Tag Archives: men

Latin Epidemics, a poem

mane-placidus-et-gnosce-latinLatin Epidemics

Everyone’s caught this bug, talking to the dead, palms upturned.
Hope, long dead, the naked white bones a comfort; leaving homes,
wives, husbands, dreaming toward love; signs of birth.

People so disciplined, so filled with the rules of grammar; staying
married for life, or at least a day. A good day, kiss-filled; warm,
moist lips, not bloodless, cold & grey. How did we catch the fever?

Dreams uncatchable, passion withers; too much hope, too much
trust. Not much honesty; not much logic; a man wanted his wife
to talk to him. A woman wanted her husband to stroke her cheek

with his finger as if she was a flower, a child wanted her mommy
to drink less, wanted his daddy to stay longer… words come easier,
etched on lead sheets thrown into a sacred spring, asking favors of gods.

May he who stole my dog be plagued with gout; may she who
laughed at my husband grow warts on her nose… in a millennium,
nothing has changed except the curses, the fashion, the cheese & wine.

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She Hates Numbers

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Love Is A Wound In The Body

illustration liadan 7th century poetess nun

Gain without gladness

Is in the bargain I have struck

–Liadan (7th century A.D.)

Illustration erasmus holbein

But he who hides his sickness

can hardly be brought back to health;

love is a wound in the body,

and yet nothing appears on the outside.

–Erasmus, Paraphrase on the Gospel of John (pub. 1523)

illustration marie of france

What would become of her finer qualities

if she didn’t nourish them by a secret love?

–Marie de France (1160 – 1215?)

illustration mother of sumangala

A free woman. At last free!

Free from slavery in the kitchen

where I walked back and forth

stained and squalid among cooking pots.

–Mother of Sumangala (3rd – 1st century B.C.)

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The Latest Fashion: New Toilettes, a poem

illustration new toilettesThe Latest Fashion:  New Toilettes, a poem

(title and subtitles from an essay by Mallarmé)

 I.  An At-Home Gown in Garnet Velvet.

I receive you at my front door, formally, immaculately dressed, delicately arrayed, impeccably scented.  You think of me as I last appeared at the beach, tousled, salt-encrusted, and burned by the sun, dusted from scalp to toe with golden sand.  You see underneath my gown a double exposure — the natural, the cultivated — which rises up so that my two brown eyes turn to four, eyes within eyes, nudity within garnet velvet.

You think of wine, the vintner’s trembling hands caressing grapes, silently pleading with them to reveal when they will give up their most perfect secrets.  We live for moments such as those, we live to take up our wine in a crystal goblet and put it to our lips and breathe the scent of rain, sun, earth and sweetness.  Sweetness which has by virtue of aging embraced its opposite — sweetness which has given birth to tart recognition.

We are both innocent as three-year-olds and jaded as madams.  You touch the supple velvet, but what you are feeling is the smoothness of my insides.  I remember the sound you made, long ago, an explosive sound which you tried so valiantly to muffle.  The report of your exhalation was echoed in each cell of my body.  Garnet velvet becomes a skin I will shed.  Nothing before was unskinned.  I will turn myself inside out, only for you.

II.  A Hostess Gown in Gray Russian Satin.

 Together, we receive cadres of admirers — come to look upon our glowing faces, hear the way we laugh, breathe in the air of passion which surrounds us.  We understand this loveliness we display is not ours, rather on loan merely, a magnification of the same electric forces which keep every atom together, proton and electron and neutron dancing their way in a wild mazurka.  Those atomic particles, those rapscallions.

My gray dress hugs my body tightly, exposing each curve, revealing my body but keeping it a magnificent secret at the same time.  When your fingertips slide across my shoulders, the fabric moans, and the assembly gasps.  I can take no credit for my beauty, only for the courage to allow it free rein.  And I count every electron of your body, I feel the whirling clouds as they circle your atomic nuclei, endlessly proclaiming not beauty, not usefulness, but truth.

Please be advised you are in the presence of ananda.  Or at the very least, maple syrup.  Even the trees know.  How the sparks flew when first we met!  We confused the friction with dislike, at least until you saw me lick my lips.  Gray satin reminds us of the cries of mourning doves, the way they’d scatter as your car pulled into my driveway.  Such murmurings as felt like satin threads, pulled through my heart.  You came to me.  I will stay found.

III.  A Frock for Paying Calls in Plum-colored Faille.

We deign to visit the world, after a twenty-three year sabbatical, and everywhere we go the air matches my dress.  The moon becomes a large opal, the sky an onyx abyss into which I fall upward, tethered only by your voice.  When you laugh, I hear my father.  I hear the way he held me, our skin where it touched on fire with longing only for more bare skin.  He died too soon, and so did I.

My skirt is cut on the bias — when I walk it moves as the tops of the Australian pines moved that day you first kissed me, at the beginning of hurricane season.  You and I ask our hosts if they are prepared, but they don’t understand.  Once, you lusted for books — 27,000 of them — 19 cartons fit into your truck, each trip.  The hardwood shelves groaned under the beautiful weight of your hope.  Please, don’t read too much into the facts.  What do the pages tell you?  Do you remember when you hated me?

It is so difficult to construct a garment on the bias, I must consult experts in the field.  I show them the dress I wear, ask, can you make me the same dress, in the same fabric, over and over.  I want nothing varied, because in this dress is all the world.  My father has been dead now for longer than I knew him.  I still see his hair, iridescent red-gold feathers, under my fingertips, my nails painted purple.  I asked for you.  I found your succulent eyes.

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Enlightenment, a very short story

illustration 5 enlightenment

Enlightenment, a very short story

He felt awake when he saw her sitting at the bar, as though all his previous life had been a slow, lazy dream.  She looked like a girl from one of those sex shops in Amsterdam, wholesome and perverted at the same time.  Her hair was perfectly straight and hung down her back to her waist. Her forehead was a smooth, wide dome of innocence.  Her flesh was abundant, stark white and glowing, spilling slightly over the waist of her leather skirt.  Baby fat.  He could tell she’d outgrow it.  Regeneration was her game.

She said, “I prefer to travel alone, no fluff or chatter.”   She spoke of the outer and inner journey.  She didn’t know which was the more important.  “I am my own  mysterious stranger,” she said.

When they got back to her room, he saw how her bed was opposite a huge fireplace, black; it felt like ghosts were everywhere, but especially in the fireplace, coming down the chimney. The wind made sounds around the eaves and windows, such a big wind, it was spring but the wind was fierce and strong. Her room scared him, he would rather have been anywhere else. But he couldn’t leave, the girl was already undressing on the bed.  She looked at him from under her fall of hair.  The now-naked girl lay back on the pillows and smiled.  He felt as awake as the Buddha under the bodhi tree.

 

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Savior, a short story

illustration savior

Savior, a short story

The young man seemed so out-of-place in her mother’s living room. Maria stood in the doorway with her mother’s groceries, her purse on her shoulder, key ring dangling off one numb pinkie, clutching the heaviest bag propped on her hip, the bag that contained her mother’s supply of Diet Coke. Her mother and this man were sitting together on a Victorian loveseat on loan from Maria’s antique shop, their knees almost touching, the man’s arm draped across the ornate wooden back, his fingers curled behind her mother’s left shoulder. Her mother had a photo album spread out, one leaf resting on her lap, the other resting on his. Maria could see herself, at two, nude in the tub. Christ, she thought, what’s she showing him those for?

The young man leaped up after a few moments of uncomfortable silence, running his hand over his hair and smiling. Her mother folded the album closed, holding out her arm, and he helped her up, a gesture Maria herself had never mastered, helping old people up out of their seats. She tried too hard, using the wrong position and too much lift, until their sharp old elbows jutted out at alarming angles but their behinds hadn’t lifted an inch.

He had a medium build, wavy blonde hair, a deep tan — he was almost, but not quite, handsome. His eyes were too close together and his nose too long: as Maria met his direct gaze, she felt uneasy at his obvious affection for her mother, the implication of knowledge which came from his confident manner. He looked as though he was already sure he knew the older woman’s mind; already sure she must be lonely.

“I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Maria,” her mother said. “Maria, this is David. He found my wallet over at the library and was kind enough to track me down. I couldn’t believe it when he called. I didn’t even know it was missing yet.”

“That is lucky,” Maria said. “Really lucky,” she continued, smiling in her mother’s direction, one eyebrow arched, whereupon her mother shook her head once, violently, and her daughter’s unspoken reprimand was expertly dismissed.

“Oh, it wasn’t luck,” said David, the sound of his voice causing the small hairs at the back of Maria’s neck to rise. “Nothing’s a matter of luck. Life is all planned for us, down to the last detail.” He nodded, smiling at Maria, his arms hanging relaxed at his sides, and the suspicion came to Maria that he was crazy. Crazy but safe, one of the harmless ones, the kind that made her want to go a little crazy too because they seemed so sure of themselves.

Most of Maria’s son Richard’s friends were the same type, that’s how she knew. Richard — she never thought of him as “Kurma-devi-dasi,” although she respected his desires and addressed him that way — was crazy but harmless too, although she knew she couldn’t see him as clearly in that way as she could a stranger. To this day she was able to discern the fuzzy cartoon of his infant features on his serene face when he smiled at her — the memory of his toothless gums clamped like a rhythmic vise on her breast would come to her, looking at his shaved head and his orange cotton robes as he chanted over his prayer beads, and she would be filled with a sorrowful rage that made her chest shrink into itself.

Not his grandmother, though — she had sat with her grandson over at the temple for hours when he first became a devotee, sitting in a rocking chair next to him as he said his prayers in front of the little richly clothed doll of Krishna. She told Maria it made her feel closer to her own idea of God just being in a place like that. In theory, Maria agreed, but the issue wasn’t whether the temple was a nice place to spend an afternoon, the issue was whether it was a good way for Richard to spend the rest of his life — sewing holy Hindu god and goddess doll clothes on an old black Singer?

“I don’t know about a plan,” Maria replied. “I’m lucky if I know where I am, half the time. If it’s Wednesday, this must be my mom’s apartment — you know?”

He said nothing at first, not seeming offended, not defensive, just staring at her with eyes so full of a giddy, knowing light — his face loomed toward her, and tension rolled through her stomach as his mouth moved into a drawn bow of compassion. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t handsome; he radiated an alarming level of charm. “Down to the last detail,” he repeated, arching his eyebrows and opening his eyes a bit wider, his pupils enlarging like a lover’s, and the sound of his voice vibrated within her ears, warm and solid like hands pressed against her temples.

“Then one of the details must be that I’ve got to put this bag down before my arms fall off,” she said, forcing a laugh. “Excuse me.” She turned away and walked up the hall to the kitchen. By the time she’d finished putting the groceries away — rearranging pantry and refrigerator shelves, purposely taking far longer than usual — he’d already gone. Great. Now their lives were stuck together like flood trash swirling down her mother’s raging river. David would be there for her mother — be there always and forever, overflowing with that sickening, confident love, and her mother would never be able to blame him, not for anything.

***

Maria was uncomfortable with the amount of time her mother was spending with David, but didn’t dare say too much. There was nothing overtly objectionable about him, other than his religious fervor — and how could she term that a fault? Her mother wouldn’t listen, anyway. Whenever Maria brought the subject up, her mother would groan, “Oh, boy, here we go again,” and she would frown, which consisted of one sharp, off-center line in the middle of her forehead. “You don’t have to like him, sweetie,” she’d say, “but I wish you did.”

Still, her mother’s interests seemed to be shifting. Odd books and papers came and went on the coffee table, crowding out the usual hodgepodge of half-finished crosswords and literary journals: treatises on wild herbs, population-density maps, computer programming manuals, military histories. Flipping through a ratty emergency-medicine textbook, Maria saw numerous large, yellow-highlighted portions and margin notes in both an unfamiliar, childish hand and her mother’s own neat back slant. “What is all this stuff?” she asked, holding the book out to her mother.

“I’m getting ready,” her mother said. She sat down opposite Maria and picked up a needlepoint pillow, arms crossed, mashing it to her tummy like a teddy bear.

“Ready for what?” asked Maria.

“The end of the world,” said her mother. “You know, Armageddon.”

***

At first, Maria’s son agreed with her concerns, not at all what she expected and a strangely intolerant position for him to take — considering his own lifestyle — his agreement only making her feel worse. They sat in the temple’s empty dining hall. “I’m with you, Mom,” Richard said. “The guy sounds like a real case.” He rubbed his hand over his prickly scalp and yawned, his left hand fumbling inside the peach-colored sack of meditation beads that hung from his neck. He scratched his nose, smearing the delicate yellow makeup lines drawn there that symbolically pointed up: up to God, up to heaven. “Have you checked Grandma’s bank accounts lately? He could be some kind of con artist.”

“No, no,” she said. “That’s not the kind of thing I’m worried about. He seems sincere enough. He’s no con artist. It’s just — your grandmother is really starting to believe what he says — how Armageddon is coming, all that stuff. You should see the books he’s got her reading.” Maria leaned on her elbows, cupping her chin. Richard closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head to one side like a duck.

“Then again, I suppose the guy could be right on,” he said, his eyes still closed. He looked asleep, his skin pale and fragile. “Maybe that’s what bothers you. I’ve been trying to get through to you on that level for years. At least Grandma’s started thinking about her future.”

“Her future?” Maria asked, her voice louder than before, wanting to reach across the picnic table and shake him by his choke collar of tiny wooden beads. “At eighty-five? People that age should be beyond this kind of worry. It isn’t right. He’s getting her all stirred up — and for what? If all that biblical stuff happened, she’d never survive.”

“You’re just jealous,” he said. He opened his eyes and stared at her, his thick black lashes tangled and dusty-looking. His pupils were pinpricks inside the blotched hazel irises, and as he spoke he stood up too fast, banging his shins on the metal tubing of the cheap table. He grimaced and squatted for a moment, rubbing his leg. “You can’t stand it when someone believes in something you don’t. I thought you were worried this guy was some kind of sleazy fake, but now you’re telling me what freaks you out is that he’s the real thing. Make up your mind. You should be happy Grandma’s paying attention to what’s out there.” He turned and walked away, his robes ruffling out behind him, his rubber sandals slapping the bare wooden floor. “I’ve got devotions to attend to,” he said, not turning back to face her as he walked, his voice thin, echoing across the length of the long, barren room.

***

The earliest occasion Maria could remember wanting her mother’s opinion was in the seventh grade. Maria had just turned twelve, and had her first crush. She was stringy and awkward in those days, large-kneed and carrying a head of vigorous, curly hair she flattened down into a matted-looking cushion in desperation. Then the quiet boy started walking her home from the bus stop.

She remembered him still: pale blue eyes, so large and widely spaced that they gave him a somewhat doe-like expression. His jaw, however, was firm, angular, and thus saved his face from weakness. Warm hands lay against hers, trembling, stroking her fingers up and down in an hypnotic rhythm. “Do you want to go steady?” he’d asked her, unable to meet her eyes. That meant wearing a silver identification bracelet, his name engraved about her wrist for everyone to see; his property. She hoped his name was in block capitals, not that loopy script: it looked better.

“I don’t know,” she said, and went home to ask her mother’s opinion, a matter of form perhaps, but something she wanted; the camaraderie of womanhood revealed at last. This could be the common ground between them.

“Honey, I just don’t think going steady is a good idea at your age,” said her mother. They sat in the dining room, wallpapered with tiny brown pineapples. “You’re too young to get so deeply involved with a boy.”

“But lots of girls do it,” she said, knowing this was a flawed argument, but even as the shipwrecked are driven to drink seawater, her words carried a dreamlike hope.

“You asked for my opinion,” said her mother, “and I’ve given it to you. It’s up to you to make the decision. I’m not saying no, I’m just saying I wouldn’t if I were you.”

In the end, she told the boy no — and was informed that the going-steady offer had been withdrawn in the interim — and she realized by heeding her mother’s counsel she had been saved from a greater and more penetrating level of humiliation than she imagined even existed. But — that wasn’t the point. Maria knew her mother would never have said no to one of her own teenage boyfriends — that was a lie. Safe advice given as a — joke, as an experiment. Didn’t Maria have the right to be strong-willed? Didn’t she have the right to her own losses? She never stopped trying after that, but the drama was gone.

***

Then Maria found her mother in the bathtub. She entered the apartment, carrying her mother’s dry cleaning: a few sweaters, a wool suit, a pink blouse. She heard water running, a slight, far-off sound, as if from the next apartment. The bathroom door was closed. The only sound was a rolling and a swishing, as though a large fish reclining in the tub had shifted position. Alarmed, Maria opened the door. Her mother was sitting upright in the full tub, a small trickle of water dribbling from the faucet. The tub was full to overflowing. Her mother was wearing a purple shower cap embroidered with large seahorses.

“Go away,” she whispered, as Maria stood, confused. A bristling red pincushion sat on the edge of the tub, dangling a red cloth strawberry from a green cord into the water. The strawberry bobbed on the surface. In her mother’s hand was a large straight pin, on her wrist several thin scratches. She jabbed with the pearl-headed pin, her hands unsteady.

“What are you doing?” asked Maria, her voice shrill, terror coursing through her. “What in the hell are you doing?”

Her mother turned to her, her unfocused eyes shining and rolling up toward the ceiling as she spoke. “Trying to kill myself,” she said.

“With pins?” shrieked Maria. “Jesus, Mother!”

“I wanted to flush my head down the toilet,” her mother continued, “but it wouldn’t go down.”

***

On the third night of her mother’s emergency hospitalization, Maria dreamed she was sitting in her living room drinking tea with one of her college professors, a sloppy but verbally precise little man. In reality, she hadn’t liked him at first, but she had taken every course he taught because — unlike the majority of his students — she got A’s from him. She came to admire his sincere and stringent approach, forgiving him his greasy, untrimmed hair, his baggy, stained chinos and ancient, Filipino-style dress shirts.

And so, in the dream, her old professor, uncharacteristically neat, his hair washed and combed, his pants pressed, was explaining to her that he had theater tickets for tonight’s performance — would she like to join him for dinner and a show?

I’m sorry, she said, but I don’t think I can get a baby-sitter on such short notice. It’s already six o’clock.

He raised his eyebrows. I had no idea you were married with a child, he said. Well, that’s too bad, my dear. Perhaps we can arrange it some other time.

As he shuffled off down the sidewalk, Maria wanted to call after him: Wait… I don’t really have a husband… I don’t really have a child… it’s all a mistake. Come back. I want to go with you.

But she was silent, knowing it wouldn’t make any difference what she said. He was already too far away, and could not hear.

***

The next day, when Maria arrived at the hospital, her mother’s newest flowers were wilting in the heat. Her mother had turned the room’s thermostat up to 85 degrees and wore a sweater and cracked pink leather mules. Still, the new additions were beautiful: three dozen roses, white, yellow, and coral, stuffed into a too-small mayonnaise jar, the faded label turned to the wall. Maria stood in the doorway for a moment, holding a brown paper sack full of the day’s requested items — mostly cosmetics — looking at the bright splash of color. “Hi there,” she said to her mother, who sat hunched on the edge of her bed, flipping through a current TV Guide.

“Hi,” said her mother. “Is it cold out? You look chilly.”

“It’s cool, but the sun’s warm,” said Maria. “Who gave you these roses?” She leaned over to smell them, her nose brushing the petals.

“David,” said her mother. “He brought them by this morning on his way to work.” She squinted at Maria, her glasses speckled with bits of dust, so filthy Maria wondered if she could see anything at all. “He didn’t know I was here; he found out just this morning from my across-the-hall neighbor. He was taping a note to my front door.” She unrolled a package of breath mints and placed one on her tongue. “I thought you would have called him by now — it’s been three weeks, after all.”

“I didn’t think it was such a great idea for you to have a lot of visitors.”

“A lot?” Her mother raised her eyebrows, which were nearly invisible. She penciled them in most days, but today she’d left them defiantly natural. “Any, you mean. You’re the only one I’ve seen other than the doctor, until this morning.”

“What did he say about visitors?” Maria asked.

“It’s fine, as long as I feel up to it. They’re still fine-tuning the dosage on the blood thinner, other than that I could go home already.” She held out her arm, shoving the loose sweater back above the elbow. Small scabs dotted her forearm. “They’re sticking me every four hours, round the clock. They’ve got to balance it just right. So I won’t have another stroke but so I won’t bleed to death, either.”

She stared at Maria, her eyes shining. Her mother’s voice dropped low and fluid, almost a murmur; Maria remembered that voice from long-ago midnights, giving comfort to a distraught child. “I know you were scared when you found me all confused like that in the tub, sweetie.” Maria said nothing. Her mother raised her chin with a jerking nod, relapsed motherhood dropping away from her like a fragment of dry skin, her voice back to normal. “But really, I’m okay now. It was a very minor thing — you heard when the doctor told me I was one lucky lady.”

***

An hour later, on her way out, Maria saw David from across the hospital’s visitor parking lot as she stepped on the black mat that made the door swing open. He was dressed in jeans and a pink polo shirt, his hair still wet from the shower, combed flat across his head, just beginning to spring away in wisps where the blond curls regained tension as they dried. She stopped short, turning and walking back inside, toward the gift shop, where she stood in the farthest corner. She picked up a stuffed animal and pretended to scrutinize the price while she watched the door. When he passed, moving toward the elevators, she followed. He entered one and the doors closed. Maria waited and got the next one, her heart pounding.

She got off on her mother’s floor, going away from her mother’s room, back toward the nurse’s station and lounge on the north end. Settling in one of the low, soft chairs, she stared up at the wall-mounted television, the evening news in full swing, recounted events drifting over her, seeming important but incomprehensible, the words passing through the air like puffs of smoke. Muscles tense, palms clammy, she took out a pen and paper and began jotting notes of what she wanted to say.

She jumped, startled, as she heard David speak. She saw his back, visible from the doorway, over at the nurse’s station where he spoke to the charge nurse. “I think there’s something wrong with her call button,” he said. “She says she’s pressed it a bunch of times without hearing anything over the intercom.” The nurse, a thin, tired-looking woman wearing lavender scrubs, nodded.

“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute,” the nurse said.

David turned to leave, and then he saw Maria and stopped, his mouth forming an exaggerated O, his eyebrows lifting. Maria felt a clammy flush rise up over her neck, a dull enveloping embarrassment. He smiled like a placid baby, walking to her and holding his hand out. She clasped his hand for a moment, feeling the solid meat of it, the warmth and hardness of his callused palm. “You don’t know what to believe in,” he said, his voice calm and slow, “and that’s natural. It’s a process of evolution you’re going through. Think of your mother’s illness as the catalyst.” He opened his arms and bent at the waist, hugging her so hard she couldn’t inhale, then he removed himself and stood looking down at her, his head cocked, his blue eyes luminous and warm, a crinkly-eyed smile starting to show.

“You’re crazy,” she said, feeling her throat seize up as her heart beat shook her ribcage like a wild animal — she had difficulty speaking. She paused as her chest eased, then forged on. “A catalyst?” she repeated. “I know what to believe — I believe you’re causing all my mother’s problems. She doesn’t need your brand of stress right now. And I don’t need this kind of condescension. Telling me I’m OK. I don’t need you for that. You’re not any kind of expert.”

“No, I’m not,” he said, the smile gone from his mouth but his eyes still glowing with a trace of it like a madman’s. “And since when do you care about expert opinion?” He reached out and stroked her hair, saying her name in his gentle murmur, Maria, Maria, and she flashed — it’s finally happening to me, it’s finally here — a jolt of vertigo as if she’d been through all this before, a hundred, a thousand, no, ten thousand times…. “You don’t care about anyone’s opinion but your own,” he said.

Their lives were now joined – with force of will and love he’d plucked her up and tucked her into the golden cup of his heart as quickly and easily as he would rescue a fear-crazed puppy clinging to a torn-off tree limb, just before that puppy swirled away to her doom down a swift, swollen river. Maria wanted to run, to hide, to retrace her steps, but it was too late. David would be there for her — be there always and forever, surrounding her with this… curious compassion of his, and she would never be able to scare this one away, no matter what she tried.

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Inside A Red Heart, a short story

illustration inside a red heart

Inside A Red Heart, a short story

Ella’s life hadn’t always been like this. It was hurricane season, always the worst part of the year, but especially so this time. The cheap, post-divorce apartment Ella had moved to had flimsy sprayed-Styrofoam interior walls so thin she felt she could easily stick a pencil through them. The doors felt like balsa-wood, so hollow and weightless she couldn’t even slam them when she got mad, only sweep air currents through the frames. The rooms were carpeted wall-to-wall in a sticky celery-green shag which she could not bring herself to walk on barefoot. Hurricane preparations were meaningless in such a place, like diamond jewelry on a dying prostitute.

But today, Hurricane Naomi was 52 miles offshore, moving steadily along a stubborn, eerily direct path toward Ella’s apartment, when her father decided they’d better start getting ready, taping the windows. “They say this doesn’t help in the slightest,” she told him after finishing the first window, her arms already trembling and aching from reaching high over her head. She wanted to be an eagle, aloft without moving. “Even in a solidly built building,” she added spitefully.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “At least it’ll keep the broken glass from taking our eyes out.”

They finished taping over the second set of windows. She looked up at the sky; the brittle palm-fronds rattled and shook like frantic spiders. The bamboo rustled, probably full of rats. Tiny ants raced back and forth over the side of the house in some sort of military maneuver. Dropping hibiscus blossoms had stained the sidewalk red. A crushed bug was what captivated her attention. A sudden gust of cool air rushed over her neck, then after a moment everything stilled and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Against the dirty gray sky it looked abnormally bright.

“You look good in sleeveless tops,” her father said. “You should wear them more often.”

“Since when do you care how I look?” she asked.

“Is that how you usually take a compliment? No wonder you’re single. Forget I said anything,” he said. “Go inside and get the rest of the tape, please.”

 

Ella was mad about everything. Men especially, all the men she’d tried to get along with to no avail. Now, even strange men spitting on the sidewalk made her gag and retch. The phone rang — it was another man trying to sell her something. Listening to his voice on the machine, she decided she didn’t want any more goods or services, ever. She was fully capable of ignoring the outside world for weeks at a time. Finally, when her mailbox was stuffed so full nothing else would fit inside, she’d empty it and burn the contents.

After her divorce, she had refused to bring any of the old furniture from the house, not a stick. Granted, none of it was in such great shape, but she certainly couldn’t afford to buy new. Instead, she slept on a clammy air mattress for months, kept her clothes in cardboard boxes. Friends told her she was an idiot for not taking everything she could get from that tiresome lying hypocrite she’d married, but she just glared and shook her head, pressing her stubborn mouth against her teeth so hard her lips bleached white. Nobody knew how she managed to pay the rent or bring home groceries on what she made. Flying bullets couldn’t have been any more stressful than this, she thought.

There was a vague analogy between Ella and the rest of the world, that was all. She tried to understand men, but couldn’t quite manage it: they spoke, their lips moved, and sound issued forth, untranslatable. How was it they rose out of bed every morning so chipper? She was missing something they had. She navigated through her day like a ballerina dancing on broken glass.

When they’d finished taping the windows, her father poured a second cup of coffee for both of them. Breakfast consisted of coffee with plenty of cream. There was the long day to get through, then they were going fishing that night off the pier. They would stop at the bait shop for a bucket of shrimp and they would get ice cream cones — mint chocolate chip — and they would sit with their poles and wait for a nibble. Every now and then, without intending to, they’d sideswipe the truth.

He was visiting Ella for a week. He lived down in the Keys now, where he had always wanted to live; he loved to fish. Her mother had died three years ago, totally unexpected. No cancer for her, just a heart attack, plain and simple. Her parents had been happily married, but as soon as her mother died her father sold the house and went as far away from his past as he could get. Illness, for Ella, was something she would not allow time for, in that way she was exactly like her mother — though Ella wanted a good, solid tomb as a memorial when her time came to be one of the dead.

Her dog growled at her father as he moved his feet under the table. Ella’s crazy dog — he growled at everybody but he didn’t mean anything by it. He had long white whiskers and a moth-eaten coat.

“That damn dog,” her father said.

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“I don’t know why you put up with that,” he said.

“He’s harmless,” she said.

“I suppose he’s a good watchdog,” her father said.

“Not really,” she said. “He only growls when it’s someone he knows.”

“You mean he doesn’t growl at strangers?”

“No.” She laughed. Was he going to find a moral in this somewhere?

“Should I be flattered that he growls at me, then?”

“Sometimes he even growls at me.”

“I wouldn’t keep a dog like that.”

 

Since childhood, she’d loved to watch her father bait fishhooks. His long hands were careful and slow and the deliberateness of his touch delighted her. Not like her — she’d been falling over herself since puberty. Invariably she felt like a nuisance underfoot. She missed the neat quick grace of childhood. Whatever synthesis produced her from her mother’s and her father’s body, she couldn’t now imagine. Her father’s laughter was musical — her mother’s and her own like the braying of an ass. She secretly decided her mother had been cheating on him with someone else when she was conceived.

Until adolescence she’d been a precious little thing — then a hostile barrage of hormones turned her into somebody she didn’t even recognize: braces, knobby knees, confused skin, rebellious hair. To call her a girl was a misnomer of the highest magnitude. Something dark had entered the world along with her own blood the first time she got her period.

Once, in high school, her father had walked in her room without knocking and caught her masturbating; what a shame, he said, if you didn’t have so many pimples you might be able to get a boy to do that for you. His mind, like his body — like his heart — was angular; without softness; without love — he wouldn’t give her a second chance. The walls had zoomed in and out like they were breathing. She remembered the dress she wore, white with red and blue sailboats. Just like a ship being launched, only she kept running aground.

To this day, she wore only plain pearls, believing her skin too pasty to carry color. The only exotic thing about her was the color of her hair. Her hair was the color of rust; decaying iron. Growing up, her father never told her how pretty she was. But one night after a bad dream he took her back to her bed and rubbed her back.

Woken in the middle of the night like that, he was a different person, wordless and gentle. He’d held her so tight she couldn’t inhale. His silent, bulky warmth radiated through her and she wasn’t scared of anything. Everything in her room was painted either blue or green — how was painting any different than telling a story? He started rubbing her arm below the elbow; she was his. She wanted him to touch her underneath her nightgown but he didn’t. It made her feel awful to remember that now.

 

The TV was on with the volume turned down, and she was tracking Naomi on a grocery bag chart. She perched stiff on the couch, uncomfortable in her ragged cutoff shorts. Her father took a chair from the dining table and sat on it turned backwards, leaning toward her, his big perfect hands hanging over the chair’s back, his legs spread out like a cowboy’s. The dog growled from under the table.

“If you died right now,” he said, “you would go straight to Hell because you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Pop loved his simple theories. He loved his cut-and-dried formulas. From the time her mother had died, her father had become born again and worried far too much about the condition of Ella’s immortal soul.

“How do you know?” she asked. “Isn’t God the only one who can judge a person?”

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Right now you’re a Nonbeliever. Nonbelievers go straight to Hell.”

“Says you,” she said.

“Says God,” he said.

“So according to you I could break every single one of the Ten Commandments, but as long as I accepted Jesus one second before I died, I wouldn’t go to Hell?”

“God’s grace,” he said. “His gift to us. Ask, and you shall be forgiven.”

Her father was telling her to ask for forgiveness! Selling all the gifts he’d ever given her and frittering the money away with nothing to show for it appealed to her. The flowers he sent for her birthday always wilted immediately, anyway.

“So God will forgive me for whatever I’ve done,” she said. “But will you?”

“First, you have to ask,” he said.

 

Hurricane Naomi wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow or the next day. Though at first Ella had looked forward to fishing off the pier, dusk arrived too soon; the coming darkness was like a funeral shroud. Her father drove his old rattletrap pickup truck towards the beach like it was a priceless antique. At the bait shop, they stood in line behind a girl, about 10 or 11, and her mother, also buying bait. The girl got into a silly argument with her mother about what they should buy, what sort of bait. “Shut up,” the girl said to her mother. Ella recoiled. Was there ever a place to be, truly, anonymous?

She remembered a time she’d told her own mother to shut up. Upon hearing, her father had slapped her across the face and broken her glasses. Her skull buzzed for a long time afterward, her jaw aching where the heel of his hand connected. She didn’t believe she’d been the same person at all back then.

She almost never cried in front of him, and especially not then, not about being slapped: she flat-out refused her tear ducts the indulgence. Nothing physical he did could get her crying — he had to use his voice, his drawling sarcasm, to knock her senseless enough for tears. She’d be so ashamed to cry in front of him like a big, blubbering idiot.

But then, getting her fishing pole ready over on the pier, a hook jabbed her finger. She’d been stabbed with hooks before; she didn’t remember it hurting so much. Was the air pressure from the coming hurricane making her stupid? She sucked blood out of the puncture. Her eyes started to sting, her throat to burn. She froze, her body paralyzed by embarrassment. She couldn’t help it, she started to cry, the convulsions shaking her.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is your finger that bad? Let me see.”

“It’s not my finger,” she said, still in the grip of the horrible tears. He took her hand and held it close to his face, peering.

“Doesn’t look that deep,” he said.

“It’s not,” she said. Her nerves were strung out, yes, aptly put — as if her spine had been stretched, her entire body hanging off it in tiny sections which at any moment might start whirling away in terror.

She grabbed his shoulders and stood on tiptoe, leaning into him with all her weight. She kissed him full on the lips, pressing the whole length of her body against him the way she had when she was still too young to know any better, and for once he actually let her. She kissed him as though her life depended on being kissed back. And it did. And he did.

 

He had never told her she was pretty until after her mother died. Family tradition was for the parents to wait, remote icebergs, for warm currents of love to reach them from their children. She didn’t see the harm in that. The truth was, she had always wanted him as much as he wanted her. Tall and silvery-blond, his pool-water blue eyes fringed with gold lashes, he was still handsome for his age. He only smoked those awful cigars when he fished. Since her mother died, he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman, romantically speaking.

Even her ex-husband had been jealous of her father. He, her husband, was smaller than her father in every way measurable, emotionally as well as physically. Her ex-husband was such a small man. He had mewled incessantly about his boundaries, his boundaries — which didn’t keep him from stalking her and her post-marital lovers whenever his feelings were hurt. But if she read his journal, she was guilty of a great crime. What were boundaries, anyway? Even her ex-husband’s new wife was commiserating with Ella now about his smallness.

Too late, Ella had figured out she only got excited by what was forbidden, by a body’s unfamiliarity to her. Anybody like her who chose to marry was making a mistake. Once a thing became familiar, that took all the life out of her desire. She and her string of relative-stranger lovers ate Chinese takeout in bed, soy sauce dripping on their skin, which added another flavor to their mouth play. Fried rice, hot and greasy.

What neither Ella nor her father talked about that night on the fishing pier or any other night was how, way back when, she had left the back door unlocked one day and the baby, Ella’s little brother, had gotten into the backyard unsupervised and drowned in the canal. The water had seemed too shallow for anyone to die in. She was eleven — the next day she bled on her underpants for the first time. She wondered which was the bigger reason her father never looked at her the same way again.

Just now her father’s lips had tasted like his cigars, sour and sweet all at once, when she kissed him. Ella removed herself from his arms only after her skin against his grew slick with perspiration. The two of them finished up their bucket of shrimp after that, but they spoke little and caught nothing worth keeping. Back at her apartment with its ridiculous taped windows, her father began packing his small suitcase. The bellicose dog lay on the armchair across the room, for once not growling. “Damn hurricane,” he said. “Maybe I can get all the way home before they evacuate the island.”

“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You’ll have to leave again as soon as you get there.”

“I don’t think I can stay here tonight,” he said.

“You’re blaming me, aren’t you?” she asked. “Like you always do.”

“It’s not that, Ella,” he answered. “It’s got nothing to do with that.”

She touched his arm, and he flinched, then caught himself. “It was all my fault,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “If you’re asking, I’m answering.” He looked up from his suitcase, and for the first time all day his eyes looked old and tired. “Please don’t ask me to stay,” he said.

 

At midnight she sat awake, wondering what would happen next. Nothing good, she imagined. She didn’t know how she’d become such a curiosity. She was looking for what had gone wrong with a vengeance. Rooting through out-of-date phone books, through cards and letters she’d kept packed away since college. Excavating her past life, like an archeologist, was a great haven of sanity; as soon as she opened the first box, she felt safe from the present, it was suspended from happening, nothing more would ever happen to her until she straightened out all the previous mistakes. A pale blue chiffon scarf of her mother’s was folded underneath a stack of them. She was perennially accused of wanting to rehash the past. But it hadn’t been properly hashed over the first time, couldn’t any of these dolts see that?

A spider laid in the bottom of the box, its legs curled tightly. Though clearly dead, she worried lest it should somehow jump on her. A handmade Valentine’s Day card stuck out of the jumble like a sore thumb. The card was unsigned, but she recognized the handwriting. It was hers. She’d drawn a picture of a naked man inside a red heart. Her first boyfriend, a creative type, had insisted they make each other cards. How had she ended up with all this stuff? Ella flung herself back onto the bed so hard her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue. Her bones ached. Her desire was killing her; she didn’t even know what it was she desired. She had to get out of the house for a bit, hurricane or no hurricane, or she’d go nuts.

She dragged her quivering dog — not so crazy after all — out to the car and drove over to her parent’s old house through Naomi’s outer fringes. Thunder rolled above her along with heavy sheets of rain like pronouncements from God. The dog cowered in her lap. She turned the car engine off and got out, the dog in her arms, hiding his head in her armpit. She stood searching the horizon, letting the rain wash over her face. It was the same whenever she made love to a man, she made sure to shower afterward.

Behind the house she’d grown up in, behind the canal her baby brother had drowned in, sat the northern edge of the Everglades. A flat, wet landscape — one she never tired looking at. Dun-colored saw grass, rippling under the steady currents of wind, stretched as far as she could see. Her mother’s chiffon scarf, monogrammed with her maiden initials, was her new good-luck charm. There was, as usual, no witness to her actions.

At least I’m brave enough to come back here, she thought. Her hair blew into her eyes and she held the dog tighter. She was startled when from behind her headlights moved over the undulating saw grass; she turned to see who it was. Squinting against the light, she saw her father’s tall figure get out and stand next to the car, calling and waving — she couldn’t hear much of what he was saying over the wind but she could tell he was crying. Like a flag on a pole, her mother’s scarf whipped in the wind around her neck, causing her to lift her chin and stand taller and straighter than she had for a long time. She could feel it. Her life was going to change.

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The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

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(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)

The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.

“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”

They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?

Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?

***

I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.

Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.

He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.

***

He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.

“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”

I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.

***

He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.

“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.

“It’s not the same,” he answered.

***

On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”

***

In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.

“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”

“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”

This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”

***

His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.

***

I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.

He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.

His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.

After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.

He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.

***

At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.

The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.

***

We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.

By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.

Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.

We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.

***

My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come:   but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.

***

In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”

He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.

***

The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.

***

I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.

I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.

***

It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.

“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.

“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”

I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.

I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.

***

I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”

It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”

“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”

***

I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.

I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.

Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.

The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.

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Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

illustration dog alligator suit

Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story

Annemarie often sat within the bright sobriety of the campus coffee shop down the street from her and Roy’s house. The air there was filled with academic fulmination and the evaporating mists of senseless arguments, much like the state of her marriage. She was acknowledged by the college students as one of those bizarre, florid creatures from the 80’s, and they let her go about her pursuits, unfettered but slow.

“I can’t stand that place,” Roy said. “I don’t see how you can sit there day after day.” His comment, for her, aptly illustrated how unaware he was that her main occupation while there was mulling over whether or not to file for divorce.

“It makes me feel wired,” Annemarie said.

“You can say that again,” Roy said.

“Why don’t you meet me there for coffee sometime?” she said.

“Things are too crazy at the office right now,” he said.

One such crazy evening, after dinner, the air was busy gossiping with itself — Annemarie could feel it fluttering along her cheeks inquisitively, and the moon rose early, bouncing light off the red tiled roof. She put on her ratty ski jacket and then poured herself a tiny refreshment of Scotch, which she imbibed cautiously. Her small thick hands, gripping a kitchen chair like death, were chalky at the edges. The clanking emptiness of the room — of her life — created a milky haze over her sight. For what seemed like the hundredth night in a row, she invited Roy over to the lake on campus to see the alligators. For the first time, he said yes.

They rambled along the verdant avenue and before them flitted two zebra butterflies, as if teasing Annemarie to fly. Her husband, his blank, uncomprehending eyes, was at once her soul and her shame. It was horrible to have people such as him think ill of you, think you were wrong. It was small and ugly and soul-shaking. You felt as if you were coming apart like a cheap paperback, pages from your head fluttering to the floor every time somebody breathed on you. She wasn’t much for men herself — she never learned how to tell a sweet one from a poisonous one and besides, she’d never been convinced there was much difference. But a truly radiant woman never hustles off through life unaccompanied.

A small crowd was gathered on the boardwalk over the water — a leather-skinned old German couple, a tall skinny man with a pot-belly holding a toddler, three young college women with lush clouds of permed hair and tight little asses. A little girl came up with coral roses in a bucket balanced on her hip. The German people spoke softly to each other in German.

“We saw a wild boar on the highway back in the mountains in Kentucky,” said the man with the blond baby. “I thought it was a dog lying on the side of the road. Then I saw its tusks.”

Annemarie’s future, single life would be simple like this, among unpretentious people like these — she’d come see the alligators every night before dark with the out-of-towners. She would hear the gators’ mating calls, the deep bellows in the late spring. She’d appreciate the real elegance of nature. Roy appreciated only his new $60,000 car and his tax-free municipal bonds.

The alligator for this evening was a good seven-footer. It floated perfectly still on the surface of the water, the scales on its back pushing through like a miniature mountain range. Its fat front paws hung limp in the clear lake water. It seemed only a little threatening in the smooth summer light. The gator had a large sly grin.

Roy was from the North – he’d never been around alligators before. Florida was alien territory to him. People from the North always freaked out about the gators. Annemarie wanted to give Roy a thrill. She wanted to overwhelm him with her earthy, sensible, swampy ways. She rubbed his hand humbly and forgot to play the grouch.

“They like marshmallows the best,” the tall, chatty man holding the toddler said. The boy wore a short jumpsuit appliquéd with giraffes. The German couple nodded, the old man pushing his fluorescent yellow golf cap back on his forehead. “Let’s see what I’ve got in the truck,” the man said.

“That?” the little boy said, pointing.

“Alligator,” Annemarie told him. The boy nodded and bit his forefinger.

“Teeth,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “The alligator has lots of teeth.”

It was strong, it would eat her if it could. That was the way to be, she thought. That was the new simple way she would live, with or without a husband. Eat or be eaten. Roy hadn’t the slightest affinity for animals. Annemarie wanted to live a simple life. She didn’t want to be angry, ever again. Mostly, that was it. She could not afford any more to be bored with living — she didn’t have that kind of time. Her husband had become accustomed to disagreeing with her almost all of the time, as a method of entertainment.

The man with the baby came back with a vending-machine package of peanut butter cheese crackers. Annemarie shivered. Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure about feeding the thing. What if it came up on the bank? She had read how alligators could run 40 miles an hour over short distances. The man threw a cracker in the water near the alligator’s head. The animal whipped its head sideways and took a big gulp of water, inhaling the cracker. They all got a nice view of its teeth. The gator pumped its jaws, as if savoring the peanut butter, and the water clouded with dissolving cracker. Roy stood apart from the group, his face dark and tense. Annemarie leaned on her elbows, hanging over the railing of the boardwalk.

“Did you know it’s against the law to feed the alligators?” one of the young women with big hair asked. Her sharp voice made Annemarie jump.

“Really?” Annemarie said.

“Is that so?” the tall man said.

“It’s a felony,” the young woman said. “And there’s a fine.”

“How much is the fine?” asked Annemarie.

“A thousand dollars,” the young woman said.

“Really?” Annemarie might be afraid of the alligator but she wasn’t afraid of this young woman, with her elaborate hairdo and her half-pound of gold jewelry. This was the kind of woman Roy would marry next, she was sure. This kind would give him a lot less trouble. This kind would have no desire to feed reptiles of any sort. She directed herself to see marriage for what it was, not its tedious demonstration. The pretty young woman flipped her perfect locks over her shoulders and glared at the man with the peanut butter crackers. He threw another cracker to the alligator and laughed. His baby laughed too, throwing his head back so his fine pale hair waved in the breeze.

“The alligators get tame and that’s when they start eating dogs,” the young woman said. “And small children.” She was businesslike, her voice chilly with authority. The mystery of feeding the dangerous beast was lost on her, thought Annemarie. It was exactly the sort of thing Roy would say. Annemarie’s neck began to tingle, blood fury gathering in her cheeks. The tall man grinned at the snotty college girl and slowly pushed his glasses up with his middle finger.

“Then they have to shoot them,” the girl added. “So it’s really not a good thing to feed these animals.” The young woman had her nose up. Literally had her nose up; her voice resonated with indignation and righteous anger.

Annemarie pushed her arm against Roy.

“Maybe she’s right,” Roy whispered. He sounded reasonable, the way he always did.

“Oh, Christ, what’s the harm?” Annemarie said. She was still leery of the alligator, floating, for the moment seeming as harmless as a large rotting log, but she was enraged nonetheless. The hell with all of them, Annemarie thought. What do they know about right and wrong? What do they know about anger? What do they know about eating or being eaten?

“Great attitude,” the young woman said to Annemarie, shaking her head. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” The three lithe girls walked off, whispering to each other in disgust.

“Throw one of the crackers up on the bank,” Annemarie told the man, now her partner in crime, her body trembling. They were all standing on the wooden boardwalk over the water. She decided this animal was a deserving gator, nothing to be afraid of. She would bring it whole chickens, she decided. It would be her personal ritual. Her wants and needs had boiled down to nothing. It was amazing what she could do without, now she had decided to end her marriage. She would take one pot, a frying pan, and a wooden spatula when she left. That was all she needed. That was all anybody needed. Let him have the expensive cookware she was always cleaning improperly.

The man with the little boy threw a cracker onto the muddy bank. The alligator turned its head sideways and tried to pick up the cracker. Its teeth grazed the mud, making deep tracks. The cracker wouldn’t budge. The animal hauled itself onto the bank and took a mouthful of mud with the cracker. The man threw another cracker on the bank, and the gator swallowed it down. In the fading light, its teeth glowed pure and white. It did slow pushups on its meaty little forearms. Mud clotted its elbows, and the man threw more crackers. The German people oohed and aahed.

“I’m not putting you down,” the man said to his baby. The baby writhed in his arms.

“Teeth,” the baby yelled. “That!”

“Don’t put him down,” Annemarie told the man.

“No kidding,” the man said.

I could do this every night, Annemarie thought. Hang with the simple folk and feed dangerous wild animals like a crazy woman. She imagined the alligator getting angry, running toward her at forty miles an hour. She’d leap onto the railing of the boardwalk. She’d grab hold of the gator’s jaws and hold them closed with one hand, like the Seminole gator wrestlers at the orange groves she’d visited as a child. Reptilian rage was what she’d become practiced at. She had Roy to thank.

She remembered how all the muscles in an alligator’s jaws were for closing the mouth, not opening it. You could hold a gator’s mouth closed and flip it over on its back, and it would black out. The great beast would lie there, paws twitching, flabby white belly quivering. She still remembered one particular Seminole wrestler’s shiny black hair, slicked back off his forehead. He was lean and brown and his stomach muscles cast shadows upon one another. Her family had always watched the gator wrestling and bought rough sacks of tangelos and navel oranges. Annemarie had liked to squeeze the fruit and strain the juice, and think of the man’s bronze skin against the harsh concrete of the wrestling pit while she drank.

Now, Roy had never seen a gator wrestler in his life. He thought life was all harmless monkey jungles and parrot gardens and butterfly habitats. Annemarie knew better. She wanted to live on the edge, she wanted things out in the open. She didn’t want her problems hiding in the shadows anymore.

Annemarie stood against the wooden railing of the boardwalk and watched the alligator scraping the mud of the bank with its handsome teeth, trying for one last cracker. “Throw some more,” she told the man. Reflected light shone out of the gator’s dark eyes.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Roy asked. “That thing is huge. Didn’t you say a dog got eaten here last week?”

“Of course it’s not safe. That’s the point.”

“What’s got into you tonight?” Roy said. “Are you coming up on your period?”

“What kind of question is that?” She went rigid with black demented wrath.

Roy shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground. “Sorry.”

A black-and-white pulled off the main road, crunching over the loose gravel. “Police,” the German couple murmured. The two old people scuttled to the benches at the end of the boardwalk and sat down, removing their hats. The tall man stuffed the half-empty package of crackers into the pocket of his shorts. Car headlights flashed over the surface of the lake, then Annemarie was blinded by police flashlights.

“They’ll have to search me,” the tall man whispered.

“We got a complaint about someone feeding the gators,” said the first cop. He was short, and plump, with a dark bristly mustache. His partner was tall and black and stood several feet behind him. He held the flashlight while the white guy spoke. “People, this is a third-degree felony. You’ll go to jail.”

“Crackers,” the baby said. “Crackers!”

“Did they shoot that gator that ate the dog?” the tall man said.

“No,” said the white cop. “That might be it right there.” His partner shone the flashlight on the alligator. Its pupils contracted in the glare. It raised its chin above the water and smacked the surface. Annemarie felt water splash her legs. “It’s breeding season,” said the officer. “They’ll come at you at the drop of a hat.”

“Who was feeding the gators?” said the black cop.

“None of us,” said the tall man. The little boy grabbed his nose, and his father pushed his hand away. “There’ve been people coming and going for half an hour.”

Annemarie said nothing, leaning over the railing, her arms cradling her breasts, droplets of sweat rolling down her back. Roy stood at the other end of the boardwalk, his cigarette glowing.

She remembered the first time he had ever touched her. Roy’s fingertips had moved slowly back and forth over her forearm, the same way the gator’s paws now rocked in the water. His fingers had brushed against the side of her breasts, that was all. She had wanted his touch on her, back then. Where had it all gone?

“We could call the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission right now and they’d come down and cuff you,” said the white cop.

“I’m sure they would,” said the tall man.

“Teeth!” his baby boy shouted. “That,” the child said, one small finger pointing into the darkness of the swampy bank. “Hungry!” the boy squealed. His father shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. The police officers feigned disinterest and strode nonchalantly down the boardwalk, toward the German couple. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she saw how they shone their light into the old man’s eyes.

“Well, I’m going to get this little guy home to bed,” said the tall man, looking at Annemarie and smiling.

Annemarie nodded. “Let’s go,” she said to Roy. They walked toward the parking lot.

The policemen waited for them at the entrance to the boardwalk. “We have two witnesses who said they saw you feeding the gator,” the white one said. The old German couple huddled together on the bench nearby.

“Then you’ve got two liars,” Roy said. The German man patted his chest and looked at the ground.

“They both said it was a white male with a blue shirt.”

Roy’s shirt was blue, long-sleeved, covered with little paisleys. Annemarie had given it to him for Christmas. The man with the baby had on a blue T-shirt saying, “Eat Oysters, Live Longer.”

“There’ve been a lot of guys here with blue shirts,” Roy said, shrugging. The policemen took a few steps toward him, shining the flashlight in his face. Roy held his cigarette to his lips but didn’t inhale.

“I don’t like it when people lie to me,” said the cop. He touched the grip of his nightstick. Annemarie moved closer to Roy.

“Shit,” Roy said under his breath.

Back on the bench, the old German woman coughed, both hands over her mouth.

“I’ve been with my husband the whole time,” Annemarie told the officers. “He wasn’t feeding the alligators.”

“Care to sign a statement?” asked the black cop.

“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” Annemarie said.

“This is our job, lady.”

“Pretty messed-up job. Hassling people.”

“Is that right? Would you care to empty your pockets?”

“I told you, we weren’t feeding the alligator.”

“Maybe we think you were. Maybe we’re getting ready to arrest you and your husband here.”

“You do that and you’ll get slapped with a lawsuit.”

“So sue me. You’re under arrest.”

“What?”

Roy held his hand out. “Now, wait a minute,” he said.

Annemarie heard a rustling in the reeds behind her. She felt something slither over her shoes. At her feet was a tiny alligator, six inches long. Nobody else seemed to notice.

“You’re under arrest,” the officer repeated, his words to Annemarie slow and drawn out as though he were talking to a foreigner.

“What for?” Annemarie asked.

“For feeding the alligators.”

The big gator on the bank bellowed, its pale throat pumping like a frog’s. The German couple shrieked and ran down the path toward the parking lot. The cop pointed his flashlight toward the noise. Out of the reeds swarmed dozens of baby gators.

“I told you people it was breeding season,” said the white cop. The reeds rustled again and this time Annemarie heard a loud croaking sound. The big gator stood there, raised up on its forelegs, its jaws hanging open. The pink fleshy gullet pulsed in the flashlight’s beam. The teeth were dull yellow at the roots, gleaming pale ivory at the points.

“Holy shit,” the black cop said, grabbing Annemarie’s arm.

“Get the hell out of here,” shouted the white cop.

“I am,” the other cop said. He started toward the car, yanking hard on Annemarie’s shoulder.

“Leave me alone,” Annemarie said. She watched the animal while the officer struggled to pull her away. She went limp, buckling at the knees and kneeling on the ground. “Just leave me alone.” She wasn’t angry anymore, not at anyone or anything, especially not at her soon to be ex-husband. The spirit of her rage had gone into the animal. Pure reptile.

“Are you crazy?” screamed the cop.

The big gator sucked air and croaked again. It raised and lowered its head. The babies scuttled back toward it, milling under its body and peeping loudly like baby chicks. The alligator’s thick tail whipped back and forth through the reeds, and finally the cop ran off, leaving Annemarie in the mud. Why had she been trying so hard? Who had she been trying to fool? This was how it was. Eat or be eaten — the end of one angry life marked only the beginning of another. She closed her eyes as she heard the roar of the gator coming closer.

Roy knelt beside her. “You don’t want to do this,” he said.

“Do what?” Annemarie said.

“Get this alligator shot,” he said. “It’s not going to help.”

He was right. The alligator had never done anything to her. She looked at Roy. He had not been shattered by any of it. His eyes begged, but for once he wasn’t judging her. For once, maybe for the first time, it seemed like he understood her. Life could be so simple, once you got rid of all that confusion. She realized that there was no telling what would happen after today.

“Come on,” Roy yelled, grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet, and his hand against her skin felt better than she remembered. She ran behind him, her feet sliding over the muddy gravel, not afraid, but laughing like a madwoman. Let everyone see me for what I am, she thought. Let them observe my fiery trail from a safe distance, and weep for their own. Roy glanced back at her as they ran, but Annemarie’s lips did not move — she ran honestly, tripping across her own feet. She could feel the sea moving around inside her head, and she laughed.

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Weightlifting, a short story

illustration weightlifting 2illustration weightlifting

Weightlifting, a short story

Laurel stood in the alley beside the entrance to the Flower of India’s outdoor patio, and the stifling, smoggy Burbank sun was so hot she could feel droplets of sweat rolling down her back and her ribcage and between her breasts, soaking her nurse’s costume. She was hemmed in by a dented maroon B210, a smelly green garbage dumpster, and by the presence of her spurned lover. Jason had drawn himself erect to his full 4-foot-9-inch height (a foot shorter than Laurel herself) and was trying not to tense his neck — specifically his sternomastoid muscles — because he knew how much that pissed her off.

“Jason,” she said. “It’s not worth this. We should both calm down, O.K.?”

“I am calm,” Jason said. “I’m completely calm. I’m just confused. You’re very confusing, Laurel. Maybe you could go over it one more time?”

“I’m late for work,” she said. “I told you I only had an hour for lunch. I don’t know anything I could add to make it clearer. How many times do you want me to say I don’t want to see you anymore?”

Jason stared up at her. Without realizing it, he tensed his sternomastoids, his neck vanishing in the thick round cords. Jesus, Laurel thought, there he goes again!

He blinked his eyes. “I’ll be home tonight. Could you please call? Please?”

“Oh, God,” she said. “All right. If it helps. I’ll call.”

Jason nodded. His neck relaxed. He looked more normal, but not completely normal, never completely normal. That was one of the problems. He looked like an an eleven-year-old in an inflatable Halloween “muscle” bodysuit. People stared at him everywhere he went; and stared at Laurel when she was with him.

In the beginning, she thought she’d be able to handle it. After all, his face was beautiful, startling eyes, neat brows, and strong chin. The proportions of his body were perfect, if you viewed him from a distance. And the physical side of the relationship was fantastic. He was a perfect little doll: an expensive toy, like from the Black Licorice Whip on Santa Monica and Sunset. But she was wrong. She couldn’t handle it.

“Bye, Jason,” she said.

She started to move, edging her body through the narrow space between him and the dumpster, but she didn’t do it fast enough. Jason reached out. He wanted to embrace her, sweep her back in his arms, and carry her off like Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh. But nine times out of ten he didn’t have the leverage; he had the strength but not the right angle of lift. If he’d tried, he would have toppled Laurel into the open dumpster.

So all he could do instead was hug her. His nose rested atop the shelf of her breasts; his breath caught a little in his chest and he inhaled deeply, almost a sob, and that was his big mistake. Through her costume — today she was a bit player on a soap — through the thin white material, he smelled her perfume, the heavy frangipani oil she got at Mrs. Gooch’s in Redondo, and when he smelled that oil he couldn’t help himself.

He plunged his face into her breasts, and though he felt absurd he couldn’t stop himself; it happened and he could do nothing, not even after he remembered that this was one of the things she really hated. His face snuggled into that frangipani scent, into the soft flesh of her bosom, and his head wiggled back and forth like a rooting newborn.

Laurel stood, her chin resting on his head, tangling his straight, silky blonde hair as his head moved back and forth at her breasts. She had an urge to rise up and smash him on the crown of his head with her chin. She had read somewhere that you could kill a person with your chin, supposedly it was one of the hardest bones in the body, but, no — maybe that was the elbow. Anyway, this was all her fault.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

He untangled himself and stepped back. His eyes were red and his face was red and his thick hair was wild.

“Goodbye,” he said. And as soon as he saw her car drive off toward the studio, he attacked the wooden fence of the restaurant’s patio with his bare fists. Then he went home, and spent an hour peroxiding his hands and pulling splinters out with an eyebrow tweezers Laurel had left at his apartment, on one of the rare occasions he had persuaded her to spend the night.

***

Back at work, Laurel went to the makeup room. The hair lady pulled one of the hot curler sets over and started re-rolling Laurel’s hair. Laurel closed her eyes, and let the brushing and tugging lull her.

Jason was an actor, too, and in her heart Laurel had to admit he was much more talented than she. If he’d had maybe two or three inches more in height, he could have been cast in a slew of parts. But as it was, being 4-foot-9, he was shut out. Oh, he got a few far-out costume alien roles, and the occasional little person job, but the irony was that he was actually too tall for the best of those parts. Like when they were making that Star Wars sequel and they needed people for the little fuzzy things, the Ewoks, Jason wasn’t even called to audition. Too tall. Laurel had just met him then, and she never forgot how he reacted.

He got totally bombed — must have drunk at least three six-packs of beer. Being as small as he was, relatively speaking, that was probably enough to have killed him. He showed up at Laurel’s apartment, the third-floor place in West Hollywood with the center courtyard and pool. He danced around like a maniac in the open-air hallway outside her front door. Laurel literally peed in her pants when all of a sudden he vaulted over the railing. She ran to the edge, feeling the iron grillwork vibrating from his push off, but by the time she looked down she’d heard the blessed splash. She ran down to drag him out of the water.

This white-haired biddy on the first floor had screamed at her as she tried to half-carry, half-drag the semi-comatose, muttering Jason upstairs.

“Is that your son?” the crone yelled. “I’m going to report you to the welfare department. Letting a little boy jump off a third-story railing — he could have been killed. You should have been watching him better, lady!”

Laurel got him up to the apartment and put his head in the toilet and told him to throw up. Then she put him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.

The next morning, when she awoke, Jason was already gone, but there were flowers everywhere. He had gone around the corner to Lucky’s and bought their entire cut flower stock. Every pot and pan and glass she owned was stuffed, crammed, overflowing with flowers.

***

Laurel opened her eyes and saw Freddie standing over her, ready to touch up the makeup. She leaned her head back, he tilted the chair, and then she could feel him brushing her lids with fresh eye shadow.

Today was the fourth time in eight months she had tried to break it off with Jason. She had to make it clean, this time, otherwise it was going to take both of them right over the edge. Usually, Laurel was better at this sort of thing. With Jason, though, the relationship had lingered on her doorstep like a yowling, starving cat. She’d get to a certain point, then Jason would suck her in with his green eyes; her courage would fall away. She would backtrack; afraid she was making the wrong move. For a few weeks, she would be filled with hope. She would think, maybe Jason and I can make ourselves a place in the world.

“Open your peepers, darling,” Freddie said.

“You’ve given me eyes again! And lips. Too bad I can’t have you come over to my house every time I have a date.”

“You flatter me, honey,” Freddie said. “Nothing here that nature didn’t give you. Just me and Max Factor helping out a little.”

Laurel went off to her dressing room to look over the script. This morning she’d spoken two lines, this afternoon she had three. In this afternoon’s scene, she had to cut ski pants off the legs of the character of “Sue Roper,” after a tragic fall on the slopes. Her three lines were, “Hold her down while I remove her pants,” “There’s a lot of bleeding here,” and “We need to get this young woman to X-ray, pronto!” If the director tried to “direct” her today, with this garbage, she thought she might bite his hand off at the wrist.

***

After work, she went to dance class. She wasn’t with it; the teacher kept coming over and fussing with her arms, her legs, pushing her hips down, tucking her butt under. When it was her turn to do a solo, she almost forgot the routine. Snapping her head around for the turns, she nearly lost her balance.

Leaving class, she shivered as her tired rump touched the icy vinyl of the car’s upholstery. At Ralph’s, she bought one single-serving Chocolate Supreme frozen cupcake. As she opened her front door, she noticed the message light on her machine flashing. The light flashed one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Seven calls! She hoped they weren’t all from Jason.

She kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, pressing the Play button.

“Hi, Laurel. Oh, are you working? This is Katherine. If you want to eat, I’m meeting a bunch of people at El Coyote around eight, hope we see you?” Click. Beep.

“Uh, this is The Strand Bookstore. The book you ordered, uh, the poetry book, is in. Thanks.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry about today at the restaurant. I’ve got to see you tonight. Please call.” Click. Beep.

“This is Dr. Petersen’s office, calling to confirm an appointment for Laurel Bragg on Wednesday, the eighth of December, at 3:30 p.m.” Click. Beep.

“Hi there. Remember me? I’m back from the Oregon festival, it was terrific. Give me a buzz; I’ve got a nice script sitting here with your name on it.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry. I’m waiting for your call. I’ll sit by the phone all night.” Click. Beep.

“I know we can get through this. I have faith.” Click. Beep.

Faith. What a crock, Laurel thought. What did Jason have faith in? Did he look at everything in his life the way he looked at his weights? Did he think if he pushed hard enough, if he pushed enough times, that he could push them both into a happy ending?

She unwrapped the frozen cupcake. She nuked it, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her living room. Three calls. She would have bet on all seven. Maybe this time, he knew. Maybe this time they’d both be smart enough to let it die with a little dignity.

She finished eating and lay down, staring out the window at the wispy gray clouds passing over the full moon. She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling her aching spine crack. Then she heard a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” she said.

She could barely hear his voice; looked like he was in one of his whispering moods.

“It’s me,” Jason said.

She dragged herself up and looked out the peephole. The top of his head was just visible through the dirty lens.

She opened the door: he looked down at the ground, staring at his feet. He wore his leather jacket with the sheepskin collar, the one from the little boy’s dress department at Magnin’s. Wound tight around his neck was a red and black striped muffler with long black fringe, but the jacket was open all the way; he didn’t have any shirt on underneath. His lips were turning blue.

His eyes were bright, the whites clear, but the rims of his eyelids were deep red. “Can I come in?” he said.

A chest-bursting sigh heaved out of her; she clicked her teeth together in her jaw. He looked like he was going to crumple up in a heap on her doorstep.

“Sure,” she said. “I’m just tired. I had a depressing dance class. Come in. You must be freezing.”

She sat down on the couch. He closed the door, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Well, what’s it going to be tonight? she thought.

“Laurel,” he said. He sat down next to her. Reaching up, he pulled her head down to the center of his bare chest and held her like that, bent over, her face chilled by the leather and the cold zipper of his jacket. Her cheek was against his smooth chest — not a hair on it because he had it waxed, and she could smell the soap he used, Jesus, he was always so damned clean. Then she felt drops on her face, warmish drops, first one, then another, then drop-drop-drop-drop.

He let go and stood, pulling her to her feet; sometimes she forgot how strong he was. All he needed was the proper leverage and he could pick her up, carry her. Not the Gone With the Wind scene again, she thought — I don’t know if I can take it.

He picked her up and kissed her; his lips were pale and cold as he opened his mouth, pushing his tongue past her lips, over her teeth, moving it back and forth over their sharp edges. For a moment — as he held her without effort, as she felt his body through the thick leather and the canvas of his jeans — she imagined that things were different, that when they went out together nobody gave them funny looks, nobody gawked at her like she was a pervert or a dwarf-hag or a pedophile.

He lowered her legs and her feet touched the ground. She straightened her legs and stood. He craned his neck back to look her in the eye, and she saw that his eyes were dry, but the whites weren’t clear now, they were webbed in red, matching the inflamed edges of his eyelids.

“All I want is this, Laurel,” he said. “You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I won’t expect anything.”

She looked down at his face. “What are you saying? What have you come down to? There are ten thousand women in L.A. who would be good for you. Can’t you see it’s not worth it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t see much of anything. I curse you all day under my breath, I bad-mouth you to my therapist, and I have a dart board with your picture on it. But at night, it’s not like that. Then, it’s like nothing bad has ever happened.”

He turned his face away and she stared at the top of his head. I can’t believe this groveling, she thought, this is really bad, sick, and pathetic. I can’t believe I have robbed another human being of so much dignity. It isn’t Jason who’s being weak here, it’s me, I’m the weak one who can’t do what has to be done.

“Jason, I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t any good. You don’t really want to slink in here after dark like some criminal.”

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Well, forget it,” she said. “Believe what I am saying to you. This thing cannot work. This is the end of it.” His neck tensed, his sternomastoids swelling and rising until he looked like an alarmed turtle. There he goes again, she thought. Will he ever stop?

Jason’s eyes got shinier, water building up inside his lower eyelids, about to spill out, over the edge. Suddenly, his hand flew up; he leaned in towards her to follow through with the swing; his open palm connected with the center of her chest and her body bounced off it. The thud of the blow and the echo throbbed in her sternum, in her breasts, in her spine; her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue, tasting blood, as her knees gave way, sending her to the floor.

“I never wanted to tell you this,” he said, “but as an actress, you stink.”

As she bucked and heaved on the rug, trying to force some air back into her lungs, he was moving out the door, slamming it as he ran; the wall of the apartment shook and the brass guard chain rattled back and forth; tick-tick, tick-tick. Jason was right — she’d chosen the wrong line of work; the wrong life. She went to sleep for the night where she had fallen, rolling atop her rumpled satchel, in her sweat-stained leotard, the remains of Freddie’s makeup job smeared over her face like the greasy ashes of a penitent, and though the next morning she couldn’t remember her dreams, she knew that they had been filled with a great heat and a great darkness, and most of all, the sensation of a relentless, unforgiving gravity.

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