Summer 2012 Issue
(Scroll down to find each piece)
The Last One, by Randall Brown
Silversides, by Patrick Forgette..........*Editors's Choice*
Hallsville, by Derek Frazier
Blame it on the Jeans, by Megan Gregor
My Maintenance Man, by Carol Sanford
One's Own Life, by John Williams
Home Fires Burning, by Ed Ahern
Morrow, by Chris Deal
Forever, by Bobby Fox
Dewey Lake, by Doug Johnson..........*Editors' Choice*
The Last Few Pages, by Howard Mosely-Chalk
Three People Dancing, by Peter Volpe
Conversations with Zip, by Will Dixon.........*Editors' Choice*
The Last One
by Randall Brown
Instead of the water, I chugged the desiccant—used for drying flies—and immediately panicked, fainted, my fly rod clattering on the stream bank rocks. I awoke to a crack; a giant beaver had grasped my bamboo rod and worked to split it completely in half. At first, I had no voice, as if the desiccant had taken it along with my saliva, and so I reached for a rock and threw it at him. A soft throw, and the beaver didn’t run, but stopped bending the bamboo, stopped to look at me, this log come to life.
“What the hell?” I said this, not the beaver. My voice had returned. I explained to the beaver the one weekend a year I’ve been coming to this stream in the middle of a state forest, tucked away from everything, how the stream wound its way into every single dream that year, a year spent waiting for this weekend to arise on the calendar, and now—
The beaver sat quietly, patiently, still held the rod in those clawed-paws. Wet slicked back hair. And just enormous, a small bear.
“Just like that.” Again me, not the beaver. “That’s how quickly things get ruined.” One thinks of nature’s slow erosion of the Grand Canyon, but the stream here changed year-to-year from floods, a chemical spill, a felled tree—sudden things. Like beavers who dammed streams and fly fishing trips.
The beaver dropped the rod and walked over to me. I couldn’t move yet, not sure if I’d broken my brain on a rock or what. The beaver leaned into my ear and whispered, “It isn't yours." He disappeared into the woods with the two halves of my bamboo rod.
"I know," I said. "It was my grandfather's." He would take me to streams such as this one, what he called virgin land, the two us not saying a word the entire day, his drinking from his silver flask until he'd fall asleep against a tree, and I'd sneak the bamboo rod and cast it until it grew too dark to see and I grew to love that rod until it became the only one I wanted to cast.
All day he'd drink Wild Turkey, little beaver, even though we had this sparkling spring all to ourselves, and I wanted him to do it, too, so I could take it, this ancient wand left from that other time, and all of this—and here as I lay by that stream I might've spread my arms out as I looked through the collage of leaves and branches—was the world entire.
# # #
Randall Brown teaches at and directs Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press), his essay appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He has been published widely, both online and in print, and blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. I’m a great place for you to tell a story and let your users know a little more about you.
by Patrick Forgette
HATTIE'S PASSENGERS boarded the coach and dropped into seats along the aisle. The old buses were often sold out these days. All it took was the rumor of work and the name of another town.
Carla, Hattie’s young friend and colleague, drove slowly through the bus barn and past the service bays. Slow driving on Carla’s part was a pretty good indicator that Carla was drying her nails. She pulled over when she spotted Hattie’s coach.
Carla and Hattie were driving Silversides, ancient buses that should have been retired years ago. Oddly enough, there was work for Silversides, if you had a Silverside of your own.
“How come you never call?” Carla asked, using the small, almost confessional sliding window between them.
Hattie turned away.
“It’s on account of Harvey, isn’t it?” Carla said. “That man is always around.”
“These things happen,” Hattie said.
Carla knew that. She was not a child.
She blew on her nails and examined the result.
“At least you could have waited until I found someone.”
# # #
Patrick Forgette taught English as a foreign language in Japan and as a high school subject in the States. His stories and poems have appeared in The Adirondack Review, DIAGRAM, Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Review, Poetry on Buses, Pontoon and Word Riot. His wonderful flash length story Fast Track appeared in Zodiac’s winter 2012 issue.
by Derek Frazier
A ’97 FORD carries me on out here, a man in shirt sleeves and dirty black slacks grinding gears all the way down this dirt road, not much more than a track, really, past trailer houses beyond repair, catatonic thoughts of high-livin’ ruined by rainwater and black mold and too much insulation showing. Dogs stand in the front yard, or maybe they’re children, stopping in their ho-hum games to stare at the truck passing, skinny gazelles wary of the passing cheetah or lion that has no intention of attacking. They’d be riding bikes, but they all have flat tires and rusted chains. One bike stands upside-down, balanced on seat and handlebars, a five year-old turning the pedals by hand, crushing stick men that ride around on the chain like a carnival thrill ride; maybe the kid is practicing for his future.
And you know everyone’s armed, they got to be because the neighbors are shifty, no –account. Stolen copper wire sits behind their trailers and shacks, waiting for the man in the beat-up pickup to make his rounds, no questions asked. Obese women and skinny men sit behind tinfoil curtains in the dark, sometimes fidgeting with the TV antenna, sometimes just braying, “Screw it,” as they light another cigarette. No deliveries occur back in here; instead, a row of shot-up mailboxes sags down by the county road, painted names scratched off enough so bill collectors and constables can’t tell whose is whose. “I never got it,” is a mantra often invoked by the defensive folks in these woods.
The trees are thick back off in here, the air is green and wet and stifling. The road demands patience and a slow hand on the wheel; otherwise it’s a bar ditch on bumper, and a long walk past pit bulls to call for a wrecker, the machine-oiled man driving will charge you whatever he wants, because what are you gonna do? Not a damned thing except pay up front, sit next to his onion smell, caliche and cigarette smoke seeping out of the broken a/c vents that whistle in a way never imagined by Detroit for the ride back into town, which is really just an IGA and a gas station, a pile of tires and a couple of stop signs; if you’re smart, stopping is the last thing you’ll do. Look both ways, roll on through the intersection, and don’t make eye contact with the teenage girl walking barefoot on the shoulder, diapered toddler trailing her like a cowed-down, submissive dog, a yellow pop clutched to his chest. Don’t stop.
# # #
Derek Frazier is from Fort Worth, Texas and worked as an environmental consultant in the Dallas area before moving to the Piney Woods of East Texas. He has degrees in biology/ecology (BS), visual art (BA), and English literature (MA), making him somewhat of a polymath. He is currently an artist/writer who draws inspiration from the push and pull of faith and reason, and the often pathetic people caught in the middle.
Blame It On The Jeans
by Megan Gregor
IT WAS a starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Of course, my mom wasn’t gonna take me, she hadn’t got out of bed in what seemed like a month. Since the break-up. My sister was working double shifts dancing. Seeing how her best friend got knocked up and will be out for at least a couple weeks having the baby. You wanna bet who’s gonna be babysitting that squalling piece of bad judgment? Yeah, for free, too. I’ll bet my best jeans on it, and those jeans never let me down.
I’d wear those jeans to the circus if I could just get a ride. The bus doesn’t come out this far, and my friends all turned on me once they found out my particulars. You know, that I’m poor. Not decent, hardworking, down on your luck poor. No, just poor. But I don’t drink all day. Or dance half-naked for money. And I don’t have a boyfriend. If I did, you betcha he’d pick me up to go to the circus. He’d be that type to bring flowers even if he hadn’t done anything wrong, just because.
I put my jeans on, anyway.
When I ask momma if she’ll take me she says, “Real life’s a three ring circus honey, three rings. You got childhood with the bright lights. Teens with the oohs and aahs. Then old age when you think maybe it’s just a bunch of bells and whistles. That’s really real. You don’t need to pay to see all that. Just sit tight, it’ll parade in front of you. Trust me, love buckets. Don’t I know it?” She pauses. My silence hangs in the air, an answer without words.
“No ’preciation, like I didn’t give you life, or nothin’.” Momma swings her swollen hand down into the empty air beside her bed. It takes several swipes for her to realize there’s nothing to grab. She syrups her voice again, now that she needs me to save her an ounce of energy. “Bring me my purse, sugar?”
I bring it to her, after deducting my personal tax. I know she’s gonna rack up the Home Shopping Network purchases again. At least then she won’t notice if I’m gone.
Loving cheap thrills runs in my family. Like my dad, he never heard a bet he wouldn’t take. Guess that’s why he risked it and joined the service, hoping to avoid action and come home with a ticket to school. They say I get my smarts from him. If he’s so smart, how come he hasn’t written to me in a year and a half? I don’t care how busy it is over there in the Middle East, they got phones, and he shoulda used one by know.
I slip out, tiptoeing like a cartoon robber through the clear night. I’ll get there and have some fun, even if it kills me. When all the circus cars, trucks, and buses drove by, they blew up enough dust to choke an elephant. Didn’t slow down or nothin’, seeing as they were still a mile from town. Lord, I hope they have elephants, this better be worth it.
It’s a do-able walk to town, momma forbids it though. Says it’s too dark, I’m too pretty, and the world’s too full of idiots to risk it. Why, then, do I have these jeans? If I’m never gonna go out, why did Leslie give me these jeans when her belly grew so bulbous she couldn’t even pull them over her knees? The perfect blue- not too light to be dorky, not too dark to be preppy. Fitted to my lean shape, but not itchy in nooks or scratchy in crannies. I don’t need a belt with these, and the cuff falls at my ankle no matter what shoes I choose. When I put on these jeans, I remember who I really am.
Sneaking in is a cinch. They use these rubber stamps to mark the hands of the people who paid to get in. All I do is see somebody freshly stamped, like this little girl begging her mom for a corndog. I lick my hand and slam into her, aiming my hand to line up on hers. Sure, it’s smudgy but it’ll do. Being pretty and wearing these jeans doesn’t hurt. The pock-marked man checking hands squints, but nods me on in.
I just stand a minute and breathe in, out, in. This place is alive with the best sounds of the worst kind of entertainment.
People bump into me. I’m standing still in a swarm of bodies moving upstream. I wonder if momma knows I’m gone yet. Only if she runs out of soda, and I filled the Big Gulp cup to the brim before I left.
I need this, a night out, a night just for me. Under the big top, in my lucky jeans, blending right in with the loud colors and flushed audience. I pick a seat, near an old guy. He won’t bug me, he looks half-dead. It’s hard not to grab his hand in excitement as the lights go down and the spot light finds the clown brigade. I laugh like a child, believing every crash, ripped pair of pants, and honking nose.
I use my mother’s crumpled dollars to buy the biggest size popcorn. Laughing, I stuff my face with the greasy, cardboard flavored kernels. Then I see him. The clown staring at me with familiar, dark-rimmed hazel eyes, mirror images of my own. He’s the right height, average build, bald on the top, pinky ring.
I gag loudly and blush. Then it goes down wrong and I choke harder, drawing stares. The more I try to stop, the deeper the rebel kernel lodges. I gasp and splutter. I try to Heimlich myself. I punch my chest. Popcorn spills on the smooth denim over my thighs, creating dark smudges. No way are those stains going to wash out.
# # #
Megan Gregor is a freelance writer in State College, Pennsylvania. Her work has been published by Untreed Reads, Liquid Imagination, and The Centre Daily Times. Follow her blog at www.gregorific.com.
My Maintenance Man
by Carol Sanford
FRED’S BROAD SHOULDERS, light step and deliberate movements make me think of a bull. I haven’t spotted him outside in the last fifteen minutes, which means it’s probably safe to head for the communal laundry in the basement of Number 2, the building next door. That is, unless Fred is down there watching my sweater go round. It came out a mess of wrinkles, so I put it back in with a wet towel. Fred is maintenance for this apartment complex. He drives in from the family farm five days a week, six every other week, and keeps the place running. I’ve been here three months, a woman in transition. Before then, I lived with somebody—parents, sibs, college roommates, a husband—and mostly in the country. Now I’m in love with city life; I’m not in love with Fred.
Earlier this morning I noticed he was supervising the lawn cutting. Now he’s disappeared. There’s a padlocked storage closet for tools near the laundry, another reason he might be down there. I’ve been in the laundry room with him twice, don’t want it to happen again. He was decent enough but the close quarters made my heart pound. He’s been divorced and is married to a woman much younger than I am. That’s good.
Yesterday Sue came over to sit outside with me. It’s early July, everything is lush. Fred has the grass at the edge of the parking lot trimmed smartly, and the blue hydrangeas are starting to bloom. We took our drinks out, and before we settled in to a nice chat, Fred ambled over. He was all southern gent coming to pay his respects, pass the time of day. We didn’t ask him to sit. He plopped down on the lawn, fondled the roots of the tree next to him, and leaned into the trunk to scratch his back. It was too funny. I half expected him to bend his big head down to sniff a flower like Ferdinand, the little bull in the children’s story.
He talked about tenants, present and past. I was surprised he remembered so many. He talked like a people person—warm, open, caring. I’d have to say gentle. I could see Sue wasn’t buying it. She isn’t the only friend I have who arches her eyebrows when the subject of Fred comes up. I usually just say, “Fred’s okay.”
The truth is I don’t know how to handle men like Fred. Right after I moved in, he came to my door unannounced to install screens in the living room windows. Felina, my illegal cat, was curled at the head of my bed, her metabolism slowed to a mummy’s for the rest of the day. I made sure to shut the bedroom door. It must have been Fred’s low, easy voice that brought her to life. I heard her paws like a whisper, then scritchscritch on the door. Next she would extend her claws and gouge then start meowing. I talked louder to Fred, hoping he wouldn’t catch on. The back of his tan work shirt was growing a wet spot as he struggled to secure the old screens with a screwdriver. The next few minutes were ridiculous: Fred sweating and cussing softly, Felina complaining in several registers, and me talking hard to Fred about how grateful I was for the screens as well as any other topic that came into my head.
“There you go,” Fred said at last. “You’re all taken care of.” He gathered his tools, wiped perspiration from his brow and went out smiling. That smile was like the Mona Lisa’s, pleasant enough but smirky too. I called my thanks after him, and he turned, eyes flashing, and said, “You’re more than welcome.”
It took Fred awhile to decide not to inform on me. When he came again, thrumming his knuckles on my door three times, he leaned casually against the doorjamb and said, “If they ask me, your little friend doesn’t exist.” I heard myself saying “Thank you.”
Sue and I decided to take a dip in the pool after Fred went back to work. I put on my swimsuit, a black one-piece with orange-red poppies and started for the pool while Sue took her turn in the bathroom. I knew she’d come out with a bikini on and wondered how she’d react if Fred gave her a look. I found the gate to the pool locked. Fred was within shouting distance, so I called to him. He turned on his heels, picked up speed and came to my rescue.
“Good!” he roared, and grabbed my shoulder, “I get to throw you in!”
I stepped back, shocked. Laughing, he opened the gate just as Sue appeared in her minimalist suit. Sue looks great in swimwear; Fred didn’t seem to notice. As he left us, I managed a polite, weak “Thanks.”
There was one other incident. My kitchen is tiny, so I was careful not to find myself on the wrong side of the stove when Fred pulled it out from the wall, blocking the doorway to the living room. He’d come to see why the oven wouldn’t work. He went down to the basement and told me to yell from the top of the stairs when the ceiling light in the kitchen went off, signifying he’d probably thrown the breaker to the stove. I felt like a wife, and I didn’t like it.
No more procrastinating. I have to get that sweater out of the dryer.
I take a hanger from the closet and proceed across the lawn to Building No. 2 and go down the poorly lit stairway. Someone has washing in; I hear the swish swish, lull and rhythm. I stop the dryer, reach in for my sweater—looks good—and hear Fred’s hooves on the stairs.
Here’s the thing: If I’m going to survive alone, I’ve got to figure out how to handle uncomfortable situations. Fred is one. Just one. “Oh, hi,” I say nonchalantly. “Hot out, isn’t it?” I suspect he’s used his pocket comb on the way down.
“Real hot.” He’s grinning.
“A lot of work lined up for the day, I’ll bet.” I notice he has his toolbox and fervently hope he’s here to get something he needs.
“Nothin’ that can’t wait.”
“Like my dad always says, make hay while the sun shines.” Before the last two words are out of my mouth it dawns on me that Fred might not be the literalist I take him for. What does he think I mean by “hay”? God, I’m already out of clichés.
Fred doesn’t answer. Maybe mention of my father was the right thing. I don’t want him to see I’m nervous. The basement air feels damp, cool, way too private. I adjust the sweater on the hanger, button the top button, and turn to go. I glance at Fred. His eyes are glazed. Now I’m scared. He reaches out awkwardly, almost as if to take the hanger, as if I might need help carrying my sweater up the stairs.
“Oh, Fred,” I interject quickly, conversationally. “I wanted to ask about your wife.”
“You said she’s young. I think you said twenty-nine?”
“I’ve been thinking how lucky you are.”
“You know…to find someone after an unhappy first marriage. Me, I’m not even thinking about a new relationship. It’s going to take a long time. Know what I mean?”
He lets me pass. I put my foot on the bottom stair and start up. Heat lightning dances on my neck, back, buttocks. But I manage to climb in a certain way—like an old washerwoman maybe. Weary yet tough. Like someone you can’t fool, someone born knowing how to get the wrinkles out of things.
# # #
Carol Sanford likes to write in the loft of a cabin she and her husband built next to a charming river. Some of her best work can be found in print in special editions of the journal Creative Nonfiction, in the collection Peninsula Essays and Memoirs from Michigan, and online at Ragazine.
One's Own Life
by John Williams
RARELY DO I receive letters anymore but for the most mundane correspondences with higher institutions, family, and creditors who mistake me for various other Williamses, each requesting a service I cannot provide. Sometimes my grandparents, who have long passed, write to inform me of duties I continually neglect, the same duties they neglected and hoped to find exoneration from via a strengthening of the bloodline. I write none of them back. So it astonished me to receive two letters this week marked with the addresses of childhood friends, both of whom recently suicided. The first, whom I once trekked blizzardy Northeast winters with to attend grade school, had become an impassioned wordsmith, an editor of the first caliber, who left one of the larger publishing houses to establish his own press, which the letter claimed had teetered on the cusp of bankruptcy and of greatness. So devoted to a new manuscript he’d decided to publish, which held, in his opinion, the finest literary voice to emerge from the continent since so-and-so, or at least since some other name, and which he dreamed would launch his press into the international market, that my friend steadily and over the course of months became the book, or, in his widow’s words, “a page in someone else’s story.” With the letter, she included a picture of their young son, whose face also seems made of paper, as well as a copy of the celebrated manuscript, in which my friend seems stunningly absent.
The following day I discovered the second letter, addressed “To Whom It May Concern.” I assumed it would not concern me. But in fact it told the story of a college friend, who once wore his youth like an uncaged bird and who all our peers agreed would never live past twenty-five. Upon graduation, he accepted the first and only job offered him, which he coined temporary and beneath him. Ten years later, still shifting papers between filing cabinets, he become known as someone who speaks over water coolers about past glories. Ceremoniously, from thumb tacks on skin-hued cubicle walls, hung a photograph of us all, arms bound like a fence, smiles honest and hair full—a photograph I’d forgotten. My friend spent entire days staring into his lost face, as his hands without error shifted their paper, until one day coworkers noted he had vanished into the photograph, which did not distress them as the work was still completed on time. The letter, whose author still eludes me, included a copy of his obituary torn from the local newspaper, which concluded with the words, “He is now living his dream alongside those he loved, and he leaves behind not a single regret or uncherished memory.”
# # #
John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks, winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart and Rumi Poetry Prizes. He has served as Acquisitions Manager of Ooligan Press and Publicist for Three Muses Press and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. Some of his over 200 previous or upcoming publications include: Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, and Poetry Quarterly.
Home Fires Burning
by Ed Ahern
He was patching the trailer roof, sloshing down tar where he guessed the leaks were coming through. The swamp sprawled outward from his back door, tussocks and pools punctuated with the trunks of dead trees. The swamp hid its moods, rarely breaking out in waves or ripples. The ambiguity bothered Duane. He felt that if he could just look at the swamp from the right angle he would see its pattern, the lines of its body, its breathing.
Duane ran out of guesses on the leaks, gathered up his gear and backed down the ladder. He popped a can of beer with sticky hands and sat down in a folding chair on the patch of dry ground the swamp had left him. The sun was lowering behind the front of the trailer, putting him in deep shade and spectrum shifting the colors out over the water. Evening bugs were starting to swarm. It was his favorite time of day.
As the browns and greens shrouded down into black, Duane noticed indistinct flickers of yellow, two of them, no, three. They oscillated but held to the same general areas. My God, he thought, fox fires, Wills o’ the Wisp. Dave’s neighbors had warned him that he would see them. Corpse candles, one of them had said. The lights swayed well into dusk and then fluttered out.
Duane pried the can from his tarred palm, and tossed it into a pile of empties near the corner of the trailer before going inside. He turned on the television. Program and commercials streamed by without registering, his vision broken circuited by the closed loop of his thoughts..
Duane led an equally disconnected life. He’d fetched up in Ema four years ago, propelled by his needs for distance and anonymity. His get-lost severance had been enough to buy land and trailer, with a little more available each month. And I got lost, he thought. I couldn’t handle the big show, or the woman with demands that matched her attractions.
His street was one of two dozen in Ema. Most residents lived in haphazardly placed single and double-wide trailers, accented with a few small houses. Four businesses crouched along the county road- gas station, convenience store/beer outlet, one room post office, and auto parts outlet. Everyone drove to the next town over to shop at Wal-Mart, where Duane worked.
And I, he thought, am a department head for men’s clothes. As he prepared for bed he noticed through a window that the fox fires had rekindled, all three of them, brighter now in the full darkness. He went out back in his undershorts and settled into the folding chair.
The curling yellows danced in an unknowable rhythm, powered by the gasses of decay- dervishes whose evanescent poise would never let them collide. As he stared at the flames they appeared to seethe nearer and Dave could almost discern features on their surfaces.
The sting of a large insect jerked him erect in the chair. I may be a recluse, he thought, but I don’t want to become the village madman. He turned his back on the flickers and went into the trailer.
When he got off shift the next night he skipped his usual pit stop at a local bar, hoping that the lights had come back. They had.
Duane sank 200 pounds into the aluminum chair and popped his first beer. All three flames were riding the air again, but differently positioned, closer together and closer to him. They waved like flags in the soft breeze, furling and unfurling in sinuous patterns. Two guys and a girl, he decided, the guys a little stiffer in motion, the woman all soft waves. He surmised that the flames had a history together..
He watched without impatience through two more beers. The softly edged tapers seemed to be flowing toward him, leaning as if pushing their way through spider webbing. Duane’s thoughts detoured over to an image of Lucy. She lived in the village and worked nights at the convenience store. She was not so much an object of lust as a hope of rekindled romance, but Duane had never regained the poise to banter with her in that “I’m interested” way.
Duane’s prior life had been undercut by the corrosive certainty that he was a sham, pretending to be a high powered executive and urbane lover. He’d used shortcuts to maintain his results, and when his sleights of hand were revealed, he avoided prosecution by agreeing to permanent silence. He’d divorced Sarah equally abruptly so she could move in with her lover, who it turned out had been involved with her the last three years of Duane’s marriage.
He ate into himself again with the thought that he hadn’t really retreated, for that implied counterattack. He’d just gone into hiding. After four years he hadn’t opened up enough to be a local, just a resident alien who bought gas and paid taxes.
He glanced up and started, the fires were much closer and more intense, as if thoughts of Lucy had fueled them. Images, scenes, seemed to play along their furls. He thought them somehow intrusive, invading, and retreated back into the trailer.
The next night Duane drove his pickup from Wal-Mart to his habitual watering hole. His drinking companions had only a casual interest in him, and the only thing he knew about the bartender was his name. After four beers, Duane drove home with exaggerated care and slewed into his drive, the sway sloshing the beer in his belly.
He took his nightcap vodka bottle out back and eased into the plastic webbing. The fox fires seemed excited by his arrival, jittering rather than waving. He took an emphatic pull from the bottle, sat for a minute, took another pull, and waved with his empty hand. The wisps of candle flame seemed to bob back at him.
As he sat and drank, Duane’s thoughts leaked away, replaced by a mood, not sad, not happy, just a strong sense of his own presence, the kind of feeling he got too briefly when hot shower water first flushed his body.
When he refocused outward he saw the wisps had moved to within a few yards of shore. Up close he could see that their edges were not defined, but frayed into rays like tree roots sucking nourishment from the air.
Duane watched for several more minutes and, still without conscious thought, got up and walked into the swamp. He stepped into rotting vegetation that sucked at his feet and ankles , lurching forward until the cold water was up to his nipples.
My remote truck key, he vaguely thought, will never work again.
The wisps of flame had advanced as well, and fluttered within easy reach.. Duane saw that the fires were not solid but shifting filigree, finely woven cloths of gold that re-knit constantly. I’m meant to touch them, he thought, and did.
Each of the three was dryly warm, like the air over a winter radiator. With each touch Duane felt an unknotting, a tension loosening that left his muscles so flaccid he almost dropped under the water.
The triumvirate seethed backwards and held two feet away from him, like magi who had delivered their gifts. Something else, Duane thought, there’s something else. He bent forward and sucked in three gagging mouthfuls of swamp water.
When he straightened up he saw the fox fires moving like ice dancers back into the heart of the swamp. I’m cold, he thought, and tried to turn his body toward shore. His legs had sunk to mid calf in the bottom ooze, and it took almost a minute to reverse the direction of each foot.. One of his sneakers was sucked off in the process.
Duane was shivering by the time he staggered out. He stripped in the back yard and went inside for a shower. I wonder, he thought, if I should try and puke up the booze and water? No, too late.
He retrieved his pants and emptied out the pockets onto the kitchen table, then pulled out the contents of his wallet and stacked them like a house of cards for better drying. Thank God for plastic, he thought.
His sleep held unremembered dreams. When the alarm roused him he gave in to his urge to vomit, still shivering and now feverish. He called in sick and let the illness envelop him, able to eat nothing and drink no more than a few sips of water.
He bobbed above and below consciousness all day. During one surfacing he wondered if what he’d done was a born again baptism or just suicide. That night he dreamed, or thought he dreamed, that the Wills of the Wisp had entered the trailer and wavered near his bedside. Indoors the flames seemed orange rather than yellow, weaving in a three part dance that ignored him. Like a wake, Duane thought, where the living focus on the fellow mourners rather than on the dead. Odd, he thought faintly, I never dream in color yet here are golden fire lights. On the second day he was able to eat a little, and on the third day returned to work.
Duane felt lighter, cleaner, like the wisps had drawn out his sorrows. I’ve been such an idiot, he thought.
Stocking the displays of clothing was a mindless activity, a Buddhist chant that usually freed Duane’s mind to wander elsewhere. He poked at his memories and found they no longer hurt to touch, not even those of Sarah. A guiltless satori washed over him as he tended to the underwear and socks.
That evening Duane drove past the local bar and went directly to the convenience store in Ema. Lucy was behind the counter, as she was most evenings.
“Hey, Lucy. I finally saw those swamp fires. Weird. It almost looked like they were dancing together.”
“Hey Duane. Lucky you. Don’t believe what these old bastards tell you, it’s just swamp gas that’s burning off.”
Lucy hadn’t re-dyed her hair blonde in two months, and when she’d nodded to him Duane saw twin brown strips flanking her part. At forty one she was twice divorced and twice a grandmother, a situation Duane knew to be common.
“Lucy, I, I was thinking that maybe it would be fun for you and me to grab some dinner together one night.”
Lucy studied him. She experienced men as vagrants with whom it was occasionally fun to misspend a night, or as drones with self inflicted chastity. Duane had always seemed to be a drone, nice but harmless. What the hell, she thought, variety.
“Gee Duane, I dunno. Okay, maybe. When?”
“Saturday? I thought we’d go over to Cristo’s.”
Christo’s was one step up from fast food. Duane had carefully rated the alternatives, not wanting to imply too much with his choice. He drove the three blocks to his trailer slowly, self-amused that he’d finally gotten the courage to ask her out, and mildly surprised that she’d said yes.
That Saturday he switched from jeans and sneakers to slacks and loafers. He decided social lubricant was called for, and poured himself a shot from the nightcap vodka bottle. He carried the shot out the back door.
The afternoon sun basted the surface of the marsh, giving off aromas of toasted reeds. There were no fox fires, only stuporous dragonflies and water boatmen drifting over the water.
Duane roused himself and drove over to Lucy’s trailer. She let Duane in but wasn’t ready. “Sit down. Hit the remote and grab a beer. I almost forgot we were going out tonight. Look, I’m sorry but I just got back and I’m all sweaty. I’ve got to grab a quick shower.”
“No problem Lucy, take your time.”
Duane sipped a beer, bemused that he felt comfortable, at ease.
Lucy emerged in jeans and sneakers, her hair still damp. “Okay, let’s go. Where we headed?”
Cristo’s was in the next town over, a trip of some twenty minutes. They knew almost nothing about each other, and began asking the seemingly innocuous questions which would fix each other into context. But Duane knew no local gossip and was leery of talking about a pretentious sounding past. He had no children and Lucy had lost closeness with hers. Let’s get up front and basic, he thought.
“Lucy, you probably figured out that I don’t play well with other kids. But don’t give me a time out. You’re sarcastic, I’m sarcastic, I figure we have the same warped view of things.”
“I’m not sarcastic, just realistic.”
“Okay, and I’m studying to become a preacher.”
Lucy smiled. This might not be too awful after all. “All right Duane, tell me the worst thing you ever did.”
“Not until the statute of limitations runs out. But you’re only one divorce ahead of me.”
They went into Christo’s and ordered drinks at the bar. Lucy liked to drink and Duane parlayed his head start. They were slurring comfortably to each other by the time they sat down to eat.
“So Duane, you’re living so quietly the local women quit talking about you.”
“Sorry to disappoint them. Maybe you and I can start some gossip.”
“They already figure I’m a tramp. You hang out with me and you’ll be condemned by association.”
“What’s the best time you ever had?”
“Not with those two assholes I married. I dunno, maybe my second boyfriend in high school. He was nice. What about you?”
“The first month of my marriage, before I figured out what my wife really wanted.”
They both ate big meals, soaking up much of the alcohol. Over coffee Duane leaned forward.
“Lucy, let’s stop by at my place on the way back and I’ll show you the swamp fires.”
Lucy laughed.” That’s a line I don’t get every night.” She studied him again. “Okay, why not.”
Back at his trailer Duane handed Lucy a can of beer and took her out the back door. The night was still, the swamp empty of any lights.
“I’ve been gypped. It’s false advertising.”
“Nah,” Duane responded,” you’ll just have to keep coming back until they show up.”
They kissed awkwardly, still holding their beer cans. He sat Lucy on his lap on the groaning aluminum chair. Over Lucy’s shoulder he thought he could glimpse the feathered tips of fox fires concealed behind tussocks.
Scheming voyeurs, he thought. Or maybe just witnesses to my resumption of folly. There has to be a penalty for this gift. Lucy stirred and he refocused on the immediate.
# # #
Resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and export paper sales. Original wife, but after 44 years we are both out of warranty. -- Edward Ahern
By Chris Deal
The two boys were out in the woods that day because their father Boyd was not. The summer was inching closer to the end and the boys were trying to milk as much time as they could away from home, away from their old man. The boys were twins, Boyd Jr. and Lucas, but they were not sure who was older and if he even remembered himself, their father never cared to reveal the answer to that secret. Boyd Jr. took an elder’s responsibility for Lucas, who took after the mother more and Boyd had never been keen on the resemblance.
When Boyd’s truck pulled off from the dirt road earlier than his shift allowed, tossing dust and loose pebbles out behind as it went, they were eating at the kitchen table. Their early morning hours had been spent dragging their father’s empty beer bottles, a garbage bag’s worth, down to Puckett’s Gas and Grocery to get the deposits back, which bought a bottle of Coke and a pack of peanut butter crackers each plus a little extra they split. It’d been the first time they had made the trek, as they would take the bottles through field and hinterland to Morrow Byatt. He lived in a leanto in the woods out by the old Burnett plantation. He hauled chairs and chester drawers from where he found them, nailed paintings into trees and created an imitation of a home in Morrow in his corner of the forest. His best find was a small wood-burning stove found behind Freyer’s pub that he used to cook what little meat he caught, mostly squirrel and rabbit. His days were spent gathering up empties and taking them down to Ronny Puckett for change or going down to the Creek to keep away the heat and dirt. His government checks were delivered to his daughter’s home in Gastonia but she never delivered the proceeds or took the time for a visit. The boys liked to help out Morrow and Morrow liked to see a pleasant face every now and then. He gladly took cans and gave the boys a couple dollars each, all he had in his pockets to give. He was older than their father, older than Ronny Puckett or Pastor Lawrence at the Presbyterian church, even. Folks around said he had been in the great war, had been there when they let the Jews out of the camps and when he came back he was never quite the same. Maybe three weeks back, the twin’s had brought him a nice load of bottles and he paid them as always. The boys waved and said their goodbyes, starting out of the woods, where they would follow the road down to spend their coin at Puckett’s, but Morrow stopped them. “Just want you boys to know you can take your bottles down to Puckett’s from here on out for yourselves. I’m going to be leaving for a while, might be a spell before I come back. I’ll miss seeing you young’uns around.” The boys nodded and walked out into the full bright of the sun, neither really thinking on what he said, just craving a cold Coke and maybe something for their stomachs.
Soon as the truck came to a screeching halt in the driveway, Boyd Jr. went to the window for a moment, saw his father’s shirt already yellow beneath the arms, around the neck from the day’s damp heat. Swaying with each step, his eyes were still like the pond beyond the fish joint up the road, but there was no showing what was happening beneath. Boyd Jr. pushed Lucas out the back door and they ran until they hit the tree line, then they ran some more. Down dead riverbeds and over felled trunks, through tunnels of sweetgum, staghorn and devilwood, cutting across game trails. A doe watched them pass from under the safety of shade. When she no longer heard their hollers or felt the rumble from their steps, she went back to her child, not knowing that in another six months the doe would be the boy’s supper. On the night of the solstice, in the quiet hours of full dark Boyd would leave Frayer’s, a barn converted into the local beer joint. He would pass the bridge over Long Creek before taking the curve at Hornet’s Nest Presbyterian faster than should be necessary, meeting the doe as she crossed. The body would bounce over the hood and spider-web the windshield on impact. “No need to waste meat,” he’d said. “If God didn’t want us to eat it, he’d have moved her out of the road, or slowed my truck, made me leave the bar earlier or later or anything. Point is,” Boyd said, “we got meat.”
The boys went deep, past the creek, their flight coming to its conclusion as the boys stumbled out of the brush and into the clearing that surrounded the schoolhouse ruins. Panting and bent crooked, palms on knees, they stayed quiet for a spell, making sure their father was not trouncing on through the woods after them. Little was left after a hundred years but the mud brick chimney and two stone walls, a floor of eroded planks and a bit of ceiling pocked with holes. No glass remained in the frames. There had been no class taught within the rotting walls in near on a century, its students all surely to dust. At one point a road had cut through the woods, coming from town and coming straight up to the door, but nature had taken a claim to it, as it was striving for the building itself.
The boys’ breath had run away from them and they stopped to catch it.
“Did he look angry to you?” Lucas said, still hunched over.
Boyd Jr. nodded. His eyes went hard and he absently scanned the woods. A hawk screeched. Squirrels jumped from tree to tree. Beyond that, the forest was static and unstirring.
A thin silver string dipped from the corner of his lips, the end coming to a rest on the forest’s dirt floor. “Think he got sent home again?” Pinpoints of sweat formed over his forehead.
“Don’t know. Might have not been no more work for him today,” Boyd Jr. said before he went and sat with his back against the one of the walls, enjoying the coolness that spread through his skin. The building’s remnants groaned at the inconvenience but held. He tried not to think.
“I don’t want to go back home tonight.” Lucas walked over and borrowed his brother’s posture.
“You never do.” Boyd Jr. would not say as much, but held a similar desire.
“We can catch some fish and eat supper out here tonight.”
Boyd Jr. replied, “There ain’t no fish in that creek. Maybe frogs, snakes, but no fish,” but his words came from a mind elsewhere.
“I ain’t going to eat no frogs,” Lucas said before he spat to show his distaste.
“The French do it all the time. I even heard they had a taste for guinea pigs, too.”
Lucas sneered but did not respond. They sat there as the sun inched its way on home, the sky a bright blue but a claret darkness was creeping up to the west. The blackbirds’ songs slowly rising in desperation. A coyote called out to its kin on the wind that cut through the leaves above still that were on their slow fade to death and rot.
“Want to go and see if Morrow’s come back yet?” Boyd Jr. asked, to which Lucas nodded, a smile spreading across his lips. They stood and stretched, then made their way past the derelict schoolhouse, through hill cane and gray dogwood then deeper, going beneath shagbark and bluejack, braiding around poison ivy and dodging snake holes. They came out on McCoy Road and cut across, through Lawrence’s untended field, barren since the old man could not so much as leave his bed anymore. Stalks left to decompose where they stood as offerings to the crows. They followed a trail cut from the road and around the field, hugging close to a forest of green ash. Morrow’s lean-to was at the other end of the field, past the monument put up for the men and women who tended the land when it was the plantation, four foot high and made of stone with words of apologies fashioned into the surface. The old-timers who spent their days sitting in the shade outside of Puckett’s, spitting tobacco juice to join with the dust, would weave words about the wooden grave markers out in these woods, slave cemeteries entrusted to the shadows of trees and bones dragged up by plows, shaded specters that held on to the anger of their disrupted rest. Lucas held his breath as long as he could as they walked on, until bright sparks danced before his eyes, trying to trade silence for safe passage. Boyd Jr. kept his eyes on what passed for the trail, picking out the perfect place to land his steps, knowing Lucas would follow him perfectly.
They cut through the quiet of the tree’s shelter, until the forest opened up at Morrow’s home. Boyd Jr. was glad his body shielded his brother’s line of sight. Morrow’s home there formed by a sheet of scrap tin at a fat angle against the base of a black oak that kept his bed dry. The stove that took him two days to drag her through the forest, the old man not even thinking to move his squat to match the find, was still there in the midst of the detritus collected over an indigent lifetime. Sitting a short distance off in the chair that always gave a small bit of comfort to the man, sat what remained of Morrow Byatt. He had been in the chair for weeks, perhaps he had sat down there once the boys left and he never rose again. Morrow was out in the wild long enough for the muscles to loosen and the skin the weaken, for animals take bits of him away. There was nothing above the man’s neck, and looking over the leaves that coated the floor of his makeshift home they could see no sign of his head. The boys had liked him despite the smears of dirt across his face and clothes, the stench that built between his bi-weekly baths in the creek. He spoke to them honestly and held back nothing from the things he had seen in his days walking through life, and all he had wanted was someone to know he wouldn’t be around much longer.
After a moment pregnant with a mourning neither boy had ever the need to practice, Boyd Jr. tugged at Lucas’ hand, and they retraced their steps, back through the field, across road and creek, through wood and past their home, where inside their father snored on the kitchen floor. They walked back up to Puckett’s as the light of day finally died, looking for someone to tell that Morrow was not around any more.
# # #
Chris Deal is a North Carolinian expatriate in the Midwest. He is the author of Cienfuegos, recently republished by Kuboa Press. He can be found at www.Chris-Deal.com
by Bobby Fox
It was their honeymoon and like any couple on their honeymoon, the future couldn’t look any brighter. In the immediate days of wedded bliss, almost anything is possible. Life, love, the pursuit of happiness become one. A new beginning. A blank slate when the past no longer matters as much as the present and the future. No matter how any marriage ends up, when a couple stands at the altar on their wedding and exchange their vows, anything’s possible. Till death do us part.
In the case of Teddy and Chloe, it was a fairy tale romance in every possible way. It wasn’t just the two of them who just knew they would always be together. Anyone who ever saw them together knew that they just weren’t any ordinary couple. Their married friends envied them, their unmarried friends aspired to be them. Both on the surface and under, they had it all. They were best friends, they supported each other’s dreams, and they had a perfect blend of both shared and individual interests. In summation, they were soul mates in every sense of the word and there was no reason to think otherwise.
For their honeymoon, they traveled to Cape Cod. She had never been there, but he had vacationed there frequently with his family when he was a boy when all that mattered was the present. As great as those memories were, nothing compared to the memories he was making there with his newly minted wife. And she felt the same. They dreamed of one day owning a cottage there to spend their summers off from teaching. He could write and she could paint, as the waves lapped gently on the shore. They also dreamed of one day watching their children frolic on the beach.
It was while taking a sunset stroll on his favorite beach at the very tip of the Cape that they witnessed a glimpse of their future. It was like walking on the edge of the world as far as they were concerned. And if the end of the world broke off and drifted off to sea, then so be it.
They walked hand-in-hand along the dunes, plotting their future as the sun slowly melted into a velvety orange sea. The sand beneath their feet was cold and clammy, but felt so good beneath their feet, following their long day of soaking up the rays of the sun, swimming in the sea and disappearing into one another and into their future, trying desperately to hold onto to the present. All-in-all, it was destined to be one of those days that lives at the forefront of the photo album of their minds. Memory snapshots that stayed as fresh in memory as they were when they were experienced. These were not only the moments that made life worth living. These were the moments that made every other experience pale in comparison.
Out in the distance, at the very tip of the Cape, stood a lonely white lighthouse, gazing out into a lonely sea – a beacon of hope at the end of the world. When they first set off for the lighthouse, they assumed it would take half an hour, at the most. Yet, they had been walking now for over an hour and the lighthouse seemed as far away as when they first started out. Remarkably, it had been forty-five minutes since they last saw another human being. They were not only approaching the end of the world, but they were the last two people standing. They pretended that – despite centuries of existence – this slice of earth was made for them only, awaiting this very moment.
The sun continued its gradual descent into darkness – seemingly setting even slower than usual, as though it knew it had a special audience all of its own. The moon was already beaming high above them, a vibrant contrast to the red-orange glow of the sun, casting a surreal, almost heavenly light.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“I’m sure if you’re sure,” she responded in usual solidarity.
“This might be the last chance we get,” he said.
“Don’t say that. It’s never too late,” she said with complete confidence.
“I’d like to think that,” he said, suddenly growing sad at the sobering nature of reality.
“Well, then I guess we have no choice,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “We better keep trekking.”
So they did. As the sun continued its slow-motion set out in the distance, the lighthouse loomed, seemingly never getting closer. Now tired, they walked in silence in a way that only soul mates can. Their mutual love expressed everything that needed to be said.
In the distance, what appeared to be two figures suddenly materialized in front of them, surrounded by what appeared to be heavenly light.
“Do you see that,” he asked, pointing straight ahead.
He pointed again.
“Don’t you see it? Looks like two people.”
She squinted and did, indeed, see two shapeless figures in the distance.
“Do they look sort of odd to you?” Teddy asked.
“You mean, like angels?” Chloe asked. “Yes, I see them. But it’s probably just the sun and the moon playing tricks on us.”
“Probably,” he said, but not really believing it.
“Or, maybe they are angels,” she said, half-serious.
“Could be.” Teddy said.
They continued heading towards the lighthouse and the figures grew closer. The angelic light surrounding them was now gone, but something else was becoming clear. The two figures weren’t simply strangers. They were individuals that they knew all too well. What they were seeing were replicas of each each other.
“Wait a minute ... is that ...” he said.
“Us,” she said.
“I think so.”
“I don’t understand...” she said.
They both became hushed, as they continued approaching their alternate selves until they stood face-to-face, standing in stunned silence. They noticed that their alternate selves looked slightly older and worn.
“I forgot how young I once looked,” Teddy’s alternate self said, breaking the awkward silence, but not the confusion. “Can you explain what’s happening?” Teddy asked his alternate self, who – in addition to looking much younger – appeared much less confused.
“Tomorrow, in our world, everything is final. We will be going our separate ways. We were allowed to come back and inform you. So you can avoid everything we did wrong.”
“I don’t understand,” Chloe asked.
“We were once where you are now,” alternate Chloe stated. “In this exact moment. In this exact space. At this same sunset. But now, we are as far from this moment as we could possibly go. Tomorrow, everything becomes final.”
“It’s too late for us,” alternate Teddy said. “But it’s not too late for you. You can avoid this. You can avoid everything.”
“Avoid what?” Teddy asked.
“I’m afraid that’s all we can tell you,” alternate Teddy said.
“But we can assure you that you’ll know when the time comes,” alternate Chloe said. “And when it does, remember this moment. Please, whatever you do, remember this moment. So you don’t make the same mistake we did.”
“Not for our sake. But for yours,” alternate Teddy said.
Teddy and Chloe turned to one another, then back at their alternate selves. But they were now gone. All that remained were their footprints in the cold, clammy sand.
Chloe and Teddy, alone once again, looked at each each other in an equal mix of disbelief and awe.
“Is this a dream? she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“How could it not be?”
“Well, if it is, I guess there’s no way to know until we wake up. And if it is a dream, then whose dream is it?” Teddy asked. But he got no answer in return. For a moment, he grew worried that Chloe was gone, too.
“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?“
“Of course we are,” Teddy assured her.
“It’s getting dark,” Chloe said. They looked out into the sea, in the sun’s waning moments, in search of their visible and invisible future.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said. Teddy nodded in agreement.
They embraced and kissed, and then made love at the foot of the dunes as the sun went down on what would forever regard as the most memorable experience of their lives.
Afterward, they held each other in search of forever, while looking out into a forever sea, shimmering by the light of a cold, indifferent forever moon before heading back to civilization.
They vowed to make it to the lighthouse on their next trip. But by then, it would be too late. As these things so often were.
Bobby Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a novel and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival in Canton, MI. Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University.
In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
by Doug Johnson
The crowd was pretty much what you would expect when a small Alaskan town of 862 souls is visited by 12,000 passengers and crews of four large cruise ships. I ambled through the town, allowing myself to be deflected from my course as I was caught up in the eddies created by the storefront gawkers or buffeted by the countercurrent of small groups moving against the flow. The sense which stands sentinel on the private space around the body and which will often allow one to move through masses with little contact was overtaxed by the confused and purposeless movements of this body of humanity. My progress was full of small collisions, abrupt stops, sideways slitherings, and wide detours into the street. No one seemed to have any idea where they were going. Movement in any direction would suddenly be deflected by almost any random sight or sound or the calling of fellow gawkers. The default movement of the aimless was the sudden stop and many promising advances toward my destination were so delayed.
I particularly hated this crowd of which I was an unwilling member. When people would stop to look at some point of interest, it was so much more irritating and disruptive than the considerate and urbane manner in which I contemplate in fascinated oblivion the sights and wonders of my own travels. I am certain that on those occasions when my movement had come to a dead stop in awe struck contemplation of a Hong Kong street scene, or an Austrian baroque ceiling, it blended unobtrusively and was without effect on the local population going about their routine business.
Furthermore, this crowd was exceptionally unattractive in both manners and appearance. Protruding bellies, misshapen faces, badly pocked skin, legs with lumps, veins, and growths made up just some of the sights with which I was assaulted. It really was quite notable the extent to which the physical deficiencies of this crowd elicited repulsion. While I and many of my friends share the physical shortcomings in appearance of those in this crowd, neither I nor my friends or family had elevated those deficiencies to such a level of repulsion. In fact just the opposite, because it was a strange fact, which I can only attribute to the fine quality of those within my circle, that they had managed to morph what in others were repulsive characteristics into something quaint and quite lovable.
While I was temporarily a part of the crowd, I held myself aloof. My movements had purpose. My destination called to me with its promise of quiet beauty, whispering silence and solitude. It was there that my defenses would drop, the senses would sharpen and peace and understanding would arrive. The path forward would be clear and unobstructed. It was the opposite of everything in town. There the natural eternal order of things prevailed. Here the landscape was littered with the detritus of a greedy and selfish humanity.
Indeed the town itself was a shrine to a time of greed when men forsook all civilized behavior in the quest for gold. When the gold rush of 1898 is viewed from the present it takes on an unreal museum quality. The tourist bar converted from the old bordello with the scantily clad mannequins peeking through the lace curtains from the upper floors is no more real than the replica of a “typical” 1890’s bar which the National Park Service has created on Broadway and placed behind a plastic barricade. The real Gold Rush was made of mud and greed and cruel remorseless selfish striving, carried out with pain, discomfort, and danger in a place far from home, while a sense of forsaken loneliness pressed down on the heart. Companions in misery were competitors. The kindness and aids naturally exchanged by humans facing a common adversity could be a risk to one’s own stake and survival. That such hardships were seized so readily was a testimony to how bad things were for many Americans in the late 19th Century. For many the romantic road of the sourdough to adventure and wealth was taken out of desperation.
I used to drink with my shipmates down the street at Moe’s. Nestled behind its fake brick front, it had the ambiance of a parking garage. Substitute exhaust fumes for cigarette smoke and the comparison is even more apt. While not as tony and certainly not as clean as either the National Park Service diorama or the used to be bordello, it was a place where working men and women could go and get a beer. Perhaps a century from now there will be a shrine with mannequins dressed in Carharts and halibut jackets in a cleaned up and restored Moe’s.
I am headed out of town to the East, over the creek and across the railroad tracks. There, tight against the sudden slope of the hill, lay the start of a steep and rocky path. Eagerly I seek the lonely trail the crowd distains. Alone at last I feel the welcome press of the unyielding slope against my calves. Soon tired knees are pumping to the indifference of the hill. They parse out muted time, shrunken yet displacing all else as I count out the slow tortured steps.
This trail is mine. It is claimed by the authority of long association and bolstered by the silent testimony of former trail mates now resting beneath cold alluvial rocks in the valley. My claim has been honed in the winter’s snow and burnished by the mother falcon who slashed the back of my neck one early spring when I unknowingly strayed too close to the nest she protected.
The quiet and solitude enveloped me like a balm. The world began to take on the rightness that one always suspects exists but never reveals itself except in unexpected moments. The words of the Almighty as spoken through the prophet who said, “be still, and know that I am God,” spoke to me as my body worked through that stillness outside of time. I was home. My feet caressed the path like a returning lover. Peace and comfort were once more my companions on the journey. To be once more in a place of certainty and solitude restored my optimism and vigor. The world was indeed a fine place and I was a fine fellow in it.
The sound first came to me from behind, at what I would guess was two switchbacks down the trail. Muffled footfalls accompanied by way too much laughter and chatter for a trail this steep. The irritating sounds made by the interlopers in my domain persisted without letup. After a few minutes I could hear that the conversation was in English and between what sounded like two men with an indeterminate foreign accent and a woman speaking with British inflections. They were not from Skagway or even summer workers who would undoubtedly be engaged at this time in tending the needs of the hordes of tourists from the ships. Hell, they were probably not even Americans. In any case they did not belong on my trail and I resented it.
While I held firm in my conviction that this was indeed my personal trail I recognized the valid claim of others with the proper credentials to the same area. The Chilkoots and other native peoples who had lived in the area for centuries certainly had a claim. Although the areas of Southeast Alaska that the natives had traditionally inhabited were often different than those that the white man generally saw as favorable. The natives tended to select the areas with the most abundant and easily taken fish and game. The water access was good for canoes and most important had the best micro climate. The white man valued harbors for deeper draft vessels and access to minerals and timber and such places were often the most inhospitable without the support of products of the industrial revolution. It was an old joke in Ketchikan that the city had been established in an area that had about the worst weather in Southeast Alaska. It was often raining sideways in town while the old native village of Kaasan across Clarence Strait on Prince of Wales Island would be in sunshine.
While I had regard for the validity of various ownership claims I realized that they were all rooted in possession, habit and selfishness and that the law which gives the veneer of legitimacy is mostly just a snapshot of the reality at the time it was written. A lot of the conflict seems to be over what time is referenced to make it legitimate. My claim, which I held to be paramount, was based on some 30 years of hiking these trails whenever I got the chance. The Native claims would go back centuries when some of their ancestors had without doubt trod this area. The fact that I had never seen an Indian on the trail proved mine was the superior claim. The invaders on the trail behind me would undoubtedly claim that they had a perfect right to be here since it was a public trail, promoted by the tourist board of Skagway and maintained by public institutions and volunteers. I could dismiss such spurious claims without difficulty.
I resented the approach of the hikers and their intrusion into my private space. An intrusion which would in fact be drawn out over the length of time it took for them to overtake me. The insult was all the greater for their young lungs which not only supported a faster pace than my own but also provided a reserve of air to converse and laugh as well. It was now possible to pick up intelligible bits of the conversation and I constructed all scenarios of the relationship of the three trespassers. Above the murmur of the male voices I would catch the trill pleasure of the female laugh. I reached into the shallow well of my reserve energy and upped my pace to exceed theirs. I didn’t look back but soldiered on, heartened by the now diminishing sound of the conversation. The burn of a heightened pace gave evidence of costly physical effort but it also stoked the self satisfaction of the preservation of my solitude.
Lost in inward tranquility, I almost didn’t hear the first stone rolling underfoot close behind me. Turning around I saw her about fifty paces back, head down, arms pumping, while her heavily shod feet picked carefully between the loose round rocks scattered across the trail. We were on the last straight incline before the crest of the hill. She drew alongside me just as we reached the top. I had just straightened up and picked up my pace on the welcome gentle downward slope to the lake. She slowed her pace to match mine and we fell into step together.
“Lovely morning” she said enthusiastically with a smile and not a hint of breathlessness.
“Yes indeed” I croaked out between ill concealed gasps.
She was wearing some sort of mid-calf khaki pants, a blue T shirt, white ball cap partially covering short auburn/gray hair, and sturdy brown hiking boots. On close inspection she appeared to be about middle age, maybe 45 plus, but the glow of exertion with a patina of sweat, her fit body and her obvious joy spoke of someone much younger than the years which her face revealed.
For the next forty minutes we fell into easy conversation. She had engaged in pleasant exchanges with the pair she had overtaken on the trail before she caught up to me. Indeed murmurs of the conversation punctuated with her pleasant higher pitched laugh had first alerted me to intruders within my domain. And now here I was tolerating without objection, not altogether unpleasant words with one of those who had threatened my tranquility. We were an odd pair. I was a lapsing misanthrope, with every step and word descending fu rther into the pit of hypocrisy, walking side by side with an ebullient embodiment of human congeniality and optimism. Old saws such as “liking man but not mankind” or ancillary ideas often put forth in sales or managerial seminars such as “strangers are friends we haven’t met” or “I never met a man I didn’t like,” rattled through my head. I struggled to grasp at any nugget, however worn, to explain why I was enjoying this conversation and company. For in fact there were many strangers I did not want to meet as well as many people I knew well and didn’t like.
The pleasure of her company could not be explained through sexual tension, because while I confess to often preferring the company of women I could not envision a circumstance of physical attraction. A benefit of having a certain number of decades on the odometer is the ability to relate honestly to the opposite sex without the deviations of a younger man. Indeed we were in a post sexual world. She told me much about her life, confirming my thoughts that she was once a beauty, and had experienced all that entailed for a girl and later a woman abroad in a world of men. She imparted this plainly and within the context of the conversation and my practiced ear I could find no hint of subtext. Her words provided a peek into another life and a view of the world from that life which I would never be able to comprehend on my own.
I learned that she was born in Kenya to English parents at the end of the colonial period. She lived there until she was 15 and then moved to the UK with her parents for three years. After that she lived and travelled widely, I think Indonesia and Australia were mentioned. Later came marriage and children. She now owned an orchard in the Okanagan in British Columbia which she claimed took all of her time with little left for travel or other pursuits. The visit she was on to Alaska was a retracing of a trip she had made years before with her husband. Her words were intelligent, informed and molded around a world view based upon the observations of a life deliberately lived.
At the south end of the Lake we parted, she to continue around the lake to the steeper upper lake trail, and I to return to town by a different route.
# # #
Doug Johnson lives and writes on an island in Puget Sound and in Ketchikan Alaska. He has spent his professional life at sea and around ships and boats. Recently he has begun writing tales inspired by events in his life.
The Last Few Pages
by Howard Mosley-Chalk
“Any food?” asked the fat one.
“Not much, just scraps,” answered the ugly one.
David had been watching them for nearly ten minutes now. The pair had rummaged through his few possessions and trodden muddy footprints into recently washed clothing. They tore through his modest shelter, scooping up anything they deemed of use, of value.
He remained still and silent. He was hidden from them. They wore dirty bandanas around their foreheads making it impossible to tell what group they belonged to. Just a weak glimmer of light shone through, above their small beady eyes. David assumed the worst.
“Any weapons then?”
“No. But these sticks look like they’ve been shaved down. Someone’s been making arrows.”
The ugly one picked up several short lengths of wood and brutishly snapped them in half, tossing the shards carelessly onto the floor of the tent.
“Arrows,” wobbled the chin of the fat one, “what good are arrows? Anything else?”
“Nah. Just some tatty old books. This one’s been ripped in half.”
David watched as the fat one picked up a leather wallet which had tumbled from the pocket of a water-proof jacket. “What’s this?” He poked chubby fingers through the folds of the wallet before producing a photograph. He enthusiastically waved it at the ugly one. “Check her out. Think she’s the one living here?”
The ugly one snatched up the photo and leered at the image of the woman. “If it is, think we might have to wait about for her to come back. Have some fun.”
The fat one laughed. “Stuck out here on her own, bet she’s gagging for it.”
That was enough. The invasion of personal space was one thing, but that...
David stepped out from behind the false canvas back of the tent, drew back the string of his bow and aimed at the fat one.
“Wha..,” managed the plump man, as the point of the arrow pierced his chest and entered his heart. He fell backwards with a crash, the clean wooden shaft quivering as he died.
David drew another arrow and aimed at the ugly one.
“Don’t!” screamed the man, staggering over the corpse of his partner and out of the tent. “Please don’t!”
David sighted down the length of the arrow, aiming at his face. The man was younger than he had first appeared through the tiny slit in the canvas. Fear now robbed him of maturity.
“No, please. I’ll go. Please don’t shoot.” The man slowly backed away, across wet grass. He was more concerned for himself than the loss of his comrade who now lay half out of the tent, contributing to the moisture in the ground.
David stepped over the corpse. The glow from the symbol beneath the bandana had already started to fade; a true indication of death. A feeling of urgency hit him: he needed to move the sizable body before it bled all over his things.
“Drop it,” he said, motioning the tip of the arrow toward the object in the ugly one’s shivering hand.
The photograph fell to earth. David watched it go, saw her face concealed by blades of damp grass.
The man turned and ran, sprinting over the uneven surface. Grass and bracken whipped at his thighs as he shot through the undergrowth. David watched him go, still with the bow primed and aimed at the diminishing target. He wondered how water resistant a photograph was.
At the edge of the clearing, by the side of a short and rocky cliff, the ugly one stopped and turned.
“I’m going to bring my mates back. And when I do I’ll fucking kill you, Goaty! You hear me? You and your bitch.”
David thought as much.
Altering the angle to take into account the slight wind and the distance between them, he loosed the arrow. Three seconds later he heard a yelp and the small figure in the distance fell.
He knew the man would likely do what he’d threatened, and besides David already had plans to move on. He’d given the ugly one a chance to live, but the insult had been too much.
He started walking toward the body, stopping only briefly to pick up the photo and brush flecks of soil from its surface. Normally he would have let the man rot alone out here in the cold wilderness, but he needed to retrieve his arrow. He was short of them now and would probably need as many as possible today.
He kept the bow in his left hand, an arrow perched loosely on the slack string. The rapier sat within the leather scabbard, gently bouncing around at his hip. Everything else was on his back. Except the tent which he had abandoned.
The going was difficult, the terrain harsh and overgrown. Recent heavy rains hadn’t helped. But still the forest was beautiful, and although icy dew had penetrated his boots and frozen his toes, his breath had been taken on several occasions that morning. The mist in the trees. The still. The peace.
He came across a narrow road that bisected the woodland. By the side of the road in a ditch lay a severely decomposed body. He ignored it and continued.
After leaving the forest and crossing several fields, David stopped at a railway track. A train loomed before him, still, quiet and imposing. A wall on wheels. The doors and windows of the carriages had been smashed and he saw that bullet holes riddled the sides. He climbed aboard.
There had been a fire; seats and tables, luggage racks and catering trolleys were charred and bent. There had also been a battle of some kind. Corpses littered the aisle of the carriage to his right. Flies and vermin scurried about in the filth. He turned the other way and entered the car marked ‘first class’.
People had been living here. There were blankets and sleeping bags laid out on the floor and some of the seats had been rearranged to create more space. A pile of animal bones lay off to one side, picked clean with expert precision. Personal affects: tattered, worn shoes, clothing, trinkets, photographs.
He moved through the carriage toward the far end. A solid, windowless door laid half open, crowbar marks denting the walls around it. He peered inside. It was the driver’s cabin. Before him there was a shattered windscreen and a view along the tracks ahead. If his sense of direction was right, that was the way he needed to go. So he started the engine.
The leviathan woke. The floor beneath him rumbled and churned and wisps of black smoke blew into the exposed cabin. He fiddled experimentally with the controls before settling upon a chunky red lever. The train lurched forward. Then came shouts.
From the field on the opposite side of the train a group of a dozen men were screaming and running towards him. A spray of bullets lashed the cabin. David threw himself to the grimy floor before quickly reaching up to push the lever to full. The acceleration forced him into the back wall of the cabin and the track beneath the train moaned in protest.
The train surged onwards, creaking and rattling as it picked up speed. The shouts from the men became cries of anguish and frustration. David glanced out of the side window. They were too far out, they wouldn’t catch him. He saw the exposed and blazing symbols on their foreheads and was glad of that fact.
Standing, he stared through the remnants of the windscreen and scanned the rolling track for debris. How long, he wondered, would it take? One hour? Two? Soon enough he would be in the city. He would be home.
David lived just a few hundred feet from the railway. The sound of passing trains used to keep him awake at night. Now he was thankful for that proximity; not far to walk.
It took several miles to slow the train down. As soon as he began to pass tower blocks and billboards, terraced housing and shops, he gradually applied the brakes. Still, with all of his calculations and best guesses, he overshot the mark by half a mile.
He climbed down from the train, almost tripping on the loose gravel of the embankment. The stink of diesel clung to his clothing and the rattle of the engine had near deafened him. But now, with the train still and silent once more, that familiar dull emptiness washed over David.
He made his way cautiously along the track, down the length of the train and towards the crossing point by his house. He moved with the bow primed and drawn, the fletching of the arrow tickling his cheek, ready to shoot at the first sign of danger. He crunched along by the side of the track, eyes darting from the ground to the many dark windows of the buildings on either side. If an ambush came, there would be little he could do to escape.
Finally he made it to the crossing and onto the road. Glancing back towards the train he noticed quick moving figures darting around by the side of the tracks. They’ll move in and take the train, he supposed. Best find cover.
His house was as he’d left it. No windows had been broken and the front door remained locked – until he opened it with the key that had spent the past three months at the bottom of his pocket. The smell of decay hit his nostrils as he entered. He locked the door behind him, took off his backpack and placed the bow on top. He drew the rapier.
Silently he stalked down the entrance hall, listening intently for any sound that may give away a foe. The living room was empty and just as it had been when he’d quickly left; furniture upturned, a smashed vase half embedded in the wall, a dark dried blood stain. He moved through into the kitchen.
He found the source of the smell. The kitchen bin sat mouldy and stinking; a maggot fell from the yawning lid. Waste. All of it now just waste. He opened the drawer by the sink and retrieved something he wished he’d taken previously: a wind-up torch.
Through in the dining room the smell was no better. He paused by the book shelf. The spines of a thousand dusty but neatly ordered books stared back at him, inviting him. But he’d read every single one.
Upstairs was the same – empty, cluttered and deafeningly quiet. Once assured that nobody else was there he settled into the spare bedroom and lay upon the bed, next to the empty cot. He couldn’t bring himself to look at what was once his bed, their bed, through in the other room.
He thought he slept, but couldn’t be sure.
Sometime later he tested a light switch and found the electricity to be off, as he assumed it would be. He padded half undressed into the bathroom and turned a tap. A weak flow of water gargled into existence before him; enough to wash with.
Curiosity drew him across the landing and he tentatively crept into the bedroom.
The room stank of sweat and damp. Gone had the smell of flowers and perfume, gone had the smell of her. He looked at their bed.
How had it started? A disagreement, an argument? Small at first, unimportant; they had laughed about it afterwards. When had it grown to resentment, to hatred? Maybe even before the symbols had appeared, long before sides were drawn and the wars began. Certainly before the day he had returned home, hands filled with scavenged food, to find their baby girl dead, smothered by a mother who could no longer tolerate her and the symbol upon her little forehead that burned differently to her own.
He thought about what had happened afterwards, how quickly he had left. He would do the same now.
A thud from behind. He turned back into the room and saw a large man sleepily stagger out from under the bed. He carried a gun. He noticed David and froze, bleary eyes trying to focus. David saw two curving, glowing lines on the man’s forehead, arching down toward his brow.
“No...” said the man.
David dashed forward and ran the tip of his rapier through the intruder’s stomach. The gun fell harmlessly from his shocked fingers.
The pair remained there for a second, connected by reddening steel. The man’s final act was to blink in bewilderment and to splutter “Fucking Capricorn” at David. He dropped to the floor, dead.
“Fucking Aries,” whispered David, pulling the blade free and watching the symbol on the stranger’s forehead fade.
Only then did he notice that the window had been forced. He found a sleeping bag and a few scraps of food under the bed.
The sun was setting by the time David left his house, this time for good. It surprised him how quickly the flames had spread. By the time he reached the end of his street, he could already hear the windows cracking from the heat. He didn’t like the thought of the house standing empty and available for any mindless vagrant to squat in. Better it wasn’t there at all.
He’d done his calculations, his mathematics. He’d thought very carefully about which group was most likely to have taken the city. Based on what David had seen so far, and on what he remembered from his exodus months prior, it was not good news. They would all be Aries, dangerous, just like the men at the tent, the train and in his house.
His forehead was exposed. He had considered wrapping it in a scarf or wearing a hat; anything to conceal his own glowing symbol, that curious and elaborately flourished ‘u’. But the thought of his child had stopped him. No more running. No more hiding. He was tired.
One came at him, springing from bushes behind a bus shelter. The boy, no older than fifteen, was armed with an ancient looking mace. It seemed that David was not the only one who had thought to pilfer weapons from the museum. As expected the boy’s brow burned furiously with the sign of the ram, and as he charged towards David he screamed an incomprehensible bellow of rage. David shot him through the neck.
After the boy had fallen he approached and pulled the arrow free from a gushing throat. His symbol had already begun to fade but still the boy flailed and lashed out, trying to reach for David, trying to claw at him.
There were others. They spawned from darkened alleys and leapt over garden walls. They too spat and hissed with rage at the sight of his sparkling symbol, but were more cautious than the boy had been. They watched David as he passed, flinched to test his reactions, barked insults and threats from the thickening shadows. David continued, a new arrow sitting upon the string of his bow, ready to fly, his right hand never far from the hilt of his rapier. He kept to the centre of the road, his eyes springing from menace to menace. It wasn’t far, he thought with some relief, to the library.
Another bold figure launched itself forward, armed only with the shattered remnants of a glass bottle. David delivered a further arrow and the man crashed to the tarmac. The watching horde roared with outrage.
“Nine,” said David quietly after quickly peering into the quiver at his side.
They started to come at him, bellowing hatred and throwing projectiles.
From within an upturned car, a long knife in blackened hands. “Eight”.
From the side of a burning shop, a rock held high and set to throw. “Seven.”
From behind, bicycle chain viciously spinning. “Six.”
Straight ahead, baseball bat raised. “Five.”
Fists flailing. “Four.”
Jagged teeth. “Three.”
David ran quicker. A stone struck his cheek and he stumbled. A fist hammered into his shoulder. He heard someone shout “Goaty”, and someone else scream with joy. He got up, somehow, and ran on, kicking and pushing his way through the growing mob.
“One” was spent into the eye socket of a bald and thickly-set brute, whose corpse fell onto him, knocking the wind from his lungs and slowing him down. The hundred-strong pack howled with delight to see David struggle and they surged forward, so their gathered weight might crush him into the ruined street.
David dropped the spent bow and drew his sword. Red rain began to fall as he slashed this way and that, thrust up and down. Wherever there was snarling, thrashing, ram-marked flesh he put his blade. The wet handle became slippery, but he gripped tighter, moved quicker, ducked and ran, jumped and parried until they retreated.
They swore and growled as they fell slowly away, washed with the innards of their kin. David, exhausted, breathing air like a parched man drinks, carefully stepped over the bodies he had created, rapier still raised. He could see, through the corner of one blackened and weeping eye, his goal. He dashed forward, kicking aside those too slow to get out of his way.
The library doors were smashed, as were all the doors in this ghost of a city. The horde followed him, watched him enter the darkly ornate Victorian building, keeping their distance from him, from that blade. David knew they would have him, that it was just a matter of time.
With the dripping red sword held in front, he moved quickly through the long and deserted corridors. What little sun remained could not penetrate the small windows and rusting, befouled skylights. He knew this building well, knew what turns to make and when, knew what stairs to climb in the dark and even knew what book case to run his hands over.
He heard a cry from below, from within the building. The ram-pack had grown impatient; their anger had bubbled over their caution. They were coming for him.
David retrieved the wind-up torch from his backpack, span the crank several times and pressed the switch. By the faint light he began to scan the shelves before him. “B. Be... Bl... Bo... Br...”
His eyes found the author and his fingers found the book. David slipped from the shelf a plastic coated, well-read paperback. He opened the book and turned to page 210. A smile, something unfelt for a long time, came into being across his lips. By the light of the torch David saw that he still had another fifty pages to read. He could manage that. He hoped.
A wail of hatred echoed up the nearby stairwell. Dropping the book into his bag he sprinted down the shadowy aisles just in time to see the hallway erupt with screaming bodies. They’d seen him, they were on him, on his heels.
David stomped over the hard stone floors, raced across worn carpets. He rounded an unfamiliar corner and crashed into an overturned bucket and mop. Skidding on the wet floor he noticed the door to a small, dim room lay ajar but intact. He entered, slamming the door shut behind him. The torch revealed this to be a cleaning cupboard. Small, cramped and with a strong tang of bleach in the air, the room had no other exit.
“This is it.”
Pulling a heavy set of metal shelves, each crammed with vats of thick, noxious fluid, he shoved it against the closed door. Broom handles became rods and mops became bars
as David barricaded the room as best he could. How long would it hold, he wondered, as he heard them gathering in the hallway beyond.
He sat cross-legged on the floor, as he had done in school, leaning the sword against a cobwebbed brick wall. He watched for a moment as blood ran down the length of the blade and joined with the many puddles of mysterious liquid around him. Taking the book, he opened it at page 210.
Could he finish it? He hoped he could. Fifty pages before the hammering and thudding became too much for the old wooden door. Fifty pages before they got in, got him, and the epilogue to his own story would be read by angry, cruel voices.
Kicks and blows rained down upon the door, shouts and cries upon his ears.
He began to read.
# # #
Howard Moseley-Chalk has worked as an actor, stand-up comedian, cinema usher and Roman history tour guide. His influences include H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Alan Campbell, the creepy cycle path near his house and the month of October. He writes science fiction, fantasy and slipstream. He lives at www.howardmosleychalk.com and welcomes you to visit. He has a wife and a baby daughter who likes to point at him. His work has been published in a number of US and UK magazines and websites, including Starburst Magazine and inclusion in a forthcoming print anthology by Knightwatch Press.
Three People Dancing
by Peter Volpe
She stood facing him, leaning against the desk, one small hand resting on her slim hip, the other gripping the gilt picture frame. “Who’s this?”
He cleared his throat. “Gail. My ex-wife.”
She’d closed the door behind her when she’d entered; now he got up and opened it.
“She’s very pretty,” Cassidy said, crinkling the corners of her eyes.
He rested his eyes on her in a way he knew he shouldn’t. In a black body hugging sheath, black hose with darker seams running up the back, and black pointy-toed heels she looked to be in mourning. After a moment he gazed past her, out the window over the desk shoved against the wall, into the storm.
The fluorescent light in the ceiling flickered and then went out. The cubby-hole office felt like a small underwater cavern.
He turned on the lamp on the far corner of his desk. In doing so, he almost disturbed the necklace that lay in a perfect golden puddle at the lamp’s base. The light cast a dim pall over the office and threw shadows on the wall.
“Why are you here?”
Cassidy smiled and set the picture on the desk, angling it away from him. She slid into the small wooden chair beside him, the only other seat in the tiny office; as she did, her knee brushed against his. She crossed her legs, dangled a high heel shoe off the toes of her right foot, and leaned back.
“You’re all dressed up for a Monday. Going somewhere?” he said.
“I am somewhere,” she said slowly. “But I must say these heels are killing me.” She let her shoe drop off, and massaged her toes with one hand.
He shifted in his chair. “Can I do something for you?”
She stopped rubbing her foot and put her shoe back on. “You know what I think?” she asked, drawling the last word.
“What do you think?” His mouth was getting dry.
“Do you want to know? Do you really care . . . to know?” she said in a sultry voice, leaning her elbows on the desk and resting her chin gently on her knuckles.
“You’re my student. I’m always interested in what my students think.”
“I have this sense about you. I think you’re a bad guy trying to be good,” she said, in a confident tone that implied she knew things about him she couldn’t possibly know.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, I think you’re a bad guy trying to be good.”
Her round emerald eyes mesmerized him, penetrated him. He wanted to ask how she’d come to that conclusion, for though there was some truth to it, it wasn’t the kind of observation a student should make about her professor.
“I can’t allow this—”
She shook her head softly and placed a polished fingernail against his lips. “I just wanted you to know that I’m proud of you.”
And she was dressed in black, her terrible beauty so similar to Sarah’s, the words so familiar. . . .
I’m proud of you . . .
I’m proud . . .
Of you . . .
Sarah’s dying words to him.
Suddenly he was back in that sickening spring.
He’d been teaching a creative writing course while Gail worked full-time. Sarah had been having trouble breathing. When she said she’d quit smoking, he knew she was dying. He told her if she didn’t start to feel better he was going to call an ambulance. She must have gotten scared because she went to the doctor. . . . And the news was bad.
He packed his best suit in anticipation of the funeral.
Gail went with him to the big, impersonal hospital up north. It was a long drive. On the way Nina Simone sang “Wild is the Wind” in a wailing, mahogany voice that sounded like dying trees. As they neared the city, the sky turned bruise-colored.
Inside the bright hospital he and Gail made their way through coffin-narrow halls. The antiseptic attempt to cover the smells of sickness and death failed miserably. When they got off the elevator, his stomach roiled and he wanted to retch. It was as if he’d just gotten off some obscene roller-coaster at an amusement park in hell. They found the room and he peeked hesitantly through the doorway, uncertain whether he should be seeing this.
All of a sudden, he didn’t want Gail there. Knowing it wouldn’t sound good and that it’d hurt Gail’s feelings, he asked her to go find some coffee, and something that would pass for food. Gail walked haughtily away, like an empire in decline. He knew he’d pay for it, she always made him pay for it. She wouldn’t let him near her for days, as if withholding carnal pleasure would somehow serve to crucify him, make him pure, cause him to thank her for her glory.
Sarah lay on her back; her hands were folded and rested gently on her stomach. He went to her bedside. The once flaming hair was now the color of banked ashes. Her celadon eyes were now as dull as wilted plants.
He heard his name from far away.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he answered.
“There’s something I want you to have.” She raised herself on one elbow and tugged open the nightstand drawer. With a trembling hand she reached in and pulled out the pendant, the golden calyx with mother-of-pearl set in the center. “I want you to have it. Keep it. Forever.” She placed it in his palm and closed her hands around his fist. He raised it to his lips and kissed it, smiling gently at his mother.
Though her breathing was labored, she was conscious the last day of her life. She kept asking for Gail, who sat on a small, plastic chair at the foot of the bed. It seemed very important to her that Gail was there. In the end it fell to him to decide what to do. He talked to the doctors and nurses and decided Sarah's suffering couldn't continue. That was when he gave his consent.
She lapsed into a coma. The nurse said she could still hear and urged him and Gail to continue talking, to give her permission to let go. The whole thing was absurd. Sarah had given him life, and he’d repaid her by killing her. And now he was to tell her she had his permission to die . . . words of encouragement from the executioner.
At the end, she sat up, and stared directly into his eyes. “I’m proud of you,” she said, then died. He buried her with pictures of him, and a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth—in the last couple years he and Sarah had shared a love for Beethoven.
With Sarah gone the world went flat. Sounds dimmed, colors blanched, life became black and white, like an old movie or words on a page. Sorrow was deeper than joy could ever be. There were no sacred mysteries, no possibility of redemption, or salvation, the day of resurrection was just a myth. From then on, the “Ode to Joy” sounded like a dirge. He heard it while lecturing, drinking, and making love. It played in his dreams and seemed eternal—unlike joy, marriage, or Sarah, but exactly like his pain.
“I’m proud of you,” Sarah had said.
“I’m proud of you,” Cassidy said, sitting beside him, legs crossed, knee touching his. She stared at him intently, as if there were nothing else in the world to see. There was no shame, no embarrassment, nothing self-conscious in her look.
“I’m writing a paper for our class. I’d like to tell you about it,” she said.
The lightning flashed outside the window, illuminating her face, making her look like something holy and unholy.
She folded her hands on her knees, and leaned closer. “Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. She slept with Zeus, and over the course of nine adulterous nights, they created the Muses.” Her voice was low, gentle, caressing.
“I know the story,” he rasped, in a voice barely audible, wondering why it seemed so damn dry in the office.
Cassidy closed her eyes. “You know the river Lethe in Hades?” He caught a faint scent of lilacs drifting from her. An empty stillness permeated the room. Staring at her greedily while her eyes were closed, he felt the hot sting of shame.
“Yes,” he breathed slowly. “Dead souls drank from the river Lethe to forget their past.” It was easier for him to speak now.
“And then?” Her eyes were still closed.
Open your eyes, he whispered in his brain, for the love of God, open your fucking eyes!
“And then the dead souls were reborn,” he answered, in a way that was almost a chant.
She lifted her eyelids as if raising the curtain on a play. “Actually the dead souls were reincarnated.”
“Reincarnated . . . reincarnated.” Somehow he found the rhythm of the word soothing.
She went on: “Mnemosyne had a pool in Hades. Souls aware of Mnemosyne’s beauty and power were urged to drink from her water, so that they might remember their past lives before returning to the world in a different body. How about you?” she asked, raking a hand through hair the color of hell fire. “If given the choice, would you drink from the river of forgetfulness, or from the pool of memory?”
He wanted her at that moment more than he’d ever wanted anyone. He put his face in his hands to block the vision of what he coveted. Then he exhaled, and rubbed his eyes. When he looked, she was staring at him. He bowed his head is if in prayer, and then said in a whisper: “I’d drink from Lethe, so I couldn’t remember.”
“What are you trying to forget?” Her face was close now.
He jerked away, sat up straight in the chair. “Nothing. Everything. None of your business. Just, never mind.”
The room started to spin. He covered his face with his hands again. It’s much better here in the dark, yes, the dark is easy, peaceful, natural.
Her voice cut through his thoughts. “You know who my favorite Muse is?”
Now she was standing next to him, leaning over his shoulder, typing on his keyboard in the ghostly blue glow of the computer screen.
“Terpsichore, the goddess of dance.” She found what she wanted. And as “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” began to play, she took his hand and pulled him out of the chair. He refused to open his eyes. She held his left hand and placed his right hand on her waist. He felt her warmth, smelled her vernal fragrance, and it was good.
“Dance with me,” Cassidy said in a low breath.
“Dance with me,” Sarah said, the night before he returned to grad school, after a two and a half-year leave. During that time his stepfather had hung himself just like Sarah’s father had when she was ten. . . . So Sarah would always be ten.
“I haven’t danced in ages, and you’re all I have left,” she said.
She wore a pair of faded blue jeans that night, a white blouse and leopard-print flats. Her long red hair was done up in a careless chignon. He held her stiffly, the way you’d feel embracing a Christmas tree in February. A jazz record played on an old turntable in the dark hallway, its tinny warped chords sounding as if it came from underwater.
Sarah leaned close and whispered into his ear, “You and me, we’re like rainbows, like gasoline rainbows.”
The record started skipping and they laughed. But Sarah’s laughter soon turned to tears. Finally, she’d separated from him and, with a hand over her mouth, staggered to a chair at the dining room table. She sipped her gin and tonic and lit a Pall Mall. He thought how wherever she went, she projected an aura of an empty, smoke-filled barroom. And at that moment he knew his deepest fear was to end up like her, alone, with no one to love, and no one to love him back. Emptiness stretched in front of him like an abyss, yawning, threatening, beckoning. He felt achingly hollow, and for a moment he wanted to run screaming for fear of losing his mind. But then the feeling passed. He went behind her chair and draped his arms around the top of her spare frame: anything to lessen her loneliness. She squeezed his arms greedily. Then she arose as colorful and glorious as the dawn, went into the bedroom, and shut the door. He stopped the record player, and searched through the cabinet until he found what he wanted. Patsy Cline sang “Crazy,” and her haunting voice filled the hallway. Just then the bedroom door opened. Sarah stood in the frame like a portrait.
She was wearing the aubergine dress.
He took her by the hand and led her to the dining room floor, and he held her close, and they danced until the sun came up.
Now it was dusk, and the storm continued, and the office was dim except for the lightning, and it was dark in the hallway. The music played softly, the rain pattered, the thunder resounded, and there was the scent of lilacs.
His dance partner broke away gently, and lifted her head. A bolt of lightening illuminated her face, and for a split second it was Sarah in the aubergine dress. But then the bright light subsided and it was Cassidy.
He stepped over to his desk, picked up the necklace, and placed it around Cassidy’s neck. Then he led her to the door and closed it behind her.
# # #
Peter Volpe is currently working on a novel. He belongs to the Writers at Blueridge Group in Carrboro, North Carolina. The appearance of Three People Dancing in Zodiac is his first publication of short fiction.
Conversations with Zip
by Will Dixon
One late afternoon this past winter, Zip, as he often does
Sat down beside me for what I could tell was going to be
A long, serious talk, I thought it strange because Zip most
Often preferred to reminisce and tell light-hearted stories.
Now for the readers who might happen to know me and/or Zip,
You might be sensing some incongruence in my narrative because,
Well, in a word, Zip is a dog, a small, but intelligent terrier of some type-
For those of you who remain skeptical, to quote Zip, “Deal with it.”
Actually that is not quite accurate, for Zip has quite the vocabulary
And would likely express the sentiment in terms I can’t use in this forum-
Zip has actually taught me some phrases that I doubt most sailors use.
His suggestions for situations like this are often anatomically impossible-I think.
Zip was several years old when I found him wandering around the port,
Hungry, dirty, generally slightly bedraggled but with his head still held high.
I like animals, so I reached to pat his head and ask him how he was doing-
He replied succinctly, “How the hell do you think, have you got something to eat?
Rotten fish is not my idea of haute cuisine.” I gave him the lunch I had just bought,
A burger and fries, which he seemed to like as much as my strawberry milkshake.
As he wiped his mouth with a napkin, I asked him if he wanted more,
“No thanks, there might be a ship going somewhere I haven’t been.”
“Wait a minute, Sport,” I said.
“Zip,” he corrected me, “what’s your name, Bub?”
“Al, and by the way, don’t you want to rest up for a while?
I got a small house, and it’s only me, you’re welcome to stay awhile-
Ummm, you don’t bite, do you?”
He smiled, “Only if I have a good reason to, or if there’s food involved.”
I hesitated to ask him but did anyway, “Are you housebroken?”
“Are you? That’s not something you go around asking, but I did
Eat your lunch, so I won’t rip your throat out.”
Then he laughed, not a bark, a yip, but a laugh.
I apologized and Zip said he would give it a try-
That was six years ago—and we’ve gotten on fairly well.
He tolerates shots, occasional wormings, and even dog food.
He has never needed flea treatments and our only real crisis
In our time together was when the vet suggested he be, ummm, neutered-
Growling and baring his teeth as I carried him to the car-
Zip looked up at me, genuinely feeling betrayed,
“I would never suggest that for you, friends take care of friends, right?”
Well, he had me there and the subject never came up again.
Lately, I had sensed a change in Zip,
He would sit and stare out the window, especially at night
Or when the weather turned rainy or foggy.
Occasionally, I would hear him singing in Greek, maybe Portuguese,
And Zip did have a wonderful singing voice, but these
Songs were soft and seemed sad and I thought they were for him alone-
Like they made him remember somewhere else or another time-
But we respected each other’s privacy, so I never asked him about them
And always acted like I didn’t hear him or would just smile if he saw me listening.
Then came the day of THE talk.
I was watching an animal show, Zip preferred war movies or cop shows.
He jumped up on my chair and laid his head on my arm-
I kept watching my show, until I could feel his eyes on mine
And he let out a long sigh.. I turned off the television-.
I enjoyed our talks but I sensed tonight was different.
“What’s up, Zip, something on your mind?”
He sat in silence for a few minutes, out of reflex I rubbed his head,
He licked my hand, we both had become comfortable together over the years.
Then he took a long breath, and looking into my eyes with
His small brown ones that I could see were full of sadness,
He slowly and softly began to speak,
“Al, you know you have been the only owner I ever had.”
“Nonsense, Zip,” I said, “I’ve owned you no more than you’ve owned me.
It’s called friendship.”
At that, Zip let out a soft whine and looked away.
“Go on, tell me what’s wrong.”
“Well, it’s not really that anything is wrong,” he paused, choosing his words-
“I have enjoyed all the time and adventures we have had together
And especially am grateful that I still have all the parts that I had when you met me.”
He looked up and smiled but that quickly faded as he continued,
“But the fact of the matter is that neither one of us is getting any younger
And please don’t start that seven years equal one crap again—“
Another smile as he turned to look out the window-
“But the truth is that I never intended to stay-not this long-
And I appreciate all you’ve done and that you never tried to
Make me seem like a freak and make money off of me.”
I reminded him of long ago about the housebroken question-
“You’d think you were a dog or something-“
No smile, “No, I guess not, but damn it, Al, you ain’t making
This any easier and I’m not supposed to be able to talk anyway.”
“Ahh, old friend, at last you admit it.”
“Yeah, we could bring up some of your girlfriends, and things you were
Supposed to be able to do but couldn’t.”
“Ouch, Zip, let’s don’t go into love lives or we’ll have to talk
About your paternity suits; but no talking pups, I am kind of sad about that.”
“Yeah, well life goes on and before you, talking just got me into trouble anyway.
And, you know ‘there’s still so many places I gotta see. ‘”
He paused and winked at me and we both busted out laughing.
“Great, here I am, getting ready to try to talk you out of
What I know is coming and you have to drop ‘Free Bird’ on me.”
Zip and I both liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and music in general.
We would listen to music and debate for hours-
His favorite guitar players were Allen Collins and Gary Rossington-
I agreed with him about Rossington as far as slide guitar,
But I also liked Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Angus Young-
We finally would agree on Clapton, Leo Kottke, and Willie Nelson.
“Yeah, well Al, some of those guys are gone
And I need to see some more before it’s my time,
So tomorrow I want you to take me back to the port.
I can catch a ship there, like always.”
“Wait a minute, Zip, you’re right, you are in good shape, but—“
“But what? Dammit, Al, I took all your shots, even ate dog food
And you know how long it’s been since I bit someone or got into a good fight?”
I could see his mind was set—“Ok, Zip, why don’t I take you there,
We can look around, find you a good ship, and talk to some of its people-
You know, get you set up-“
“Nope, you know it don’t work like that, I’ve always liked
Kerouac for a reason—he had his road, I got the sea and the
places it can take me to—you take me to the port and
I’ll take it from there.”
I had suspected he had been reading Kerouac again when
I had found paw prints and scratches on my copy of On the Road.
When he brought up Kerouac, I knew there was no sense arguing
So we spent the rest of the night, talking about our times together-
He finally told me more about his life before we met-
But I promised I would never tell anyone else about that-
And I never will.
Then he said something completely out of the blue-
“Hey, Al, all the time we spent talking-
Are you really sure that all that time it was
Me speaking people and not you speaking dog.”
Now that really caught me off guard-
“No, I was just playing with your head-or was I?
Anyway, most of the dogs in the neighborhood know about you
And they have said they would check in on you-
Who knows, you might have some more surprises-“
And with that he headed for his bed for a couple of hours
Before we left for the dock.
I just sat the rest of the night watching the rain hit the windows,
Already missing my friend.
The next morning we did it his way-
I dropped him off at the port,
Reached down to give him a donut,
But he was gone. I’m sure smiling all the way
I already knew he wasn’t big on good-byes.
And so the weeks, then months passed-
The time weighed heavy on me and
I found myself listening to “Free Bird” a lot-
One night I was watching the news about pirates and container ships
And on the bridge of a particularly big ship was
Zip, as big as life, smiling with the
Wind blowing salt spray over him, white muzzle and all-
“So you made it, if you do look a bit thin-
You rascal, I’m surprised you weren’t on the pirate ship.”
The next morning, I was running late as usual out the back door
And there sat Zip, only I looked closer and saw black patches
Where brown patches should be, and brown instead of black-
Most of all, no white muzzle and slightly bigger-
He seemed somewhat ill at ease but let me rub his head and back-
Then I went in and he followed and I gave him leftover bacon-
He swallowed it, but didn’t seem nearly as hungry as
The first time I met Zip, then he sat and stared at my face-
Actually, he seemed to be looking in my eyes.
But I had to leave, so I said, “Sorry, fellow, I’m late
And I know somebody has to be looking for you.
He just sat, shifting his front feet back and forth,
Positioned between me and the door.
Without thinking, I said, “What’s the matter,
you got something to say, Sport?”
He cleared his throat, “Actually the name is Tip
And I hope you are Al or I’ve screwed the pooch now-
Excuse me, a little canine humor.”
“Yes, I am Al and you remind of an old friend of mine.”
“Well, yeah, Zip was my old man and before he left
He told me all about you and how if I ever needed help,
That you were the best friend he had in the whole world.”
“He did, did he?” I said, wiping away a tear.
“Yeah, and see I have been living with two old ladies,
I don’t mean two girl friends, I mean two old ladies-
Pop said to never say anything to anybody,
Except to you-well, here’s the thing-
Obviously the old ladies don’t know I can understand them
And today they were talking about how it was time-
Yeah, it was time to get me fixed, and after
I finally figured out what that meant, since I ain’t broken,
I knew it was time to leave and here was the only place I knew-
I couldn’t go to sea like Pop, do you mind?
The old ladies live all the way over on the other side of town,
They only live here half the year, and the other half up north-
They were gonna do that to me cause they plan to move full-time
Up there and they wanted me to behave---behave, hell,
I would have been plotting my revenge.
But here’s the deal, Al, if I don’t hide out somewhere,
They got a microchip in me so if the dogcatcher catches me
I go right back to them after they cut ‘em off.”
He cleared his throat and managed a nervous grin,
“Oh yeah, Pop said to tell you I am as housebroken as you.”
“Ok, Tip, welcome to your new home,
I owe at least that and more to Zip-
Your old man’s bed is still in my room,
No, you won’t have to live only on dog food-
By the way, what kind of music do you like?”
# # #
I am a perfect example of how someone is molded not by the years, but by the mileage--having lived in four states, and having spent time in the Outback of Australia, the SchneeEifel of Germany and several surrounding neighbors. Home is still Tennessee, being a fifth generation native, but currently I live on the Space Coast of Florida. All of this has produced a trunkful of characters and blessings of bits and pieces of stories waiting, maybe even wanting to be told.
-- Will Dixon
End of Summer 2012 Issue
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