Fall 2011 Issue (October 2011)
o Walking Papers, by Daniel VanTassel
o Relations, by V. Moriarty
o A Father’s Sins, by Brian Wright
o Bonds, by Pierre Bourdin
o The Man Who Was Looking Down, by Daniel VanTassel
o Pentamentality, by Chet Meyer
o Quieting the Crickets, by Daniel VanTassel
by Daniel VanTassel
I KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING when I see her talking with the man in the mall. I hear just sentence fragments, but a quick glance reveals the imbalance. I move in closer. She has this rigid voice and posture as he stands there with lowered head and eyes. He tries to argue, but he's going down for the third time and she has no lifeline for him.
I move in closer still.
"I thought we… I… I dunno. I just thought we’d go along like this for a while, and then maybe we'd even…"
She shakes her head slowly in that way that puts a final stamp on things, and then she just walks a
way. He watches her curve down and around the tiled steps of the terraced food court area and make her way toward the crowd of shoppers.
She has an angelic face, the kind of face my dreams used to be made of but no longer can be. Her clothes convey a sort of sophistication, and she projects a kind of…I don't know…class, maybe.
Of course all of those descriptors are relative. Eye of the beholder. One man’s classy is another man’s déclassé.
I decide she’s a Scorpio. Her magnetism reveals it, and there’s that dark, sadistic side of the Scorpio that I see in her. She may already sense that I, a fellow Scorpio, am nearby. I berate myself for further violating my vows with these thoughts about astrology.
At any rate, she seems out of place among the people here who look like refugees by comparison. Many look up as she passes near them. A song comes to mind: And when she passes, each one she passes goes a-a-ah.
She projects an aura of classiness so strong that she holds everyone's attention until she's out of range. I watch the crowd of shoppers open up around her and take her in.
The drowning man stares at the spot where she disappears. I fight off the urge to approach him, to counsel him. After a few minutes he slowly raises his left arm and extends it toward where he last saw her, his hand reaching out as if to touch her, and then he drops it abruptly. He looks around and catches me staring, and I look away.
He passes behind me and walks down the curved steps, and I can study him again. He's a good-looking guy with the clothes and boots of a construction worker. I notice a red Bobby J. carved into the back of his wide leather belt, a license plate for anyone who wants to find him.
As if witnessing this event isn't exciting enough, I'm thrilled to see and overhear the same young woman about forty-five minutes later as I'm looking at some clothes in the store that has those hot ads.
"I needed to tell you that, Sam, before we both made a big mistake and things got more serious." She is very firm, a little colder than she had been with Bobby J., and I fight the urge to help this guy, too, as I’ve been trained to do. The extent of my hunger terrifies me.
"No, I don't see," he says quietly. He has the same look and sound as Bobby J. "Maybe after a week or so, after…"
"Maybe when you realize what we…"
He nods numbly. Again I resist the urge to help, one of the urges I was born with. She turns and walks away, slipping adroitly through the display racks like a cool breeze through boughs of hemlock.
Sam continues to stare at the last place he saw her. They're similar, Sam and Bobby J., but Sam is obviously a businessman of some success, judging by his clothes, and he’s much taller. Six-five or six-six, I figure, another license plate, if anyone wanted to track him down. A lawyer, maybe, who has just pled his case and lost. He looks about her age, as Bobby J. did. Maybe a little older. Thirty, I'm thinking now, about my age. I know now that both men will need my help in getting past the pain, and I develop a plan that creeps upward, an insidious, pleasant thing that begins to dominate my thoughts.
It's about two weeks later and I'm on another trip to the mall. I return to the places where each man was given his walking papers. I stand where she stood, and then I turn and stand in a sort of reverie where each of the departed stood. I breathe in the remnants of their hurt. Requiescant in pace, I offer, remembering to make the verb plural. I mentally light two candles and picture the men on their knees. The candles flicker out and I shiver in their remaining warmth.
I return to the mall several more times during the next week. I’m beginning to think I'm seeing her, glimpses of someone in a store. I often follow someone right out of the mall and into the parking lot, only to discover that it's someone else. And now, on one last shopping excursion, I'm waiting in line at a fast food counter, and I feel a hand on my arm. I turn slowly.
"Excuse me, do you have the time?" she purrs.
It's a double blow, suddenly having her close enough to smell and having been hit with new information about her, but I’m cool in my response.
"Yeah. It's just about noon."
She moves ever-so-slightly closer. My thoughts about her carom off the walls of denial and temptation in my head, and I light another mental candle.
"I mean, do you have time to go some place and…you know…" Her voice and breath are like the warm communion wine I took today but shouldn’t have. I feel my heart pound.
She smiles. "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?"
It's such a trite thing to say, and I force myself to walk away. I'm vaguely aware that I'm trembling. I'm feeling a bit out-of-body. When I'm several yards away, I stop and look back. She's already after the next guy in line, and he’s looking at his watch.
But wait…now she’s turning away from him and looking around for me and we lock eyes.
I look at my watch and then back up at her, but she has vanished.
# # #
(Walking Papers was first published in Haggard & Halloo and Bewildering Stories in slightly different form.)
by V. Moriarty
NOT THE STOMACH, please let it not be the stomach. Or anything in the head and neck. Face facts, though: it might be. Especially after that long and seriously boring lecture they’d had on the tongue.
“The tongue,” the lecturer had began, “is a marvelous piece of equipment.” That had certainly blown his credibility for the next ninety minutes.
Lagging behind everybody else in the exam hall, Jez turned his paper over. The air round his desk had begun to smell vaguely faecal. God, it smelled like Ben, the filthy bastard. Look at him there across the aisle, scribbling away already, and even – shit – drawing something. What’s that all about? Okay, come on, time flies when you’re having fun. Concentrate.
Question 1) “List the muscles responsible for the various movements occurring at the fourth and fifth metacarpophalangeal joints. Describe and explain the effects on these joints following damage to the ulnar nerve at the level of: (i) the elbow and (ii) the wrist.” Uh oh. Maybe not.
Question 2) “Describe the formation and relations of the hepatic portal vein. Where are the porto-systemic anastomoses? Name the vessels forming the anastomoses.” Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Jez was panicky-sick now, cold and a bit queasy. Surely there must be something here he could answer? When he looked around him all he could see were people writing like mad and god, he hated them for it. That had to be one very good reason not to look around in an exam. He heard his mother’s voice, the particular tone she’d used to stiffen his resolve at Irish dancing competitions when he’d been intimidated (as usual) by the other competitors. She’d always said, “Don’t worry what everybody else is doing, Gerard, you just focus on the task in hand.” That was mum all over, he thought. Focused.
There were seven questions in total, and there seemed to be only one that he could answer, about the relations of the left kidney. Except that even here he’d drawn a blank. He sketched a kidney with his mechanical pencil – this pencil bought by his mum with an excess of pride especially for these first-year exams – and wondered if the kidney’s relations were as much of a pain in the arse as his own. Did the kidney’s relations live rough all year then only turn up at Christmas and completely poison the atmosphere? Somehow, he thought not. They just sat there, quiet and retroperitoneal (oh! an unexpected fact recalled) doing their thing. Just taking the piss; it was what kidneys – and relations for that matter – did best. Oh, the ironies of life. Jez being a doctor, a medical student even, had to be the biggest piss-take of all.
And of course, because this was Anatomy, Dr. Jolliffe was one of the invigilators. Jez caught a whiff of his (expensive, subtle) aftershave as he walked past, giving out extra paper (someone needed extra paper? god in heaven). He crouched down, lanky and elegant, to mutter something quietly to Matt, no sign of any thinning in his swept-back, overgrown, patrician hair. He’d bent down like that in front of Jez once, cupping a dry skull in his hands, lifting its dome like a lid. He’d had to; Jez was a short-arsed prole and he’d been sitting down, and Jolliffe half-crouched, half-squatted, offering the skull, saying, “Look, this butterfly-shaped bone here is called the sphenoid and this dip,” he was pointing with a long, posh finger, its white-rimmed nail pristine, “this dip where in life the pituitary gland sits is the sella turcica – the Turk’s saddle.” Jez had looked down, down at his teacher’s posh smiling face, posh suit with fountain pen in the breast pocket, so close he could see the bird motif on the lid and had thought, “Saddle this.” Under the shield of Snell’s Clinical Anatomy, the first two fingers of his right hand had arranged themselves into a v-salute. He resisted the compelling urge to replicate the gesture now while running from the exam room. After all, as his mum so often said, you’re not fucked until you’re well and truly fucked.
Jez felt better, later, in the Barley Mow with Ben and Shitty and Hagen and that nerdy Dan guy who’d just tagged along without being invited. By consensus exam talk was banned in order to concentrate on getting properly wankered, as Ben had put it. It was amazing how things always seemed rosier after a few pints of the black stuff. There was a group of student physios at a table by the window and one, a tall, thin girl, no tits but a pretty face, was sending lingering glances at – no! Not at Dan! Dan, of course, was just sitting there blushing like a twat. Not only was he a nerd but he was also only seventeen. Christ knows how he managed to get into medical school at seventeen. He probably wasn’t the sort to fail anatomy exams, but then again – look at that girl, she’s practically giving herself up on a plate – neither would he be getting laid any time soon. Could probably write ten pages of A4 about his knob but wouldn’t know where to put it.
Hagen’s mobile went off, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and then his girlfriend screaming abuse, sick of sitting at home on her own eating Pringles. Time to go. Jez went, too, but headed east, leaving Shitty and Ben tipping vodkas into Dan’s beer. Christ, he was starving. He got the bus to Homerton and bought a chicken dhansak from the takeaway under the railway line. Halfway along the high street he stopped, drooling, curry smell from the bag overwhelming him, and levered the foil rim from the cardboard lid. He hunted in the bag. No spoon. No problem. He got out his student ID card and bent it in half along its long axis (if the card had been a human body, it occurred to him, the bend would have been along the median sagittal plane) then scooped with it, delicious chicken breast and spicy lentils burning his tongue, smearing his student number and photograph orange.
# # #
A Father’s Sins
by Brian Wright
Nobody knows when they are going to die. That is unless the event horizon has been submitted already and the fateful cause is clear. Nobody, at least in a right state, wakes to the morning, scratches sleep from his eyes, and proclaims with confidence that the sun has risen on him for its last time. No, this special date, the second one on any tombstone, is always secret.
The captain stared out at the undulating haystacks of the Bering Sea and sipped coffee with trembling hands. They were a sinner’s hands. Blackened by grease and soil in a way that might have marked his damnation. He’d meant to press them together on bent knees this very evening and speak to the Good Lord. The captain felt particularly sinful.
It was that painful time of night. When it’s so late even your bones seem to know it. The time when normal people are twisted among their bed sheets, dreaming of wealth or sex or other such things. Bering Sea fishermen, however, are not normal.
The captain hated delays like this storm. In this age of “derby style” commercial fishing, time lost was money lost in the most literal sense. But this storm was massive, spread fiercely across the Bering Sea like a sheath. And though Alaskan fishermen were recognized the seas around by their toughness, not a boat in the fleet would be working tonight.
The captain lifted his coffee mug to his mouth and let stale, cold grit pour between his lips. He never took his eyes off the ocean. Even a moment’s lapse in focus had proven sufficient on more than one occasion to sink a crab boat. On nights like this his hand was fixed to the wheel.
The seas had reached forty, maybe fifty fee. He could see them approaching in the sodium running lights of the deck like dark monsters queued one on the next. When the boat climbed to the peak of a wave, he only discerned a mountain range of heaving, boiling water, peaks were black and innumerable, as far as he could see in the dim night. Each wave likely capable of turning a poorly handled fishing boat bottom-side-up in a single breath.
The other men, taking advantage of a rare break, were sleeping below. Rocking up and down in their bunks with the waves. His oldest son, heir apparent to the Homebound’s captain chair, was amongst them. They had no notion of approaching judgment. Had they somehow understood the significance of these final minutes, they might have engaged themselves differently. Perhaps begging some Creator archetype for forgiveness sufficient to afford an afterlife, as the captain wished he could. Perhaps on the satellite phone, begging similar forgiveness from neglected children and wives back home. Or perhaps in quiet concentration, enjoying the penultimate moment pondering the many paths they had treaded.
Instead they lined up unknowingly, for judgment was coming to them asleep in the dark bowels of a Bering Sea ship. The captain wondered what dreams troubled their night. What did his son dream about? An evil, uncaring ocean? An evil, uncaring father? He felt appallingly aware, suddenly, of how appallingly unfamiliar he felt with his own son.
Outside the snow streaked by sideways with tracers turned orange by the boat’s lights. Shags of ice on the deck grew thicker with each subsequent wave. If the ice gets much heavier, he thought, I will have to wake the crew and force them to break it away despite the storm. Crabbing was risky business. One mistimed wave on a night like this could easily wash a man overboard into the black wilderness of the Sea where the only thing a man swimming would find was the inky denouement of death.
The radio crackled distant reports. The conditions faced by The Alaskan Homebound, it seemed, were homogenous across the sea.
“—ty foot seas and…—ounting ice.”
“Roger that, Jonathan. We got…ice pack…all around…hull…—angerous.”
“Kodiak Queen, what’s…twenty?”
“Twenty-six miles north, northeast of Dutch, over.”
The captain pulled his coffee mug back to his lips. The tremble in his hands was gone. His anxiety had been replaced with numbing exhaustion.
“This…Duchess. –e got a…south behind us. Can you…your status?”
“…having a…situation…got…—gine room…stalled.”
The captain growled and dimmed the volume. A storm so thick even radio waves can’t get through. He reached down and fingered the nylon material of the survival suit at his feet.
SLAM!...a wave crashed hard over the bow, knocking the boat off heading and smothering the deck with swirling, writhing snakes of foam and water. The shaking in his hand redoubled. He steered the boat back against the wind and fought his breathing under control. He checked and re-checked his position. If we could only make it to the lee side of Boxer Island. By his calculations, it was only fourteen miles distant. They could make it there and drop anchor and hide from the storm in the slack water behind the island. The waves there would not be nearly as high.
In thirty years of Bering Sea work, the captain had seen things that could whiten the knuckles of even the hardest of men. Fishhook eviscerations. 100-knot winds. Shards of bone, splintered and white, protruding from boots smashed by 600-pound crab pots. Fingers translucent with frostbite. Yet never, not once, had he felt as he did on this night. This was no place for a boat. And an easy night to die.
Through the escalating squall the captain steered his b oat. The progress was slow fighting the wind and waves. The boat, leaden with ice, was heavier now and more stubborn, and things were only deteriorating. Soon it would be as if he were driving an ice sculpture of The Alaskan Homebound, white as a ghost, and not the real ship. And he could have been Coleridge’s ancient mariner: one man alive in a world of dead and frozen souls. Punishment for felling an albatross or for some other sin. The Lord knew his sins were innumerous. Just like everybody else.
The captain sat and waited. A coffee and a smoldering cigarette rested in his right hand. On a clear day he would be able to see Boxer Island ahead, but crooked lines of snow superimposed on a death-black background instead was all that greeted his vision. The waves were as big as giants. Some sixty, maybe seventy feet. He touched the tip of his finger to the alarm button, but didn’t quite press. He gently rolled his finger over its dimpled surface.
But he didn’t push. The men deserved rest. And in only a few more minutes they would all be safe behind Boxer Island. The men were scheduled to rise in an hour anyway. Then they could break the ice in relative leisure.
As soon as this thought crossed his mind, the captain saw something from the corner of his eye to the right. He turned to face it and had only enough time to register a solitary thought: rogue wave.
There were stories, fishermen’s tales often as sensational and unbelievable as fantasy. But face-to-face with the real thing, he found the truth more horrible than any story. He reached down, resolving to hit the alarm at last, but it was too late.
The wave struck the ship with the force of God. The three-inch glass of the wheelhouse, forty-seven feet above the deck, shattered on impact. His sanctuary was suddenly filled with the cold and dark. He was spun and contortioned as if in a washing machine. He had a sense of great movement and heard deep groans from the boat underneath him. Something hard bit into his back. He heard himself screaming and tasted the salty tang of the ocean. Thoughts came to him with astonishing speed and remarkable clarity: His wife and children. His survival suit only inches away. His crew, his son among them, jerked awake into this cold Hell. The knowledge that he was unforgiven.
In a moment the violence was over, and he was able to break the surface. A foot of water sloshed back and forth across the cabin. All was dark. A strange buzzing sound filled the room, and he realized it was the ship’s alarm, tripped without a doubt by water in the engine room. A little late now. He felt around to orient himself in the darkness and realized that the boat was lying on its side.
And the water was coming back. Slower this time. His hands closed around a pliable material in the water: his survival suit. Just as it was too late to pray, it was impossible now to zip it on. He was bound, body and soul, to his fate. The sounds of the waves and the storm outside were deafening through the shattered windows.
# # #
by Pierre Bourdin
THERE REALLY ARE lots of phrases for it, aren’t there? Old ones, like He’s off his rocker, seem to have survived the infusion of the catchy newer ones, like His elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. And just the other day I heard one I really like: His wings have begun to ice over. I don’t mind it when any of those are applied to me now, really I don’t. But when I heard He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer the other day from a fellow patient, I realized that the docs were sharing information about me and my recent…uh…work with a knife. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality.
Anyway, I think I'll be getting out of here soon. The thing is, I know that the person who should be in here is Doctor Bonds. If anyone should be in here, he should. He’s the one who manipulated me into all of it, convinced me to do it. So much for Hippocrates.
But back to those sayings for craziness. It was the He’s a few cards short of a deck that started it. That’s why I brought up that stuff about those sayings. That one first got my attention when I heard the guys who were running the poker games applying it to me last fall, right after the crash, when I was working on Wall Street.
I don’t want to dwell on this, but it just seemed so apt. I used to play poker on weekends, high stakes stuff, and I began to…
…Where? Right there in the city, is where, that’s where. Never mind where. Or who. They didn’t mind having me play or knowing who they were, I can tell you that. Not with the kind of money I could bring to the table. Problem for me was that I was leaving a lot of money on the table. And I owed them up the wazoo, mainly as a result of losing a few cards from my deck, I suppose.
I was having trouble remembering what cards had been played, and exactly how to keep making honest money so I could gamble, so that’s why the cards-and-deck saying caught my attention. Naturally the poker guys wanted me to keep bringing in the bacon, so they wanted me to see somebody about my "cognitive functions," is how they put it. Can you imagine that? Guys like that knowing about cognitive functions? Or how to pronounce it? Anyway, I couldn’t refuse their offer, if you know what I mean.
They sent me to a psychiatrist in the city, name of Harold J. Bonds. They said he'd help me. He had a whole smorgasbord of letters after his name, including M.D. His last name I liked. I figured he was a specialist for people in my line of work, so he was probably listed under Psychiatrists: Financial Analysts – Wall Street – Investments – Bonds. That's how I amused myself, anyway, coming up with things like that. Anyway, his name did just what it announced it would do—it held me and attached me to him.
I took the train into the city to see him one snowy Saturday right after New Year’s Day. I remember hurrying from my car with those quick little steps you do in winter, and I slipped on some ice near the station. I fell with a terrific jolt onto my left hip, and I felt it all the way to the top of my head.
I didn’t fall as a rule, even in the worst of winter conditions, so I know I wasn’t concentrating on things around me. I was more or less living in the middle of a winter storm in my head, I guess. I remember that I sat there stunned with one bare hand in the snow for a while, and I thought about middle age arriving at one exact moment in my life. Like guarantees on appliances, do things go wrong at the exact moment of expiration? Just amusing myself again. The real problem was my car, as Bonds explained later.
The car was a vintage Jag, a 120. Never should have bought the damn thing. Yeah, I know, I know. If you want a Jag, you gotta have two, one to drive and one for the shop. But that wasn't the problem with it. The problem was that it was black and it was named for a cat. That obviously had an impact on how things turned out that day, the first thing being that fall I took. Anyway, I eventually found myself at Bonds’ office in the city.
The waiting room door was labeled just Bonds, although the directory by the elevator listed him with full name and rank and whole mouthful of letters. The waiting room was very Spartan, with wooden chairs, no receptionist, no music, no reading material. It was very cold in the room, and I shivered a lot, I remember. That kind of atmosphere…it occurred to me that it was a ploy, a set. There were different schools of therapy, I knew. Reality Therapy? Gestalt? Transactional Analysis? How about Cold Waiting Room Therapy?
The inner office door was also labeled Bonds. I pondered the name for a while, but I wasn’t able to think that deeply about things outside myself. I drummed my fingers on the chair arms, occasionally looking at the other person waiting there. She was a very hot young woman who sat there knitting. I didn’t think anything about the knitting at the time, but now that I have time to think, I wonder. It doesn’t seem like something that someone of her appearance would have been doing.
Anyway, the needles would clack together and I watched the knitted material as it seemed to flow out of the ends of the needles. I was transfixed by this activity for a while. I remember also that it appeared to me that she was knitting the lower front part of the sweater she was wearing. I mean, while she wearing it. I tried to picture the contortions she would have to go through while knitting an arm right on her own arm. She looked up as I was staring at her. "Hello," she said casually.
I think I managed a small noise of some kind.
After a few minutes, she said, "Got a screw loose?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I said, and I heard my voice crack.
"Husband’s in there," she said, gesturing toward the inner office. "Hears voices. God, he says. Says God is telling him he needs to get something off his chest about some bad people he knows. I've been trying to tell him that he shouldn't, but he won't listen. One of his friends called me and suggested Doctor Bonds, so here we are."
I nodded. "Is there a receptionist I should see?”"
"No, there's a list over there." She gestured with one of her needles toward the door, and there on the wall was a sheet of paper with times and names. Sure enough, there I was, right below the name A. Smith. I looked over at her.
"Anna Maria," she said. “Uh…Smith," she added. "He’s Little A. That's what his friends call him."
"Little A?" I asked.
"Yup. Just Little A," she said. "It's really…" she looked around… "It's really Anthony," she whispered. "Anthony…uh…Smith." She made the crazy sign with her first finger circling at her temple. I think I nodded.
The volume of the discussion in the inner office seemed greater than before, and I was able to discern a good part of the doctor’s words. The louder voice was his. The softer voice had a choked and wretched sound.
"Who else did you tell this to?" demanded the doctor.
The patient’s response, if any, was inaudible. I thought, Am I going to be given this same kind of tongue-lashing? It seemed obvious that this Dr. Bonds had one particular style or method, and that perhaps I should have shopped around for a different type of help, but as I said, I didn’t have any say in the matter. His booming voice, and his choice of words…. I felt like leaving, but I stayed in hopes of feeling better. Not that I had any choice about staying. I reflected on my problems, or what I thought were my problems. I felt dizzy and I needed to use the men’s room.
The shouting stopped, and two people emerged. Little A Smith was a small, thin man with an anxious, palsied appearance. His eyes were red and bleary. He silently slipped his overcoat on and left without pausing for his wife. She put on her things, picked up her knitting, and followed him out the door. She gave a rather conspiratorial look at the doctor, and I thought I caught something sent back from him.
The doctor looked at me with cold, gray eyes through antique wire glasses. He rather abruptly said, "C’mon, I haven’t much time before the closing bell." He looked furtively at his watch. "I’m Bonds, and you? Sit right over there next to the desk." He went to the window and peered through the slats in the closed blinds, and looked up and down the street.
This inner sanctum was warm in temperature and furnishings, and when Bonds sat down he seemed altogether different than the voice I had been listening to. He was a huge man, mid-fifties, impeccably dressed in an old-fashioned bank officer’s three piece suit, complete with watch chain. He wore a gold diamond ring with an immense stone. His shirt collar and tie, his full muttonchop sideburns, and his old suit and glasses confused me about time and place. My head spun. On a table behind his desk sat a small television on which current stock market data was displayed.
"How may I help you?" he asked. "You were referred to me by…?"
I didn’t know what to say about that. Was I supposed to say, "Yo, dey sent me here to take cara dat thing"? Truth was, I didn’t know their names, the poker guys, but if I had known, I wouldn’t have dared say anything. You just don’t mention people like that in New York. So I said, "I don’t remember their names."
"That’s okay. Never mind. Just tell me how I can help you," he said.
"I think I need help getting back on track," I said. "I think I’m slipping."
"Slipping. Yes. Talk about that," he said.
"I don’t know how to tell you. I…."
"Well, what part of your life is a problem to you? Just start anywhere," he said.
So I told him. I said, "Okay. Like a work…I seem to lose track of what I’m doing sometimes. It’s like that half-awake state you find yourself in sometimes, when you can’t seem to wake up and you’re trying to. It’s like that sometimes, and I can't do my job right. Or remember cards that've been played."
"I see," he said.
"What do you think it is?" I asked.
"Whoa, slow down!" He laughed. "We’ve just started."
"Right. It’s just that I…that I.…" I couldn’t finish the thought.
If I had a recording of the rest of our conversation that day, things would be a lot different for a whole lot of people right now, that’s for sure. But the truth is, I know it happened the way I told everybody, and I know what I saw, but no one believes me. I suppose it is a little strange, the whole stock market ticker tape machine thing, but I know what I saw.
Some strange things happened after we got started that first day, right after he gave me a pill to relax. I didn’t ask him what the pill was, I had that much trust in him. Stupid, I know, because I had just met him. But he was the doc and I was the patient, and I needed to relax.
The most unsettling thing was that as we talked, I began to realize that what I had thought was a small television behind him was really an old-fashioned ticker-tape stock market machine that suddenly started up. Seriously. This thing, like a small gumball machine, started spewing out this tape that he kept looking at. He would spin around in his chair when it started and he’d review the tape, looking totally like an actor in one of those black-and-white movies. I fully expected him start moving and talking in that herky-jerk manner, like an early silent movie. I began to see subtitles in the air in front of him as he spoke.
The pill did it? No, I know what I saw.
Then he’d go to the window again and carefully lift up one of the slats in the blinds and peer out as if he was afraid of being seen. I swear I heard music from one of those noir films, one of those hardboiled detective movies, with a plaintive saxophone playing from a fire escape on a steamy night in a city.
Anyway, the rest of the session that day set things in motion for me, and there are now two distinctly different versions of what happened, and that’s why I’m up here. I heard him ask me if I wanted to make a lot of money and do him a big favor in the process. But he said he never said that.
I heard him explain that certain patients of his were dying of terrible illnesses. But he said he didn’t say anything about that because he’d never speak about patients’ conditions. Right.
I heard him ask me to rub out—would I make that up?—to rub out Mr. Smith. He gave me his address. "He’s beyond hope," were his exact words, "so it would be a real humanitarian act." But of course he denied all that.
And I heard him ask me about the stock market. We could work together. I could recoup my losses, he said. He said with each person I rubbed out, the ticker tape machine would experience an electrical charge, a sort of valence of wisdom about the stock market. Whoa, I thought, now that's a machine I could put to good use, but he said it only would work for him, and only if I did my part.
Here’s the kicker: he said if I just thought about the market hard enough when I was rubbing out certain patients, the ticker tape machine would give him predictions for the next day's market, and he would pay me a bunch if I did my part. We could partner that way, and I could recoup my losses. He knew about my losses somehow, to the penny.
Did it work? You bet your IRA it worked. I thought good thoughts about certain stocks when I was paying a visit to “Little A” Smith, and the ticker tape machine gave Bonds a long list of stocks for the next day. The closing prices turned out that next day to be exactly what was on the tape, all the way across the Big Board at the bell. Bonds paid me a ton of money, and the poker guys welcomed me back to the table, of course. In fact, the top guys gave me this sudden big hug when I first went back. They wanted me to have more sessions with Bonds, so I did.
Bonds had another patient for me to visit when I went back, and then it was over. When I went in to get my next assignment and pick up some more meds, his office was vacant. There was no trace of him. I felt let down at first, but while I was looking around in his office for some indication that I hadn't been…you know…totally iced over and imagining all that stuff, two white coats showed up and hauled me off.
So here I am, and nobody believes me about Bonds or the ticker tape machine. But things are starting to look up. One of the poker guys visited me this morning, and he said he's sure they can get me out. He also brought me these pills he said would help me sleep better. Said I should wait until Lights Out to take one. Anything that'll help me sleep better.
Maybe I’ll look up the sweater girl, Anna Maria, when I get out. The poker guy said he knew where I could find her. I'm sure she'll think it's pretty funny about the way I thought she was knitting. I was going to ask him if he knew where Bonds and the ticker tape machine were, but he was in a hurry to leave. He just wanted to see if I was okay, I guess, and tell me that they were going to get me out. I'll probably see him at poker soon.
# # #
The Man Who Was Looking Down
by Daniel VanTassel
I PROBABLY SHOULDN'T HAVE come up here across the border to Ste-Cécile, not because I'm intimidated by the Québeçois or their language, but because it's likely I'll be disappointed again. But I have to keep searching. Since finding the green towel last month — the only artifact from that terrible day so long ago — I've been on this mission, this quest, and now I've come north twice in two weeks. A wild goose chase again this time, perhaps.
As I drive along through these dark woods, I keep hearing the words of that inscription on war monuments – IF YE BREAK FAITH WITH THOSE WHO DIED, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP – an elegy to those who died on foreign soil. It now seems like a plea sent forward from a half-century ago that I not rest until I find some answers about a foreign man who died on U.S soil. I feel as though he has commissioned me to dig into the past to unearth something or someone in the present.
My thoughts take me on a number of excursions as I navigate the twists and turns of these mountain roads. I think about the monuments again, and I apologize to the men who were paid scant wages to carve the inscriptions so perfectly. My father was such a craftsman, a stonemason of extraordinary skill, and I know he was among the underpaid. Someone certainly broke faith with him and many of his trade, and it now occurs to me that he and the others were equally deserving of monuments erected and inscribed for them. Perhaps they, too, cannot rest in peace.
I haven't been sleeping well since the whole event came flooding back. The green towel immersed me in troubling memories and dreams. I've been waking up soaked with perspiration nearly every night, and I'm terrified of any body of water that I'm near. Maybe if I think it through again I'll remember something, some small detail I've repressed for years, some clue about the man that will lead me to some other town in Québec where someone knows something about how and why he really died. What I'm hoping to find, perhaps more than anything, is something to free me from guilt. What's the word…exculpate? I've always liked that word and its cousin, exculpatory. So that's what I'm after, I suppose, up here among our neighbors to the north.
I discover that I've been letting my car wander across the solid center line (there are few places in these chicanes for anything but a solid line), and as I use the word chicane, the word for a race course S-turn, I'm suddenly 16, driving George Parry's vintage MG-TC, on our way to a race at Watkins Glen where there's a serious chicane at the southeast corner of the track. I can see the entire track in my mind's eye right now, and I haven't thought about it for some 50 years. And now here he is, Geo, as we call him, owner of the hotel at the lake where I work, pretending to sleep in the left-sided passenger seat, generously allowing me to feel unsupervised and adult behind the wheel on the right. I say generously, but that hardly covers it. As I grind the gears I feel him cringe. He loves this car. I've seen him caress it when he waxes it. And now he reveals that he was pretending to sleep when he reaches up to the dashboard and switches off the turn signal after I pass someone and forget to turn it off myself. And now, a few seconds later, around the next curve, here he is again. He speaks in that precise way of his: "It's better to give any car you pass a little more room before you turn back in."
Now I'm standing dangerously near the chicane when, suddenly, some famous driver – maybe Graham Hill or Sterling Moss – fails to shift down properly but succeeds in exiting the chicane and heads directly for me in his Maserati, a car that looks as if it has every intention of devouring anyone crazy enough to stand this close. Geo rushes toward me and grabs me by the arm and pulls me out of danger as Hill/Moss deftly spins around in the grass and returns to the track without losing his place.
I'm stopping now for gas on the way home from the race, still the student driver, and Geo comes around to my side where I’m chatting up the gas station attendant, so adult now with a cigarette dangling from my lips in the heavy gasoline fumes, and Geo calmly takes the cigarette from my mouth where it's been wagging up an down when I speak, the way I've seen my older brothers smoke and talk. Geo walks several paces away, holding the cigarette with his finger tips as if it were a lighted stick of dynamite. He steps on it in the wet grass next to the gas station and returns with a smile, always that smile, the one so benevolent that I'm afraid of what he will forgive next, what I will do next. Mortified, I slink around to the left seat where I remain until we get back to the lake. He thanks me for accompanying him when we get there, and I mumble something in response.
Geo is still alive, I heard, selling yachts in Ventura, California, 50 years after he sold the hotel at the lake. I don't know if he still has the MG or not. I think about calling him to thank him, but I know I won't. He wasn't there at the lake back then, at the time of the drowning, or else I'd ask him about it.
The natives are restless up here in Québec. I feel like someone in one of those old movies in a tropical country where he shouldn't be. In Ste-Cécile, I learn nothing. I move on up the road. I'm wondering if there's a drumbeat that warns the next town that I'm on the way. Three times now I've found people who seem to know something about the drowning, but they shut down right when I think they're about to open up. When I get to the outskirts of the next little hamlet, I see people waiting outside their houses, just standing there behind some small trees, immobile except for their eyes, watching me approach. I think of the tree eyes in Wizard of Oz. Each time I stop and speak with any of them, usually in an awkward combination of my halting French and their halting English, they make it clear that I'm not welcome on their turf, but there isn't anything of substance in their words to prove they know about the man who was left below the border way back then. I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't have come up here by myself, I'm that unnerved by all these people waiting and watching.
They may indeed use drums in addition to old land line phones because this part of Québec seems to be an internet-free zone, and forget using a cell phone in these remote forests. So I have to do my sleuthing the old-fashioned way, face-to-face. It's odd that I haven't seen one person on a cell or texting. I had been looking forward to asking someone about what their textalk might be. OMG for example…do they use AMD instead? But there I go, wandering in my thoughts while I wander a countryside that's as foreign to me as if I were traveling in La Belle France itself. In my profession we call this scattered thought process Disorganized Thinking Disorder. Not too bad a disorder to have, if you have to have one, I've decided, and of course we shrinks pretty much have to have something. Luckily I haven't caught that one yet, at least not a serious version of it. I think through my checklist of symptoms for it, and then decide that I'm not there yet.
Looking back now on the bad event…again…I see the whole thing in great detail.
The four French Canadians must have ventured south across the border and found themselves, I'm thinking now, quite by accident at our little lake. We hadn’t thought to welcome them when they arrived, but in hindsight, I sure wish we had.
We watched from the raft as three of them, two women and a man, walked arm-in-arm down the beach while one man walked behind them, looking down. The three in the lead, with the man in the middle, were a trio of merriment, bumping each other from side to side with their hips and laughing as they walked along the sand. With each bump and laugh, it seemed to me at the time, the man walking behind slowed his pace, as if each bit of fun pushed him back and darkened his day some more.
Down the beach a short distance, they waded into the lake on the sandbar, as we called it, an odd place for a swim because it was shallow there for a hundred yards out or more. What gave them away as French Canadian were the skimpy black bathing suits on the men, as foreign to us as their language that we heard when they were being questioned later. We watched them wade farther out, the one man still lagging behind the others, still looking down, but we thought no more about them at the time except to note them in our book of visitors in our heads.
Maybe an hour later a long-haired girl on the raft shouted, "Look! Out there! Someone’s drowning!" We looked where she was pointing, out toward the sun, but saw only sun diamonds splashing in the waves. We unleashed upon her then — I’m remembering the sound of it now — the cruelest kinds of childhood laughter, the kind that kids dole out and would give anything to take back later on.
Quite a while later, long enough for the lake to go flat calm as it often does later in the day, a man paddling by in a canoe near the raft looked down into the clear water and shouted, “Hey, somebody’s down there!” and the long-haired girl, still on the raft, completely spent from pleading with us to believe her, slumped down onto her knees in a sort of collapse. She made a disturbing, keening sound, and we knew we’d made a big mistake. It was a mournful, plaintive sound, as eerie as the sounds loons make when they give that wailing cry, and I don’t know how to stop it now from replaying endlessly.
Someone pulled the man out and laid him on my green towel on the beach. We saw that it was either the man who had been walking with the two women or the other one, the behind one. A very tall, gaunt woman — I can see her now, a woman who looked a lot like Lincoln before he had a beard — used the artificial respiration technique that was thought in those days to be effective, alternately pulling the man's arms up by the elbows and pushing on his back. The man’s friends stood there shivering in the hot sun, probably thinking in French but silent in any language. There was nothing arm-in-arm about them as they stood there, and we wondered who was who, which man had drowned, and what the deal was with his friends who stood there mute.
My brother drove the makeshift ambulance pretty fast from town, he said, since whoever called said, "Somebody’s drowned over here at the lake," and drowned didn’t necessarily mean dead back then, so he hurried, thinking it was I or one of my friends. He and a large woman from the garage where he worked brought some kind of respirator, but the man was cyanotic when they got there, his skin the dark purple of the berries on the bushes ten feet from where he lay. The respirator tried to work its magic nonetheless, relieving the Lincoln woman of her task. She sat back at last, exhausted and disconsolate. I watched as she slowly stood and tried to straighten her lanky body, no doubt aching from her serious task.
But the respirator, its promise of life a futile hope, failed to turn back time.
Someone in authority who had come from town looked up at the man's friends and shook his head. One of the women asked, "He is … ah … mort? Ah … dead?" and he looked the three of them over for the first time, each of them, and nodded his head. He asked them quite a few questions, but I have no recollection of what they were or how they answered. I do remember their accents, though, and the sound of their voices, low and mysterious. And then they seemed to hurry to their car without saying goodbye to their friend. I wondered who would take care of him and who would brush the sand off of his face so that it wouldn't get into his eyes.
The visitors' license plate, with its somehow scary mark over the "e" in Québec and fleur de lis between the numbers, only served to raise more questions about the people foreign to our world, a place where a calm lake was like a mother, and the scent of balsam was a blanket for us all. We gave the lake wide berth for perhaps a week, letting the scary water wash out with the rain that came every three days that summer, and none of us have talked about it since.
This all emerged last month when I was up at the lake house and I came across an old box of rags. One rag that had made its way to the top caught my attention, announcing its presence with a familiar shade of green. The edges of it were so thin that pieces of it came off like powder. It was my towel, a half-century after it lay on the beach in service to the man long gone. I remember that he drooled on it while the Lincoln woman tried to save him. My mother told me later that I could use it after she washed it, but I never did. And now, here it is, its story in shreds like its edges but waiting to be told.
Before I ventured up here to Québec this time, I found the coroner's report, taciturn as any of the mountain people on either side of the border. It lists Ste-Cécile, Québec, as the man's address, but up here there's no record of him. Under Cause of Death, "Drowned" is all it says.
The man deserves for someone to know.
"Drowned" is not enough. Whichever one he was.
# # #
by Chet Meyer
I REALLY DIDN’T WANT to hike up to the glacial lake on Mount Eureka.
The moment that I said I would, I felt that I had made a big mistake.
But I, the particle physicist with the receding hairline,
Had the strangest attraction to that grade school teacher
With the narrow hips who lived across the hall.
In my line, at the laboratory, years might pass before I can record
The momentary existence of a theoretical element, forced into creation
By my artificial, cyclotronic, nuclear bombardments.
Her work is different. She sits down in her classroom on the floor,
Surrounded by first graders, who learn shapes or spell their names out
Using alphabet blocks. She harnesses in any way their natural excitement
About anything that’s new.
From purple fingerpainted handprints
On newspaper sheets, she converts these feelers into thinkers.
Primed with primers, filled with pictures, fascination for all reading
Frees their learning power for the rest of their lives.
After months of observation, I knew Thursday nights she threw
Her blue bags for recycling in the dark green dumpster
By the maintenance man’s utility shed.
By knowing this, I timed myself to cross her just so often that,
Through frequent conversation, we began as friendly neighbors,
Then were interested singles, then were friends, or maybe just a little more.
So that’s why I forgave myself for being so impulsive as to promise I would
Climb a mountain with her.
I bought some hiking boots and heavy socks at Trader Jack’s, an Army/Navy store.
As I struggled with the zipper of the fanny pack I’d overstuffed with trail mix
And a foolproof camera, I cursed my soft and sedentary self.
How could this Periodic Table, reference bookish type have promised
To expose his weakness out in Nature, grossness, groping through the vegetation,
Fingering creation leaf by leaf?
It must be love.
So step by step, in tortured feet, I tempted fate and tested my beliefs.
Soil quickly filled the spaces in between the treads of my new boots,
Which made them twice as heavy as they were when they were new.
I heard my heart as well as felt it, booming in my chest.
What breath I had came hot and wheezy, bitten from the breeze,
And then in feverish fits of sheer survival, sucked in spasms
Through the overbite gap in my tightly clenched teeth.
Yet, on we trudged, high up along the serpentine trails.
The rushing streams we forded etched their natural paths
With slippery abrasiveness into the face of the mountainside,
Just as the sweat coursing down from my hair would have done
To my cheeks if I had to endure the exertion of that strenuous trek
But, then, we were there, The Top, where we received our well-deserved rewards
For having climbed so very long and hard: the cleanest clouds, the clearest sky,
A pristine lake, a vibrant sunlight, falling on the freshest smelling ground
That few had ever walked upon before.
We raised our canteens to each other, celebrating our arrival with a toastTo mutual success. We fed each other golden raisins from small boxes.
Then we stuffed the folded cardboard, dutifully, into pockets of our blue jeans
So our piece of paradise would not suffer desecration by the culture
That we came from, growing in our colonies below.
Not once did she remark how out of shape I was or ridicule my struggle
Just to keep up with her, I set my camera to “auto,” placed it firmly on a rock,
And had it take our picture, broadly smiling, arm in arm.
Then we returned, as if a certain gravity pulled at us, unrelenting,
Maintaining sacred balance, drawing us back down to our designated homes.
Of course, soon after, she met someone, dated briefly, married, moved away.
But I’ve always kept the photograph I took of us that day.
I find it every now and then when going through my desk,
For paperclips or staples or for something, at the time, I think I need.
And I remember one night after work, with beer in hand, I found a shocking truth,
To my surprise, there, within that picture that I took.
The Elements, the true ones, not the ones I try to make, were there:
Water and Earth, Fire and Air.
But there was something else: you can see it in my eyes,
A rare ethereal quality that came about because of where we were,
And how we got there, glowing with the pride of knowing what we’d done
Together on a day within our lives that we had shared.
# # #
With Pentamentality, author Chet Meyer won a 7th Annual Rip Van Winkle Poetry Competition award in 2006.
Quieting The Crickets
by Daniel VanTassel
I LIKE THE SOUNDS the crickets make in the evening toward the end of summer.
I never heard them at the lake back then, but when we arrived home, I stood there listening as they started up their cadence and their songs. The bands began to play, their string band nearby and a real marching band in the distance, and the air was redolent with music. I breathed it in, remembering winter things not thought of during summers in the woods.
He unloaded summer baggage and staged it on the autumn steps while I listened, his words competing with the welcome sounds. On and on he spoke, a voice behind me in a theater.
She opened windows in the house to let out the stale air that must have had some information in it of the twelve hot weeks gone by and the sounds from lawns and gardens and the neighbors in the night. The old windows had secret weights inside the sashes that were meant to help her raise them but were of little help against the layers of paint on frames and ropes and pulleys…layers of colors to brighten her day.
She was a frequent painter when he was away.
There were long handhold straps inside cars to pull yourself out, and when I did I was ready to trade in my summer self for a new one, older now, a school one.
Inside, smelling the mustiness and hearing the messages in the air, I was not nearly as hungry as I am today for the bowl of bread and milk she put out…an ample dinner, she said, when you don’t have supplies and when the memory of your trip drains your appetite as you see the faces of the drivers he surprised while passing where he shouldn’t have.
Below a twenty-five year pin for safe driving on the visor, a king-sized cigarette waved up and down, a conductor’s baton when he spoke, admonishing the silent sections of his orchestra for thinking they could play or sing along. Yet no one wished he’d leave on Mondays for the dangers of his highways, and when Fridays brought him back, the paint was gladly put away and the silent sections played.
Those poems on signs along the country roads, too fast to read when they sped by, still resonate, discordant now, but sounds from lawns and gardens hum quite clearly, looking back.
The reel lawnmowers whirred softly in the evening then…a shushing sound…
quieting the crickets until now.
# # #
End of Fall 2011 Issue
Walking Papers by Daniel VanTassel
Relations by V. Moriarty
A Father's Sins by Brian Wright
Bonds by Pierre Bourdain
The Man Who Was Looking Down by Daniel VanTassel
Pentamentality by Chet Meyer
Quieting the Crickets by Daniel VanTassel