. Wine made her eyes, which had become so bright and clear and appealing, slightly pulpy. She developed cradle cap on her scalp, like a baby, and found herself scratching it on dates, so that the flakes of skin would waft down dreamily into her main courses.

In six months she was back where she had started – only worse. Her eyes were now so deeply afflicted by that viscous-gummy puss that she was completely unable to open them. She was blinded with it. She wore what had once been a cotton cream-white handkerchief, tied around her skull like a blindfold. It had initials on it but of whom she did not care to wonder, or recall. She nails were fraying at the edges, and there were red blotches on her thighs.

The pearl, so small and inconspicuous, had been her ache in disguise, reborn and vengeful. Her womb had been incinerated in the final stages of its fiery gestation, leaving the entire inside of herself filled solely with the dark black heaving mass of ache. She could see it moving around within her, pressing against her skin causing rifts and bumps, like snakes contorting under silk.

Damn! She needed to be cured again. For longer this time. More thoroughly. She would do whatever it took.

It took the lower half of her left arm, from the elbow down.

She made a roast, and feasted on it long into the night. She accompanied the meat with creamed potatoes and delicately steamed carrots and broccoli dressed in lemon and butter respectively. She flavoured the roast itself with rosemary and garlic and covered it in generous glugs of oil, to keep it moist. She cooked it slowly, for hours. The smell filled the entire street on which she lived, making her neighbours’ husbands’ mouths water with desire. She worked slowly and methodically. She would have to stop short every now and then, and bend down low and groan and hold her stomach, from the sheer searing pain of it.

This meal was greater even than the last. Tears escaped her tightly encrusted eyes, and she understood the expressions artists gave to saints in paintings.

The effects lasted a full year. Nobody noticed the missing limb. It was such a minor loss, for so great a gain!

After the year was out, she barbecued a leg and ate it in the back garden with Sauvignon Blanc and candles to keep the flies away.

Later, she made a meatloaf using the tender minced flesh of her breasts.

Her meals kept her going for another four years. She learned to play bridge and developed a fondness for origami. Her father died in the Spring of one year and she wore a black dress to the wake and people brought sandwiches and told her that he had been a great man. She changed supermarkets, as she didn’t like the customer service at her usual one, and thought it was about time she did something about it. She accrued money and bought an opal necklace that was greatly admired by all who saw it, draped around her supple neck.

Eventually, she placed her bathtub on top of the furnace in the front room, and filled it with water. She waited for the water to boil, standing, with her cane for support, in her silk white dressing gown and slippers, birthday presents from her grandmother. Wedging the top of the cane under the armpit of her severed-from-the-elbow left arm, she used her right to drink her deepdark, oaked red wine, and to garnish the bath water with thyme, and rosemary, onions and garlic, carrots and celery, along with anything else appetising she could find in the kitchen presses. She did not want anything to go to waste.

When it was ready, the room was filled with a hot delicious steam so thick that, standing in the doorway, you could not have seen her fleshy pink uneven form emerge from under her discarded dressing gown. You could only have heard the muffled splash, the sharp intake of breath, as she lowered what remained of her body into the boiling stew-water. You would have been so confused as to what was actually happening, that there is no way you could have dashed across the small dark front room, with midnight blue walls and brown cloth couches, in time to save her, to kick the bath from its precarious perch, and free her already irrevocably boiled scorching flesh from cooking any further.

You might, though, depending on your tastes, and your person, have had the good grace and practical sense, to stroll back into the kitchen. To lay out a single plate, and a knife and fork. To pour out the remains of the wine, and wait, oh, say about two hours or so, for the meat to become perfectly tender and juicy, so that it simply fell from the bone, and had to be eaten with hot greasy underhands, with paper towels, and finger sucking.

If this, after weighing it up and down, is the option you think you would have chosen, you could then perhaps have put on the radio as you waited – a song, something about a woman – maybe borrowed one of her books, to pass the time. You could have put your feet up.

Or perhaps you could have used the somewhat solemn occasion to muse on what a waste her death had been, how unfortunate, that she could not have seen sense, gotten on with things, after. Time would have healed all, you’d have thought, sighing, for effect. You could have remembered her in life, and, growing drowsy, with the steamy heat and comforting cooking smells wafting through the house, in your shadowy heavy-eyed musings, you would have wondered, inevitably, what it might have been like to rape her.

 

 




A Hundred Yeses and a No

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The whole ridiculous thing started with Ben saying yes. Or rather, him failing to say no.

‘So,’ Gemma had said, ‘I was just wondering…’ Her voice over the phone was a little slurred; likely she was drunk, which helped explain why she was ringing Ben at one am.

‘Go on.’ He smiled as he pictured her curled up on her saggy sofa, wearing flimsy nightwear, a curl of golden hair twiddled round a finger. He wondered if Scott was there in the background.

‘… whether you’d consider…’ She giggled then hiccupped. If he’d been with her, he could have rubbed her back to help get rid of them. ‘Being my chief bridesmaid.’

His smile froze. Had he misheard? Was this some kind of joke?
‘Well not maid. Well obviously,’ she continued quickly, giggling again.
‘No.’
‘Bridesman, I suppose.’
‘Right.’ He felt deeply tired, hadn’t minded being woken earlier, not really, but he minded it now.

She rattled on about how she’d been reading all these books on wedding-day etiquette. ‘Well not all these books. Just the one. Plus Google. And it all says that the chief bridesmaid is likely to be your best friend. And I thought, well, that’s you.’

‘I see.’ He tried and failed to feel flattered.
‘Oh. You don’t like the idea.’
‘It’s not that.’
‘I mean I’m not asking you wear a dress or anything.’ She hiccupped and he badly hoped Scott was not listening in. ‘Maybe bridesman is the wrong term more like best man. Someone to support me on the day. To have the ring to hand at the altar. Maybe give a speech.’

She wanted to be free of rigid gender-role stuff, was planning to give a speech herself. Had been to a wedding recently where the groom’s best man had in fact been a woman.
It all sounded reasonable enough in its way.
‘Don’t say yes, if you don’t want to,’ she concluded. ‘Well obviously. But I’d be delighted if you did.’

Somehow he always ended up saying yes to her suggestions and it rarely ended up as dire as his predictions. Like seeing Mamma Mia on stage, or countless chick-flicks, which wouldn’t normally be his thing, but when she turned to share her laughter, cat-eyes glinting in the dark, he’d find himself laughing too and he’d allow himself to occupy the moment, infected by her sense of fun.

Helping her choose her dress came as one of his duties as her man-of-honour, chief bridesman, best man (as she variously referred to him). Not an activity he’d have expected to enjoy, and yet, neither was it as excruciating as it sounded.

The bridal shop – one of several duplicates – played slushy music and overflowed with frothy white. Hush-voiced shop-assistants hovered round Gemma as her hand ruffled through railing after railing and she turned to him with under-voice disparagement at the floaty concoctions: looks like a meringue; a snowman; shaving cream. She pulled surreptitious faces as the saleswoman referred to the most important day of your life. ‘As if it’s all downhill from here,’ she whispered. At times it almost almost seemed she wasn’t taking her joke of a wedding seriously herself.
Then somehow she was standing in front of him, a dream in moonlight silk.
‘Does this look any good?’
What could he say but, ‘yes.’

Time swept forward and he continued to say yes, helping to organise things. Venue. Invitation cards. Cake. Seating arrangements. Scott wasn’t terribly interested in all this stuff, she claimed, and her mother would have taken over. It allowed him a way to spend time with her – only her – something that had been in short supply since her whirlwind romance with the fitness trainer she had met at the gym.

He ended up saying yes to her hen weekend too. ‘Not all hens,’ she said, pulling a wry face. ‘Promise.’ But it turned out her brother and male cousin couldn’t make it, or didn’t want to. ‘You don’t mind do you?’ She had a particular look, sweet and supplicating.
‘Guess not.’ Although he did, actually. Except it wasn’t like he had anything more interesting planned.

She’d booked rooms in a London hotel and to keep costs low had doubled people up into sharing twins. ‘Not like we’ll be sleeping much.’ He was the only one to have a double room to himself.
They were due to meet up in twenty minutes back in reception. He made the mistake of turning up on time. He waited thirty minutes, forty.
He was getting bored.
Fifty. An hour.
Come on!

Surely getting changed and applying make-up could not take this long. Then in a flurry they arrived, a scented mass of pink and glitter, of chirping laughter, all swaying as they perched on high-high heels. They had hen-night balloons and badges with pink backgrounds and images of flowers or knickers. The badges all had individual slogans. Studs wanted. Bad girl. Like a virgin yeah right. He had helped Gemma order them online. She’d insisted on something tame for herself. Dancing queen, bride-to-be.

Except someone else must’ve bought one too and this one said: you’ve had your shot, I’m tying the knot.

The others dealt with the incongruity of his presence by ignoring him, but she smiled and came across, holding out his badge, the one she hadn’t let him see.

It was the same lurid pink as all the rest. Gossip buddy it said, which could have been much worse. She seemed unsteady on those high heels, her breath already laced with something sweet and alcoholic, and he could feel the warmth of her body as she leant against him to pin the ludicrous thing to his chest.

In the cocktail bar, he was the only one not to ask for a sexual act. He was surrounded by screaming orgasms, leg spreaders and slow screws, all delivered in fancy glasses with an abundance of straws and umbrellas and triggering hysterical giggles. The conversation frothed about him and he felt himself on the outside, disappearing into the leather and glass decor.

Gone midnight and they proceeded to a nightclub where he was made to queue outside in the freezing damp and the women were waved through. Once in, he was assaulted by a throb of music and the pulse of on-off light, turning everyone’s movement robotic. His eyes scanned. Bikini-clad women danced around poles. Men with oiled torsos stood on pedestals from which they gyrated and thrust their hips. His eyes found her eventually, dancing with her arms raised to the ceiling and her hands beckoning to one of those men who seemed to be performing just for her.

He started to push through the surge of bodies towards her and her gaggle, then stopped. Watched. Just now she seemed so utterly banal, so indistinguishable from her trite and silly friends, and he felt a wave of salt-water crash over him, cold and clarifying, the enchantment she had cast breaking, leaving him able to see clearly. He turned and left.

Back at the hotel, the wideness of the bed felt a taunt, reminding him of all that was missing from his life.

He couldn’t sleep, but then must’ve done, because he found himself starting awake at the sound of banging on his door. His imagination. Surely. He turned the lamp on and blinked in its glare. Clock digits glowed 4am. The knocking continued.

He got up gingerly, his fragile state not helped by being upright. He moved silently to the door. Paused. ‘Ben?’ He heard a voice; her voice.

She stood there in her flimsy dress, her high heels dangling from her hand. She looked younger somehow, more vulnerable.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Sure.’ What else could he say?
She moved across the room and flung herself back theatrically across the bed. Her dress clung to every contour. Her legs were bare. She was chattering in that sleazy way she had when she was drunk.
And where had he disappeared off to? Had he hooked up with someone? Though clearly that wasn’t sufficiently plausible to stop her coming round.

She had tales to tell of men homing in and fighting them off. ‘Where were you when I needed you? Man-of-honour. But you weren’t there to protect it were you?’ Honour being a somewhat fuzzy concept right now.

He came over to join her, first sitting and then lying back on the bed, his body stretched out beside her, just an inch of space between them. None of this was different, not really, to the times she’d lain the length of his sofa, her head resting on his thigh to watch telly, or leaning against him in the cinema, or taking his arm as he walked her home in the moonlight after the pub. Her physical ease was a function of the fact that a: she did not fancy him, and b: she assumed he did not fancy her. It was as simple as that.

The upshot of it all was that Cherry, the woman she was sharing with, had hit on someone and invited him back. ‘So I’m homeless,’ Gemma said. ‘Throwing myself on the charity of strangers.’
‘Not quite a stranger.’
‘Well no. Obviously. Just it sounded more dramatic.’
‘Sure. I could…’ sleep on the floor. But why, really, would he suggest that? ‘I mean plenty of room here.’
‘I just need…’ she said and gestured the bathroom, then made her way uncertainly towards it.

He lay on one side of the bed and pulled the duvet primly up. He badly wanted to rid himself of his brushed cotton pyjamas. Then thought of those tanned and oiled bodies from the nightclub and of Scott’s perfect physique, shown off in the tight-fit gear he favoured. And him with his pale skinny rib-cage and narrow shoulders.

The bathroom door opened. Here was an elf-like girl tripping lightly over the carpet towards him, pausing to wriggle out of her tight dress, though keeping underwear on, then slipping between the sheets on the opposite side of the bed, a king-sized bed, which in practice meant two single mattresses bound together by a common sheet, but still leaving a clear line of demarcation, the crossing of which would mark an end, one way or the other, to how things had always been between them.

He lay within his indetermination, not moving, hardly breathing, inhaling her sweat and faded scent. Slowly her breathing deepened, developing a faint wheeze, adding to his current restlessness and leaving him wide awake. He felt deeply bored. By her. By himself. By his failure to act. But she had after all said yes to Scott and they were getting married next week.

The morning of her wedding arrived in a storm of heavy rain. Good! It was perverse and disloyal to think like that, though it wasn’t as if he could actually influence the heavens. He got up and braced himself for the day, going through the rituals of shaving close and dressing smart. Far too late to reverse his decision. He would play his part, just as he had played his farce of a best-friend part all though the time that he had known her.

Her parents’ home was a tempest of female activity, her mother presiding, a number of actual bridesmaids flouncing in big dresses, the younger girls in hyperactive mode.
‘Ben!’ her mother said, and kissed him distractedly. She smelt of something floral as she reached to rub her lipstick off his cheek. They had met a couple of times and he always sensed her puzzlement at his role of just-a-friend. ‘Thank God you’re here. Perhaps you can talk sense into her.’
‘Sense?’
Gemma was having second thoughts. ‘I mean after all the time and money we’ve put in.’ As if those things mattered more than her daughter’s happiness. ‘It’s far too late in the day to cancel.’

But was it? He took the stairs several at a time and felt his heart levitate. Yes! She had finally seen what had been obvious to him all along, that she was far too good for Scott.

She was sprawled on her bed in a parody of unhappiness, her hair, which had been carefully coiffured into ringlets, was spread across the pillow that her face was buried in. She was wearing nothing but a satin slip while her sleek gown was still hanging up over the wardrobe door. Cherry pulled a comic face before retreating, leaving just the two of them.
He sat beside her and rubbed her shoulder. ‘Hey,’ he said.
She turned and hurled herself at him so her head was now resting against his chest and her hands clutching him. ‘Oh God,’ she said, ‘everyone thinks I’m so stupid.’
‘I don’t think you’re stupid.’ I think you’re… Now was not the time. ‘Tell me.’

She started to talk, half-choked at first and then more calmly, running through her doubts and fears. ‘I mean Scott’s a lovely guy, really sweet, but I’m not sure we really know each other that well.’ She started detailing the things she was unsure of. The things he had done or said that jarred.

He sat, fingers stroking her hair, all the things he longed to say pressing hard yet failing to cohere. From what he’d seen, the guy was a good-looking jerk with barely two brain cells to rub together. Though it was hard to be objective given Scott looked through Ben as if he was invisible.
Launching into all-out attack felt too blatantly self-serving.
‘Well,’ he said, when eventually she came to a halt. ‘If you really have doubts then you don’t have to go through with it and as for all the preparations and so on, well they don’t matter compared to what you feel. You can still say no.’

She moved to sit up and they sat with shoulders touching. ‘Not quite that simple, is it?’
‘Yes, it is. You can’t get married to fulfil other people’s expectations. It’s you that’s important.’
She took his hand and squeezed it. ‘Thank you. You’re the only person to say that.’
He carried on, asking questions, because it wasn’t as if his own opinion was actually relevant and it would be too crass to denigrate Scott and what really could he say that might direct the course of her mind. He allowed her to talk herself out, leaving a pause into which he might speak. If only he knew what to say.
Abruptly Gemma grasped his wrist. ‘Oh God, is that the time?’
Her resolve seemed to set and she was in a frenzy of pulling on stockings, spraying a mist of perfume and reaching for that dress. ‘Could you help me?’
He ran the zip up her spine and tried not to picture Scott doing the reverse.
‘Thank you,’ Gemma said, their eyes meeting in the mirror. ‘For being such a friend. Being so balanced.’
Once again he had failed to express any of what he actually felt. It never seemed the right moment.
Not when he first met her and she was dating his complete prat of a flatmate. Not when the prat dumped her and she turned to Ben to pour out her heartache. Not when she was getting over it but confidently asserted she didn’t want any kind of a relationship right now, but wasn’t it great how she and Ben had become such firm friends.
Then she had met Scott, who as far as Ben could see was an identikit for the previous guy, and that didn’t seem like the right time either.
The morning of her wedding was way too late.

The weather had settled a little by the time the taxi arrived at the church. The wind still blew, but the rain had stopped. He got out of the car to lend her his arm and she looked mind-blowingly lovely in her close fitted ivory.
‘You’ve got the ring?’
‘Yes,’ he said for the hundredth time.
Her father took over and Ben followed. She turned to smile at him, the kind of smile that made him feel like he was the only person in existence but which actually meant no such thing, meant nothing, nothing at all. It was just the way she was.
He thought of those crappy soaps he’d watched, because being with her had made it amusing. Of how every soap wedding involved someone doing a runner. Sometimes the bride, sometimes the groom, occasionally both. Never the bridesmaid, though.
He stopped.
He turned. He started walking briskly away, wondering if absconding with the ring would mean they had to postpone the wedding. Unlikely. It would cause no more than a ripple in the proceedings, which would continue on inexorably to the exchanges of, I do.

He imagined all his yeses strung out like razor edges on wire and pictured rewinding them to discover the crucial juncture, the point where if only he’d known how to ask the question, he’d have received his own yes in reply. Or failing that, the definitive nature of no which might have freed him from her spell.

He reached a small park with a duck-pond. His hand disentangled from his pocket and, before he had time to reconsider, his arm was forming a long arc and the ring – inscribed with the words you have my heart – was flying through the air. And even as he knew that he had crossed some line from which there was no return, he could feel the pace of his steps slow.

He was seeing a certain type of film, one in which if he listened carefully he would hear the clip-clop of her heels on the tarmac as she ran after him. He would stop and turn and a fairytale vision in moonlight silk would jump into his arms and he would hear the magic of her answer.

Yes, Ben. Yes.




Pigeon Squad

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There’s a lot of pigeons down my way. Wood pigeons, with grey-blue backs and blue-pink breasts. Plump and sleek birds, a million miles away from their leprous-looking city cousins. In the summertime, I often sit in the garden and listen to their soft calls spotting the tarry silence, the sound bringing back memories of high and far-off holidays.

They like to gather in the street. Mornings, as I leave for work, and evenings, as I return, the street is full of them. They’re a confident lot, as assured as their thrust-out chests suggest. A squad rather than a flock. They seem to have no fear of the neighbourhood cats (next door has three), or even of cars. Often, I have to sound the horn, or even get out of the car and wave my arms about, before they move out of the way. Even then, they never hurry.

There’s an air about them. You know when you’re young, and you think you’re invincible? It feels like that.

I admire their chutzpah, but even more, I worry for them. Pigeons, I say or think as they saunter to the edge of the road, be careful! Not all drivers are as conscientious as I!

Last night I came home and there was just one pigeon in the road. Chest still proud, but thrusting up towards the sky. Head invisible, ground into the bitumen. A few wispy feathers, blowing in the breeze. Pigeon, I said, pigeon! I told you to be careful!

I cried when I got in. It was stupid, I know. But there was no one there to tell me, It’s all right, or it’s just a pigeon. Not any more. I tried telling myself, but it only made me cry even more.

That poor man. That’s what the neighbours say about me. That poor man. I don’t know how he copes. I really don’t.

When I drove out this morning, the pigeon had gone. Someone braver than I must have taken the body away.




A R— BY ANY OTHER NAME

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The door opens, and you come in only a minute or two late. You find her immediately, catch her eye immediately. You put your arm around her body and shoulder in greeting, your nose in the perfumed hair behind her ear – Hello darling – and leaving your scarf on the table you walk to the bar. After a minute you return across the room holding a glass.

You sit down, make eye contact with her. She takes her hands from her lap and big white teeth smiles at you.
Cheers.
Cheers!
Thanks for coming. I know you don’t have long at home to see your family.
No not at all.
She smiles at you.
They would have loved to see you, you know.
She shakes her head.
You shake your head.
I haven’t got them presents!
You close your eyes and half-laugh, I barely managed to get them presents myself.
Work?
Yeah. Long shifts, sometimes night shifts.
She looks at you. I think about you sometimes. In a white coat, holding a stethoscope, you know

She shifts in her seat.
It’s different in here in winter, isn’t it?
Yeah.
We’re almost the only people.
She holds the edge of her chair under the table.
Coming here, there’s a lot to think about – I mean to remember.
You move your hands around and look at her.
Do you get that too?
You nod. We used to come here a lot.
She nods.
She watches your hands on the table, thin fingers on the edge of the beermat.
Does it feel like a long time ago to you?
Does what?
She waves her hand – All of it. Does it feel like a long time ago to you?
You look her in the eye. Yes.
You pause. Yes.
She doesn’t say anything.
In a good way I mean

You look around and smile, crossing your wrists on the table around your glass. You lean incrementally infinitesimally forward —
I really wanted to see you
I wanted to you see you too —
I’ve been – I’ve wanted to see you to say something
You hold eye contact, your wrists crossing around your glass (and her wrists crossing around her glass).
She looks away.
Do you remember, she says, do you remember, near the end, you know –
She looks away.
And her tongue sticks so you wait for her to begin again

I want to say something in particular, you know because I have been thinking about it and I just want to get it out. But I don’t need any special reaction from you.
You are wide eyed. Your mouth open wide shark jaw
Okay
I don’t expect anything
That’s okay
She closes her eyes for a prolonged second. You touch your palms with your fingertips.

You remember at the end
I do
You remember at the end?
Yes
Some of the things we did, you know, how you were different, at the end –
You’re breathing quickly Yes. Yes
Her breathing is quick

She opens her mouth like shark jaws her lips part
You hold eye contact.
I want you to know, she holds eye contact and says your name aloud.
She takes a breath –

I want you to know that they weren’t consensual.

Fuck
You cover your face.

You speak through your fingers –
She leans back. She closes her eyes and then looks at you.

You say – In the kitchen

She fixes her eyes on you and then exhales. Yes.
She moves, as if to touch her phone in her pocket.
You reach towards her in a panic and in a panic you say

I loved you so much




The Invisible Ones

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I hadn’t been on the Eurostar for years, not since it first opened at Waterloo, in fact, but last October I took the opportunity to travel to Paris by train instead of taking the short-hop from Gatwick. I was there to conduct an interview in a swish hotel with some Captain of Industry or other for The Economist, all expenses paid. When I arrived at the new station, briefcase in hand, I was alarmed by what I saw. Unlike the grotty, smokey South London terminus, the gleaming concourses of St Pancras, with their underground malls and champagne bars, seemed like some strange consumerist dream to me. A hallucination of Tokyo – all sushi and chrome: very un-English. The new gateway to Europe left me slightly disorientated; giddy, as if I had just traversed a savagely over-designed Duty Free lounge. So I was surprised and relieved, when we got going, to find my old friend from the Red Tops, Alistair Enright, sitting just along the aisle in the half-empty carriage.

‘David – hey!’ Alistair shouted across the seats, his long nose twitching like an ant-eater, a facial feature I always thought apt for an investigative journalist. ‘Long time no see! What takes you to gay Paree? Business or pleasure?’
‘Bit of both, I hope.’

The latter wasn’t strictly true, as there would be little time for any enjoyment of anything. These assignments were always In-and-Outs, as my female editor referred to them, with none of the innuendo that someone like Alistair might’ve given the phrase.

As the sleek train hissed away from its buffers, Alistair’s lanky frame joined me in the empty seat across the aisle, where he immediately began discoursing in his characteristic way, with scurrilous intensity, about the newspaper trade and the crisis it currently faced. Nobody was buying ink and paper, he moaned. Like with everything else – from films to music to sexual titillation – people were downloading it for free from the internet. ‘At least in the old days you had to brave the local newsagent to reach the top-shelf!’ Alistair thundered.

Axiomatic as most of this was, Alistair was as stimulating a companion as one could wish for on the soulless Eurostar, so I settled down to listen while watching the contours of Kent blur past in the drizzle. Track-side, the trees and hedgerows were almost totally stripped, with tatters of butterscotch maple leaves swept into huge rain-sodden mounds. In the distance, the buildings hidden, a number of cottage chimneys emitted comforting plumes of smoke.

As we talked about the economic downturn, the death of the print media, his family, the terrible weather, and, inevitably, women, Alistair turned to the speeding window and indicated the conurbation fast approaching on our left-hand side.
‘Folkstone.’
‘Really? This thing’s quick’
Then he leant forward. ‘Remember Matt?’
‘Who?’
‘Matt Cheetham.’

Matt was Alistair’s friend from his apprentice days, a drop-out and wannabe musician, whom he had briefly called his best friend. I had never trusted Matt – a cocksure Northerner with an upright, almost priapic gait, but had spent many nights drinking with him and Alistair in the warren of pubs and bars behind Fleet Street.

I tried to force a note of interest into my voice. ‘What’s he up to then?’
Alistair gestured towards the Edwardian facades of Folkstone, their seedy glamour intensified by the rain. ‘He moved here after he married Denise. Had a right old time of it, so I’m so told.’
‘Go on . . .’
‘Well, just like Matt – ever the opportunist – he wants to ride the wave of the buy-to-let boom. So he uproots his fiancée from her nursery job, sells his perfectly good house in Bromley and buys one of those basement flats that used to be the servants’ quarters of a grand house.’
‘When was this?’
‘Around three years ago.’ Alistair replied, a grim and knowing look directed at me over his considerable nose.

Matt Cheetham was one of those people who seemed to have survived into their forties without ever having held down a substantial job. He was funny – but then the talentless and deluded are always funny. And he was strange company too. A hearty Celt, with a pasty complexion and knotted red hair, he had one sincere eye and one wildly equivocal eye. It was always hard to know which to make contact with first. Sometimes your gaze flicked back and forth from one to the other, trying to get the measure of this shallow, yet fathomless, man. And Denise was a conundrum too. Slightly built, her face peeping from between curtains of ebon hair, his wife was just one whisker from being outright rude. She had a silent, scheming presence. A total lack of social grace or effort.

Come to me, she seemed to say, and I will sound you out against measures and values known only to my inner self. This imperative repelled one and dragged one in at the same time. They were an odd, childless, socially inept couple. Like the Macbeths.
‘What was Matt up to at the time?’
‘Pissing about with music, as usual. Still trying to be a rock star, aged forty-five. The idea was he and Denise do up this basement, then flog it when the Channel Tunnel link re-opened in ‘09. Didn’t take into account the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression.’
‘They still sold at a profit, though?’
‘Er, not exactly. Here’s what happened. Or what he told me, anyway . . . Firstly, Denise doesn’t like the area. Hates the sea, the seagull shit, the stink of fish and chips. Hates the fact that her friends – or most likely, her mum – are miles away. Hates Matt for dragging them to what, for a lifelong Bromley girl, is the ragged ends of the earth. Plus, she has no job, and he has no money. So they spend their days in dungarees painting the endless ceilings. Those Edwardians built places big, as you know: even the servants’ quarters were gianormous. What Matt and Denise had, in effect, was a four-bedroom ground-floor flat with garden – a zinger of a property, as Matt planned on describing it when it finally came on the market.

‘But Denise despised it . . . Despised the very walls they spent days re-plastering. Then, without warning, strange things began to occur. One evening, according to Matt, when they were watching Strictly, he goes into the kitchen to fetch another bottle of wine – he could drink for England, as you recall – only to find a fresh bottle of white already out on the worktop, corkscrew stuck in the top, “Like a knife in a body,” as he related it to me. Now, this wouldn’t be strange, if not for the fact that neither of them had shifted from the sofa for the past hour. He goes back in, and, very gingerly checks the temperature of the bottle with the back of his hand, to see if it’s semi-warm. But no: it’s stone-cold, straight from the fridge, the lead in a little coil next to it. So he barges back and asks Denise if she took a bottle of Tesco’s Sauvignon out. ‘Nope,’ she replies, she’s been right there next to him all the time. So he returns and fetches, with trembling hands, the unopened bottle and shows it to her. Pissed, she thinks. He’s having a laugh . . . Then she’s genuinely astonished. How did it happen?’
‘How did it happen?’
‘Exactly. It was a mystery that taxed them for days until other strange things began occurring. This time to Denise. Coming back from a depressing visit to the shops – it was February, out of season , the whole place a dump – she goes to the bathroom, sits down on the loo, only to see that someone, or something, has squirted toothpaste all over the shop. Emptied the whole tube. Over the mirror. On the walls. In the bath. Even on the bog-seat where she’s sitting . . . So she calls Matt, who’s up north somewhere, singing at Butlins, or whatever he did for a living then, in hysterical tears. They’ve had a burglary, she squeals . . . He tells her to check the doors, the windows. But they’re all intact. No sign of forced entry anywhere. And nothing stolen. So freaked out is she, Denise takes the train to her mum’s and stays for a week.

‘Now Matt, if you remember, was a bit Alpha – he had to be the stud duck on the pond. He always got Denise to do his bidding at least – though I think she secretly loved being his little hausfrau, ironing his shirts and packing his sandwiches for his gigs. Well, can Matt get her to come back? Can he fuck! He’s lost his alpha leverage. So he has to physically return to Bromley, prise her from her mother’s sofa, and drive her back to Folkstone, where they inspect the toothpaste-spattered bathroom, just as she left it.’
‘I would have been as terrified as Denise.’
‘You would, would you? Well, taken soberly, these weren’t terrifying incidents. But far odder occurrences were to happen the following week.’
‘I’m developing a theory here . . .’
‘Save it. When Matt and Denise came back from town on Sunday, they found the bed, which they had left strewn with the Sunday papers and marmalade blobs, miraculously made – the Telegraph in a neat pile, the plates in the sink. Welcome, maybe, but no explanation supplied. Very unsettling. Then come the noises – a persistent humming or thrumming like keys being cut, seemingly originating upstairs. But when they tramp up to the first floor, they find the flat is empty. Been on the market for months apparently . . . Then, to make things worse, there’s the smell -’
‘Poltergeist,’ I interrupted. ‘Has to be. Although, of course, they don’t exist.’
A picture of Folkstone was forming in my mind as Alistair spoke – one of grey, wave-lashed coastal paths; bandstands with dive-bombing gulls. And, behind this, spacious empty flats, with wide corridors and endless bedrooms, where strange nameless humming could be heard in the quiet of empty afternoons.
‘Well, that’s what they began to fear, once they changed all the locks and added a security gate.’
‘What about this smell?’
‘According to Matt, it was a sour, salty stink like old soy sauce. All pervasive. It would be in their nostrils on waking up; permeating their evenings of serious wine-drinking; their Sunday cooking of hearty joints. And neither could figure out where it came from, or what it actually was. At one point, Denise became hysterical that it was the smell of blood . . .’
‘My God!’
‘But their nameless tormentor – or tormentors – wasn’t without humour. By now, Denise was convinced it was the ghost of one of the tireless servants, a matronly chef maybe, wanting to reclaim her space. They went into the kitchen one morning to find the cutlery drawer everywhere. This would keep happening every week, until Denise found a way of arranging the silverware to the ghost’s approval. A breakthrough, she told Matt – or at least some kind of progress. However, she still wanted out. But Matt was adamant they should stay put until the end of the year, that they must finish the renovation, then put the place on the market.’
‘Was the knives and forks business the proverbial last straw?’
‘Nah, that would be the face in the bathroom window. One night, not long after Matt had vetoed the idea of their returning to Bromley, after he claimed he could put up with any amount of ghost trouble, Denise paid a visit to the loo only for him to hear a blood-curdling scream on locking the door. A face – a looming, shadow-like visage of an old hag – had appeared in the square of window, which they both knew was impossible to access from outside unless you scaled barbed wire or had a key to the security gate. That was the last straw, though the business was not without a postscript.’
‘Didn’t Matt tell anyone else about all this?’ I asked. ‘His friends?’

Now I was recalling more than I wished about Matt and his depressing life. He was one of those blokes who didn’t have real friends, but lackeys – muckers from school, musos from his various bands, cronies. The secret dissipation of his life was clammy to the touch: up to three bottles of wine per night, and days spent buggering around in his home studio. Then there were the places of low resort he took his musicians; the women he cheated on Denise with; the tax doges and endless schemes and scams – anything to avoid doing an honest day’s labour. During those long Fleet Street evenings, the fact of how Matt had lived so long and to so little purpose was a horror to me. What had he done with all those years? Where had he put them? The old goat was nearing fifty, without a substantial job or anything you could call an achievement. There was something flabby, wasteful, wilfully depressing, obscene about the way he had squandered his days.
‘He didn’t have many mates, if you recall. Said he didn’t need ‘em. By now he was calling himself a Property Developer, as he attempted to ride the buy-to-let Klondike.’
‘So what happened to the spooky old hag? And I don’t mean Denise. How did it resolve itself? If it ever did?’
‘With an exorcism.’
‘You’re kidding me!’ I sat forward in my seat, suddenly aware of my own reflection in the dark glass of the train’s window. We had been deep underground for some time now, the train silently gearing up to maximum speed, without us feeling any tangible increase in velocity. The gothic weather of late October was gone from view, and I secretly longed to walk around again in its ragged rain.
‘No shit. Matt roped in the local pastor and they had the full Monty. Candles. Invocations. Latin. By now he believed in all of it. Had converted from a sceptical atheist to a sighter of UFOs.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Did it hell! A week later, the hordes of ghosts, noises and stinks were back with a vengeance. Matt finally cracked and scurried back to Bromley with his tail between his legs, Denise in tow. Not so much a Property Developer but a developer of silly superstitions, and a religious convert. They ended up renting, a mile away from their perfectly good old house. The economy crashed and they sold the cursed Folkstone flat at a loss.’
‘Jesus . . . You don’t think Denise made it all up to force his hand?’

Alistair shrugged. He was looking subdued, serious now, as the train approached maximum speed. ‘Who knows? It was a pretty elaborate ruse is she did. What do you think?’
‘I guess . . . I guess we’ll never know.’

But I wasn’t thinking about Matt and Denise by now. I was ruminating on all that was hidden from us. The mysteries of science, of the soul, of what really goes on. The real unseen. The invisible date of our own death – hiding from us, but existing, nonetheless, past the barrier of time.

We were in the darkness now, and would remain there until we emerged – surreally – at the Gare du Nord. Another country, with my contact from The Economist waiting invisibly among the crowds.




Learning When Not To Care

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The trauma was beginning to subside. Two weeks earlier I lived in the middle of 150 acres of mixed hardwoods. But the pursuit of a respectable – or at least remuneratively dependable – job had brought me to the big city and its unrelenting cacophony. Maybe not the most propitious time to start a new romance … or maybe the best.

She was one of five trainers running us new recruits through a bevy of exercises intended to assess our ability to deal with unexpected situations, as well as fit into the company’s culture. Not a magazine beauty, her ecru hair flew every which way as if she’d just come in from a blizzard. But a small tic in the corner of a vibrant smile cast an invisible line that grabbed my eyes, holding my gaze far too long, at least according to business etiquette. A week afterwards, when my suggestion for lunch had, surprisingly, been accepted readily, she admitted her fishing expedition had been intentional.

By the end of that first lunch I was firmly hooked, eager to share not only meals, but after-work drinks and weekend adventures. But she wanted to go slow (as she explained off-handedly over moo shu pork several weeks later) because she had moved across the country just a year ago for love, and was still in this live-in relationship.

Reeling from this atomic aside, I wandered the streets for several hours after she’d returned to the office, before returning to work myself – enough time to conclude that she had been hanging with me because things weren’t going well, and I just need to hang in there until their inevitable split. Just a short week later, my acuity seemed to prove accurate – or so I thought – when she kissed me on the lips – on the lips! – just before boarding the train whisking her home alone for Thanksgiving.

We continued our platonic relationship (no more surprise kisses, though we did regularly brush against each other in that unconsciously familiar way that only budding lovers know) through the year-end holidays. Though New Year’s Eve was a tough night to endure, I managed to get through it by returning to my rural roots for a few days to share stories and beers with old friends. They were all amazed how readily I seem to have adapted to city life. I didn’t tell them why.

January dragged by, even by New England standards, as I anticipated the good news of a bad break-up. Then in early February, upon returning from a Saturday night sojourn with some friends, instead of “good” news she dropped an H-bomb: the lover she came to live with – the one who didn’t seem to care that she’d been spending time with another man – was not a man, but a woman.

To say I instantly plummeted to depths of emotional pain I’d never known existed would be an understatement. But one sleepless night and a somber day later, I knew how to respond – for good or ill.
Monday, over lunch in the company cafeteria, I said softly, but with the incontrovertible conviction of a zealot, these simple words, “I don’t care.”

And I didn’t. I didn’t care that she had moved here to be with another lover. Or if that lover was Robert Redford, or Jane Fonda. Not as long as we could keep doing what we had been doing for the last four months.
It was then I realized that sometimes not caring is the most caring thing to do: not caring that your friend’s political views are overly simplistic, or your wife never puts the scissors back in the odds-and-ends drawer, or your daughter has a smorgasbord of snack food underneath the clothes piled in her closet.

And it doesn’t matter that barely a month later, the anticipated break-up did happen. Or that we shared only a blissful summer together before she realized she was not bi-sexual. Or that I cared too much then to remain friends when she called-off our affair. It doesn’t matter because she’d given me a lesson to carry me through 33 years of marriage: not caring about what is superficial allows what is precious to flourish.




Breakdown in Lagos

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Ikoyi had me overdosing on privilege. It proved too easy to fall in with cliques ten years too young for me. The early twenties demographic is perhaps the most egalitarian cohort on the planet. At that age everyone is single, thirsty for reinvention, eager to project popularity—their hierarchies not yet set in stone—and therefore hesitant to rule out any connection. So I fell in with a crowd who took me to the club. And when I lost them, I picked up another group. I got myself invited to house parties where people who adhered to color-coordinated dress codes misread my American-ness and my career and overestimated my social cachet. The sons and daughters of the elite would name-drop their Swiss boarding schools and then become flustered by my look of confusion, mistaking it for snobbery (never guessing at my working class background or that my education had been public all the way to PhD). They would work harder to impress me. I felt guilty watching them scramble for validation, so I practiced a response: “King’s College? Not bad. You’ll like it there.” This would be delivered with a nod of approval, but not awe, making me like a gatekeeper cracking the door for the right password when it should have been the other way around.

This partying phase lasted until the self-described “biggest star in Africa right now” kicked me out of his Lekki mansion. To be fair, I had no idea that it was his house or even who he was. Some guy in a nightclub invited me to a house party and it sounded like fun. At the house, we sat on an over-sized, leather couch talking with a group of people who seemed cool. Then a bland-looking man wearing a polo shirt with an upturned collar walked in, sipping from a wine glass as he surveyed the room. He made another guy get up from the seat across from us so he could sit there himself. As soon as he clocked my presence, he looked me over twice, not even hiding that he stared, but never saying anything. When a new song came on, he snapped his fingers at me and told me to dance for him.
“Wait. What?” I said.
“Dance for me.”
“What? No.”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m not a dog.”
“Are you laughing?” he said. “Do you even know who I am?”
I said, “Did you forget who you are? Because that can be a symptom of a serious issue.”
This did not go over well. He unleashed an epic rant in my direction while I backed slowly toward the door. My one regret afterwards was not recording the whole thing on my phone because there’s nothing funnier than a grown man throwing a tantrum, bellowing, “I’m the biggest star in Africa right now.” (A little Google detective work after this incident established that he was a washed-up Nollywood actor who peaked a decade ago.) At one point he said, “I took you in off the streets and now you disrespect me?” I had almost made it out of the room when he caught his breath to ask, “Who brought you here?”
“Relax, dude. I’m going.”
“I said, who brought you?”
“Your friend brought me,” I answered and motioned toward the guy from the nightclub.
The biggest star in Africa right now pointed to his friend and said, “Get her out of here!”
His friend followed me outside and explained, “He’s not really like that. He’s just having a bad day. He had too much to drink. Come. I’ll take you home.”
“I’ll get my own drive,” I said. “That guy is messed up and if you’re friends with him, you must be messed up, too.”
Yet being kicked out of that Nollywood bastard’s house didn’t even touch me. Already I saw the episode as something that would make a funny story for my friends back home. Constant partying had grown stale by that point anyway, especially as I had ostensibly come to Nigeria to get some work done. The next day I woke early, hung-over and sick of rich kids, wanting nothing more than the atmosphere of a humble local library to soothe me.
I set out on foot, breaking a promise made before the trip to go everywhere with a driver and not walk the streets. Now only the heat could come between me and work. The harmattan edged toward the coast, ushering dusty breaths of Saharan air through the city. Some people welcomed the dry season, despite higher temperatures, enjoying relief from the usual humidity. Others longed for the rains, which wouldn’t come until March. I had to drag myself from shadow to shadow to cope, veering in and out of hawkers and buyers while focusing on snatches of music blasting from passing cars. (All the current hits were love songs about money.)
Halfway to the library, the sight of a street stall stopped me in my tracks. Several people sat on stools or crates in front of it, basking in its shadow, making themselves into an oasis of calm in the chaos of Lagos. They had been talking, but paused when I walked over. “Can I buy a bottle of water?” I looked into each face in turn, unsure of whom I should be addressing this question to. A woman on a stool handed me a bottle. After paying, I decided to rest for a moment, not yet ready to leave the shade, saying, “This heat is crazy.”
“Hot,” said a guy. “Very hot.”
“I can’t even make it down the block without having to stop in a patch of shade,” I continued.
“Wooh,” said the woman, fanning herself in agreement. “It’s very bad today. Might cool off tonight.”
“Where are you from?” asked a man who sat on a barrel.
“New York.”
“Where are you walking to?”
“The library.”
“The library!”
The woman on the stool laughed like I was crazy. “That’s a funny destination for a tourist.”
“Am I going in the right direction?”
“It’s just down the road,” said another guy, who sat with his legs bent in front of him and his back against the wall. He looked up at me from under the brim of a baseball cap, met my eye in a way that quietly let me know he noticed me. That was my first look into those eyes and it struck me, made it difficult to continue on my way.
To stall for time, I said, “Is it any good?”
“Probably not what you’re used to in New York.”
“Are you American by any chance?”
“No,” he laughed.
“Or were you living there at some point?”
“No, I’ve been there but never lived there. Why do you ask?”
“Your accent. You sound like a New Yorker, but only for certain words.”
“Funny,” he said. He pushed himself up and added, “I’ll walk you to the library if you want. I’m going in that direction anyway.”

He was not good-looking in an obvious way. You might think him too skinny, his bit of facial hair a bit scraggly. If he hadn’t met my eye and talked to me, I might never have noticed him. Yet already, as he walked beside me, I saw that he was actually beautiful once you caught him at the right angle. He walked with a deliberate bearing and the sort of grace usually seen in dancers.

He was the reason I kept walking by that stall every day. If he was there, I’d stop for a chat. These talks grew longer until they took up the time it took me to drink a full bottle of water. My MO was to be friendly with all of the street regulars equally, listening to their banter about pop culture and local politics, but I’d find myself watching him more than the others. He spoke softly, calmly, holding himself so still. There was something deceptive about that stillness, though, an energy that came brimming out from eyes that rose from his high cheekbones like two moons.

As the days went on and my street stall ritual continued, there were more and more moments when I’d get drawn into conversation just with him. The other regulars called him Gidi and I wondered if that was short for Gideon or some other longer name. We established that we were the same age. He’d tell me what books he read. His taste in literature: completely random, endearingly random. He had the taste of someone who read for the love of it without having been taught what to like (or what to pretend to like). He had done a bit of traveling (which must explain his toned-down accent somewhat). He was a musician. I mentioned that I played guitar. He told me he had some guitars around and invited me to his house, saying that a few of his friends would be coming over that evening. He sourced a slip of paper and a pen from the regulars and scribbled his address for me. This small bit of his handwriting felt like a gift and made me momentarily wish he’d write me letters, which was admittedly a confusing wish to have about someone standing right there. It was only because of this slip of paper, where he had also written his full name, that I figured out that Gidi was just a pseudonym.

My nervousness before the party made it impossible to deny that my fascination with this guy went beyond idle curiosity. My body slipped shakily into the bath in my rented apartment. It should have been relaxing. It would have been better to remain calm and free of expectations than to feel so fatally on the verge of something. I dressed in slow motion, worried over my hair before tying it back, set off with the slip of paper in hand.
Here’s how the party went: First, we played music. Gidi had a recording studio set up in one room. I looked around and said, “When you said you’re a musician, you weren’t kidding.”
“Why? You didn’t believe me?”
“People in New York who say they’re musicians are mostly delusional stoners who know like three Nirvana songs on guitar.”
“Speaking of guitar.” He pulled a telecaster from the wall and handed it to me. I plugged into the nearest amp, checked that it was in tune, and—aware that his friends were watching skeptically—played a few bars of “Shout and Feel It,” skipping the middle and heading straight for the solo.
“Huh. She can play,” said one of the friends, nodding. Their apparent surprise at the fact that I could actually play did not come as a surprise at all. When you don’t project confidence, people struggle to believe that you can handle a guitar, especially if you’re a woman. I looked up at Gidi and asked, “What do you like? Do you know any Bob Marley?”
“I love Marley.”
“I’ll play. You sing.”
We settled on “Is This Love.” He sang (and god, he could sing) and his friends shouted along to the chorus. Despite my apparent doubt when he told me that he was a musician, Gidi kept his faith in me. When we finished the impromptu sing-along, he said, “Do you think you could lay down a guitar track on a song?”
“Play me the song and I’ll try to come up with something.”

He pulled up a file on the computer and handed me headphones. I fumbled around until I found the right chords. Before starting to play in earnest, I said, “It’s kind of embarrassing to come up with something with everyone watching.” So Gidi cleared all his friends from the room. By now the stone-still man from the street had gone completely. He bounced around on his heels as I played, folded his arms as if thinking before suddenly gesturing when I came up with the right arpeggio, saying, “Yes. That. Can you play that again?” I played it twice. “But a bit more like…” and he leapt to the keyboard and played a slightly different pattern. After a few tries, we had something he was happy with and he recorded it. For some reason it wasn’t embarrassing to play in front of him, even when starting out and floundering for the right notes, maybe because he carried himself like a conductor rather than a rock star. Unlike a lot of musicians, there was nothing competitive or judgmental about him when I struggled. It didn’t even seem to about him really; his entire demeanor was that of a priest urging a novice on to serve a higher purpose.
The song-in-progress had been an interesting mix of aesthetics that left me impressed and also curious. While hanging the guitar up, I noticed awards on the wall and thought, who is this guy? (This was also when I figured out that Gidi was only half of his stage name.)

We moved to the sitting room. Gidi started asking me what I listened to. His taste in music was more studied than his taste in literature while still being quite eclectic. My own taste in music was as erratic as his taste in books. We sat next to each other on the couch, bringing up songs for each other on a laptop, then, to make room for other people, ended up sharing a computer chair and a pair of headphones, one earpiece each. The party went on around us, but we might as well have been on our own. Our listening ranged over music from several continents, different periods, and was not confined by genre. He said he didn’t believe in being beholden to one genre, because “a good song is a good song.” As Gyptian sang “Hold Yuh” on Youtube, I thought about how close we were sitting, his leg against my leg, my arm against his arm, and how easy it would be to simply lean over and rest my head on his shoulder.

I said, “I think this is really a love song for his motorcycle. Like the woman in the song is just an excuse because people would think it was weird if he sang about his love for his bike. But really, he just wants to give his bike a hug. He wants to take the bike to bed and make love to it.”
He put a hand to his forehead in mock exasperation, shaking a bit when he laughed, smiling at me sideways to say, “Oh my god.” I would have said anything to keep him smiling and talking to me, especially since he had to bring his face right next to my lips in order to hear me above the other conversations in the room. Eventually we would have been talking right into each other’s mouths. And he had the best lips. You might wonder what that means. What did his lips look like? Full on the bottom, rising to two sharp peaks at the cupid’s bow—but that’s beside the point. They weren’t the best because of how they looked but because they were his, because I couldn’t stop watching them as he spoke, thinking about what they could do for me.
Then the power cut out. A chorus of annoyance rose from the other party-goers. Gidi said, “Don’t worry. This happens all the time.”
As if in confirmation, someone in the room said, “Never Expect Power Always.”
In the dark I took my chance, first finding Gidi’s ear with my lips, then, when he turned toward me, his mouth. He leaned into the kiss.
“Gidi, is there any diesel for the generator?”
He didn’t seem to hear, but kept kissing me until the question was asked a second time.
“Gidi. Gidi, man, is there any fuel?”
Gidi withdrew his head slightly and said, “I don’t know. Yeah. I think there might be some left.” Then he went back to kissing me.
“Well, are you going to check or what?”
A few people swept their phones around the room like flashlights. With a sigh, he patted my leg and got up.

To tune a guitar, play a harmonic on the fifth fret of the E-string and then on the seventh fret of the A. If the strings are out of tune with each other, the harmony will quiver. You can feel the sound waves rise and fall in the body of the guitar, feel the two waves part in disharmony. If the strings are in tune with each other, the harmony will ring clear, a ripple expanding forever on a dead calm sea. Two strings in tune can bridge the gap between your chest and the guitar, holding you suspended in sound, never wavering. Those two notes will seemingly ring forever, so imperceptibly will be their dying out, unless you dampen the strings.
You already know what happened next. There was no fuel. This was a season of shortages. The lights weren’t coming back any time soon. The party drained from the house in a new flurry of arrangements for lifts, partings exchanged, future plans alluded to. Gidi wove through his friends by the light of his phone until he arrived back to me. He bent down and whispered in my ear, “Stay.”
At first the word held me too suspended to speak. I wondered if I really could, mentally rehearsed what should have been my reservations though every sinew drew toward Gidi like a compass needle. Faced with my paralysis, he leaned over again and said, “Are you offended? Did I say the wrong thing?”
“No. No. I’m actually considering it. Just give me a minute to think.”
“Nothing needs to happen. We can just talk.”
We both knew damned well we weren’t going to talk. “If something happens,” I started. He held himself in suspense next to me as the moment stretched out before I found the courage to finish, “can I be on top?” Even with no lights I could feel him smile.

Actually, though, we did talk. That’s not all we did, of course. He let me do what I wanted. He let me have my way. And then, during lulls, we had those conversations that happen with someone you want to know, a kind of excavation of the stories you tell yourself, sifting through the facts of your life, fashioning them together into something the other person might understand.

Gidi, as he told it, came from a slum, a place that didn’t even exist anymore because it had been razed to make room for expensive housing. Yet he had the good fortune of being born to parents who were on their way up in the world and who valued education and would do anything to keep him supplied with books, even if he strayed from the path they chose for him, which was medicine. As a teenager, he sold odds and ends by the side of the road to save up for an eight-track and his parents worried that they had failed him. But he had a plan, he said, and faith. His parents didn’t understand really, but they had come around to being proud of him anyway.

Inspired by his candidness, I decided to try my hand at something like the truth. When he asked what brought me to Lagos, my standard answer came first: “Work.” In Lagos, that word is enough because work explains everything, but I didn’t stop there. “Work was my excuse anyway. And I am working, writing a book on Achebe. But I could have left a week ago and I decided to stay longer. Really I’m here reading novels, drinking coffee in Jazzhole, talking shit to random people, getting myself invited to house parties, sitting out in Freedom Park on balmy nights listening to jazz music. And, if I get my way, I’m going to The Shrine to hear Fela’s kid. That’s one of my life goals.”
“Why, though? Why did you stay if you were done with work? And you’re here on your own?”
“But I keep meeting lots of people. You probably think I’m having a nervous breakdown or something. If I am, it’s the best nervous breakdown ever. I just need to lie low for a while, keep my head down, so it might as well be Lagos. God. That must sound shady. I swear I didn’t commit a crime or anything.”
“Whatever it is, girlie-o, you can’t run away from your problems.”
“Ok,” I said. “But if you ever have a problem like my ex, run. Run and keep running. Run and don’t look back. Running from that man was the best thing I ever did.”
“So it’s like that, huh?”
“It is.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Never mind.”
“He hurt you?”
I made no reply. He pulled me onto his chest and stroked my hair.

I didn’t make it to The Shrine that week because of a sudden productive run that Gidi perhaps deserved some credit for. The morning after being with him, I returned to my apartment and typed as if possessed, feeling cured even if my tired brain left a trail of typos across the page. My body felt worn out, but in a good way, floating free. I only went to the street stall once that week, bought a bottle of water, greeted the regulars. Gidi wasn’t there, but he was probably working. Musicians keep weird hours.

Another excuse to stay in Lagos presented itself when a university contact emailed asking me to give a paper at a conference to fill in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to travel. I agreed because it was Ok to simply recycle a paper from another conference. Between panels, I socialized with other academics and managed to round up a suitable group of people for a trip to The Shrine, which meant not having to steel myself to go alone. Five of us set out the following Thursday.

The Shrine, seat of the Kuti clan, seemed aptly named when we entered, all of us hushed and looking around the airy spaces as if in a church or museum, craning our necks to take in the Fela artefacts covering the walls, the iconic sign that declared, “Welkom, Na De Shrine.” Two of our group were older Nigerian professors who seemed amused to be initiating us. One wore a tweed suit and bow tie and must have been satisfied to see his outfit come back into fashion yet again while the other professor decolonized her personal style for the evening in a green iro and matching gele. A bearded American of the baby boomer generation came along as well, but he was friends with the Nigerian professors and had been to The Shrine before. The American looked like your stereotypical jazz-lover. To look at him you could imagine that he also liked trains, good wine and collecting stamps. The last of our group to be recruited was a Canadian guy with mod curls who favored a uniform of jeans and a blazer.

As the venue filled up and we gathered around a table with food and palm wine, the dynamic of our group settled until our ages became a matter of relativity. The Canadian and I, both being the same age, seemed to play the teenage children of the Nigerian professors with the American as our crazy uncle. The Canadian struggled through his chops and with pronouncing words like “akara” and “asun,” which was funny because at the conference he presented a paper called “Eating History: Poetry after Biafra.” Despite our illusory family dynamic, or maybe because of it and certainly because of the palm wine, a feeling like being at home spread through my entire body. As the ideal children of the professors (who were old enough that they might have had grandchildren), we listened, rapt, to stories about Fela and other jazz musicians they had known. We drank in their wisdom about academia gratefully. Everything felt good. Palm wine felt really good. Over the New York winter, an anxiety set in that drained my personality, flattened my voice to a ragged monotone. The last few weeks thawed me out. Living felt so natural that when the band began to play and a man invited me to dance, it felt so easy to rise from my chair and follow him.
Dancing came like first nature, with that man, then another, with nobody in particular, with a group of people, but mostly each of us belonged to the crowd. The crowd took on a personality bigger than any individual. And then, out of nowhere, Gidi had his hands on my waist. “You!” I said, throwing my arms around his neck.
“You!” he answered.
He danced us over to a quiet corner. “I didn’t know if I’d see you again,” I said, then remembered that he knew about my plan to visit The Shrine and maybe he had been showing up, hoping to catch me.
“But,” he said, suddenly stern, “who was that you were dancing with?”
“Nobody. I was just dancing.”
He wagged a finger at me and said, “You shouldn’t be dancing with strange men.”
“Are you seriously going to pick a fight with me over dancing? Because I’d rather be dancing than arguing.” I turned away from him, making for the dance floor.
He pulled me back, tighter this time, and said, “Dance with me.”
It might sound problematic, but it was like a game. His jaw strained against a smile through his patriarchal posturing and his eyes squinted with merriment. If we inherited a script written generations ago, we took it up as pantomime. Soon we were too distracted to dance. When the band finished, I made my excuses to my colleagues and left with Gidi.
Whatever machismo he played on the dance floor, in bed Gidi always let me have my way. As we lay side by side, momentarily spent, he asked me how long I would stay in Lagos. “I have to go back to New York eventually,” I said. “Work and all that.”
“You don’t sound like you want to go back,” he said. “Are you going to miss me?”
Still under the influence of the palm wine, a story came out, essentially the story I had been telling myself about him: “You know, the first time I was with you, it was such a relief. You let me do what I wanted. You let me be in control of the situation. I was like, thank fuck. I’m not damaged. I’m not fucked up. I don’t hate men. I’m not afraid of men. I’m just a normal human being getting on with life. It was such a relief. I thought even if I didn’t see you again that I was lucky to have met you. I’m always going to be grateful to you for that.”
For three days we didn’t get out of bed. Power outages barely registered. It felt like the start of something instead of the end.

Back in New York, I kept telling myself the same story about Gidi. Grateful to have met him, Ok if we never met again, no expectations. The story buoyed me up through work, got me through that Achebe monograph. Every now and then, Gidi would come to mind and then my heart would wish for a text or a letter, an email, a call, something, but I’d tamp that feeling down with the story. Why start something that would drag on with both of us on different continents? Life must go on. Still, my imagination allowed for a proviso: If he came to New York that would be a different story. A sequel. I imagined picking him up at JFK, embracing him like no time at all had passed.
Only one of my friends knew. During a night of wine and Netflix, she asked outright what happened in Nigeria that made me come home so dreamy and calm. I said, “You know what? I’m going to answer this question. But only once. After tonight, we must never speak of this again.” I brought up one of Gidi’s videos on Youtube, chosen because the song would be the most-likely one to impress my friend. Furthermore, the director shot to capture the soulfulness of Gidi’s eyes, which was what I had first noticed about him. My friend looked at the video, at me, back at the video.
“What? What’s that look for?” I said.
“He’s a rapper? What.”
I thought of Gidi as a musician rather than a rapper, but it was true that rapping was one of his many talents. “So?”
“So falling in love with a rapper is something you do when you’re like nineteen! You’re thirty! How old is this dude?”
“Same age as me.”
“Girl, you need to pull yourself together. Did you go to Nigeria to have a midlife crisis or what?”
“Lagos is amazing, though. If you ever want to have a mental breakdown, I can’t recommend Lagos highly enough.”
“I hope you didn’t give that guy your bank info. Did he tell you he’s a prince, too?”
The trip had made me somewhat protective toward Nigeria and jokes like that made me want to slap people. I closed the video, cutting off Gidi mid-phrase, already regretting the attempt at confiding in someone.

The heat turned sick and heavy, humid even after dark, like summer would never end. One night I walked Broadway to Steinway (my excuse: milk and bread) without ever making it inside any shop, wanting to walk all night, wanting to belong to the flow of bodies on the street, but thinking all the while of Lagos. Lagos was all I felt. I cocked an ear east and toyed with the idea of riding the subway out to Jamaica just for the possibility of hearing a Nigerian accent. Once home I cracked and searched for Gidi on Google to find out what he had been up to.
He had released the song I played guitar on. Zooming in on the album artwork, my name could just be made out in the credits. The guitar track was there, sounding like it did that night except turned down in the mix and warped slightly by compression and modulation effects that must have been added afterwards. Hearing it really brought me back, made me want to keep hitting repeat until every detail of that night could be relived. Then I half-considered posting a link on Facebook with a nonchalant status update like, “So, about that time I played guitar on a rap song…” My friends would laugh. I didn’t do that, though, because next I came across a list of tour dates. Boston. Hartford. New York. Baltimore. Atlanta. Houston.
New York. The last concert happened a month ago. So Gidi had been to New York and back and said nothing. He had been walking through New York while my imagination invented that scenario in which I collected him from JFK. How stupid. He performed and probably slept within a few miles of my home despite my rationale about how geography was the only thing that kept us apart. How stupid. How delusional of me.
But of course Gidi had been in America. He told me that he travelled when we first met outside the stall, but I somehow never managed to put two and two together, had never stopped thinking of him as the salt-of-the-earth man who talked shit to strangers in the street.
Only Nina Simone could comfort me now. Sometimes in life, you just have to resign yourself to a mood, give yourself over to “Sinnerman” while you stew in your own bitterness. I went through every story about Gidi in my head with a red pen. That day when he first looked at me and his eyes were so soulful and calm: stoned. (My friend, if I had told her, would have said, “You saw what you wanted to see, showing up, looking for that water, all thirsty.”) When he paid me so much attention and I wanted to keep him talking for the night: narcissism. Of course he’d keep around a woman who hung on his every word. People who can put themselves out there and perform for a living have insatiable appetites for attention. When he turned up at The Shrine and acted possessive—I had explained away his behavior by calling it a game, but had he really been simply joking? It niggled at me and now I had to admit that I didn’t know him well enough to say for sure.

So this new story took root in my mind. Over the next few weeks, it nursed me through my return to teaching, carried me into the early stages of my next research project, sustained me through the first tentative dates of my new single life. And yet it never quite dislodged the first story about Gidi in which he restored me to myself by letting me do things to him that cancelled out what another man had done to me. The two conflicting stories sat side by side in my brain, sometimes overlapping, occasionally jostling each other for authority, neither ever winning completely.