Silver Lake by Jeff Ingber
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.
Levi and the Frogs by Shane Huey
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."
Behind the Red Door by Kevin Hogg
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.
At Peace by Manish Bhanushali
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.
Old Names by Terry Sanville
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.
There is a Goddess by Joe Giordano
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/.
The Last Taste of Whiskey by Shane Huey
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.
Rat-a-tat by Maggie Walcott
“This is the best that you’re going to be able to do.” The counselor had used a variation of that refrain quite a lot over the years. Not those exact words, of course, for where was the fun in that? But the general sentiment was always there nonetheless, a dark specter lightly cushioned with gentler observances like, “You’re an incredibly talented student, but” or sometimes sandwiched between “Right now the market is saturated with students” and “if you approach it in the right way, this is a great opportunity.” Just like a bit of slightly spoiled turkey, he knew that the trick was using enough dressing that the rancid sweetness hidden underneath became undetectable.
It might be different if he enjoyed the teenagers that rotated endlessly through the ragged cloth chair in his small office, but in truth, he despised them. Five days a week, thirty-six weeks a year, and countless hours spent holed up in a 10’ by 6’ space with their identical upturned countenances. He never failed to be repulsed by the combination of ignorance and conviction which oozed from their young bodies at every session. The only joy he received from their enthusiasm was in finding new and interesting ways of stamping it out.
His fingers drummed the desk slowly as he waited for the next student to arrive, not a fast rat-a-tat as so many others do – but methodical. Each finger on the desk marking a past success in his mind. His special cases. The student with a natural raw talent for mixed media art who he had painstakingly convinced was not good enough to apply to art schools. Rat. The athlete with a full ride basketball scholarship to a District II school, now a private in the US Army. A. And of course, his best pieces of work to date, and one that had taken him a full three years to bring about: The clever transfer student, so full of promise but lacking confidence, who had taken her own life. Tat.
Three years on a case is a long time, but the counselor believed strongly in being slow and methodical. The tortoise and the hare fable had hit him hard as a youth, and he planned his special cases like he drummed his fingers. Take your time. You have lots of it. Make small, but steady movements forward.
He was lost a bit in memory of that last case when the door of his office opened and his next appointment entered. It was Jack again. Dammit. He quickly looked down at his schedule to verify that Jack hadn’t been scheduled for today. Nothing there. Internally fuming, he pasted on his best blandly genial guidance counselor face and stood to greet the young man.
“Jack! What a surprise. I didn’t have you on my schedule for today. I have about five minutes until my next appointment, is there something I can assist with?”
The counselor’s voice was calm, soothing and deep. He practiced it at home in front of the mirror, often in conjunction with the same face he had just used on Jack. Jack was a freshman, tall, but gangly slim. Having not yet experienced the hormonal growth spurt that would widen his shoulders to match his already considerable height, Jack reminded the counselor of a wet spaghetti noodle. This impression was further compounded by the way that Jack inevitably flopped around nervously whenever he dropped in, which was frequently.
In fact, these visits had ramped up to such a degree as of late that the counselor had privately dubbed him “the Jack-in-the-box.” It was a moniker that had more to do with Jack’s unnerving ability to spring in when he was least expected than his actual name.
Jack dangled his gangly limbs into the worn student chair, finding purchase in the cracked seams, as the counselor gently closed the door behind him. “It’s the compulsion again, Mr. Pourri. I felt it coming on, so I ditched my photography class and got my ass over here ASAP.” The last word came out “a-sap”—and the counselor felt his eye twitch as he considered that, even in speech, Jack was too hurried to properly spell out the acronym.
Jack reached for the zipper on his jeans and began ratcheting the pull tab down the chain of metal teeth before the counselor could had even turned back around. “Jack, stop right there. I appreciate that you feel comfortable enough to come to me when you feel this compulsion, but we’ve discussed this. You cannot remove clothing in front of me. It’s inappropriate. We can discuss your symptoms, but you have to stay fully clothed.” The words were hissed quietly, but surely from the counselor’s mouth.
Last year, when Jack first began coming around, the counselor had diagnosed him with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It wasn’t that Jack had an actual compulsion to get naked, like some psychotics. With Jack it was a stress response. When Jack felt a panic attack or anxiety attack coming on, he described that the feel of clothing against his skin became unbearable. Jack could not think. He could not talk. He could only feel that clothing until it was removed.
Jack’s fingers paused in mid-air for a fraction of a second before resuming their work. “Sorry, Mr. Pourri, really I am. Just…give me a moment, please?” And that was that. Ten seconds later the jeans were taking up space on the floor of the cramped room, while Jack sat pants-less in the metal chair. As it usually did, Jack’s upper body collapsed the rest of the way forward, as he hung his head between his knees and took deep breaths. Small sobs wracked his gangly form.
The counselor hated this part. Naked bodies, male or female, held only horror for him. Furthermore, Jack was not one of his special cases and the prospect of providing genuine comfort to a student with no plan in sight was distasteful, to say the least. On the other hand he knew that calling for assistance with this would only lead to questions. No, the best thing to do was to get Jack up and out of there as quickly as possible.
Secure in the knowledge that he was relatively protected in the confines of the closed room, the counselor took a moment to gather up Jack’s pants. He slowly folded the worn denim in three, before kneeling in front of the boy to whisper. “Jack. Please put these back on now. This is not appropriate for either you, or me. We can talk about your anxiety, but first you have to put the pants back on.” This was always how it went. The counselor knew that eventually, Jack would calm down, recover his bearings and leave. Jack never thought about the repercussions of his actions, consumed as he was by the compulsion, nor did he seem particularly inclined to discuss his feelings once he was re-clothed. That was fine by the counselor – he just wanted Jack gone before the next student showed up.
True to form, after a few more seconds Jack’s head began to lift up and he could once again look the counselor in the eye. “Thanks, Mr. Pourri. I’m sorry to keep doing this. I don’t know where else I can go when this happens.” Jack rubbed the right side of his face with his forearm, wiping away the moisture there, before grabbing the pants from the counselor’s crouched form.
“Jack, we need to have a conversation on alternative coping mechanisms. I want you to feel comfortable with me, but this puts me in a dangerous position. You cannot come here anymore if this is what happens every time.”
“I know, Mr. Pourri. I know. I just don’t know what else to do.” Jack paused for a moment and his eyes grazed the walls of the office, as though looking for absolution on the messy book shelves before continuing. “I think I’ve got it mostly knocked though. I really do. My parents started me on a new medication last week, so I think once I’m adjusted, it’ll be fine again. Like it was before.” The counselor stood up and turned bodily around to face the door, as Jack disentangled himself from the chair and stepped into the legs of the jeans.
After Jack had left, the counselor gave himself a five minute break to recover. His next appointment, the slight girl with a lisp, was already there waiting for him in the hall chair outside, but he had signaled to her with one hand to wait there. He gave himself exactly two minutes to consider whether his indifference to Jack had been a mistake. When the boy had first come to him, he was entirely too needy, an immediate disqualifier. The joy, after all, was in the breaking.
However, lately, the counselor had sensed something new in Jack. A slowly building crescendo, like the fingers which quickened in rhythm even now upon his office desk. It was entirely possible that Jack might have made a great special case, perhaps one of his best. His two minutes up, the counselor dismissed these thoughts, and prepared himself for the young girl who was waiting in the corridor outside his office. Now she, he thought, would surely be magnificent.
When the three hard knocks came at his door a week later, the counselor should have been more surprised. In truth, it wasn’t the knock which surprised him. He was certainly angry, as the police pulled his arms behind his back, tightening the metal cuffs onto his wrists like a vice—but more at the inconvenience, still believing that everything could easily be explained away. But then the whispered rumors began circling. Rumors about the unfortunate family which ultimately became news stories. Imagine a family that lost their teenage daughter to suicide, and then—a mere 12 months later, having their only remaining child, a fifteen your old son, confess a sexual relationship with his school counselor. Imagine their pain.
The jury certainly could. Of course the video helped in their decision making process. It didn’t show much, of course—how could it? The crime had never happened. But as it happens, Jack had done a bang up job of placing the camera lens just so. Artfully capturing the half a dozen visit where Jack had sat in the chair, pants-less from the waist down, the counselor’s head obscured as he kneeled in front of his student.
No, it was the planning that surprised the counselor. He hadn’t expected that from the kid. Not from gangly limbed, anxiety ridden Jack. Slowly and methodically, Jack had brought the hammer of his own justice down. And even the counselor could admit—the best Jack could do was actually, pretty good.
Deep in the wilds of Northern Michigan, Maggie Menezes Walcott lives with her family in a house they built themselves. She has a grossly unused degree in physical anthropology from Michigan State University and has returned from a 30 year hiatus to her first love—creative writing. Her pieces have since been published in Mothers Always Write, The Dunes Review, and Every Day Fiction, among others.
Office at Night by Michael Klein
Zelja rested her arm on the open file cabinet drawer and watched over Mr. Garridan’s shoulder as he read the letter for what must have been the tenth time.
She adjusted her tight turquoise dress. She wanted to puncture the long silence and she was comfortable offering him her thoughts. He welcomed her opinion. In work. This was not work.
As if finally accepting that no matter how many times he re-read the letter, the contents would not change, he set it down and traced his finger along its edge.
He leaned back in his chair and let out a breath. Outside the open window an elevated train blasted by, rattling the frosted windows on the far wall of the small office.
“Well, that’s it then,” he said.
“What should we do, Mr. Garridan?”
He glanced out the window.
“We? Nothing we can do. You should probably look for a new position.”
“Mr. Garridan, don’t be dramatic.”
“I’ll write you a fine reference. Of course, you’ll need to use it quickly, before, well—” he gestured to the letter.
“Nonsense. We’ll think of something,” she said.
“Not this time, Zel. Not this time. Give me the bottle, will you?”
He yanked open the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out two short stemmed glasses. He loosened his necktie as she eased one of the file cabinet drawers open, lifting it slightly so it wouldn’t screech. She reached to the back, wrapped her fingers around the neck of the bottle. Passing it to him, she saw the contents were below the tiny nail polish mark she had placed on the label a few days before.
Garridan took the bottle, made a show of dropping the cap in the waste basket by the window.
“We won’t need that,” he said as he filled each glass to one of the gold stripes near the lip.
He held one out to her.
She stared at his hands, his thin delicate fingers that almost met around the glass.
“Zel, I’ll drink alone, but I don’t want to.” He thrust the glass at her.
She took it and dropped into the banker’s chair beside the file cabinet.
He stood, took a small step towards her and clinked her glass with his.
“Noroc,” he muttered.
“Ziveli,” she whispered.
She brought the glass to her brightly painted lips, the smell of the liquor tickling her nostrils.
Garridan drained his glass in one motion and was back at his desk sloshing more alcohol into it. He didn’t notice her lower her glass without taking a sip.
He walked to the window, leaned against the jamb and looked at the street below.
A stifling silence settled on the office.
Zelja stared at her own fingers, plumper than his, tracing the slight imperfections of the hand blown glass.
“Could we call Judge Bartholomew?” she asked.
“Why would he help me? And what could he do anyway?”
“I suspect he’d be sympathetic,” she answered.
He cocked his head and looked at her.
“His son,” she said quietly, staring at a piece of paper that had fallen to the floor.
He made a small noise of acknowledgment and took a long pull on his drink. He turned back to the window.
“You and the judge could have lunch at his club,” she continued. “A public show of support.”
Garridan didn’t say anything. His silence pulled her to the edge of her seat.
“He’s up for re-election next year,” Garridan finally said. “He won’t even want to see me in his courtroom let alone his club. Sympathetic to the circumstances or not.”
Another train barreled past in the opposite direction of the first.
She wanted to pour her drink out, but the potted plant she had used for the purpose in the past, having withered the week before, had been replaced with an umbrella stand.
He gulped down his drink and turned to pour another, but her expression stopped him.
“Come on, Zel, it’s just the way things are.”
“Well, I hate it. They’ve no right.”
“Take a sip, Zel. You have to, we toasted. I’ll finish it, just take a sip. For me.”
She did. The tiny bit of alcohol burning her throat and reminding her of her father, long gone.
Garridan held out his empty glass by the base. She took it, placed hers in his fingers. He drained it in a single swallow and poured another.
“Why don’t we just deny it all,” she asked.
“Zelja, you keep saying ‘we.’ This is my problem, not ours. Anyway, whoever this is says there’s proof,” Garridan said, pulling his tie the rest of the way off.
“Misunderstandings,” she offered.
“Depends on the proof,” he said with a laugh.
Her cheeks flushed. “Oh bullshit, Mr. Garridan.”
“Miss Zastitnik, I am shocked,” he said smiling.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Garridan, it just makes me so mad.”
“You see, I am a bad influence on you. They’re right,” he said.
“I had a father and two brothers. I learned to swear long before I came to work for you, sir. ”
He raised his glass in her direction and swallowed again.
“What if we had our own proof?” she asked.
“Proof that it can’t be true.”
“Zelja, one of the first things you learn in law school is that trying to prove a negative is a dangerous strategy,” he said, refilling his glass.
“I know how we can prove it,” she said softly.
He paused, the full glass mid-way to his lips.
“I know someone. A girl. We were in the same boarding house when I first arrived. She would be very understanding.” Zelja stressed the very.
He lowered the glass to the desk.
“Why would she help me?”
Zelja shifted in her seat.
“She comes from money. But her family doesn’t approve of her…choices. At some point, they’ll have had enough and no more money.”
They sat silent for a moment.
“You know how to reach her?”
She nodded slowly. “I do. I do.”
Garridan exhaled, looked at his glass.
Another el train rocketed past the window.
“Zelja, I don’t pay you enough.”
“I agree, Mr. Garridan,” she said, standing and smoothing her dress.
She took a half step to his desk, snatched up the bottle and drank from it, draining it. She put it back on his desk with a bang.
“My brothers taught me more than swearing. Put your tie back on. Let’s find your bride.”
Michael Klein is originally from New York and has lived in Northern Virginia since 1999. A great fan of bourbon, his tastes are unapologetically simple. He has run a local writers group since 2006 that has produced wonderful talents. Michael has work forthcoming in "After Dinner Conversation."
Library Blues by Linda S. Gunther
Brenda approached the information desk. The hefty, red-lipped college librarian looked up, threw her head back and sneezed into Brenda’s face. It had just been 24 hours since the mask mandate had been removed inside the campus buildings. Brenda quickly turned as if she had no question. She wanted to ask what time the library would close on Christmas Eve. But all she could think about was getting away from the woman and wondered if the library staff was regularly tested for the COVID virus.
So disgusting, Brenda thought as she headed to the fiction section. She knelt down by the bottom shelf in the "F" aisle and pulled out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The slim-necked bottle half-full of brown liquid which she had stashed in the back of the shelf was still there. She couldn’t hide it in her dorm room. Her roommate Greta was anti-drugs and alcohol. And, the RA’s did regular unannounced random sweeps. It was always quiet in the library at this time of day, a perfect hiding place for her booze.
She looked up and down the aisle. Satisfied to see no one, she twisted off the cap, and took a long slug of the Jameson whiskey her Irish uncle had secretly given to her last weekend, a week before Christmas. Hot to her throat, yet smooth she thought of Professor McCallam, his salt and pepper hair, his dark sultry eyes, the way he stood at the front of the college classroom full of fire. Her crush had turned into a daydreamed love affair over the last six weeks of Twentieth Century English Lit.
She pushed the whiskey bottle to the very back of the wood shelf and replaced the worn edition of The Great Gatsby in front of it. The sound of the bottle clanked somewhere behind the shelving. Oh, shit.
Tip-toeing around the corner, she hoped not to be noticed by the careless librarian. She headed to the "J" aisle of the Fiction section. Where had the bottle gone? She bent down, pulled out P.D. James' A Taste for Death, and awkwardly stretched out her arm to the very back and between the cabinets. Her chin on the edge of the shelf, she blindly groped around for anything that felt like a glass container.
Did the damn thing break? Her fingers skipped around the wood flooring. Nothing but clusters of dust, and maybe a dead insect. Gross, she thought. She started to pull her arm out. Damn it! She was stuck. Her hand had jammed in the narrow space between the "F" and "J" bookshelves.
The shuffle of shoes came towards her. Brown loafers that squeaked a little. Argyle brown and beige socks. Cuffs on the tan chinos. Her head lifted, her knees flush to the floor, her arm strained out, her hand trapped. It’s him! Professor McCallam looked at her, a puzzled grin on his face, his shoulder length straight hair flopped down over his cheeks.
"You're in my lit class? Yes?" he said.
Brenda felt the sweat break drip under her arms. Her throat went dry. "Brenda Dishtal," she said. In her head it had sounded like Brenda Dish Towel. "Brenda Dishtal," she repeated more clearly. She pulled on her arm but it remained stuck, her wrist bent forward awkwardly, the pain sharp.
He looked down at her, his eyes narrowed, the grin on his face gone. "Are you hurt? Can I help?" he asked. He placed his leather briefcase on the floor and knelt down next to her. His after-shave smelled like vanilla. She breathed it in.
"Oh God," she said. "I-I was looking for a book and got my hand stuck."
He hesitated. "You got your hand…"
She interrupted. "I know it doesn't make sense." she spit the words out not knowing where to go with her next comment.
"I see," he said, and pulled five or six P.D. James' novels off the bottom shelf, placing them in a pile on the floor next to his briefcase. He reached into the shelving, to the very back of the shelf, his face close to her forearm. She could feel his breath on her skin. She thought she noticed him glance at her arm, which was tanned and golden from outdoor swim practice.
His head went further in and came out quickly. "Okay," he said. "Now, I want you to relax your fingers, and let your wrist flop loosely without any resistance.
I have no resistance, she thought.
“I think, then, I could free you,” he said. “Can you do that? Totally relax the wrist."
She saw the slight growth of whiskers on his chin. Tiny gray and black specs. Manly, she thought. His teeth were a translucent perfect white. His gums, pink. Healthy mouth, I like that. The scent of his after shave enticed her.
"Yes, I think I can relax," she said. The pain seemed to sharpen, a contrast to her head swimming in ecstasy.
“Good,” he said, and pushed a few more books from the bottom shelf onto the floor. He stuck his head back into the narrow shelf space. She bit her lip.
"Relax it," he said, his voice muffled. She imagined being on a beach, the professor holding her hand as they moved into the water, laughing as they splashed and played in the turquoise shades of the Caribbean surf. Her wrist went limp.
She focused on the back of his head, the beautiful shape of it, his shoulders shifting highlighting the defined muscles under his shirt, as he worked on her wrist. She wanted to touch his hair. He took hold of her forearm just above her trapped wrist.
He reached further and gently wriggled her hand, tilting it to the left and up, easing it out of the tight space. She blinked and looked down to see the deep crease across her wrist. No blood. Thank God. He sat up next to her and ran his index finger across the indented reddened line.
“How does it feel?” he asked, as he continued to skate his fingers across her wrist.
Her mouth fell open. His touch on her skin was like an opiate, one that she might have taken some minutes ago and was on the verge of its full effect. Her mind retreated, her body floated. The whisky shot she had consumed earlier came back to warm her chest again.
The professor patted her hand. “Can you move it?” he asked.
She stared at her wrist. She didn’t want the time with him to end. She turned it to the right and then left. “Yes, I can,” she said. “It stings a little but I-I think I’m good. she said, her voice cracking.
He grinned. “Not broken then, he said and started to rise from the floor. Her eyes locked on the subtle movement of his body as he stood up. His chest lifted first. His long legs straightened. His straight dark hair swung back and forth as he brushed off his tan chinos then took her hand to help her up. She had been rescued by the gallant Professor McCallam, and she was grateful. She stood close to him.
His head suddenly jerked back. “Achoo!” He let out a legendary sneeze, his checkered shirt sleeve immediately at his nose.
“Dust. I’m allergic to dust,” he said and wrinkled his nose.
He held onto the bookcase with one hand. “Achoo!” A more humongous sneeze escaped, shaking his whole body, and the bookcase. Out came the rattling whiskey bottle landing near the P.D. James books on the floor by his leather bookcase.
They both looked down at the bottle just as the red lip-sticked librarian came around the corner towards them.
“Everything alright here?” the librarian said, strands of loose hair dropping from the red bun on the top of her head.
The professor kicked the whiskey bottle behind his briefcase. The librarian came closer. She gave Brenda the evil eye, her lips curled up at one side.
“Professor McCallam, hello. Did I hear some kind of loud noise coming from this area?” She smiled, her eyes sweeping from his head to his shoes and up again, a flirtatious smile on her face.
“No. No. We’re all good here. Didn’t hear any loud sound,” he said, and pretended to look around.
The librarian nodded, and started to walk away, her wide black flat shoes shuffling on the wood floor. At the end of the aisle, she hesitated, turned to take another look at them, shrugged and finally left, her shoes shuffling again; the professor and Brenda frozen in place.
“I know this looks bad,” Brenda looked at him not knowing how he’d react.
“Tell you what...just to be safe, I’ll take this and give it to you later,” he said.
He picked up the whiskey, placed the bottle in his briefcase, pivoted and started down the aisle away from her.
“Professor,” she called to him.
He turned and raised his eyebrows. His hand went to his chin.
“Um, shall I come to your office tomorrow to retrieve it?”
“I’ll let you know,” he said, waved and disappeared.
Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach, and most recently, Death Is A Great Disguiser. Linda’s non-fiction essays and short stories have also been featured in a variety of literary publications.
The Old, Grey Barn by Shane Huey
Almus was awake before the crow of the cock and before the sun lit the black sky grey. It was a cold morning but no colder than yesterday nor any colder than it would be the next. He breathed a sigh and then another. Each breath was a cloud. It was winter in north Georgia. He had never known winter in Miami.
He was always up early having never slept much, not as much as he once slept. If only it were an issue of the bladder and not the mind. The bladder, that he could control, but not the racing thoughts, the rehearsed regrets, and the deep sense of anxiety and dread growing within his bones much as shadow at the terminus of day.
The floor of the small, old, farmhand house creaked as he wriggled out of bed, first standing and then stretching. Ample crepitus joined in with the cracks and pops in the now daily symphonic performance as two maestros reached harmonious crescendo.
The day was here. Soon it would be light. The day always comes. The night always follows the day. Then there is darkness. Always the darkness comes. But there is much work while there is light.
Attired in customary overalls, flannel shirt, leather work boots and well-soiled "CAT" ball cap with kettle on the boil, Almus gazed out through the frosted, paned window toward the old, grey barn. For a reason he could not explain, it always made him smile, that old, grey barn.
Coffee was instant with sugar. Breakfast, a pastry from the market in town and just up the road. Though not a pastelito of his youth, he ate it and was satisfied. He liked Martha and he liked her cooking and baking. Martha would never know this for he would never tell her.
Martha worked at the diner. She was about the same age as Almus and twice widowed he had learned. He thought her tragic. They spoke often when he went into town for a cup of coffee or the occasional dinner and some of Martha's pie. Martha made the best pie in all of Georgia it was said. Apple pie was the favorite. He went there for more than the pie, but he would never tell her. She would never know. Martha enjoyed his visits so but he could never see that. Rather, he would not permit himself to see such things—such thoughts quickly stricken from the mind.
He had always been a simple man. Many had hoped, and tried, to find grander substance beneath the gruff exterior and apathetic disposition but he held no facades. He was about as genuine as one could be. Indifferent, yes, but the rough outer layer was a superficial skin worn much as one might wear a misfitted rain jacket. The world only appreciates a certain type of genuine though, and his kind was not that kind. He never needed much and whatever he found himself to have was always enough. This applied equally to people as with things.
He did not need Martha. He wanted her. But he did not want her badly enough to need her. He did not want to want her. But he desired things as most men do, for he was a man, but once his desire reached a point he quickly tempered the feeling and convinced himself that he did not, in fact, desire the thing. It was the same with people and things. Everything is effort. Effort which requires a commensurate hope always disappoints. At night, he would think on Martha and of her hazel eyes, her auburn hair, freckled alabaster skin, and how nice it would be to hold someone such as her warm and near as each winter night grew darker, longer, and colder. "Oh Martha..." But he had learned that to need or to want was but to be disappointed. So, he would pour and drink his whisky and then pour and drink some more and try his best to sleep and not to think.
The nights passed slowly and then the mornings would come. He would have his coffee each day and look through the frosted window that winter at the old, grey barn across the yard on the edge of fields of high grass, now burned brown by the wind and the cold.
The hot, black coffee warmed his insides more so than the fire which had burned out the evening before. It was only cold, just a thing and it did not matter to him. He sipped and stared at the old, grey barn as the sunlight crept slowly into, and soon over, the woods to the east. He watched the play and dance of shadow, of dark and light. The shadow dispersed by light and then light by shadow. The sun rises and sets. The darkness comes and always comes and it is always there, lurking behind everything. He felt it more so today. He saw things as they were and he tried to put this into words but he could not. Feeling it was sufficient. It was just a thing.
The barn was old and grey. The oak, hickory, and pine of which it was constructed in a haunted, southern past had greyed at the hand of the elements. It leaned in seemingly all directions at once and, from the outside, seemed upon the verge of collapse. Once a two-story structure, within, the loft had long since collapsed upon the red clay floor and the wood therefrom borrowed to fashion new shutters and double doors for the eyes and mouth of the face of the structure. Internally reinforced with new lumber, Almus had ensured that the old, grey barn was steady and that she would hold, at least for another season or two. It rested upon the frosted ground and seemed as though it had been there forever and would be there a long while more. But Nature always prevails as surely as the night comes and reclaims that which she has but loaned. Such is the way for man and of things.
Nothing excited Almus but the one thing and that alone. He had traveled to beautiful places and those places neither impressed nor pleased him. The best of food was but nourishment and brought no pleasure being but a practical matter of sustenance. The finest whisky and wine were consumed by the gulp, neither sipped nor savored. The consolation of whisky was that it at least warmed him and calmed his mind.
He liked women but had learned early on that they were not worth the effort. Most men gaze upon a certain woman and, in a moment of magic, know, from the bones themselves, that they could be happy with that woman and if they do not know this thing, they believe it fervently and deep in the heart. Almus saw women through a cataracted lens that brought into view that which is but on the periphery in the healthy eye, that tint and tinge of unhappiness. It was a game of chance that he was too old and too tired to now play. There had been two in his life but they would leave. He was neither excitable nor exciting and he would not commit. He knew that happiness was a temporary thing and that once committed things would change as they are prone to do and then he would be unhappy. He could not be happy today as he was ever occupied upon the imagined unhappiness of tomorrow. When a thing is going too well, you can know that it will soon change…that it will run its course. Love is just a thing.
He still thought, on occasion, of Brisa. He had loved her and she him. But he would not commit and she both wanted and needed it as most women do. "We do not need a piece of paper to be together or to be happy," he would often remind her. He would feel himself drawing closer to her and he would say this at that time. He did not see that he was afraid. He was afraid of happiness itself and fearful of the loss of happiness—a vague possibility quietly nestled somewhere in a future that may or may not be. He would not risk it. For Almus, the pursuit of happiness consisted of avoiding unhappiness. He and Brisa were both unhappy now and she left. This time finally and for good. He was unhappy but this would pass. What is happiness if not just another thing?
Placing his now finished cup into the stained porcelain, high back sink, he fetched his keys from the wrought iron key rack on the wall by the back door at the side of the kitchen, opened the door, and walked outside. Standing on the first and topmost of the three-steps that constituted the staircase leading into the parched yard, he breathed in the cold morning air and exhaled the smoke, "Ah...” His spirit soared with the cloud.
Invigorated and propelled by the energy of the morning, he shut the door, locking it behind him and stepped cautiously down the remaining steps, mindful of the frost and wet. It had rained the night before and the wetness and the dankness hung in the air pressed down upon the land by the thick grey clouds that, even now, lingered close to the earth. What would be called grass in other seasons, crunched under his boots with an almost snow-like quality as he walked toward the old, grey barn.
As he drew near the weathered, quiet, and lonely structure, he smiled, if only inside, and his heart pumped a few extra ounces of blood. He spent the length of his days now in the old, grey barn and therein was his sole source of joy. It was the only happiness that he would ever permit himself to experience because it was a happiness derived, not from others in any form or fashion but, rather, a primitive pleasure gained from the work of his own hands and certain things--
things which needed nothing from him in return. He could give as he pleased and be satisfied, unlike with things that need and want and demand. For Almus, this was the ideal relationship.
Friends were few and far between these days. Now in the twilight of his years, most were long since gone. His family had all passed. His oldest and best friend from his childhood days in New York gone. One good friend was still there, back in Florida. They spoke from time to time by phone and he received well-written letters from the friend that amused him. But he was truly alone and that was alright. He had convinced himself that he liked it. Loneliness is just a thing.
The double doors to the old, grey barn were secured by a heavy chain and padlock. He turned the key in the lock and, lock opened, he loosened and removed the chain from one side wrapping the excess around the opposite handle and pulled the deformed plank doors open and then shut them behind himself. He flipped a switch on the wall and there was a soft humming noise and a few flickers, then a gentle, yellow light suffused the barn.
The outside of the structure, old and dilapidated as it was, could not convey that which was to be found on the inside. To be sure, the country barn would meet squarely with general expectation...the bouquet of the country on full display to the nose, the hard-packed, clay floor, displays of fine art by the resident barn spiders, old and rusted farm implements leaning ungracefully in corners into which the soft light could not penetrate as it dangled by its gently swinging cord from a lone, central beam.
Resting directly beneath the light as if on display, a lone actor on the cold, dark stage, sat a large object covered by an old and stained canvas tarpaulin. Immediately to either side of the thing were well organized work benches upon which rested tools, each thing in its place. These were the kinds of tools utilized by auto mechanics and, from this vantage point, the inside of the old, grey barn more than less resembled an old-time auto repair shop. There were the rusted barrels and grease rags hanging and floor jacks and cinder blocks and the smell of grease, oil, and gasoline wafted in the cool morning air as it ventilated the barn by means of the many cracks and crevices.
Almus carefully removed the tarp to reveal a 1941 Willy's Jeep appearing as though ready to storm the beach at Normandy. It very well could have been there and yesterday at that as it was in fine condition. Olive drab with white lettering, skinny black knobbies, collapsible front windshield and even intact canvas top, the Jeep sat there as it might on the day it had left the assembly line.
Everyone has at least one thing, some more, but this was his one thing. He had poured more effort, more money, more time, and the work of his own hands, more so than anything else before, into the Willy's, including the likes of his own, now failing health and failed relationships, and it was his and he was its. Like the old, grey barn, it made him smile. This, to Almus, was more than just a thing.
He looked at the Willy's, surveying the restoration. He looked down at his wrinkled old hands, calloused, scratched and battered, grease and grime under the nails, the kind that cannot be removed by soap and water and then gazed back at the Jeep, a product of those same hands. The edges of his lips touched the lobe of each ear and he breathed in deeply and out slowly, the vapor momentarily obscuring his beatific vision of the thing, dissipating into what seemed, to him, a halo before evaporating completely into the cold nothingness of the morning.
Before retiring to the Georgia mountains seven years ago, he had bought the old Jeep then looking as though it had, in fact, been to war and on the receiving end of all German vitriol. But he was moving away from the city in which there could be found no good reason to stay. Family and friends had died or moved on, the city had grown too big too fast and had become claustrophobic. He had worked in Georgia once years before and the country with its four seasons and good, simple people pleased him. He always said that he would return and so he did, bringing with him the old Jeep and carefully stowing it in the old, grey barn.
Most days and many a night Almus could be found in the old, grey barn working on the aged Jeep. It kept both his mind and his body occupied. Something was broken and he could and would fix it. With each passing day his affection for the ancient and once decrepit machine grew. He identified with it. "You are like me old girl...just like me." He gave her the name, "Acindina" which, in Cuban Spanish, means "safe." Acindina could be fixed, this was possible. Evidenced by the ample and well-thumbed catalogs about the work benches and the empty, neatly stacked, corrugated parts boxes, Acindina could be rebuilt and had been, save a thing or two here and there. But his old body could not. Not now. The doctors in Miami had tried. Each day the old lady grew more to resemble her once glorious, former self. Each day the viejo (old man) did not.
Almus had once himself been in pristine physical condition for his age and of this, before his retirement, he would often boast. His family had "great genes" he would say and most of his ancestors had in fact lived well into their nineties. He was but sixty-seven and his health had taken a drastic turn. There was the complete and total loss of hearing in one ear, hypertension, sudden onset of a rapid heartbeat, the recent diagnosis of sleep apnea, he was born missing a kneecap and this, offsetting his gait, did not help his advancing arthritis nor the compressed discs in his spine from the automobile accident that had almost killed him. But he walked more now, about the fields and through the woods behind the old, grey barn, breathed the fresh mountain air deeply, and took his medications. He was old now and knew it, what more could he do? Even health, a thing neglected when well and felt deeply when poor, even health was but a thing and, "It is what it is" he would say. All things are just what they are. This was not apathy but acceptance—acceptance of truth or tautology but, nonetheless, a matter resolved to great satisfaction in his own mind.
Today, he eagerly awaited the post, which ran early most days on his road, for the last few pieces of his puzzle, heavy-duty, front and back differential covers for the Willy's which arrived mid-morning. The carrier knew where to deliver anything of a size greater than an envelope.
Almus unpackaged the parts with shaking hands, separated the covers from the gaskets, inspecting all and finding it satisfactory. Unfurling an oil stained, chamois cloth and carefully placing the pieces upon one of the tables beside the Jeep, he then surveyed the array of tools and grabbed a handful of various wrenches, sockets, and a putty knife. He reached low toward the table bottom and pulled out a dented, aluminum oil drain pan, placing the tools in the pan, slid them underneath the frontend of the Jeep. He grabbed a large, filthy towel from a bent nail functioning as hanger and laid it out beneath the Jeep and returned to the table once more, rummaged through a bucket of spray cans and tubes for a can of Brakeleen, can in hand, sliding underneath the vehicle. "Damn it!" he exclaimed aloud realizing that he had forgotten a light. He scurried from underneath the Jeep, returned to the table, and back again beneath the Jeep, finally, in similar scurry this time with lantern in hand. He turned on the lantern and stuck the magnetic base to the axle and adjusted the light so that he could clearly view his work space.
He slid the oil drain pan immediately underneath the front differential and began to loosen the bottom drain bolt, which would not budge. He reached for the Brakeleen and sprayed it around the bolt hoping that this may loosen its grip, one which had been firmly anchored in place, no doubt, since 1941. Moments later he tried again to no avail. He would try again and again, with all his strength and weight, both substantial, and yet the bolt would not turn. He became increasingly worried about the bolt stripping and that would be a dire situation to remedy. So he slid out from underneath the Jeep, stood, permitted his breath, which had become short under the exertion, to return to him and he thought.
Returning once again to the bucket of mechanical balms, salves, and liniments, he retrieved a can of WD-40 and pulled a rubber mallet from the wall and back underneath the Jeep he went. He dried the bolt, removing the residual Brakeleen as best he could with his pocket rag and then sprayed the lubricant on the bolt. "There, just give that a minute."
Again he tried the bolt but it would not move with wrench and leverage so he attempted percussion upon the wrench with the mallet. Still, it did not move. He grew frustrated and, as most men are prone, when frustrated he was more inclined to act carelessly and thus he remounted his mission with all of his force and might...pulling on the wrench, torso off ground with all of his weight into it. Still it did not move. More percussion. It did not move. More strength and weight until, finally, the bolt gave but not as hoped. It was stripped.
Alumus laid on the ground, exhausted and short of breath. His heart raced and he felt lightheaded. He tried to maneuver himself out from underneath the Jeep but his left arm and chest were suddenly racked with pain. He looked for something that might have fallen loose from underneath the Jeep...something large and heavy, it had to be an elephant, but there was nothing there but the pressure. He could not move now gripped by pain and a growing anxiety. The pain was now radiating into his neck. Everything felt as though being squeezed by an invisible but cold and mighty hand. It hurt and it hurt bad. The breath grew shorter and shorter and he now felt as though trapped in a tomb underneath the Jeep, the space growing smaller and smaller and tighter and tighter as did the grip upon his heart. He was afraid. He had never felt such pain. Still he could not move and he gasped for a full breath all the while his heart racing faster and faster and, hand upon chest, the many beats of his heart so close together as to feel as though a singular and perpetual pulse.
And here it now was—he laid there dying, on the cold, clay floor of the old, grey barn this dark winter's morning, entombed as if buried alive beneath the chassis of the old Jeep.
The movie of his life did not play for him as is often said to so do. Had it played, it would have been short, silent, and in black and white. He thought his last thoughts and spoke his last words to himself alone.
The pain became terrible and he clutched the area above his heart, arms crossed, and he screamed and he hurt. He attempted to roll to one side, perhaps that might bring some ease, but the effort was in vain for it was his last action and he did not complete it. And then the old, grey man lay on his back again, breathed his last and the steam of life's breath passing now into death dissolved into the cold air of the old, grey barn. They say that one dies much as he lived. In the end, death is just a thing.
First published in Purple Wall Stories.
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