I hadn’t meant to start a war, but his email was so petty and it rubbed me the wrong way. You have to understand. I think anybody in my situation would have reacted how I did. I sent the final draft of the project, and everything was good to go. I was ready to move on with it. The client was happy, everybody on my internal team thought I’d done a great job. Then Todd’s email came. He was even smug enough to send it with a High Importance tag. He said:
First of all, nice work.
But look at page 67: the graphic you placed at the left-bottom of the page, it’s a little off-center with the one on the right. Please correct and send back ASAP.
And OK, maybe it was slightly off, I’ll admit. But it was a big project, I’d worked on it for months, little mistakes like that happen but they never get noticed. Where did he get off on being so petty and pedantic? He could have fixed it himself if it was that big of a deal. Hell, typing up the email took more time than it would have for him to fix it himself. But here’s what set me off, what set The Great Petty War in motion: he copied my manager on the email. He hadn’t been on any of the emails before, but then this pedantic prick face Todd decides to rope him in as some way of tattling on me and holding me accountable.
Well, that didn’t sit right with me. The first shots had been fired. I was the victim of a needless attack, so I fought back. I responded with the corrected version, and this time I copied Todd’s manager on the email.
And what does this asshole do? He replied:
Thanks for fixing. We can’t be making mistakes like that. Let’s not make it a habit.
On this email, he copied the president of our company and our client’s entire C-Suite. The nuclear missiles had been armed. Troops were advancing inland. The war was on.
So, I immediately replied:
You got it, boss man.
And in the words ‘boss man’ I hyperlinked a definition of the word ‘pedant.’ I also copied everybody in our entire company on the email. Over four hundred people received and read that email. I had nuclear missiles, too, and they were aimed directly at Todd.
He replied with another pointless, curt comment—both of us were hellbent on getting the last word. And he copied everybody in the client’s company.
So, I fired back. I sent my troops and copied a couple other clients on the email.
Todd replied, copying all of our clients on his email.
I copied everybody I knew, friends and family and loose acquaintances, and sent my response.
Todd copied everybody he knew.
I stared at his email.
The message glared off my blue light glasses. I scrolled through all the names on the email. There were thousands of people now involved. It was between Todd and me, and I sort of felt bad for bringing others in, but it needed to be done. It was a part of The Great Petty War; it was how the game was played.
I looked online, and I found a database that let me pull every email address in the United States, and I threw them on the email chain.
Todd replied with all of North America.
Have a good weekend.
You too Todd.
With all of Europe copied on the email. I logged off for the weekend, thinking the war had ended with my final word.
Then on Monday morning I logged on and saw this fuckhead had copied all of Asia.
Hope you had a good one.
I fired back, bringing South America into the mix.
Todd pulled the big guns and brought everybody else in. Now everybody was in the fight. North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, hell, even Antarctica had some skin in the game.
The entire world watched our emails go back and forth, salvos of corporate pettiness volleyed from target to target.
Monday at 5:40, I logged off and went home. That night, I turned on the TV and every station was talking about us. Apparently, Todd and I had started quite the fuss. People were taking to the streets, proclaiming their side. Some were Team Todd, others were Team Josh. It split households and friend groups. A small newspaper in Albuquerque had dubbed it The Great Petty War, and that name stuck.
The Great Petty War kept raging the next morning. I replied, Todd replied. Nothing of substance was said. At many times, I wondered why we even kept up the war. It had been going on so long that sometimes I forgot what we were fighting about anyway. But then I’d remind myself it was about pride, it was about principle, it was about the good guy coming out on top. So, I kept the war going.
The whole world paused for The Great Petty War. There was no more fighting in Myanmar or Afghanistan or Yemen. Colombia became peaceful. Somalia dropped all their arms to watch. The entire world was invested in The Great Petty War.
World leaders and countries took sides. Kim Jong-un and North Korea sided with Team Josh. I had some compunction when I first heard this. I knew he wasn’t the best ally to have, but I figured, hey, despite everything, he at least had good judgement. So, I gladly accepted his support. The European Union disintegrated over The Great Petty War. There was too much of a divide between Team Todd and Team Josh supporters. The United States couldn’t unify for a side, either. States became factions, then cities and counties, then small militias formed for each side.
The first casualty in The Great Petty War happened on a Thursday, six days after the start of the war. Some drunk Team Todd supporter got into it with a Team Josh supporter at a bar in Delaware, and he shot and killed the guy outside. “Viva Team Todd!” he yelled, as he drove away from the scene.
Both sides took up arms, and Todd and I kept emailing. We were impervious to any of the real fighting. We had become figures—we were no longer just people. We were symbols of unity, but at the same time symbols of division. The people knew taking one of us out would be fruitless for their side. If a Team Josh supporter assassinated Todd, Todd would become a martyr, and the history books would say Team Todd came out victorious.
So, the people took to the streets and made it their battleground. They fought over Todd and me. The whole time, Todd and I sat in our cubicles, only fifteen feet away from each other. Either one of us could have walked over to the other and settled the thing in person. We’d probably just laugh about it and get a beer after work. It was petty, we both knew, and the project ended well, but the people were involved. We had to think of the people. So, we kept emailing and they kept fighting, even though Todd and I had both lost interest. The email chain had run so long, it meant nothing.
My replies devolved into emojis at one point. I sent the thumbs up, the smiley face, the OK fingers. Then Todd replied with a gif, and that really pissed off Team Josh supporters. That was a whole new weapon; it had to be in violation of some Petty War convention.
Three months after the start of The Great Petty War, Todd put in his two-week notice. He found a job somewhere else that paid 30% more. Todd and I didn’t dare disclose this to the people, though. We didn’t want them to know that their great war would end soon, that it would end so anticlimactically. Though neither of us cared, we kept the war going, for the people. Truthfully, I was happy for Todd. He’d been at the company for a while, and he deserved better. But I couldn’t let Team Josh supporters know this. In their eyes, Todd was my sworn enemy.
Todd’s final day came. On his way out, I nodded to him. He nodded back and smiled. It had been a hell of a war, and it was over now. I sent one final email to him, with the whole world copied on it. He was moving companies, he no longer had access to the email address. Team Josh had won the war. Almost a million casualties were suffered on both sides.
Things settled down after a week of no emails. A month of no emails, and fighting started up again in Myanmar and Afghanistan and Yemen. Colombia went back to war. Somalia picked up their arms. The Great Petty War was reduced to small fringe groups fighting for the cause in contained firefights. A year passed, and many had forgotten why The Great Petty War was fought in the first place; the email chain was so long, who had the time to go back through it all. Five years passed and The Great Petty War was a distant memory for most.
I ran into Todd the other day. I’ve since moved jobs, moved cities, but I ran into him when he was on a work trip. We caught up over a few drinks, and toward the end, when we were both feeling drunk and uninhibited, he confessed, “You know, I didn’t really care about that graphic alignment. I was just having a shit day, man.”
I looked into my beer and bit my lip. I took a big gulp. “Todd,” I laughed. “It was pretty douchey by you, but I definitely overreacted. I mean, the hyperlink, the emojis. Way too much, man.”
Todd slapped his hand on the bar and laughed.
“I was sick of taking so much shit there,” I said. We both laughed.
Todd grabbed my shoulder and looked at me. His eyes were glazed; he was about to say something sentimental. “Hey man,” he said, “it was a dumb little thing, but it’s over now. At least we came out of it fine.”
Riley Winchester is from Michigan. He's been nominated for some Pushcarts and he's been shortlisted in some contests, but he's never won anything.
When the world realized the power of the girl, they began begging at her door. At first the line formed at sunrise and was gone by sunset. Before long it spread from city to city, until it circled the earth. The people built bridges and boats and left their families for years, just to find respite.
And when the girl realized the need of the world, she opened her arms wide to allow them in. She listened. When she heard about the heartbreak from the doe eyed lover, she felt the weight settle into the crook of her neck, with the weight of a kiss and the sting of a wasp. All their sorrow soaked into her body through the place on her chest where they rested their head. The burn of it poked at her: a twitch of muscle and a flick of pain. She ignored it, clinging to her guest because they needed her, and she needed them. When that same doe eyed lover left with a sunshine smile on their lips the girl buried that biting feeling inside.
In they stepped, one by one, into the cottage that housed the girl determined to heal the world. The scent of tobacco and patchouli enveloped them as they entered her haven. They sat by her side and wept. And she wept too. Soon their tears were acid, leaving little trails of rashes and blisters on her skin. Their burdens got heavier, stiffer, like boulders stacked one by one on top of every part of her. Eventually she boarded the windows and lit candles because the daylight burned her eyes. When the feet of the visitors wore through the floorboards, she lined the walls and floors with the rest of her clothes, ensuring that everything visitors touched would be covered in softness. They would lay in the fabrics and wrap their fingers in her silk gowns, while she stroked their hair and sang to them.
The day she stood to stretch, the weight of it all collapsed, causing her to stumble. Her ankle snapped, unable to carry the weight of everything the world left behind. She wrapped it with a scarf and pulled the bones tight into place, until she could feel them touching again. A few days later she removed the knitted fabric from her bruised and swollen skin, wrapped it around the neck of a farmer and kissed their forehead goodbye, wishing them luck in their harvest. Steadily, their troubles were crushing her. A banker whose loans had gone bad broke her ribs, the parent with the ghost child collapsed her lungs, and the artist with a knife to their neck snapped her spine. Each one leaving and swiftly forgetting the girl in the cottage with the rosewater lips.
She became mangled as visitors off-loaded themselves onto her twisted body. They laughed as they left while she cried all their tears and felt all their sorrow. All too soon she could not move to hold them, her muscles, and joints all ripped at the seams. So, they lay on top of her to weep into her hair and hear her basket heartbeat. When the beat started to slow, drowning under pressure, they began taking small pieces of her before they left. A vial of her tears, a loose tooth slipped into the pocket, a toe bone whittled and strung into a necklace. They made sure to shoo away vultures that alighted on her roof and came tapping at the door.
And when the priest came and realized there was no confessional for him there, he turned to close the door for good. From the darkness came a wheeze, a rise and fall of what could have been thigh or could have been chest. The remaining bits of fingers reached for the man and begged him to wait, a rotting stench leaked towards the door, sickly sweet like dying fruit. The pulp palm opened, revealing the girl's doldrum heart.
“Bring them,” she cried. “Bring them one by one.”
Kalie Pead is a queer poet, writer, and activist from Salt Lake City, Utah. Home for her, however, is somewhere between the red rocks of Moab and the wilds of Wyoming. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Notre Dame where she lives with her partner, their two cats, and their dog.
In preparation for the search for Benny, Silver Lake was drained. For hours, aquamarine water spilled through the retaining dam as if a balloon had been punctured. Ever so gradually, the level of the half-mile-long pool receded, revealing a hidden ecosystem littered with dead fish, garbage, seaweed, and sundried vegetation along with a bevy of long-sunken canoes and kayaks.
My dad and Mr. Steinberg paced along the shoreline until late afternoon, when they were persuaded by Officer Hennigan, the leathery-faced, thick-necked local police chief, that it was futile to stay.
“Will take until tomorrow,” Hennigan whispered in a gruff tone tinged with kindness.
We climbed into Dad’s Chevy for the short drive back to the Palace Hotel, a popular summer lodging in the 1960s for escapees from the city. At Mr. Steinberg’s insistence, we dropped him off at the pub on Collins Street.
As dawn broke the next day, I biked to the top of Langstrom Hill, which overlooked the lake. The early, piercing chill quickly faded and a rising sun illuminated white-uniformed state troopers and a growing crowd of spectators. With a pair of binoculars Mom used for bird watching, I scanned the depression that stretched like a caramel brown saucer between the trees crowding the surrounding slopes. Searching, to no avail, for my friend and his telltale green swim fins.
By mid-morning, overcome by a sense of gloom, I lay back on the blinking grass and baked in the cleansing sunshine. Gradually, I slowed my breathing as my father had taught me to do whenever I felt upset and listened to the whoosh of the wind and rustling of leaves—sounds that had woven together and repeated since primeval times.
Soon, the stench from the pit reached me. As I considered abandoning my watch, my father appeared and plopped down next to me. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me to him.
“I have bad news,” he whispered. Taking the time to compose himself, he continued, “They found Benny’s body, less than fifty yards from land.”
I felt the need for tears but could not summon them up. Instead, I tore up a stretch of earth covered by grass and flung it.
“Jake,” Dad said, “I’m so sorry. I know how close you two were.”
I pictured myself discovering Benny’s stiff body and wiping mud from his carrot-red hair and freckled face. I imagined him with a radiant smile stretched across his face, the one he’d flashed when I last saw him. The remembrance both warmed me and made me gasp inside.
“Dad, why did this happen?”
“Benny wasn’t a good swimmer. He should have been wearing a life preserver.”
“No, I mean, why do bad things like this happen?”
“Oh, I see.” Dad’s lips came together in a mysterious grin. “That’s a question I'm not sure I can answer. I think you’ll need to figure it out yourself when you’re older.”
With his arm draped around me, we sat together for the longest time, each passing minute inching me further from Benny and my connection to him. Further away from a time when all was good, or could be made so.
When the moment was right, we rose and walked down the hill, our long shadows intersecting. Dad’s turquoise Impala was parked under the shade of a red oak tree. As we tossed my Schwinn two-speed into the back of the car and climbed in, a warbler’s trill greeted us. In its voice I heard Benny calling me. Seeking to comfort me.
Dad studied my somber expression.
“You okay? Wanna go get egg creams?”
I shook my head. “It was my fault.”
“I was supposed to go swimming with Benny. But I overslept and he left without me.”
Dad sighed deeply, making a sound like the release of air brakes. He leaned toward me and said, “You can’t blame yourself.”
I nodded, then words rumbled out of my mouth. “Dad, do you think Benny is at peace?”
“At peace? That’s an interesting question.”
“I heard one of Mom’s friends say that Benny is with God and at peace.”
“What do you think that means?”
“That he’s not suffering, I guess.”
“Yes, I do think he’s at peace. But what’s important to me at this moment is whether you’re at peace.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel so sad, so I don’t think so.”
Dad started the engine and we headed down the hill toward town, passing a doe and two yearlings picking their way along the side of the road. While stopped at the only light on Main Street, Dad grabbed a half-full pack of Pall Malls from his shirt pocket and tapped out a cigarette, which he lit expertly and jammed into his mouth. With no car behind us, we sat at the light for several cycles of red, orange, and green, mulling over what life had offered that day and might bring us next. Finally, Dad turned to me so that our eyes met.
“What I learned at your age is that we all owe the world our death. What I later learned in the Navy during the war is that there’s always sadness and joy around us. They ebb and flow together. Where you are in them depends on the tide.”
He kissed my temple. “It all depends on the tide.”
Jeff Ingber is the author of books, short stories, and screenplays, for which he has won numerous awards. His first screenplay was the basis for the 2019 film “Crypto,” starring Kurt Russell. One of his novels, “Shattered Lives,” is being made into a documentary film by MacTavish Productions. His books have won numerous awards, including Elit, New Apple, New York Book Festival, Next Generation Indie, North Street, and Readers’ Favorite. His short stories have been published in various journals and magazines. You can learn more about his works at jeffingber.com. Jeff lives with his wife in Cranford, New Jersey.
It was the worst of times and, yet, also the best of times. For, you see, a bad sickness had fallen upon all the world and all the little boys and girls everywhere had to stay at home. No school, no zoo, no parks, no visits with friends, and many couldn’t even visit Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
But little Levi was happy. He had his Mommy. He had his Daddy. He had his home. He had his toys and his books. And, at night, he had his new little friends, the Frogs.
One night, as Mommy laid little Levi down to sleep, they heard a noise outside. “Ribbit!” “Ribbit!” Now, Levi didn’t even have to ask Mommy what was making the sound as he had already read about the Frogs in his story books. He knew immediately that this was a “Fwog.”
From that night on, every day and every night, all day long and all night long, Levi asked Mommy and Daddy about the “Fwogs.” He even said “Fwogs” in his sleep!
One night, after Mrs. Sun went down and Mr. Moon came up, it was time for little Levi to go to sleep. But he just couldn’t seem to fall asleep. All he could hear was the “Ribbit!” “Ribbit!” and his mind was only concerned about the Frogs.
“Fwogs Daddy. Fwogs Mommy,” said little Levi. “Fwogs!”
So Daddy asked little Levi if he wanted to go meet the Frogs and little Levi said “YES!…Fwogs!”
Mommy and Daddy slipped a pair of shoes onto little Levi’s feet and out the front door they went to find the Frogs.
Now little Levi, as luck would have it, lived right beside a small pond. A pond with rushes and lily pads and full of insects…everything that a Frog could ever want or need. And there was a well-worn path that wound about the pond, so Levi and Mommy and Daddy went for a walk around the pond.
Mr. Moon shone his light brightly so that little Levi could see. Mr. Moon liked to look at his own reflection in the pond and so did all of the people and other creatures that lived by the pond.
“Ribbit! Ribbit!” exclaimed some Frogs in the distance. Levi heard them too. “Fwogs!” he said.
Along the path, Levi encountered a creature. “Fwog?” he asked. “No, I am a duck said the creature. Quack, quack.” “Duck” said Levi. And off little Levi went on down the trail.
Shortly thereafter, Levi saw something else move in the darkness. “Snake!” said little Levi. Yes, that was Mr. Snake. But Mr. Snake crawled away before little Levi could even say “Hi.” Levi was not bothered by this though for he was determined to find the Frogs.
Next, little Levi heard a noise in the trees. It was Mrs. Woodpecker. “Fwog?” asked little Levi. The Woodpecker replied, no, young man, I am a woodpecker…a bird…I dwell in the trees. I have seen no frogs this evening. I bid you a fond good eve.” And the woodpecker flew away into the night sky.
About halfway around the pond, little Levi saw yet another creature that looked very much to him like a Frog. But it was very big and did not say “Ribbit” but, rather, croaked. “Fwog…big Fwog...” said Levi. “No, young sir, I am a toad!” “Toad,” said Levi. “Toad.” “Yes, a toad said Mr. Toad. We toads are distant cousins to the Frogs, but we are not Frogs and they are not toads.” And then, with one gigantic leap, Mr. Toad was gone.
Little Levi looked and Mommy and Daddy, “Fwogs?” he asked. Mommy and Daddy looked at one another and were worried that little Levi might not meet the Frogs this night, for they were nearly full circle around the pond and nearing home. “Fwogs! Fwogs!” exclaimed Levi and the little family continued to walk until they could see the light on their patio. But the light drew nearer and nearer with no sign of any Frog.
Mommy and Daddy looked at each other and then little Levi and said, “Well Levi, we didn’t find the Frogs tonight, but we will come back tomorrow…each night until you DO find a Frog.” Levi looked at Mommy and Daddy and said with a whimper, “Fwog...” Little Levi was sad. Mommy and Daddy felt bad.
Soon, the little family was home and as Daddy went to unlock and open the door, and as Mommy picked up little Levi to walk inside, little Levi cried out, “Fwog! Fwog!” And sure enough, there sitting on the edge of the window by the front door, was a little Frog!
Levi and the little Frog exchanged greetings and other pleasantries and, as it turns out, while little Levi was out looking for the Frog, the little Frog was out looking for little Levi. And now, each night before bed, little Levi and the little Frog take a walk around the pond together before bidding each other, "Goodnight."
Carolina bit into her caramel apple. Or, at least, she tried to bite into it. She turned it around, hoping to find a weak point. She shrugged and tossed it into a garbage bin. Walking beside her, Devon hung his head.
“Look, I thought this would be fun,” he told her. “We can leave any time and go have a nice anniversary dinner.”
“I told you—I’m happy here,” Carolina replied. “You don’t have to try so hard. We’ve done a fancy dinner every other year.”
“Yeah, but ten years is a big milestone. I wanted it to be different…and perfect.” He casually touched his chest, ensuring that the jewelry box was still secure in his inner coat pocket. The carnival may be a bust, but the earrings would bring some redemption—he knew she had been looking at them online for months.
“Come on. Let’s go on a ride,” she suggested. “Stop overthinking things and live in the moment.”
Devon smiled but couldn’t shake the feeling that the carnival was a mistake. If anything, the feeling in his stomach after a ride on the tilt-a-whirl reinforced that thought. Glancing up, he could barely make out the words Starboard Amusements on the sign as they left the ride.
Carolina spoke up as they passed a booth. “I remember that you were quite the pitcher back in the day. Why don’t you try to win a prize?”
Devon laughed. “I haven’t held a baseball in years, but why not?”
His skill clearly hadn’t vanished with time. He knocked down all six milk bottles on his first throw.
“A fine throw,” said the woman running the booth. “Try again and see if you can win a bigger prize.”
“One final throw,” the woman said. “Can you win the biggest prize of them all?”
Devon looked around the booth. “And what would that be?”
The woman leaned closer. “First you throw. Then we talk.”
Once again, all six bottles went flying.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “At long last. Meet me at the back of the booth to claim your prize.”
Devon’s eyes narrowed. “Why can’t you give it to me here? Too big to carry?”
“This prize cannot be carried.”
“Then what did I win?” asked Devon.
The woman smiled and replied softly. “Happiness.”
Carolina stepped in front of Devon. “I don’t know what you have planned, but I am not sending my husband back there with you.”
“You misunderstand,” the woman replied. “Please, both of you come.”
The back of the booth was a storage shed, packed with boxes of prizes. The only thing out of place was a red door, mounted on a frame but detached and leaning on the wall.
The woman greeted them. “Eighteen years, I’ve been running this booth. You are the first to win the grand prize.”
“Just hand it over, and we’ll get out of here,” said Carolina.
“I told you that it can’t be carried. What I offer you is the happiest day of your life.”
“And how are you going to make it so happy?” Devon asked suspiciously.
“I will do nothing. The day will be just as you recall it.”
Devon and Carolina looked at each other, then back at the woman. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said. “How can you give us a day that already happened?”
“First, we must address the ‘us.’ You have won a single prize. I offer this to only one of you. Pass through this door, and you will return to the happiest day of your life.”
Devon walked over to the door. He stood it up and walked around it. “This door takes us back in time? Is this a joke?” He looked at Carolina for support but saw that her eyes were wide with excitement.
“So, if this is real, you mean that we can’t both go back?” he asked.
“One of you must go immediately. The other may play the game again.”
Devon looked at Carolina, willing himself to believe for her sake. “You go,” he told her. “I’ll play until I win again.”
Carolina walked quickly to the door. When she opened it, Devon saw the stacks of boxes that stood behind it. His shoulders sagged with disappointment, and he realized that he had been almost as excited as Carolina. But when she took a step through the door, no trace of her was left behind.
“It’s real,” he mumbled. He turned to the woman. “It’s real!”
“I would not deceive you. She has traveled back to the happiest day of her life.”
“Well, come on. Let’s play again so I can go!”
Once again, it took only three balls. When Devon opened the door, it looked just the same. However, having seen Carolina vanish gave him the confidence to step through as well, and the carnival vanished behind him.
He had hardly dared to hope, but the green lawn of the university stood before him. The gazebo where he had proposed. He looked at his clothes—the spring coat gone, he was dressed for summer. He closed his eyes and replayed the scene in his mind, watching her walking toward him in the morning sun. The excitement in her eyes as she accepted the ring.
He checked the time on his phone, smiling at the outdated technology. She should be here arriving any moment. Sitting down in the gazebo, he pulled the ring box out of his pocket and smiled. He might be the first person in history to experience his happiest moment twice. Again, he got lost in the memories. The harbor cruise in the afternoon. Dinner by the beach…
He glanced at his phone again. 9:06. That couldn’t be right. They should be on their way to breakfast by now. The restaurant they had visited was across town, and they stopped seating breakfast customers at 9:30.
A tired young man walked by. “Excuse me,” Devon called. “Do you know the time?”
“My class ended at 9:00, so it must be just after that.” He checked his phone. “Yeah, 9:06.”
Devon’s stomach tightened. Why wasn’t she coming? He got up and looked around. Someone was coming. He pulled out the ring box, eager to get the day back on track.
It wasn’t her. “Sorry to bother you,” he asked the woman, “but is it May 14?”
The woman stopped, puzzled by the question. “Yeah. Not too late to call your mom if you forgot Mother’s Day yesterday.”
“No, I just…I mean…May 14, 2012?”
She hesitated. “Yes.” She tilted her head, considering the situation. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, all good,” Devon replied. “All good.”
As she walked away, Devon looked down at the box in his hand. How could this be the best day
of his life if Carolina didn’t show up for the proposal? He opened the box and stared.
Earrings. Not only no Carolina, but no ring.
He scrolled through the contacts on his phone. She wasn’t listed. He called her number anyway. “Carolina? Sorry, you’ve got a wrong number,” a man’s deep voice replied.
Mark could straighten this out. He had introduced them. “Devon! I’ve been out of town all weekend. Sorry to miss your poker night.”
“No problem. Listen, I’m having a hard time getting hold of Carolina.”
“North or South?”
“My girlfriend. Carolina. Come on, I’m getting worried.”
A pause. “You and Christie broke up last month. Did you forget about that…and her name?”
“Never mind. I’ll call you later.”
Clearly something strange was going on, but if he could just track her down…
Her mom. A no-nonsense woman, she wouldn’t get involved in a prank like this. But even as he dialed, Devon already knew the answer…”
“Carolina? You must have a wrong number.”
“Mrs. Simchak? It’s Devon. I really need to speak to Carolina.”
“This is Mrs. Simchak, but I don’t have a daughter. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what’s happening. Who did you say you are?”
He hung up without a word.
Here he was, reliving the best day of his life, but without anything that had made it so good. There was only one possible explanation: the woman at the carnival had lied.
If she got him into this mess, she must be the one to get him out of it. He remembered the sign: Starboard Amusements. If she had been with the carnival for 18 years, she must be traveling with them now.
After a few guesses at the password, Devon was able to log in to his university computer account. The carnival was on its was to Kokomo, Indiana—only a few hours away. Unfortunately, as he only had a bus pass during his university days, getting there might be easier said than done. He thought he had left his hitchhiking days far behind him, but this was an emergency.
It took three rides, but the third was heading straight for Kokomo. They wanted to talk nonstop, and Devon did what he could to at least sound polite. He got out where the carnival was setting up on the edge of town.
He walked quickly between the booths and rides, ignoring staff who told him that they weren’t yet open to the public. At last, he found her. He had expected her to look ten years younger, but the woman looked exactly the same.
“What happened? What happened to my wife?”
The woman looked at him in confusion. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I know you…or your wife.”
Of course. This was ten years before they had met. “I’m from the future, I guess. I knocked down all the milk bottles, and…”
“And you won the opportunity to see behind the red door?” the woman finished.
“Well, yeah. But you said it would be the happiest day of my life.”
“I don’t choose the day. The door chooses. What made this day so happy?”
“I proposed to my wife, but she isn’t here. Where is she?”
The woman thought for a few seconds. “She should be here. The only other possibility is…”
Devon waited for the sentence to finish, then prompted. “Is what? What is the other possibility?”
“Did she also pass beyond the red door?”
“Yes, she went first. We were going to meet and relive the day of our engagement.”
The woman frowned, realizing the truth. “Did you discuss what day you would revisit?”
“No, I guess not. Just the happiest day of our lives.”
“What’s going on? What do you know? Why isn’t she here?”
The woman hesitated, searching carefully for her words. “It would seem that…while today might be the happiest day of your life…”
The truth dawned on Devon. “It wasn’t the happiest day of her life?”
“I’m afraid not, my friend.”
“So then, where is she?”
A rueful smile. “I think the real question is ‘When is she?’”
“What do you mean? She’s got to be somewhere?”
“Alas, if she has entered another timeline, she exists only in the past or the future. She does not exist in the present.”
“Okay, then, when is she?”
“I am sorry, but the answer lies behind the red door. I have no way of knowing.”
“Okay, then let’s play the bottle game.”
“I’m sorry,” she frowned, “but the game only allows you to return to the happiest day of your life, not hers.”
“So, there’s no way to find her?”
“There is one. But you have only one chance.”
“No problem. I’ve hit the bottles six times in a row.”
“This one is more complicated. To visit someone else’s past, you must knock the bottles down from a distance of fifty feet. You have one attempt. Do you accept?”
“Knowing that, if you miss, you will remain in this timeline forever?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Never reunited with your wife?”
“Yes, yes. Just give me the balls.”
“One ball. And here it is. I will set up the bottles, and then you will walk back until I tell you to stop.”
Fifty feet had never seemed so far. In his days as a pitcher, it was sixty feet, six inches to home plate, but this seemed infinitely farther.
“When you are ready, my friend.”
Devon stared at the middle bottle on the bottom row. It would take a perfectly aimed shot, just off center, to knock them all down. Even the state championship seemed like an easy feat compared to this.
The state championship, in which he had given up seven runs in the final inning. The day he had always considered the worst in his life…ironically, until he had won the privilege of reliving today.
The carnival employees stopped to watch. He let the ball fly. Right on target.
Five bottles crashed to the ground, but one still stood. He had knocked it to the back of the platform, but it remained upright.
“I…I am sorry, my friend. The door must remain closed. I hope you will find happiness in this timeline.”
“One more chance?” he begged. “I’ve got another dollar.”
“I don’t make the rules. You had but one throw. I regret that I can do no more.”
“Is there any other way to reach her timeline?”
“I am sorry. I know of nothing aside from the red door.”
The door. Devon ran around to the back of the booth. The door leaned against the wall, just as he remembered. He stood it up and pulled on the handle.
“It will not open. Many have tried, but the rules of the game can neither change nor be altered.”
Devon stared at the door for a few seconds, a tear running down his cheek. He walked away without a word. The door may not open, but there must be another way. He would find it, even if it took…
A crashing sound interrupted his thoughts. When he looked back, the platform was empty.
“Did you just…”
“I did nothing, my friend. You threw one ball, and no bottles remain on the platform. I will meet you at the red door.”
Devon rushed to the back of the booth. “But you must have…”
“I did nothing!” she shouted. “The bottles have fallen, and the door will open. Ask no more.”
“But I don’t know what to do when I find her. Do I stay in that timeline? Can I bring her back?”
“I can answer no more. You will know what to do. If you will pass through the door, it must be now, speaking her name as you enter.”
And so he went, speaking clearly as he walked through. “Carolina Worth.”
He saw nothing but boxes. He turned around and saw the woman, a sad frown on her face.
“What happened? Why didn’t it work?”
“I am sorry, but it seems that there is no Carolina Worth in her timeline. Perhaps she might have another name?”
Of course. If she was in a timeline before they were married…
“Carolina Simchak,” he said as he stepped through the door.
He was seated on a boardwalk along what appeared to be an ocean. Glancing around, he saw her, standing with a group of friends. There could be no mistaking that smile.
He rushed over to her. “Carolina?”
Clearly puzzled, she replied, “Yes. I’m sorry…do I know you?”
“It’s me. Devon.”
She thought for a second. “Devon Huddy, from second grade?”
“Devon Worth. You know…your….” He stopped, as the realization hit him. The best day of her life had been before they met. But how could he remember the red door at the fairground when she remembered nothing?
“I’m sorry. I can’t place the name. How do I know you?”
He looked around in desperation, wondering how to regain the love of a woman who didn’t even know him. Starboard Seafood Shack. The name rang a bell, but, as he examined the building, he noticed something even more important…
“Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met. But…I was sent to give you a message.”
“A message. From who?”
“Your mother. Mrs. Simchak. She needs you to call.”
Carolina’s face paled. “Is everything alright?” She pulled out her phone.
“Why? What happened?”
“No, I mean…she’s alright. Everything’s alright. But the cell reception is terrible here. You can use the phone at my restaurant.”
“Yes, the Starboard Seafood Shack,” Devon improvised. “A family business.”
“And my mother called a seafood restaurant 800 miles from home to give me a message? Why didn’t she just call me directly?”
“It must be that bad cell reception,” Devon answered quickly. “Our phone is right inside the restaurant, if you will follow me through this red door.”
She gave him a skeptical look but followed. Sure enough, they found themselves back at the booth. Devon glanced down at his spring coat. So they had returned.
“I’m sorry. What just happened?” Carolina asked.
“You were reliving the best day of your life.” He looked her in the eyes. “A day that apparently didn’t involve me.”
“Don’t act like that. I’ve had lots of great times with you.”
“But better times without me?”
“That’s not fair. I guess I just liked the freedom…”
“Of life before we met?”
“Well, they were easier times. Being an adult isn’t easy. You know that I don’t love my job, and…”
“But even the early days of our relationship couldn’t compare to a visit to the coast?”
“Those are my best friends.”
“You’re my best friend. I was excited to relive the day that I proposed to you, but you…”
“I’m sorry. That day was great, but…”
“Forget it.” He turned to the woman at the booth. “When I traveled back, I remembered everything. How come she didn’t remember me in her timeline…or the door?”
She frowned. “The heart chooses what to remember. Apparently, you wanted to hold on to everything, but…”
“It’s fine. I get it.” Devon turned to Carolina, tossing her the ring box. “Happy anniversary, I guess.” He handed a dollar to the woman running the booth. Two minutes later, he opened the door, looked back without a word, and disappeared.
Kevin Hogg teaches English and Law in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Carleton University. He writes in many genres, with his short stories leaning toward slipstream, and has spent four years writing a narrative nonfiction book about the summer of 1969. Outside of writing, he enjoys thistles, rosemary, and pistachio ice cream. His website is https://kevinhogg.ca and he can be found on Twitter at @kevinhogg23.
Madan examined the game. His grandma, whose turn it was next, waited. He ran his left hand through his hair; She slammed a three of spades. They had a pre-assigned symbol for every suit and hair was for spades. The game was Mendicoat, a popular card game in those parts, and Madan’s team, comprising him and his grandmother, had gained an edge with the move.
“Darn it,” cried Janak. “You signaled at her, didn’t you, you cheater!”
“Did you see me do that?” Madan responded, in a taunting calm manner. “Did you see me do that?" he then asked Kanchan, Janak’s partner for the game.
“How will I! You people are experts at it. Grandmother especially!” Kanchan said.
“May God take my eyes if I did it!” Their grandmother, reliably shocked, exclaimed, and the game continued.
The sun was raging and they were seated on a charpoy under the shade of a huge Madras thorn tree in a shed next to their house; It was too hot and stuffy inside the house, a modest one-bedroom hall affair that was supposed to house more than fifteen people - matriarch’s four sons and their families - during the summer months.
Madan went on to win the game, and consequently, the bet, terms of which stated Janak would take him to Karsanbhai if he lost. “I do not understand why you’re aiding Madan in such foolish endeavors,” Janak complained as he flung his cards. His grandmother told him she just wanted to win the game. She did not give two hoots about the bet.
“Don’t blame me if something happens to him,” he said, “These city people come here with their fancy ideas. What do they know of the laws that govern life here!”
“Come on, I just want to write an article on him. There’s no need to blow this out of proportion. Nothing will happen,” Madan said.
“What do you know! Just want to write an article, he says. You have no idea what you’re dealing with. Think about it for a day or two.”
“Today is Wednesday. You know he only performs the ritual on Wednesday. Next Wednesday I won’t be here.”
“Let it be then. No need to go.”
“But I won the bet.”
“I don’t care about the bet.”
“Okay, I will go alone then.”
The game over, Janak and Kanchan shortly left to go to an aunt’s place, and Madan lay down, placing his head on his grandmother’s lap.
“What is this new mischief? Nothing to do with your mother, I hope, may God bless her soul,” she said.
“It’s work Grandma. I was talking to my boss about our village before coming here and I must have mentioned Karsanbhai. He was intrigued and asked me to do a piece on him.”
“Why do you go around telling people about Karsanbhai? Do we look like samples to you Mumbai folks?”
“No Grandma, it’s just what he does, nobody does nowadays. I don’t know of anybody else who claims to put people in touch with the dead.”
“Don’t say ‘claim’. I know you will not believe it, with your education and all, but don’t assume you know everything just because you have a degree.”
“I never said I don’t believe it. My job is only to report, not comment.”
An atypical frown appeared on her face. “I don’t like this thing you’re doing. Writing about us as if we’re something to be read about and interpreted.”
“Why are you clubbing the entire village together? I’m not writing about you.”
“We’re all one people. Also, Janak is right. These are delicate matters. I hope you have thought it through."
He turned his gaze to her face. She looked concerned. He saw no point in stretching it any further.
“Maybe I won’t go.”
She looked at him for a moment and then breaking into a mischievous smile, said, "I know you will go. You've taken after me. Once you decide, you don’t listen to anybody."
"Nothing like that granny. It's a job, that's all."
"What are you planning to do? Interview him? Will you be there when the ritual is performed? Be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted!"
He looked down, pinched his nose lightly, and said, "I will manage.”
"On another note, I do hope you have taken after me. Your father isn’t the bravest of men when it comes to these things,” she said and laughed her grandmotherly laugh.
Harsh beams of sunlight poured in through the branches above and met with his eyes. He covered his eyes with his right arm and turned to his side. His gaze fell on the closed window on the sidewall of the adjoining house. The house had stayed closed for as long as he could remember. He realized with some surprise that he did not know who lived in the house and why it was closed. He asked his grandma.
"Oh, you don't know? The owner's son, a little boy at the time, drowned at the beach. His parents who were naturally in deep grief and shock left everything and moved to the city. This was more than fifteen years back and they still haven’t done anything about the house.”
He looked at the window and shuddered. He wished he hadn’t asked.
Peacocks announced the arrival of the evening with their screams and people recommenced their outdoor activities.
Madan went out the door and put on his left shoe.
“This boy won’t listen. I have told him multiple times and in clearest terms that this is a bad idea. But who will pay heed to my advice!” Janak complained inside, to whoever was listening.
Madan put on his right shoe.
“Okay do whatever you want. But you will find yourself alone in this. I am not coming.”
Madan set out. He looked about and realized not much had changed in the village. The houses, the pathways, the people looked the same as the last time he came here. The pace of life, of progress, was the same as the pace of vehicles that had to be driven cautiously in these narrow, unpaved lanes, lest they get scratched by a thorny branch.
As he turned left out of the lane, not a hundred meters away came a bungalow on the left, the first house along the path, which was infamous throughout the village as a place of horror, a place to stay away from. There were various stories associated with the bungalow. The one that had stuck with Madan was of two teenage girls, twins, who had hung themselves. As he had grown older, he had forgotten the story but had not been able to get the picture out of his head - the sisters helping each other out probably, a serene look on their faces as life went out of them.
Now, as he passed the bungalow, Janak’s phrase from earlier came to his mind, “Laws that govern life here.” What was that about? He had heard the phrase uttered by these people innumerable times since he was a little boy. Are these laws not the same everywhere? Was he a fool to walk into the unknown?
Just at that moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He shrieked and rushed a couple of steps and then realized who it was.
“Woah, what’s the matter?” Janak said.
“No, nothing. You surprised me, that’s all.”
“So gutsy! I fret to think what will happen to you when you see the ritual,” he said and spat.
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Might as well be there in case something goes wrong.”
Ahead came the village chowk. They turned left and entered the lane with the Community Hall on the right and a compound with a huge tree, home to crying peacocks, on the left - an especially creepy place. As he walked on, he felt he walked further into darkness. All of a sudden, he wanted to return to the safety of the city. Something was not right. Hanging twins, drowning boy, communicating with the dead, the laws that govern this place, nothing seemed right. What was he thinking, getting into this mess, this darkness?
He looked about to see if Janak was still there. He was. The world was running out of light though. The day was slowly wishing him goodbye. The night would see him now.
Karsanbhai stayed in a small room in a compound that also housed a temple. The large open area in the center was used for temple activities. It is here that Karsanbhai performed the ritual.
As a boy, Madan had found it frightening yet inviting. Every Wednesday at ten in the night people would gather, some to witness and some to take part in the ritual. It was said nobody who came went back unsatisfied. Every participant believed they had communicated with the dead.
It was pitch dark as Madan made his way into the compound. He was a little feverish, a result of the twenty-hour car ride he was sure, half of which was in the scorching heat.
Karsanbhai wasn’t home. His apprentice met with them.
“Say, Janak, how come you decided to call on him?”
“This is my cousin Madan. He is from Mumbai and works there as a journalist. He has come for a week. He wants to write an article on Karsanbhai. Tonight, when the ritual is performed, he wants to observe it and interview Karsanbhai afterward, along with a few participants.”
“I am sorry, but we cannot allow it. This is a sacred ritual and we believe it should not be publicized. An interview with Karsanbhai is out of the question I am afraid.”
“That’s not why we’re here for. I want to participate in the ritual,” Madan said.
“No no, this is not what we discussed. You are not participating. Why do you want to participate? You really think this is a game, don’t you? I will tell your father,” Janak protested.
“I am participating. I want to talk to my recently deceased mother,” he said.
“No no. Let’s go home. Let’s discuss this and come back. Let’s talk to your father. Let’s see what he says. You cannot do this.”
But Madan had made up his mind.
Madan’s father had spent the evening walking the lanes of his childhood, with the people he had grown up with. Going back to his house now he was as satisfied as one is after a good, heavy meal.
Entering the house, he asked his sister-in-law to make tea and went into the bedroom to change into a lungi. He noticed somebody sleeping on the bed with a couple of thick blankets on. He inched closer to ascertain the person's identity and realized it was Madan. He asked his sister-in-law about it. She said he was feeling feverish.
“Happens to him when he's out in the sun for too long. Driving all the way from Mumbai was a bad idea," he said.
He went inside and felt Madan's forehead. "Pretty bad, isn't it?" he said. "Give him a tablet after dinner.”
Shortly Janak too rushed in and checked on Madan. "I had told him it was a bad idea," he said.
"What are you talking about?" Madan's father said.
"He wants to participate in the ritual. He wants to communicate with his mother. We went to see Karsanbhai."
"What is this madness! You people should have stopped him."
"I did discourage him. I told him he should stay away from all this. But he would not listen."
Madan's father looked at Grandma questioningly.
"I did not know," she said.
His face changed all of a sudden. He sat down on the chair, closed his eyes, joined his hands, and mouthed a brief prayer.
Madan started murmuring in his sleep. It seemed he was having a nightmare.
Madan was at peace. He picked up a handful of sand and let it slip through his fingers. Ahead, the waves continued with their rhythmic ebb and flow. The sun looked forward to dipping into the sea. His family members were having a good time. The older ones sat at a distance from the seashore and looked at the sunset and the younger ones stood in front of the waves, shrieking with delight every time a wave crashed into them.
He drifted into a vision from his childhood. He wore a bright red t-shirt, sky blue shorts, shades, and a yellow cap. He walked about without a care and kicked up sand every few steps. Having seen something in the sand a few steps ahead, he rushed toward it and crouched to examine the curious object. Then he looked back. Madan realized the boy looked nothing like his younger self and in fact, the boy was in front of him, actually there. It's the boy who drowned, he realized.
Madan looked about. All his family members had vanished. A wave came and snatched the object out of the boy’s hand. He rushed to reclaim it. Madan stood up and sprinted toward the boy like a madman to save him. He ran and ran. And he realized he was running on the spot. He had not moved an inch forward. The boy reached the seashore. Madan ran on, helpless. He spotted something in the sky above the ocean; two girls, twins, preparing to hang themselves, the same serene look on their faces. He let out a series of screams. The waves came closer to him.
The first wave crashed into him and he saw his deceased mother.
The second wave crashed into him and he saw his father.
The third wave crashed into him and submerged him and his hand emerged out of the water and he rose.
Manish Bhanushali is based out of Navi Mumbai, India. His works have appeared in Livewire and Gulmohur Quarterly.
This story is dedicated to Andy.
Professor Smith awoke to the most extraordinary feeling - as if she’d been married with children for twenty years. Yet nothing could be further from the truth: coupling with some sweaty, farting, hairy man had always been repulsive to her, such that she had long since banished any such thought from her mind.
She gazed out at the neatly-trimmed lawn of Marlowe Court, which had stood in the centre of this Cambridge college for centuries. While her own tenure here amounted to just 25 years, she felt more kinship with its ancient granite and sandstone than she did with any of her lust-bucket fellow humans.
After her customary boiled egg and slice of toast, consumed with a cup of Earl Grey to the soundtrack of Radio 3’s morning programming, she sallied forth to the Porter’s Lodge to check her post.
Professor Smith hadn’t received anything other than rare books and journals in her cubby-hole for more than a decade, and even that rarely. These days, she went to the Porters’ Lodge for the banter with the all-male, all ex-forces Portering team. A particular favourite was Mr. MacGuinness, an ex-Beefeater and Guardsman who became an enthusiastic alcoholic following his military retirement. His red face and handlebar mustache made him look like a drunken sea mammal, while highly polished shoes and an earthy reek of tobacco confirmed his military history.
“Good morning Professor Smith! It’s looking a bit empty in your hole, I’m afraid.”
She stared at him, wondering whether he had just stated a fact or flirted with indecency. She allowed herself the beginnings of a smile before gathering her Incan poncho about her:
“Good morning, Mr. MacGuinness. Perhaps you’d prefer it if I enlarged my post-bag?”
“I don’t know about that, Professor. But a gentleman called for you and” –
“A gentleman? Now there’s a rarity. Especially at eight AM.”
“A Mr. Felipe Silvio, he said. He left a mobile phone number.”
MacGuinness handed over a pink slip torn from an ancient message pad. Professor Smith looked at the handwriting and didn’t recognise it. But then, she didn’t get the chance to see a lot of handwriting that wasn’t six hundred years old: these days it was all text messages and whatnot. Even student essays were sent by email or posted on something called an “assessment hub” which she’d yet to access.
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“No, Professor. Er, something about a fragment from Padua.”
“I see. Well, thank you. I shall give him a call.”
Returning to her rooms, she put the kettle on for tea and tried to remember whether she had ever met this Felipe Silvio and what he might want. She set her last clean tea-cup down, pushing unwashed plates and cups up against a pile of essays she was avoiding marking. Then she picked up the receiver of her ancient Bakelite desk phone and dialled the number given to her by MacGuinness:
Professor Smith hesitated. Although she’d been reading and speaking Italian for thirty years, it was just – well, whenever she spoke to a modern she feared her immersion in the language and politics of the fourteenth century might manifest itself.
“Sono Professore Smith”, she managed at last. “Ha chiamato per me?”
“Yes!”, boomed Signor Silvio’s voice. “Professor Smith! I have the fragment. The fragment from the original Canto Twenty-Three of the Purgatorio what you wanted.”
“I see”, Professor Smith mused, unsure whether Silvio had switched to English owing to her poor accent, or because he wanted to show off. “Well, where is it?”
“I am here, qua, in Cambridge with the fragment. Please we can meet?”
Any meeting, and especially an off-the-cuff meeting with a stranger, was anathema to Professor Smith. Her timetable was mapped out for the entire term in advance: undergraduates knew any request to rearrange a tutorial was met with tight-lipped disapproval. Colleagues had even observed her disquietude if dinner in hall should be served five minutes late.
She checked the pocket diary lying on her desk. Other than a tutorial with a second-year rower of Olympian stupidity she’d scheduled for the end of the working day, that afternoon was empty.
“Why don’t we meet for tea at three? Shall we say the Copper Kettle on Kings’ Parade?”
“Perfetto”, Silvio confirmed. “Ci vediamo dopo, Professore!”
She put down the phone and clenched her fists. This was most unusual. She couldn’t remember asking to see any original fragment, or indeed whether such a fragment existed. Sighing, she picked up the essay by the aforementioned, ungifted rower and spotted two errors and a grammatical infelicity in the first paragraph. As she ploughed her way through the boy’s confection of plagiarisms, stultifying regurgitations, mistakes, mis-quotes and naïveté, her head drooped against the hand that propped it up against the desk. Before long she was asleep.
In her dream, Felipe Silvio was a raging bull chasing her through the streets of Cambridge. She was young again, racing across the market square on her undergraduate sit-up-and-beg bike with its wicker basket and heart-attack-inducing absence of brakes. However hard she pedalled, Silvio’s hooves beat harder against the cobbles and she felt his hot breath against her back. Eventually she could pedal no more and found herself succumbing to his masculine persuasive force, having ran out of puff on Jesus Green. The swans on the river craked as they witnessed her willing surrender to Felipe Silvio in the guise of a Taurean Lothario.
Professor Smith awoke with a start to feel the sun on her face. Her head lay among the undergraduate essays, dirty cups and plates streaked with butter and egg yolk. Her Bakelite phone swam into view together with the shell from that morning’s egg. She glanced at the alarm clock on her desk. Ten to three – just minutes before she was due to meet Felipe Silvio.
She rushed into the tiny bathroom in her set, pristine as it was (except the sink) through lack of use. She sniffed the hem of her jumper and realised she’d not changed her clothes for three days, or bathed. Never mind - nothing a dose of “Eau de Reine” couldn’t change. She duly doused herself in perfume, gave her teeth a perfunctory brush and looked in the mirror. She mussed her frizzy hair to the left and right, trying to cover up the grey. Then she carefully applied lipstick and headed for the Copper Kettle, remembering her keys and purse.
As she strode across the quad her mind was fogged with sleep and her heart with Felipe Silvio: what he might be like, what he might say. She half-ran up Kings Parade, sniffing her wrist furtively in the worry that she’d overdone the perfume. Oh well, too late now.
She recognised Silvio straight away. Where she’d pictured a broad-shouldered, mustachio’d Italian, she found instead cords and a round-necked sweater, thick glasses and nervous eyes that jumped around the room. She approached his table.
“Professor Smith! An honour! I have read your monograph on the demotic and divine in Canto XXIII and I” –
Elaine Smith blushed for the first time since her teenage years. Someone had read her work.
“Oh, I – it’s nothing really. You’re most kind.”
They ordered coffee and Silvio produced a thick cream envelope, leaning forward conspiratorially into the steam rising from their coffees.
“What you are looking for is here”, he said.
“I see.” Professor Smith was put out by Silvio’s business-like tone. “The thing is, I don’t remember ordering it. That said, I will admit to an interest in the original orthography of the Purgatorio.”
She gave a little hoot of laughter, a nervous tic she had never rid herself of despite much self-admonishment whenever it occurred. Silvio tapped the side of his prominent nose conspiratorially and smiled.
“It is gift. From a secret admirer. More I cannot say. Arrivederche, Professor Smith. Please allow me the honour of paying for your coffee.”
Silvio rose from the table. They shook hands and Elaine felt the comfort of his warm, smooth, strong grip. Silvio pulled out his card to pay at the counter, saluting her as he left the café. After he left, Professor Smith reached into the envelope and found a scrap of taut, aged vellum. She pulled it out gingerly and her heart skipped a beat. Someone had just given her a textual variant from Canto XXIII.
In twenty years of scholarship she had never heard of such a thing. Suddenly all the self-denial, the loneliness, the undergraduate essays devoid of residual brain-stem activity – it all seemed worthwhile. Of course, Felipe Silvio had been something of a disappointment. But she wasn’t finished with him yet, either.
Returning to college, she tripped and fell against the sill of the ancient oak entrance. The initial stab of pain was replaced by a wave of regret in her heart, the same she’d felt earlier when she thought about the time she’d spent writing, marking, reading – all those activities she’d devoted herself to without anything else to focus on. Then she began to laugh and cry at once, softly at first, then with a ferocity that astounded her. Through her tears, she saw Mr. MacGuinness the Porter and one of his colleagues approaching.
“Come along, Professor Smith. Let’s get you a bandage and some painkillers. Poor woman.”
Elaine Silvio woke with a start on her sofa in Herefordshire. She’d had the strangest dream: she’d become an academic after graduation, rather than going into banking. Everything seemed different in her dream, and not in a good way – she dreamed herself to be sad, frustrated, middle-aged and unmarried without children, yet globally celebrated by a tiny coterie of scholars. In this other version of her life, her undergraduate interest in Dante became an all-consuming obsession that had eaten her womanhood.
Elaine sat up on the overstuffed sofa and rubbed her face with her hands. Billy the Welsh Springer lay asleep on the carpet before her. He snuffled and turned over, inviting her to rub his tummy.
It was Friday, she knew that much. She’d been up at four for a conference call with San Mateo about digital payments strategy. Accepting crypto. KYC, carry rules, AML and all those acronyms. So boring, so dull. But it paid for this house, and the kids’ education.
Felipe’s passion for rare books didn’t pay their groceries, even if he was one of the most well-known antiquarians in Europe. He must have got the kids off to school while she was working. And she must have fallen asleep after lunch.
She got up and stretched and looked out the window at the long expanse of the Welsh hills behind them, wondering what her life might have been like if she’d taken that PhD. Then she remembered it was her birthday, and she was due to meet Felipe and the kids in the centre of Hereford. For once, Felipe had agreed not to go to an Italian restaurant. The kids wanted Chinese – and they’d won.
When Professor Smith awoke, she lay alone in bed. The fragment Felipe Silvio gave her sat on top of the undergraduate essays, dirty cups and egg-smeared plates on her desk. Wincing in pain as she stood up, she hobbled over to her desk and peered intently at the fragment. She could hardly make out the words, they were so faint and hastily-scribbled. But there they were, clear as day, written above the accepted version. Where the Dante we knew had written:
… « ché ’l tempo che n’è imposto
più utilmente compartir si vuole »
Professor Smith could see words that didn’t mean, “the time of our life/can be used more fruitfully than this,” but instead – “time is our life, and time/is for none to dictate its use.”
She looked at the text four times from different angles. She turned the scrap over and tried to read it through the fading afternoon sun. She was certain: it was genuine. A real discovery, the first in Dante scholarship for centuries.
Elaine Silvio entered Hang-Sui House looking left and right for her husband. She’d dressed simply in a black trouser suit and a blue silk shirt, the same clothes she’d worn for work that day. But she’d refreshed her makeup, brushed her hair and added a spritz of “Eau de Reine,” the perfume Felipe always said reminded him of when they met. She wanted to make an effort for their celebration after a rushed journey to the restaurant from their home, caught in the traffic she’d forgotten existed since she started to work from home. The kids texted to say they’d be late – something about Anthony having to wait for Bea to finish hockey. At least it meant she’d have some time alone with Felipe.
When she reached their table, she kissed Felipe, his brown eyes smiling. She accepted a menu from the waiter and ordered a large glass of sauvignon blanc, scanning the menu. When her wine arrived, Felipe raised his glass of red in a toast:
“Salute, carissima. My gift to you.”
Felipe handed her an envelope. Inside there was another envelope containing a scrap of old parchment about two inches wide and three inches long. Elaine could make out some squiggly handwriting on it, thick with crossings-out and editing.
“What is it?”
“It is a lost verse from Dante’s Purgatorio. I found it in an antiquarian’s in Padua and persuaded them it was a medieval shopping list of minimal value. The words tell us no-one has the right to dictate how we live our lives. I know how much you loved his work, so…”
She kissed him again and turned the scrap of parchment over in her hands. She could hardly remember her Italian at this distance, let alone read such ancient handwriting.
“Grazie, darling,” she managed at last. The children arrived in a flurry of schoolbags, teen-speak and undried hair. The waiter brought prawn crackers and food was ordered. Laughter and chopsticks and toasts followed.
Pushing out into the gathering dark two hours later, Elaine waited with the children while Felipe went to fetch the car. Not listening to the kids griping at each other about some perceived slight visited on Bea by a girl at school, Elaine’s eye turned to the display window of a bookshop on the high street behind them. She caught sight of a pile of books in the window with a poster of the book’s title behind, and clutched for her son’s arm as she fainted:
Dirt and the Divine in Dante
Professor E.S.R. Smith
Professor of Medieval Italian Literature and Culture
University of Cambridge
A Scotsman by birth and profession (though only an occasional whisky-sipper), J.W. Wood's short fiction has appeared in the US (Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Carve, Expat Press), Canada, the UK (Crimeucopia, Idle Ink, others) and other markets around the world. He has worked as a literary reviewer and journalist and is the author of five books of poems and a pseudonymous thriller, all published in the UK over the last fifteen years.
Jeffrey Dickerson spins the Tahoe’s steering wheel and turns off the highway onto an overgrown and barely visible dirt track. I’m surprised I can still find this place after more than 50 years, he thinks. The SUV moves slowly across a meadow, flattening the road’s vegetation as it passes, and continues into the pine forest. Under the dense canopy, no sunlight reaches the ground and a somnolent gloom envelops the vehicle and Jeff.
Geez, we used to do this at midnight, drunk on booze swiped from my stepdad’s liquor cabinet. The grasses and undergrowth disappear and he follows the eroded Jeep trail past trees that have doubled in diameter since his last visit to the lake. At a clearing, he pulls up and kills the engine. A strong wind down from Canada whistles through the pines, cooled by snows off the Cascades. A thick blanket of needles covers the ground, free now of the beer cans, candy wrappers, used rubbers, and assorted trash that Jeff remembers from his youth. I guess nobody comes here to make out anymore. But then why would they after the mills closed and the town emptied.
He pulls on a down jacket and wool cap, wraps a scarf around his neck and sets out, following the memory of a trail that has all but disappeared. Jesus, if I get turned around out here, nobody will ever find me. But in a few minutes the wind freshens and he sees sunlight shining off the lake. He strides out of the forest onto its stony shoreline. The surrounding mountains haven’t changed, snowcapped, ever watching.
He sits on a boulder and breathes in the fresh citrusy-smelling air, so much different than the bluish-white haze along LA’s freeways. But the cold seeps into his bones and his arthritis screams for relief. He pops a Norco and washes it down with a shot of Jack from his pocket flask. His body gives a huge shudder, then settles.
Jeff waits for the pain drugs to hit before pushing himself up and moving off down the shoreline, slipping on the stones and swearing. At a particular spot, a rock formation juts into the lake. As teens, he and his buddies Terry and Leo ditched their clothes, picked their way to its end, and dove into the crystal clear water. The cold felt great on hot summer days.
But this autumn day, Jeff turns away from the lake and into the forest, mumbling to himself, counting steps. At 25, he looks around. Two gigantic ponderosas stand guard over a mound of granite. At the rock’s base, he lowers himself to his knees. He scratches away the carpet of needles, withdraws a garden trowel from inside his jacket and begins to dig, carefully. In a few minutes he hits something. Digging now with his trembling hands he uncovers and withdraws a mason jar, its lid corroded but intact.
The jar’s glass has frosted over. He tries removing the top but it won’t budge. In exasperation, he taps it against the rock. With a tinkle of glass the jar shatters. Jeff reaches forward and picks up two cards, one a Washington State driver’s license, the other a tattered Social Security card. He stares at the license. Jeff’s young image stares back, his somber face next to the name Roger Stokley.
Roger smeared Sea & Ski on his arms and face, and watched Terry and Leo repeatedly plunge from the rock jetty into the lake. He clasped a Rainier Ale between his thighs; the cold can felt great in the August heat. Leo had swiped a couple six-packs from his father’s grocery store. The friends had vowed to spend the last weekend home after high school graduation getting drunk on whatever they could scrounge.
The two friends joined him on the stony shore.
“You better not have guzzled all the beer,” Terry chided.
Roger grinned. “Nah. I’ve left ya a can or two.”
“Where the hell did the church key go?” Leo complained.
“Relax, it’s in the cooler.”
Shivering, the two swimmers dried off, sat next to Roger sipping their beers, and stared at the lake, its waters glassy calm.
“So, you all set for Nebraska?” Roger asked Terry.
“Yeah, I guess. I’m on the bus Monday. Classes start the next week.”
“Can’t believe you’re goin’ to U of N,” Leo said. “I think they’ve got three trees in the whole damn state.”
“Hey, I gotta go where they accept me. That’s the deal. And do you think Montana Tech is that much better?”
Leo grinned. “At least they’ve got mountains and trees.”
“What about you?” Leo asked Roger. “Got it figured out? You need to get into school or they’ll draft your ass and send ya to Viet-fucking-nam.”
“Yeah, well I’ve had enough of school. Don’t like it much.”
“But, if you don’t at least enroll somewhere you’ll—”
“I get it, I get it. I’ll figure it out.” But Roger didn’t have a clue about what to do. And his stepdad wanted him out of the house, to make way for a new girlfriend so they could fuck all day long without Roger snooping around. His stepdad didn’t care what Roger did, just wanted him gone.
An uncomfortable silence settled between the friends. Roger realized that this could be the last time he and his pals hung out. The afternoon wore on. Their clutter of empty beer cans grew. They dozed in the golden light, faces burnt a wild cherry red.
Groggy, with a headache coming on, Roger woke. “Gotta pee,” he muttered, pulled on his shirt and pants, and stumbled into the forest. He stopped at a mound of rock framed by two young pines, unzipped and wet the stone with four beers worth of piss.
As he finished, he noticed something strange. A pile of neatly folded guys’s clothing and a pair of shoes rested near the top of the rock. He scanned the forest but failed to spot any naked guy wandering around. Maybe he’s swimming in the lake? But we’ve been here all day and have had the place to ourselves. Pine needles covered the shoes and a long-sleeved sport shirt that topped the pile. Totally weird. Whoever left this stuff must have split days ago. Roger carefully slid the creased slacks loose and checked the pockets. No car keys. How the hell did he get here . . . or leave? The buttoned-shut back pocket held a wallet.
Roger sat on the ground, his heart racing, and looked through each compartment. The wallet held 96 dollars in small bills. A driver’s license belonged to Jeffrey R. Dickerson, 21, of Tacoma, Washington. Roger stared at the license and at the photo image. What was this guy from Tacoma doing around here? Jeff was close to Roger’s height and weight with the same color eyes. But Jeff had a thick walrus mustache.
Roger continued to dig through the wallet. He found a Selective Service Notice of Classification card that showed IV-F. A grin split Roger’s face. Not only does this guy look a little like me, but he’s old enough to buy booze and won’t get drafted.
An escape plan formed in Roger’s mind: I’ll become this guy and lamb on out of here. Go south to Frisco and get lost in the hippie scene, that Summer of Love shit. Roger’s mind filled with all the details that had to be worked out. But at least now he had an idea, one that just might work. He took the wallet and slid it into his pocket, scraped the dirt away from the base of the rock and buried the clothes.
When Roger returned to the shoreline, Terry looked at him and laughed. “That was some pee. What were you doin’ in there, jerking off?”
“Nah,” Leo cracked, “he wouldn’t take that long.”
“Come on, fools,” Roger said. “We gotta go.”
The trio checked the beach to make sure they hadn’t left anything behind, then hustled down the well-worn path to the clearing and piled into Leo’s Ford Econoline van. On the way back to town they didn’t say much, sleepy from the beer and not really knowing how to handle their goodbyes.
Finally, Roger broke the ice. “Hey Leo, you takin’ this piece-of-shit van to Montana?”
“Nah, my Pop needs it for the grocery.”
The silence returned and when Leo pulled up in front of a ramshackle clapboard house, Terry bolted from the van, rubbing his eyes.
“Give ’em hell in Nebraska,” Leo called after his retreating friend.
Terry waved his hand but didn’t turn around. He disappeared inside the house.
When Leo got to Roger’s singlewide trailer, he turned the engine off and swung around to face him.
“Look, I don’t leave for Montana for a week. If you need help figuring shit out let me know. I know you’re freaked out about it. I would be too.”
“Yeah, thanks. But I’m workin’ on an idea.”
“So what is it?”
“It’s better that I keep it to myself. But don’t worry, I’ll be all right.”
“Cool. Glad to hear you got somethin’ goin’.”
“So, I’ll see ya, man. And say hi to your Pop for me.”
“Yeah, Roger, sure. Stop by the market anytime. I’m sure he’d like to shoot the bull with you.”
It took Roger over a month to grow a walrus mustache. He trimmed it to look just like Jeff Dickerson’s. One Sunday in September, when his stepfather had taken his girlfriend out for a drive, Jeff gassed up his beat-to-hell Volkswagen Bug. He stowed his guitar and a battered suitcase full of essentials and headed to the lake for what he planned to be the last time. Hustling into the woods he removed his driver’s license and Social Security card, placed them in a Mason jar, and buried them next to Jeff’s decaying clothes. If anyone ever finds this stuff, they’ll think it’s me that disappeared.
At that moment, Roger Stokley felt he’d become Jeff Dickerson. He ran to his car and raced back to the two-lane highway that led south toward the Interstate. After a pedal-to-the-metal dash across Oregon, he motored into California, pushing even more frantically southward, toward the City by the Bay where the hippies and other remnants of the Summer of Love took him in.
Groaning, Jeff Dickerson stands and slips his old driver’s license and Social Security card into his shirt pocket. He kicks dirt over the shattered Mason jar and walks back toward the lake. At the shoreline he stops to stare at the high storm clouds rolling south. It might rain and snow that night. On the far shore, brightly colored kayaks and canoes are stacked in racks on a dock that serves a lakeside resort. The huge complex looks closed for the off-season. This place must be a circus during the summer.
A gust of frigid wind hits and Jeff moves off, finds the trailhead and returns to the clearing and his welcoming Tahoe. Inside, with the heater blowing full, he stares once again at his old driver’s license picture. Well, I’ve done it. But what was I expecting? Some sort of magical return to my former self? So stupid. Everybody I knew is dead or close to it, including the whole damn town.
Back on the State Highway, he approaches his hometown. The Internet pictures he studied showed a place just a few years away from becoming a ghost. Now, driving down the main street, the forest has already reclaimed some of the stores and houses. The last mill shed at the north end lies broken, its ridge rafter sagging, with berry vines claiming the rest. The hotel leans ominously with graying particle boards nailed over its doors and windows.
Jeff cruises the back streets, dodging monster holes that pockmark the crumbling asphalt. Terry’s house has disappeared under a mound of creepers. A similar mound occupies his stepdad’s property. One end of the ancient trailer still feels sunlight, its roof gone with fire burns licking up from glassless windows. But Leo’s place stands in good repair, a satellite dish on its roof and a propane tank in the side yard.
On the corner of the main street, close to the highway, stands Owens Grocery. A couple neon beer signs glow in its small-paned windows. The single Gulf Oil gas pump has been replaced with a modern Chevron pump. Could Leo’s family still run this place? God I’m thirsty . . . could use a cold one.
Jeff parks out front, climbs onto the wooden porch and enters the store. A bell rings over the door. He shuffles across the worn wooden floorboards to the counter. A middle-aged man sits staring into a smart phone, grinning. He looks up and smiles.
“How can I help you this afternoon?”
“You guys sell Rainier Beer?”
“Sorry, mister. We have Bud, Coors, Miller, Moose Head and a bunch of boutique beers. But no Rainier.”
An old man slumped in a corner chair next to the Franklin stove mutters, “We haven’t sold that swill since the seventies. The brewery got bought up and moved to LA.”
Jeff sighs. “That too bad. Me and my friends used to drink that stuff out at the lake.”
The old man unfolds himself from his chair and hobbles toward him, his right hand clutching a cane, the left hand and arm hanging limply by his side. He moves in close, removes a filthy baseball cap and stares up into Jeff’s face.
“Well I’ll be damned. Roger Stokley, right?”
For a moment Jeff stands frozen in place. He hasn’t been called Roger since he fled after high school. He doesn’t know whether he wants to reveal such a long-held secret. Can they put him in jail for impersonating someone else; for prematurely drawing Social Security under a false name; for failing to notify the police when he found the wallet? And his children, what would they think? Would it get back to them and his ex? And does he really want to open that trap door into his past?
The eyes that stare into his look young. He lets out a breath and grins. “Is that you, Leo?”
“Who else would hang around Owens Market? Come on, pull up a chair and let’s talk. Jesus, I never thought I’d see your sorry ass again.”
“Yeah, us Stokleys are tough, real survivors.”
The old men sit next to the radiating stove and sip beer brought to them by Leo’s son, David.
“Dave keeps this place goin’,” Leo says, beaming. “He makes his money as a software designer out of our family’s old place. His kids are in college and his wife and I get along great. Got my own room and shitter. What more can a man ask for?”
“Yeah, I’ve driven by your place. It’s the only one that looks occupied. What the hell happened here?”
“What do you mean? We saw it start while we were in high school. The mills closed and folks moved out . . . some just walked away from their homes.”
“But you’re still here.”
Leo flashes a lopsided grin. “Near the end of my second year at Montana Tech Pop had a stroke; must be hereditary. I came back to help Mom run the store and take care of Dad. Both of them have been gone for decades. But I never left.”
“How do you do it?” Jeff/Roger asks.
“The off season is tough. But they’ve subdivided a big patch of forest a few miles easta here and built all-season homes. Enough of the folks overwinter and we’re the only store out here.”
“Yeah but . . .”
Leo continues. “They’ve built a big resort on the lake that operates from early spring through Halloween. I get lots of business from the tourists and the resort itself. And they put in a huge KOA back in the woods from the lake. Folks stay there for weeks and need supplies.”
“But . . . but you were gonna be a mining engineer, travel the world and make big bucks as a consultant. And you have a wife?”
“Had. Elaine couldn’t handle the isolation of the great north woods,” Leo says, laughing, and gulps his beer. “We divorced when David was in high school. Haven’t heard from her in years. She’s down near The Dalles somewhere. Either that or dead.”
The heat from the stove and the beer calms Jeff/Roger and he slumps in his chair, relaxing for the first time on his trip up from LA. “So . . . I drove by Terry’s house. Gone. What happened?”
“Good ole Terry lasted less than a year in Nebraska. He quit school and joined the Marines. He’s fertilizing some rice paddy in the Mekong Delta. His folks moved away, just left the house one night with all the lights on and the front door wide open.”
David replaces their empties with fresh cold ones. A comfortable silence grows between the two men. The fine tremor that has shaken Jeff/Roger during his long trek north has calmed. Finally, Leo speaks.
“Aren’t ya gonna ask about your stepdad?”
“I’m curious, but I don’t really care. There was never any love lost between us.”
“Yeah, I get that. He lived in that funky trailer with various women for a few years after you left. Then a pissed-off girlfriend doused him in booze and lit him up. You probably noticed the burn scars on the place. He died shortly after that. Your place and most of the others were taken over by the County for delinquent taxes. A while back they held an auction trying to sell ’em, but got no takers.”
“Huh,” Jeff/Roger mutters.
“So . . . I’ve been blabbering on this whole time. What the hell happened to you? It’s pushin’ sixty years since you left.”
Jeff/Roger sucks in a deep breath. Should I tell him the truth? Who can it hurt now? Everybody’s gone or dead. He takes out his old driver’s license and hands it to Leo.
“You kept your old license? Jesus, ya look like some wise-ass hippie punk.”
“Yeah, I suppose I was.” Jeff/Roger removes his current license from his wallet and hands it to Leo.
“What’s this? Who the hell is Jeff Dickerson?”
“It’s me, man. It’s me.”
Leo stares at him wide-eyed. “What the fuck you talkin’ about? You’re Roger Stokes. We used to go to the lake and mess around, drink Rainier.”
“Yes, I remember,” Jeff/Roger says. “That last time at the lake, I found a guy’s wallet back in the woods. Stole it, stole his identity and split to California, talked them into giving me a driver’s license.”
“Holy hell, you’ve lived someone else’s life all this time?”
“No. I’ve lived my own life . . . just under a different name. And it paid off. The guy was three years older than me and IV-F. So I could buy booze, avoid the draft, and decades later sign up for Social Security three years early.”
“And the guy never turned up?”
“Beats me, I’ve never looked. My bet is that he drowned in the lake and they never found him.”
“Why do you say that?” Leo asks.
“Along with his wallet I found his clothes. Could have been a suicide. The guy was from Tacoma.”
Leo’s eyes grew large. “Ya know, about fifteen years after you left, a big storm churned up the lake. Some hikers found human bones along the shoreline. Never did identify who they belonged to.”
Jeff/Roger grins. “Well, by then I was livin’ in LA with a wife and two kids, teaching math to high school students.”
Leo’s mouth dropped open. “You, a teacher? You hated school.”
“Yeah, well forty years of that was enough. My wife left me and my kids are scattered. I guess I’m searching for a place to land.”
“Maybe an old place?” Leo grins.
“So . . . so what should I call you?”
“Call me . . . Roger. I’ll claim it’s my middle name.”
“But . . . I’ve gotta go back to LA. Gotta take care of business, ya know.”
Leo nods. “Will we see ya up this way again?”
“When you start stockin’ Rainier Beer, I’ll consider it.”
“So you’re not coming back?”
“I’m . . . I’m Jeff Dickerson of Pasadena, California.”
“Yeah . . . Jeff. Thanks for stopping by and . . . I’ll catch you later.”
Seems that Leo has gotten better over time with goodbyes. Jeff pushes through the market’s front door. The bell tinkles. Back in the Tahoe he heads south, retracing his 1967 flight. After visiting his past, he knows that’s not where he belongs and that Thomas Wolfe is right.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, and novels. His short stories have been accepted more than 490 times by journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
Paunchy from being fêted at innumerable Michelin star restaurants, Vice President of International Harry O’Toole greeted me with a salesman’s handshake and a predator’s smile that underscored a bulbous, burst capillary nose, a souvenir of his passion for single malt Scotch. He had a reputation for overlooking spotty performance in subordinate managing directors if a nubile was procured for him during a subsidiary visit.
O’Toole motioned me to an adjacent couch while he ensconced in a bullshit-black leather armchair, air whooshing from the cushions. He crossed his arms and pointed his proboscis toward the eggshell ceiling. “Grant, do you know why you’re here?”
I’d spent the morning reviewing red figures from our Brazilian subsidiary’s financial statements. As if lost in the Amazon jungle, the presiding MD produced results so disastrous that even providing O’Toole with a bevy of samba-school beauties wouldn’t save him.
“The managing director position for Brazil is open,” I replied.
O’Toole’s eyes locked onto me. “What’s your answer?”
Four years earlier, in 1985, Brazil’s governing military junta surrendered power to an elected president who dispensed populist freebies financed by a torrent of foreign debt. Endemic corruption and a weak administration triggered rocketing prices, tottering the country at the cliff of hyperinflation and social chaos.
The Brazilian subsidiary employed thousands with extensive manufacturing operations, ostensibly a plumb job, but I had to survive the crucible. O’Toole had been MD of Brazil during the economic boom prior to the mid-1970s OPEC oil shock, a successful stint that propelled his career. Every MD who followed he’d either fired or retired.
My ego trumped good judgment. “When do I start?”
O’Toole slapped his knees and stood. “Fly to Rio de Janeiro tomorrow.”
Jeez. December 31st!
He waved me dismissively out of his office. I’d solved his problem. Now, it was my problem.
After my appointment was announced, I received a call from a mentor, an Italian returned to Europe. “Congratulations on your promotion,” he said. “You’re moving up in the world, as I expected.”
“Grazie. Any advice?”
“The Brazilian management views O’Toole like Jesus Christ. They’re bulletproof and will tell him what you had for breakfast.”
“What are you saying?”
“Trusting the team is good. Not trusting is better. Capisce?”
On the next day’s Varig flight to Rio de Janeiro, I dug into a pile of background material. The sitting Brazilian president declined to run again and the looming election to succeed him pitted Collor, a narcissistic populist, against Lula, a communist. Nice choice. Both swore to end inflation, Collor with a single coup, most likely some desperately dumb-ass economic move. Brazilian street crime and kidnapping were already pervasive and the essential goods shortage that might follow a government shock could supercharge domestic unrest. I sighed. So much for hoping a robust economy would make my job easier.
The Brazilian subsidiary lost gobs of money and I was the management EMT dispatched to apply a tourniquet. My direct reports were senior to me in both experience and age and likely saw my promotion as them being passed over, particularly the Chief Financial Officer José Sarno, who had been with the company more years than I was alive. I’d be center stage and alone, possibly sabotaged by a jealous management. As I didn’t speak Portuguese, the information I received from them would be filtered for self-interest, and they’d report my missteps to their patron saint O’Toole.
I massaged stiffness in my neck and shook off my malaise. Enough negative crap, I thought, I’m not going to fail.
The plane descended through lumpy clouds and landed early evening at Galeão International Airport. In Arrivals, a physique of a bass fiddle held up a sign with my name. He had the handshake of a cadaver.
“Welcome to Brazil. I’m Human Resource Manager Clodovil Hernandes. I hope you’re not too tired from your trip.”
“Not at all. I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for meeting me.”
He offered to wheel my bag to his car, but I waved him off. Before he dropped me at the Copacabana Hotel, he said, “Monday you’ll meet the management committee. I suggest you not walk about Rio, especially at night. The favella slums are particularly dangerous, but even along the beach a thief will put his hand into your pocket.”
I just listened, thinking that I probably experienced worse neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
After unpacking, I fidgeted. No way I’d just sit in my hotel, so I conferred with the concierge.
“I suggest attending this evening’s New Year’s festival on Copacabana beach to honor the Candomblé goddess Yemanjá, queen of the sea,” he said. “Dress in white.”
I donned my linen suit and, remembering Hernandes’s warning, I left my watch and everything but pocket change inside the hotel safe and set out for the festa. Sugar Loaf and the Christ The Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain overlooked the sparkling turquoise of Guanabara Bay, which was lined with beige-sand beaches and high-rise hotels. Beyond the glass and stone structures, the slopes were crammed with rows of favella shacks. The ravages of inflation had turned Brazil into a country of extreme rich and poor.
As the sun set, crowds of Brazilian Candomblé devotees in flowing white garments approached the swelling surf with foamy waves that crawled up the beach at Copacabana. Seeking Yemanja’s blessing, they clutched bunches of red and blue flowers and small boat replicas each with a candle mounted. Candle lighting was accompanied by the rumble and pop of samba drums and the staccato metallic rap of cowbells. The air smelled of coconut and salt spray. Worshipers filed toward the sea as if to a communion rail, entering the surf, setting their candle-lit boats adrift and floating their flowers on the sea. Barefoot women with long black hair, wearing tiaras and white gossamer skirts swayed with graceful hand gestures, flowing hips, and light steps as everyone sang with the beat. Caught up in the music I rocked rhythmically, and the thump of drums created a calming effect, drifting my mind into a semi-hypnotic state.
A black woman with striking blue eyes that matched her headdress must have observed my reaction and approached me. She cupped my face, and I awoke from my trance.
“Yemanja has initiated you into Candomblé,” she said. “You’ve been possessed, she is now your orixá, and the spirit of the goddess will guide your destiny and protect you.”
I was a little taken aback. “How did you know I speak English?”
The woman smiled. “You’re struggling with a problem.”
“Aren’t we all,” I said in a skeptical tone.
Her smile broadened. “Open your heart to the goddess.” She pressed a card with the image of a dark-skinned woman dressed in blue into my palm.
When I looked up, she’d disappeared.
Monday’s drive to company headquarters passed walled houses with thirty-foot vines of blazing Bougainvillea of crimson, magenta, lavender, and white. Dark and light-green flora dotted orange-clay hillsides under a bright sun mantled by a blue and puffy cumulus sky.
Approaching the conference room, I heard lively Portuguese conversation spiked with laughter.
I entered and we introduced ourselves. Sarno’s face was dour when we shook hands.
“What were you joking about?” I asked.
Alberto Matarazzo, tall, the Sales and Marketing Director said, “Inflation. Rather than cure a problem, we Brazilians ‘push it with our belly.’ We’ve indexed the economy, confusing pricing. Yesterday I received a quote for tires, and I wasn’t sure if it was for two or four.”
Everyone but Sarno chuckled.
Hugo Safra, swarthy and serious, the Manufacturing Director said, “The cruzado is indexed daily by the banks. If you go to sleep with cash in your pocket, you lose money.”
Our conversation turned to business and the company’s losses. Having their last MD fired, I might’ve expected to find a defensive management, but they knew O’Toole had their backs.
“How do we get this company onto a sound financial footing?” I asked.
“Brazilians need everything,” Matarazzo said, “but this is a poor country. If we push up prices, demand will dry up. Better we control our costs.”
Safra said, “If demand dries up, we might as well shutter the factory. As for cutting costs, inflation runs far higher than productivity improvements.”
To draw Sarno into the conversation, I asked him, “What do you say about all this?”
Short and wiry, he flashed an enigmatic smile. “Our crazy country must come as quite a shock to a North American. If you’re uncomfortable now, trust me, things will get worse.”
Heat rose up my neck, but I damped down my anger. Sarno lusted after my job, hoping I’d fail, and O’Toole wouldn’t approve my shit-canning the prick. I began to sympathize more with my predecessor’s dilemma. Not all problems had solutions, and I could soon join a long series of failed Brazil MDs, returned to the US in disgrace, or shit-canned myself. Only a blue-eyed optimist believed the upcoming presidential election would help. Newspapers expressed the view that whether Collor or Lula won, dealing decisively with inflation would cause civil unrest and the military would retake power.
Back in my office, I piled financial statements next to a large cup of strong coffee. I leaned my picture of Yemanja against a pen set and concentrated on the image. Remembering what the woman at Copacabana had said, I thought, okay, Orixá, now’s the time I need some inspiration.
While I worked, Sarno delivered more files, and when he spotted the image of Yemanja, his eyebrows rose, but he said nothing.
I read financial statements and tapped my calculator well into the evening, finally huffing at my inability to come up with a plan to get us profitable. My eyelids became heavy and I slipped into the same trancelike state I experienced at the beach. In my brain, an image of a chocolate-skinned woman with long black hair, wearing a flowing aqua gown emerged slowly from the sea, the water sheeting from her body. Her intense blue eyes stared straight at me. Her slender hands went to the bodice of her dress and a U.S. dollar sign appeared. She smiled, and I snapped awake, my eyes on the image of Yemanja on my desk.
The realization hit me. All the company’s statements were in cruzados, but what was their value in dollars? With inflation raging, by the time a customer paid for goods, we’d collected less than the dollar replacement cost, and we lost money.
The next morning, I called a management meeting.
“Starting next week, our prices will be based on U.S. dollar replacement value,” I said, “ignoring historical cruzado costs.”
Sarno piped up immediately. “It’s illegal to issue a price list in dollars.”
“Our prices will be quoted in cruzados based on the dollar replacement value,” I responded. “Further, our terms of sale will be shortened to thirty days, and we’ll add an interest charge equaling anticipated monthly inflation plus five percent.”
Matarazzo threw up his hands. “Customers will scream.”
Safra moaned. “Demand will collapse.”
Sarno sat back, crossing his arms.
“Guys,” I said, “this is a risk we must take. By pricing based on replacement cost, whatever we sell will be profitable.”
Dubious faces expressed the cheerfulness of a wake.
Customers groused at the new prices and terms, but volumes didn’t deteriorate significantly. Apparently, Brazilians understood that tangible goods were an effective inflation hedge, and nobody could tell if they were buying two tires or four. We turned our first profit in many months.
No sooner were our results transmitted to the States than I received a call from O’Toole. He didn’t mince words. “I don’t believe in miracles.”
Clearly, he suspected I was cooking the books.
“Come and see for yourself,” I said, trying to ignore my suddenly acid stomach.
“I’m arriving Monday. My assistant will send you the flight details.” He hung up.
The company jet arrived in the early afternoon, and O’Toole was stone-faced when we shook hands. In the car to the hotel, he didn’t ask how I was getting on. His only comment was, “I assume the usual arrangement has been made.”
I grunted noncommittally. He didn’t invite me to join him for dinner.
Earlier that day, Sarno had handed me a slip of paper with the name, “Monica,” and a phone number, saying, “O’Toole likes to see her when he’s in Brazil.”
After Sarno left, I crumpled the paper in my fist. Pimp wasn’t in my job description.
The next day, I’d anticipated that O’Toole would be pissed, but he was livid, and my “Good morning” wasn’t returned.
Silent in the car, we entered the conference room, and O’Toole greeted Matarazzo, Safra, and Sarno, then sat at the table’s head.
I reviewed the new pricing plan in detail, including our recent financial statements, before each member of the team made a short presentation on their area.
When Sarno spoke, O’Toole asked him, “Are there any irregularities you’d like to tell me about?”
Sarno’s face showed disappointment that he had nothing to report.
In the car headed back for the airport, O’Toole said, “Let’s see how long your luck lasts.”
When the plane was in the clouds and out of sight, I clicked my heels in relief.
Fernando Collor de Mello won the presidential election vowing he’d kill inflation with “one bullet.” Inflation hit 90% per month when he took office on March 15, 1990, and the soothsayer who warned Julius Caesar was correct a second time. Collor immediately froze every personal and commercial bank account in the nation, bringing business activity in Brazil to a dead stop.
At the management meeting I called, everyone looked crushed.
Safra verbalized the universal concern. “Daily indexing was my only protection from inflation. All my retirement savings were in the bank. Now, the Government will make the money disappear.”
Although I sympathized with their pain, I had to turn the conversation to business. “As of today, few people have money. For those who do, we’ll implement a cash-sale policy until customers have time to re-liquefy their business.”
My assistant entered. “Sorry Senhor, but Mr. O’Toole is calling.”
I took a deep breath trying to dampen my angst before I picked up the phone. O’Toole came quickly to the point. “What’re you doing about this new economic crisis?”
As I replied, I kept my eyes on the image of Yemanja on my desk. “We’re taking a cautious approach on credit. Business will be terrible for a while but I’m sure the economy will bounce back once everyone has figured out how to operate. Brazilians adapt.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me. I heard a disturbing report that you’re getting involved with Candomblé. That’s voodoo.”
Sarno told O’Toole about the picture of Yemanja on my desk. I tried to sound unconcerned. “I don’t know what you’re hearing.”
“I’m worried about our corporate reputation, and the newspapers grabbing the story: ‘Executive becomes Macumba witch-doctor.’ I won’t chance that.”
I responded rashly. “You’re sore I didn’t arrange for Monica to be in your hotel room during your visit.”
O’Toole shouted. “You’re fired.” His agitation felt like a bonfire even over the phone.
I swear that the image of Yemanja smiled. My consciousness retreated, and my mind floated like a fetus in amniotic fluid.
O’Toole continued. “Get your ass out of the office before…” His words deteriorated into a violent cough, and he choked hoarsely. “Before I order security to remove…”
The phone went silent, but I could no longer hear. In my mind, Yemanja cradled me inside a giant seashell.
O’Toole’s assistant’s shout over the phone woke me.
“Mr. O’Toole has fainted. I’m calling an ambulance.” She hung up.
I held Yemanja’s image and leaned back. There is a goddess.
By the end of day, a corporate press release announced that Harry O’Toole had suffered a massive heart attack and died. Sarno took the news hard. I didn’t shed a tear.
For the next year, the Brazilian economy bounced along. My international career progressed through assignments of increasing responsibility until I became Vice President of International. I’d put Yemanja’s image inside an 18K gold frame and carried it everywhere.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jane now live in Texas. His stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah, and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember. His novels include, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, and the Anthony Provati thriller series, Appointment with ISIL, Drone Strike, and coming in June 2022, The Art of Revenge. Visit Joe’s website at https://joe-giordano.com/.
Springfields still echoed somewhere off in the growing distance as night fell. He awoke, engulfed in dark and smoke. With great difficulty, he drew for breath and it pained him. He pulled himself up against a lone, tall pine at field’s edge and, back against the tree, put his fingers to the holes in his chest left there by the Minié balls. He coughed a choking cough. Bright, red blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and the holes in his old, grey coat leaked froth.
Surveying the aftermath of the battle, he could recognize nothing resembling human life remaining. Here he sat, by all appearances, the lone survivor. The blue coats must have mistaken him for dead, an honest mistake, else he would himself now be dead. No matter, death would come soon enough. There was no field surgeon now and nothing that a good doctor could do for such wounds save numb sensation of body and mind with what barely passed for whiskey and, if so inclined, as oft good souls were, provide some company until the end.
The soldier’s soul had been numbed long ago by pain of loss of country, his ancestral land, his family. Innumerable deaths were witnessed and replayed over and over in his mind. Once a devout man, he no longer feigned such, daring to declare that God himself had abandoned the South along with all the faithful therein.
Between fits of coughing and the adamantine pangs of death, he reached into a coat pocket fiddling for his flask. It was not to be found. After battles, mostly victories, those now fewer and farther between, General would ration out whiskey to the men and celebrate with them. Occasionally, the whiskey would be a balm for mourning after a defeat. There would be neither such this evening. All of the men, even the good general, lay before him carpeting the battlefield a dead grey.
What I would not give for one last taste of whiskey. It is funny what men think of generally but, perhaps, more so when upon death’s doorstep. And then his mind turned toward his wife, Sarah. This time of an evening, she would have finished up supper, said prayers with the children, and soon be tucking them into bed. He could not know that Sarah rarely slept these nights but, rather, spent them in a rocking chair in front of their bedroom window, curtains drawn, keeping watch over the path in the front yard for his return. Everyone knew that the war was drawing to a close and Sarah never lost faith that he would one day return to her.
From another pocket, he took hold of his journal. He took pen to hand and, within its pages, described this, his last battle, under the entry “The Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle.” He described the events of the day, as best he could, how the valiant men all lay dead, how hope was now all but lost for his countrymen, and then his mind wandered back to his home and to Sarah and the children. He lay there dying, a mere seven-mile ride by horse from his home in Athens. If only he could make it home to say his final goodbye. He would have to write it and hope that the words found their way to Sarah.
Sarah awakened in the middle of the night. She had dreamt that her husband lay dying in a silent field, propped up against a long, tall pine, body riddled with bullets. He lacked all comfort save those to which he could recourse in his own mind. A man ought not die like that, especially a good man. How she longed to embrace and hold him, to comfort him in all the ways a woman can comfort a man. To wipe his face with a water-soaked rag…to put a swig of good whiskey to his lips. The dream was more vivid than the present dim and dull reality. She had seen him writing in his old, dirty, now heavily bloodstained leather journal and read every word until the end, feeling as having been there with him through it all and with him still at the very last. But she could not decipher that which he wrote finally—a single line of script. Try though as she may, she was wisped away from the dream to reality against her will, filled with the anxiety that only words unspoken, those impeded by the encroachment of death, can impart.
She sprang up, drenched in cold sweat, feet to the hardwood floor of the old, two-story antebellum which creaked as her weight displaced upon it. She made her way to the antique, oak armoire and retrieved a dusty, crystal decanter and poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was still stiff and hot. She poured another, drinking it swiftly, as medicine for nerves burned frazzled.
On edge, senses heightened from the dream, to which she was still trying to reenter, she heard a rustling noise outside. Someone was on the front porch and, at this hour, this could not bode well. From a drawer within the armoire, she carefully removed her husband’s Griswold & Gunnison .36 caliber six-shooter sliding it from its well-worn, leather holster. She crept down the stairs, walking to the edge to avoid alerting any intruder to her awareness of the situation. She was ready to kill a Yankee if she had to, or one of those bastards who refused to fight with the real men, and even boys, of the South.
She took her French chemise gown in left hand and pulled it up as she glided silently toward the front door, black powder firearm in the right. A lone candle on the mantle cast just enough light. Back to the wall, she could clearly discern the shuffling of feet and heard the wooden planks of the porch creak. It was almost as if something were being dragged across it. Sarah inhaled a silent, but deep breath, slowly turned the key in the cast iron passage lock praying for no “click” or “clank.” She swung the door open and pulled back on the hammer, cocking the pistol and found herself pointing it toward a specter of a figure standing shadowlike in the inky darkness of the night.
Sarah was terrified but she would not show it. “State your business stranger and make it quick! We are quick on the trigger in these parts!”
He stood there in the darkness, silent. Or at least she thought it to be silence but then, at once, she could discern that the stranger was, in fact, speaking, rather trying to speak but so softly as to barely be audible over the cool, southern wind rusting through the magnolias.
The man stumbled forward and it was enough that the candlelight illuminated his face. It was her husband. Before she could say his name, he fell toward her and as he fell, she quickly dropped the gun, catching him, falling to the floor alongside him. A hard breeze blew past them, the candle flickered, their eyes met glistening in the dim light accented by tears as precious as diamonds.
She held him. She said his name over and over. She cried. She placed her hands upon his now gaunt, ashy, and bloodstained cheeks, fixing her eyes upon his, then closing them, and pressed her lips gently against his, red and salty from the tint of blood. She tasted death. He tasted whiskey. And then he passed from this life to the next, steadfast in her arms.
The sun was soon up and shining morning’s first light in through the doorway. Sarah, lay there, still, having never let him go all the while weeping inconsolably through the final hours of night.
It was by light of dawn that Sarah noticed the tattered journal protruding from underneath the flap of a coat pocket. She took it carefully to hand and turned through the stained pages and read, best she could, through a veil of saline. Remembering her dream, she turned to the last entry and read of the efforts of the valiant men in the battle for the trestle, moreover their homeland, and the subsequent tragedy of their demise. She had, indeed, seen from within her dream, or so it seemed to her, her husband write these very words. She read further…fond recollections of herself and of their children. And then, finally, she came to that last line penned by her husband within his journal on that fateful night…those words that she had tried so very hard to read in the dream before she was so abruptly divorced from that place and returned to the cold reality of her present life. It read, “Sarah, wake up.”
*This piece first appeared in The Chamber Magazine, July 30, 2021.*
Shane Huey, editor of The Whisky Blot, writes from his home in Florida where he resides with his wife and son. www.shanehuey.net.