by Kelly Jones
It’s time to go now.
We’re not ready but we’re doing it.
Getting in the car and putting distance between
us and them.
Losing ourselves in the in-between of two coasts.
Leaving a trail of exhaust to maybe, one day, follow home.
I’ll send postcards to people from each state we go through,
let them know that we were somewhere, that we did something.
We’ll be out there,
floating on the edge of that new shore, finally not drowning.
Kelly Jones lives in New Orleans, an MFA student at the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. Kelly’s work can be found in Main Street Rag, Knock Magazine, and Cold Mountain Review. Kelly also enjoys improv, biking around, and attempting to play the accordion.
photo by cupcakes2.
by Rodney Nelson
he attended the watch and not the death
sat in on the
watch with many but went alone to the
desert to think and in time he would have
he would have had to sit in
on the death and commemoration to
get a wedding invitation and had
not been at either one
the loss and mourning but had thought and walked
alone in the desert and he had to
would have had to sit in
on the wedding for anyone to come
to his own watch and death in time but he
had not gone
to the death and commemoration or
the wedding so had amercement again
and he went to his watch and death alone
Rodney Nelson’s poetry got into print long ago; but he turned to fiction and did not write a poem for twenty-two years, restarting in the 2000s. So he is both older and “new.” See his page in the Poets & Writers directory. Nelson was in San Francisco during the first “hippie wave,” and his first published work was in the so-called underground press. He morphed into a book and copy editor and lives in the Dakotas.
photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis.
by Thomas Healy
“Will you take five dollars for this?” a gangly woman in a Grateful Dead sweatshirt asked Galen.
He turned around and looked at the vintage leather bicycle helmet she held in her left hand. A blue price tag hung from one of the wrinkled straps.
“I would but the lady in charge of the sale probably won’t.”
“Where is she?”
“Inside the house.”
“I guess I’ll go check with her then.”
“Good luck.” Galen smiled. If it were up to him, he would have sold the helmet to the woman since her offer was only two dollars less than the asking price. But not Helen. He was pretty sure Helen would not budge on the price. She had hired him to work for her on quite a few estate sales and she was adamant that the first day of the sale the listed prices were not negotiable. It was only on the second or third day when everything under fifty dollars sold at half price.
Galen had met Helen the winter before last when they worked together on the serving staff in the dining room of the Ferrall Hotel. She had been there before him and was the first to leave when she got her realtor’s license. He was still waiting tables so she knew he could use the extra income and he was usually available to work during the day. He seldom turned her down. The wages were meager but the work wasn’t hard. All he had to do was to be polite and make change.
This morning he was stationed in the garage because it was crammed with so many items for sale, Helen wanted someone there to keep an eye out for shoplifters. He didn’t mind, though. The air was surprisingly mild for this late in October. Besides, he had brought along a heavy wool sweater and a thermos of amaretto-flavored coffee.
A bearded man approached him with a saddlebag tucked under his left arm. “Can I pay you for this?”
“You sure can.”
Carefully he counted out the money. “Whoever owned this place sure was interested in bicycles,” the man remarked, glancing around the spacious garage at all the bicycle accessories stored on the shelves and hanging on the walls.
“I didn’t know the owner. But I understand, in his spare time, he did a lot of repair work for friends and people in the neighborhood.”
“I’ve been in some bike shops downtown that didn’t have half the inventory in here.”
“I guess working on bikes was a real passion for him.”
Galen, sipping coffee, sat back in his camp chair and glanced over at all the tools and spare parts and chains scattered across the work bench in the corner. From some of the other estate sales he had worked he believed he could discover a lot about people based on their possessions. Obviously the owner of this estate was a cycling enthusiast, not only a rider, but someone who enjoyed working on two-wheelers. Galen figured the man was probably someone who had liked being on his own whether tinkering in his garage or riding along a street or trail. He bet he was not the sort of person who engaged in much small talk but immediately got to the point and then went about his business. Courteous, perhaps, but not cordial. People as serious about sprockets and cranks and gear shifts, he knew, preferred their own company.
A few months ago, Helen hired him to work an estate sale on the east side of town. The widow who had lived in the modest limestone house where the sale was conducted was very fond of cats and, not surprisingly, possessed numerous drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures of them. Right away, he assumed she was a quiet person who preferred to be left alone, yet kind and considerate toward her neighbors, and his assumption proved to be pretty accurate based on the subsequent conversations he had with people at the sale who had known her.
You are what you own, he discovered time and again, and possessions are definitely one of the clearest expressions of anyone’s identity.
“You a relative of Mr. Kleiner?” a customer asked Galen after he bought a claw hammer and a crescent wrench.
“No. I’ m not.”
“I thought maybe you were a nephew of his,” the man said as he shoved his purchases into a book bag slung over his left shoulder. “You bear some resemblance to him around the mouth and eyes.”
Galen smiled. “Sorry, but I never met the gentleman.”
“Well, he was a hard person to get to know. I’ve lived in this neighborhood almost eight years and hardly exchanged a word with him. I guess you had to be interested in bicycles to get him to open up.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” another customer chimed in as he handed Galen three dollars for some reflectors. “I’ve never known anyone so crazy about bicycles. You couldn’t get him to shut up sometimes once he got started.”
The woman beside him smiled broadly. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Kleiner is how he used to bicycle kids around the neighborhood on his big blue beach cruiser. They’d fit right between him and the handlebars.”
“Remember how he’d let them ring that damn bell practically the whole time?”
“How could I forget? It was as loud as an ice cream truck.”
Someone beside the cruiser, overhearing her, rang the bell on the handlebars, and the woman immediately cupped her ears.
“Yeah,” her companion muttered, also smiling, “he was kind of the uncle of the neighborhood. Good old Uncle Lloyd.”
“You’d never have said that to his face, though.”
“Lord, no. He would’ve thought you were making fun of him and stared right through you.”
“He was a curious person. That’s for sure.”
Galen looked at the clunky beach bike braced against the furnace, trying to remember when he was small enough to have sat on the handlebars. He was sure he would have rung that bell as incessantly as any of the kids Mr. Kleiner had given rides to, making believe he was perched in the cab of a fire engine racing through the neighborhood in response to a four-alarm blaze.
“Personally, I never had much contact with him,” an older man with bushy eyebrows remarked as he sorted through a cigar box of toe clips. “He always seemed pretty distant to me.”
The woman snickered. “Definitely took a while to melt a square of butter in his mouth.”
“I don’t know. I just never felt comfortable around the man. It was as if the last thing he wanted to do was talk with a grown person. Unless it was about bicycles. With kids, I understand, he was a real chatterbox, but not with people his own age.”
Around ten o’clock Helen came out to the garage and brought him a maple bar and asked if he needed to take a break.
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
“You making much money?”
“Some, but not much. Mostly nickels and quarters.”
Faintly her shoulders swayed to the reggae music that blared from the boombox in the kitchen. “We’re doing pretty well inside,” she declared. “We’ve sold the fridge and stove and we’ve got quite a few bids on the credenza and dining room set.”
“Yeah, I’m pleased with the way things are going so far.”
“Have you had any problems?”
“A pewter salt and pepper shaker set went missing,” Helen said. so I assume someone must’ve taken it
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well that happens at these sales, as you know,” she said. “But it really wasn’t worth all that much.”
She swerved to the music and surveyed the garage. “I’m surprised you haven’t sold any of the bikes yet.”
“I’m surprised, too, especially the blue one over there,” he said, “the beach cruiser. I’ve had quite a few people tell me Mr. Kleiner gave kids rides on it around the neighborhood.”
“Is that so?”
He nodded, jangling the change in his waist pack. “Several people remember him. Figured it might have some nostalgic value.”
“Any of the kids he used to give rides to talk to you?”
Galen thought a moment. “No. Now that you mention it, I don’t believe so.”
“That figures,” she said, suddenly becoming still even though the music continued to blare. “I’ve spoken to a couple people here who’ve told me they wouldn’t let their children get anywhere near him.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, startled.
“Apparently the parents of some little girl accused him of touching her inappropriately a few years ago. Nothing came of it, as I understand, but after that he was seldom seen riding with any children. Only by himself.”
“But before that had there been any complaints?”
“Not that anyone has told me about.”
“I’m amazed no one said anything to me about this.”
“I suppose it’s not the kind of thing people discuss with people they don’t know.”
“They spoke to you about it, though.”
“Lots of good buys here and inside the house,” Galen announced as two heavy women wobbled up the driveway. “Hurry before everything’s sold.”
They smiled and moseyed over to the shelves stacked with garden equipment. He had made the sales pitch so many times he doubted if he would ever get it out of his head, suspected it would linger there like a lyric from a popular song long after it had stopped being popular. Business had slowed considerably since the initial couple hours of the sale so he didn’t have to make the pitch as often, which he was grateful for, though he knew Helen was annoyed about the decline in activity.
Occasionally, as he waited for customers, he caught himself staring at the beach bike, finding it hard to comprehend something so plain could be involved in something so dreadful. It appeared safe, sturdy and secure. As harmless as a sand pail. He tried to picture its owner mounted on it, riding out of the garage with a youngster tucked in front of him, pedaling down the street like “a great blue cloud,” as Helen said someone had recalled. It all seemed so innocent. Small wonder so few people in the neighborhood were aware of what was really happening.
Most of the people he questioned about Mr. Kleiner that afternoon acted as if they had scarcely known him, despite the fact that the man had resided in this house for nearly thirty-two years. He suspected many he spoke to really didn’t know about the dark rumors that circled around the retired chemist, but he also could tell from the guarded responses of others that some did know. Their silence was deafening, their seeming ignorance not entirely credible.
The closest anyone came to admitting he knew of the stories was a burly guy in a John Deere cap who, after purchasing a set of thin cone wrenches, remarked to Galen, “I’m surprised that beach bike hasn’t gone yet.”
He shrugged one of his massive shoulders. “Maybe to bury the goddamn thing, I suppose.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
He started to walk away then paused. “To get rid of it and everything associated with it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Silent, the burly man shambled away, sticking the wrenches into his back pocket.
By the end of the sale most of the items in the garage had been sold, including several of Mr. Kleiner’s bicycles. The only ones that remained were a rusted old Raleigh and the beach cruiser. As always, Helen instructed Galen to pack up what was left in boxes to be picked up later by the Salvation Army. He managed to fill one and a half boxes with tools and bicycle gear before he wheeled the rusted Raleigh between the boxes and printed DONATION on a piece of cardboard and set it on the bicycle seat.
Galen then turned his attention to the beach cruiser, looking around the nearly vacant garage. From the kitchen the sounds of the Caribbean continued to play, and he smiled, imagining Helen’s narrow hips bouncing to the pulsating rhythm. Out of the half full box he found a screwdriver, got down on one knee, and began to remove the handlebars. Then he pried loose the seat, deciding to disassemble the bike piece by piece.
Thomas Healy welcomes your comments on “Up to Speed” at laurel462001[at]yahoo.com.
photo by dno1967b.
by Carl James Grindley
There used to be an old school patisserie on one side of Bastion Square and Lora and I would go
there on our way to work–the tip of my umbrella sticking for a moment in the wooden
cobblestones–and we would order pain au chocolates or rather I would order a pain au chocolate
and Lora would get a bran muffin because she was watching her weight although her weight was
perfect like her hair was perfect like her eyes were perfect like her skin was perfect like the list
of everything about her that could be made into a list was perfect and I would glance at the front
page of an imported copy of the New York Times but I never bought an imported copy of the
New York Times because it was four dollars and I did not know that many years later I would be
in New York and Lora would not be in New York and the patisserie would be long closed but this
is what I thought one random morning about everything:
Last night’s rain has blackened
The cobblestones and I slide
My left arm overtop of your right
Arm because I don’t want you to
Slip and you don’t slip, and suddenly
We’re alone in the alleyway between
Our apartment and the square
And I see how beautiful
You are and how beautiful
The morning is and like Eve
To Milton’s Satan, you are so
Beautiful that I cannot say
Anything, I cannot say, I cannot, I,
And my mind is blank: that’s how beautiful
You are and when I can speak again–
The sun moved a little just so–I would like
To tell you how beautiful you are,
But I’ve already told you
How beautiful you are twice
This morning and a third
Time might be too much and I don’t
Know if comparing myself to Satan
Will win me any friends
Or influence people,
But it’s true, you really are so beautiful
That for a brief moment
I forgot about eternal damnation
And sin and death and the full on
Spectrum of time from creation
To now and here, now,
All these years later,
I know I made a mistake,
Did the wrong thing, should
Have said something, anything, so.
I never actually ordered a pain au chocolate and I don’t think Lora ever had a bran muffin. The
bakery sold these expensive stuffed croissants–with like spinach and cheese–and we couldn’t
really afford either because we were so young and just starting out, so I think we either got
coffee or just walked on by. But it was a bakery that I always wanted to patronize. The
newspaper, by the way, was purchased frequently but at a newstand in Market Square. It was part
of my dim sum routine, but by then, Lora was long gone, replaced for a little while by
Carl James Grindley grew up on an island off the West Coast of Canada, and studied in the US and Europe. He has taught creative writing at Yale University, and works at The City University of New York. His book Icon was published in 2008 by No Record Press. He has recent work in Apocrypha & Apostrophe, Anemone Sidecar, A Bad Penny Review, Eunoia Review, Anastomoo and Atticus Review. Grindley is a founding editor of The South Bronx Review.
photo by Jean Louis Zimmerman.
by David Mitchell
Editor’s note: this is the concluding seventh installment of David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here and part six here.
I was seated at a high row in a hockey stadium, right next to my sister Monica, gazing in awe at a Tyrannosaurus. It was a hydraulic puppet moving on a wheeled stand that camouflaged to match the color of the floor. The narrator, who walked around on the floor in the ring constantly reminded me that the puppets were nearly all the right size. The scale was nothing short of awesome, but this was a confirmation for me, not a revelation. The narrator had taken us on a tour through the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, telling us a little about the inhabitants of each age. There was a limit to how much he could cover, but I was pleased that I had to lean to my left, whisper to Monica, and correct him only once.
It can be said on all levels that my awe of dinosaurs is nearly religious. I don’t know what the various parents surrounding me thought. I don’t know if they felt bringing their children to Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience was a guilty pleasure, a reminder of their own childhood, or of a particular early 90’s science fiction thriller with a preachy anthropocentric message and dated paleontology. The world of the Mesozoic was richer, subtler, more terrifying, more elegant, more sublime, and less predictable than anything that could have been imagined by a fantasy or science fiction author. There is a real poignancy in knowing that no work of art could ever hope to do dinosaurs justice; they are real monsters, real aliens, real history, and all we can ever conceive of their world must necessarily be a pale shadow of the world that once was. Though right here, for the moment, we could pretend otherwise.
More than twenty years ago, Monica shared her Big Sister Insight with me on a hideous oval-shaped red and orange rug that covered our living room floor, telling me fantastic stories about the creatures that once were and, sadly, were no longer around. She would even make crayon drawings of a prehistoric menagerie for me, which we cut out and taped all along the walls of my room to form a parade. But that time was distant to me. Children will believe in anything, even Santa Claus. And it seems that most people will unconsciously bury dinosaurs among the mass graveyard of childhood chimeras of no relevance to their adult lives, where dead angels, unicorns, dragons, robots and even their god may lie. It’s a much more shocking revelation when you find yourself thinking, in your adult life, “Holy shit, is this real?! Did this actually happen? Is our reality really a part of something much greater? And if this is true, then how can anything in this ridiculous, shriveled, materialistic world we’ve created for ourselves seem important ever again?” This is more or less the same reaction I had when I re-evaluated the Christianity my mother had imbibed me with and concluded I might actually have good reasons for believing in it after all.
The show concluded with an obligatory meteor impact, as if Tyrannosaurs had nothing better to do than step onstage, roar menacingly, threaten nearby herbivores, and wait for Armageddon. The audience cheered at this technical wizardry, and the cheer was well deserved, I suppose. I clapped out of courtesy as well, except contemplating extinction and the transience of life made me depressed. The birth, growth, decay, and death of a universe, solar system, planet, phylum, species, civilization, culture, lifespan, or a single relationship all seemed like reflexive microcosms of the other to me; tiny flickering flames between two immeasurable nights. Dinosaurs have a lot to tell us about our place in the world, and some of it is existentially terrifying. I wondered how many other people in the audience felt this way.
Long after the show, we were walking through the Boston Waterfront, passing Long Wharf, the New England Aquarium, and the Quincy Market place.
“I think I may be outside the realm of most peoples’ comprehension,” I muttered.
“That’s right,” Monica said, “You are. But you still have to meet them halfway.”
“And why does it seem like most people have no imagination whatsoever?”
“They don’t,” Monica nodded, “There’s a terrible shortage of imagination. But we’re lucky to be raised by two parents who are intellectuals. And who are still alive and married.”
“I’m glad for that, too, I guess. I’m kind of leaning toward ‘nature’ in the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument. I think some things about us are just innate, no matter who raised us. The Oracle once told me I was like a sponge, as far as my sensitivity went. ”
“Maybe a little,” Monica mused. “Why is it that you and Lydia came out of the womb believing everything people told you about yourselves, and why is it that I came out knowing that was all bullshit?”
“Dad’s kind of a radical determinist, isn’t he?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he thinks whatever shortcomings we have are his fault. He thinks everything we do is a reflection of him. He feels this stupidly misplaced sense of guilt that two of his three kids are wounded, melancholy introverts instead of ambitious go-getters like him. Once I decided I didn’t give a shit what he thought of me, my self-esteem improved.”
“Good for you!” Monica said, “You tower above him emotionally. But you can still learn a lot from Dad. He isn’t perfect, but just watch the way he takes care of you and mom. Look at the way he organizes everything in his classes. He’s brilliant.”
“I know, I know . . .”
“It’s up to you to meet everyone else on their terms, not yours.”
“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work . . .”
“Shut up! You haven’t tried anything. This applies to your future students, Dad, Mom, me, everyone else. And please, no more analyzing of personality types or archetypes or anything like that. That’s so bullshit. If I listened to things like that I wouldn’t be married to Kevin. He is the exact opposite of what I thought I wanted, what I had been attracted to. We have nothing in common, not our personalities, interests, tastes . . . we agree on nothing. But, I knew he was the one for me. After that heartbreaking break-up with Shen, I yelled at God. I told him that I was done with relationships, that I’d had enough. I told to him to let me know who HE would be.”
I knew I couldn’t say too much before Monica would start lecturing me again, but I let her talk more. The lesson was not to be negative or something. I heard it as ‘be dishonest’ instead. Or the message was that a relationship should supplement your already perfect, self-sufficient life, and ignore the reality of your hunger for love. I never understood society’s intense obsession with success and competition. It made the world a lonelier place. We were passing a cemetery at this point, a lovely and quiet place atop a hill braced by a stone wall.
“ . . . so, lo and behold, after that break up in May, I started talking to Kevin at the movie theater where we both worked, out of sheer boredom. I can’t stand being bored. I learned that Kevin wasn’t boring—I mean predictable. We talked all week and decided to go see a movie and eat at California Pizza Kitchen—it wasn’t a date. At dinner, I remember being overwhelmed by this really warm feeling—I was so comfortable and peaceful. And then this voice said, quite literally, ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like.’ And I knew that I was supposed to take a risk with Kevin. Of course, I told Kevin that I couldn’t be in a relationship, I needed to practice, and after three phone calls, I told him that I wanted to be with him.”
I wanted to tell Monica that I also knew what that warm feeling felt like, that I felt it with Serissa before she became abusive, that I felt it with Tara even when nothing existed between us except for an email correspondence, and that I felt it the first time I spoke with Losang over the phone. But though she meant well, I knew Monica would have none of that. I didn’t want to hear her tell me again that my feelings were false, since all of them were obviously the wrong choices. She’d already told me that she knew from the start Losang and I wouldn’t end up together, even though I told her next to nothing about the whole affair. Would I have known better had I listened to God’s voice, whatever that sounded like?
“But when you hear things like ‘this is what it’s supposed to feel like’ how do you know it’s God?” I asked, my voice withering, “How do I know it’s God, and that I’m not just retconning whatever moments of insight I have by saying the Angel told me?”
“Let me tell you a story!” Monica said, “I was engaged, and recently had learned to drive, like a year or two before. I thought I was nervous about driving. I remember one day, I was driving to Millis, to Rossi’s, place where we were having the reception to discuss details with their coordinator. I was feeling horrible and decided to turn on music to distract myself from feeling unnaturally afraid. I ended up pulling over to the side of the road. Mom was scared too. Then, later that week maybe, Kevin and I went to Riverside Park in Springfield. That was intense—I remember asking God that day to send four angels, one for each wheel. I had no idea why I did that.”
“Mom and Dad took the car in to be fixed—for whatever reason. The mechanic said that the axles were really messed up and that the car was a tragedy waiting to happen. Apparently it’s especially dangerous on highways.”
Monica turned and smiled at me, but I was mostly staring ahead. I didn’t know where we were exactly, but we’d reached an open-air café flanked by meadows, a fountain, and carefully placed trees. I wondered how many of the people around us were having conversations like this. I wished I could be certain that an angel—a real angel and not the ram-headed being I imagined—was telling me something useful and that I could actually listen. What did Monica mean to tell me, then? Trust my instincts and intuition about God, despite the paucity of affirmations, and believe they only lied to me about love, unless I had no use for it?
The Knight of Cups
I sat alone in the downstairs chapel, a good distance away from Father Ted’s confessionals. I don’t think he was present, but I hadn’t checked. The red light burning near the altar of the Blessed Sacrament was enough for me. This place, though stolid, was a sanctuary of peace. I started coming in here around the time I got back in touch with Losang, when I began to pray for her health and well-being. I even made special effort to phrase my petitions in the simple and effective manner that a Buddhist would. My hands were clasped, my eyes were closed, and my forehead was pressed against the wooden pew in front of me, but this time, I was praying just to hear God’s voice.
I could have listed a hundred reasons why I thought Christianity could be an internally consistent, intellectually viable, historically plausible, and generally beneficial belief system, as well as a vital force for good in this world. I could embarrass some militant atheists into silence by showing that I’d forgotten more about dinosaurs and paleontology than they would ever care to learn, tearing apart their scientific and rational pretensions, and proving that my views were more sophisticated than theirs. But none of that meant I had an actual experience of my faith, the way my mother and sister did, only an intellectual understanding of it. Serissa once said that she envied me for having a good relationship with God. I didn’t even know if I had that relationship.
I had to accept God’s will, yet for all I knew, God’s will could have been that I live a thwarted life full of regret, and that I die alone. That’s how I read the evidence so far, and it was consistent with what the Angel told me about growing in holiness through suffering and purification. I would have preferred to know now if that were the case. Even at my happiest, each moment of bliss seemed like a prelude to something greater. What meaning was there to be found in a series of isolated promises—aborted orgasms—that could never culminate into anything? I didn’t want to be teased again by a seemingly plausible goal I could never obtain, and then see my hopes dashed like an infant’s brains against a brick wall. It was all a big shaggy dog story. I honestly think Camus failed to make a case against suicide by re-casting Sisyphus as a great existential hero.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” chuckled a wry, but gentle voice to my left.
The Angel was standing in the aisle, holding his sword across himself, one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade.
“And yet you live anyway,” chuckled the Angel, “so you must be living with hope for something. You doubt you have true faith? You could have fooled me.”
I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but the Angel continued,”What is this desire of yours to know God but an act of faith? What is calling to the Lord but an act of deep trust? Do you truly believe that the people you would normally sit with upstairs, with whom you claim to have nothing in common, all hear God as they would like to? All of them feel the same emptiness you do, the same desire. Do you think even Father Ted is completely satisfied with his relationship with God? They all long for it. Wherefore is their thirst if it is a cup that can never be filled by anything in this world? As for the next, I think you described it to Tara well enough.”
“So may I suggest, as the Oracle tried to tell you, that although your reach will always exceed your grasp, you still hold that cup in your hands? That you are in the light, and the light is within you? A god who merely watches is cruel and indifferent, like Serissa’s god. Your god, the god she could not recognize, is much closer than that. He is in your heart. Every human tear is a divine tear. Be thankful that all he is asking of you is to let go, to reach your hand out into the darkness, and to let him take care of the rest.”
I didn’t know what to pray for this time. I had to stop and consider my track record.
“Let’s see,” said the Angel, “I’ll do my best to translate for you. You asked God to take away your pain, and God said ‘No, it’s not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.’ Then you asked God to grant you patience, to which he said, ‘No. Patience is a byproduct of tribulations; it isn’t granted, it’s earned.’ You asked God to give you happiness. God said ‘No, I give you blessings. Happiness is up to you.’ You asked God to spare you pain, and God said ‘No. Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me’. You asked God to make your spirit grow. Actually, in your words you, hmm, asked that God give you the skin of an Ankylosaurus and the work ethic of a termite. And God said ‘No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.’”
The Angel then touched the tip of his sword to the floor and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, contemplating the more recent ones.
“You asked God to give youa woman so you could escape the existential torture of being yourself. I think you might have even phrased it that way, too. Or, on a better day, you might have asked God to give you a woman so that you could receive the love that you are unable to give to yourself, but prepared to give to another anyway. Either way, God said ‘No. Fulfill your own needs first.’ At one point, you asked God to reveal himself to Serissa. God said ‘Show her by example.’ You asked God to help you and Serissa grow in your love for him and each other, in whatever manner he saw fit. You alone grew in your love for God and Serissa; she grew in her ego and scorned both you and God. Then you asked God to help you and Losang grow in your love him and each other, in whatever manner possible and appropriate.”
The Angel chuckled, then he turned to me and smiled.
“I suppose you think God answered ‘no’ to that prayer too?”
I sighed and went back to resting my chin on the hard wood in front of me. I knew I could never hate Losang, but I didn’t want to think about her. She already chose, probably for the best. I suppose if I were more mature, I would have felt happy for her too. Perhaps I could have even pretended that I influenced her for the better to see her new relationship as a viable option in the first place. Even that was wishful thinking. I didn’t know her side of the story, or whether I mattered to her in the end.
I was feeling shame and disgust at the incompetence of the Attraction Council, and at the inexorable attachment that bound me to Samsara. Losang told me my work there had no end. It was an illusion to make me think I was happy. I wished I heard from the Angel more, so he could steer me away from it. I wanted the Angel to tell me who and what awaited me in my future. I wanted him to tell me how to—
“Oh, let’s not go there again,” said the Angel. “On second thought . . . hmmm . . . let me put it this way . . .”
I put my forehead back down on the pew in front of me, staring at my knees on the kneeler, and the hymn booklets stuffed into the wooden compartment in front of me.
“I may have a better understanding of God’s will, but I don’t know the future quite as clearly, David. But let’s suppose for a moment that I did. Suppose, back in 2005, I had warned you against emailing Serissa.
“Would you have preferred it if I showed up to you and said: Stay away from Serissa, David. She isn’t worth the effort. Too much of her adoptive-father’s abuse has rubbed off on her. She hates herself, and will most likely hate you eventually. It will take her a little while to let you touch her, and nine months before penetrating her, if even physically possible, after which she will feel no pleasure and eventually resent you for it. She will change her personality eventually as she changes her clothes, and she will discard you when she no longer needs you. She will hurt you more than anyone ever has, and it will take you years to recover, if you ever recover at all, while she’ll find a new boyfriend in about three months.”
I bit my lip, and my jaw trembled.
“Serissa herself will eventually approve of this message: Love is impermanent. Very cognitively impairing, in her terms, so enjoy it while it lasts, but know that it won’t be forever. Remember when she tells you that she’ll never look back on her relationship with you and claim that she didn’t love you, because you will find evidence that she will tell herself this anyway. She may not say so the day of the breakup, but she’ll quickly add that she won’t think about it much, either. And remember the prophecy that she’ll make when you take your first photograph together. When you embark on this loving, innocent, new relationship—your first as well as hers—enjoy the next 26 months, by all means, because that’s as long as it will last.
“Don’t learn that love is a decision and not just a feeling. Don’t love her to the capacity that you can with the heart that God has given you. Don’t delight in the vulnerability that can only come from being close to someone, the clumsy physical intimacy that is a pale foreshadowing of the intimacy you hope for in heaven, because it will cause you pain later. Don’t look for the lovely and caring person within her that could have been—that might still be. Would that have helped you?”
Tears were streaming down my face, and my whole body was trembling.
“And Losang?” the Angel said, his voice gentler, “What if I appeared to you that night in the middle of March, after you had your first real conversation with her over the phone and you realized without a doubt that she was someone special, and that in just five days your world would change forever? Should I have said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, even though you are more touched and elevated than you have been in the last year? Don’t experience the intense joy of finding someone so attuned to the needs of your soul that resisting her would be insane—it will just hurt you?’
“Losang herself would approve of this message: All existence is cyclical suffering. The source of all suffering is attachment to the impermanent. Therefore, she offers temporary relief, nothing more. She’ll happily fuck you, but that doesn’t mean she actually desires a relationship with you—at least not the sort that you would prefer. I should also tell you she forgot to mention that she’s seeing someone else. And yet another will win her heart eventually, so by all means—enjoy the time you spend with her, if you choose to meet her at all, but don’t discover what a wonderful, if flawed, person she is. Don’t allow her to revitalize what is permanent with you: your capacity to love again, and deeply. And don’t—for Christ’s and Buddha’s sake—fall in love with her. Would that have helped you?”
The Angel shuffled himself into the pew behind me and sat, resting his sword against the seat. He gazed ahead of me, and continued to speak, but his voice lowered.
“And should I tell you now,” he said, “not to forgive her, because Serissa has already proven that doctrine to be useless?”
I looked at my folded hands, at the tabernacle, at the huge wooden crucifix some thirty feet in front of me, and back at my hands. It took me that long to realize that answer to all three questions was a firm, resounding, “no”.
“No?” said the Angel, laughing suddenly, “Well in that case, you’ve accepted your cross to bear, and God has performed the miracle of distilling sweetness from suffering.”
He looked back and forth in the empty chapel.
“A pity no one was here to witness it. You actually have something to thank him for. How’s that for a place to start?”
I rested my head on my folded hands again and closed my eyes, trying to empty my mind of useless and horrid thoughts. I wasn’t sure where to begin. I heard the Angel whisper somewhere in the pew behind me, “Try your own words, if you like. He’ll treasure them the way a father treasures the crude drawings of his child. Or try the words of your Lord. The Paternoster is especially appropriate. Just remember to say them as they were meant to be said and not to recite them.
Or you could stop, gaze with the eye of faith, and listen. Invoke. Praise. Thank. Petition. Confess. Appeal. Don’t give me, the figment of your imagination, your attention and rob God. Please, give God your attention and rob me. I can still be here when you’re done, if you want.”
I prayed silently for the next few minutes, on behalf of those dearest to my heart: Losang, Lolly, Tara, the Oracle, and the rest of my friends and family. I still could not bring myself to pray for Serissa, so I prayed that I would eventually. I used my own words, then the words that I remembered best; the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be. When I stepped out of the pew, closed my eyes, and knelt to make the sign of the cross, The Angel stood in front of me this time, placing the flat of his sword on either of my shoulders, as if knighting me. When I raised my head, opened my eyes, he was gone.
The temple was beautiful. It was surrounded by various pagodas and arcades, and in the center was a mound-like structure, which, if I remember correctly, is called a Stupa. Many fig trees grew in the forest periphery of this place, but around the temple there was a heavily trafficked plaza, where netizens of every variety came to listen, discuss, and debate. I rode by here every so often. Often times I would see Losang, dressed in a saffron robe and with a prayer wheel in hand, imparting wisdom to whomever happened to be present. This was usually in the form of Dharmic teachings, but her sources were varied. Sometimes she even quoted the New Testament. I think she once quoted Dave Mustaine, too. The readings were worth hearing just for themselves, but I stayed a good distance away from the crowd, usually on a high hill that bordered the place.
On Father’s Day, I’d walked around the original battlefields of Lexington and Concord with my parents and with Monica. I couldn’t help but remember that Losang’s father had been dead for 17 years, and I felt sad. I sent her a brief a message stating that while earlier I thought I had nothing more to say to her, I thought of her that day and wished her well regardless. She appreciated the sentiment, but her reaction was baffled.
“You have nothing more to say to me,” said Losang from the entrance of the temple.
Oh dear. I suppose I did say that after all. Nothing more to say? How stupid was that?
Regardless, it caught my attention. I turned my head as far as the bevor allowed me to, then settled for turning the horse toward the temple instead. I still didn’t want to travel down toward the plaza for fear that the horse would defecate on the immaculate tiles, so I remained at the top of the hill. Losang was still dressed in her saffron robe, but she wasn’t reciting anything from the Dharma, I could be certain of that. She wasn’t looking at me, either.
“I’m sorry I can’t be at your beck and call. I’m sorry I can’t keep my phone turned on in a movie. I’m sorry if I can’t wait forever for you to make a decision. I’m sorry if you are too afraid to take a chance. Sorry if you think I do things to hurt you personally. I’m sorry if you missed the boat. I’m sorry if you hurt. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry I am not passive. I’m sorry if you need to close that door. I’m sorry if my procrastination annoys you. I’m sorry if I can’t be your caged bird. I’m sorry I’m a contradiction. I’m sorry I am not trying hard enough. I’m sorry you didn’t take the time to understand me better. I’m sorry I can’t be what you need. I’m sorry I can’t be what you want. I’m sorry if you pin it all on me. I’m sorry she destroyed your trust. I’m sorry if you actually believe no means yes. I’m sorry if, well . . . I’m just sorry.”
“I wish you love infinite. I don’t know why you want to go back to war. I don’t know why you think I don’t give a shit. I’m here.”
After a few moments of puzzled silence, someone in the crowd said, “Whoa, who peed in your cheerios today?”
Losang shook her head sadly.
“Well, it applies to a lot of people,” she said.
Then she turned and went back inside the temple, leaving the people outside to discuss what they’d just heard. I stared for a moment, feeling more chagrined than I had in a while. If I was going to speak to her at all, it couldn’t have been here, so I pulled on the reigns of my horse and made my way down the other side of the hill. I wasn’t going to set foot in the temple, but I did have an idea of where to find her.
I found myself in an open field at the base of the hill. While there were several huge and magnificent fig trees around the perimeter, the field itself was empty save for a single wagon wheel that someone had driven into the ground. The trees beyond that looked gnarled and ancient, strangled in curtains of their own vines and roots. There was a dirt path in this field, and I followed it as it twisted around the base of the hill and toward the back of the temple. Eventually, the clearing gave way to densely packed foliage again, and the path split into three directions. One path had a broader width, the trees on either side distanced at equal intervals. It did not twist, and lead back to the temple. The middle path was wide enough for me to bring the horse into, but I could not clearly see where it led, and I would definitely have to abandon the lance if I went inside. The path to my right was extremely narrow and seemed to lead up another hill, only I would have to leave the horse behind to travel it. I was energized, and I needed to act. I glanced around, looking and listening intensely. I moved my horse in circles, not taking any of the branches. As soon as one looked like a likely bet, I quickly turned my gaze toward another. Eventually, I dropped my lance in the field and took the middle path. I didn’t know why, exactly, but it felt right to me.
I carefully navigated through the path, occasionally ducking from low branches and brushing foliage out of my way. The path eventually winded leftward, and it was there that I found myself in a grassy meadow where huge fig trees grew at respectable distances from each other. They were even larger than the ones I’d seen before, and their massive branches swept outward and toward the ground. They often branched near the base, resembling gigantic ‘V’s or ram heads with huge curling horns. The largest tree was in the center of this field. Its branches swept graciously outward toward the Earth, as if giving thanks to the thing that gave it life. I saw a tiny figure in a saffron robe hanging upside-down from one of these branches.
I urged the horse forward with a nudge from my spurs, but the closer I came the more I wanted to slow down, until gallop became canter, canter became trot, and trot a walk. As I neared, I dismounted and continued walking alongside my steed, until I removed my sallet and tossed it in the grass. I then removed my belt, scabbard, and sword, and tossed them onto the ground next to the helmet.
When I was within speaking distance of Losang, I slowed to a crawl, and my energy more focused than before. I did not take my eyes off her for a second. She was motionless from where she hung, upside down on the lower branch, one leg bent and securely holding her in place, the other folded neatly across her knee to form a “4”. Her hands were clasped in prayer, and her eyes were closed. Though she hung upside-down, her face looked peaceful and not flushed.
“Losang,” I said softly, “It’s me. I . . . I’m sorry for being an idiot back there on the Net and everything. I . . .”
Her eyes opened as I spoke, but she said nothing.
“I know you don’t owe me anything. I know you never promised me anything. But I don’t know if I ever told you how grateful I was that I met you. The Oracle once said to me that the various people we meet in our lives come and go for a reason, and I think I know why you came into mine. I . . . I just wanted you to be in it longer—”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t all about you,” she said. “I was addressing some other things too. I’m sorry life is dumb like me. I was regretting my ramble. A friend hurt me; he’s going back to Iraq and he doesn’t understand why I care about him. It’s bad and I’m so concerned for him—”
“You made me feel safe and understood. You helped heal some of the wounds my ex inflicted on me. You—”
“Nothing ever turns out the way we plan. Nothing. I’m really grateful for you too even if I’ve done a shitty job of showing it. Life is never easy, and then there is Murphy’s Law. Heh. I didn’t take it personal. I know better. But I don’t want to hurt you. Or anyone. You know? I don’t. I’m sorry if I do or did. I’ll try harder—”
My voice was breaking, but I still had a point to make.
“Y-you made me feel like it was alright to be myself. I can even go as far as to say that you brought me closer to God. And like I said before—like I alluded to before—I will always love you . . .in whatever matter possible and appropriate.”
And then we just stared at each other. Given where I stood and where she hanged herself, it was about even eye level. I was first to break the silence.
“Oh God,” I sighed. “This probably wasn’t the right time. I’m sorry, I must seem like some sort of emotionally needy wreck to you . . .”
“I don’t think you’re an emotionally needy wreck,” she chuckled, “I was more needy than anyone I’ve met thus far. And wreck? Shit. I was a Hiroshima a year ago, dear one. Stay away or get close all you want. I’m here. Take all the time to do what you have to. I’m sorry, I’m just a struggling Buddhist not a Buddha! It’s frustrating. You just know I pray for you and your family at least two times every day.”
“I know,” I said softly, “I pray for you, too.”
“I hope you’re well, Dave. I care so much about your well being and I need to express it better through my actions. I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a lackluster friend. You take care and do what you have to do. You are always in my heart. I’m sorry for your pain. I know the feeling. I’m in excruciating pain right now. My tooth got bad again. It’s the one that’s still open.
“You know, tomorrow is Saka Dawa, the most important Buddhist holiday, akin to Easter. The Buddha Shakyamuni defeated Mara and attained enlightenment of the highest degree beneath the bodhi tree. I will be thinking of you and being grateful for you. May you have happiness and its causes. May you be free from suffering and its causes. May you never be parted from sorrowless bliss. May you abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and hatred. May you have a long life, with sound health, surrounded by virtue.”
Doing my best to contain my sadness, I smiled, bowed slightly to her, turned around and led my horse out of the field. I picked up my sword and helmet on the way out of the meadow, and my lance outside the clearing. I didn’t even mount the horse again until I was well outside of the periphery of the temple.
I wandered the forests for months, perhaps, before I found the coast and plunged into the sea again, pressing onward until my steed changed into a hippocamp capable of carrying me across, then back into a normal horse when I reached another shore. This was a place I’d been to before, where lush forests abounded. I tethered my horse to a large tree and left my lance leaning against it as well, and went in search of a small cave under the roots of a huge tree. I found the cave where I’d remembered seeing it last, though the opening was smaller than I remembered. I didn’t see the cougar anywhere.
Ducking, I entered the cave and found a narrow dirt tunnel that sloped downward. I was able to squeeze through, regardless of my armor, and found that it went on for some distance. There was a dim glow at the end, from behind a heavy gray curtain. I gently lifted it. Behind the curtain was a large circular room with fat black and white candles placed in candelabras in strategic areas, bathing the area in a warm yellow glow. There was a cauldron in the center with smoldering embers underneath it, and, when I looked up, a veritable chimney chute, though I had no idea where it emerged in the woods above. A circle of chalk or salt had been traced on the floor around the cauldron, completely concentric to the room itself. Beyond that I could see a table, upon which there was a ceremonial dagger, a few coin stacks, and a chalice. There were potted lilies and roses on either side of the table. Removing my sallet and carrying it under my arm, I entered and looked to either side.
Lolly was there sweeping the floor, her gaze lowered. She was wearing a white chemise tightened at her waist by a Celtic leather belt, and a red cloak over her shoulders held in place by a broach in the shape of a lemniscate. Lolly smiled when she saw me, not looking the least bit startled or annoyed.
“David!” she said. She purposefully walked behind the table, and placed her broom alongside the other items.
Only a few days ago, my mother and Monica planned on taking a day to visit Lizzie Borden’s house, and it happened to be on a day when Lolly would be there. It was complicated, because while my mother knew she worked there (“Don’t worry, you haven’t even met her, so it doesn’t matter.”), my sister did not, though she knew I had met Lolly. Lolly was a good sport about it.
“Hi,” I said, “Looks like my family isn’t heading to Lizzie’s after all. Kind of a relief for me, actually. Though it would have been nice seeing you again. It was fun even discussing it.”
“Like I said,” Lolly chuckled, “I’m irony’s chew toy.”
“Irony’s chew toy,” I said with a smile, “I like that expression.”
“I was thinking that there was a grand amount of humor in it. And you know . . . if you ever decided that you’d like to see me again . . . discussing it would have been mighty amusing for us, at least!”
Lolly stepped around the table and moved closer to me, not breaching the circle on the floor. We were both smiling, but there was a certain amount of sadness behind it.
“Ah,” I said, “Is that why you wanted me to come by?”
“Yes and no. I’ve wondered whether you might like to, but barring that, I still have a lovely time talking with you.”
“That’s good to know, but if we don’t actually meet again, I’d just want you to know that it doesn’t have anything to do with you personally.”
“I understand,” she said, “And even if it did . . . that would be OK, too.”
“I think . . . and it’s kind of hard to explain this exactly . . .”
“You don’t have to explain, if you’d rather not.”
“I think it was sort of like one of those Biblical lessons where the protagonist fails at what he thinks is his primary objective, but passes a larger, more important test. The time I spent with you only confirmed it.”
“Hmm . . . not sure I understand.”
Lolly’s arms were folded, but it was not a confrontational pose. She looked lost in thought. So I tried again.
“I guess I’m saying I second-guessed myself a second time.”
“OK,” Lolly said, her voice softer, “Well . . . if the time you spent with me helped you learn more about your own feelings . . . then I’m just as glad . . . even if it means you don’t want to see me again.”
I watched her gesticulate awkwardly for a moment, but I didn’t move from where I stood. I kept my eyes on her as her gaze met mine again, in this room the candlelight made yellow. She was studying me too.
“There is one thing I’d like to know, though, if you wouldn’t mind?” she said.
“At the time . . . you didn’t do anything you didn’t want to do, did you?”
“No,” I said. “No need to worry about that. You were nothing but good to me.”
“OK. Thank you.”
“Better than OK,” I chuckled.
“Then I’m glad to have helped.”
“You have, but I really hope that doesn’t leave you feeling like you were used. I’m worried that I might have been self-centered and confused.”
“No, not all.”
“Glad to know that, too.”
“I knew that you might learn that you want more than the kinds of things I’m willing to offer right now . . . or that you might just decide that the age thing was too much for you after all. I was prepared for those things.”
“Yeah, I said I didn’t care about being seen in public with you, and what’s the first thing I did when we kissed outside? I looked across the water at those people on the other side.”
“I noticed. It’s OK.”
“One other thing you and Losang had in common, I think. You both thought more highly of me than I did of myself.”
“Maybe that should tell you something, David.”
“I know. The anniversary of my breakup is in two days. I want to believe I’ve cleansed myself of the last vestige of my ex’s lies.”
“Those days are hard,” she said, “And the truth is, even though it sucked, you still learn stuff from it.”
“I know that too.” I chuckled, “It’s kind of horrifying to think of what it would be like if I were still with her. I wouldn’t have known that there were women who are genuinely kind, compassionate, low-maintenance, and actually enjoy sex. I wouldn’t have had the capacity to imagine anything better. Ah, I might have mentioned all that before, I don’t remember . . .”
“Not those particular aspects of it,” Lolly said, “As for the compassionate and low-maintenance women . . . were you meaning me?”
“Obviously that included you.”
“Well, one likes to be certain. And thank you.”
“You’re sane, Lolly,” I smirked. “You aren’t hyper-sensitive to perceived slights and criticisms. You don’t have an abusive sense of logic. You don’t have panic attacks all the time. I could go on, but I won’t.”
“It’s fine if you want to. I don’t mind. I’m still listening, if you need to talk about this, any part of it, my part or otherwise. I’m just glad that I won’t be a regret for you.”
“You have nothing in common with my ex except you both know what I look like naked.”
Lolly laughed heartily, then she gazed back at me, pivoting back and forth from where she stood. Her palms faced up, gesturing both above and below.
“There are so many things I could say here!”
“And you’ve avoided all of them?”
“Well, yes. None of them are negative in any way, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain saying them would be appropriate.”
I smirked at her again.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked.
“To goad you on.”
“Ah, do you want me to be flirting with you? ‘Cause what I was going to say could be considered flirting . . . sort of.”
“Go for it,” I said with a shrug. “I flirt with everything female that has Instant Messenger.”
“Well,” she said laughing, “First I was going to thank you for what you said about me not having anything in common with your ex, and then I was going to say that seeing you naked was . . . well, lovely. You’re quite beautiful.”
“That’s not inappropriate, but you’re welcome anyway.”
We just smiled at each other for another moment or two, but there was only silence. I glanced around the cozy interior of the room again. Strange and earthen though it was, it felt comfortable, and not as cold or damp as I thought it would be.
“Anyway, I actually think I should be going now,” I said.
“OK,” said Lolly, “Would you feel more comfortable if I wait for you to contact me before we talk again?”
“Either way’s fine.”
“OK. I just wanted to make sure.”
“Good day, Lolly.”
“Good day, David. And thank you again.”
I smiled curtly to Lolly again, and left the cave. Back outside, I untethered the horse and found myself walking along the beach, reigns in hand. I had nowhere in particular to go, and nothing to watch except the sand clinging to my winged sabatons. Then I noticed a shiny object half buried in the sand. Tidal foam continued to cover and uncover it, but the metallic sheen remained. I moved as fast I could in the sand, a little awkwardly in my armor, and my horse was no less awkward in keeping up with me.
It was the cup I’d tossed out here nearly a month ago. I’d almost forgotten about it. I dug it out of the sand as the tidal foam crashed against my greaves and pulled back again, quickly washing it off in the tide. When I raised the cup toward the sun to gaze at it, it glistened and overflowed with seawater. Holding it both my gauntlet and my reverent gaze, I mounted my horse, pulled on the reigns, and continued on my way.
David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “Monica and The Knight of Cups” or any other part of Fulfillment at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.
photo by mcdlttx.
by Carl James Grindley
There is a type of honesty in distant
Birdsong, plaintive, openly colorful,
Spectacularly desperate, horny
To the point of irritation, a type of music
That even the artless must love
Or hate. Yes, another spring has
Begun, just as wet as the last one,
Just as wet as the one that will follow—
This is the image of you with green
Eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes with flecks
Of gold and hazel, this is the image of you
With black hair, with red hair, shorter
Taller, younger or older than you are,
Were, ever will be—this is the image of you,
Still at the window seat, carefully peeling
An orange forever, reading Wordsworth
Because of the way his words feel
As they drift across your tongue,
Reading Wordsworth forever.
Carl James Grindley grew up on an island off the West Coast of Canada, and studied in the US and Europe. He has taught creative writing at Yale University, and works at The City University of New York. His book Icon was published in 2008 by No Record Press. He has recent work in Apocrypha & Apostrophe, Anemone Sidecar, A Bad Penny Review, Eunoia Review, Anastomoo and Atticus Review. Grindley is a founding editor of The South Bronx Review.
photo by FelixJLeupold.
by Benjamin Nardolili
The Scotch is not Scotch at all,
But they put a man with a kilt on it,
One wonders if you tip it over
If the plaid cloth will go flying up.
The vodka is distilled in Kentucky,
It is closer to the Bourbons
Than it is to the Romanovs,
Yet it has a double headed eagle on it.
The gin carries the elegant weight
Of the Old British Empire,
You can consume that former power
Without worrying about the dead Indians.
The wines really do come from lands
That they are named after,
It is the law that designated them,
But can you taste the grape picker’s hands?
This is the fetish that matters, the magic
We fashion and the idols we make
Out of what we bring into the world
Through pangs of collective exploitation.
When you begin to consider the efforts,
The wages of those in breweries,
Mix your liquor and beer together
Under a dead poet’s name, like Bukowski.
Benjamin Nardolili is a twenty five year old writer currently living in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, One Ghana One Voice, Caper Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, Super Arrow, Grey Sparrow Journal, Pear Noir, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Recently a chapbook, Common Symptoms of an Enduring Chill Explained, has been published by Folded Word Press. He maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publishing his first novel.
photo by Dan4th.
by Rey-Philip Genaldo
You hate what she’s become. It’s two in the morning and she’s just come home from who knows where and woken you up to show you. You’re sitting on the edge of your bed and she’s standing there in that doorway, just looking at you like she owes you no explanation, with her hip out to the side, with her hand on it. The clothes she’s wearing: a black crop top exposing her bare midriff and tight pair of black jeans, like it’s the nineties again. She wasn’t even born yet, in the nineties. It’s the thirties, and you know she’s not wearing that short shirt for fashion. She’s showing off her new stomach.
Those are your mother’s clothes, you say.
I know, she says. I found them in her closet. They fit me perfectly.
She’s right: they do. In fact, the resemblance is striking.
I don’t even know you anymore, you want to say. What have you become, Sami?
Remember way back when it was the nineties? Back when you were young. Yeah sure you rebelled against your parents too, but what was the worst you could do back then? Kids these days don’t get tattoos anymore. They get body replacements. Like you used to do to your car. One summer, you saved up to put a spoiler on your Honda Civic. Nowadays kids save up to put new eyes into their heads. New brains. There’s just so much more at stake now. You want to tell her that. You want to tell her that it’s not just her body; it’s her humanity too.
Why can’t you just get your belly button pierced? you say.
She touches her shiny new mid-section, polished and silver. If she made a fist of her hand and knocked on it, it would make a sound like knocking on a refrigerator door.
Oh Sami, you say.
You know how long she must’ve kept this secret from you. The hospital used to be a place people avoided. These days there’s a line out the door and you’ve got to wait two months to get in. You know this because you looked into getting augmentations yourself once: a fact that Sami uses in her defense.
She says: Don’t forget, dad, you were obsessed with this stuff too!
You’ve never argued with your daughter like this before, so you’re not sure what kind of father you are. Are you the soft type who listens and carefully addresses his child’s argument? Or are you the hard type who ignores her words.
It’s not safe, you say.
Apparently you’re the hard type.
In frustration, Sami flails her arms upward like whips cutting air.
What would your mother think? you say.
Sami says: Mom would’ve loved it!
She’s right. Charli would’ve loved it.
It was exactly that type of procedure that took mom from us, you say.
This shuts Sami up, if only for a little while.
There are noticeable lumps bulging from underneath her new chassis. Inner-scaffolding, it’s called. She’s not done yet with the procedure. Two, maybe even three more visits to go.
You sigh. You rub your head. You groan and sit down.
What’s done is done, you think. You resign yourself to your child’s new body.
Eventually you ask her what she augmented.
My stomach, she says.
What about it? you ask.
Sami’s face lightens with a smile. You’re showing interest rather than resentment; this is all she wants, really.
She’s still self-conscious. She puts her hands over her new chassis as if she is with child.
She says: I can control nutrient intake.
You scratch your head and ask her what that means, even though you already know.
She says: Whatever I eat, the nutrients pop up on my heads-up display and I can choose what I want and don’t want to absorb.
So you have new eyes, too?
You cringe as though this knowledge is causing you physical pain.
Of course, she says. I need new eyes for the new stomach. Duh, dad.
You are still sitting, and now your daughter leaves the doorway and walks to you.
It’s still heavy, she says, her hands still over her new stomach.
She continues on about the perks of her augmentation, but you are barely listening. She tells you about how she can eat all the sweets she wants and not have to worry about diabetes. She tells you about how she has complete control over her weight and body shape now. She can drink as much as she wants, she tells you, then flush the alcohol from her system and drive home perfectly sober.
You used to worry about me getting home, she says. Now you don’t, dad. I’ll never be drunk again! Not uncontrollably, at least.
Uncontrollably, you echo absently.
She is standing over you now, and she leans in to give you a hug. Sitting, you are at her stomach’s height, and as she reaches around to embrace you, you see your reflection there in the polish of her new abdominal plate. The closer she closes in, the wider your reflection expands, and suddenly it is touching your face, you and your reflection cheek to cheek, and you are pressed against that cold surface as your daughter clasps and pulls and tightens.
You cannot breathe.
Without thinking, you flinch and shove her away.
She’s not used to this new weight, and can’t adapt to it as you shove her off balance. As she falls sloppy as a drunkard, her arms swing in futile attempt to find equilibrium with the new mass within her. She gropes at and brings the lamp—the only light in the room—down. It falls and shatters. The world around the two of you dims, the only light now coming through the doorway in from the living room hall.
Your fallen daughter is looking at you, her face wide-eyed and watery. A child jilted.
You want to comfort her, you really do, but you can still feel her new chassis upon your hands, like a phantom weight. She is heavier than you’ve ever known her to be, and you know what’s inside her, and it disgusts you.
You do not know what face you are making, but by the look on Sami’s face, you are sure it is not good. One tear falls from her right eye, then another. The burn of being rejected by her father. You can see it right through her skin, it’s seething. And, soon, the tears: they come in torrents.
First she is whispering it.
Fuck you, she whispers.
Then she says it again louder, then louder the next time.
Fuck you, she says.
With every repetition, her voice mounts toward something of a climax.
Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck. You.
Feeling the sudden pangs of guilt, you get up and reach out to help her, but she slaps your hand away. Fuck you, she says. Her face is still aflame with rage, and she can barely say the words she wants to say. She scrambles to stand, but for a short while she struggles like a tortoise flipped on its shell. Eventually, though, she gets up. She stands in front of you.
You open your arms and move toward her, but this time she is the one to flinch and shove, and this time you are the one to fall. You can spring to your feet easily, but you stay there, down there, looking up at your daughter, at your daughter’s shiny new stomach. From the floor she is a monolith of a woman, silhouetted by the light from the hallway behind her, which beams and reflects from her midriff as though she were a prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
You wonder if she can read minds too, because her face twitches like she knows you’ve just thought of her as a car in an auto show.
She turns and she runs out the room.
Stand up. You cannot let her go. She is your daughter. What kind of father are you?
She is already out the door and into the night by the time you call her name. You are out the door too. She is sprinting across the street, and as she goes, she glances over her shoulder to see if you are following. You are. You’re not the worst father in the world, at least. At least you are running after her. At least she knows you love her that much.
As she is looking you in the eyes; as you see, in hers, a glint of relief because you are chasing after her: she is hit by a car. Her body twists and contorts as it rolls onto the swerving car’s hood. She slams against its windshield, creating a spider web of the glass, and just as quickly as she was on the hood, she is off again, flung outward in a low arc and back onto the street. She rolls, she slides, then she stops. She is not moving.
A man steps from the car, dazed and un-augmented. He stumbles and catches himself.
What happened, he says. What happened?
He looks at you.
Did you do this? he says, pointing at the dent on the hood.
He doesn’t know he’s hit your daughter. He’s so drunk, he doesn’t know.
You do not go to her. You already know you cannot bring her back. Instead, you charge directly at the driver. You lower your shoulder and spear him with your body. When he lands, he spits blood into the air. You do not flinch when you get this blood on you; you punch him in the face.
All the rage you feel now, all the rage you have felt all these years, you are purging. It’s unfair, you know, but you do not care. This man, he will take it, he will bear the burden of your loss, loss that extends beyond your daughter, back in time to your wife, to the loss of your wife. With your left fist, with your right, with your left again: you purge. There is more blood and there is more blood. There is another swing to the face, then another swing to the face.
The people on the street have gathered around the scene you’ve created. The people in their cars have exited their cars. Not a single person stops you.
When you finish, he is still alive, but barely. He coughs blood, his nose caved, his cheek caved too. The right side of his face has collapsed in on itself. He needs medical attention, but you do not get off him.
Instead, you sit there still on his chest. Why? you want to ask him. You ask him but he has no answer. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be the answer to the question you are really asking. He’s so drunk you can still smell, past the blood, all the alcohol.
You think of your daughter, of what she said to you. She could drink all she wants now, she had said. Drink all she wants and then purge it and drive home sober.
She is behind you, in an un-neat pile, sprawled in ways she shouldn’t sprawl. You will see later that pieces of her new stomach have left her body. That other organs that she has had since birth have left her body too. You will see that her face has on it not a single expression, not even a blank one.
You are not looking. You refuse to look.
You are sitting silently over this drunk man, sitting on his chest. The people gathered around you: they are now beginning to talk. You are looking at your fists, your hands, at the blood between your fingers. Your eyes are open, and you are looking.
Rey-Philip Genaldo welcomes your comments at rpgenaldo[at]gmail.com.
photo by Tucia.
by Paul Blumer
Isn’t it funny how we’re sometimes visited with miracles? Like right now, this couch. Purple crushed velvet, faded but clean. Thick cushions, almost bursting at the seams. One broken foot, lending a charming imbalance. Yeah, this couch is good. This couch is sainted. This couch is
Can’t even say how long it’s been since comfort like this. Funny how a life can change in just the blink of an eye. Like, Jesus, only twenty minutes ago, everything hurt: knees zinged, back ached, finger joints burned, eyes throbbed, teeth stabbed, intestines knotted—and then the couch.
Just a few seconds, and an instant cure-all. Like half a hit of the good stuff, that prickly flow through every vein and inch of skin, through finger tips and the ends of hair, a quiet warmth before the heavy onset of the nod.
Twenty minutes ago, wandering aimlessly through the dawn-lit streets, a few half-ass attempts to find a few cans or scrounge a few dollars. And then there, boom, on the sidewalk, sticking out at an inviting angle, the purple crushed velvet, the stuff of kings, and a couple a rolled-up carpets saving the seat. Now acting as camouflage.
And oh man, oh man, oh man. Nothing like it in the world. And every position change reveals a whole new layer of comfort. This must be how angels feel all the time, plush and pampered, enveloped like all’s well in this fucked up place, and it’s just a cozy and joyful ride to the finish.
Like Baby Jesus, finally finding a place to get born, knowing he’s got all the time in the world, knowing he’s just riding and cruising with God on his side, and not a goddamn care in the world. Yeah.
Like jazz, man, yeah, like jazz. The first roundish notes from the bass, then puckered up and tingling with the horn, and the whole while, sizzlin and groovin, plucky with the drums.
Hidden under the rolls of carpets, away from the mess and the cracked-up sidewalks and the motherfuckers always trying to jack a guy. Away from the pain and the cold and the hard hard concrete. Away from the sad looks and the disgusted looks and the savage looks and the worst of all ignoring looks away. Like a guy doesn’t exist, like that styrofoam jangle is something in the breeze, like that voice is coming from the streets themselves.
But all that gone, melting into the crushed purple velvet, muted by the cushions and the soft give of the fabric.
A day in the life. Funny how miracles just sometimes happen, like maybe there is a God looking out from His perch. And this is a sign. This morning miracle is a sign. A sign to start over, to drag this thing into a good pad somewhere, to set up a den and get comfortable, some place with locks on the doors, some place with doors, and get a job and start working and start eating good and pay The Man and straighten out and
It’s just too comfortable to move, like twenty years of cold ass rain and cold ass people just oozing away back to where they belong, and every breath feels fresher, and every muscle relaxes, and every second drifts closer and closer to sleep, an unimagined sleep unlike anything from the last hundred-fifty years, unlike anything between a cold doorway and a ratty army blanket, unlike anything with feet stuck in a shopping cart to keep it from disappearing in the night, unlike anything with that gnawing in the pit of stomach and soul.
Everything fades; the cars drifting past, and the people in them just glancing at an empty and cast-off sofa, glancing away and rolling through stop signs, and not even imagining the comfort of crushed purple velvet, of faded, broken-in cushions, of a brief respite in the hard truth of the savage world.
Like a painkiller, like a crushed-up anonymous pill, like finding a whole unlit cigarette, it all just fades away. A lightness; a floaty, soothing, dreamy embrace, like getting lost in the TV, like losing connection with the crumbling asphalt, like the last slow waves of an acid trip. The soft arms of the couch
Thoughts float in and get lost in the fabric. Hunger and pain…
The truth is…
The spirit of the city…
In all honesty…
Suddenly jerky bumping turbulence, a sickening belly drop, a lurching twisting creaking groaning, the ground pulls away but sky stays in place, the couch tosses like a lifeboat in a hurricane, eyes flash open under rolled-up carpets, hands clutching at crushed purple velvet. There’s a stench, a thousand-year reek that’s not coming from this jacket or what’s underneath, like rotten fruit and rotten diapers and rotten shoes and rotten urine and rotten rot, with an undercurrent of hot plastic and pneumatic grease. A diesel engine rumbles and coughs. A shuddering lurch, and the purple couch lists.
Then total darkness.
Paul Blumer welcomes your comments on “Morning Miracle” at paul.blumer[at]gmail.com.
photo by Casey David.
by David Mitchell
“Who were you just talking to?” my mother asked. She’d seen that I was talking to someone on the phone, and had been for some time, so much so that I’d stepped outside and went on a walk to get away from everyone. It was dark outside, but I didn’t mind a good stroll around Franklin.
“An online friend of mine,” I said.
“Is she your age?”
I laughed incredulously.
“How old is she?”
“What? Why does it matter?”
“I was just curious.” She shrugged innocently, and I went back into my room and shut the door.
It was typical of my mother to be unreasonably nosy without appearing to be aware of it. If I lived away from her, of course, this conversation wouldn’t need to happen. My parents didn’t mind the fact that they had yet to be empty nesters, given how few options I had, but I didn’t want to stay with them any longer than I needed to. Worse still, I had even briefly mentioned to my mother that I’d chatted with a self-professed “cougar” sometime in March, but that was when I didn’t think I would seriously consider meeting her. As my parents were going on a brief trip to Belgium in the near future, that opportunity might happen now. Lolly was old enough to be my mother, but as my actual mother was old enough to be her mother (the age difference between them was about the same as the age difference between her and me). It mattered little to me. The voice I’d just heard—on the phone for the first time—sounded sweeter and slightly less sure of itself than the one I imagined I heard over the net.
“Well, what do the two of you think of her now?” the Brain asked. He was busy paging through Lolly’s file while the Penis looked on attentively.
“Can’t wait to meet her!” said the Penis.
“What about you, then?”
The Heart was a bit more stable than before, but he sat far away from the table, having apathetically moved his automatic wheelchair back some distance. He was still holding one file in his hands, and gazing lovingly at a certain photograph. His vision still hadn’t faded completely yet, and he wanted to make the most of it.
“I think this picture doesn’t really do justice to Losang,” the Heart said, his teeth chattering slightly, “Maybe it’s the Hello Kitty thing in the foreground. When I close my eyes, she looks so much more vivid to me there. I miss her . . .”
“I miss her, too,” said the Penis.
“We aren’t discussing Losang,” said the Brain, “We’re discussing Lolly.”
“You don’t need me to talk about her,” the Heart shrugged. “You guys don’t really need me for anything.”
The Brain walked up to the wheelchair while the Heart put his eyes back on the picture. He began to trace the contours of the figure in it when the Brain snatched both the photograph and the manila folder out from his hands.
“This file is closed,” he said.
“So? Why can’t I look at it?”
Without answering, the Brain returned to the table and placed the file back into the blue crate, centered his tie, and paged through Lolly’s file once more.
“We need some consensus from you eventually,” said the Brain.
“You guys do what you want. I don’t want to have a part in this,” said the Heart.
“We need your approval before we can go ahead,” said the Brain.
“Didn’t he already give it to us?” said the Penis.
“No, he didn’t. He dejectedly resigned himself to your—“
“Lolly’s alright, OK?” said the Heart. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“So you’ve changed your mind about her now?” asked the Brain.
“Well . . . I guess I was wrong about her before. She’s nice enough that I wouldn’t mind meeting her. And maybe this sort of arrangement might actually help me, you know? What’s at stake here, anyway?”
“Right,” said the Penis. “Enjoy a pit stop. A little May-December action on the side.”
The Heart did not wheel himself any closer, and still his shoulders sagged, but when he met the gaze of the watchful Brain, even with his own damaged eyes, he smiled quickly. He would be taking a backseat for once. He wiped his runny nose and eyes, then raised his arms and folded them behind his huge head.
I’d never been to Fall River before, so crossing the Braga Bridge for the first time, I missed the exit I was supposed to take, and found myself in Somerset instead. When I headed back in the right direction, I found myself in a traffic jam somewhere over Taunton River. When I called Lolly to tell her that there was going to be a slight delay, I only got a hold of her son, Logan, who told me I should have had the number of her cell phone, but I did. Of course, I couldn’t write it down once traffic began to move again. And finally in Fall River once again, I stopped at the first Dunkin’ Donuts I found, hoping it was the one we agreed to meet at (Lolly didn’t have a car, so she picked one within spitting distance of her house), but instead I found this was one of ten in the city. None of this was Lolly’s fault, since I came in the wrong direction, but I really hated to be late for anything. Only by intuitively weaving in and out of streets did I find myself on Plymouth Avenue, which I haphazardly crossed once I saw a Dunkin’ Donuts on the left side. I didn’t care that I was parked across more than one space; I just needed directions. By sheer dumb luck, this happened to be right one.
I knew it was her at first sight. No, I probably wouldn’t have recognized Losang at a glance if she did not wave to me or approach me when I met her in Somerville, but I sure recognized Lolly—not by her broad face, broad shoulders, and wavy hair dyed a mild shade of pink—but simply by the way she carried herself. One frustrated glance at the Dunken’ Donuts some 40 feet in front of me, and there could be no doubt I was looking at the woman I’d been chatting with for the last month. She was leaning patiently against one of those painted metal and concrete cylinders behind the curb. She was dressed in earth tones, a loose flowing skirt with sandals, and she wore sunglasses. I stepped out of my car and approached her intently, waiting until I came within earshot.
She put her shades back into her purse and put on her normal glasses.
Then she put one arm around me and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
“Glad I could make it,” I said. “Sorry if I’m a little late. I took the wrong exit on the way in . . .”
Lolly didn’t mind. We walked to my car, but before we could get in, she had to step around and view the back, since I told her before that the bumper stickers I displayed would give me away. I have a Jesus fish and a Darwin fish side by side to the left of my license plate, and an Iron Maiden logo on the right.
“Oh, that’s right,” I said. “I display both of those without a trace of irony. It’s my way of extending my middle finger towards Richard Dawkins and the idiots who built the Creation Museum at the same time.”
Lolly nodded, though I was quick to add that I wasn’t sure if by having the fish face away from each other, I was implying conflict more than having them face each other.
“I don’t know,” Lolly said, “to me it would look like they were kissing.”
When we got into my car, I suddenly became conscious of the fuzzy 20-sided dice hanging from my mirror, but didn’t bother explaining them. When I started the ignition, there was metal blasting through the car, but I quickly turned it down.
“Uhh . . . that’s Blind Guardian,” I said. “They’re German power metal. Sort of like a cross between Queen and Metallica, but better than both. This is one of their earlier albums.”
“Oh, not bad. I don’t mind.”
After a moment, Lolly turned to me with a smile. It was early evening, but the sun was still out and it was perfectly bright.
“Well, whatever we end up doing, I just want you to be comfortable,” she said. “So . . . what are we going to do?”
“I dunno . . . I just figured we’d find something worth doing. My parents are gone for the week, so I have the house to myself. And if there’s something to do around here . . .”
“Not much,” said Lolly, “I mean, I do love Lizzie’s, but I’m pretty sick of this place. It’s too noisy. The people next door to me are always waging war with each other. It’s driving my son nuts.”
After a beat she said, “Well, there is the mall, but that’s not too great. I just wouldn’t want to bring someone in if the kids are home and I’m meeting him for the first time.”
“I don’t really care about malls, either,” I said. “I just wish we could be in a quieter, more private place.”
“Well, I do know of this one area . . .”
The two of us were relaxing in a grassy meadow, underneath the shade of a large tree. Looking to my right, I could see a beautiful brook and a concrete dam. Some people were fishing on that side of the brook, too. There was a school and a cemetery across the street. My car was parked in a gravelly expanse a good distance away, and I’d left my cell phone, CD wallet, and directions inside. I was sitting in the grass not yet feeling comfortable enough to lie down, while Lolly was reclining on her stomach with the comfortable poise only a cat could have. Perhaps she wasn’t the first person to come to mind when I thought of the word “cougar” in this context. I could see she was slightly bulkier underneath than what I guessed at earlier, but she wasn’t unattractive. We’d been talking for some time, and now she was gazing at me with fascination.
“I don’t think any of the pictures you have on your profile really do you justice,” she said. “Your eyes are so dark and so beautiful . . .”
“I thought most people liked blue eyes or something.”
“I’m not most people,” she said with a warm smile.
“Funny,” I said, “I kind of imagined you’d have the voice of a sorceress or something.”
“Oh. Well I hope I’m not disappointing you.”
“No, you’re not. I’m just wondering: Did you imagine my voice would sound any different?”
“I don’t know . . .” she said. “Maybe a little higher.”
“I just saw myself as the Knight of Cups, wandering the woods of cyberspace. And as for you, I just have to re-adjust that image of good old Puma concolor I had in my head . . .”
“The fourth largest cat, native to the Western hemisphere.”
“Oh. The whole ‘cougar’ thing? Are you comfortable with that? Most guys would have given up on meeting me for fear of running into their friends with me and feeling embarrassed.”
“I don’t care about that,” I shrugged, “At the time I was talking with Losang, it was just a quick calculation that it probably would have been more worth my while spend time with someone who I was more likely to have a viable long-term relationship with. But now, I guess I shouldn’t pass up any opportunities . . . hmmm, I mean, I shouldn’t limit myself like that.”
“Limiting yourself does sound like a better way of putting it,” Lolly chuckled. “Otherwise, it just makes you sound like an opportunist.”
I laughed for a second or two.
“It was just hard for me to comprehend that Losang may have cared about me, but she didn’t want to have a serious relationship.”
“Right,” Lolly said. “I went through something similar years ago. It was my fault as much as it was his. Some people view sex as something they should only share with one person—that person you’re sworn to be with forever—“
I chortled slightly, but it was an expression of despair and not irony.
“—while other people just view sex as fun and games. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I wouldn’t go to bed with someone if I didn’t at least care about him.”
I was leaning back, but before I knew it I found myself lying back on the grass instead. The grass was delightfully dry and bristly. I rolled myself onto my stomach and flanked her.
“I’m just wondering,” I said, “When did you realize you liked guys about my age?”
“Hmmm . . . well, when my husband left five years, Logan had to stay with him for a while to finish school, but I still had to stay close to my son, involving myself with all the things he was involved in, like video games and what not. Then I realized how cool all of these things were just for their own sake, and how much more fun I was having with younger guys who are more likely to have these interests. I’m total rubbish at video games, but I love watching young men play them.”
“My parents were too cheap to ever get me a console system of any sort,” I said with a smile, “though looking back, I guess I should be grateful that I got to use my imagination as much as I did. So aside from the old Atari 2600 that Paul LeBlanc lent me when I was 12 and the Sega Saturn Serissa lent me a while back, I’ve really only played some old classics for the PC from about 10 years ago, but nothing works on my computer any more. I wouldn’t have time to play anything now anyway.”
“Doesn’t matter much,” she smiled. “What about you then? Why did you want to spend time with me?”
“Well . . . I was in a pretty interesting space when I was talking with you and Losang, because I couldn’t have conceived of a universe where you existed at all—well, either of you.”
“You couldn’t have conceived of a universe where I existed?” Lolly said, chewing on my words with fascination, “What do you mean?”
“I guess it goes back to a time in which I first started dating Serissa, and she thought I was perfect or something, and felt this strange fear that she would wake up and find that I was just a figment of her imagination—that is, if she hadn’t seen me interacting with anyone else. I just told her that I was certain she existed, because I never could have dreamt up such an outrageous fictional character, and I was a more realistic writer than that. I meant it affectionately, of course. Real people are so much weirder and more improbable than fictional characters.”
Lolly stared off at the water for a second as she digested my words.
“That . . . is one of the sincerest and most interesting compliments anyone’s ever given me,” she said. “Thank you!”
“Ah, well most women wouldn’t think I’m worth much of anything, anyway.”
Lolly stopped and stared at me for a moment.
“If I didn’t think you were worth anything, I never would have bothered to meet you!”
“God, I’m sorry,” I sighed, “it’s just . . . I don’t know. Too much of Serissa rubbing off on me . . . or the opinions of ‘most people’ I mentioned earlier . . .”
After a moment or two, I said, “funny, the Tarot spread I did a while back just told me to be confident, with the Sun and the Emperor. You didn’t really show up in the spread at all.”
Then I nearly cringed.
“Oh God, I hope I’m not freaking you out with Tarot cards and such.”
“No, not at all,” Lolly said, “I read them too.”
“The symbolism is fascinating, but sometimes it’s really only about as reliable as astrology . . .”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m of the firm opinion that you already know the answers, but sometimes the spread presents them to you in a way you might understand better. Sometimes it answers the question you should have asked instead of the one you did. That’s interesting that the spread just told you to be confident and didn’t mention me at all.”
“I’m not even sure which card would signify you,” I said. “There wasn’t even a queen in the spread.”
“Well that’s because I’ve never been a queen. The card that represents me most is actually the Magician.”
“Really?” I said, “That’s interesting. He’s supposed to represent masculine power, though. Funny how queens and pages can sometimes represent men, and knights and kings can sometimes represent women. I guess it says a lot about gender stereotypes and all that crap.”
“Yeah, it does,” Lolly chuckled, “but the Magician is also the most blatantly magical card in the deck. There’s a psychic who works with me at Lizzie Borden’s Bed and Breakfast. She said that in a former life, I was a witch in Ireland and that I was burned at the stake. She said there has never been a time when I haven’t been a witch.”
“Are you, um, still a witch now?”
There was another beat. Wow, I thought, this just keeps getting better.
After a comfortable silence, Lolly said, “I do love tactile sensations,” Lolly said, “I do miss the touch of other people . . .”
“I loved to touch my ex, but if I did something she didn’t like she sometimes equated me with her abusive step father. He liked to touch her too, of course, but not for the same reasons.”
“Well I don’t really relate to that . . .” Lolly said, sounding disturbed.
“I once bought a book on erotic massage techniques that I left in my ex’s apartment. When she broke up with me she gave me my stuff back, but kept that book. What really pisses me off is the thought that she and her boyfriend are probably making use of it now.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said with a grin. “I think I remember most of those techniques anyway.”
Lolly smiled knowingly. I sat up slightly and put my hands on her back, rubbing her slowly. She smiled shyly as I made circles with my thumbs and travelled down the length of her spine. I caressed her sides as well, pulling upward with both hands.
“Hmm . . . well, I can’t do everything that was in that book here,” I said.
“I understand. But I love what you’re doing, regardless.”
Eventually, I checked my watch.
“Damn. It’s past 8:00 already and I wouldn’t have guessed. Summer days are so long.”
“I guess we should be going soon.”
When we stood up, I headed back to my car, but Lolly stopped me.
“Wait,” she said, her arms lightly around me, “May I?”
“Uh . . . sure.”
Lolly leaned in and kissed me where we stood, and to my surprise, she did it rather tastefully. Of the women who had kissed me up until this point in my life, she was the only one who didn’t use her tongue, at least not on the first kiss. There was a metallic taste to her. I said nothing, but quickly glanced across the brook, at the people who were busy fishing, then back to the car. No one seemed to be looking our way.
“So where to now?” she asked.
“To my house?”
She only looked at me intently for a moment.
“So . . . we can do what we couldn’t do under the tree?” I added.
She smiled, rested her head against my shoulder, and whispered, “the notion appeals to me.”
All this, and somehow, I was feeling strangely apathetic. But no need to limit myself, now was there? Besides, I was certain we could make Jesus and Hecate dance.
It took us a little longer to get back to my house than I expected, but when we found ourselves nearing the Bridgewater road service station, I knew how to get back. When I pulled up into the driveway, the sky was already darkened. When Lolly stepped out of the car with me, she was staring in awed silence around the neighborhood.
“This place is so quiet,” she said.
“My dad doesn’t think so,” I chuckled. “It’s the kids next door and across the street that bother him. He’s sometimes even talked about leaving because of the noise.”
“Are they just normal kids?”
“So far as I know.”
“Ah, well that’s nothing. My neighborhood isn’t peaceful like this.”
“Yeah, I thought his complaint was idiotic, too.”
I made my way up the stairs and opened the door to the house, letting Lolly in after me. While in the living room, I gestured around to the baby grand piano, and the huge abstract painting my mother had painted many years ago.
“Ah, that’s right,” I said, “You read my memoir Half-Born. Recognize anything?”
We talked a little more, and I microwaved a snack, then we headed downstairs, to where the futon had already been made into a bed. I’d been sleeping here for the last few weeks, since the summer heat made my room upstairs unbearably hot and humid. It was still too humid to think about heading up into my bedroom. I also kept my pets down here.
“I mentioned the newts before, didn’t I?” I said.
“You did. I remember having a few of those when I was a kid.”
“They like humidity, but they hate high temperatures, so I keep them all down in the basement.”
There was a tiny five gallon tank on an aquarium stand in one corner of the basement, cut in half by a divider. This tank was shared by two newts, a Japanese Fire Belly and a Hong Kong Warty respectively. Were it not for the divider, they would have killed each other long ago. It was filled with a few inches of fresh water, and its inhabitants were watching us from the inside, following our movements and making futile attempts to devour us whole. On a shelf above it was an even smaller glass tank, where there lived a tiny dark-skinned paddle-tail. She was just as aggressive as the two beneath her. Below was a shoebox-sized plastic terrarium.
I smiled and knelt down gingerly to pull this one out from underneath to let Lolly see him up close. Pulling the grilled lid off, I revealed the pseudo-environment within to be a mossy abode with only a single small pool of water and a tiny cave for hiding. The tenant of this one was quick to step outside and greet us. Unlike his dark-skinned, bright-bellied brethren above, he had bright orange raised crests on his head, down his back, and similarly colored warts along each side of his body. All bright orange against a dark canvas. He was the color of Halloween, but he had a sunny disposition.
“This one’s Angillas,” I said. “He’s a Mandarin newt, or Chinese Emperor newt, whatever they’re called now.”
“He’s beautiful,” she said.
I smiled. Not too many people stopped to look at newts. Most pet stores didn’t carry them anymore. When they did, they usually mislabel them and kept them in horrid conditions.
“I’ve had so many generations of rats, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs . . . real sweet, but they die in just a few years. Newts live forever, if you ignore them properly enough. They’re pretty resilient. Their defenses are entirely chemical, and they can regenerate, too. I’ve had Molly and Angillas since middle school.”
I replaced the lid on Angillas’ cage, and gingerly slid him back under the stand. And with one thing or another, we then found ourselves reclining on the futon, where I enthusiastically continued the massage I began back in Fall River. Once Lolly rolled over, I was in the process of helping her undo the large knot that kept her shirt loosely bound, and I noticed her right earring was a tiny silver axe.
“Something from Lizzie’s?”
“I never wear both earrings from any set, in case one gets lost . . .”
Fascinated, I gently took it between my fingers and made chopping motions with it against her neck. She laughed with delight. I continued my ministrations to the rest of her body, with my bare hands. I was engrossed in the rush I was experiencing. The opportunity was too infrequent, too precious for me not to be, here with the release of built-up frustration and inspiration. I ran my fingers and my lips across any exposed area of her flesh, starting with her freckled neck and shoulders. Her bra came off soon after the knot was undone, and while gravity flattened her breasts as she lay back, they were still pleasing. My shirt and shorts same off soon after. When we had only our naked selves to gaze at, she stared quietly at me for some time.
“You’re beautiful,” she said softly.
It almost sounded like a gasp. Then she laid down on the futon next to her newfound Adonis. I was looking over her and smiling.
“What do you want me to do . . . ?”
“Anything!” she gasped, “Whatever you want!”
The Brain was watching the monitor carefully, his arms behind his back. The Heart sat far away from the table on his wheelchair, fidgeting in his seat. The Penis could obviously not be present at this time, but he would provide a full report later. Through the static, the top of Lolly’s head could be seen bobbing in and out of view.
“Do we really need to see them have sex?” said the Heart, his teeth still chattering, “Isn’t that . . . I dunno, exploitative?”
“I’m not watching this for the entertainment value,” said the Brain, “I’m collecting data. Why are you here? I thought you didn’t want a part in this.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t watch.”
The Brain turned back toward the monitor. The Heart smiled slightly, but the corners of his mouth twitched again. He continued to squirm in his seat. He glanced at the plastic crate the Brain had set on the table, and wondered how quickly he could steer his wheelchair across the room, find Losang’s file, and snatch it from the crate without being detected. Certainly not quickly enough.
“What are we doing?” asked the Heart.
“As I said, I’m gathering data. You’ve decided to watch.”
“No, I meant as a whole. We’re having sex with a middle-aged woman who’s probably about as lonely as we are, and for no particular reason except that we can. Are we being opportunists?”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
“I don’t know. Why do I feel nothing?”
“When you invest nothing, you get nothing back. It was your safety policy, remember? You thought it might help you a bit.”
“Oh, that’s right,” the Heart said, “Well I certainly wouldn’t say Lolly means nothing to me. I’m glad to be with her, and I’ve stabilized somewhat, but . . . I still feel empty. Was it just the painkillers I took today?”
“You aren’t taking any, but the withdraw symptoms from Losang’s drug might still be in effect. Do you want to stop?” said the Brain.
“Well, no,” said the Heart, “that would be unfair to everyone involved. Let it ride.”
“Oh David!” Lolly gasped. Her hands were gripping my back like a pair of claws. I was smoothly gliding in and out of her, but because of the condom, I couldn’t feel much. I’d never used a condom before. There was absolutely no reason to with Serissa, as we were both virgins and she had no uterus. And Losang, thank the bodhisattvas, was impulsive enough to reach down and stuff me in while I tried optimize my erection by rubbing against her before rolling the condom on.
“Do you normally last this long?!” Lolly said.
“Uh . . . that’s a long story.”
A movie wasn’t playing anywhere in the background, nor was there a clock nearby, so I wasn’t keeping track of the time. Regardless, it should have been clear to me that the answer to that question was yes, much to Serissa’s detriment and the delight of the two women who followed.
A few minutes later, Lolly said, “Do you want to try another position?”
I drew out of her and sat back on the futon. I felt my vigor rapidly slip away. I was overcome with a dazed indifference. My body was more exhausted than I thought, and despite her efforts, it soon became clear to both of us that there was nothing she could do to revive it. Though she’d climaxed long ago, her face now looked ashen. Lolly turned away from me, sulking in silence.
“Eh . . . it’s alright,” I said.
“No, it’s not alright . . .” she said, in a sadder and more deflated voice than I’d ever heard from her. “I really wanted you to enjoy this.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
Lolly reclined on her stomach, like a big cat, but she was facing away from me. I laid down next to her. Sometime later, she turned, we stared into each other’s eyes.
“Honestly, David,” she said, “it’s really not sex . . . it’s being close to another person again, feeling their skin, and the tactile sensations . . .”
“You set out knowing what you were looking for,” she said. “You wrote very specific criteria on your profile. I’m none of those things.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I chuckled.
“I just don’t want you to look back on this and regret spending time with me when you could have been with someone else . . .”
Yeah, I thought sarcastically, just look at all the women lined up to be with me. I sighed, then placed my hand on her and stroked her lightly.
“I didn’t have any illusions,” I said.
We laid there together for a while, in silence. Eventually, I spoke:
“Do you want to see that computer game I was talking about on the way here?” I said.
Around midnight I’d printed out the directions from MapQuest (I knew how to get to Fall River before, but needed better directions for the trip back), while Lolly went outside for a cigarette. We stopped for gas and snacks, during which Lolly insisted on paying for some of it, even though I didn’t want her to. She’d just left one of her jobs (she said she still had Lizzie’s and Logan to pull her through), and explained when I’d asked her on the way to my home that although she was separated from her husband and hadn’t seen him in five years, filing for divorce was too expensive for her. I almost wondered if I could have helped her out in any way. I needed to pay tuition in a few months, but couldn’t I spare a little every now and then?
I found the Dunkin’ Donuts easier this time, taking the exit I should have taken on the way in, and with the streets barren of traffic, I was able to correct my most egregious mistakes in ways I couldn’t have four hours ago. I made it back home without difficulty, though I was tired. I slept in the basement. It stayed dark all day long, so I often slept well into the afternoon. Emerging from this place each day after an indefinite period of time having no one to talk to. I felt like the narrator of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider. The next morning I not only slept longer than I’d planned, I had the curious feeling that something within me had died. The days and nights were blending into each other, and any time felt like any other. Time was moving too fast for me.
“So what is our verdict?” asked the Brain. Lolly’s file was open in his hands, but he was glancing across the table. The Heart was shaking involuntarily in his wheelchair, looking sicker than usual. Even the Penis looked depressed.
“I feel strange,” said the Heart. “Empty, somehow. Not angry, not sad, not disgusted, not frustrated, not even calm . . . just strange.”
“OK, so she wasn’t Selena Steele,” the Penis grumbled. “I still would have fared much better if it weren’t for that damned Trojan. How can people use those things?”
“Well at least we won’t be conflicted in concluding that we shouldn’t try something like this again,” said the Brain.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with Lolly, though,” said the Heart, “I don’t have any complaints about her. Really. I’m grateful we met her. But it just . . . didn’t feel right. I don’t know why.”
“I already told you why,” said the Penis, “it was the Trojan.”
“I should have known better. I just can’t do anything half-assed. I can’t start something I already know can’t come to fruition. Never again. I’m really sorry, guys.”
“Don’t be,” said the Brain, “At least we’re learning. This was an experiment that failed, but now we know.”
“So what now?” sighed the Penis, gesturing toward the Heart. “Defer to his every command?”
“No,” said the Brain, “Reaffirm his place as the central arbiter of this Council.”
“In other words, defer to his every command.”
“W-we’ve already given you a say here!” whimpered the Heart, “Y-you ungrateful . . .”
The Heart wheezed and coughed before he could enunciate any further, engorging the veins in his forehead and swallowing nausea. He rested his huge head against the right arm of the wheelchair, unwilling to sit up again.
“Dick?” said the Penis.
“Please, let’s not do this again!” sighed the Brain.
The Brain tilted his head back slightly, and adjusted his tie accordingly. Then, glancing at the file in his hands, he placed it back into the blue crate. The Penis folded his arms. The Heart whimpered pathetically and closed his eyes. He wept silently.
“I miss Losang . . .”
David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “Lolly” at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.
Photo by Mar Estrama.