Things I think about while swimming.
by Hope Chernov

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Winner 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I swim most days after work, at first because Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me to, but now I look forward to it.   The water has become my respite, the soft aqua antidote to my other life, the noisy Kodachrome one, where staying afloat requires more than the flimsy raft with which I’ve been equipped. When I swim, my breath is the only thing, in and out. It doesn’t always stop the thoughts but it slows them down enough so they don’t take over the whole operation. Though sometimes I feel like the thoughts are the only thing I have. Pshaw, Hindu Granny says, Thoughts are overrated. I say, But where would mankind be without thoughts? Happy, she says, tearing the sheet from her little pad and thrusting it at me. Fair enough, I say.

 

Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny was ‘put in my path ’ while completing twelve weeks of what I refer to as my spiritual rejuvenation at an all-inclusive facility. Entry into the program proved difficult; after several attempts that left the acceptance committee unmoved, I upped the ante with my latest effort, Still Life with Stoli and Tranquilizers. That got me in. I graduated with honors, voted least likely to eat Drano when the shitstorm hits by all but two nurses, one of whom sent me back into the world with inspirational parting words.   At your age dumpling, she said, her eyes rheumy and unblinking, It ain’t cute no more. I stared back at her, speechless. She buzzed me out into the sideways sleet and called after me, Get your shit together, dumpling. Next stop is State. That’s the end of the line. You hear? I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up and walked faster. I did not look back.

 

The facility helped me secure a living wage and an apartment, for which I am grateful. I work as a machinist in a vitamin factory, bringing wellness to the masses one bottle at a time. It’s shift work, dull as dishwater but it keeps me to myself and out of trouble. The apartment is one-fourth of a partially subsidized quad, dingy but adequate, occupied by some other alumni of the facility with whom I have little contact but for my neighbor’s sudden howls of despair in the wee small hours.   The ululating, tribal, shocking, is an effective reminder that I’m not out of the woods, not by a long shot, and might never be. But if I can hold down the job, keep regular with Hindu Granny and eventually get a place with thicker walls, who knows, maybe I can make a go of it.

 

Swimming helps. The smell of chlorine and mildew is so strong in the ladies locker room I can taste it. Puritanical chemical on relentless mission to destroy promiscuous, laughing fungi. The battle rages as I change into my other uniform, a one-piece navy blue racerback, austere, serious. Just wait till I get my goggles and cap on, crazy pale alien reptile lady, the skin on my legs so dry it clings to my pants like Velcro. It’s okay, I’ll be in the water soon.

 

There’s a girl some lockers down from me. She’s twelve, I’m guessing. Here for Marjorie, I’m 97% certain. Her face is wide open and sweet, her thin, lightly freckled arms extending out of a Hello Kitty tankini. She’s untying the drawstring on her pants, these patchwork sweatpant-type pants that look very crafty and comfortable. Nice pants I say. She looks over and says Thanks, I made them. Pleased with herself, spunky. Stay that way, I want to tell her.

 

I check myself in the mirror. Brutal. Legs sallow and dry, like freshly plucked chicken thighs dredged in corn meal and ready for hot grease. Fucking chlorine. This is why I ordered the brushes. Dry brushing my entire body every day from head to toe will yield glowing skin and major benefits to the lymph system or my money back. I have to keep the original packaging is all. The lymph nodes, you’ve got to keep them clear, Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me this, or all kinds of things build up in there, so you brush and clear them out and spectacular health awaits. I figure with smooth skin and sparkling lymph nodes, the world is my oyster.

 

On the pool deck I see spunky patchwork pants girl talking to an overgrown man in a chair, or maybe the chair is too small. I give one of her errant brown curls a tug as I pass. She’s mad but when she sees me she smiles. The overgrown man looks at me and gives a slight nod. Her father, I presume. Or her much older lover. Or her father and her much older lover. There’s a name embroidered on his jacket. Gary. Gary’s eyes, almond shaped, Asian almost, they stay with me. I wonder what goes on with Gary, average white guy with Asian eyes, Gary bald on top with dark hair on the sides of his head, Gary with a spunky daughter. Gary looks sad, a little beaten down. We have that in common.

 

I sit at the edge of the pool, my legs dangling in the water. It feels colder than usual. I’m fantasizing about biscuits and gravy when a swarthy, hirsute type in a too-snug Speedo saunters up to the ‘fast’ lane – think Mark Spitz gone to seed – and proceeds to windmill his rotator cuffs into submission. I used to swim ‘fast’ too until Hindu Granny told me to try slowing down.   What’s the rush? Where’s the fire? she says. In my brain, I tell her. That’s what drugs are for, she says.   So I swim ‘medium’ as an exercise in restraint. It’s hard for me as it goes against my nature, but at least it’s not the ‘slow’ lane, which I would rechristen ‘why bother.’ There’s a strawberry-haired lady in there now holding tiny barbells, languidly floating upright across the pool, her pendulous breasts bouncing gently back and forth in unison. It’s like she’s walking on the moon.

 

I dive. It’s always a shock, the stinging slap of cold water on my flailing limbs, but at the first flip turn I hear Marjorie shouting her raspy voiced instructions, and it calms me. Marjorie’s really good with the kids, so good that she can yell at them because she wants them to be better and they know it. She’s what my Dead Real Granny would call a spitfire – pronounced spitfar – lean and wiry, hair the color and texture of straw braided long down her back, coke-bottle eyeglasses. Her skin is very dry. I suppose I could tell her about the body brushing, but I’m not on those terms with Marjorie. We don’t stop to chat.

 

By lap five I’m ravenous. I haven’t eaten today because I’m fasting. Actually what I’m doing is called ‘intermittent starvation,’ which I heard some radio doctor tout as having ‘enormous physical benefits,’ none of which I can recall because I’m so damn hungry. Twice a week I’m supposed to limit myself to 500 calories. I haven’t mentioned this to Hindu Granny because she’ll tell me I’m batshit crazy, but I got very excited about it, again I can’t remember why, though it has something to do with fasting=healthy=happy. All I know is a ‘rustic’ salad of iceberg lettuce and green pepper is what’s for dinner back at the quad, when what I really want is to drive to the damn Red Lobster for clam chowder and oyster crackers.

 

Hindu Granny says I have a bee in my bonnet about the damn Red Lobster. She’s not wrong. I pass it every day on the way to the pool.   There’s a portable sign with changeable letters at the parking lot entrance, which lately reads Hurry in for the One and Only Endless Shrimp! $9.95 +tax. See, this is the kind of thing that can really fuck with me. Endless, like, infinity? How is it possible? Why is it possible? I mean, the shrimp – the endless shrimp – they’re coming from the ocean presumably, but the ocean is drying up, we know this, this is common knowledge, not to mention the fact that there’s a shortage of clean drinking water in the world and it’s serious. It’s a crisis. I mean, here I am trying to up my intake of water to eight glasses a day because I read that you should drink enough so that your urine is clear, and one day I peed and it was really yellow, like almost green, and I immediately started drinking more water after that. Turns out I had eaten asparagus, which I later learned can turn your pee greenish- yellow, okay false alarm, but still, I figure drinking more water can only help matters. But nowadays, you go to a restaurant and sit down and they don’t even give you a nice cold glass of water anymore, you have to ask for it, and even then it’s probably full of lead and mercury and who knows what else, but why think about that when there’s more pressing issues at stake, like eating shrimp until you explode. I find the whole thing very weird and disturbing, and Hindu Granny doesn’t give a shit, she’s sitting across from me dumbstruck, her eyelids at half-mast. I suspect she may be dozing off until I notice her fingers moving along the curved trunk of a little ceramic Ganesha. Finally she says, Alright, calm down already. Calm down? I say. Have you heard a word I’ve said? I have, she says. I say, Well what do you think? She says, I think you’ve got bigger problems than endless bloody shrimp.   Fair enough, I say. Though if we were talking about endless bloody cow I bet she’d be eating pharmaceuticals by the fistful.

 

Starting to chill out. Still hungry, less itchy. Finding my rhythm. There are times in the pool when the thoughts slow down and I get past the fatigue and my muscles relax, and the water feels like it’s taking me along and my limbs are moving as if I’m not even controlling them, and all I have to do is breathe. And in that moment I think maybe Hindu Granny does know what she’s talking about, that maybe I can do this life thing, I can do life. Though it sticks in my craw that she won’t take my insurance, some ‘out of network’ doublespeak, so I pay her $40 cash, plus free vitamins. Western poppycock, she mutters, rolling the bottle into her drawer that locks with a skeleton key.

 

It’s raining as I pass the damn Red Lobster on the drive home. Don’t. Do not. That goddamn shrimp, it won’t let me live. I turn around and pull into the parking lot. A little information – knowledge is power – then I can let it go. It’s hard to find a parking spot; inside, the lobby is packed with people lining up for endless shrimp even in this shit weather. The hostess, a college girl with absurdly shiny blonde hair is standing behind a podium making marks in a big book. I say Excuse me, and without looking up she says Table for one? No, I say. Take out? she says. Actually, I say, can I ask about the endless shrimp? I’m sorry, she says, the endless shrimp is for dine-in only but I can seat you right away at a one-top if you’d like, and I say No thanks, I’d just like to ask a few questions and she says, I’m sorry, we are really busy, can you give me a sec? Okay, I say, I’ll wait, and also you know what, I’ll take some clam chowder to go. She says Manhattan or New England? I say the white kind, New England, and she says Have a seat and I’ll call you when it’s ready. I’m compelled to clarify that Manhattan clam chowder is technically not chowder, but I have bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Anyway, Hindu Granny would be proud of my restraint.

 

I wait by the lobster tank. Six extremely large, young men wearing identical football jerseys lumber in, shaking themselves off like wet dogs. I know why they’re here. It ain’t for the salad bar. I look at the lobsters, piled on top of each other, their claws bound together with rubber bands. One sits off to the side alone, staring at me with his little black eyes. I think of Gary sitting at the pool, an overgrown lobster too big for his tank. The hostess says Knight party of 3, Knight party of 3 into a microphone, at which point a rawboned, gray woman and a paunchy, ash blond manchild rise solemnly from a banquette. A purse is dropped and picked up with great effort. The woman says Let’s go to an older gentleman next to her, Mr. Knight I presume, who follows behind, wan, resigned. By the looks of them I predict Mrs. Knight will start with the shrimp fra diavolo, Manboy will have shrimp scampi and halfway through the meal they’ll trade plates, then each order something different – because it’s endless! –maybe Cajun shrimp or shrimp Alfredo, and halfway through that they’ll trade off again, and they’ll keep doing that until Mrs. Knight feels like she’s gotten her money’s worth or Manboy pukes, whichever comes first. Mr. Knight will order flounder just to be a shit disturber. This poor lobster. He’s lonely. He needs a friend.

 

I leave without my chowder.

 

Driving home, I was distracted. Gary’s eyes were in my head. The rain evaporated into thick, black fog, which made for an eerie, perilous ride. I arrived shaken and starving at the quad, only to discover a head of limp, brown lettuce and a shrunken, oddly shaped green pepper that was robust by comparison. Discouraged, I went to bed. I fell asleep quickly but woke up an hour or two later, which lately has become the regular. Water clanged violently through the radiator. My neighbor was howling. I considered making herbal tea, but masturbated instead. Dead end. Fucking meds. Then I tried to become very still and empty my mind of all thoughts, which Hindu Granny says helps her fall asleep. She also gave me some Ambien but I refuse to take it on the grounds that she’s prescription happy and sabotaging my already tenuous efforts to live a pharmaceutical-free life. Lying there, it felt impossible to not think any thoughts, but she said that would happen and not to worry because it’s normal and the thoughts eventually go away, you just have to watch them come and go. Howling. Fuck it, maybe I will take an Ambien.

 

The alarm goes off at 4. Rise and shine. Get out of bed, shuffle onto cold kitchen linoleum and switch on buzzing fluorescent light. Line up meds, fill one full glass of water, do I really need meds, no I don’t, yes I do, there’s the rub, I take them and I feel like I don’t need them but that means they’re working. Repeat, that means they’re working. Swallow meds with residual conflict. Get dressed, go out in damp, cold, too-early darkness, start shitty car which turns over weakly and sputters out, restart shitty car, pray shitty car starts, lament not having not-shitty car, lament terrible life without means to buy not-shitty car, shitty car turns over, give grudging thanks to shitty car. Drive to work, my shift starts at 5 and ends at 2 though I stay till 3, the overtime helps and nobody seems to notice. Lately I’ve been picking up weekend shifts too, which Hindu Granny frowns upon. She thinks I need to get out more and ‘interact with the world,’ behaviors I deem to be overrated. I punch in, slip on blue scrubs and wrestle into latex gloves, make like I’m prepping for surgery. I greet Stu out on the floor, he’s on, ready to shit vitamins by the 60 count. I’ve been advised to take good care of my machine, my machine is my friend, and I agree, though I think Stu takes better care of me. He never makes a mistake. We get into a rhythm together, no words to get in the way, just his grinding gears and the tablets tumbling into plastic containers, the sound reminds me of my Dead Real Granny pouring beans into a cast iron pot to soak.

 

Later, at the pool, I see Gary sitting on the deck, all jutting limbs and acute angles shoved into in his chair. He sees me and gives a little hint of a smile with those sad, almond shaped eyes. I feel the fire ignite in my brain. Distress flare. Danger. Stay away. Or, maybe not. Maybe not something bad. Maybe something good, something happy, like bright starlight, guiding me, telling me that there’s some connection, some frequency detectable only to Gary and me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe spunky patchwork girl needs a stepmom. Maybe that’s why they were put in my path. I swim laps in the ‘medium’ lane and think about how I can make Gary my friend. Then I think about what it would be like to kiss Gary. Then I think about what it would be like to have his cock in my mouth, like what if I just got out of the water and went over to him and got on my knees and sucked his cock. I wonder if he’d let me. I’d probably lose my pool privileges. So then I think about what I can say to Gary, maybe something like Hi I’ve seen you here before, would you want to meet for lunch or something? And I could suggest the Red Lobster, not for endless shrimp but maybe for one of the lunch specials, which I hear are good. Maybe Gary needs a friend, a real friend. Maybe that Hindu Granny is a genius.

 

I’m in my street clothes when Gary’s daughter comes into the locker room. I must act. Carpe diem. I wait just outside the door, then follow her down a long hallway to a sort of café, a kiosk, where people drink coffee and Gatorade and work on laptops. Gary is sitting alone at a small table, sipping from a Styrofoam cup and reading a thick book. He reads; somehow this bodes well. His daughter joins him and he closes the book. I take a step toward them then hesitate, my heart throbbing wildly in my throat. I conjure the image of the three of us laughing and enjoying refreshments together; buoyed, I take a breath and approach. Hi, I say, louder than intended. His daughter jumps a little; I think I startled her. Gary looks at me, then to her, then back to me again and nods, almost imperceptibly. I search his eyes for a trace of warmth or familiarity, but they remain distant, maybe a little suspicious. Can I help you? he says. Is your name Garrett? I say, still too loud, in a voice that makes me think of the hostess at the Red Lobster talking into the microphone. I repeat, Is your name Garrett? pretending that I hadn’t already asked. My name’s Gary, he says. Oh, I say, Sorry, you look like someone I know. His eyes dart around the room and back to his daughter, and he leans into her and says something that I can’t hear. She nods silently. After a moment I say Is this your daughter? Yes, he says. She’s quite the swimmer, I say. I turn to her and say I really like those pants you made, those patchwork pants?   I think it’s really impressive that you made them yourself, something so creative and practical. She smiles weakly without looking at me. I go on, You sewed them, right? My Granny used to sew. It’s a really good skill to have. Then she asks her father if she can get a drink, and she leaves, and it’s just Gary and me. His long fingers are flitting back and forth along the cover of his book, which I notice is Moby Dick. Hey, call me Ishmael, I say. Then, Are you sure your name isn’t Garrett? Finally he looks straight at me and says, What do you want? The chatter around us stops. I feel intense heat rise in my face and neck, and suddenly none of it is real, I’m in a play and so is Gary, and the café people are the audience, only I don’t know what I’m supposed to say next. Then slowly, Gary stands. His cheeks are flushed. The corner of his mouth twitches a little. What do you want? he repeats, louder. I want to be your friend, I say, in a voice I don’t recognize, small, like a girl. He leans in towards me, so close that for a moment I think he might kiss me. Quietly he says, I don’t know who you are, okay? So stay away from me, and stay the hell away from my daughter. Do you understand? I smell peppermint. His eyes, strange and hard now, stay locked with mine. Yes, I understand. Slowly he sits down and opens his book. I take this as my cue to exit.

 

The sign for endless shrimp is gone. It now says Join the Fresh Catch Club Today! Inside, a different, not so shiny hostess says Table for one? What happened to the endless shrimp? I say. Excuse me? she says. Oh sorry, that ended. I say, But it’s endless. Ha ha, she says, forced. I’m serious, I say. Oh, she says, and then slower and a little louder, Right, that promotion ended, but you can still order any shrimp item off the menu à la carte, and I say I don’t think you understand, I’m asking what happened to the endless shrimp? Um, she says, it ended? I stare back at her. Then she says One moment, I’ll get the manager. I wait by the lobster tank. I see the one who was staring at me, I recognize his little purple elastics. This is the end of the line for him. How long does he have to wait like that, with his claws bound shut? It’s goddamn cruel. The hostess returns with the manager, who has a ruddy face and dead eyes and a crew cut and wears a thin knitted tie. He says Can I help you, I understand you have a question, and I say Yes I do, I would like to know what happened to the endless shrimp. And the manager says, Well that promotion has ended, and I interrupt him, I say, I know I can order shrimp off the menu à la carte, I know that, what I am asking you is what happened to them? Ma’am, he says, I’m not sure I understand your question. I’m thinking, Shit, dumbass, what don’t you understand? Then he hands me a business card and says Ma’am, that promotion has ended, I’m very sorry about that, but feel free to call the number on this card, this is the regional manager who will be happy to answer any questions you may have. I say, So this person knows what happened to the shrimp? You’re telling me if I call this number, this person will be able to tell me what happened to the endless shrimp now that your little promotion has ended? Yes, Ma’am, he says, that is correct. I think you’re bullshitting me, I say. I do, I think you’re bullshitting me, you and your hair and your tie, I don’t think you or this regional motherfucker or anybody knows what happened to the shrimp. Ma’am, the manager says, I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. Fine, I say, nevermind. You people obviously cannot help me. I turn to go, and there he is again, the lobster, staring right at me. I thrust my arm in the water, pull him out and turn to the manager and hostess, holding him above my head. This lobster needs a friend, I say. A real friend. Do you understand? The hostess is biting her lip. The manager picks up the phone. My sleeve is soaked up to my armpit, foul smelling tank water is dripping down the side of my body and into the waist of my jeans. People are looking over now, and everything gets very still. The manager is talking quietly into the phone. This is the end of the line, dumpling. You hear? It ain’t cute no more.

 

I drive to the pool. Breathe, in and out. In the parking lot I call Hindu Granny. It goes straight to voice mail. I leave a message. FUCKING INDIAN WHORE, WHAT THE FUCK GOOD ARE YOU. I rifle through my purse until I find the little plastic bottle, untwist the cap and toss the contents out the car window. Pills scatter like orange-red tadpoles across an asphalt sea.

 

The woman at the front desk says The pool is closing in 15 minutes. Okay great, I say. I change and head up to the deck, which is empty except for Marjorie. She’s moving a wheelchair to the edge of the far lane. Nearby, a head of thick, black ringlets bobs gently on the water’s surface. I hear a noise that reminds me of Stu. Slowly the head begins to rise, followed by a thin, pale white torso, that of a young man. The contraption that lifts him stops with a loud, rusty echo, and the young man hovers waist deep in the gurgling water. His head, still wobbling unsteadily, becomes too heavy for his delicate neck and slumps. His mouth hangs open. I think of Jesus on the cross. Marjorie goes to him and tosses his lifeless arms around her shoulders, and with considerable effort, hoists him up and into the wheelchair. She talks softly to him as she dries him with a towel. She sees me and gives a nod. I dive into the ‘fast’ lane and freestyle like something’s chasing me.

 

Tell me something. Tell you what. Anything. Tell me something about when you were young. Don’t think she said Just talk. Say whatever comes to mind. Okay. My first slow dance. Good, she said. Go on. The junior high social. A boy I’d never seen before was standing alone with his hands in his pockets by the gymnasium double doors. He was tall and skinny. His head was bowed but I could see his eyes peering over at me. I looked back at him, just long enough so he knew that it was okay to come. He slowly walked over and held out his hand. My name’s Garrett, he said. He led me to the dance floor. Boz Scaggs was singing about looking at the moon and feeling blue, and under a blue light Garrett and I began to sway awkwardly. As the song went on, we relaxed. He drew me closer, his hands on my waist, and I let my fingers creep ever so slightly up the back of his neck, because I had seen a lady on television do that and it seemed like the right thing to do. We swayed like that for a while, and he never took his eyes off me. His sad, almond shaped eyes. When the song ended, the lights in the gymnasium came on, sudden and bright. The dance was over. I went to get my purse, I had left it on a chair, and when I came back, Garrett was gone. I searched for him in the throng of people moving toward the exit – I wanted to at least say goodbye – but I couldn’t find him. I waited until most of the gym had cleared out, I thought that maybe he was somewhere too, waiting to say goodbye to me, but it was as if he vanished into thin air. I looked for him the next day in school, and in the days that followed, scanning hallways, the lunchroom, the auditorium. I never saw him. I began to wonder if I had imagined him, if the slow dance really happened. Eventually, I stopped looking and forgot about him. But once in a while he pops into my head and I wonder what happened to him. Garrett and his sad eyes. Now the only eyes gazing upon me are Hindu Granny’s brown, heavy-lidded orbs. They look like they hold the secrets of the universe. You need a friend, she said. I have a friend, I said. Not Stu, she said, a real friend. You’re my friend, I said. I am most certainly not your friend, she said in a voice that made my eyes sting. I’m too fucked up to have a friend, I said. My dear child, said Hindu Granny gently, nobody in this life is too fucked up to have a friend.

 

A bell like an alarm rings out. The pool is closing. I go to the locker room and shower. The warm water feels good on my dry, goose-pimpled skin. I haven’t noticed much of a difference since I started using the brushes, but they say you have to do it for a while, maybe a month or more before you see results. Patience, says Hindu Granny with downward patting hands. Patience, my dear child.

 

Marjorie is standing in the locker room, brushing her long hair. She wears a hunter green polo shirt tucked into pleated khakis with a thin, braided belt, very crisp and clean. She says Hello. I say Hello. After a few moments she says, Your freestyle is beautiful to watch. I was so taken aback, I actually felt myself blush. Thanks, I say. You’ve been swimming a long time, she says. I swam in high school, I say, but I’m just now getting back to it. You’re a natural, she says. She continues brushing her hair, then pulls it back and twists it into a bun that sits at the nape of her neck.   She closes her locker, picks up her bag and says Well, goodnight. Goodnight, I say.

 

I’m on my hands and knees in the parking lot. This feels like a low point. I hear a gentle, raspy voice behind me say Did you lose something? Marjorie. I lost some pills, I say. Actually, I threw them out the window. It’s so dumb. She says Can I help? and before I can protest she’s down on the ground groping with me. Between us we find three pills intact. We get up and I see the knees of her khakis are dirty. I feel bad, so I ask Marjorie if she knows where to get a cup of coffee, and would she like to join me. There’s a diner not far from here she says. Why don’t you follow me. Okay, I say, I’ll follow you.

 

I have coffee. Marjorie has cherry pie à la mode. I sit across from her, examining her lined face, her pale, hazel eyes made larger by the thick lenses of her glasses. Several course white hairs sprout from her upper lip. She eats methodically, making sure that pie and ice cream are represented equally in each spoonful. Then she wipes her mouth with a napkin, and with finality slides her plate aside and rests her folded hands on the table. Tell me your life story, she says. I laugh. Sip my coffee. She looks at me like she’s considering something, her face disconcertingly serene. I’m dealing with some issues right now, is the only thing I can think to say. I look away so she doesn’t see a tear escape the corner of my eye. The waitress appears with more coffee. I peel the top off a little plastic container of cream and pour it into my cup, slowly stirring. I can feel Marjorie’s eyes on me. We sit for a while longer, not saying much, then I pay the check and we leave.

 

Thank you for the pie, Marjorie says in the parking lot. Thanks for helping me find my meds, I say. Then she says, I’ve been looking for someone to help me out at the pool, teaching the kids. Would you be interested? Oh, I don’t know, I say, feeling like I could cry again, so stupid and self-conscious. If Hindu Granny were here she’d be rolling her eyes in exasperation. Sorry, I say, inexplicably, and Marjorie just smiles. Then, she lays a gentle hand on my shoulder and says You know, I’ve been working with kids for a long time, and I’ll let you in on a secret. It helps to be a little crazy. Goodnight she says, and drives off.

 

The next day I go to see Hindu Granny. Well, well, she says. I apologize for chucking my meds, for the rude voice mail. Pshaw, she says with a wave of her hand. You know, my mother-in-law called me a whore when I married her son. But she grew to love me, rest her soul. I talk for some time while Hindu Granny listens. When I’m through she says nothing, just takes the small pad and pen from her desk drawer. I mention coffee with Marjorie as she writes. Sounds maybe like a friend, she says. She tears the paper from the pad and hands it to me. Maybe, I say.

 

I drive to the pool. In the locker room, a group of girls wearing matching red bathing suits chatter like little birds. Gary’s daughter is among them. She sees me, I think she might have smiled but I look away before our eyes can meet. I change and listen to snippets of conversation floating around me. A cute boy, an exam, shampoo that smells like green apples. Then I hear her voice above the others, I can’t swim without my goggles. I look over. She’s upset. The other girls search in vain for spares. Here, I say. I take a pair from my bag and hold them out to her. She says, But how will I get them back to you? Keep them, I say. Really? she says. Keep them, I say, I have extras. Her face brightens. Thank you, she says, accepting them. You’re welcome, I say. The sound of lockers slamming shut and in a flash the girls vanish, their sunny voices echoing softly in my ears.

 

On the deck, Marjorie is standing at the far lane of the pool, signaling the red-suited girls to dive in, one after the other. Behind her people sit in stands and watch. Gary is there, Moby Dick in his lap. I stand at the water’s edge and consider the three empty lanes before me. I adjust my goggles and cap. Finally, I dive into the ‘slow’ lane. I was tired at first and felt like I wouldn’t go very long. Slowing down is a lot harder than it looks. But eventually I found my rhythm and relaxed, and it was as if the water was guiding me, my limbs moving in perfect harmony and without effort, and all I had to do was breathe.

The 4-D Dog
by April Kelly

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Considering the number of dog owners in America, it is safe to speculate that on any given day a small percentage of the population wakes to find an unpleasant mess on the floor, as did Dylan Carter one Thursday in March. The difference between him and the others who made such a discovery that morning is Dylan did not own a dog. And he lived one hundred and twelve stories up on the card-access-only penthouse floor of the newest and tallest building in Chicago.

A year earlier, when he’d made partner in one of the most successful law firms in Illinois, Dylan believed he had added the third and final point to his golden triangle of desirability as a man. The Carter family fortune—by then laundered through four generations to cleanse it of its unsavory robber-baron origins—had ensured his privileged position in society from the day of his birth. It had also led him to view the rarified spectrum from which he would eventually select a mate as a quite narrow strip at the zenith of womankind.

A second unearned gift, that of good genetics, had made Dylan tall, well-proportioned and movie star handsome. A glance at photos of his maternal grandfather assured him he would never succumb to male-pattern baldness, and he would keep his meticulously razored hair well into old age, one day seeing it turn from black to silver.

He understood his lofty position and unlimited money could attract a top-quality woman, but the addition of incredible good looks guaranteed he could aim as high as he chose for that one perfect gem of femininity who deserved to share his life.

Making partner had fanned away any lingering whiff of the spoiled trust fund baby surrounding Dylan Carter, as he had worked hard to earn the reward on his own. Ready at last to begin an earnest search for a wife, he stopped dating the actresses, supermodels and avant-garde artists who had assisted him in sowing (without germination) the wild oats of his raging-hormones twenties, and started seriously assessing the debutantes, heiresses and royalty-adjacent European beauties who comprised the lofty plane of females in which he felt entitled to browse.

The heiress sleeping in his bed that morning when he slipped from under the covers to go make coffee had taken the reins of her family’s company at age 28, after her father had a stroke. For the six months it took him to recuperate and return, she kept things running well enough to show the old man he would not have cause to regret the lack of a son when the time came to turn over the company for good.

Paige was refined, intelligent, a Vassar grad and definitely on Dylan’s radar screen as a potential. They had sniffed each other out at galas, fund-raisers and charity 10Ks for months before having dinner at Henri last week, and their second date had ended in mutually gratifying sex the night before. Paige had checked all the right boxes on his application form for the future Mrs. Carter, Dylan thought.

Right up until his bare foot sank into a pile of excrement on his cream-colored wool Berber carpet.

The one-word expletive he cried when he looked down was singularly appropriate to the occasion. He reflexively jerked his foot up from the stinking mess, which threw him off balance so that he had to set it down again immediately to prevent falling over. This action left a perfect print of five toes and the ball of a foot rendered in umber ten inches from the mother load.

After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his outcry hadn’t woken Paige, he hopped to the kitchen on one foot, stopping in front of the sink and holding onto it with one hand while opening the cabinet below with the other. He was fairly sure Carmen stashed the cleaning supplies there.

Having never been required to wash anything other than his own body for thirty-three years, Dylan paused before the dizzying array of cans, sprayers, sponges and wipes. The bottle promising a “fresh scent of citrus” seemed just the thing to counter the foul smell wafting up from his suspended foot, so he squirted liberally before using a wad of paper towels to scour his sole.

Two more rounds of spritzing and swabbing finally satisfied him he was no longer tainted, so he carried the bottle, the roll of paper towels and the kitchen trash can out to the living room, where he knelt to do what pet owners have been doing since the first dog was allowed into the first cave.

Fifteen minutes later Dylan carried the plastic garbage bag to the chute by the elevator, returned to scrub his hands multiple times, then put up the coffee. He watched the liquid drip into the pot, unnerved by the events of the morning and, when Paige emerged from the bedroom, drawn by the aroma of Jamaican Blue, he eyed her with suspicion but dared not ask the question.

It wasn’t a story he could repeat to his colleagues at Durham, Kempe, Walliston, Finch and Carter, or to his family, but Dylan needed to vent. Luckily, Gary Delgado was free for lunch. Dylan didn’t ask his assistant to book a table at any of his usual high-end restaurants, as Gary was certain to show up wearing a tee-shirt from his eclectic collection, most likely with at least one offensive word in the humorous saying splashed across his chest. He asked Gary to meet him at Jo-Jo’s, their school days’ haunt.

They sat outside at a small metal table, its pedestal as wobbly as it had been twenty years earlier when the two had exercised their newly gained teen independence by dining al fresco on hot dogs and curly fries. The Carters had frowned on their son’s friendship with Gary. Although the children attended the same ultra-exclusive private school, the Delgado boy was on full scholarship, fluked in on the bases of scholastic achievement and high IQ, rather than the guidelines more predictive of future success: millions and millions of dollars.

Gary was one of those quirky people of whom can truly be said doesn’t live up to potential. Too scattered in his thinking to focus on a single career path, too inclined to follow every Alice down every rabbit hole, and too willing to test drive the latest club drugs, Gary earned a living doing what he called “this and that,” basically whatever held his attention right then. Several ingenious patents guaranteed a flow of income, but Gary let it accumulate in a savings account, never motivated to invest it, move it to a higher-interest resting place, or spend it on a more genteel life. He didn’t run in Dylan’s circle, but he had never aspired to, valuing the friendship despite their worlds intersecting so rarely.

After a debate over the ideal condiments for a hot dog, one that had pitted mustard and relish against ketchup and onions for two decades, Dylan recounted the story of the morning’s events. Gary, no newcomer to the world of peculiar sex practices and the wide range of strange indulged in by human beings, took the story at face value and asked Dylan if he was going to see her again.

“Oh, hells no!” Dylan’s usually impeccable communications skills always relaxed in his old friend’s company.

The last of the shared curly fries fell to the quicker fingers of the man in the business suit and the two did their backslapping good-bye, assuming a couple months would pass before they saw each other again.

That’s why Gary was so surprised by the early phone call the next morning asking him to come to Dylan’s condo ASAP. The doorman gave Gary the stink-eye, blanching when he read the tee-shirt, but allowed him in after calling Mr. Carter to verify the guest’s welcome.

Dylan threw open the door before Gary’s knock was done. “Come and take a look,” was all he said before turning and heading down the hallway. Gary shut the door and followed. The first thing he saw on entering his friend’s bedroom was Dylan, still in pajamas, pointing at the floor a few feet away. Even without the gross visual Gary would have known what was on the carpet by the disgusting smell.

“Dude, I thought you weren’t going to see her again.”

“I didn’t! I was alone all night and when I woke up, that was here.”

Gary considered this for a moment before asking, “Are you by any chance using Ambien?”

“No, why?”

“Well, some people who take it get up and eat in their sleep, and others try to drive their car. I thought maybe you could be a sleep-crapper.”

“Jeez, Gary, look at it. That’s from a dog, not a person.”

With sealed windows and only the one entry, there was no possible ingress for a canine unless it knew what code to paw into the keypad. And that’s after it talked its way past the guard.

Dylan and Gary opened every drawer, closet and cabinet. They checked the screws in the vent covers for the heat and A/C, felt along the walls for hidden seams that would indicate a secret panel or trap door. Nothing. And no sign of a dog. At the end of the two-hour search, a frustrated Dylan asked, “How is some filthy mutt getting into my condo?”

“Okay, I think we’re dealing with one of three things here,” Gary said. “A ghost dog, a canine-like alien or a dog from another dimension.” When Dylan stared at him incredulously, Gary hastened to add, “You’re right, the first two are stupid. What you have is a dog from another dimension.”

Queried as to why a dog from the fourth dimension would choose this particular condo in which to leave its three-dimensional poop, Gary pointed out they didn’t know for sure Dylan’s condo was the only one.

“And it isn’t necessarily the fourth dimension that it comes from. There are many other choices. Are you familiar with String Theory?”

When Dylan held up a hand to indicate he was not open to a physics lecture, Gary suggested he ask around to see if any of the other owners were having the same problem. Dylan couldn’t imagine how he would frame an inquiry of that sort to the chairman of the board of directors for the Chicago Symphony or the elderly widow who had founded the prestigious Cornelius Foundation.

Gary left, promising to give the problem a good, hard think. Dylan, too embarrassed to leave a note asking Carmen to dispose of the mess, cleaned it up himself. It was a humbling experience to do a job he wouldn’t ask his housekeeper to do.

For three more nights the poop fairy visited the condo, and Carmen had to add paper towels to her grocery list even though she was certain she had bought six rolls the week before. On the afternoon of the third day, Dylan’s assistant told him a Mr. Delgado was on the line.

“I think I have a fix,” Gary said. “What time do you get home?”

When Dylan’s driver stopped in front of the building, Gary was already waiting with a ten-pound bag of Purina One. The doorman didn’t dare cast a skeptical glance at the wild-haired man in the outrageous tee-shirt—Mr. Carter was among the building’s best tippers at Christmas—so when the men entered the lobby together, they were both greeted with a smile.

Once the elevator doors closed and Dylan slotted in his access card, he turned to Gary. “Dog food? I’m trying to get rid of the thing, not invite it to move in permanently.”

“Have you ever heard the old saying ‘don’t shit where you eat?’ Well, it isn’t only a morality guideline for horny businessmen.”

They filled one of Dylan’s hand-thrown ceramic pasta bowls with kibble and a second with water, then put them on a towel to protect the kitchen’s costly bamboo flooring. The next morning the food bowl was empty and the water was half-gone, but Dylan’s carpeting bore no unwanted gifts. He called Gary to tell him the ploy had been successful, but they both knew it was only a stopgap. Gary promised he was working on something more permanent.

Grocery shopping was a new experience for Dylan, but he had been unwilling to designate the buying of dog food to anyone who might ask questions. That’s why before leaving for work each morning he washed, dried and put away the two mementos of an old fling with a leggy blonde ceramicist. What Carmen didn’t know wouldn’t give her a reason to quit.

He and Gary spoke by phone several times a week, with Gary hinting he was on to something and asking Dylan to be patient. Meanwhile, Dylan fell into the routine of a dog owner, filling the large plastic bowls he had finally picked up in the pet food section of Albertson’s and setting them out every night before going to bed.

After a Friday evening wine tasting that had morphed into a serious putting-away of Grand Cru claret, Dylan came home and fell into bed without remembering to leave food and water for his invisible pet. He awoke the next morning with a hangover and a surprise on the carpet.

Five weeks after that first night deposit had disturbed his orderly existence, Dylan woke to a soft scrabbling sound coming from somewhere inside the condo. A glance at the digital clock on the nightstand told him it was 3:18 a.m., and, assuming the sound was being made by his canine visitor gobbling the kibble, he slipped from his 1200-thread-count cocoon and took a small flashlight from the drawer. He would finally get a look at the 4-D dog.

Moving silently across the carpet with the flashlight held loosely in his right hand, he exited the bedroom, deciding to leave the light off till he got to the kitchen so he could lay eyes on the dog before it had a chance to beam itself up, or whatever the hell it did to leave the condo every night. As he ninja’d his way down the wide hall, he realized the sound was not coming from the kitchen straight ahead, but from the living room to his left. Easing over to the archway that opened onto the vast sunken area dotted with leather couches, Eames chairs and Tiffany lamps, Dylan craned his neck to look inside. The tall windows that made up the west wall of his condo let in enough moonlight for him to see the empty space over the fireplace where his Matisse had hung and two very human figures taking down the Kandinsky from a multi-canvas grouping across the room.

With pounding heart he instantly knew the dog fiasco was part of an art theft scheme. He wasn’t sure how it all fit in—maybe to get him inured to sounds in the night so he wouldn’t wake up—but that had to be the answer. He was angry knowing he had been screwed with and angry his priceless paintings were being stolen, so he flipped the wall switch without considering the consequences. When light flooded the room, the two black-clad intruders dropped the Kandinsky and spun around to find Dylan bringing up his right hand.

“You! Stop!”

The first man saw a metallic glint off the flashlight and yelled, “Gun!” The second man whipped a pistol from his waistband and fired.

Thunder echoed off the high ceiling, but Dylan didn’t hear it until after the bullet had slammed him back against the wall. He slid down, pain radiating through him, as a second bullet exploded into the surface inches over his head. He watched the intruder walk toward him, weapon steady. The next shot would be the fatal one.

From the kitchen a snarling white shape launched itself at the gunman, fully airborne when it crashed into him and took him down. One shot went wild as the gun flew from the man’s hand and skidded across the floor. The second thief dived to retrieve the firearm.

Fighting to remain conscious, Dylan scrambled to his feet and made a dash for the alarm panel in his bedroom. Screaming sirens filled the condo but weren’t loud enough to cover the blast of another gunshot and an inhuman howl of pain. Knowing the building’s security team would arrive within minutes, Dylan shut and locked his bedroom door.

Gary found him in the emergency room four hours later, shortly after police detectives had taken Dylan’s statement. “Does it hurt?”

“Probably. But the drugs they gave me are working re-e-e-eally hard to prevent my knowing that.”

“The doc said you could go home, so I called Jimmy to bring your car and pick us up. I’ll stay with you and maybe try one of your happy pills.”

“Gary,” Dylan mumbled through his pharmaceutical haze. “They shot the dog. One of those scumbags shot him after he saved my life.”

“Oh, boy, those are good drugs.”

As Gary helped his friend into the tee-shirt he had brought, Dylan kept insisting the 4-D dog had come to his aid and been shot. Maybe killed. “And all to save my sorry ass.”

After Gary got his friend home and to bed, he inspected the living room. A vertical streak of dried blood on the wall next to the entry arch marked where a .38 slug had passed through Dylan’s right armpit, grazing a rib and missing the bones of the shoulder joint by inches. The forensic team had pried it out of the wall, along with the bullet that had narrowly missed his head. The third hole was high up near the ceiling across the room and Gary figured it must be from the shot Dylan had said went off as the huge white blur slammed into the gunman.

The police had found three bullets, but if Dylan was right, a fourth had gone into the dog. Gary stayed the rest of that day and night, filling food and water bowls in the evening, remembering at the last second to put down a towel to protect the floor. The kitchen floor in Gary’s own small apartment was impervious not only to water, but to anything short of a direct hit from a drone. When he checked them the next morning, the bowls were untouched.

“Knock, knock,” Gary said from the door of the bedroom.

“Did the dog come back?” Dylan asked, pushing up into a sitting position.

Gary shook his head. “No, but Paige sent a fruit and wine basket.”

“From Glendon’s.” It was a statement, not a question.

“How did you know?”

“It’s my set’s go-to place for births, deaths, weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it. Glendon’s is Walmart for rich white people.”

“Ah. When you care enough to have your assistant send the very best.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve got stuff I need to deal with. Are you going to be okay here alone?”

“Yeah. I’ll call Carmen and ask her to pick up soup from Whole Foods.” He fidgeted with the silk duvet. “I just wish I knew what happened to him.”

Gary promised to stop by the next day, and an hour later Carmen arrived to tell Dylan the breaking news on the in-house grapevine. His condo was one of three that had been targeted. All were art thefts by criminals who hacked the building’s computers to get access codes, tied up the doorman and guard, then cleared out the most valuable pieces from two other residences before breaking in to his. Everyone was talking about how brave Mr. Carter was for stopping the bad guys.

“You are like a superhero, Mr. C.”

Dylan knew the real hero had four legs, not two, and he spent his day alternately napping and worrying about the dog. As a child he had begged for one, but his father claimed allergies and his mother claimed they were inherently filthy. Dylan only now realized the carpet color he had chosen for his condo was the very same pale cream his mother had vehemently defended against her seven-year-old’s hypothetical dog.

At 9:30 that evening Dylan filled the bowls and set them on the floor, not bothering to put down a towel first. He sat next to them with his back against one of the custom cabinets that had cost him a fortune, hoping the dog would show. It was the first time in his life he had felt empathy for another living creature.

His parents had always been supportive, but in an abstract way. Cool; distant. They had expected him to be perfect and he had, for the most part, lived up to their wishes. He saw Gary only at school or on the sly, not willing to bring a friend his parents considered undesirable into their pristine world of privilege, and he now wondered if that had ever bothered Gary. Dylan had done without a pet and learned to regurgitate his mother’s views on canine filthiness like a young religious zealot raised on a steady drip of someone else’s idea of God.

Women had been nothing more than exciting toys until his decision to acquire a wife. And then he had evaluated them the way an HR person might screen candidates for a top-level position. Dylan wondered if he had ever felt love. He thought he had a few times in his twenties, but looking back he suspected the concepts of love and sex might have gotten confused. He fell asleep sitting on the kitchen floor, waking early to find the bowls still full.

Messages filled his voicemail, flowers arrived from the law firm, and three more baskets came from Glendon’s, two from the tenants whose artwork had been recovered and one from his parents. He left the messages unanswered and insisted Carmen take the flowers and baskets home to her family. His own doctor came by to check his wound and proffer a higher-grade pain med, but Dylan declined.

Gary never came as promised; instead, he called mid afternoon to say he was finishing up something important. “I have to go see a guy in Springfield right now, but I’ll swing by your place tomorrow.”

Dylan was used to his friend’s attention being diverted by one mirage or another, so he wasn’t surprised, although he would have liked the company. Facing a second lonely night, Dylan filled the food and water bowls, and began his vigil, once again falling asleep in an awkward seated position cradling his strapped-down arm. He dreamed he heard a scraping sound. A whimper. Panting.

Dylan jolted awake to find a huge white dog lying next to him. Crusted blood matted the hair on its right side, the side that faced upward, as the dog panted heavily and tried to lap from the water bowl. Each time he lifted his head, though, his muzzle bumped the bowl and it scooted forward, always staying out of reach.

Dylan tilted the bowl and held it in place while the dog slurped noisily. After getting half the water down his throat and the other half all over the bamboo floor, the dog laid his head back down with a low groan.

“Easy, boy. Easy,” Dylan said softly. He put his left hand on the dog’s neck, feeling the silky hair flatten under his reassuring strokes. The big eyes closed and the pained panting subsided into whimpering sleep.

It took numerous phone calls and the inducement of a five thousand dollar bonus above the fee, but a veterinarian finally agreed to come to the condo immediately. On the basis of Dylan’s description of the injury, the vet brought everything he needed to perform surgery on the scene with a one-armed helper. A little after four a.m. Dr. Mitchell left the condo and Dylan stroked the dog’s neck and shoulder while he waited for the anesthesia to wear off.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning pulled him from his too-short sleep. A drying smear of blood and a scattering of dog hair were the only signs an injured animal had lain on the kitchen floor a few hours earlier. The phone was in the bedroom and on his way to answer it Dylan automatically looked around for the big white dog.

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Gary announced enthusiastically.

“Well, Gare, you’d better pick up some coffee and come on over, because I’ve got a pretty unbelievable tale myself.”

Gary managed to hold still and stay quiet through the recounting of the night’s bizarre events, but the moment Dylan wrapped his story Gary was on his feet and pulling rubber bands off the rolled-up tubes of paper he had brought with him.

“The dog’s name is Bear. Short for Mr. Polar Bear.”

“How do you know that?”

“Stay with me,” Gary said, unrolling the first poster-sized sheet onto the kitchen counter and anchoring the corners with four ceramic coffee mugs he took from a wooden service tree. “This is a picture of the Chicago skyline taken from the Adler Planetarium.”

Dylan leaned in to look, but recognized almost nothing. “Are you sure?”

“You mean because you don’t see your building in the photo? That’s because this was taken on March twenty-ninth, 1933. That date ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

“Okay, what night did your caca drops begin? Never mind, I’ll tell you. March twenty-ninth.” Gary pointed to a hard-to-see object in the photo, above the skyline but far to the left. “That’s an airplane,” he said. “Specifically, a 1931 Ford Trimotor.” In rapid succession he unrolled three more large prints, slapping each one down and indicating the left-to-right path of the aircraft over the city.

The fourth photo, which should have shown the small plane directly centered above the skyline, instead featured the black, white and gray bloom of a mid air explosion.

“Three cameras were running on timers, so I have more shots of the plane blowing up, but this one’s best for our purposes.” The next large sheet he unrolled was clear acetate with only one image, that of the Clarion Tower, the building in which they were standing. When Gary laid the acetate over the photo and adjusted it so the Clarion stood in its correct position among the many skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous, the top of the building overlapped the exploding plane.

As Dylan tried to wrest some meaning from the show-and-tell, Gary took out a smaller sheet of paper, a copy of a newspaper photo. It was folded in half, and he revealed the partial image to his friend with the casual aplomb of Vanna White unveiling a consonant.

“Did the dog in your kitchen look like this one? Because he was in that plane when it blew up.”

Dangling in the air in front of Dylan’s eyes was a dead ringer for the animal he had helped operate on six hours earlier. The same blocky head and straight white hair. The same eyes that had seemingly pled for help in getting to the water bowl. Dylan knew it was the same dog, and yet he understood it couldn’t be. After teetering on a fulcrum of doubt, he came down on the side of rationality.

“If I understand you correctly, you believe a dog was flying that plane when it exploded, and now it has overcome time and death to visit my condo.”

“See, this is the tone I hate. It’s the same dismissive voice you used when I showed you the cockroach shoes I invented when I was ten.”

“They didn’t work, Gary, and you broke your ankle when you tried to climb the wall.”

“If duct tape had been as sticky back then as it is now, cockroach shoes would’ve been awesome.” He unfolded the photocopy so Dylan could see the other half. “The dog wasn’t flying the plane, she was.”

Dylan looked at the grainy image of a beautiful young woman. She and the dog leaned against each other as she held up a trophy topped with a replica of a biplane.

“Her name was Susan Quillian, but a reporter nicknamed her Suzie Q when she won the San Diego to L.A. air race in 1927.”

That was the year Charles Lindbergh made his nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, and public interest in aviation was almost manic for the next decade, with female pilots of special interest. Suzie Q and Bear became top draws at flying competitions and air shows across America, overshadowed only slightly by Amelia Earhart.

Suzie Q dazzled the crowds with Immelmanns and loop-the-loops in her de Havilland Tiger Moth, while her dog, too heavy to carry in an aerobatic routine, waited on the ground. For cross-country races she flew a four-place Stinson Detroiter and Bear rode second seat.

When she suddenly dropped out of competition three years after that win in her first race, rumors flew. One said she’d married a tycoon who forbade her from risking her life in the air. A second claimed she had a terminal illness and could no longer muster the physical stamina to fly. The most outlandish rumor, by far, was that she had been hired by Al Capone to smuggle contraband. And that one was true.

Dylan listened intently as Gary went on to tell a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnny Torrio killed his uncle, Big Jim Colosino, and took over his operation. Bootleg liquor, whores, protection—Johnny sold it all with the help of his young henchman, Al Capone.

Among the many small businesses Al and two backup thugs shook down for protection money was Angelina’s, a restaurant on the South Side owned by Joe Bartolo, a man struggling to pay off medical bills and keep up with college expenses. His wife had died of cancer in 1921 and his daughter Susan had entered Northwestern in 1923, but his restaurant was popular and he managed to stay a half step ahead of financial ruin.

All that changed when Johnny Torrio and an estimated 30 million of his closest friends retired to New York in 1925, leaving the syndicate short-funded when it passed into the hands of the ruthless Al Capone. The new boss’s first order of business was to step up income from all sources, and suddenly protection cost more than Joe Bartolo could afford. The first time he couldn’t cover the vig they smashed up Angelina’s; the second time they smashed up Joe.

“How did you learn all this?”

“You’d be surprised at the number of gangsters who wrote their memoirs once they were locked away and knew there wouldn’t be any future income from criminal acts. So, after the beating, Joe takes out an insurance policy on himself. Two months later his restaurant burns down and he dies in the fire.”

“Capone torched the place?” asked Dylan.

“Maybe. Or maybe Joe knew a suicide would negate the policy and leave his daughter with nothing so he made it look like something else. There was plenty of history to point the finger at arson and murder, courtesy of Al Capone, so the insurance company paid.”

“What happened to his daughter?”

“Now, that’s a mystery. Susan Bartolo dropped out of Northwestern at the end of her second year and disappeared, never to be seen again.” Two years later, however, a young woman named Susan Quillian appeared on the flying circuit with a pair of biplanes and a big white dog, drawing media attention with her surprise win of the San Diego to L.A. cross-country race. She courted publicity for three years, her beauty garnering it even when she didn’t win first prize. And then she quit racing and hired on with Al Capone.

“That makes no sense,” Dylan said. “Why would she go to work for the man she thought caused her father’s death? And how do you know it’s even the same girl?”

“Revenge,” Gary said with a smile. “And Joe Bartolo’s wife’s maiden name was Quillian.” Suzie Q’s good looks and minor celebrity got her in the door, where she pitched Capone the idea of ferrying cargo from place to place via plane. His trucks were getting hijacked by rivals or intercepted by G-men more often than his greedy business model allowed, so the idea appealed to him. Plus, he liked her dog.

After a few test flights with only sawdust in the sealed boxes—Capone had to make sure she wasn’t working for the feds—Suzie Q began air-muling whatever needed a safe ride from one place to another. As trucks full of contraband fell into the wrong hands once or twice a month, Suzie’s SB-1 Detroiter maintained a perfect record: on time and without loss.

“So, Capone is trusting her more and more, even upgraded her wings to a Ford Trimotor. All-aluminum body and capable of carrying a much bigger payload than the Stinson,” said Gary, getting more exited as he told the story he’d been researching for more than a month.

“What was she waiting for? Sounds like she routinely got close enough to kill him.”

“She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted to rip him off. Take the money he’d shaken her father down for, and then some.” Suzie bided her time until late March of 1933, when an armored car transporting gold ingots from Cincinnati to Philadelphia vanished without a trace. An early morning call ordered her to fly to a makeshift airfield near Cicero the next night for a pickup headed to a Montreal warehouse owned by one of Al Capone’s Canadian business associates.

A dozen men with Tommy guns guarded the grassy landing strip as the Tin Goose was loaded, first with a dummy consignment of perfectly legal items in the passenger cabin, then with nondescript 20-pound boxes that went in the hidden, drop-down cargo holds below the inner wing sections. Suzie tried to appear as disinterested in the goods as always, but she surreptitiously counted fourteen of the small wooden boxes before she was given the okay to go. She climbed into the cockpit, fired up the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines, taxied across the moonlit field and flew away, never to be seen again.

“Okay, lets say she landed somewhere, hid the gold and then took off. What I don’t buy is that a photographer just happened to be at the Adler Planetarium that morning. With his cameras coincidentally aimed at the exact spot where the plane exploded? Come on.”

“The photographer didn’t happen to be there. She hired him the previous afternoon to shoot her pre-dawn flight over the city,” said Gary. “Told him she wanted to generate some publicity to restart her flying career. What Suzie Q actually needed was proof of death so Capone wouldn’t come after her with everything he had.”

Gary had spent the day before in Springfield with the photographer’s grandson, who had grown up hearing his grandfather speak of the tragedy.

“My granddad felt terrible about the young woman dying in the explosion,” the man had told Gary. “And almost as bad that he lost her dog.”

When Gary pursued it, the man said Suzie paid his grandfather $100 to watch her dog for a week, but sometime that night Bear broke the chain that held him in the yard, jumped the fence and ran away.

“Grandpa didn’t know what he would tell her when she came back for her dog, but after he saw the plane blow up he knew she wouldn’t be coming back.”

His grandfather sold the photo to the Chicago Tribune and it made the front page, ensuring Capone would see his cargo blasted to kingdom come.

Gary and Dylan sat in silence a few minutes, then placed a phone order for Chinese. While they waited, Dylan asked, “What do you think happened?”

“I think she put a bomb on a timer and parachuted out at the last minute. It was still dark enough for a jumper to go unnoticed, especially with the fireworks elsewhere in the sky. She retrieved the gold and lived a long and happy life far away from Chicago.”

“But if your theory about some Dr. Who time tunnel is true, Bear had to have been in the plane when it blew up. Why would she take him with her if she knew that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “Maybe he found his way home that night and hid in the Trimotor. Or maybe he went to the airstrip in Cicero where they’d made so many pickups before. After the boxes were loaded, the mob guys would’ve been watching the perimeter, not the plane, and Bear might have snuck on while Suzie did her pre-flight check.”

Gary was closer to the truth than he knew. Susan Quillian had thought Bear was safe with the photographer when she made an unscheduled stop ten minutes after taking off from Cicero, but once she locked away the last of the boxes she had spent thirty minutes unloading, while she was buckling into her parachute harness, the big white dog leapt aboard and stowed away. Only as she approached Chicago had she felt the familiar wet lick on the back of her neck, and by then it was too late.

At five-feet-three and 102 pounds, Suzie couldn’t possibly carry the 90-pound dog while she parachuted to freedom. With twelve seconds left on the timer and an ache in her heart at the unfairness of it all, she hugged Bear one last time and made the hardest decision of her life.

The smell of shrimp fried rice and broccoli beef hung in the air long after Gary had gone, but Dylan left the open cartons on the counter when he went to bed. He was haunted by thoughts of poor Bear. Abandoned. Left in that plane to die. And if Gary was right, the dog had wandered in some never-never land for more than eighty years until the Clarion Tower had been completed ten months ago and a portal of some kind opened in Dylan’s condo on the anniversary of the accident. Now that the passage was open, the dog could apparently go back and forth at will between the condo and…whatever.

It was all too sci-fi and woo-woo for Dylan to wrap his mind around, and yet, Bear was real. He ate real food and shat real poop, though, thankfully, in that other place now. And a veterinarian had done actual surgery on him. Dylan tried to sleep, but pain in his armpit and worry about the big white dog kept him tossing fitfully for hours.

Sometime deep in the night he heard scuffling and a thud on the floor alongside his bed, so he inched to the edge and looked down. When he saw Bear curled up on the carpet a lump formed in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He draped his good arm over the side and tentatively put his hand on the dog’s neck. He heard a heavy sigh and, a few minutes later, untroubled snoring. Dylan stroked the silky hair until he, too, fell asleep.

Early morning light filtered through the bedroom curtains, gently coaxing him back to consciousness, but when he opened his eyes he snapped awake. Bear sat next to the bed, pink tongue hanging out and tail rhythmically thumping the floor. Standing beside the dog, scowling down at the man in bed, was the beautiful girl Dylan recognized from the grainy news photo.

“So,” she snarled. “Are you the son of a bitch who shot my dog?”

Italians call it the thunderbolt. Less creative Americans call it love at first sight. Dylan had aimed high for a wife, but he never suspected he’d find her one hundred and twelve stories above the ground.

 

Triptych, detail

Heliciculture
by Lisa Nikolidakis

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Ask anyone in Greece and they will tell you the same: our snails are best. From all over they come to our village in Crete to pluck the mollusks from their swirling shells and feel the soft dissolve against their tongues. My yia-yia says other restaurants are all the time with noise at dinner, but Artemidoros is quiet, a hum. Look around and it’s eyes closed, moans no bigger than whispers. When the people leave, stuffed, they look at my yia-yia and ask, “What is the secret? Tell us.” In the trembling spots of sweat on their foreheads you can see how much they want to know; they think if they too could make the snails at home, life would be better, maybe easier, which shows you what people know. But my yia-yia only smiles, her mouth twisted up on the left side. If the compliment is too strong—if she suspects envy—you can see on her brow the fear of the evil eye, so she mutters garlic under her breath for protection and hides in the kitchen to avoid a curse. And that is the end of that.

Back on my sixteenth Name Day, the whole village pulsed through our house. I’d hoped we might have my party in Heraklion, a real city an hour north that we haven’t once visited, a place where scooters whip down paved roads and people lounge at cafés that play music from this decade, but I might as well have wished for a party at the bottom of the sea. Everyone here says, “Old way is best way,” so not much changes. The guests came, their hands stuffed with raki and plates of snails and envelopes with money and wishes of many more years for me. I’d also asked for fondue—had dropped the word into every conversation I could and imagined pots bubbling over, those long, strange forks—but I should’ve known better. Thanks to my family, I am forever tethered to the snail.

As the sun went down, the village glowing pink like a candle, the band took up its instruments, and everyone locked hands, the circle large and spiraling as we danced foot over foot, hopping and kicking, until in a cloud of orange earth I collapsed into a chair to catch my breath. My favorite cousin, Maria, saw her chance to escape the grip of family and sat next to me. Clapping, we watched as one by one so many people took their turns at the head of the circle to show off their moves, but when my mother took charge of the dance she was graceful as a breeze. Her single, black braid—the one way she wears it—swung down over her white dress to the shallow of her lower back, and she lifted her head as though hovering in the air above everyone was a mystery that only she could read. In her face, a truth held long kept me waiting for some grand reveal, but on my shoulder a hand squeezed gently, and then in my ear, the quiet voice of my yia-yia: “It is time. Come.”

I should’ve known it’d be her. I grabbed Maria’s hand, but my yia-yia tsk-tsk’d, so Maria flopped back in her rocker. She’s the cousin that makes people’s voices go quiet when she’s near. Thirty-four years old, no husband, no children. Lesvía they say when she’s not around, but I’ve never seen her with another woman. She’s left the village—traveled to places outside of Greece (you should hear a fat gasp there)—and has the stories to prove it. Plus, she’s figured out a way to have nothing to do with the snails. I don’t think I’ve even seen her eat one.

 

Maybe I ate too much kataifi, but I swear I could have run the whole village and back six times before my yia-yia was to the end of our street.

Siga, siga,” she said. A reminder of our village motto: slowly, slowly.

We walked beyond the center of town through a landscape no one bothers to look at: patches of olive trees, the ones closest to the road thin, a little twisted and small, but as we made our way deeper into the forest, the moon brightening our path, their trunks swelled in size and swirled, these old Minoan trees, and even had I tried, I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around one. I started to wonder what kind of animals might live in their trunks, how many adders could slip from the cracks at any moment, when my yia-yia stopped and sat on the shelf of a branch that had grown low to the ground.

Her breath was spotty, deep heaves followed by moments of stillness. For most in the village, my yia-yia inspires fear, which seems crazy to me since she’s no taller than a 10-year-old and, when stuffed with food, 43 kilograms. And she’s not small simply because she’s aged—no one knows how old and she won’t answer. When I was younger, I’d sit on her lap, facing her smooth cheeks, and drop coins into the triangle of her neck while she combed my hair. But like all the women in my family she is something of a mystery; maybe that’s where the fear sneaks in. I was so busy watching her that I jumped when I noticed my mother next to me. She put her hand on my chin and steadied my face towards her.

“My child,” she said and smiled without showing her teeth. There was no mistaking whose daughter she was; even in the poor light, I could see her face was a copy of my yia-yia’s—nose straight as a bone and two sharp peaks on her top lip. “What do you hear?”

Everywhere the steady buzz of bugs vibrating their bodies. “The leaf hoppers?” I asked.

My mother said, “Listen beyond that. Deeper. You can hear it. I know you can. Here,” she said and squatted, fanning her fingers in the dirt.

I looked at my yia-yia, who nodded, so I knelt and spread my fingers against the hard earth, the dirt more like a thin layer of dust, and the warmth of the day’s sun seeped into my palms. I heard only the hoppers again, but I closed my eyes—it seemed the right thing to do—and at first I felt it, a vibration light as a cloud, then the sound, a low shhhhhh like the ocean waves ten kilometers away. When I opened my eyes, my mother was sitting next to my yia-yia, watching.

“What do you hear?” she asked again.

I didn’t have the right words—a stomach in need of food, a rumble. But before I said it wrong, my yia-yia spoke.

“The sound is the snails. Our snails. Is Artemidoros. You know already what this means, yes?”

Of course I knew. I’d heard them say it a thousand times. “A gift from Artemis.”

My mother ticked her head to her right, an instruction to sit next to her.

“This is yours, you know,” my mother said. Not really a question.

I stared into the woods.

“This is your legacy. Listen to the snails, and the restaurant will be great success for you after we’re gone.”

I nodded, forced a half smile in that moonlight, but my guts felt like someone kneaded them for tsoureki.

 

At first, I was the harvester. Sixteen years old and one task: find the snails. I was awake then all the time with the sun to wait for rain—so often it threatened but didn’t deliver. But if I was lucky enough to hear Zeus clap, I made my way to the fields that surround our village with my plastic bags and rooted through the green, the snails easy to spot, the fields moving like slow rivers of shell. When it was dry, the work was tougher. Listening hard, my fingers in the dirt, I followed the shhhhhh and kicked over every rock in the shade, climbed into forgotten drain pipes, jammed my arms into the prickly juniper shrubs where I held my breath to avoid their biting stink; one whiff and I could smell nothing else for the day.

Now, two years later, I am the fattener, which is a nice way of saying I am up to my shoulders in slime. It is no secret that whatever the snail eats, you eat, so my job is to make sure they are fat on the outside, clean on the inside. For a week I feed them pasta to help them grow strong, then nothing but flour until their kaka runs white. Then no food and soon enough, they pull their lip over their shell’s opening, and I hand them over to my yia-yia.

I’m no breeder—my mother handles the matchmaking—so I fatten. I also scrape clean the cages and swat away the birds that come for a free lunch. The foulest work is mine, but the snails are never juicier than when they are under my care. Every other day from March to September, the high season, I take to our snail crates—wooden vegetable boxes and netting—and carefully transfer the snails, one-by-one, a process that takes most of the day, so I can wash clean their trail. While I’m there, I listen hard and search for the dead—a tricky feat for most when snails are so slow to show enthusiasm—but now it takes just a few seconds of the shell to my ear; if there is no sound, I toss it into the sack of the dead. Later, when the crates are like new, I take the sack into the street and stomp it until the shells feel like crumbs beneath my foot. Personally, I’d like to skip this step, but my yia-yia she always checks. Poking her head into the backyard before walking to Artemidoros she asks, “The Turks won’t get their satisfaction, right?” and what she means is if the shells are tossed back into the field whole, the soil will seep into them and stay there trapped for 400 years, the same length of time the Ottomans ruled us. Symbols. Everything is symbols and nonsense superstitions.

I was taught in school that to be humble is a woman’s work, but I am fast at my tasks—faster than my mother was when this was her job. If my family has it their way I might do this for another ten, twenty, even thirty years. I don’t care how good I am; if in thirty years I am still peering into old vegetable crates to measure the color of snail shit, may I be eaten by a Cyclops.

The only work I enjoy is the books. One night after the customers had gone and we sat in the office sipping rakomelo, letting the honeyed spirits fill us with some last-minute energy, I watched my mother empty the register into a burlap bag.

“So how’d we do?” I asked. My family never talked money.

“Good, good” she said, not lifting her eyes from the task of tying the string of the bag.

“I mean, how good? I need to know these things for when I run it on my own.” If you want to get them talking, mention the future of business.

My mother wiped her hands on the lap of her dress and looked at me. Sometimes, like in that moment, she seemed to me old as my yia-yia, the same traditions for a hundred years draining out of her every pore.

“We had tonight a better dinner than last night,” she said.

My yia-yia looked to the Panagia icon—the Virgin Mary who hangs everywhere in the village—and crossed herself three times for our success.

“Okay. But how much money did we make?”

“This is hard to say. We pay some people today for linens and wine.”

I tilted my head and tried my best not to sound like a know-it-all. “Right,” I said slowly. “But how much did you start with?”

My mother laughed. “Who counts such things every day?” she asked.

And that’s when I became the bookkeeper, too.

 

So there it is: all spring and summer long, days of feeding and cleaning and plucking the dead, and at night, when the restaurant is alive with customers, I am there waiting tables and balancing the books. Sometimes I am rich with luck and there is a slow night, a dragging Monday, and I sneak off to Maria’s and demand stories. Her home is three little rooms—a bedroom, kitchen/sitting room, and bathroom—all of it on a cool, concrete slab that’s turned green as algae with time. She’s dressed most of it with rugs brought back from her trips, and on nearly every bit of wall hangs what I call “arty things:” mosaic mirrors, postcards yellowed at their edges, a thin scroll of a five-year-old calendar that, at its corners, shows yawning tigers, the animals poised to eat 1984.

We drink and laugh until the knives appear in our ribs, trading tales, mine of the restaurant world, hers of the real one. By the end of most nights, I press her for the one story I haven’t heard. “Tell me about Paris,” I say, and she says, “Stamata” her voice firm, so I sink further into the embroidered pillows on her small sofa. Maria is a woman for whom everything is a mission, like she feels some invisible audience nagging her to complete her task, no matter how small the thing is. But she avoids talk of Paris other than to call it a defeat, so she tells me anything else. Two months ago she talked about Istanbul and its Grand Bazaar, how she walked through the walled city, lost in the maze, in search of one thing: a çini with a Pegasus on it. Normally, those plates are covered in blue and orange flowers, all borne of the same imagination, and at the Bazaar, there were thousands that looked identical. But she was sure if she could find one with a Pegasus that she’d have some proof that the Greeks and Turks hadn’t always been enemies; and if the piece were new, it would show the old bigots in the village that times had really changed.

Last month I said it again: “Paris.”

“How about the food at fešta in Dubrovnik? The ćevapi was the best meat I’ve had.” And then on and on about the dancing, how close it seemed to Greece, how she felt the pull of the horses there from both ends—drawn at once toward her family and traveling further away from them.

I love food, but I didn’t much care and she could tell.

It’s been weeks since I’ve seen her and this time, I’m not going to let her dodge. Before we get the cork out of the bottle, I ask.

And instead of bringing up, I don’t know, the size of the beers at Hofbräuhaus, she asks, “Why are you drawn to a story of failure?”

I smile big, cross my eyes, and through gritted teeth whimper, “Because I love you,” knowing that my silliness always wins her.

“Fine,” she says and sighs. “Just this once.” She pauses to take some wine and clears her throat, a move that signals a quality story. “At The Louvre—everyone must go there, no?—I searched and searched for a sculpture I’d seen once.” She pauses here and helps herself to a big sip of wine before continuing. “In a friend’s book. The Bather, it was called, a marble piece almost as big as David­. I don’t know. Something about the curves of her hip, the loose parted hair, her smooth foot held out to test her invisible bath water.” Maria held her own bare foot out before her, and I bumped her arch with my big toe. “I’ve never gotten her out of my head. I looked for hours, my feet burned from the walk, my stomach angry. It took me the whole day—I barely saw anything in the museum—and I found nothing.” She looks away from me, and her wild, dark curls reach into the air like snakes. “Either way, The Bather is lost to me.”

I lean forward, pour us more wine, top it with Coca-Cola, and ask, “Why didn’t you ask someone where it was?” It seems like a question of reason, but Maria’s eyebrows dig into her face.

“I couldn’t remember the name of the piece, and I never knew the name of the artist. I just had the girl in my mind. I would know her when I saw her. How do you explain this to someone else?”

The story clearly seems sadder to her than me, but I know to be quiet, to sit still in her loss. That goes on long enough, so I finally ask, “What else happened?”

“What do you mean ‘what else’? This is the whole story.”

“But you were in Paris for what, three weeks?”

She nods and says, “Yes, but this is the thing that matters.”

I really don’t know, so I ask: “Why?”

For a moment, I think she’s going to tell me, and I want badly to understand how a sculpture could mean so much, but I should know better. Instead she stands, fills a shallow dish with nuts, and says with her back to me, “Have I told you about the otters at the Isle of Skye?”

 

July is the busiest time in the village for tourists. The rest of us know better than to travel when the heat is so thick it suffocates, but the rest of the world—the Germans, the Brits, the Aussies—they eat it right up. It’s a strange thing to peer inside Artemidoros and see so many pasty faces, their blue eyes nearly popping from their sockets. Tonight we’ve had our busiest Friday of the season and the cleanup will stink. Snails cooked our way—with the olive oil and herb blend—are slippery, and you can always tell when the tourists have been in; walking through the restaurant, the shells lost to the floor break and the shards dig into the soles of our shoes, all of us making big noise as we walk.

The person who named it “waiting tables” had the mind of a mouse. The last thing I have is patience for waiting, especially when it’s down to the last two or three customers that I want badly to shove out the door. One table waves every time I am near to ask for more. I do not know how two men can consume so much, but they have eaten five plates and mostly I’m hoping they don’t find themselves sick. When they are the last ones, they call me over, I hope, for the bill.

“You are ready to pay?” I ask and place the complimentary raki in front of them. One good thing about tourists is that they never know to sip it and instead drink it back in one motion—a speedy process that I am in full support of tonight.

“We are,” says the man in khaki pants and a too-clean white shirt. Bleached. He looks totally bleached: his white hair is loose and large like some old sea captain, and beneath oversized white eyebrows his eyes, light blue, are narrow as string beans. Even the hairs that rest on his lip are white as a marten’s belly. On the empty chair closest to him hangs a round, tan hat with a leather string. I almost laugh imagining him on safari in Crete; perhaps he does not know we have no lions. His companion looks the same in the face, maybe a younger brother, but he is slicker in a fitted blue suit, a costume that looks as out of place in our old, stone restaurant as a bow tie on a donkey.

I add up their platters and tuck the check into the black book. The Suit asks, “Is this your place?”

I cannot locate his accent. Looking over my shoulder at the empty dining room, I know that my yia-yia and mother are in the back, rakomelo in hand, swollen feet hoisted onto chairs.

“Sure,” I say.

The Suit smiles, and he’s got sparkle in his eyes, a mischief that draws me in. “Where do your snails come from?”

It’s an odd question; normally, people are after recipes. My response gives away my suspicion: “Why do you care?” It comes out with more fire than I mean for, but both men smile and Captain Safari begins to dig into his wallet.

“We mean no offense,” says The Suit. “But these really are the best we’ve had, which means someone here knows what they’re doing.”

I shouldn’t be flattered. I should say garlic just in case, but compliments around here rarely come my way, so I blurt it out: “I am the fattener!”

The men look at me, and for a moment, I feel like a fool, but they both start to nod and smile and then without trying I, too, am nodding and smiling.

“So what’s your secret?” The Suit asks, and in those four words I hear only the possibility of betrayal, the thing I can’t do, so I press my lips together tight.

Captain Safari hands me a business card, the paper thick and custard-colored with fine lines carved into it. In the bottom corner there’s a phone number, and in thin black letters over three lines in the center it reads:

Les Agriculteurs
Internationales
de Héliciculture

I can decode the first four words, but I’ve never seen the last.

“We are in the snail business,” says Captain Safari. “And we’re not here to threaten, I promise.” He holds up his right hand and looks to the ceiling. “We help the small farmer set up a system that makes the best snails with the fewest hours of labor.”

“But you just said our snails are best. Everyone says this.”

“They are,” says Captain Safari. “But how many hours do you spend each day harvesting and cleaning? Three? Four?”

All of them, I want to say but don’t.

The Suit stands and stretches his arms over his head, looks around for a moment, and says, “Small place like this, I bet you’re using plastic buckets with air holes. Easy to move, easy to clean. Am I right?”

I have no interest in answering, which works out because before I have a chance Captain Safari says, “Nah. They’ve been at this game a long time. Plastic is too new. I bet they’ve got net sacks hanging in the yard.”

His string-bean eyes drift first toward the window, and I silently pray that he can’t spot the old vegetable crates even though they’re three blocks away. When he looks back at me, his gaze locks on my hands, and all at once I see myself, my family, through these men’s eyes: we are primitive women, and our hands are the ancient link to a way of doing things that belongs in the history books.

But The Suit says, “Don’t worry. We’re not here to disturb a thing.” He’s got lines at the edges of his mouth earned from years of grinning that make me believe him. “Keep the card. If you want to modernize, we can put in the snail-proof fences that take away half of your work. Like a dream.” He pauses to stuff some money into the check holder. “And if you’re interested, you can visit our place in Bordeaux, see how everything works.”

Bordeaux. The word is still circling the air before me like an oversized, French firefly when Captain Safari adds, “We could even fly you up.”

Once I hear their car start, I check: 5,000 drachmas tip. And that’s when I know they’re big time.

 

Maria says go, go, go. “Don’t be one of these Greeks who dies without leaving the country.” We’re on a walk, the evening full of surprising wind, my shift not yet started. We keep our voices low: on this kind of night—when it’s cool in summer—the village is out: pulling laundry from the lines, plucking grapes from the trellises, waiting and listening for anything of interest they might repeat over dinner.

“It feels mean to use someone for a free trip,” I say and drag my palm over the soft blossom of a bougainvillea. It would feel mean, but I’d get over that part. There’s different trouble. “Plus, what would I tell the family? It’s not like I can take a week off.”

“C’mon: the season will be over in two months. You have time.”

I tug on her sleeve, the linen light and thin between my fingers. “That’s not really what I mean.” We stop there on the road, next to the Panagia monastery, an abandoned space like so many others here, most of it crumbling back toward the earth—except for the arcosolium. I’m staring at that arch and wondering about the people who knelt there so many centuries ago, lighting candles and speaking to God, when Maria tells me to knock it off.

“Tell them whatever you need to,” she says. “Listen, what this family doesn’t know about me could fill a book. A long, funny, maybe sad book.”

 

We aren’t raised to ask what we want of this world. I have understood so clearly what I don’t want for so long that I haven’t given much thought to what I do. When I try, when I stare out at the sky and its low-hanging clouds and ask myself, I feel only a hoof pressing down on my chest.

And then in September the letter comes.

I am lucky that I’m doing the books before Artemidoros opens so I meet the mailman. The return address is a sticker printed in a long, thin script that I recognize instantly. Captain Safari and The Suit turn out to be Jean and Jacques, brothers like I suspected, and they want to know if I’ve given their offer thought. Aloud to no one I say, “Pssssh.” I keep reading until I hit the line that makes my knees shake: We understand if you distrust changing your system and wish to preserve the old methods. I slump and press my cheek to the desk and feel the coolness of the wood work its way into my body. And here I am, head down and defeated, when my yia-yia enters, crosses herself three times before Panagia, and begins with arthritic hands to fumble with the strings of her apron. My mother comes in behind her, says hello, and begins talking about the night’s business as she takes over tying her mother’s apron. My breath catches in my throat.

When they leave the room, I begin writing my response, my English letters stacked like difficult blocks, the alphabet of a child. After addressing them, I keep it short: I’m in. Please tell how to proceed. I end it with a request for them to send future letters to Maria’s.

That night we are slow enough to have time to talk, and I’ve never hoped for customers more. Every time my mother is near I bury myself in the already-done books, nose to the spine. Later I escape to Maria’s to plan and drink. To drink a lot.

Even with the restaurant closing for the season, it’s not as though I can simply tell them where I’m going. And forget going alone. No one will understand, so Maria does the kindest thing I can think of: she agrees to come with me, a trip between cousins.

“It’s only for a few days,” I tell my mother the next day while studying her black shoes.

“Look at me,” she says, and I do. Her face looks for a moment like stone in the sunlight, something carved and immoveable, but then it softens, the lines in her forehead gone slack, and she says, “Mmhmm. I understand.”

I don’t know what she means, but I’m too scared to ask, so I hug her instead.

 

When my ticket arrives, I run my thumb over it, the coating at once waxy and smooth. And then I see the date: Tuesday, October 13th. What bad luck.

Maria shakes her head at me. “Stamata. You don’t believe that old shit, do you?”

I say no, of course not, but just in case, I plan to pack one of the evil-eye charms.

 

You’d think I was moving to the moon. But around here leaving town for three days means eighteen people show up for a goodbye dinner. Of course there are snails and the other usual plates—spanakopita and moussaka and horta­—but when my mother comes out of the kitchen into the warm night with a skillet of bubbling saganaki in her hands, I let out a squeal.

“Is not fondue but maybe is close,” she says.“ Fondue, Greek-style!” Everyone laughs at this—even Maria who is caught in a shadow from the house, her smile the only part of her face I can see. I wonder how much of this show has to do with Maria. Are they worried she’ll change me? That we’ll get out of the village together and never look back?

The next morning, my mother and yia-yia and enough cousins to start Greece’s second futbol team walk Maria and me to the bus stop; the bus, of course, was late. It should be loud, but the silence of waiting is on us, and when I hear the bus rumble into existence, I’m on my feet. My pulse throbs in my ears—some excitement—and as it pulls in, my yia-yia tugs at my hand, forces me to face her. The top of her head reaches my chin, a perfect fit for a hug, and I step toward her to do that when she stops me. She bows her head, and with quaking hands removes her chain and crucifix from her neck and lets it fall limp like rope into my palm. I try to refuse but she says, “Take, take. For protection.” And I know I’m only leaving for three days but here I am, crying like I’ve sprung a leak when I get on the bus to Heraklion.

The ride there is what I’m used to: squares of dry land, knotty olive trees, and sloping mountainsides punctuated with white monasteries so high up the buildings look impossible. I know we’re pulling into Heraklion when the traffic tightens—so many people, and not one inch of land seems unoccupied by business. Every corner is held down by kiosks and sweaty men guarding their cigarettes and newspapers and rainbow wrappers. But I never expected palm trees, the long cable of them flanking the road as if to say, “Yes, we are a great place to vacation.”

We don’t have to fetch bags from the bus’s belly, our backpacks small enough to stay with us, so we are first in the queue for a taxi. The ride to the airport runs us along the sea, the old Venetian fort surrounded by boats, some for fishing, others for sailing, and I am surprised when I look the other way and see we are next to a stone wall I can’t see the top of, nearly every bit of it covered in graffiti.

“How can they do this?” I ask Maria. “It’s so pretty and then they destroy it with paint.”

Maria opens her mouth, but shuts it again without speaking and pats me on the head.

 

The airport is an exercise in lines, and each of them looks identical. Maria’s a professional—she knows every right move—and mostly kind about my stupidity, though she barks at me to pay attention a couple of times. In line, I can’t look away from the guards, one man in particular, his mustache thick as his brow, all of it bent in disapproval. When it is my turn to walk through the metal detector, I must move too slow because he claps and yells, “Come on, come on, little girl!” An airplane seems against nature to me, like an oversized and dangerous toy, but I’ll be thrilled to get out of the airport, to cast off the crowds and guards and confusion.

On the plane, Maria sleeps with her mouth open before we are in the air. With my right hand I squeeze tight the armrest and with the left I shuffle my thumb over the painted, glass eye in my pocket every time there is a bump, a shift, a noise. I wish I could sleep, but my body feels heavy with motion, as though I am being held against my seat by a giant, invisible hand. By the time we land at Charles de Gaulle, I feel like I am swimming through the world. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as thankful for anyone as I am for Maria in the airport; it is worse than Heraklion, a bigger maze of people and geometry and no clear exits.

Our tickets give us three days and Bordeaux is close, Maria says maybe three hours by train, so even though it’s late afternoon, we squeeze onto the Metro and get off in a neighborhood called Saint-Germain where we sit at Les Deux Magots. My heart is thick with beats, everything around us is noise and busy and just so fast that it startles me over and over. Maria starts naming artists who once sat here, too: Picasso. Léger. She’s onto something she calls The Surrealists when I forget for a moment my pulse and am reminded of the Louvre. I mention this and Maria looks as though I have tossed my espresso in her face.

“Why not?” I ask, and Maria is quiet, though the café is so loud that it doesn’t translate as much of anything.

“Look: you help me to leave the village,” I say. “Something I might never do. Now let me help you find The Bather.” I crush the brown lump of sugar on my saucer with the back of my thumbnail. Looking at Maria, I worry for a moment that I’ve upset her, my guide to this strange city, but she lets go of a smile, curls one side of her mouth like my yia-yia does, and says, “When we get back from Bordeaux, if there is time, yes. We can go. For now, let’s go see the Tower they all talk so much about.” I know that she doesn’t mean for us to step into the museum. In an hour, we’re on our way to Bordeaux.

 

The further we get from Paris, the better I feel, and by the time we are pulling into Bordeaux, so many trees and vineyards and stone buildings later, I am something like my old self. Jean meets us at the train station, and I am relieved to see that he looks less like he is on safari. Kisses on both cheeks and into his car we go deeper into the country, the sky burned pink and orange, the land so green—such a brighter green than in Crete—that I can’t look away from the fields that fly by. Jean asks how I liked Paris, and I tell him it was too loud, which makes him laugh and say, “You will do well in Bordeaux.”

I guess it was the serious business card that made me anticipate something looming, a cold monster of a building, but we arrive at an aged, two-story house that is triple the size of my own. Behind it sits a clean, one-story building with an orange roof that I assume is an office, but around us are nothing but rows: long, wide rows filled tall and leafy, each of those overgrown segments outlined by thinner bands of upturned earth. As far as I can see, the landscape alternates green and brown. In front of the office, a field of the brightest grass I’ve seen, every inch of it cut so precisely it looks something like surgery. Stepping out of the car, I am slapped with quiet.

“What do you think of our snail farm?” Jean asks and waves one arm at the rows.

I smile but say nothing. I hadn’t realized we were on one.

In the house, we find Jacques wearing a red apron and cooking—you guessed it—snails. He’s out of his suit and in jeans, the hems spotted with dirt, and it almost makes me laugh to see a man cooking in an apron like a lady, but I am careful not to insult.

Jean clicks on music, and we sit for drinks at a long white table right outside of the kitchen. It turns out the French don’t top their wine with Coca-Cola. I’m sure lots of people think it’s better that way but for me it is too strong, bitter, so I sip slowly and look around. From the outside, the house looked old, a worn stone face with wooden shutters for eyes, the paint peeling back and flaking off, but inside everything is new, shiny. The counter in the middle of the room where Jacques stands looks to be marble, and I can’t stop staring at the refrigerator, a silver whale that takes up most of one wall.

“Okay!” Jacques says and places a dish of snails before us on the table. “These are French-style, not Greek, but I think you will be able to taste the quality. Meet Helix Pomatia, a different breed than what you are used to. Of course we raise your Aspersa, too. Bon Appetit.

I didn’t know there were other breeds or the fancy name for ours, and that missing knowledge makes me feel dumb as a bird. I reach for one and putting it on my plate notice all the differences: their shells are twice the size of ours, the stripes almost red, so rich they look drawn on. Stuffed into the opening is a swamp of green, and I can’t see the snail at all. My confusion must look obvious because Jacques says, “Parsley and butter—the Bourguignonne way.” I don’t know how to use the shrunken fork before me—we bend one leg of our normal forks to work for us—so I wait to see someone else do it first and am surprised when it’s Maria. But the thing I notice most is the tightness returned to my chest and the clear voice inside of me wishing for hate. I want so badly to hate this beautiful, French snail, though I’m not sure why. But damn it if it isn’t—I won’t say the best—but it’s really, really, really good.

Jean and Jacques are good hosts—they fill our glasses, offer us cigarettes and more food—and this is the most I’ve seen Maria smile maybe ever. Some warbled French song comes on, one that sounds like Greek rembetika, those old blues songs from the war, and Maria stands and sings and twitches her finger along her throat to make her voice uneven. The guys gasp with laughter, and I’m watching her—I think I’m smiling—in awe of her knowing French, but Maria says, “What? You don’t like Edith Piaf?” She clearly has slipped into her travel self, a person who isn’t judged by the smallness of the village or her lack of children. Here, she is a woman who knows things.

For hours we eat and trade stories, though I am careful when the topic of Artemidoros comes up, not wanting to divulge too much of our secrets. The three of them talk and talk and mostly, I run my fingernail in the grooves of the white table and wonder why anyone would paint a piece of wood. After we are stuffed with breads and cheeses and those delicious snails, Maria and I are led to our separate bedrooms—they have enough space to give us each our own, and Jean says, “Tomorrow we will take the big tour. Rest well.” But for a long while, I lie there on top of the covers listening to the creaks and burps of this big house, wondering what Maria thinks about a bedroom that’s bigger than her whole flat.

 

By daylight, the kitchen is almost too bright to look at—everywhere white and silver bouncing the sun back at me. Someone has laid out breakfast—bread, jam, yogurt, and sliced apples—but no one is there, so I touch nothing. When Jean comes in with Jacques trailing, they both have on jeans and long-sleeved shirts and hats, outfits that say cowboy.

Mange, mange,” Jacques says and shoves a long loaf of bread at me. I picture my yia-yia giving me bread to soak up the olive oil her eggs swim in, and thinking of her reminds me to be polite but clever on the tour.

It’s a perfect day: 13 °C, cloudless and blue and open as a flower. Jean and Jacques walk on either side of me, Maria trailing, and I wish she would catch up so I can pass some of the attention to her. Last night the men were easy, but now they are business, their backs stiff as rakes. At first I find it difficult to make like I care, nods and polite ahhhhs seeming like the only ways to show this, but they are clearly good at what they do. Sometimes it’s like one is searching for a word and the other plucks it from the air for him. Jean says, “The thing about our fences is they protect from…” and he looks to the sky while Jacques says, “Birds, toads, snakes—everything. They are predator-proof.” I think of my crates at home, the twelve of them clogging our backyard and the birds that spy when I am cleaning. They talk of their fences for much of the walk, and I try to picture our land looking like theirs: fences over a meter tall making the neat, neat rows. I’d barely be able to see my yia-yia’s head above it all.

Jacques talks for a long time about the plants they use—much of it boring since I don’t know all the words—but my ears burn at the words “self-feeding.”

“They fatten themselves! I spend a week just feeding them pasta!” I say and instantly regret it. Only wine and children are supposed to tell the truth.

“Pasta is the old way,” Jacques says, and he claps my back. “Think of all the time you’ll have.” My head feels light when he says this. I try to imagine what I would do with so much free time but find my basket of ideas is empty as the sky.

This is the big point they circle back to again and again: cuts labor by two-thirds. They must say this fifteen times, and the more they say it, the more I like it. I have trouble holding the rest of it, the names of so many plants and the materials things are made of. I try to memorize as we walk—chicory and beet and cole, non-toxic polyethylene and PVC—but when Jean says 400 hours, those other words fall from my mind and I interrupt him.

“400 hours for what?” I ask.

“For plant activation,” he says. “It takes work to get it all started, but if you’re working an eight-hour day now, 400 hours is less than two months. It’s not so much for the reward.”

“It is worth the cost,” Jacques says, and I realize that they haven’t mentioned money yet.

I stop walking and ask, “How much?” Maria is no longer in sight, and I’m not sure when we lost her.

“Well,” Jean says, “different things cost different. The external enclosure materials can be from 12,500 to 16,000 francs, the internal quite a bit more—almost 33,000 francs. Then there is disinfestation materials—”

“How much total?” I ask. “In drachmas.”

“We looked into this before you came,” Jean says. “The cost would average around half a million in drachmas, give or take a bit,” and I imagine trying to tell my mother and yia-yia that anything is worth so much. I’ve seen my yia-yia laugh only once when a neighborhood cat got its head stuck in a box. This would bring the second time. And then I remember that mostly I’m there for the free trip, and the fist holding my chest loosens.

“I will have to think about it,” I say.

“Of course, of course,” Jacques says and lights a cigarette. “This is a big decision, a bigger commitment.” And the three of us stand there in silence for a while, so I study the row in front of us, the snails hidden at first behind the leaves, then dozens visible at once, as though I simply had to focus to see them.

“Let’s get you a contract just in case,” Jean says.

The office is cleaner than anyplace I’ve been—like what a hospital looks like on television. Handing it to me, he suggests I have my lawyer look at it before signing, and I let loose the laugh I’ve been keeping in for two days. Sure, I think. I’ll call my lawyer right away.

Back at the house, Maria has her head in a book and her hand on a coffee, feet tossed up on the sofa. “I hope you don’t mind,” she says when we come in, and they say that of course they don’t and head right for the kitchen to prepare more food. I don’t move for some reason, not really sure where to put myself, and I can’t stop looking at Maria, at her comfort, my whole body some how caught on her ease. She tilts her head, her puzzled look, but says nothing.

“Make yourself at home, Apollonia,” Jean says from the kitchen, but I keep standing there like I’m rooted.

“You’re strange,” she says and drops her eyes back to her book.

 

Later, as we’re walking to Jean’s car to return to the train, I ask for a moment to look again at the fences, and with money in his eyes, Jean says yes, so I walk out deep into the farm and bend at the waist every few meters to see what’s living in there. Over and over I find the wrong ones, and I start to doubt what I’ve been told, but then I see them, so many of them: our snails. Leaning my face toward the fence, I take a deep breath and my head fills with nothing but the plants—not even a little stink on these snails. On the tips of my toes, I reach into the pen and rest my palm on a wide leaf and wait. One is eyeing me, I can see that, and it starts to work its way onto my finger, the pulse of its muscular body like a large cat tongue that warms and scratches as it moves. I raise it to my face, its eyes moving quickly as though maybe it’s afraid, so I say, “Shhhhh.” You wouldn’t believe it: the brown shell spotted with yellow half moons, the stripes a perfect clockwise spiral, his body light green as spring, dotted with the smallest drops of white. A real beauty. I can’t wait to hear it, but when I raise it to my ear and listen for its secret, there is nothing. I don’t know how long I’m there, but it’s plenty. I wait and wait and silence: a quiet I feel in my bones.

I start to head back to the car but stop. No. This can’t be it, and all at once my Name Day feels like yesterday so I drop to my knees. The earth that separates the rows is soft, and I hesitate for a second before falling forward and spreading my fingers in the cool, smooth dirt. Closing my eyes, I hear nothing, but I tell myself I will kneel there until these damned snails talk to me, so I stay, the dampness of the earth seeping through my jeans, my knees growing cold, my yia-yia’s cross swinging from my neck like it’s keeping time against my chin, and I listen and listen and not a single sound until the car horn beeps and Maria yells, “Ella! Do you want to stay here or go home?”

 

Five hours before our flight and we are back at Les Deux Magots like it’s the only café in Paris, and my head feels heavy, full of the sound of the city and my yia-yia and my mother and my old vegetable crates and miles and miles of silent snail pens. I haven’t said much because I can’t think clearly, so when the waiter comes by I am surprised when Maria asks him how far the Louvre is. Turns out, it’s fifteen minutes.

Maria is happy that the pyramid entrance is finally finished—it had been under construction when she was here before—but mostly, this time, she knows the name of the piece, so our mission is clear: ask someone, look at The Bather, back to Charles de Gaulle. The line is long, so we have time to talk, though neither of us says much for most of it.

Finally, I ask, “Are you excited?” It’s starting to spit a little outside, and the tiny drops get caught in her curls.

“Of course I am,” she says, but she does not look at me.

Once inside, the sweat comes; in the warmth we shave off our jackets and get in a new line. The woman at the desk tries to send us to a painting called Bather, but Maria is firm and we get our directions to the Richelieu wing, which is so close to where we are that both of us laugh.

I’m not sure why we split up because I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but this is Maria’s plan. I hear her words: Big as David, loose parted hair, her foot held out, but I am shocked by how many of the statues stick out one foot—how many are actually bathing. I read their names: Diana, naked and gripping a washcloth, stands hunched, her weight so firmly planted on both feet that I know she is not the one. Venus towers at nearly two meters—a piece actually called Bather that at first gives me the eureka—but then I notice her hair, the braids pilled on her head without part. It cannot be her. I spin in and out of the rooms finding nothing that seems right, so when a woman wearing a name tag walks by, I ask and she says, “Oh, yes,” and takes me right to it: stuffed in a case with half a dozen other pieces, the whole beautiful woman, her shoulders round, eyes turned down, the sneakiest smile. I don’t know many things about sculpture, but she is somehow perfect. And she is not even one meter tall.

Right there in front of so many tourists sneaking pictures I begin to cry. At first, I can’t take my eyes from The Bather, from the disappointing size of her, but then I can’t stand to look at her anymore either, so I back out of the room, take a seat in the courtyard at the feet of Diana, and remove the contract from my backpack. At the top, to Jean and Jacques I write, Yes. Let’s make the work less, and I flip to the last page and sign my long last name on the firm, black line. When I finish, I fold it square, shove it into my pocket, and take a deep breath, feel the muscles in my shoulders stiffen before releasing. I know what my family thinks about change, but I am not like them. I am thinking this, twisting it over in my head, when I look at the description of Diana, not trying to learn so much as needing to focus on something, and there I see in parenthesis the forgotten word that makes me choke: Artemis.

When Maria finds me, I am still sitting there, eyes burning, one hand in my pocket, my palm sweating onto the contract.

“Well, this is official,” Maria says. “I have looked in every room. She must be in private collection. It is less like a failure now, knowing that I didn’t miss it last time.” If she notices I’m not okay, she doesn’t let on. Maybe it’s because I’m on the ground, maybe, but she looks tall, her head somehow higher than before, a posture I’ve never known her to have. She seems almost sunny, and I don’t have it in me to tell her the cutting truth: that her dream is so close, just a room away, nothing like what she wants, small enough to stuff into my backpack.

Instead, I tell her I’m sorry, but hey, at least I found a Bather of my own, and I crumple the contract in my pocket before pulling my hand from my jeans to run it along Artemis’ ancient foot.

Random Sample
by Alan Sincic

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

So not but a week after the funeral and this thing, this crazy thing that happens. I’m trekking through Midtown – no temp job that day – past CBS Headquarters. You know, Black Rock. You’ve seen the pictures: black as a burnt marshmallow, thirty-eight floors of granite, kind of a cross between the Tower of Sauron and that mystery slab of interplanetary licorice got the chimps so ginned up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s lunch-break at high tide, crowd so thick it tumbles out across the intersection, not in a cascade like spilled rice, but chockablock, in chunks, as if calved off a glacier where it meets the sea. Two years in the city but only now am I beginning to realize that I am not Paganini’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, the lost Rembrandt, the Flambeau a l’Orange garnished with Spears of Cilantro and imported hand-whipped Tangelo Topping. I am not a novel. No. I am a punctuation mark, a bubble, a blip in a crystalline grid. I try to sling the backpack off my shoulder but I’m pinned at the elbows and swept along, pushed up the curb and into that fresh boil of people pouring out the building. Somewhere down here beneath my (bobbing-along-with-the-other-heads) head, down below this sea of shoulders rocking back and forth in the sun, the bottom half of my body surrenders to the tide.

Say you take the state of Texas, shake the cattle loose, and then fold it in half. Then in half again, then again and again however many times till you get all those millions of people stacked up on top of one another –you know, vertically integrated, some billion bullion cubes all pounded down into a hunk of rock you plop, drop into the middle of this river where it meets the sea. That’s Manhattan. A modernified version of the Lone Star State with all the wilderness sucked out of the equation – all them buffalo and jackalope and armadillo sledge-hammered down into a slab of spam, all them cow-pokes and strip clubs and alfalfa silos sucked up into a teaspoon of subatomic niblets, like on the surface of a neutron star. Bracing. Breath-taking. And – since you can pack, per square inch, more tuna into a tin than you can into an ocean – the height of efficiency.

Cowabunga, right? Unless you happen to be the tuna. A fat guy in a pinstripe suit – you know, all buttoned up like a Christmas ham – stops to hail a cab, rocks backward, body-checks me into a pretzel stand. Flash of perfume as I rebound again, as I bump another soft-as-a-blossom secretary, impale myself on the heels she carries to wear at the office, rebound back into the billion-legged crush.

I trip over a cardboard suitcase looped shut with a belt, bumper past the kid on guard above it. Skinny kid, Nigerian or Haitian, slipped like a coat hanger into some kind of skid row polyester Zoot Suit. Bare ankles, beat-up old Oxford Wingtips, packing twine for laces. Smells like a bouquet of wet cardboard. He climbs up onto a fire hydrant to hawk his wares. A head taller than the crowd now, he whips his hands up into the air as if to stir it.

“Um-brel-lah, um-brel-lah, two dollah, two dollah…”

It starts to rain.

“… um-brel-lah, three dollah, three dollah, um-brel-lah…”

I can’t seem to unstick myself from the shoulders of the people around me. Wildebeest stampeding up a riverbank, that’s what we are — I think as I break stride, as I fall back a step — meals on wheels. And that’s when the guy with the clipboard hooks me by the sleeve. You’ve seen the documentary. It’s always the infant, the aged, the injured the croc strikes first. Says he’s got tickets to a show — focus group screening, CBS sitcom, invitation only.

Invitation? For me? Population of a whole village flits by in the second it takes me to scratch my nose. The earth skids on another thousand miles through the black. The odds are astronomical. That I should be the one grain of pollen plucked out of this avalanche and held aloft for all to see, that I should find myself a member of that most exclusive of all clubs, the Random Sample?

“Got your ticket right here.” He tilts the clipboard to show me the goods, slides his thumb back and forth across the CBS logo pressed into the linen bond. “Free.”

The rest of the group he’s already assembled, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème who follow him out the crowd and into this alley, this cut-out between the skyscrapers. Grammy and Pops in the lead, knuckles all a-tremble as they toddle up the curb, as they clack-clack-clack together like a set of salt and pepper shakers; behind them, this Mommy/Baby combo with a hand-woven sling, all cinnamon-twisty-ed together into a tight little pastry; then ground zero, yours truly; then this big block of a guy in work boots and blue khakis, followed by a batch of chub-a-tubby middle-agers, snapped and clipped and velcroed together into swatches and sweats and elasticized fanny packs that vibrate when they walk, then the rearguard, the typical city fare — potpourri of tourists in sunhats and shades and lemon-yellow sneakers, all gaping up at that crust of sky between the rooftops as if Jesus himself were about to jump.

We gather in the shade of the tower.

“Watch your step,” says Clippy, and then: “Oh.” Everybody stops. He glances down at the torn leather jacket slung over my shoulder. “And don’t forget to leave the motorcycle behind.” This gets a laugh.

“I don’t have a motorcycle,” I say.

“Looks like helmet hair to me.” He reconnoiters the fizz, the frozen explosion up over my ears. “My mistake.”

“Bomber jacket,” I say.

“Fifth Avenue. That’s where we park the bombers.”

The group laughs – no. Strike that. Explodes. Brick through a bay window, laugh inside of the center of which I stand. I smile. Clippy pirouettes slowly inside this stir that he’s created, pushes open the wrought iron gate, ushers us inside. I smile. I picture those teddy bear mascots truckers decorate their rigs with. I picture Clippy stripped to his skivvies, bungee-corded to the grill, crispy-crittered right up to his little button eyes with insects and tar bits and random flecks of roadkill. I smile.

As we shuffle down the walk, one of the tourists, lady with dogs on her shirt, friendlies up to me.

“Are you from around hee-er?” The dogs are purebreds, all the top flavors and not cartoon dogs either, but serious, intent, like the presidents on the dollar bills. “You look like you’re from around hee-er.”

Mee-chigan’s where she’s from, land of the squashed e. Into my eyes is where she looks but I look down at the bulldog on her collar, at Winston Churchill there glaring back at me. President Churchill.

“Well, yes. I mean…” I spend so much time alone now I tend to fumble the small talk. Note to self: stop leaving notes to self. “I mean, no.”

“No? Not from hee-er?”

Not the same here, her here and my here. In China they sing-song ten different meanings from out the very same word. It’s all in the pitch. And you gotta warm up first. And God help the tone deaf. The roast shoe. I will have the roast shoe.

“What I mean is, not exactly here.”

“But around hee-er?”

She’s thinking up the hill over yonder by the Mill Pond. At twelve hundred bucks a square foot I’m thinking, just the imprint of my shoelace hee-er would set me back a month’s pay. “No not here, but from the city, sure. Upper West Side.”

“Oh.” She cocks her head to one side and smiles up at me. Too old to flirt now – you know, the big eyes, the head toss, the tumble hair that girls deploy to win the hearts of men – but not too old to work the smile, to squeeze out that last little drop of charm.

“Step it up now,” says Clippy as he unlocks another gate and then plunges us, one by one, through a big brass revolving door and into an empty lobby. Strike that. Lobby filled with air. Black arches booming up and – as in a cathedral – out across the cavern to meet the black granite girders overhead.

“The West Side… ?” She smiles and glances up at the ribs of steel that hold the skylights in place, the chunks of cloud that go skidding by. “The West Side. Which way is that?”

“The Upper West Side.” I lift my hand into the pointing position. Tough to find a landmark when you’ve got no land to mark. We could be in Uruguay for all I know. I turn back to Pedigree, wave in the general direction of the sun. “Up that way. That’s where I live.”

“By yourself?”

“No, no. A bunch of us share – ”

“You look so young.”

Again she smiles. I redden. I open my mouth to say… what? That I don’t look young? That I’ll try, that I should aim to be… what? More older? I smell the sunblock on her cheeks as she steps closer, count the spikes of gray in her hair. Kind of motherly-looking, verging on grandmotherly, but not so bad to look at probably, back in the day, you know, when her skin fit, when gravity was her friend, when the men would all triangulate her position on the xyz coordinates.

“But that’s okay,” she whispers. She pats me on the sleeve – more like an airbrush than a touch – as she glances up into my eyes. “I think it’s sweet.”

Sweet. Sweet is what girls call you when they pinch you between their thumb and forefinger and dust you off into their cappuccino. Sweet is what motherly women call you when they dab at the whiskey stain on your tie and promise to fix you up with somebody intrepid, the magic word that shrinks you down to HO scale so you can be hot glued onto somebody else’s train set.

“Here,” she says. “You could use this.” She’s holding up a discount card, the kind they stick under hotel doorways. “It’s a two-for-one. You get a dozen bagels. For free.”

“H&H.”

“Pardon?”

“Up by me. Best bagels in town.”

“That’s perfect then.”

“But you should – ”

“No-no. We’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“But you could – ”

“No-no. I want you to have it. You and your friends could – here.”

She cups my hand from underneath, pries the fingers open, presses the card into my palm.

“You and your friends – ”

“We’ll have a bagel party. Thanks.”

I pocket the card, try to picture myself with friends. Sweet she calls me. And they say cattle don’t mind being branded? I know you’re supposed to smile when somebody calls you sweet. I get it. I smile. Smile but on the inside I buzz like a beehive whacked with a stick. Back in second grade again is what I am, propped up on a window ledge outside Miss Conner’s room, varnished in sweat, squirming with chiggers, garnished with Cheeto dust and sandspurs and a speckling of gnats, scab on my knee curling up like a radish peel and, head-to-toe, basted with a hand-dipped mélange of mucilage, play dough, asphalt, pine sap, creosote, Kool-Aid, Six-12, sour milk, fig Newton, chalk dust and snot. Miss Conner reaches up to brush the flecks of candy corn from my hair. “You are just the sweetest boy.”

Spoiled for life. Haunted by the notion that there lives in me a sweetness that I am somehow answerable for. I see it in other people all the time. We’ve all of us got the curse. We are each of us convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the sweetest piece of real estate in the universe can be found somewhere – if only we could find it – tucked inside of ourselves. And that would be… where, exactly? Childhood gone and nothing to show for it, youth half spent, the moment here gathered in a sieve. Where did the sweetness go?

There’s a jam-up back at the revolving door. Grandma’s got her tote bag stuck between the curve of the glass and the rubber sleeve of the doorframe.

“Stay put,” says Clippy as he hustles out a side door. The crowd stirs. A pudgy little tourist presses through with the hubby in tow. She bobs up out the chop like a buoy, hefty and plush and orbicular, the both of them in their marshmallowy sneaks and pumpkiny jog-togs like bread on the rise, like bumpers, the Bumper Twins, to clear the way for Grandma.

Grandma tugs at the strap. Still got it hooked to her elbow, yanks like she’s snagged it on a folding lawn chair and not a billion ton monolith. There’s this blocky guy in Bermuda shorts, got his hand wedged in the rubbery flap. Grunts. Grunts again. “Don’t touch the door,” he says, cuts through the din with this splintery voice, raw, brass horn with a blown valve. “Don’t push!” Red’s the word for this guy – buzz cut blonde, Rolex the size of a Mayan sundial, fat calf in a quiver up out of that genuine leather moccasin.

Somebody jolts me from behind. Just get a glimpse as he flashes by. Slim guy. Tall. His T-shirt smells of grilled onions and cold beer. He’s got a face like a broken cookie and a strange little hitch to his walk, as if all those years in the sun had warped him right down to the chassis.

“Stand back! Everybody stand back!” says Red, but the tall guy he slides in there, smooth-like, to unravel Grandma’s elbow. He skates her out the way and then fierce – like you crack a whip – yanks the bag free. Whoa. Grandpa drops the umbrella he’s been pointing with. Tall Guy picks it up, swirls it back together with a twist of his fingers, hands Grandma her bag, Grandpa his umbrella. A cocktail umbrella is what they really need, you know – delicate, like a blossom, like they should be floating in a little thumb-sized outrigger at the bottom of a Mai-Tai.

Something about the height of the dome, the emptiness, the echo of the hubbub unsettles me. I skirt the edges, slip out of sight into gap between the pillars, out between the ribs of the dome and into a little anteroom no bigger than a pantry. I slide up onto a metal stool, the only seat. Just room enough for a window, window sill, radiator box – wood-framed and white-washed, all of it, even the glass even, like a sheet of spilled milk. The paint puckers where the sun hits the glass but on the inside, in the chalky light that stirs the shade, it’s cool.

While the others bustle around I drop the pack and slide the bomber jacket up over my shoulders to drape it there… you know, the sleeves empty, my body the hanger. Then, with my hands on the lapels, I slide down into the hollow of the coat itself, just so, like people when it rains, you know, caught out in the open, they pull the jacket like a cowl up over the head? Anybody sees me I pretend, oh, just shaking off the rain is all.

The seams of the leather, rough where the lining used to be, rake up over my cheekbones and, well, raw would be the word it, this stupid jacket. Portable glory is what Dad called it. V-E Day he swapped a Lugar for it. What the Bombardier wanted was a bona fide (beyond the flack in his thighbone) piece of Kraut memorabilia, whereas Dad – having busted his nuts across the hedgerows of Normandy – wanted something more poetical than a hunk of steel. “Besides,” he said as we waited for the bus to steal me off to college, “if you want to be more than a grunt, if you want the girls to picture you, you know…” – he gestured up at the clouds, openhanded sweep like you brush the flanks of a horse – “… you gotta look the part.” Damn straight. Don’t have to fly to look like a flyer is what he meant, is how he pictured himself. All leathery and buff as he rainbows up over the horizon. But that’s my old man for you. Was my old man. Not so big on words, no. Clapped his arm up over my shoulders and, so as not to embarrass me, looked out to where (and for the same reason) I was looking: the burst of red neon up there on the pillar where the buses converge, the leap of the greyhound up out of the gate. Talk about awkward, but hell. Sometimes just not moving, just standing there where you stand, that’d be an action, right? And then the bus came, and then he hesitated, and then – I could tell it was the impulse of the moment – stripped off his jacket. “Don’t worry,” he said as he tossed it up over my head like a serape. “You’ll grow into it.”

The radiator smells like the underside of a pier. I loosen my grip on the jacket, drop it back over my shoulders.

“Restrooms this way,” says Clippy off to the far side, the group at his heels, clipboard clap-clapping his squidgetty hips in a march up the steps to a little mezzanine.  “Ten minutes.”

I don’t even notice, at first, that the jacket’s fallen, so lost am I in whatever this is that I’m lost inside of, this little patch of darkness I portage around with me. You wouldn’t know trouble if it pooped in your pocket is what he used to say. Talk about a eulogy. Or on the gravestone, yeah. That would’ve gotten him. He would’ve laughed at that. I press my palms up into my face, palms like a parenthesis, wait for the wave to pass. I reach down for the jacket, and now when I stoop I see, up under the ledge there, where the stone window sill lips out over the radiator box, just room enough to slide a hand, this little packet. I reach in, pinch the edges, pull it out into the light: Chocolate bar the size of a shingle, shiny and smooth and slippery-ed up onto the cover of an old magazine—Dungeons and Dragons, Issue 27. “Top Ten Spells” it says. “Killer Moves.” “Dazzle Your Team.” The cover shot’s a big black and red volcano that bubbles over with a molten gold that, as it spills down the flanks, spells out, “Secrets of the Elvin Horde.”

I’m trying to imagine what kind of old ex-cop security guard would stock the bunker with all this Medieval geekery and, at the same time, a slab of Ghirardelli’s 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Intense Dark Chocolate. Pocket handkerchief guy, I’m guessing. Crispy boutonniere. Sings opera in the shower. Shines up his bullets every night with linseed oil and a clean shammy cloth. And treats himself to… now that’s odd. The bar looks intact, but half the chocolate’s gone. The hollow wrapper’s been nicely – primly, that would be the word – slid back into the sleeve. Not a crease or even a dent in the foil, as if the missing half had – like the mysterious hollow you get sometimes in the center of a malted milk ball – simply evaporated out into the universe at large. Almost magical… I think as I liberate the last of the chocolate, ease the foil back into the wrapper and, just as primly, slip the magazine and the wrapper back into their little crevasse… Like an offering to the gods.

Clippy’s voice echoes out from behind the columns as the herd migrates into my territory, the Bumper Twins in the lead. “… And even though, in the pre-war era, it was radio that dominated the airwaves…”

This must be the ceremonial entrance. Outside around the block, on the other side of the building, the CBSer’s – the people who pump out the product – buzz back and forth en mass through an archway the size of an airport hanger. All that bustle. All that fizz, fizz that fills the airwaves from one end of the continent to the other. Empire of the Air is what they call it.

I gather my pack, slide off the stool, and (gingerly, as if on ice) step back onto the flagstone. Here we are in the still center of the empire, the Westminster Abby of the Broadcasting Imperium. I look for the plaques of bronze upon the walls, the urns of all the old guard stashed underfoot, the bones bricked over. You know, splinters from the cross: toenail clippings from Rin-Tin-Tin; Ed Sullivan baked into a flying buttress; Lassie’s ashes and Lucy’s red locks and Edward R. Murrow finally stubbed out, grinded down into an ashcan no bigger than a coffee mug and stuffed like a potato up under the granite pavers.

“… because here at the CBS family of broadcasting affiliates,” says the disembodied voice of Clippy as they go trip-tropping along the rim. “We’ve always looked upon our little slice of the TV dial as a public trust…”

Nothing. Sleek as a silo but for one thing. All by itself under the dome stands a bust on a pedestal. As the shadows strike it, the face – burnt by the years to a darker bronze – falls away. All but the nose. The nose is gleaming. So many people have touched – keep touching – the nose, that that’s the only part that still shines. Poor bastard, nose up there all aglow like a priest with a couple rum toddies under his belt. Guy spends his whole life mapping the Northwest Passage or nailing the Triple-Lutz in the tucked position, and all we get in the end is the tip of the nose, this little nibble, this little chip of light.

Like back in the days of the vacuum tube, when you’d click on the set and ping, out of the darkness would pop – like the blip that set the big bang in motion – this little chunk of punctuation, this white dot that’d flatten out, squish down, shoot off to the left and to the right in a single line, sharp as a laser, to cut the void in half. The screen would hum. You’d lean in. The line would flutter and then – boom – spring open like a Jack-In-The-Box with a whole new universe inside.

“Please don’t touch the artwork,” Clippy calls out from his perch on the stool I’d just abandoned, the group all gathered around him, his voice a perfect blend of melodious nanny and puppy-peed-on-the-carpet-again fatalism. All eyes on me.

“It looks like – ” My thumb’s already there, so I scratch the itch, give the nose a rub.

“Walter Cronkite.”

“That’s it. Cronkite. Walter Cronkite. Wasn’t he – ”

“Thirty thousand tons of granite went into the construction of this dome,” says Clippy as he turns away and swings hippo-like down from the stool, heavy but at the same time precise, as if he were, one step at a time, embossing the pavement with a sign of his passing. The group looks up as he points to the pillars of sunlight overhead, at this majesty to which I have already contributed my 00.00004371 percent. “The support beams and the cladding, both. Granite, all granite.”

He shoulders through the thick brass door that swings out into the booming lobby. The group sweeps in behind him. “Welcome to CBS.”

As they disappear through the doorway, I glance back at the bust, blink and blink again, try to match the face fixed there with that animated flipbook of Cronkite we’ve all assembled from years of viewing. Like a frozen waterfall, that bust.

I hustle up behind Pedigree as we skirt the edge of the lobby – buzzing with traffic, big enough to berth a dirigible – past a big black reception desk, then on to a black marble elevator marked Employees Only.

I squeeze in just as the door closes. Belly to belly. Up into the clouds we go. Clippy tracks the light as it slowly pings across the numbered squares above us. It is his job to will the machine upwards. He tries to turn so it’s my elbow and not my belly-button rub-a-dub-dubbing up against him, but Grammy and Pops, immovable as stalagmites, hold him in check. He looks down. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clippy stops smiling. No sign he’s anything less than thrilled to be inhaling the same air as me, but I can’t help but notice he seems to be strangely fixed, not on me, but on the little shards of Twilight Delight rappelling down the snow-colored slopes of my Kmart Ban-Lon double-knit shirt. The clipboard crackles under the pressure of his thumbs. The papers – rosters, carbons, flyers, maps – all warp up into a fat sandwich in the center of which glints the spine of a glossy magazine, red and gold, color of the Elvin King.

The door opens and he pushes past me. Off we go again, past another black marble desk only this time smaller, as if scaled down – a base camp on Everest – to fit the higher altitude. Clippy’s picking up speed but I stay with him, pin myself to his shoulder, down the corridors, offices, cubicles… broom closets and fuse boxes… air ducts and indentations and architectural punctuation marks that continue to shrink as we wind our way in toward the tower’s center, toward the heart of the realm.

At last… a boardroom. Of a sort. Instead of a table there’s a batch of chairs laid out not in rows, but in a grid, like a marching band at parade rest. If rest is the word for it. The whole place has got that reconstruction-of-a-downed-jetliner feel to it: half the paneling shucked away; raw plasterboard mottled with plumbing specs and blueprints; autographed headshots of the old guard – Perry Como, Snooky Lanson, Tommy Leonardi – pitched (cracked frames and all) up onto a pallet of floor tiles in the corner. I glance up at the two survivors (too high to reach without a ladder) that cap the doorway. Arthur Godfrey strumming a ukulele (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine) and Eydie Gorme (Love ya, Kid) taking her bouffant out for a walk, eyes kicked up to high beam, smile singing out with an equal and infinite love for all that she surveys: me and Clippy and the gang, that T-Square rammed down a tube of old wall-paper samples, that paint can petrified shut, that Post-It flaking off the ceiling fixture, those wires shooting up out the floorboards, webbing out in every direction, thick as a wrist, industrial, juice enough to set a casino ablaze.

“Watch your step now – by next week all of this will be fully computerized, top of the line, IBM, everything.”

Half the group’s already surged around him to grab the bucket-style swivel chairs. Nice touch. Homey. Fake leather padding on a plastic frame, snug but not too comfy, like an airport lounge or the lobby of a Volkswagen dealership. So much for the Tiffany Network. The ambiance here? More Happy Hour at a Scranton bowling alley than, say –given the scale of Paley’s estate – high tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I try to scope out a seat down front, but… where is the screen? Here at the top network in the top city in the – from the Mammoth-bone condo to the Lunar Lander – top of the top country that ever was? Where’s the secret revolving wall activated with a flick of 007’s sterling silver lighter, the geometrically arrayed like-the-eyes-of-an-insect multiple monitors, the itty-bitty Jetson-style personal display pods levitating up out of the floorboards?

“Find a seat quickly please.”

Clippy flips aside a bolt of Vis-Queen to reveal what, at first glance, looks like a chunk of mahogany the size of a steamer trunk. He swivels it around to face us. A box TV, smuggled out the lobby of a Holiday Inn or the living room of some upscale Baltimore dentist, about as flashy as a wheel of government cheese.

Not that I’m disappointed. Hey, Genghis Khan slept in a yurt with a goat nibbling at his toes. Enrico Fermi split the atom in a pilfered squash court. Even Neil Armstrong peed in a diaper on his way to the moon.

I scoot up onto a padded leather bistro stool at the back of the room.

Clippy steps up. “That’s my seat.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

I wait for an explanation. Clippy’s eyes land on this patch of plaster behind me, as if it was a map of Gaul, and he was Caesar, and I was a bucket of horseshoes. But I’m getting good at this now. I pause. I wait… just long enough to make him wonder what the code for Security is… then slide off the stool with a look of love in my eyes.

“If it’ll make you happy.”

There’s a seat up there by Tall Guy and Pedigree’s apple dumpling of a husband. And that’s when I first notice it – what I’ve been trying to tell you about. Out of every armrest of every chair sprouts a white cable with a bud on the top, also white, like the bud of a lily. Clippy tells us that, see, inside that bud’s this button you push. You wrap the bud in your fist as you sit in the chair – one bud for the right hand and one bud for the left. Red button in the left fist, green button in the right. Like this – see? Both hands at the ready, now… thumbs up. I hold my fists out in front of me, as if expecting someone else to do the choosing… one potato, two potato, three potato, four.

“So long as you like the show,” whispers Clippy with a hand on my shoulder, “press the green button. Don’t like? Press the red button.”

“Hold it down or just press it, punch it?”

“Hold it down.”

“The whole time.”

“The whole time you’re liking it.”

“Like, starting when?”

“From when you first start to like it.”

“But then when I… ”

“When you stop liking it, then stop pressing down, see? When you don’t like it, whenever you’re not liking it, press down on the red button.”

“But if I’m not sure… ”

“You decide. Red or green.”

“Absolutely. But – ”

“Let’s begin.”

He clicks on the video. Flint to the fire. Moonrise over Olduvai Gorge. What gang of chimps ever squatted so still as we do now, waiting in the dark for that glow to begin?

Up comes the opening logo, the big CBS eye. You know they ripped that thing off the Shakers? The Eye of God. Tack it up over your barn door to zap the horseflies. Blast the sinners out from under the rocks, scrub down the righteous with bristles of light. That was back in the day when you couldn’t peel an orange without – you, oops, you pop an earlobe off the Blessed Virgin Mary there glaring up at you from out the pulp. The warble of an angel in the crank of a drill. Holy Ghost on a graham cracker. Jesus God Almighty breaching out the smokehouse chimney, thrashing his way upwards, hand over hand, straight up into that pillar of cloud. Dog paddle. Backstroke. Australian crawl. Believe. Show me that you believe. The Eye of God commands it.

I mash down on the green button.

Tall Guy, he doesn’t miss much. Glances over at my fist, back at the screen, back at me again. The others start to look at their fists, back to Clippy, back to me. Am I breaking the rules? Clippy slides from his stool and makes his way down the aisle.

Now when I mash down on the green, am I telling the universe that yes, this one mouthful of air, this one here, tastes good? Thumbs up? My compliments to the chef? But then the next breath. Do I release the button to vote again or do I… what? Say yes to the breath that I’ve yet to take? I look back at the Eye of God. Does it deserve the green button? Has it earned its place in the great, grand, unscramble-able gumbo of life? So it’s not Joey Heatherton in a white string bikini, Brooks Robinson spearing a line drive, no, but compared to the fleck of guacamole embedded in the beard of Mr. Tourist over there, the cracked yellow toenail of Grandma Moses over here, the empty jacket here I navigate from place to place?

The logo evaporates just as Clippy reaches me. The screen’s dark now. Nice touch. Clears the palette. I give it a green. Then the show begins. Lights, music, titles. Everybody gathers up their buttons, both hands at the ready. Balancing a tray of breakables is what they’re doing. Green. Red. Red. Green. What will it be?

Me? Green. The green party. Go green go.

Funny thing. Don’t recall much about the show itself. Not a bad show. Big Irish-American family. Lots of freckles. Big kitchen. Neighbors popping in, popping out. Incredible, the grooming, everybody – not a zit, not a smudge, not the faintest beetling of an unplucked brow. You’d think they had a whole battalion of people just outside the door to dust the crumbs from off of their Dockers, flick the lint from the fringe of their leg-warmers, pump the hair back up to the maximum recommended PSI.

I try to pick up on the plot. Teenage daughter’s got a crush on the Pope. Or something. Hard to keep it all between the crosshairs what with Clippy just over my shoulder, marinating the air with his invisible ions.

I keep thinking about the difference between the room that we’re in and the room that they – the TV people – are in. In their room, everybody’s all chipper and firm. They know exactly what they want and they’re not afraid to say so. Even when they get angry they do it in a cute way, as in Look at me. Am I not making a spectacle of myself, rascal that I am, carving this turkey with a penknife? And all because the (don’t say a word!) Lumberjack 5000 Electra-Glide Poultry Sword you got me for Christmas just (I am so steamed!) electra-glided clean through its own power cable! This is the kind of anger we like to see. Anger with a punch line, anger you can count on. Not like you’re going to come down in the morning to find the furniture all busted up and spaghetti on the ceiling.

But that’s not all. In their room, every time somebody opens his mouth, there’s laughter. Laughter comes vibrating out the pores of the walls of the room itself. It’s like they’re all living on the inside of some giant percussion instrument somebody keeps striking and striking, over and over again, like a gong.

Okay. So tickle it all, right down to the atoms, but – or so they say – you can’t have the laughter without the tears, sunshine without rain, mammals without 3,000 kiloton asteroid impacts at the tail end of the Cretaceous. So I wait. I lean in. I tilt my head but… so far the only sad things that happen are sad in a cute kind of way. Baby turtle gets flushed down the toilet and goes to heaven. Dad buys a tin of shoe polish to hide the bald spot on the top of his head, but it’s a dye. It’s permanent. And it’s cerulean blue, crest of a cockatiel from the rain forests of Brazil. If only he had a hat like the Pope wears! Again the laughter, but surely there must be a sniffle now, say maybe somewhere just under the surface – sliver of dark chocolate, say, just poking out from under the Crème Brule? Say Grandma gets a boyfriend who dumps her for a younger oldster and she – love on the rebound – decides to hit on a younger man: distinguished, hand-carved mahogany cane, full set of dentures, night watchman down at the fish factory. Who turns out to be gay. Or something. And in love with the Pope. Or something. Bittersweet.

But not here, not now, no. Candles on a cake that’ll never be blown out, that’s what these people are, complete opposite of what you get in the movies nowadays, where like a billion bucks they spend to get the costumes all dustied up, to get that old weathered look, to make it look real. They even pay a costumer to wail away at every stitch of clothing – scuff and tear, scratch and pound, bleach and stain and smear to make the shirt sweat, the pants buckle, the shoes crackle with grit. Professionally distressed is what they call it. And all the while us amateurs out here in the seats, we do it all for free – no camera, no script, no score beyond the sound of our own breathing.

Two handed I’m pressing now, green green as I hunker down, elbows on my knees. Labor of love is what it is, is why we do it. Been wailing away at ourselves for decades now, see, shoes and clothes and teeth and hair – even the bones that hold it all together. And not just Ma and Pa Brittle back there, kiln fired down the years into a pair of porcelain miniatures, no, but all of us. Pedigree all rigid from the strain of smiling as she helps the oldsters press the buttons, eyes bright as candy but the skin, when she squints, crimped at the edges like a cellophane wrapper. And the Bumpers as they lean out over the pair to whisper advice – plumping at the edges, ripening into middle age, oozing out the cracks in their Ken and Barbie exer-wear. As the center of the universe, honeypot at the heart of the piñata, I should be the exception but – cuffed up into the coat of a cow (alas, as they say, no longer with us) – I’m not. And neither is Big Red there as he cocks one fist and then the other Rock’em Sock’em Robot style, right-left, right-right-left as he grips the buttons, as he banks like a skier with the poles tucked, as he burns himself red from the inside out.

From the inside, from the outside, every last one of us we’re burning up, quick like a blaze or slow like a smolder, or cold even, cold like rust, or like fruit, when it ripens, ever so slow, as if there were no end to it, ever, as if nothing that ever ripens will ever die. Clippy pretends otherwise, sure – churns down the aisle to take charge, reaches up to brush a hand through a shock of hair that vanished decades ago, but ripe is what he is, ripe as the pinkish out-of-towers slowly melting into the upholstery, ripe as Tall Guy (Bristlecone pine is what he is), scored by the wind to a twist of iron, all askew, ropey scar down the hollowy cheek. Ripe even as the mother there, buoyant as a plum, rubbing at the crease on her brow as if the palm of her hand were an eraser.

My thumb’s beginning to hurt.

“Sir…” It’s a man’s voice. “Sir…” Clippy leans over to insert this wedge of a word, this sir, straight down into the cleft of my cerebrum. “Sir. You can’t just press down on the green.”

“What do you mean I can’t? I’m doing it.”

“That’s not the way it works.”

“I don’t get to do the button, then?”

“The purpose of the button is to judge the show.”

“Then I get to do the button, then.”

“Yes. But the show…”

I half-point, half-shrug in the direction of the show. But no, the show’s… it’s the screen now, the screen that’s empty but… no. Static. It’s filled with static. Ok. Ok. So I’ve been voting for air.

“So…”

“I know how the buttons work,” I say.

“Good.”

“Okay.”

Clippy’s face flickers on and off in the light of the static. His smile never leaves him but he seems frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, something that involves me. They say you face off against a bear in the woods, you should mirror the bear’s behavior. Or something. Or the opposite maybe. Or maybe I’m the bear and he’s the…

He looks down at my right hand, then back up to meet my gaze.

“Okay. So. So now you have to take your finger off of the button.”

I look down. I’m surprised to discover that I am still pressing the green button. He gives me that raised brow, that toothy smile of his, glaze of a cake in a glass counter, polyurethane all the way. Some people, it’s not enough to smack them. You want everybody to smack them. You wake the family, you sent out the invitations, you catapult the signal flares up over the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

“You see what I’m saying,” he says.

I don’t say a word. I hold up my fist, cable trailing, and stir it in a gentle semi-circle, as if I’d just captured a handful of fireflies and were trying to count them by feel alone.

“You can take your finger off,” he says. “Take your finger off of the button.”

“What for?”

“I just said.”

“But I’m judging the show.”

“But you gotta – here.”

He grabs my fist with both hands. I clench it tighter.

“You gotta…” He tries to pry my thumb loose, but I’m a ballplayer. I do push-ups on my fingertips.

“No. Just let me…” Poor Clippy. The people look up. He’s got one hand around my wrist and the other clawing away at the thumb and they’re all thinking… what? Hillbilly manicure? Finger puppet of the damned? He doesn’t even notice the rest of me now, so intent is he on the thumb. And not a one of us – unless you call rhythmic grunting a conversational gambit – uttering a word.

Even the air itself falls silent. The set hums like a tuning fork. A test pattern pops up on the screen: chief in a headdress smack in the crosshairs of some kind of giant rifle scope, all these other targets sprinkled out around him like consolation prizes. I hear the others creaking up out of their seats, a gasp or two, a woman’s voice in the shape of an oh -– but not a word, a real word anywhere, as if the whole thing’s taking place in this gap between the words, the regular words we use to talk about regular things.

Fist in a bowl of cake batter is what it feels like, Clippy’s fat hands clamped around mine, the hinge of the elbow that hooks me up under the chin, barrel of a belly that presses up into the curve of my spine, bends me like a bow, the both of us twisty-tied up into this little hydraulic mambo.

Like Mama always said – it’s the personal touch that counts, right? And not such a bad-looking guy after all, Clippy, when you get him up close, get a good feel – the brawler’s clinch, the sandpaper kiss – for that face of his, the real one I mean, handsome in a balloonish sort of way, like they took the master and packed it up for shipping and what we got now is the batting – not Elvis the whippet but Elvis at the end, you know, spatula-ed up into that white buckskin jumpsuit with the Liberace tassels and the too-late-by-a-decade Beatle cut. Crisco Elvis.

And like Elvis, alas, calling out to the crowd from under that rhythmic kiloton of ballistic gel, Clippy calls out to me as I burrow my way through the folds of his neck, as I acupressure his spleen with the blade of my elbow, chisel my way up under the buttons of his perma-press blazer and into his secret self, the real Clippy, the cat hair stuck to the tie-clip, the bourbon on the breath, the pierced ear that waits, at the end of the day, for the talisman – paper clip? Golf tee? Cameo singlet of Evel Knievel? – to appear. Clippy, oh Clippy, who waddles home to dream… what? A Zeppelin? A sub? A house in a cloud, a house in a tree, an ancient cedar maybe, tall as a tower, high above a bay where the condor wheels and the water breaks?

The set – the whole room now – flickers like a damp cigar. Tall Guy tries to shuck him loose. And still I keep my fingers locked on the green. The wires rip and the chair pitches over, but to me it’s all about the hand. I think of this cheesy King Kong I saw as a kid. Not the one thumping his chest and smacking fighter planes upside the Empire State Building, no, but a poor man’s Kong, bobbed up one Saturday out of that weekly stew of black and white B-movie chillers on Channel 9’s “Theatre X” – The Deadly Shrew, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Hand Of… something. Doom maybe. Crazy flick about a chopped-off hand crawling through a mansion turning doorknobs and playing Mozart on the baby grand and throttling all the houseguests. Awesome pics. Every last one. But Son of Kong is the one I’m talking about. Cheap sets. Goofy special effects. And actors you never heard of even, stars who, as the credits unroll, as their fame evaporates in the California sun, veer off into cigarette commercials and puppet theater and Fresno real estate brokerages. But still. In this movie Kong, he never gets off the island, but you still get the girl in the slinky dress, kind of satinish-white, some kind of haute couture jungle jammies, you know, with the nipple-sharp darts, and Kong’s got a hold of her at the end as the island – I don’t remember why, volcano or something – sinks into the sea. He holds her up in his hand, up over his head as the rest of him disappears under the water. Nothing left now but the giant hand with the pretty girl inside it. Hero comes by in a rowboat to rescue her, but it’s Kong, he’s the hero, the dopey ape. He’s drowning but still, still he manages to save her.

Not that I’m exactly thinking all this in the two-point-five seconds it takes Clippy to jujutsu me over his shoulder and into the drywall, but it’s in there somehow, click-snap, like all at once.

Anyway. That’s how it ends. Ka-boom. Clippy all bulldozed up into a heap at the foot of the TV, me in a tangle of wires between the seats, and Tall Guy standing over us, King of the Hill. He’s ripped the collar clean off of Clippy’s shirt and tossed it back into his face. Spray of papers everywhere as the whole gang – even the oldsters – push through the debris to reach me.

“What the hell – ”

“My God – ”

“He just…”

“What happened?”

“I saw the guy –”

I break in before they get a chance to turn on Clippy. “It was my fault. I called him a name.”

“Don’t touch me” is all that Clippy says. Sits. Just – slick as a newborn – sits there. Puffy. Scratched. Waxy with sweat and, over and over again, and under his breath don’t touch me, don’t touch me as he blinks out at… well, at nothing. At a screenfull of snow.

Tall Guy hauls me up onto my feet, up into that stubble of his, that slab of burnt toast you scrape the cinders off with a knife. “Get your stuff,” is all he says.

I grab my backpack. Gather the jacket, the shreds of the jacket, everything but the swatch of rawhide welded to Clippy’s fist.

“This way,” he says, says he… and I… hey, what can I say? I follow him. Sometimes you need a straight-line kind of guy – shortest route through a triple half-hitch is the blade of a hatchet… packet of C4 in the fishing tackle… Mr. Padlock, meet Mr. Twelve-Gauge. Even the tattoo on his collarbone says it: an imitation of a wound, a single cut in a cross-hatch black but stippled red in the center, bright as a strawberry, as if the wound were still fresh, the knife still zinging through the air.

I’m thinking if somebody stops us we say… what? That man on the floor over there, clipboard all smacked upside his head, shoe sprung loose, spritz of hair stuck to the glowing screen? Never seen him before. But nobody says a word. We’re out the door without a backward glance. And I’m so busy lugging my backpack, lacing my boot, hop-scotching down the hall to even register how we finally got there, inside the cage, rattling down the freight elevator, striking out across the lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk.

Not till we hit the curb do I notice my leg blazing up, my fist clenched, my body cantering from side to side. A sprained ankle. We press on through the crowd. No sign of a posse. The usual pillage: Black Rock booming straight up as the people pour out the base, out from under the black facade, out across the granite steps in every direction at once, like it’s a single thing, like it’s a pepper shaker sprung a leak.

I turn back to say something – Adios, CompadreSemper FiVeni, Vidi, Vici… Something rough, bluff, some little sliver of freeze-dried, whiskey-fied, testoster-ized wit to nail down my credentials as a tough guy, but Tall Guy? Pfft. Gone. Back into the gene pool.

The crowd bulldozes me onward. I feel a tightness in my right forearm, the tendons wrench, the burn like a bootlace in a cinch. I look down at my fist. I step out of the crush and into this niche between the buildings. Tree and a trashcan is all. Vest-pocket park. What do you do when your own body won’t obey you? You pry open the fist with the free hand, crowbar up under the fingers to break the seal. And then I remember the reason for the fist. And then my hand cracks open and there it is, embedded in my palm, lozenge the size of a quarter, smooth as Mentos, not a groove or a hook or a loop to link it to anything other than itself: the green button.

Down through the branches the sunlight splinters, strikes me on the back of the hand. I flip the button, somersault it over and over again between my thumb and my fingers. It’s like a wind that fills a kite, what happens next, the smile that rises up inside me. I picture the batch of us there back in the room again, all of us together again, picture after picture, like when you shake a snow globe and all the flakes that fall, the faces in a flurry, and a flake is what I am, yes, but also and at the same time, the sky through which the flake falls. I shake the sky. I fall through the sky that I shake, and here, and as I fall, inside of these snapshots in a shower, sharp like a slideshow is what they are, helter-skelter like an avalanche, like you chunk a rock at a flock of pigeons and they blast up into the air but, inside of a blink, they get this crazy impulse to order, to compose themselves in flight – sift the avalanche, sort the confetti as it falls.

I see Clippy and me sumo wrestling there in the dark. Tall Guy with a hammer-lock on Clippy’s head, the bone of his shoulder in my face, the three of us all muscled up into this monkey’s knuckle of denim studs and splintered wood and shredded polyester. Elbows. Kneecaps. Baby fat. Gristle. Our breathing all braided together here as if it were a single sound, the single note from out the bigger score, the billions all bubble-wrapped round and round the globe, the millions in the city, the dozen here tumbling by. I see Bumper Hubby as he stretches out a pudgy arm to shield his pudgy wife, see them speckled in a glow of static, see the streak of white across her face where the Ray-Bans end and her cheeks have been – like a pair of Easter eggs dipped in red dye just up to the halfway mark – burnt by the sun. I close my eyes and I see them. Bumper He and Bumper She and that old pastry of a lady beside behind them with her glazed hair and the blown glass eyebrows and the pancakey orange cheeks. Who, I ask, will be true to her? The brittle-as-a-dragonfly fingers and the wilting lily tilt of the neck but there – still burning there, and bright as the day she kissed her first boyfriend – the pepper-red of the lips? That would be me. I will be true. True. And true to Pedigree with her bobbed hair dyed and sprayed a color not seen in nature – sunset on Mars maybe, halo slowly hardening to a helmet –Pedigree who wonders if the Geiger Counter still clicks when she walks by, if the men still burn to her touch. Yes I say to her, and yes I say to the bent hands reaching out to pull me up into the light, yes to the heave and the shudder of the body below, to Tall Guy, to Red-face, to Clippy in all his secret glory, to the out-of-towner crew with the fluorescent culottes and tote bags and fanny packs blown as if at random into a single bouquet, to the mother with the Gerber Peach Puree stippled up the front of her cotton shirt, gold on black in a tiny arc, like the hash marks on the face of a clock and yes, yes, even yes to the baby she holds in the sling, the baby who – as fiercely as I grip the green button – grips the cloth that binds him, and squirms in his cocoon and, with open mouth but not a sound, sweeps it all, and all of us with it, into his widening eyes.

Theories
by B. Boyer-White

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I have a mouthful of hot tea when it hits. A boom in the walls like a wrecking ball blow, then a whole series of them, pounding. Nothing breaks but the windows snake-rattle in their frames.

You flip to a new page of your magazine and say, “She must bowl in her hallway and get a lot of strikes.”

“No,” I cough. I swallowed weird and huffed a vapor of Earl Gray. “She dresses in a suit of armor and drills Stop, Drop, Roll.”

You laugh and run a hand over my ankle, down my foot that rests next to your butt on the couch, and I’m about to reach for you, too, but then the ceiling shrieks like it’s being raked and instead I spill tea on my shirt.

The building is from the 1930s, downright historic by California standards, with the original molding and hardwood floors but with updated appliances and plumbing. The right kinds of aged charm. Still, boards creak under our feet and knobs stick. The sliding closet doors are arthritic and protesting, a thing we could ignore when ours were the only ones screeching.

Then, a month after I moved in with you, she moved in. The upstairs neighbor. What is she possibly doing up there? we ask each other. The crashing over our heads is incessant. The thumping along the walls, excessive. She doesn’t open and close the closet doors; she tortures them like she’s The Inquisition. How is she so, so noisy?

We propose theories. We say things like, she must hold karate classes for tap dancers. Or, she has a stiletto pogo stick.

 

She wears a pirate costume and can’t get the hang of the peg leg.

 

I moved in with you after my job disappeared, abandoning my own apartment so I could save on rent while I looked for work. The hunt could take a little time, we both acknowledged, smoothing our optimism with healthy, adult realism. The economy is bad, the markets have crashed, a recession has hit—all just different declarations of why normal things are suddenly so difficult, or so gone.

It was a kind thing for you to do, taking me in, but also selfish, we say. You want me here; we are ferociously in love; you don’t even have to leave your place for sex; we would have done this anyway, sooner or later. So what if it’s sooner?

So what if this was the reason?

So what?

 

She juices shell-on coconuts for her all-smoothie diet.

 

Upstairs is young, more so than you and me but not by much. She could be a student at the university but she’s no bubbly sorority girl. I gasped the first time I actually saw her, through our kitchen window, hefting trash bags to the alley. “I think she’s a hunchback!”

You all but ran over. She’s never in the common entranceway we share with the three other units in the building, where the bank of four mailboxes open in the wall with four little keys. She never wanders in circles over the grass out back, talking on her cellphone in the purply twilight the way we do when one of our mothers calls.

We saw I was wrong when she reappeared sans bags, lurching but smooth-shouldered. There’s just something slothy about her, with a twisting, bent quality. She won’t pick up her feet to take proper steps and instead drags them like she’s wearing flip-flops even when she isn’t.

Still, our only sightings are like that first one: through the window, when she carries her huge bags to the alley where the cans are. The bags are stuffed so oddly full for one person. We’re curious, but, when we see them in the cans while taking out our own trash, we’re too skeeved to open them and find out what’s inside.

 

She’s a dominatrix and her whip has bad aim.

Every day that you work, I cook dinner, even though we’re supposed to take turns, the way we still do take turns buying groceries though it’s always you who actually buys them, saying, “Rainy day,” as you fold your hand over my wallet. You’re tired when you come home from the clinic. Your scrubs smell like the nursing procedures you’ve performed all day so although I know you’ve washed your hands so many times your knuckles have chapped, I urge you into the shower because I can’t believe you’re not covered in the essence of conditions whose pictures make me snap shut my laptop when I pull them up on Web MD. So dinner will be ready faster if I make it, because for now, while my master’s degree sits in a shiny frame at the bottom of a hastily packed box of some-of-my-other crap, I’ve got the time to watch a pot of water come to boil. Just for now.

While we eat you ask what I applied to that day and I tell you, explaining why I think I’m qualified, and when you agree it isn’t patronizing, it’s sincere. I let you do the dishes because this house is a democracy, and then we take a walk, another part of our newish routine of Living Together. The trees hang low and shadowed in the evening, tropical species not native but thriving in our California dreamin’ weather, and for some reason I find the whole atmosphere sexual—the trees rudely crevassed and swollen, their leaf-blood smells perversely thick and rich. Or maybe it’s just you walking next to me, holding my hand. I want to shove you against the nearest trunk and press my palms into the clammy cool bark on either side of your face to feel the contrast, since your mouth will be hot, I know.

But we just swing arms and talk, intuiting which streets the other would like to turn down. Half the houses we pass are empty and silent like something underwater. Apparently we’re under siege by a “housing crisis,” but there’s no shortage of houses; we pass them everywhere, vacant and ready. It’s just that the people who need them are no longer allowed to live in them.

Hard times, everyone at the top says. Lean times, end times. Times to test our mettle. They throw theories out like sneezes and I wake up in the morning and eat your cereal and drive, wearing an honest-to-goodness outfit, to fill out job applications in coffee shops so I have somewhere to go, too.

The houses that still have people inside are warm-vibed and aglow with lamps. I’ve already admitted that I like looking into the windows. I like seeing the living rooms and dining rooms arranged, their furniture more modern and sterile or overstuffed and grandmotherly than I can comprehend wanting.

“Does it make me creepy?” I ask, my face turned toward the glass between my life and a stranger’s like they’re a museum exhibit.

“Totally. Creepy McCreeperson.”

If I find a face looking back from a dining chair or recliner, I turn my head away quickly. If I can’t see you then you can’t see me. I wasn’t looking. I was never even here.

 

She runs a bootleg mini golf course up there. The moats explain the water stains on our ceiling, too.

 

I practice answering job interview questions in the shower so I’ll be ready when the call comes.

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

My position was dissolved when the organization lost its funding. Ninety percent of the staff was let go.

That’s unfortunate. And what was the nature of the work you did?

We were a nonprofit who worked, broadly, in community aid. I was a coordinator for our job services department.

Could you elaborate?

Absolutely. I acted as a liaison between employers and agencies, and connected the people we served with them, finding the right fit for individuals who were having a difficult time securing employment due to their experience and situation—so the economically vulnerable, single parents, veterans, people with criminal records, or just people who had been laid off, hilariously. I’m sorry. Not “hilariously.” It’s just funny, but not “ha ha” funny. I just mean it’s ironic, that I used to help people find employment and now I can’t find any. Not because I’m not qualified, of course. It’s just a hard market. Really, I’m a valuable asset. Sorry, I don’t think I’m expressing myself well. Did I use “ironic” correctly, just now?

I don’t think so.

Can I try this again, please?

Sure, but you get one chance to make a first impression, and you just burned it.

I know. Fuck.

 

She has a clumsy poltergeist.

 

The sound is part clatter, part high-pitched whine. Eyes to the ceiling, you propose, “Let’s have really loud sex to get back at her.”

“Okay. We’ll get a headboard with huge pillars made of organ pipes. Put the keyboard under the mattress.”

“Please, you’re loud enough as it is. You, Miss, holler like a cat.”

“You wish.”

“Have you had sex with you? I can’t believe I’m not deaf.”

Just to prove you wrong I tackle you and initiate a round. I prove myself wrong. I pound my fist against the wall a few times to punctuate my oh gods to prove how very wrong.

Why don’t we say anything to Upstairs, ever? Poke the offending ceiling with a broom handle? Chuck a tennis ball against it the way we learned in college dormitories to give a warning knock? We could go to her door and politely ask if she’s aware that people live beneath her, and that sound is a thing that travels? Leave a note, like chicken shits. But we never do. Even if we were, finally, to come face-to-face with her on the front walk or at the mailboxes, we would say nothing.

Because she is young and alone and clueless. Because she is possibly sad and definitely weird. Her weaknesses are also her defense; the same reasons we hate her make us love her, in that humane, Thy-Neighbor-Golden-Rule way. Agape, like my Renaissance humanities professor drilled us on years ago—the Latin for love based on charity. Far superior to cupiditās, base and carnal love, the kind you and I splatter the sheets with. I can smell it on my hands, on my upper lip, as I move around the house an hour after you’ve left for work, before I do the thing I don’t want to and wash us off.

I wonder if she can hear us? I think we’re considerate but maybe we forget ourselves and let shampoo bottles fall in the shower, get too many ringing phone calls, laugh too loudly while we have each other and she has no one.

 

She’s a watermelon farmer and Gallagher is her secret roommate.

 

“How did you even remember Gallagher?”

“How did you?”

 

She practices her lumberjacking on model trees.

 

We take a long walk after dinner, cross the highway, and pass the university’s sprawling grounds and the five-story hospital where you work. Beyond that lies the open land with its peppering of trees and there, against the twilight, the distant lamps of the tent city glow.

At first, there were newspaper stories covering the fights in the city meetings and the courts, about all the newly homeless still being part of the public and therefore, entitled to access public land. When the land was finally allowed, the fights began about how much of a shelter is too much. Fabric and coverings, fine, but wood and structure, no. Personal possessions okay but furniture, absolutely not. If someone crossed a line, Demolition was called in.

I look hard at the sky above the small, weak lights—hung lanterns, propped flashlights—and search it for smoke. I like picturing that they have a fire going to warm their hands and cook their food, a nucleus around which everyone gathers in the evening like family. But I know better. The real city said fires are prohibited and would cause the tent city to be shut down. “Shut down,” like an amusement park ride. Like it wouldn’t be torn down, mown down.

“Can you imagine being Demolition?” I ask.

“No. It would be horrible,” you say, brows bent under sincere ache, and I remember why I love you for time ten thousand and eighteen.

I look back at the pale shapes of fabric roofs sitting still as a lake. I say, “It’s like someone turned off their lives. Like a switch.”

“They’re not dead.”

“But they’re gone. They disappeared from the rest of us. Like a light gone off. Click.”

And as though I’m a wizard, one of the far-away tiny lights vanishes. You shiver. “Let’s go home,” you say. You put your arm around me, warm.

 

She’s testing the gravity of her entire shoe closet.

 

Which must be extensive: packages upon packages for her arrive via UPS, from Penney’s and Zappos and whatever girl chic boutique. We know because the UPS guy has to ring the buzzer several times until you finally let him into the common entranceway—she never answers the building’s front door herself. Ever. You politely set her packages at the foot of the stairs where she’s sure to see them. “Jesus,” the UPS guy says to you. “She orders a lot of shit.”

For what? She must never go out, because she’s never not-here, making noise. She never has anyone over. Every time I see her she’s in sweatpants, worn thin and showing off the way her underwear cuts a line into her rump like string around a roast.

We come through the building’s front door to no packages where there was a small pyramid. They’re always gone the next time we look. I tell you in a whisper that I think she orders things on the internet expressly so she can cram them, item by item, into trash bags so she’ll have something to carry into the alley.

You aren’t listening. Someone has dropped their junk mail—again—on the floor in front of the mailboxes, and you rant as you crouch to pick it up. People in this building have no respect. We should move. I can’t deal with this anymore.

I rustle a hand through your hair in a half-baked show of solidarity. You’re generally cheery but this kind of thing gets your back up, the blatant disregard of others. Oil spills because contractors cut corners. Taxes hiked as teacher salaries are gutted. Tainted beef. Our neighbors parking badly so they take up just enough of the curb for our car to not fit. Et cetera. You believe in the simple math of one good deed deserving another. I know part of why you first noticed me, fell in love with me, is what I do for a living. Did.

 

She has to dribble a basketball five hundred times a day as part of her religion.

 

I’ve brainstormed all the ways I could freelance, stamping myself with ambiguous, jargony titles. I’ve posted myself to Craigslist like an old dresser that, it turns out, no one needs.

“I might try for a job at a store,” I tell you. I’ve been mulling it over. Retail hell versus unemployment hell.

“And make minimum wage?”

“It’s what a lot of people make.”

“You’re not a lot of people.”

“That is so fucking elitist.”

“I just mean you’re too qualified. Something will give. Wait it out.”

“But while I’m waiting I could make a little money. Help out.”

“You help out plenty.”

“No, I don’t. At all. I’m like a dependent.”

“Cut it out.”

“It’s weird. I want to do more.”

You kiss me. “Just find your dream job.”

“I’m not an invalid. I don’t need babied.”

The next day I bring home hanger steaks and a too-nice bottle of wine, bought on my dollar just to make the point, any point. You smile and we grill them and drink the whole bottle until we’re singing with the radio making croonie, disgusting music video faces at each other, but that night as I’m drifting to sleep I feel you whisper on my neck, “Hey, Big Spender, don’t do that again. I just want you here.” And right then and only right then, in the seashell of the moment that is your legs tucked behind my legs tucked behind yours, that’s good enough.

 

She runs a derby for those mini Icelandic ponies around her coffee table.

 

Nights when we get home late and park across the street, we can see into the top half of her bedroom because her blinds are always open, windows lit for the long night of whatever-in-the-world ahead. We can see that she has shelves hung and on them, figurines of horses standing in lines. They stare across the room at the opposite wall on which are taped posters. Of horses. Horses standing in the grass next to a weather-worn fence. Horses running through a field of poppies. Horses asserting themselves in her bedroom, everywhere, like saints in a Catholic church.

 

She’s a stay-at-home bullfighter, and her apartment is a china shop.

 

All of the stores I apply to tell me the same thing: try again in the fall for the holidays. Which is months from now. Which reminds me that the six-month grace period on my student loans will end soon. If I still don’t have a job, I’ll need to defer the payments again, for further “hardship.” How can I claim hardship when we drink eleven-dollar-a-pound organic Fair Trade coffee every morning? How can I pay on my loans when I have forty-seven dollars in my checking account and nightmares about finally, finally having to ask you for gas money?

I have a dream that I stop on the sidewalk to look into a window. I step closer and feel the wet, slight suck of lawn and soil on my feet. The light through the window is dim and golden like it’s filtered through a glass of beer. Inside is our bed, and you’re in it asleep, and as I stare longer I start to feel my skin crawl before I realize why, even before I’m hit with the sudden knowledge that you’re not alone, that I’m there, too, but in the mattress, sealed, like a Bog Man in the mud.

You’re awake with me. “Bad dream?” you ask.

“Yeah.”

“You jumped. Were you falling?”

“Yeah. One of those falling dreams.”

You try to pet my face but your arms are sleep-clumsy and you only mash your hand into my nose like wiping it. You say, I was dreaming about parrots, weird, huh? and then, We should go to brunch tomor, and then your breath is deep again.

Six months of grace, which is another word for charity. We understand that it can take up to six months to find a job, of course, good luck. But longer than that and clearly, you’re the problem.

 

She mines for copper wire in the walls with an old-fashioned pickaxe.

 

“And dynamite.”

“Yes, but saves that for nights I have to get up early.”

 

Her kitchen tiles are tectonic. Her floorboards calve like glaciers.

 

“Can you get some more coffee today?” you ask. “We’re out.”

You’re making the movements of an early morning bustle—mouthwash gurgling, keys jingling. Your scrubs are the color of Comet.

I plant my feet into the floor. “Why don’t you get it on your way home?”

“Can you just get it? It’s easier. I’ll have to backtrack, you know.”

You don’t say that I have nowhere else to be and you do, but I hate you momentarily even if you didn’t because it’s true.

It’s not your fault I’m in a bad mood. I did it to myself. Yesterday I walked to the view of the tent city alone, like I owed it to them to visit, to witness.

The thing is, they had begun to disappear before they moved out there, so when they finally did, no one noticed. Phone calls had already stopped coming, friends had quit inviting them out because they knew they couldn’t afford it and that’s so awkward. Even if they could have bought a new shirt, they had no reason to because they couldn’t wonder how everyone at the office would like it. They were winnowed down to one random name in an applicant pool of hundreds, seen for a moment and flushed—there are new, sinister reports of applications being sorted by computer programs combing resumes for keywords, an algorithm of not-giving-a-shit.

If I buy a new shirt and you, the only person who sees me anymore, fail to notice, do I still exist?

Your kiss pelts the top of my head. “I left money in the dish. Oh hey, and bananas? I’m having this weird craving.”

 

She runs a shelter for hair band drummers laid off between tours.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization folded unexpectedly.

I see. Was it something you did?

No, I was great at my job. A real asset. Pardon me, but was it alright that I used the word “folded” in that context?

Yes, it showed you’re casual under pressure. Confident, but a real human being.

Good. I was worried it was unprofessional.

That too. Get out.

 

She’s a freelance crash test dummy with a home studio.

 

I still write two to three cover letters a day but I’ve stopped going to coffee shops, to save on gas and the overpriced cup of tea it takes to rent a table and Wi-Fi. I could ask you for help, but already, you bound into the house evenings in your athletic shoes, fit and flushed with your day, and I feel sexy as a run-over lizard. Putting on anything but fuzzy plain garments in concrete colors feels vulgar so I don’t. When you joke that it’s like I’ve joined a cloister of monks, the Order of the Brothers of Hanes, I smile, but when you repeat it I realize it isn’t a joke, it’s a protest without the sack to say so, and I pull my hood further over my hair.

One of the diners I dropped a resume at actually calls, but only to say they can’t hire me because I’m overqualified, and have no restaurant experience—so, under-qualified. I am cancelling myself out. I have a dream about the tent city, only now I’m in it, in one of the tents, and I can’t sleep because someone is outside the canvas stitching away, closing its seams, and I start to panic because I realize they haven’t left an opening for a door. Then suddenly I’m outside, looking at all of the tents spread for miles, only we’re underground, soil hanging over our heads where sky should be, clumps and roots like clouds with worms tunneling through in tendrils graceful as hair in a breeze and the real world happening above us, banging loudly overhead on its way. So loudly.

I wake up, and I can tell you do, too, when you roll over. I squint at the clock’s digital face, see that we’re looking at midnight in the rearview mirror. A sound chews the ceiling, roaming and destroying.

“It’s like a rolling pin on a spine,” you say.

“Yeah. A giant spine.”

“But also like a tree mulcher.”

“Eating a giant spine.”

“Oh my god. She can’t be.”

She can. She is vacuuming.

 

She plays Whack-a-Mole with blacksmithing equipment. And iron moles.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization lost its funding. Nearly everyone was let go from the bottom, up.

And you think you gained enough experience in that time to qualify you for this job?

Well—

More than the other ten percent of the state’s population who are also out of work?

Uh—

Who had careers while you were still in high school? Who have families to feed?

I—

We’re waiting.

 

She’s a tattoo artist for mannequins, the hard plaster ones, and her gun is a semi-automatic.

 

It’s part of our new routine of living together, me asking if I should just not live here anymore. (As if I have the option, or any options.) We fight, and I ask it, though it comes out more like an accusation than a question. I say I’m tired of you pitying me, so I can’t imagine you aren’t tired of it. When you say you aren’t, I grow suspicious. You say, “Oh Jesus, I meant I don’t pity you, not that I’m not tired of it.”

“So you’re not tired of pitying me?”

“Are you hearing yourself?”

“All I’m saying is, the power must be seductive. It would be for anyone.”

“Oh my god, are you fucking kidding? Yeah, I like lording it over you.”

“I’m just saying you must have your reasons for doing it.”

“How about that I love you? Or maybe I’m just, I don’t know, nice?”

You sit down on the floor like I’ve exhausted the legs right off you. You say, “How can you love me but not believe that I’m good?”

“But you’re the only one who gets to be good. That’s the problem. You give and I take. Can you imagine how that feels? How low it makes me feel?”

“Why would you even say that to me?”

Why would I? I can almost see myself like I’m watching my own body, how gnarled I’ve become, hunching over my reasonings like they’re food, a kill. Why can I say the worst things and not manage the truest? That I’m scared and going crazy and don’t know what to do anymore because I want to be here because I want to, not out of need, because wanting is the state of lovers and need the state of charity cases. I want to be able to just want again.

“I just want you back,” you say. You’re crying a little, in your quiet way. It’s the second time I’ve made you cry in a week, and all I can think is, why are you still making this about you?

 

Bees. Just lots of bees.

I get an email, asking if I’m available to come in for an interview the day after tomorrow. It’s for a real job I applied to two months ago, three maybe, with a real salary at a real company.

The night before I go in, I take an extra long shower, for the practice.

 

After dark, she turns into a giant hamster and rolls around in one of those plastic balls. A huge one.

 

The back porch of her place hangs directly over ours and, suddenly, it’s full of cages. There are five of them, the kind of wire cell in which you would keep a larger animal like a chinchilla, or a team of hamsters. They’re all empty.

This new development sets us ablaze. We say, she’s the general of a hamster army. The bedroom horsies fight the hamster squadron in cacophonous, tiny battles.

It’s like someone has opened a window between us. Light and air rush in. We say, she has a huge rodent tail she unrolls when no one’s around. That’s the sound of it wagging into things.

You laugh until you have to hold your stomach and that makes me laugh and I still can’t get over how great your smile is when it’s split wide like that, when you’ve really given it all away.

 

Two words: River. Dance.

 

I get a phone call this time. They want to do a second interview—I’ve made it to the round of final candidates. They use my first name like they know me.

You insist on cooking dinner, celebration-mode, treating-me-mode, and when our plates are empty you ask if I want to go for a walk but I shake my head and start kissing you, “start” because I’m beginning something. For a crazy moment when we’ve peeled down to nothing but us, I worry I’ve forgotten how to do it. But I haven’t, and anyway it’s like riding a bicycle—you, my sweet bad bicycle, when we come it’s like coming home.

 

She’s hoarded the Terra Cotta Warriors, who she puts on fashion shows for, and if one doesn’t like her outfit she breaks him with a blow dart.

 

“Elaborate.”

“Too much?”

“No. Well-played, actually. You’re my hero.”

 

She practices The Worm wearing rollerblading gear.

 

The call comes just as I’ve gotten home. I found a perfect parking spot and have to set down the bags of groceries on the sidewalk to answer my cell. I take a breath when I see it’s the company.

They loved me. I’m perfect for the job, a great fit for the direction they want to go, and I was their top pick. There have been unanticipated budgetary changes, and they can’t hire for the position after all. They wish me the best. Someone else will be lucky to get me.

I say thanks, pocket my phone, and pick up the grocery bags, all of which is a miracle because my hands are numb. Contending with the keys inside the common entranceway, I stop.

She’s there. Upstairs.

We gape like two different species meeting suddenly at a watering hole. She stands at the boxes, and I see that her hands are small, almost child-sized, around her mail. Her bottom lip doesn’t quite close to her top as she breathes. Her skin looks like she picks at her face too much.

I look directly into her eyes, which are brown. I say, “I didn’t get a job I interviewed for.”

There is a slide like in a child’s playland between our eyes and I am sliding down it, whoosh, smooth, so I will end up in the pit that holds her heart and she will end up in mine with my heart and we will know each other. I say, “That happens to me all the time, not getting jobs, but this time was supposed to be different. I had two interviews.”

She stares.

“Two. They were very serious about me and they just called to tell me I didn’t get it.”

Her eyes are blank.

“Just now,” I say. “On the sidewalk out there, I got the call.”

“Huh,” she says. She turns to lurch up her stairs, and before she does she drops her unwanted mail to the floor. The PennySaver flutters down like so many given-up leaves and comes to rest at my feet. Forty percent off window tinting.

When I walk into our apartment, I throw the front door shut behind me. I slide the grocery bags over the floor, releasing them down and out like they’re bowling balls and when they fall over, I don’t set them upright, I don’t inspect my damage. Instead I walk in a circle around the biggest part of the room, the spot with the most empty square-footage, as fast as I can without running. When I’ve made a perfect middle with my walking, I hop into it, bending at the knees, and squeeze my skull between my hands hard, feeling that I can’t crush it no matter how I try—I am cancelling myself out, I am stronger than I am strong. Some cherry tomatoes have escaped their plastic prison and are making a break for it across the floor, but I ignore them and go straight for the coffee, seizing it and feeling the beans give under my fingers like bugs as I carry it to the kitchen and there, I begin. I start to grind the whole bag, and when that doesn’t do it I have a moment of great inspiration, kissed by tongues of flame am I, and set the grinder on the glass cutting board, the one we hate and hardly use because the shrill clack of the knife coming down on it is so awful, the bony rattle of it rocking on the tile counter with our movements is so awful. But I want it, I want it this loud when I pour in the beans and hold down the button and let it wail, just fucking wail, louder than it should be, than it even believably could be, because I need all of you to know that I’m here, I’m here—for who knows how long—I am here.