by Gloria Frym
She wasn’t his type at all. Heavy set, spiky hair, black lace-up boots with thick high soles, and dark purple lipstick that made her mouth overtake a plain, small face which didn’t seem to fit her frame.
“These are delicious,” she said, as they stood, unintroduced, at the buffet table, sampling fresh strawberry waffles their host had just stacked on a platter.
“Oh,” he said, “you’re using your hands. I was wondering how to negotiate a fork and knife like this.”
“They fall into the same Miss Manners category as fried chicken,” she said. “You don’t need silverware.”
He bit into the waffle, melted butter sliding into his beard.
“Mmmm….you’re right. But I’m making a mess.”
“No problem. Faces wash,” she said.
He barely cared. She was no one he planned to impress, and there was no one else to talk to at this brunch. A client he’d worked on for years had cajoled him into coming. Normally, he didn’t socialize with clients. Breach of professional ethics, he thought. In fact, he wasn’t socializing much with anyone for the last few months, having slipped into his annual commemorative depression just after his birthday.
Every year, something to count on.
For days he’d been anxious about the party, being around new people, sleepless and tormented by his inability, at age fifty-eight, to earn a decent living.
His body and his bodywork were simultaneously slipping out of middle age and perilously edging towards the poverty level. Fatigue from a bad heart–for which some friggin’ allopathic surgeon advised surgery, and thank you very much, herbs and diet would do– had recently caused him to cut back on massaging men whose large bodies and inevitably closed chakras forced him to work too hard. He was often so exhausted after a session he couldn’t walk around the block without panting.
And the large canvases he had painstakingly stretched three years ago sat blank against the dingy walls of his little house in the flats. Here he was in the hills–fabulous view of the bay from the deck, hot tub, blue tiled walls and an oak island in the middle of the kitchen, French doors flung open onto a flower garden with a fountain bubbling in the center–the California equivalent of some damn Moorish palace.
What was his life for if he couldn’t paint? And why had he dropped out so long ago to heal others if he couldn’t heal himself?
These thirty years of using his hands in the service of other people’s bodies, bodies that held such fears that their muscles froze. A life of essential oils, jumbo heating pads, hot lamps, catalogs filled with massage tables, blankets, energy juices, high potency vitamins yielded nothing more than a battered sedan parked next to an overgrown lawn and vegetable beds gone to seed. This year, he was too tired to even plant radishes.
“So what do you do?” she asked, helping herself to another waffle. Not one of those women afraid of carbohydrates, he thought. Her lipstick was smudged and fading, but he was too busy eating to notice the soft girlish expression now visible on her pale face.
“Body work. I’m a body worker,” he said with his mouth full. “I need to sit down. Really.”
She followed him into the living room, which was bare except for a large Persian rug and several folding chairs shoved up against the wall.
“What’s this?” she said. “Looks like they’re set up for a sock hop.”
“I need a table, something to lean on,” he said. He felt bewildered even holding a plate in his hands, as if he might drop it onto the expensive carpet and make a total fool of himself.
“Say, why don’t we just sit on the rug and have our own little picnic?” she said.
He consented, in spite of his back, which really needed a chair.
“Here,” she said, “I’ve got an extra napkin. You haven’t asked me what I do.”
“Why is it whenever you go to a party, the minute after you get a person’s name, it’s followed by a comma, and fill in the blank–what they do. Or what they are. I mean, it would be a lot better to just let it flow into the conversation.”
“We’re sort of past that age, don’t you think? I mean, don’t you want to know what a person does so you can assess whether you have any common ground?”
“I guess. But it seems like “networking” to me,” his fingers making quotes.
“Nothing wrong with that. It’s how the world works. You meet someone and you connect or you don’t connect. It’s nice to know where to begin.”
“I guess I’m more into vibes. Correction: intuition. Instincts, you know. So, what do you do?” he heard himself saying.
“I’m a consultant. For a high tech biomedical company. I tell them how to use their databases.”
“Sounds fascinating. You see, we have nothing in common. You might as well go back into the dining room and mingle among the other scrambled eggs.”
“But I love massages. I’m under a lot of stress and since I got back from India, I’ve really needed some body work.”
“Well, I don’t work that much,” he paused, not wanting to insult her. “I’ve had to cut back working on large people recently.”
“Would you like another waffle? I’m going to get more orange juice.”
He sat cross-legged in the middle of the empty room. Nothing on the walls but fresh paint. Where’s the couch? he wondered. A guy with this much money ought to have a couch. But maybe a new one was on order, maybe he’d had a couch and gotten rid of it, put it out on the street so that somebody like me could borrow a truck and take it home to live among the rest of the mismatched, flea market crap he’d collected all these years.
She returned with more waffles and stood towering in front of him like an Amazon in an R. Crumb comic. Now he noticed her all right, and stared at the ample breasts bulging out of her black Lycra top. She pulled a chair towards him and sat down on the floor across from him.
“Yeah, so as I was saying. What was I saying?”
“You were saying you were a corporate type under a lot of stress. You must have stock options and all the trimmings, huh? Condo somewhere south of Market?”
“How’d you guess?”
“It fits the profile. I read the newspapers sometimes.”
“Sure, I make a lot of money. I work hard for a few months and then take off traveling or backpacking. I’ve got a good life. I’m studying Sanskrit.”
“Planning on joining a cult?”
“Boy, you sure have a scissor tongue. I’m really not dangerous!”
He apologized and then shut up. He wished she would go away. He wanted to leave after he finished this waffle. She was certainly nice, probably more interesting than he was giving her credit for, but not his type. Too young, anyway. Probably listened to terrible music. Barely alive when Kennedy was assassinated. No idea of Vietnam. An idea of Vietnam was critical to any relationship he was going to strike up.
“Did you drop out in the 60s?” she suddenly asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I never dropped back in. I have nothing but contempt for multi-nationals like the one you work for.”
“I was in Seattle for the WTO protest.”
“What were you doing? Throwing rocks at the protesters?”
“No way! I was out there on the streets. See, we have some common ground.”
“I guess. But how can you work for a corporation?”
“There aren’t any other places to work. Anyway, there’s no Vietnam for us. Just perpetual war and we’re the soldiers and the civilians all rolled into one.”
He got up, exhausted by her perky analysis, envious of her energy.
“It was nice meeting you. I’ve got to go.”
“We just had a conversation about the most important issue facing the globe, and we don’t even know one another’s names.”
“Yeah, you see how faceless corporatism makes us.”
He drove home thinking about the woman whose name he didn’t bother to get. His thoughts were vague, but he kept seeing tits and platform boots and the inconsistency of a generation that could revile the very hand that fed it. She was probably a feminist too, with a good rap on S & M or the dignity of sex workers or Playboy bunnies or Hilary Clinton. He might be bummed out, but he didn’t hurt anyone and he tried to keep his principles. Oh he knew the world had changed. He just didn’t feel like changing to accommodate it. He didn’t even own a computer.
He was surprised when she called a few weeks later.
“Harris, this is Jen, Jennifer Oliver. We met at that brunch at Philip’s? Do you remember me?”
“Oh yeah, hi.” Figures she’d have a name like Jennifer, he thought. Her name didn’t even cross his mind. If he imagined she had a name it might be Natasha or god forbid, Tiffany.
“Listen, I’m really in pain, I mean, my neck is killing me. And my masseuse went off to Japan. I’d like to make an appointment to see you.”
He let the silence fill with street sounds coming from her end. Probably on a cell phone. She wouldn’t be the type to use a public phone.
“Can you hear me? I’m sorry, the connection isn’t too good. The battery in my cell is running low. We might be cut off.”
And they were. The dead, clickless nothing.
She phoned back.
“So I’m standing here with my butt practically grazed by traffic. Harris, I asked Philip for your name and number. I could come over to Berkeley tomorrow. Do you have any time?”
“You know,” he thought for a few seconds, the words just came out. “I guess I’d rather go for a walk with you than give you a massage. I just don’t want to mix the two.”
“I’d go for a walk with you! Really, you really want to go for a walk with me?”
“Sure. I generally don’t like to work both ends of the candle, you know. But if you’re really in pain, I’ll give you a massage as a present, as a friend.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I really couldn’t have a massage without paying for it. I mean, you’re a professional. It’s not fair.”
“Well, can you come over around 2?” Again, the words just tumbled out with no ostensible premeditation, surprising him.
He gave her directions and they hung up.
She drove them up to Tilden Park in her Miata, not commenting on his house, his car parked in a driveway overgrown by crabgrass. They parked at Inspiration Point and walked for an hour, not noticing the time. They reached the cattle guard where the pavement turns to dirt trail, and kept walking into the greeny hills. When dusk fell, they walked back in the gray mist, debated over Japanese or Thai food, went for the latter. They talked until the lights of the restaurant dimmed and the impatient waiter stood by the table with the bill on a tray. Harris excused himself to go to the bathroom; she paid the check with an American Express card. When he returned, he put a $20 bill on the table. She put it in her wallet.
“I still need that massage,” she said.
“Oh, I forgot.”
“Sure, but some other time. It’s late. Okay?”
“Okay. But no charge.”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
He slept badly, his mind filled with voices, images of her pert, jelled hair, her dark jean jacket and clean Nikes mixed with his own baggy drawstring pants and scuffed hiking boots and stringy, gray curls. It had been a wonderful, early spring day, the air filled with the fragrance of cut alfalfa and pine needles. They talked about her love of India, her spiritual guru, a peasant cooperative she had visited near New Delhi where the women made quilts for foreign export and revived the failing economy of their village.
He hoped she never called again.
She called, and he was drawn into seeing her a few nights a week. In between, she would take off for days on small trips, and weeks on longer ones, always sending him funny postcards. They hadn’t even kissed yet, but their conversations were rich, and he laughed with her. He drove to her condo in the city a couple of times where they watched movies and drank martinis. She picked up some take-out sushi after work; he brought tofu burgers. They popped popcorn and had Milk Duds for dessert. He continued to limp along with his work, limiting his sessions to small women. His energy was flagging badly.
Something would have to be done about his heart, the doctor advised. He couldn’t just let it wear down. He really needed an operation. He really needed that valve replacement. Did he think he’d live forever? It was a tried and true procedure. Back to work in a couple of months. But he didn’t have a couple of months. Where would he get the income he was scratching out if he couldn’t work for two months? He had no savings. Couldn’t he borrow some money on his credit card? He had no credit card. The little house was all he had. You could take out a home equity loan, the doctor said, you could use it to live on.
“Now I want that massage, Harris,” she said one afternoon rubbing her neck. She sat on the Mexican blanket that covered his couch, picking off cat hairs. “It’s all locked up. You promised!”
He escorted her, as he would any client, into his massage room and instructed her to take off her clothes. She could keep her panties on if she wanted to. He’d be back in a few moments.
She slipped onto the table underneath the blanket and lay on her stomach with her face in the donut pillow, as he had told her to do. He knocked and entered.
“I’m going to use some aromatherapy. So first you’ll feel the oil.”
“Mmm…it smells great. What is it?”
“Essence of Joy. I order it specially.”
He carefully folded the blanket down to her waist, and rubbed the oil over her broad shoulders, along her spine, up her neck. Her body flattened seemed even larger on the table than it did when she was sitting, but now it was just a body in pain to him, not a body he judged by its girth. His hands went deep into her muscles, pressing on the pressure points and releasing. She moaned.
“I hope I’m not pressing too hard,” he said.
“Oh no, it’s perfect, it’s a good feeling.”
He worked silently, pulling each finger out with a pop, each hand, each arm. He asked her to turn over. Her breasts spread wide. He dimmed the lights so he wouldn’t see but feel. It was his business to feel the knots buried in her muscles. He was an expert at feeling a body’s pain. He could almost tell what was held in its tightness, though the specifics were irrelevant to him.
He applied an oversized heating pad to parts of her body to loosen her up. Then he kneaded the knotted spots, he pressed the flesh of her lower back, he moved to her gluteals. If he thought of her as Jennifer, they would be her ass, but he didn’t think of her with a name, only a body, a being with a body in spasm.
After an hour he slowed down. Her eyes closed, she could feel his fingers moving over her face. They pressed in on the center of her forehead, and pulled the skin towards her ears to release the tension between her eyes. He stopped and picked up a small bell and mallet and gonged the bell lightly three times.
“Whenever you’re ready, get dressed. No hurry. Relax and breathe. Get up slowly. Do you want some water? I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
They argued slightly about payment. He didn’t want money from her. He told her to leave, he had a client coming soon. She wrote out a check and slipped it under the phone, hugged him and said she’d call.
His appetite was bad. He could feel his anxiety deepening and perhaps it would never leave him. Perhaps she was the sort of woman who liked depressed men so she could boss them around. Why did she keep calling? Of course he knew. They had fun together. Or as much fun as he could muster. But they were so different. She liked money. She liked expensive things. She had stock in Microsoft!
“I’ve been laid off,” she announced right after he answered the phone. No greeting, just that.
“Jen? You? What do you mean? You’re not even an employee.”
“It’s all the same. The company’s going bust. Just like the dot coms.”
“But they hire you as a consultant, don’t they?”
“They’re dissolving. They’re caput. No need for consultants. They’re already in Chapter 13.”
“I’m sorry. I mean, I’m sorry for you. It’s your livelihood.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll just have to sell my wares elsewhere. I’m okay, I’m not broke. Yet.”
“What about the mortgage?”
“Yeah, a little detail. But I’ll worry about it later. They owe me a good chunk and I think they’ll pay. I can unload the car, and I’ll be fine for a while. And you know, I think I’ll go to India for a month. I’d really like to see my guru again. Now is the right time.”
“A little spendthrift, don’t you think. I mean, shouldn’t you be economizing?”
“Easy come, easy go. But meantime, why not come over? Late dinner and video? Then the traffic won’t be bad. Or I’ll come to you. I’ll rent the video, you scrounge up food.”
He bought some organic pesto and fresh fettuccini. They fixed a salad together in his tiny kitchen, and sat down with a bottle of wine on the couch. He got up to put on some music.
“Opera okay with you? I mean, you’re not going to plug your ears if you have to listen to Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti, are you?”
“No, I don’t usually listen to opera. But I know they’re the tops.”
“Oh, this one, this is a rare recording of them doing Bellini’s I Puritani at the height of their powers. His voice, especially in the early 70s, no tenor can match. There is absolutely no one like him. You’ll see.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any one else to compare him to. My personal repertoire is limited to Andrea Bocelli for a half hour on KQED.”
“He’s a fraud. He’s a blind, simpering gusher. He’s no good! Only old ladies like him. Bel Canto is not supposed to be sentimental, it’s supposed to be beautiful. It’s the poetry of music. It’s supposed to move you to tears.”
“He moved me to tears, but I don’t know why.”
“Well, just listen to this.”
They ate but did not weep. Somehow what was a private pleasure for Harris didn’t translate in another person’s presence. He noted this, kept it with their other differences on a list in his head. He didn’t feel like talking about it when the aria was over.
“Hey, I brought a movie,” she reached into her purse. “The Three Faces of Eve.” An old Joanne Woodward film. I just love her. She doesn’t look like she should be married to someone as handsome as Paul Newman, but there you have it. They’ve been together for ages. You wanna watch it?”
“I guess,” he said, feeling withdrawn and lonely in her presence.
In the movie, Joanne Woodward is young and thin and beautiful. She plays a soft- spoken, working class wife and mother who suddenly begins to have amnesiac spells where she goes out and buys expensive clothes. The clothes are delivered in boxes by the department stores. Her husband is shocked. When did you buy this? he interrogates her. We can’t afford it! She says she thinks he’d like looking at her in these lovely clothes. She suddenly terrorizes her daughter. But she never remembers slipping into this other persona. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist, and he makes the diagnosis: multiple personalities. At first, the character Eve has only two personalities–one passive and meek, the other licentious and sassy. Her husband is an ignorant man. He leaves her because he thinks she’s faking it. Then as her therapy continues, a third personality emerges–a perfectly ordinary, balanced woman who finds a man who loves her. She confesses to him that she’s ill. He wants to marry her anyway.
Harris began to doze just before Eve’s third personality emerged. He wanted to turn off the VCR, and he wanted to go to bed. He hit the Pause button.
“You can just stick around and finish the movie, if you want. I’m beat.”
“Oh Harris, it’s just getting good. Don’t you want to see how it turns out? She’s even got names for her different alters.”
He kept watching, compelled, not by Jen, but the movie. I am a different person, he thought, when I am depressed. Here I am sitting next to a woman I’m not sleeping with. Why am I not sleeping with her? Even my voice seems different to me.
Harris felt himself becoming acutely uncomfortable. It wasn’t Jen’s presence or the fact that he would rather be listening to I Puritani. He watched as Eve’s third personality struggled to recall her childhood, a specific event that somehow triggered her illness. When she remembered it, she was cured. Simplistic Hollywood resolution of a serious pathology! He grabbed the wand and pressed the Off button.
“Harris, are you okay?”
“Am I okay? You’re the one who was laid off today. How can you be so cheerful all the time?”
“Harris, that’s like asking me, How can your eyes be blue? It’s easy for me to be cheerful. I am cheerful. I’m an optimist.”
“Well, I’m not. The world is shit.”
“Harris, you know what I think? I think you’re depressed. I’ve been watching you for three months. You don’t sleep, you barely eat, you’re the most negative person I’ve ever met.”
“So glad you noticed. Now you have an excuse to stop calling.”
“And you don’t want to sleep with me. I can understand that. I know I’m fat. But we’re crazy about one another, aren’t we?”
“Are we? Maybe I’m gay. . . .”
“You’re not gay, stop joking. You’re miserable. Have you ever tried to get help?”
“You think this is the first time I’ve been depressed! You can’t imagine. I’ve been struggling half my life.”
“What a waste. You could get help. There’s therapy. There are pharmaceuticals. ”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want to buy into. Pop a pill, forget about the world.”
“This is ridiculous. You haven’t even tried!”
“They take your sex drive away. Why would I want to take a drug that killed my sex drive?”
“Doesn’t seem to me you have any.”
“How would you know? What do you know? You really ought to go. Just leave. Okay?”
She took out the DVD and glared at him for the first time.
“Okay. I didn’t plan for that movie to make you feel bad. I didn’t even know exactly what it was about. Don’t think I set you up. But you know, I’ve blown your cover. You can’t deny it anymore. You can stop seeing me, but you’ll still be depressed.”
She slammed the front door; the living room shook with aftershock.
He always recovered from these spells. It was anxiety. Seventy percent, at least, he reasoned. Nerves. Nervous prostration. Nervous breakdown. He never broke down. He limped along, hiding. And only the body, bodywork healed him. Only through the body, through other people’s bodies could he lose his pain. But this time it wasn’t working. He was waking in the middle of the night breathless. And not going back to sleep.
Why was this time different? Why did the weight of it hold him in his heart? In his real and metaphorical heart. His weak heart murmuring along like a little old engine all worn out. Can I? I think I can’t, he chugged. I think I can’t. Therefore, I think I can’t. A charming tautology, he thought. If I thought I could, then I could. I might.
He dozed off dreaming that Jen looked liked his ex-wife, with a waist he could put his hands around, his fingers touching. Her young beauty deepening, without his noticing, into middle age. Her still active desire, his inability or his anxiety ridden prematureness. Her leaving him. Taking up with a young martial arts master.
They owned nothing in common but the house. She gave it to him, pitying him in the end. The worst emotion, he thought, the worst. To pity another human being who had been inside you for years.
For days after, he worked badly.
“Harris, hey, man. How you doing?” yelled a neighbor who practiced Tai Chi on his lawn every morning.
“I don’t know.”
“Not really. Been better. A bit, ah, down,” he retorted.
He got the name of a shrink from one of his clients who was always mixing and matching remedies. He paid enough to Kaiser, they ought to do something for him besides want to cut out his organs.
He took the pills and swallowed the talk. Too much talk. Too much childhood, all over again. A grown man going backwards when what he wanted was to move on.
He talked about his wife, and then Jen. Any fool could see what she’d done. He already knew. Had he thrown it away?
Not much happened. She let him alone, and after a couple of weeks, he missed her enough to call. They got together, they talked and laughed as much as before, and one night, she slept over. The big buildup turned out fine. Better than fine. She was all over him. And he was all over her. Her big body. All over his body, her hands touching him. His strong hands sliding along her ankles, moving upwards. She held him so tightly, he was afraid again.
She was going off to India, as planned. She’d see him in a month. Maybe he’d feel better by then. She wished he’d get email. But she’d write.
“–ris,” she said, calling him from the airport. The static on her cell cut off part of his name.
“Hi. Oh, I thought your plane took off already.”
“It’s –ayed. They’re –ust boarding. I –alled to –ay I –ove –ou.”
“What? I can’t hear you very well.”
“I called to say I love you,” she spit out fast. She adjusted the antenna.
“Those are fighting words.”
“Ok, so let’s have our first fight. It’s not real until you can fight.”
“You’re picking a great time, you want to get on a plane after a fight? That’s bad karma, I think. You’ll regret it at 35,000 feet above the Pacific.”
“Ok. I un-love you. Can you hear me? I un-love you.”
“So,” he paused. “So, see you. Be well.”
Some more of not much continued. Except that in the mornings, after a while, he started to wake up without dread. Without that particular screw-driving pain. Is happiness the absence of pain? That’s what one of his clients said.
His 11 o’clock arrived a little early. She rang the bell in the service porch, and he opened the door with the same grimace that was etched around his lips and mouth.
“You look different,” she said. “Different from when I was last here. I mean, like a totally new man. Did you cut your hair or something?”
“Me? Nah. I’m just the same. Of course our cells change completely every few years. But you, hey you look miserable. What’s going on with you? Lower back again? Come on in,” he escorted her to the massage room. “I’ll be right back.”
Gloria Frym is a poet and fiction writer. Her most recent book is Mind Over Matter (BlazeVOX books, 2011) and prior to that she published the chapbook Any Time Soon (Little Red Leaves, 2010). Other works by Frym include The Lost Poems of Sappho (Effing Press, 2007) and Solution Simulacra (United Artists Books, 2006). A previous book of poems, Homeless at Home, won an American Book Award. She is the author of several other volumes of poetry and two critically acclaimed short story collections: Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press).
photo by Victor1558
by Jenn Virškus
It isn’t too crowded on the bus this morning. I grab a seat under the window in between an aging woman and a young girl. The woman is picking her nose, really digging in there, working that rubbery cartilage like a sculptor works clay. I turn to the girl.
She looks young, can’t have been more than seven or eight. She sits quietly hugging her backpack, her tiny, wire-framed glasses sliding down her nose, long, curly pony-tail hanging over her shoulder. She wears a plaid skirt and blue blazer. Catholic school. Nice.
“You ride this bus every day alone?” She nods her head. “You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Another nod. I take out a stick of gum, offer her one. “Piece of gum?” A head shake, no. Good girl. “This your bus to school?” A nod. “How old are you?”
Ha ha. “You like school?” Head nod again. Okay. Questions that require answers. “What’s your favorite subject?”
“You guys doing algebra yet?”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m in fourth grade.” Snot.
Hmm. Fourth grade. What do they study? “Multiplication tables then?” A nod. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?”
“Uh, yea. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.”
Well excuse me. I don’t have kids. Do I look like a guy who has kids? I’m wearing a blue hoody, a backwards baseball cap (to hide my receding hairline), and a cigarette behind my ear. I smoked a fat joint for breakfast and am now drinking a large cup of cheap coffee at 7:45 in the morning on the bus. She gets off at the next stop. Doesn’t even say good-bye. Brat. Kids these days. No manners.
I wish my mom had a car. Then I wouldn’t have to ride the bus to school every day. People always want to talk to me, I don’t know why. My mom says never to talk to strangers on the bus, but sometimes you have to, or people get weird. Aggressive. That’s worse. I try to sit in the corner, but today I have to sit under the window, in the seats reserved for seniors and the elderly. There are two seats open, one next to an old lady picking her nose, the other next to a fat man. He looks like Santa Claus. I sit next to him. At the next stop, a man in a blue hoody sits down next to me. He has a goatee; his clothes are clean enough, but he smells funny anyway. I think it’s marijuana—my mom told me what it smelled like one time so I would know. Know to stay away. I try.
This man is a talker. I hug my backpack, and stare straight in front of me.
“You ride this bus every day?”
Here we go. I wish I had headphones, then I could ignore him, but my mom says I have to have all my senses to protect myself. So I glance his way and just nod my head.
“You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Yeah buddy I do. So why do you keep talking to me? He offers me a piece of gum. “Piece of gum?” Are you kidding me? I shake my head no. “This your bus to school?” Duh. Why do you think I’m dressed like this? Britney Spears video? “How old are you?”
Ugh. Okay fine. “I’m nine.”
“You like school?” Will he ever stop? “What’s your favorite subject in school?” Nope.
He looks stupid. I try to sound smart. “Math.”
“You guys doing algebra yet?” How does this guy even know what algebra is?
“I’m in fourth grade.” Obviously.
“Multiplication tables then?” Yea. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?” I guess he’s not getting the smart vibe.
“Uh, yeah. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.” Jerk.
Before he can ask any more questions, we get to my stop. I get off the bus as fast as I can, and walk straight into school. I put my backpack in my cubby and take my place in the second row. I hope my mom gets a car soon.
Jenn Virškus is a multilingual adventurer, sailboat racer, ski instructor and freelance artist of Lithuanian descent. Visit her on the web.
photo by Alex Nowik
by Arthur Levine
Old Crick might still be with us were it not for my being such a dumb ass. Still, maybe he’s better off. Either there’s nothing, which would trouble me and a lot of other folks greatly to be the case, or else there’s something, which most folks including myself tend to accept as the gospel truth. Problem is, what’s that something going to be?
Old Crick could be down there shoveling coal into a hot furnace or up above wearing wings. Well it’s easy enough to see old Crick working a shovel, but it’s hard as all get out to picture wings on that cranky old sonofabitch, all liquored up with them raggedy overalls and that old corn pipe he’s forever chewing the stem of.
I knew it was a mistake from the get-go, but that’s Joey Fazenbaker for you. He brings it over in this metal box like something you might put your important papers in if you had any, all locked up, and he hands me the key. Then he plops on the couch and puts his feet up, stretching those long legs of his across Stell’s new coffee table, and lights him a Lucky Strike.
I shove the ashtray over in his general direction and tell him to get his damn boots off Stell’s table, which he does, misses the ashtray with his match, and says, “Lookit, Barb don’t want a goddamn gun in the house now we got us a baby to worry about. What am I gonna do? I don’t want to just sell it. It was give to me by Pop and I’d like to keep it, if for nothing else to pass it on to my own son now that I got one. All’s I’m asking is keep it for me for a bit. Give me time to work something out.”
His breath smells like he just ate a dogshit sandwich for breakfast and I wish he’d hit the ashtray just once. He’s like that. Only pays attention to his own concerns. Nobody else’s matter.
“Can’t you just lock it up?” I say, “Take the bullets out and just lock it up?”
“I’m telling you how she is she won’t have it! She told me straight out, either the gun goes or you AND the gun goes! She don’t kid around, Barb don’t.”
The last thing me and Stell need is another firearm in the house. We got rid of my 870 on account of how the buckshot demolished the paneling in the rec room during one of our lover’s quarrels.
Course we always come back around Stell and me, kiss and make up. That’s just how we are. Like most folks, carrying on one minute, all lovey-dovey the next.
Well finally I says to Joey, “Okay. For now, just put the damn thing in the shed and cover it with that old tarp I got over the half pint of Comfort I keep for emergencies. Stell and me will discuss about it this evening, when she gets home from the Legion. But no promises! And for Christ’s sake empty out the bullets! And lock the damn thing up and hold on to the damn key! And don’t be forgetting to lock the shed when you’re done!”
I should have went with him.
My ass hurts from sitting on them steps leading to the gallery of Miller’s Store. Behind me old Crick has planted his own self on a wood crate to the right of the front door, gumming the stem of that corncob pipe of his.
The rest of the usuals clutter up the steps and the gallery whittling sticks or just taking up space. Donny Blue Crow is sipping his shine out of a jar and humming whatever it is he hums. Cagey Bill is tapping his foot and drumming his fingers and jerking his head back and forth every so often. Something’s not right with how he is, makes him carry on like that.
Dud Fazenbaker (no relation to Joey) pulls on the visor of his IH ball cap to shade his eyes and spits a brown stream across the steps just missing the high-top Chuck Taylors of Durum Brown, who’s struggling up the street on account of the bad wheel on that damn grocery cart of his, full of alunium cans.
Durum stops and scratches his stomach through a hole in that t-shirt he wears, the one with the rock band on the front, which don’t appear to have met with any clothes soap since the Surrender.
He points at Dud and yells, “You watchit! You best not be spittin’ on no African-Americans no more! Else I gone get the NCA and P after your ass!”
Dud pays him no mind and Durum Brown goes on up the street nearly run down by Sheriff Hodge, who swerves that old Ford of his toward Buster Hill’s fruit wagon.
Buster jerks the wagon out of harm’s way in time for the Sheriff to right the Ford again, but in the process tips the wagon and a goodly portion of Buster’s strawberries pour over into the dusty street.
“Sheriff looks to be in his sheets again,” Dud Fazenbaker says to nobody specific, and lets loose another brown stream, “Whatsit they says? Law is for the protection of the people? Protecting the people my ass!”
Old Crick shifts his position on the crate, says, “Hodge ain’t the problem. Civilization, that’s the problem.”
After another long swallow from his fruit jar, Donny Blue Crow looks up, says, “Ain’t that the truth.”
Joey Fazenbaker comes up street on his way to cut granite for tombstones at Keller and Sons. Keller passed on a long time ago and his sons sold the business to that nasty old skinflint Efrem Poor, but Poor kept the old name.
“Protecting the people my ass!” Dud says again, fingering a fresh chaw from the package of Red Man.
Old Crick ain’t listening, he just goes on mumbling to himself on how things is going to pot. After a bit he pockets his half pint, gets up with some effort, cracking his arthritic knees, and hobbles down the steps of the gallery up street in the direction of Skiddy’s Tavern. As it’s getting on noon, Skiddy will be lighting up the sign about now and making ready to open.
Stell and I was barred from Skiddy’s for a time, back when Donny Blue Crow’s granddaughter Lila and me started getting too friendly and Stell aims her half-filled long-necked Bud at me and misses and throws it clear through Skiddy’s front window.
Donny Blue Crow hisself don’t go into Skiddy’s on account of he prefers his shine to store bought, which he buys cheap off another redskin who I believe goes by the name of Lester Yellow Bird or Yellow something or other.
Lester must be a hundred years old and don’t come to town so much anymore. Used to he’d come in driving that rickety wagon filled with fruit jars full of shine, sell what he could, then you wouldn’t see him till the next batch. I bought some off of him once but it tasted so poorly I couldn’t get it down. Old Crick claimed it was on account of the snake poison them injuns add to it to give it more of a kick. Don’t bother some though, anyways not Sheriff Hodge. Seems he’s one of the old injun’s best customers.
Anyhow the story has it Lester’s mule finally dies on him and his son ain’t about to drive him up in that rusted Chevy station wagon he’s got, on account of he has ideas of being a preacher and is always tormenting the old man about making the Devil’s own brew. So now old Lester borrows a mule for his wagon when he can, which like I say, is none too often.
Them injuns is a sorry bunch. Most don’t work and live off us taxpaying citizens, welfare, food stamps, the whole bit. But they do like their firewater. Their women have a taste for it as well.
Like that squaw got me in a mess over at Skiddy’s. Cute young thing, but a little on the chunky side. To hear Cagey Bill tell it, she ain’t above given a white man a pretty good time for his money, neither. I’ve heard similar from Bug Eyes Humphrey, but that don’t hold much water, as when it comes to him relating about his carryings ons and such, Bug Eyes and the truth tend to be very distant relations.
Skiddy’s right name is Eustace Skidmore, but nobody’s called him that in years. Most folks can’t even recall his right name. Of late, Doc Grandy told him no more drinking on account of his liver, so these days Skiddy pretty much sticks to just beer.
He’s got the Papst sign in the window lit and is open for business by the time I catch up with old Crick and Dud Fazenbaker and Bug Eyes Humphrey and grab me a stool at the bar.
Skiddy lights himself a Camel, he don’t pay no mind in his place to all that “No Smoking” bullshit the County come up with. Hell, when Hodge or his deputy, Skinner, come around, they light up just the same as anybody else. When the County started in with all that I recall Skiddy went on for the whole day, saying “They got no business telling me what I can and can’t do in my own goddamn place!”
I also recall old Crick telling him, “It ain’t just the damn government! It’s the whole of civilization gone haywire!”
Skiddy puts his mop back in the corner of the bar, turns on the fan, drops a red quarter in the box, and makes his selections, the first of which is F7, Tom T. Hall. Folks here has their favorites and you get to know them numbers by heart after awhile.
He pours old Crick a shot of CC and reaches in the cooler for a PBR for Crick to wash it down. Not having the proper license, Skiddy only serves hard liquor to the regulars and then only when there’s no strangers around. Crick prefers his Beam but all’s Skiddy gets is the whiskey, so Crick makes do just to be sociable, saving the rest of his half pint for tomorrow’s breakfast.
… If I’ve got one wish, I hope it rains at my funeral
For once, I’d like to be the only one dry…
In no time the bar fills up with the rest of the regulars, paying their tabs out of pension money, welfare checks, paychecks from the Celanese, unemployment benefits (mostly from them got shitcanned over at CONRAC Industries), and a few here and there, with food stamps (fifty cents on the dollar), while some, known to be good for it, just run tabs till the next payday comes.
Skiddy flips a red quarter to Dud Fazenbaker for the box, and Dud presses some numbers, the first being J4, a George Jones.
…can’t hold out much longer
The way that I feel
With the blood from my body
I could start my own still…
Most of the bar talk still concerns Sheriff Hodge running down that little Shepherd girl.
“Won’t nothing come of it,” says Bug Eyes, in between swallows, “The old man spends more time upstate than he does with that woman of his. All them Shepherds is just a bunch of low-rent whites. What’s one less?”
“Low-rent or not, ain’t nobody g-going to m-mess with Hodge,” stutters Cagey Bill, “Ain’t like he’s g-going to arrest hisself!”
“You got that right!” adds Dud, “Protection of the people, my ass…”
“Just one more sign,” mumbles old Crick, “Hodge shoulda oughten to be part of that sorry crowd begging quarters in front of the monument, instead of wearing a badge, if it weren’t that civilization has gone to pot so…”
Crick tosses Dud a quarter and tells him play G9.
…Stop the world and let me off
I’m tired of goin’ ’round n’ ’round…
Stell comes through the door with a look on her face says now’s not the time to be talking nonsense about keeping no gun around and when I run Joey’s gun business by her, turns out I’m absolutely correct.
“You dumb ass! How can you even think of keeping another gun in the house after you damn near blew my head off that time in Jackson?”
I don’t say nothing on account of I’m pretty good about knowing when to keep my mouth shut when she gets like this. But she’s got it all wrong. Jackson’s not where it was at, it was later on when we were renting that place outside of Clarysville. I went after her with a pair of borrowed hedge clippers in Jackson, but only after she tried to smash my head in with that planter her mother gave us in the shape of a catfish.
And regarding Joey’s gun, I’m thinking it’s best to let on like I’m in agreement one hundred percent, which in a matter of speaking I am, and I figure to just leave it where it’s at, under the tarp in the shed, locked up with no bullets, how I told Joey to leave it. Can’t do nobody no harm locked up with no bullets.
Only like I say, I should have followed him out there.
The benches is all filled up, so me and Cagey Bill and Bug Eyes and some folks with which I’m only passing familiar, all stand in the back of the courtroom, doing our best to not block the doors. Sheriff Hodge is on the stand claiming flat out he didn’t have nothing to do with that Shepherd girl being run down, couldn’t have, on account of he’s nowhere near the school that day, but over in Memphis on police business, which he says he can’t let on about on account of the sensitive nature. Claims the two girls must have took his car for somebody else’s.
“Youngsters like them,” he says, “Is prone to getting it wrong when it comes to being eye witness to events such as this.” Looking over at the two girls, he says, “And I ain’t suggesting nothing here, but kids is also prone to fibbing on occasion, specially when it comes to what you call your athriaty figures.” Then he claims he’s doing everything he can to find the real culprit and bring him to justice as is his sworn duty.
While Hodge is going on about all this Judge McCain’s eyeing a fly about to land on the papers in front of him. Finally swats it and studies his hand and says, “I got no choice but to take the word of man sworn to uphold the law over that of a couple of schoolgirls.” And he raps his hammer on his desk and that’s that.
The whole time I notice the Judge never once sets his eyes on Lucie Shepherd, the girl’s mom. All the while I see her staring at the flag to the left of the Judge and when he says about Hodge upholding the law she just looks over at her son and from where I’m at all the way in the back of the room, plain as day I hear her say, “You can’t expect no different, when it comes to folks like us.”
McCain gives her a look like he’s about to say something, but instead climbs down from his perch and leaves by the back door he came in on.
Lucie’s son being only five, asks her could they stop in Christian’s for a penny candy. Then he asks since his Sis ain’t there on account of her going to heaven to be with Jesus, could he have hers too.
The Widow Mrs. Jake Stamp tromps her big old self up the steps to Miller’s Store, poking this one and that one with her cane to let her pass, and reaching the door, turns to us, says, “You men should ought to be ashamed! You’re a disgrace to the white race!”
Donny Blue Crow looks to say something, but thinks better of it and takes another long sip out of his jar.
Dud Fazenbaker tosses his empty long-neck Bud into the street, and says to nobody in particular, “They claim they put a motherfucker on the damn moon, how come the fuck they can’t get my damn checks to me when they’re posed to?”
“They got no right messing with out in space,” says old Crick, polishing the last of his half pint, “They’re out of line is what. Humans is meant for right where they is. They got no call to be messing with the planets like that.”
Donny Blue Crow looks to be speaking into his jar, says, “Old bitch calling me a white man. Ain’t no cocksucking white man…Chickasaw!” He lets out a whoop and yells, “Chickasaw!”
Dud spits a stream of Red Man, says, “Shut the fuck up Geronimo! You fucking lost! Remember? We white men kicked your fucking injun asses!”
Bug Eyes Humphrey leans forward and pats Dud’s shoulder, tells him, “He don’t remember nothing. Fucking redskin don’t remember to open his damn fly when he pisses!”
As usual, Old Crick and Dud Fazenbaker and me are the first paying customers of the day, while the juke box man, Harvey Waters is busy sorting out the red quarters and handing them to Skiddy for priming the box. He takes out a number on what looks like the Decca label, maybe Web Pierce or Brenda Lee, and puts in something on an odd label I don’t know of.
Skiddy sets Harvey a bottle of Old German on the counter and a glass. He’s one of the few prefers the glass to just drinking directly out of the bottle. Mostly it’s the ladies who want glasses.
Skiddy asks him, “You hear about Hodge running down that Shepherd kid?”
“Yeah. I heard something about that,” says Waters, “Heard he got off for it. No surprise there.”
Old Crick mumbles something I can’t make out.
“What’d you expect?” Skiddy says, “They had two kids saw the whole thing. Didn’t mean squat. Hodge says he didn’t do it, old sonofabitch McCain lets him off scot free.”
Crick clanks his empty shot glass down, says, “What the hell a white man’s got to do to get served round here?”
Skiddy pours him another shot and lifts and shakes Crick’s PBR to see is he ready for another.
“Like I say, no surprise,” Waters says.
“Law is posed to be for the protection of the people,” Dud says, gulping down the last of his Bud, “Yeah, right.”
“They took up a collection at the First Baptist last Sunday for a stone. That Shepherd woman don’t have a pot to piss in. All them kids hanging on her. No old man helping out,” Skiddy says.
“Don’t seem like there is any law no more,” Waters says, “The foxes is in the barn and the door’s already closed.”
Crick polishes his shot and takes a swig of the PBR. “Every man for himself,” he says, sliding off his school, and stumbling toward the head on those arthritic knees of his.
Dud says, “Last I hear they still had her old man up at Lansdown. Armed robbery, wasn’t it?”
“Who can keep track?” Skiddy says, “Yeah, this time I believe it was armed robbery.”
“How folks like that get by is beyond me,” Waters adds.
He puts down the empty, tugs the frayed bill on his Massey-Ferguson ball cap, and shakes another Camel out of the pack.
Skiddy grabs an Old German out of the cooler and replaces Water’s empty, then remembers he forgot to turn on the Pabst sign.
“I best be finishing my route,” Waters says. He takes one final long gulp to polish the second bottle, “Whatsit they say? Time and trouble don’t wait on nobody.”
I’m out front of Miller’s leaning under the hood with a flat-edged Stanley on the solenoid to get the Valiant started, when I see Old Crick and Bug Eyes Humphrey stumbling out of Skiddy’s. They both seem so shitfaced I can’t tell who’s holding on to who.
Old Crick and Bug Eyes come up on either side of me and Bug Eyes says, “Need a jump?”
“Nope. It should start okay now,” I tell him, bringing down the hood.
“That there jalopy will outlive you,” says Old Crick, “Them Jap shitboxes ain’t got nothing on them slant sixes. Crap they make these days can’t hold a candle to them old Valiants. All comes back to civ-”
I don’t hear the rest on account of the pops of what might could be an engine missing a cylinder or bullets leaving the chamber of a firearm. Bug Eyes wastes no time plopping his fat self down on the far side of the Plymouth, but me and Old Crick just stands there, us both looking over in the general direction of Skiddy’s where it come from.
The killing of Durum Brown does not create much of a stir. The Widow Mrs. Jake Stamp claims she saw the whole thing and that it was another nigger what shot him. Only when Sheriff Hodge asks what did he look like, all she tells him is he just looked like a nigger and that Hodge ought to know darn well one looks the same as another to a respectable white woman of means, such as herself.
Most folks have come to be use to them blacks killing each other, though they mostly go about it down in Monkey Holler, or as they call it these days, Carver Valley. You say Carver Valley to an old timer, he’ll just look at you. It’s the new arrivals buying up them new homes over in Juniperville calls it Carver Valley. Only it ain’t Juniperville no more neither. Where they’s at is Highland Heights, only it’s really just Juniperville but that ain’t high tone enough, so they give it some new name to go along with the big time money they’s paying for them houses.
They come taking up all the high paying jobs at the CONRAC Industries. Used to be the Crenshaw Mill before CONRAC come along. CONRAC buys it up and busts up the union, brings in a new set of young white folks to run things and shitcans the white folks been there for years, hires a bunch of porch monkeys and a few injuns to do the actual work, and pays ‘em peanuts.
One story has it that the killing of Durum Brown was revenge. That Mrs. Jake Stamp got it all wrong, it weren’t a black at all but a dark white man what shot him, some working man CONRAC got rid of, going off the handle, shooting the first nigger he sees. Might be, but Sheriff Hodge ain’t brung nobody in as yet, and it don’t appear he’s about to.
Old Crick come by the place of a Sunday morning, says about the heat spell we’re having and this and that, then says, “What with this heat, a person sure gets him a thirst.”
Being it’s just nine and Stell don’t abide drinking in the house before noon, mostly joking and knowing damn well what it is he’s needing, I ask would he like a glass of water.
Old Crick grins, says, “You mean for a chaser?”
I tell him the whereabouts of that bottle I keep out back, hand him the key and say to him to be sure and do his drinking right there in the shed, and not out in the open, on account of if Stell sees him she’ll go on the warpath. I point to where Stell is at, doing up some bacon in the kitchen, and tell him, “We’ve been getting along pretty fair of late and the last thing I need is some old drunk gumming up the works!”
He screws up his face, says, “One of these days you might could borry the pants off of her and swap ‘em for that dress you got on, just to see do they fit!”
Old Crick don’t have no woman, lives out near them old warehouses off Center, just him and his dogs. If memory serves, might have been Dud Fazenbaker what told me there was some woman way back when, with a young girl. Big woman, not bad looking, to hear him tell it, but for her size. Come to town with the kid every now and then for essentials. All this must have been before my time.
Actually, maybe it wasn’t Dud, might could have been Bug Eyes told me. Anyhow, comes a time the word is the child took sick, maybe died, and the woman’s not seen no more. I believe it was Bug Eyes told me, not Dud. But whoever, old Crick himself never has said nothing about it and it ain’t the type thing you bring up to a person, specially a cantankerous old fart like Crick.
We have been getting on pretty fair of late, Stell and I. Mostly cause I finally give in and she stopped taken her birth pills and I been keeping my fingers crossed. Once I get started I forget all about it, but then when I finish it come back to me. There’s no way we could have a kid. In the first place, we’re at this point in time getting by on Stell’s waitress money from the barroom over at the Legion plus my two hundred eleven dollar unemployment, since I got shitcanned from pearl diving at Ruby Tuesday’s for drinking on the job, on account of the asshole assistant manager Jason claimed he smelt it on my breath, when all’s I had was a sip of this girl Evelyn’s Bud, who at that time I was sort of friendly with. And on account of it’s been almost a year now, I believe I’m only one or two more checks short of finished, and you can’t hardly pay for a kid on what we got coming in, less you want to live like low-rent white folks.
But Stell wants a kid real bad, keeps saying how we’re not really a family with no kid, something she gets from the television, no doubt from those same ladies’ shows such as Joey’s Barb looks at. Thing is I care about Stell, I really do, and I want to do right by her. Plus, like I say, them checks of mine is going to run out in another week or two, and then where the hell am I without Stell’s tip money.
But a kid?
After tonight’s lovemaking with Stell I’m wide awake, whereas mostly all’s I want’s a smoke and then sweet dreams. But tonight for some reason, like I say I’m still raring to go for another round only she rolls over and don’t want no part of no more.
So I hit the hall light and march into the kitchen and polish the last of my fifth of Comfort, then grab the key and a flashlight and make my way over to the shed for my bottle what I keep for emergencies. I don’t see the empty on the floor until I kick it by accident after I lift the tarp.
Damn Crick! Bars closed hours ago. Now I got to drive clear across the County Line to find a packaged liquor place still open.
I had just got took on temporary working graveyard at Livewell’s Chemical, so’s all’s I know is what I hear from Stell, who happens to be off from her waitressing at the Legion on that particular Tuesday evening. The way she tells it, it’s after midnight and she’s looking at a rerun of “Peyton Place” on the television when Joey come banging on the door yelling he wants the key to our shed. She asks him how come he needs it and he says on account of he needs his gun, pronto!
Well at first Stell believes him to be loaded up, though she don’t smell no liquor on him. But how he is, after a bit of listening to him carry on, she comes around to the idea that the best thing to do is to get the damn key and show him once and for all there ain’t no gun to be had in there.
So she finds a flashlight and the long and the short of it is he finds that box what you’d put your important papers in if you had any, but no gun. Now Joey’s really going off, to hear Stell tell it.
“That motherfucker you married stole my gun! Probably sold it! Damn motherfucker!”
Stell relates to me how he’s carrying on so she can’t figure what’s got into him. Only thing she can figure is maybe he’s gone and got himself tanked after all, but she’s never knowed Joey to be much of a drinker, plus she don’t smell nothing. Then she considers maybe he’s on the dope.
“I kill that lying motherfucker! And that good-for-nothing husband of yours besides!” he tells her, then goes stomping off back to his home place.
After hearing all accounts Judge McCain decides it’s a case of self-defense what resulted in Joey receiving a leg full of buckshot on the part of Dud Fazenbaker after Joey looks to come at him with that steak knife, and the Judge has Joey being sent upstate to the Farm in Parchman soon’s they get through learning him to walk again at Christ Child.
During her turn, Joey’s wife Barb has her friend Lucille hold the baby while she claims to the judge there weren’t nothing going on between herself and Dud, that it was all in Joey’s head.
Judge can’t hardly hear her on account of how the baby’s going off while Lucille does what she can to try to quiet him down. Barb steps down and Lucille hands her the baby back and takes a handkerchief from her sleeve to wipe at the drool on her dress where the baby was at.
Joey hobbles up on his crutches and swears otherwise, that he knowed for a fact Dud was having his way with Barb, on account of finding Dud’s IH ball cap under the bed. McCain can hear Joey fine now as there’s not a peep out of the baby at the present time, no doubt on account of he’s back with his mom.
It’s Dud’s turn and he has to speak up loud, as once again the baby commences to howl like a coyote and Barb finally has Lucille take him out of the courtroom, to the gallery in front of the courthouse from which the little bugger’s complaints can still be heard on the inside plain as day.
Dud swears that ball cap weren’t his, that he lost his ball cap coming home from Skiddy’s the night before last, on account of it got blowed off his head by that big wind we had come up, taking down all them branches and whatnot. He claims he never had no designs on Barb or no other female and that he and his wife Connie were just as happy with one another as the day they left the church.
“She’d say the same if she were here,” Dud says, “Only she and the kids are having a visit with her mother in Jackson, at this point in time.”
Us in the back of the courtroom tend to favor Joey’s side of things concerning the hanky-panky, but whichever way you look at it, he’s still the guilty party on account of him going after Dud with the steak knife, which truth be told, each of us would have no doubt done the same under such conditions with no firearm handy, should Dud have been prowling around with one of our own, with the exception of Bug Eyes, who’s a bachelor and as such took Dud’s side of things on that matter over Joey’s.
Lucky for Dud old Crick saw to Joey’s gun before Joey got at it. Not so lucky for old Crick though.
The story has it when the two boys found him laying there in the woods by what was later learnt to be an unmarked grave, the cold had kept old Crick looking much like himself. The one boy, yet another Fazenbaker of no relation to Joey or Dud, told Deputy Skinner they took old Crick to be sleeping at first. There weren’t much blood to speak of and what there was of it wasn’t in plain sight, just the one small hole in the far side of his skull, with some black around it, but how he was laying the boys missed seeing that when they first come upon him. After they got their nerve, one of them gives him a poke is when they get that he ain’t just sleeping and it’s then they notice the gun.
Well, old Crick is by now in one place or another, is my belief. Whichever, he’s no doubt offering his complaints to whoever is calling the shots where he’s at, on how things there is gone all to pot from how they used to be.
Stell come through the door last night and after a considerable bit of hemming and hawing on her part, she let’s out with she’s two months late.
Arthur Levine is a writer based in Rockville, MD.
photo by psigrist
by Ben Bellizzi
When people ask me what I do for work, I never tell them. Sometimes I describe it as freelancing, sometimes as photographic journalism, and sometimes, in my more playful moments, as performance art. People often ask questions without being prepared for the answers, and although those who look on the underside of rocks should expect to find a slug or two, I spare them that reality. Without a touch of arrogance, I can accurately say that I am among the elite of my field, and in the world of professional blackmail, few women have mastered the technique as I have.
Although I’m in my early thirties and my career spans nearly six years, the majority of my work has never made it to press. My poses are so convincing, the photos so sharp and incriminating that the subjects, individuals whose reputations would be ruined if such photos were published, pay top dollar to keep them from the public. While these quick payoffs are the desired effect of my work, I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment that such expertise goes unnoticed.
For the most part, successful blackmail depends on catching the subject in an embarrassing act, normally of a sexual nature. However, for a subject who is faithful to his wife and does not frequent prostitutes, a bit of stage work is necessary. A picture of a man in bed with a buxom blond portrays just that, and if the scene is adequately set, no one will ever question its legitimacy. The camera shows no timetable for her visit, nor does it distinguish how she came to be there, just that she was nude and in bed and up to something in the middle of the night.
The majority of our business comes from hotel hits. Once we establish the subject’s location and solitary status, Doug, the cameraman and lock specialist, works on the door while I ready myself for robe removal. When the door flies open, I drop the robe and rush directly toward the bed, while Doug circles the room for his best shot, sometimes mounting a chair or a coffee table for an aerial view. I slide feet first under the covers, sidle up next to the subject, and engage the camera.
It is important to establish the ecstasy shot immediately. No matter how surprised the subject might be at my arrival, a look of uncontrollable pleasure on the girl’s face creates the eroticism in the photographic sequence, even if it is apparent that the man is not in the same euphoric state. For this shot, I make sure that my hair is disheveled and that a few strands fall into my face. The head tilts back, one shoulder thrusts forward, the mouth opens, the lips reach out, one eye is closed, the other one flutters in delight, and the back arches and pushes the breasts to the forefront of the photo. I embellish this pose while Doug shoots away, and then we progress to stage two.
The subjects rarely leave the sanctuary of the bed during these encounters. Of course there have been those who’ve jumped up, scampered toward a closet or simply clutched the wall while Doug’s camera captured their frenetic state, but the fear of bodily exposure normally keeps them under the covers. At this time, we commence with stage two, the shocked shots. I slide close to the subject, pull the comforter over my breasts, and act as terrified and confused as the man beside me. These shots establish my camaraderie with the subject, as we are partners in a shared crime and face our fate together. I like to throw an arm around the subject, to pull him closer to me in order to accentuate the atmosphere of fear and surprise, to allow the camera to catch my arm clutching at my would be lover. These shots are the most intimate, for in their bewilderment the subjects often clutch me back, and for a moment there we are, interrupted lovers holding onto the only things we know to be true while the camera exposes us to the world. There is something romantic, even heroic about these moments, and on more than one occasion, following business negotiations, former subjects have contacted me in hope of establishing a personal relationship. Never once have I accepted one of these proposals, but it is a testament to my professional work that even in these moments when celebrities and politicians and various public figures are under attack from the paparazzi, at the very moment when their careers are taking drastic turns for the worse, they feel a connection to me, something real underneath the façade that the camera captures. One subject, a man of national recognition, courted me for years, sending me flowers and poorly written love poems with such frequency that when his wife found out, she left him. He was a desperate and lonely man, and our shocked shots are some of my finest work to date.
The final shots of the sequence are the runaway shots. These involve me racing from the room, Doug following to catch a leg here, a buttock there, a lock of blond hair disappearing through a doorway. These shots are difficult to catch and are of more artistic value than anything else, and they are so nondescript that we often pull old ones from the archives and reuse them in multiple sequences. At one point I suggested that we scrap the shots altogether and therefore expedite our escape time, but Doug protested: he enjoys the shots too much, the chase of a naked woman through a strange hotel room, and I cannot take that away from him. Doug once harbored dreams of using his quick camera skills to shoot fast-moving wildlife in exotic locals around the globe, and the satisfaction he takes from catching an entire limb or a silhouette running into the night is worth more to him than the most lavish of payoffs. The man is an artist, and he will not be deprived of his art.
After a night of work, Doug and I often go for breakfast at the retro-themed FROCK’S DINER with the flickering neon sign. For years the establishment has been unable to keep the R and the top part of the O illuminated, creating an effect that delights the neighborhood kids to no end. The sign is sabotaged, no doubt.
Nancy, the night waitress, has the wonderfully bitter personality befitting of an aging woman who works during the hours when more fortunate women sleep entwined in their lovers. She greets us with the understanding that occurs between people whose professions provide a common hardship, but her temperament could never be described as congenial. She prefers pointing to speaking, has no aversion to scratching herself in various locations while we order, and often delivers our meals with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, sneering at the no smoking signs in the windows. She is a disgrace, and we would not continue our patronage of Frock’s without the delight that she provides us.
Doug and I will sit in a booth lined with boisterous plastic cushions, sipping burned coffee while we discuss career aspirations that we both accept as unattainable. Never do we utter phrases like “National Geographic” or “Scorsese,” rather we speak of these ideals with the haziness and hopelessness of an infidel dreaming of heaven. We are highly skilled at what we do, but so specialized in our fields that our talents would not produce the same compensation in other, more ethical professions. Our best work is that which will never be seen. We are each other’s muses, each other’s only audience.
As dawn’s first rays sneak into the streets, Doug drops me off at my apartment building, always bidding me farewell with a kiss on the cheek. He stretches across the bench seat as I casually tilt toward him and act as if this is a mere formality to our night. Despite our close professional relationship, Doug has never invited me into his private life. I know that he’s been involved in a handful of serious relationships, enjoys throwing the Frisbee with his dog and attempting to surf, but our friendship is restricted to the cover of night. As he kisses me, I close my eyes and hold still, not wanting to move in any way that would curtail this moment. Sometimes he’ll place a hand on my shoulder, and I savor his touch as if it’s the last I’ll ever experience. When he retreats, I pause for a moment, imagining that his lips are still resting on my cheek, that they are perhaps even crawling over to sprinkle my mouth with the most tender of touches. When I am sure that they are not, I open my eyes, smile at him, and murmur goodnight.
Once inside the building, I climb the stairs to my studio on the third floor. An outsider might describe the apartment as unkempt, but as I walk through it, my own mess contains a sort of perfect order. The running shoes and shorts lie ready beside the door, the yoga mat stretches out in full view of the television, and the pots and pans await the next meal on unlit burners. I run a quick shower and dress for bed while the morning light filters in through the drapes. Years ago I developed the habit of sleeping beneath many layers of clothing, for my naked body used to swim aimlessly amid the sheets, feeling lost and exposed. There was a time when I rarely slept alone, but now I have arrived at the point in my life that when involved in brief, impersonal relationships, I am haunted by the sensation that I’m assembling a puzzle to which I lack the most integral of pieces. The idea of inviting an unfamiliar man into my bed fills me with such apprehension that I no longer regard it an option. My room seems to forever contain a camera and an audience, and I will not allow myself to be caught in such a spectacle. The only man with whom I would consider sharing my private life has already kissed me goodnight, and with our relationship restricted to that of professional partners, I am unwilling to accept substitutions. Instead, I lie ensconced in a cocoon of pajama bottoms and long-sleeved tee shirts, hoping to fall asleep before the bustle of the outside world penetrates my walls.
In the other apartment on my floor, an attractive young couple shares a one-bedroom. I see them from time to time on the stairs, bikes always hanging from their shoulders, either embarking or returning from a glorious adventure. Below me is a family of four, neither child above the age of six. They decorate the outside of their door in accordance with the appropriate seasonal holiday, the exclamatory slogans announcing their celebrations and happiness to all those who pass by. I am friendly with my neighbors and they sometimes invite me to dinner, but within our lives exists such a difference that I cannot possibly accept. As a single adult, you are your work, and I have long been unable to detach myself from mine.
Above me lives Mrs. Dobson. When she moves about her apartment, I follow her cane’s hollow thump on my ceiling as she maneuvers out of bed, across to the bathroom, or into the kitchen. She only leaves the apartment on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the nurse takes her for a walk in the park, and also on the occasional Saturday when her son brings her to the museum. Her invitations for me to join her in the latter of these outings have been relentless, for she believes that her son and I would make a fabulous pair.
On one of these Saturdays, still groggy from a long night’s work, I encountered Mrs. Dobson and her son on the stairs. He was a tall and sturdy man in his late thirties, genuinely handsome, his hands slender yet masculine. His shake was both firm and tender, and I did my best to meet his pressure. He spoke to me with enthusiasm, and I smiled at him politely while I searched for an opportunity to slip back into the safety of my apartment. He said it was a pleasure to finally meet me, and he asked me what I did for work.
After a moment of thought, I said, “I’m an artist.”
He clasped his hands together. “The arts are fantastic,” he said, “I used to take a great amount of pleasure in illustration, but I traded it all in for a business suit. What kind of art do you do?”
His expression was that of someone awaiting good news, and I felt obliged not to dismiss him.
“I work in photography,” I said.
His face again lit up. “That’s wonderful. I’ve always been fascinated with the photographic arts. I’ll bet it brings you much happiness.”
I nodded as I shuffled to the door. I laid a hand on the knob, smiled at both he and his mother as I turned it, and said, “Yes, it does. It’s all I have.”
Ben Bellizzi’s fiction has appeared in Monday Night, Prick of the Spindle, and The Dreams of Things, among others, and was included in the “2010 Notable Reading” section the 2011 Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is a graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA program.
photo by adamliconoclastebanal
by Zarina Zabrisky
Please forgive my mistakes; English is my second language. I need help, Doctor. I have a problem with garbage. I’m afraid of garbage. I see garbage everywhere. What? When was I first scared of garbage?
I think it started when I was twenty. I lived in Siberia with a real jerk. That jerk was an aspiring philosopher. He dreamed about the Nobel Prize as he stretched out on a pea-green couch in front of a broken TV. When asked to take garbage out, he always refused.
“Demonstrating a capacity to act is against my principles,” he preached. “Masha! Read Gumilev! The ‘passionarity,’ Masha, learn about ‘passionarity.’ Each ethnic group, Masha, has a level of vital energy and capacity to act. Each ethnos goes through stages. Rise, development, climax. Inertia, convolution, memorial. Russia is in deep inertia now. Use your brain! How many times have I told you: show you are capable of doing anything and the garbage of the world will pour into your bucket.”
Translation: take out the garbage yourself. Following his principles, he never demonstrated any passionarity for anything other than eating pickled herring and drinking vodka. For a few years I was parading my passionarity, along with empty vodka bottles, down the dirty staircase, working two shifts at a brick factory, giving birth to triplets, hand washing diapers in ice-cold water, fixing sewage pipes, pickling herring and shopping for vodka. I waited for his Nobel Prize. Russia snored in its deep inertia. Then, there was no passionarity left. I went to live with my mother.
Thus the jerk stage was over. I have my own theory. I believe that each girl goes through a jerk stage. If she is lucky she might even get to some other stage. I got lucky, and there came a handsome prince with many capacities. He was an American engineer. He came to study the secret of Siberian bricks, saw me hammering the bricks, lost his head, and took me to America.
American ethnos got more passionarity. We live in a lovely brick cottage covered with ivy. He puts orchids in my flaxen hair and fixes sewage pipes. He drinks only mango juice, cooks candlelight dinners and takes the garbage out. He recycles. He plays chess with the triplets. On two boards. It never snows. Suddenly, life is good. And you get used to the good life. You forget the junk. You watch a hummingbird shit on your hammock, and you are happy.
I’m happy, Doctor. I never think about the jerk. But, Doctor, I see garbage everywhere. It must be my memorial stage. I did read my Gumilev.
I might be lying in my hammock, and all of a sudden I see the old pea-green couch floating by. A decomposing herring carcass reclines on it, a half-finished vodka bottle clutched to its ribs. It raises the bottle, winks and says in the jerk’s voice: “Here’s to you, bitch. You learned my lesson. You got the prize.”
I’m disgusted and I say, “What are you talking about, you drunken idiot?”
“You know. Capacity, Masha. Passionarity. Remember? Life knows. They know. They use you, and they abuse you. The only way out is to use them. So—bravo! You finally used your brains. Be a bitch. If you are not a bitch, life is a bitch to you. Lie in your hammock. Watch your tropical sunset. Drink your mango juice. Don’t move a finger. They’ll fix the sewage pipes…”
And the herring laughs and drinks vodka out of the bottle.
“Stop it,” I say. “I’m not like this! Shut up and take the fucking garbage out!”
And then there comes the garbage. It creeps up on me from the blue swimming pool, from pink rose bushes and from behind the emerald ivy; it’s everywhere: empty vodka bottles, crinkled Pravda newspapers, stinking cigarette butts, moldy cloth diapers, fish bones, broken bricks… rotten mangoes, dead hummingbirds, philosophy books, garbage, garbage, garbage… it rises, it swells, it flows… It is about to get me… I wake up screaming, and my handsome husband is by my side… I put my trembling hands around his smooth tanned torso… oh no! It’s a giant smelly dead herring, the morbid head is laughing, the slimy lips are reaching for me.
“Passionarity!” roars the herring.
And I don’t know, Doctor, what is the dream, and what is the reality? What is this buzz: is it a hummingbird or the broken TV set? Don’t look at me like this, Doctor, you are scaring me… I might have become a bitch, but I kept my capacity to love, my passionarity to live! Just tell me, should I demonstrate it? Will this prince turn into a drunken jerk? Will the garbage of the world pour into my fucking bucket? Or should I quit and leave and head for the desert.
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six. She wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Zarina started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. IRON, her first short story collection, is now available from amazon.com in the US. You can find more about Zarina and read her published work here.
photo by editor B
by Faith McGee
“I should have remembered that you divorced me before I made you nachos,” Ramona says as she presses her forehead against the cool kitchen wall.
Charles grunts from the recliner and says without abandoning the television, “These nachos are not so good that you should feel regret.”
When Ramona closes her eyes, she sees the seagull wallpaper that she picked out for her new house with Fred. On their honeymoon, he took her to California. It was just like the films, but with more seagulls. She’d waited twenty years to be a fascinating person. Even her hairdresser was taken aback when she showed her the haircut she wanted from a magazine. She had invested heavily in five new skirts. Everything was magical except the time a tourist asked if “her son” could take their picture.
“You’ve changed nothing since I left,” she says while taking a sponge to pizza crumbs and pork chop grease on the stove. Charles looks over at her and wonders if she’ll clean the microwave. Her sullen eyes make him worry.
“Why should I? I thought the house was perfect when you lived here,” Charles says crunching on nachos. He looks at the wall clock. The batteries died the day after Ramona left him. Once while waiting in line at the hardware store, Charles thought about replacing them, but chose last year’s Female Firefighters in Bikinis calendar instead.
The clock is like a souvenir, he thinks.
When Ramona walks by him to shake out the rug, he smells her hair and thinks about how she’s used the same type of shampoo for thirty years. Jasmine and vanilla. Twice he’s caught himself rationing out small amounts. He would never admit on the construction site that he’d done anything new to his hair.
“How does Fred put up with you looking so frumpy?” Charles asks.
Ramona forces a weak laugh as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She’d liked the way the dress looked in the dressing room. The saleswoman told her that the yellow took ten years off her face. Ramona asked what would take off fifteen.
“I guess he likes frumpy. It’s natural. Not like the women in the strip clubs.”
Charles winces. He wishes that he went to strip clubs. Women are too far away from him.
“Navajo Nation Police too strict for driving from Flagstaff at night. Besides my foot is too bad for driving,” Charles says pointing to his cast.
“Why do you beat up yourself?” Ramona asks sitting in her chair.
A dog barking makes them both turn to the window.
“Construction site is cursed. Two men fell off the scaffolding on the first day. Maybe witchcraft.”
“Was the construction site cursed when you broke your arm or when you cut your finger? I’ve spent almost as much time here taking care of you as I did when we were married.”
“Maybe I have noodle legs,” Charles says grinning. Once Ramona made spaghetti, and threw the noodles on the ceiling. When they caught, she said the ceiling had noodle legs.
He looks down at the hole in his shirt. He’d caught the bottom of it on a nail the night Ramona told him she was in love with Fred. She was casual about it like when she would tell him the sink was clogged. His younger brother Simon told him there was nothing in the marriage he could fix. Simon promised that there were plenty of fish in the sea, but I have run out of bait, Charles bitterly thinks as he plays with the hole.
“I guess I could have saved you some gas money by eating cat food for weeks.”
“Cat food would be a step up for you.”
Ramona sighs. It’s already noon. Back at her house, Fred is painting a nude model in his workshop. Everyday, she makes them turkey sandwiches for lunch, because Fred is slightly obsessed with Thanksgiving. Ramona chalks it up to him losing his mother at an early age and never getting a proper sit down dinner. She asked him once if he was in a “fowl” mood, but he never got the joke.
She pictures him spooning macaroni leftovers into the model’s mouth. In her mind, the model is throwing back her long hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs and secretly spitting bits of pasta into a napkin.
“Why not call Sara to come help you?” she asks, annoyed.
“She’s too busy with her own family. Our grandkids are giving her problems. Mary is boy crazy and Chuma is busy with dance groups. Her husband is lazy too.”
Ramona nods her head, “I told her that at the beginning. When she told me he was a software engineer, I was like ‘he sits all day?’ not a good sign.” She peeks at their family photos on the wall. Her favorite is the one with Charles holding Sara wearing her ceremonial clothes. Charles looks young and proud. Instinctively, she reaches for Charles’ hand. But remembers herself.
“Ouch. The skin is itchy. This foot will get infected. You will see.” He picks up a straw to wedge between the cast and the skin.
“That looks like a terrible drink.”
“Ramona, I could end up on one of those television crime shows for all you care. The ones where they bring a bunch of high tech equipment to some body part found at a pool”
“Those shows aren’t real.”
“It doesn’t matter. I could wind up a body part next to some cocktail with an umbrella in it,” Charles says while despondently pointing to his foot.
Ramona’s face softens. She remembers their honeymoon in a shed behind her aunt’s house. Charles paid her aunt twenty dollars a night to use the backyard. They silently touched each other as her nephews booby-trapped the shed’s door.
“I’ll bring you a picture that Fred just painted to pick up your spirits. It’s of the ocean.”
Charles groans,” Why is it always about the ocean? The ocean is a million miles from Arizona. Is the Big Mountain not good enough for him?”
Ramona is silent. She met Fred at the grocery store in Tuba City a year ago. His wife had just died and he had a cart filled with canned cranberry sauce.
“This is no way to live,” she told Fred. They had promised to remain friends. He was thirteen years younger and fit into slim jeans, so she never guessed he’d be interested in her.
“I’m going to leave.”
“The baseball game will be over soon, and I will need to take my medicine. Tell me about the book you are reading,” Charles says anxiously.
“It’s about tropical fish.”
Charles turns off the sound on the television and looks at her. When he is alone, he pictures her much younger like when they first met. They were twenty and dancing at the Buffalo Dance. Ramona’s braids flew around her feathers, her eyes were young and interested, and dust never seemed to settle on her ceremonial clothes. Right away, he knew he wanted to marry her. Her mother thought he had a decent job that didn’t depend on something as fickle as the brain. “Better to make things with the hands than in the brain,” she would say.
“There are these black and white fish called angels or angelfish. When they swim, they look like one hand applauding.”
“I like the way you look when you talk about them,” Charles says. He fumbles for the remote and turns on the sound.
The sound of the game fills the room. Ramona thinks about what she could make Charles for dinner. There’s a steak in the freezer. They could watch an old classic movie like they used to on the weekends. Fred refuses to keep a television in the house. He says it is for those disinterested in life.
Charles is looking at her from the corner of his eye. Her hand is a mere inch away from his. Ramona stands up and walks to the front door. She lights a cigarette and stares out onto the driveway. She notices that her yellow roses have made a turn for the worse.
“You’re back to smoking? Is that what all the artist types you hang out with do?” Charles says wondering if she’d like to see the photographs of the sunset he’s been taking. Everyday, Charles makes his way over to his window to capture the last remaining rays of the sun.
Ramona shrugs and thinks of Fred painting the contour of the model’s breasts.
“You smoked too when we first met.”
“I did it to impress you,” he says looking away from her.
“It didn’t impress me,” Ramona says rubbing out the fallen ashes with her sandal.
“Why not? You are too hard to impress Ramona,” Charles slides his photographs back into the drawer of the side table.
“I just thought you were like me.”
“I was like you. We’re the same age. Isn’t that enough?”
Ramona walks into their bedroom and closes the door. She takes off her new yellow dress. Her hands release her hair from their braids. She lies in their bed.
Throughout the years, she’s made shapes and animals from the texture of the popcorn ceiling. There’s my old friend giraffe, she thinks.
“How have you been little bird?” she asks the corner of the room. “When will Charles hobble in here snake?” The snake remains silent. She imagines the white snake uncoiling from the ceiling, dropping down and wrapping around her body. At first, the snake’s soft belly holds her lightly, but then become firm. Its forked tongue licks the sensitive spot behind her left ear. Her hand drifts past her bellybutton.
Charles turns up the game from the living room. Her snake swiftly travels back to the ceiling. Ramona dresses herself slowly.
She opens the door to the bedroom and ignores Charles’ bewildered look. Ramona sits back down again. No, I will make Charles take me out to the new hamburger place, she thinks.
“We could go…”
“Did you go look at your old dresses? There are a few left. They are much more suited for you than the cheap one you are wearing. You could change,” Charles says as he puts down the plate of nachos. His face looks soft and young.
Ramona stands up and grabs her purse.
“You should get new sheets Takala,” she points to the open door of the bedroom, “I see you still use the old ones.”
Charles is surprised that she used his Hopi name. Through the window, he watches her walk down the driveway. He thinks of jumping up and stopping her. He thinks of kissing her like he did at the Buffalo Dance. He pictures them looking at these applauding fish together.
Charles hears crunching gravel. He bolts off the couch and hurries through his living room. As he struggles with the door, Charles expects to see her outside with young eyes like that day they danced.
There’s nothing left in the desert, but a hot breath on his hand. A black and white dog scurries behind dead rose bushes and reveals a row of crooked teeth. Charles sits on the driveway. With one deft movement, he pulls off the cast, stretches his leg and wiggles his toes awake. The dog licks the homemade cast. Off in the distance, Ramona’s truck kicks up dark dust. Charles stands up and wanders back into he house. The sound of the baseball game spills into the desert.
Faith McGee graduated from California College of the Arts with an MFA in Creative Writing. During a trip to New Mexico this year, she was inspired to write this piece.
photo by soccerkrys
by Zarina Zabrisky
The train was bulleting forward, through the darkness and the vast snows, away from smoking ruins, midnight sirens and the smell of charred human flesh. The shoebox compartment I shared with my colicky baby and two strangers rattled and shook. Lola screamed. Ivan and Victor—Chechen war veterans—drank vodka. I hadn’t slept for five months.
“You need sleep,” said Ivan one night, pouring me a full glass of vodka. He covered it with a thick slice of stale black bread, and balanced a sliver of murky-green pickle on top—it trembled as the train flew forward.
“Drink it, woman,” said Ivan. “You’ll sleep and you’ll feel better.”
The vodka burned my throat. Victor snored. Lola kept screaming.
“I can’t live like this,” I cried. “Where are we going? Ivan, Ivan, what is the purpose?”
Ivan stood up. Crumbs in his grey beard, sparks in his radiant blue eyes, he looked like a saint from a Russian Orthodox icon. The train flew, the floor shook. Ivan gripped the bunk-bed with his left hand. He lost his right hand when a Chechen home-made bomb exploded under his feet. His empty sleeve—tucked under his belt neatly—scared me.
“This is the purpose of life, woman.”
Ivan turned into one long pointing hand, his yellow bumpy finger suddenly steady. His thick flat fingernail almost touched Lola’s crunched-up face.
I held Lola to my chest. She smelled of tobacco and sour milk. Suddenly she smiled at me—toothless jaws shiny pink—and grabbed my thumb. I kissed a dimple on her right cheek. Ivan snored next to Victor.
“We’ll have a good life, Lolly,” I whispered. “Far, far away there’s a magic country with big, big buildings and fast red cars. You’ll have Barbies, jeans and bubblegum. You’ll have a good life. We’ll fly there, you and me. Don’t cry.”
Life flew like a Trans-Siberian Express. It rattled and shook, full of drunks, empty sleeves, and smelly pickles, and I always felt like a transit passenger, a crinkled ticket in my hand, a pulsing question in my head.
I asked it everywhere.
At a dance club, on Saturday nights. I’d lean against a cold wall, the grainy stone printing into my naked back. I’d look at the long line of yellow taxis, green lights blinking, girls hopping in and out in bright silk dresses like exotic butterflies in jungles. I didn’t need a drink. I was intoxicated by the mingling scents of cigarettes, exhaust fumes and perfume—the dizzying tang of the San Francisco night.
Inside disco lights pulsed, snatching a shaved head here, a swinging arm there, a silver bracelet, a hoop-earring, a sweat bead above a curved lip. Men—potential husbands—with goatees and musky cologne twirled me around.
“What is the purpose of life?” I asked them.
I asked about fifty or a hundred men. They all said the same thing. A stare. A big smile. Tobacco and coffee stained teeth, a wink, “The purpose of life is to have fun, baby. Wanna go to my place?”
“Fun?” said my best friend Masha. “They want to have fun. Disgusting. Shallow. Low. Aren’t they ashamed to even admit it?”
I looked at the dark circles under her eyes.
“Men are pigs. That’s all they want to do, fun!”
Masha’s first husband was a cocaine-addict, and her second husband was an alcoholic.
“Try driving kids to school,” she said, her Russian accent getting thicker and thicker, “work all day like a dog, drive kids back from school, feed them, bathe them, change them—”
“What do you think is the purpose of life?” I asked her.
“It is obviously to suffer.”
One Tuesday morning, at the weekly marketing meeting, the conference room felt like a commercial freezer. I color-coordinated folders on the desk. Zelda Slemish, a Product Manager, sipped her Starbucks latte.
“Zelda,” I asked, “before we get started. What’s the purpose of life?”
Zelda frowned—she had a Socrates forehead—shrugged, and gave me a long stare. I could imagine her dialing HR after the meeting.
“Work,” she said, patting her mermaid hair. “I believe in what I do.”
Zelda then opened her orange binder, latte foam trembling on her upper lip.
“First item on agenda. Global Marketing: Tangy Teriyaki Boneless Wings.”
On the way to my cubicle, I asked Lucy, our office manager. She smiled. Her teeth always made me think I had forgotten to floss. Lucy was twenty eight, a vegan and a volunteer at the SPCA.
“Lucy, what’s the purpose of life?”
Lucy closed Twitter. She beamed at me as if she had been waiting for this question for the last twenty five years. “Isn’t it obvious? The purpose of life is to connect with other people.”
Her voice was soft, like a kindergarten teacher’s.
“Men do not think that way,” I said.
“Oh,” said Lucy. “Right! Of course! They probably think the purpose of life is to provide for their families?”
I got married about five years ago. A few months after my wedding, I asked my new husband, “Honey, what’s the purpose of life?”
“What purpose?” he said, his face behind the Economist.
“Why are we here? Where are we going? And why?”
“It’s all bullshit,” he said. “Go do the dishes.”
On Lola’s eighteenth birthday, I Skyped her.
“Happy Birthday, Lolly,” I said. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she said. “Thanks. Wait a second.”
I watched her shuffling out of bed in her plaid pajamas. She searched for her cell phone—first in her canvas bag among an open pack of cigarettes, loose dollar bills and a half-eaten candy, then in her jeans pockets.
“Did you have your breakfast?” I asked. “Did you eat oatmeal?”
She was checking her texts, the dimple on her right cheek making me feel happy and anxious at the same time.
She looked away, bit her lip. Then, she said, “Mom. What’s the purpose of life?”
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six. She wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Zarina started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. IRON, her first short story collection, is now available from amazon.com in the US. You can find more about Zarina and read her published work here.
Read our interview with Zarina here.
photo by last cookie
by Kimberly Kim
I took my umbrella out of its vinyl casing, and strapped it across my back. It’s a strange habit, I know, but ever since the accident I can’t stand it when things move. The strap helps to keep it secure across my back, and I’ve grown quite fond of it.
Coat on, I left the house to catch the first morning bus. Leaving just after dawn makes me feel awake, but this day was somehow different. Perhaps there was some mold in the air? Something sticky. I don’t know what it was, but I felt a strange twitch while yawning, as if an ache lurked somewhere in my body.
On the bus, it was especially quiet. The only movement the swaying of a couple passengers standing up, holding the grips from the ceiling rail. Their bodies moved in unison in slow twists and turns. No one wanted to be up it seemed. As the bus lurched, puddles on the floor sloshed and soaked the cuffs of my pants. I slept standing up, leaning against the lady standing next to me, and woke up the instant I stepped on her foot.
“Oops, sorry about that,” I said. “Just a bumpy ride, I guess.”
The woman whose foot I stepped on was wearing a thin, light green dress with white polka-dots and a nice V-neck, which accented her neckline and drew attention to her snowy white skin. She had the most angelic face. I turned away after she noticed me staring at her for a bit. Her meek smile surprised me as her demeanor seemed to suggest something else entirely. I couldn’t help but take another peek at her as she turned to stare out the window. She looked different from the other people I’ve seen in Seoul.
We rode in silence for the remainder of the trip. Me with my umbrella, leaning closer to the window, so as not to bother her. I had a high red plaid scarf tucked around the bottom of my face and sunglasses and it must have seemed odd to be wearing sunglasses on a day as dark and rainy as it was. She stole another glance, then fumbled with the contents of her purse, looking for something deep within it. “Enough of wondering about a stranger,” she must have thought as she found her iPod and disappeared into the first song on her playlist.
She eventually got up to leave the bus. Didn’t seem to have an umbrella so I rushed after her and, just as she was about to step off, I clicked the button and it heroically open, saving her from the rain. She looked over her shoulder and blushed, pulled out her ear buds.
“Thanks. Coming to my rescue, I see,” she said, still shy and I liked that.
“Well, yes. I suppose I am,” I replied.
“I live just a couple blocks away,” she said. “It’s not too far.”
“Alright, I’ll walk you home,” I said without the slightest hesitation.
We moved in silence, twisting and turning around the people in the alleyway.
“What’s your name, by the way?” she asked as she turned to me, nose scrunching up.
“Joshua,” I said and turned to her.
“Hi, I’m Stella.” She smiled.
As I tried to keep the umbrella over Stella’s head, we weaved through other pedestrians and eventually came to a small house behind an Italian restaurant. I could smell Roma tomatoes and olive oil in the air. My stomach growled.
“Here,” she said and pointed to a small house with a small door and a window to the right of it. It looked like a tiny cottage. A quaint little place tucked away in the middle of a bustling city.
“Something you don’t see every day,” I said.
“Why don’t you come in?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t mind drying off a bit.”
“Sure, and I’ll grab you a cup of hot tea.”
“I’d like that.”
Music played softly in the background. I could hear it as soon as the door closed and I recognized it right away.
“Do you always keep Lifehouse playing?” I asked.
“Only for days like today,” she said. “It makes me feel a little less lonely, I guess. Plus, I especially connect with their lyrics.”
“So, you wish to find someone who can ‘see past all the lies’?” I was quoting now from the song.
“Of course. But it’s not that easy to find someone like that. It’s not easy to find someone who truly cares to even get to know you. And, anyway, most people are living a lie, and don’t even realize it.”
“What do you mean by living a lie?” I asked, though I felt like I knew.
“Well, for instance, most people live never knowing what true love is.”
I was taken a little off guard by her response and loosened my scarf.
“Do you believe that true love lasts?” I finally asked, and my hands slightly shook.
“Doesn’t everyone? Don’t you?” she said almost angrily.
“Maybe I did—once,” I said.
“You can probably guess.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“Yeah, I suppose.”
She excused herself for a moment and returned with a serving tray, poured tea into two porcelain cups with saucers beneath them. They were like an old couple, aged and slightly worn.
“Do you like the song ‘Black Balloon’ by the Goo Goo Dolls?” I asked.
“I think I’ve heard of it.” Stella stared deep into her cup of tea, her tiny hands wrapped around the cup, almost in a trance, eyes lined with mystery. And then she closed them and it looked like she began to meditate.
“Like in the song, have you ever felt ‘a love that someone never showed you’ – a love that took you to a place you’ve never been before?” I was just trying to make conversation.
With her eyes closed, she started to move to the music in her mind. She eventually opened them again and stared at me for a bit, as if she were seeing me for the first time. Then she leaned over and kissed me. It was tentative at first. Our lips embraced in a soft, sensual kiss. Her tongue slid into my mouth, but I stopped the kiss abruptly.
Stella turned away, briefly, and then whipped back and stared at me accusingly, before looking down into her lap, almost as if she would cry. Yet, no tears left her eyes.
“I thought you could show me a love I’ve never seen before,” she said slowly, and kept staring at her lap.
“I don’t know if I could do that. I mean, we’ve only just met.”
I took off my scarf, and revealed my face. Stella turned to me and looked, astonished by what she saw, though she tried not to show it. A long scar covered the left side of my chin, across my neck, and down my shoulder.
“I was in a fire about 3 years ago,” I said, as she held my eyes intently. “I lost my entire family, including my parents and my fiancée. We were in love. We had just become engaged.”
My voice grew thick and tears began to cloud my vision and it looked like Stella might also cry.
“I’m so… I’m so sorry. I didn’t know,” she said.
“How could you have? I wouldn’t expect you to know. We only just met.”
“I’m sorry, Joshua.”
“She died the night after I proposed to her. It was a different world, a different place without them. I didn’t know where to go.”
I turned to clutch my scarf and then I got up to leave.
Stella followed and quickly said, “Well, imperfections make true love; imperfections are what make things perfect.” More song lyrics I suppose.
“I have to go now,” I told her. “I hope you find your true love.”
And then I was out the door without my umbrella, and into the alley before I realized it, locked in the bustle of strangers and walking through the rain.
Kimberly Kim is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing program at California College of the Arts. She lived in Korea for two years. She is from Michigan and currently resides in the SF Bay Area. You can usually catch her attending a Live at 851 Reading in San Francisco.
photo by Charlotte.Morrall
by Edgar Allan Poe
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.
Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad
am I not –and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My
immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of
mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified –have tortured –have
destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror –to
many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which
will reduce my phantasm to the common-place –some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less
excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an
ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was
even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and
was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never
was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiar of character grew with my growth, and
in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished
an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or
the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing
love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry
friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing
my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind.
We had birds, gold fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing
degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition,
made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in
disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point –and I mention the matter at all for no better
reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.
Pluto –this was the cat’s name –was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me
wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me
through the streets.
Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and
character –through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance –had (I blush to confess it)
experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more
regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my At length, I
even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition.
I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me
from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog,
when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me –for what
disease is like Alcohol! –and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently
somewhat peevish –even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.
One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat
avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my
hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original
soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence,
gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it,
grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I
burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.
When reason returned with the morning –when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch –I
experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it
was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into
excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.
In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful
appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as
might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at
first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling
soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of
PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives,
than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart –one of the indivisible
primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred
times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he
should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which
is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final
overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself –to offer violence to its own nature
–to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only –that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury
I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck
and hung it to the limb of a tree; –hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest
remorse at my heart; –hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me
no reason of offence; –hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin –a deadly sin that
would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it –if such a thing were possible –even beyond the
reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire.
The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my
wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My
entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster
and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts –and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect.
On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This
exception was found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house,
and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted
the action of the fire –a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense
crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with every
minute and eager attention. The words “strange!” “singular!” and other similar expressions, excited my
curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic
cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal’s
When I first beheld this apparition –for I could scarcely regard it as less –my wonder and my terror were
extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden
adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd –by
some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window,
into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of
other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the
lime of which, had then with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, accomplished the portraiture
as I saw it.
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact
‘just detailed, it did not the less fall to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid
myself of the phantasm of the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a
half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and
to look about me, among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented, for another pet of the same
species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to supply its place.
One night as I sat, half stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to
some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of Gin, or of Rum, which
constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead
for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the
object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat –a very large one
–fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair
upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering
nearly the whole region of the breast.
Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared
delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to
purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it –knew nothing of it –had never seen it
I continued my caresses, and, when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to
accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it
reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with my wife.
For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had
anticipated; but I know not how or why it was –its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and
annoyed. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I
avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty,
preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill use it;
but gradually –very gradually –I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from
its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.
What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it
home, that, like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only
endeared it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of
feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest
With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my
footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it
would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I
arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and
sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to
destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly it at by a memory of my former crime, but
chiefly –let me confess it at once –by absolute dread of the beast.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil-and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define
it. I am almost ashamed to own –yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own –that the
terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest
chimaeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the
character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible
difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this
mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees –degrees nearly
imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful –it had, at length,
assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to
name –and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I
dared –it was now, I say, the image of a hideous –of a ghastly thing –of the GALLOWS! –oh, mournful
and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime –of Agony and of Death!
And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast –whose
fellow I had contemptuously destroyed –a brute beast to work out for me –for me a man, fashioned in
the image of the High God –so much of insufferable wo! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the
blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I
started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its
vast weight –an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off –incumbent eternally upon my
heart! Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me
succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates –the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The
moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the
sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my
uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which
our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me
headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread
which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved
instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded,
by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the
axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.
This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of
concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without
the risk of being observed by the neighbors. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of
cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a
grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard –about
packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it
from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I
determined to wall it up in the cellar –as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up
For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately
been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented
from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace,
that had been filled up, and made to resemble the rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily
displace the at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect
And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crow-bar I easily dislodged the bricks, and,
having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little
trouble, I re-laid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with
every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster could not every poss be distinguished from the old, and
with this I very carefully went over the new brick-work. When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was
right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the
floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself –”Here at
least, then, my labor has not been in vain.”
My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for I had, at
length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it, at the moment, there could have
been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my
previous anger, and forebore to present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe, or to
imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the detested creature occasioned in
my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night –and thus for one night at least, since its
introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder
upon my soul!
The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a
free-man. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises forever! I should behold it no more! My
happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been
made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had been instituted –but of course nothing
was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house,
and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the
inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me
accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner unexplored. At length, for the third or
fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of
one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom,
and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at
my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to
render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.
“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I
wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this –this is a very well
constructed house.” (In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.)
–”I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls –are you going, gentlemen? –these
walls are solidly put together”; and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a
cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of
the wife of my bosom.
But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation
of my blows sunk into silence than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb! –by a cry, at first
muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and
continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman –a howl –a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of
triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their
agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the
party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen
stout arms were tolling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with
gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary
eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice
had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone.
photo by certified su
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Every night in the year, four of us sat in the small parlour of the George at Debenham–the undertaker,
and the landlord, and Fettes, and myself. Sometimes there would be more; but blow high, blow low,
come rain or snow or frost, we four would be each planted in his own particular arm-chair. Fettes was an
old drunken Scotchman, a man of education obviously, and a man of some property, since he lived in
idleness. He had come to Debenham years ago, while still young, and by a mere continuance of living
had grown to be an adopted townsman. His blue camlet cloak was a local antiquity, like the church-spire.
His place in the parlour at the George, his absence from church, his old, crapulous, disreputable vices,
were all things of course in Debenham. He had some vague Radical opinions and some fleeting
infidelities, which he would now and again set forth and emphasise with tottering slaps upon the table.
He drank rum–five glasses regularly every evening; and for the greater portion of his nightly visit to the
George sat, with his glass in his right hand, in a state of melancholy alcoholic saturation. We called him
the Doctor, for he was supposed to have some special knowledge of medicine, and had been known,
upon a pinch, to set a fracture or reduce a dislocation; but beyond these slight particulars, we had no
knowledge of his character and antecedents.
One dark winter night–it had struck nine some time before the landlord joined us–there was a sick man
in the George, a great neighbouring proprietor suddenly struck down with apoplexy on his way to
Parliament; and the great man’s still greater London doctor had been telegraphed to his bedside. It was
the first time that such a thing had happened in Debenham, for the railway was but newly open, and we
were all proportionately moved by the occurrence.
“He’s come,” said the landlord, after he had filled and lighted his pipe.
“He?” said I. “Who?–not the doctor?”
“Himself,” replied our host.
“What is his name?”
“Dr. Macfarlane,” said the landlord.
Fettes was far through his third tumblers stupidly fuddled, now nodding over, now staring mazily around
him; but at the last word he seemed to awaken, and repeated the name “Macfarlane” twice, quietly
enough the first time, but with sudden emotion at the second.
“Yes,” said the landlord, “that’s his name, Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.”
Fettes became instantly sober; his eyes awoke, his voice became clear, loud, and steady, his language
forcible and earnest. We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I am afraid I have not been paying much attention to your talk. Who is this
Wolfe Macfarlane?” And then, when he had heard the landlord out, “It cannot be, it cannot be,” he
added; “and yet I would like well to see him face to face.”
“Do you know him, Doctor?” asked the undertaker, with a gasp.
“God forbid!” was the reply. “And yet the name is a strange one; it were too much to fancy two. Tell me,
landlord, is he old?”
“Well,” said the host, “he’s not a young man, to be sure, and his hair is white; but he looks younger than
“He is older, though; years older. But,” with a slap upon the table, “it’s the rum you see in my face–rum
and sin. This man, perhaps, may have an easy conscience and a good digestion. Conscience! Hear me
speak. You would think I was some good, old, decent Christian, would you not? But no, not I; I never
canted. Voltaire might have canted if he’d stood in my shoes; but the brains”–with a rattling fillip on his
bald head–”the brains were clear and active, and I saw and made no deductions.”
“If you know this doctor,” I ventured to remark, after a somewhat awful pause, “I should gather that you
do not share the landlord’s good opinion.”
Fettes paid no regard to me.
“Yes,” he said, with sudden decision, “I must see him face to face.”
There was another pause, and then a door was closed rather sharply on the first floor, and a step was
heard upon the stair.
“That’s the doctor,” cried the landlord. “Look sharp, and you can catch him.”
It was but two steps from the small parlour to the door of the old George Inn; the wide oak staircase
landed almost in the street; there was room for a Turkey rug and nothing more between the threshold
and the last round of the descent; but this little space was every evening brilliantly lit up, not only by the
light upon the stair and the great signal-lamp below the sign, but by the warm radiance of the barroom
window. The George thus brightly advertised itself to passers-by in the cold street. Fettes walked
steadily to the spot, and we, who were hanging behind, beheld the two men meet, as one of them had
phrased it, face to face. Dr. Macfarlane was alert and vigorous. His white hair set off his pale and placid,
although energetic, countenance. He was richly dressed in the finest of broadcloth and the whitest of
linen, with a great gold watch-chain, and studs and spectacles of the same precious material. He wore a
broad-folded tie, white and speckled with lilac, and he carried on his arm a comfortable driving-coat of
fur. There was no doubt but he became his years, breathing, as he did, of wealth and consideration;
and it was a surprising contrast to see our parlour sot–bald, dirty, pimpled, and robed in his old camlet
cloak–confront him at the bottom of the stairs.
“Macfarlane!” he said somewhat loudly, more like a herald than a friend.
The great doctor pulled up short on the fourth step, as though the familiarity of the address surprised
and somewhat shocked his dignity.
“Toddy Macfarlane!” repeated Fettes.
The London man almost staggered. He stared for the swiftest of seconds at the man before him,
glanced behind him with a sort of scare, and then in a startled whisper “Fettes!” he said, “you!”
“Ay,” said the other, “me! Did you think I was dead too? We are not so easy shut of our acquaintance.”
“Hush, hush!” exclaimed the doctor. “Hush, hush! this meeting is so unexpected–I can see you are
unmanned I hardly knew you, I confess, at first; but I am overjoyed–overjoyed to have this opportunity.
For the present it must be how-d’ye-do and good-by in one, for my fly is waiting, and I must not fail the
train; but you shall–let me see–yes–you shall give me your address, and you can count on early news
of me. We must do something for you, Fettes. I fear you are out at elbows; but we must see to that for
auld lang syne, as once we sang at suppers.”
“Money!” cried Fettes; “money from you! The money that I had from you is lying where I cast it in the
Dr. Macfarlane had talked himself into some measure of superiority and confidence, but the uncommon
energy of this refusal cast him back into his first confusion.
A horrible, ugly look came and went across his almost venerable countenance. “My dear fellow,” he said,
“be it as you please; my last thought is to offend you. I would intrude on none. I will leave you my
“I do not wish it–I do not wish to know the roof that shelters you,” interrupted the other. “I heard your
name; I feared it might be you; I wished to know if, after all, there were a God; I know now that there is
He still stood in the middle of the rug, between the stair and doorway; and the great London physician,
in order to escape, would be forced to step to one side. It was plain that he hesitated before the thought
of this humiliation. White as he was, there was a dangerous glitter in his spectacles; but while he still
paused uncertain, he became aware that the driver of his fly was peering in from the street at this
unusual scene, and caught a glimpse at the same time of our little body from the parlour, huddled by the
corner of the bar. The presence of so many witnesses decided him at once to flee. He crouched
together, brushing on the wainscot, and made a dart like a serpent, striking for the door. But his
tribulation was not yet entirely at an end, for even as he was passing Fettes clutched him by the arm
and these words came in a whisper, and yet painfully distinct, “Have you seen it again?”
The great rich London doctor cried out aloud with a sharp, throttling cry; he dashed his questioner
across the open space, and, with his hands over his head, fled out of the door like a detected thief.
Before it had occurred to one of us to make a movement the fly was already rattling toward the station.
The scene was over like a dream, but the dream had left proofs and traces of its passage. Next day the
servant found the fine gold spectacles broken on the threshold, and that very night we were all standing
breathless by the barroom window, and Fettes at our side, sober, pale and resolute in look.
“God protect us, Mr. Fettes!” said the landlord, coming first into possession of his customary senses.
“What in the universe is all this? These are strange things you have been saying.”
Fettes turned toward us; he looked us each in succession in the face. “See if you can hold your
tongues,” said he. “That man Macfarlane is not safe to cross; those that have done so already have
repented it too late.”
And then, without so much as finishing his third glass, far less waiting for the other two, he bade us
good-by and went forth, under the lamp of the hotel, into the black night.
We three turned to our places in the parlour, with the big red fire and four clear candles; and as we
recapitulated what had passed the first chill of our surprise soon changed into a glow of curiosity. We
sat late; it was the latest session I have known in the old George. Each man, before we parted, had his
theory that he was bound to prove; and none of us had any nearer business in this world than to track
out the past of our condemned companion, and surprise the secret that he shared with the great
London doctor. It is no great boast, but I believe I was a better hand at worming out a story than either of
my fellows at the George; and perhaps there is now no other man alive who could narrate to you the
following foul and unnatural events.
In his young days Fettes studied medicine in the schools of Edinburgh. He had talent of a kind, the
talent that picks up swiftly what it hears and readily retails it for its own. He worked little at home; but he
was civil, attentive, and intelligent in the presence of his masters. They soon picked him out as a lad who
listened closely and remembered well; nay, strange as it seemed to me when I first heard it, he was in
those days well favoured, and pleased by his exterior. There was, at that period, a certain extramural
teacher of anatomy, whom I shall here designate by the letter K. His name was subsequently too well
known. The man who bore it skulked through the streets of Edinburgh in disguise, while the mob that
applauded at the execution of Burke called loudly for the blood of his employer. But Mr. K—- was then at
the top of his vogue; he enjoyed a popularity due partly to his own talent and address, partly to the
incapacity of his rival, the university professor. The students, at least, swore by his name, and Fettes
believed himself, and was believed by others, to have laid the foundations of success when he had
acquired the favour of this meteorically famous man. Mr. K—- was a bon vivant as well as an
accomplished teacher; he liked a sly allusion no less than a careful preparation. In both capacities
Fettes enjoyed and deserved his notice, and by the second year of his attendance he held the
half-regular position of second demonstrator or sub-assistant in his class.
In this capacity, the charge of the theatre and lecturerdom devolved in particular upon his shoulders. He
had to answer for the cleanliness of the premises and the conduct of the other students, and it was a
part of his duty to supply, receive, and divide the various subjects. It was with a view to this last–at that
time very delicate– affair that he was lodged by Mr. K—- in the same wynd, and at last in the same
building, with the dissecting-room. Here, after a night of turbulent pleasures, his hand still tottering, his
sight still misty and confused, he would be called out of bed in the black hours before the winter dawn by
the unclean and desperate interlopers who supplied the table. He would open the door to these men,
since infamous throughout the land. He would help them with their tragic burden, pay them their sordid
price, and remain alone, when they were gone, with the unfriendly relics of humanity. From such a scene
he would return to snatch another hour or two of slumber, to repair the abuses of the night, and refresh
himself for the labours of the day.
Few lads could have been more insensible to the impressions of a life thus passed among the ensigns
of mortality. His mind was closed against all general considerations. He was incapable of interest in the
fate and fortunes of another, the slave of his own desires and low ambitions. Cold, light, and selfish in
the last resort, he had that modicum of prudence, miscalled morality, which keeps a man from
inconvenient drunkenness or punishable theft. He coveted, besides, a measure of consideration from
his masters and his fellow-pupils, and he had no desire to fail conspicuously in the external parts of life.
Thus he made it his pleasure to gain some distinction in his studies, and day after day rendered
unimpeachable eye-service to his employer, Mr. K—-. For his day of work he indemnified himself by
nights of roaring, blackguardly enjoyment; and when that balance had been struck, the organ that he
called his conscience declared itself content.
The supply of subjects was a continual trouble to him as well as to his master. In that large and busy
class, the raw material of the anatomists kept perpetually running out; and the business thus rendered
necessary was not only unpleasant in itself, but threatened dangerous consequences to all who were
concerned. It was the policy of Mr. K—- to ask no questions in his dealings with the trade. “They bring
the body, and we pay the price,” he used to say, dwelling on the alliteration–”quid pro quo.” And again,
and somewhat profanely, “Ask no questions,” he would tell his assistants, “for conscience sake.” There
was no understanding that the subjects were provided by the crime of murder. Had that idea been
broached to him in words, he would have recoiled in horror; but the lightness of his speech upon so
grave a matter was, in itself, an offence against good manners, and a temptation to the men with whom
he dealt. Fettes, for instance, had often remarked to himself upon the singular freshness of the bodies.
He had been struck again and again by the hang-dog, abominable looks of the ruffians who came to him
before the dawn; and putting things together clearly in his private thoughts, he perhaps attributed a
meaning too immoral and too categorical to the unguarded counsels of his master. He understood his
duty, in short, to have three branches: to take what was brought, to pay the price, and to avert the eye
from any evidence of crime.
One November morning this policy of silence was put sharply to the test. He had been awake all night
with a racking toothache–pacing his room like a caged beast or throwing himself in fury on his bed–and
had fallen at last into that profound, uneasy slumber that so often follows on a night of pain, when he
was awakened by the third or fourth angry repetition of the concerted signal. There was a thin, bright
moonshine; it was bitter cold, windy, and frosty; the town had not yet awakened, but an indefinable stir
already preluded the noise and business of the day. The ghouls had come later than usual, and they
seemed more than usually eager to be gone. Fettes, sick with sleep, lighted them upstairs. He heard
their grumbling Irish voices through a dream; and as they stripped the sack from their sad merchandise
he leaned dozing, with his shoulder propped against the wall; he had to shake himself to find the men
their money. As he did so his eyes lighted on the dead face. He started; he took two steps nearer, with
the candle raised.
“God Almighty!” he cried. “That is Jane Galbraith!” The men answered nothing, but they shuffled nearer
“I know her, I tell you,” he continued. “She was alive and hearty yesterday. It’s impossible she can be
dead; it’s impossible you should have got this body fairly.”
“Sure, sir, you’re mistaken entirely,” said one of the men.
But the other looked Fettes darkly in the eyes, and demanded the money on the spot.
It was impossible to misconceive the threat or to exaggerate the danger. The lad’s heart failed him. He
stammered some excuses, counted out the sum, and saw his hateful visitors depart. No sooner were
they gone than he hastened to confirm his doubts. By a dozen unquestionable marks he identified the
girl he had jested with the day before. He saw, with horror, marks upon her body that might well betoken
violence. A panic seized him, and he took refuge in his room. There he reflected at length over the
discovery that he had made; considered soberly the bearing of Mr. K—-’s instructions and the danger to
himself of interference in so serious a business, and at last, in sore perplexity, determined to wait for the
advice of his immediate superior, the class assistant.
This was a young doctor, Wolfe Macfarlane, a high favourite among all the reckless students, clever,
dissipated, and unscrupulous to the last degree. He had travelled and studied abroad. His manners
were agreeable and a little forward. He was an authority on the stage, skilful on the ice or the links with
skate or golf-club; he dressed with nice audacity, and, to put the finishing touch upon his glory, he kept
a gig and a strong trotting-horse. With Fettes he was on terms of intimacy; indeed, their relative
positions called for some community of life; and when subjects were scarce the pair would drive far into
the country in Macfarlane’s gig, visit and desecrate some lonely graveyard, and return before dawn with
their booty to the door of the dissecting-room.
On that particular morning Macfarlane arrived somewhat earlier than his wont. Fettes heard him, and
met him on the stairs, told him his story, and showed him the cause of his alarm. Macfarlane examined
the marks on her body.
“Yes,” he said with a nod, “it looks fishy.”
“Well, what should I do? ” asked Fettes.
“Do?” repeated the other. “Do you want to do anything? Least said soonest mended, I should say.”
“Some one else might recognise her,” objected Fettes. “She was as well known as the Castle Rock.”
“We’ll hope not,” said Macfarlane, “and if anybody does–well, you didn’t, don’t you see, and there’s an
end. The fact is, this has been going on too long. Stir up the mud, and you’ll get K—- into the most
unholy trouble; you’ll be in a shocking box yourself. So will I, if you come to that. I should like to know
how any one of us would look, or what the devil we should have to say for ourselves in any Christian
witness-box. For me, you know there’s one thing certain–that, practically speaking, all our subjects have
“Macfarlane!” cried Fettes.
“Come now!” sneered the other. “As if you hadn’t suspected it yourself!”
“Suspecting is one thing—-”
“And proof another. Yes, I know; and I’m as sorry as you are this should have come here,” tapping the
body with his cane. “The next best thing for me is not to recognise it; and,” he added coolly, “I don’t. You
may, if you please. I don’t dictate, but I think a man of the world would do as I do; and I may add, I fancy
that is what K—- would look for at our hands. The question is, Why did he choose us two for his
assistants? And I answer, because he didn’t want old wives.”
This was the tone of all others to affect the mind of a lad like Fettes. He agreed to imitate Macfarlane.
The body of the unfortunate girl was duly dissected, and no one remarked or appeared to recognize her.
One afternoon, when his day’s work was over, Fettes dropped into a popular tavern and found
Macfarlane sitting with a stranger. This was a small man, very pale and dark, with coal-black eyes. The
cut of his features gave a promise of intellect and refinement which was but feebly realised in his
manners, for he proved, upon a nearer acquaintance, coarse, vulgar, and stupid. He exercised,
however, a very remarkable control over Macfarlane; issued orders like the Great Bashaw; became
inflamed at the least discussion or delay, and commented rudely on the servility with which he was
obeyed. This most offensive person took a fancy to Fettes on the spot, plied him with drinks, and
honoured him with unusual confidences on his past career. If a tenth part of what he confessed were
true, he was a very loathsome rogue; and the lad’s vanity was tickled by the attention of so experienced
“I’m a pretty bad fellow myself,” the stranger remarked, “but Macfarlane is the boy–Toddy Macfarlane, I
call him. Toddy, order your friend another glass.” Or it might be, “Toddy, you jump up and shut the
door.” “Toddy hates me,” he said again. “Oh, yes, Toddy, you do!”
“Don’t you call me that confounded name,” growled Macfarlane.
“Hear him! Did you ever see the lads play knife? He would like to do that all over my body,” remarked
“We medicals have a better way than that,” said Fettes. “When we dislike a dead friend of ours, we
Macfarlane looked up sharply, as though this jest was scarcely to his mind.
The afternoon passed. Gray, for that was the stranger’s name, invited Fettes to join them at dinner,
ordered a feast so sumptuous that the tavern was thrown in commotion, and when all was done
commanded Macfarlane to settle the bill. It was late before they separated; the man Gray was incapably
drunk. Macfarlane, sobered by his fury, chewed the cud of the money he had been forced to squander
and the slights he had been obliged to swallow. Fettes, with various liquors singing in his head, returned
home with devious footsteps and a mind entirely in abeyance. Next day Macfarlane was absent from the
class, and Fettes smiled to himself as he imagined him still squiring the intolerable Gray from tavern to
tavern. As soon as the hour of liberty had struck he posted from place to place in quest of his last
night’s companions. He could find them, however, nowhere; so returned early to his rooms, went early to
bed, and slept the sleep of the just.
At four in the morning he was awakened by the well-known signal. Descending to the door, he was filled
with astonishment to find Macfarlane with his gig, and in the gig one of those long and ghastly packages
with which he was so well acquainted.
“What?” he cried. “Have you been out alone? How did you manage?”
But Macfarlane silenced him roughly, bidding him turn to business. When they had got the body upstairs
and laid it on the table, Macfarlane made at first as if he were going away. Then he paused and seemed
to hesitate; and then, “You had better look at the face,” said he, in tones of some constraint. “You had
better,” he repeated, as Fettes only stared at him in wonder.
“But where, and how, and when did you come by it?” cried the other.
“Look at the face,” was the only answer.
Fettes was staggered; strange doubts assailed him. He looked from the young doctor to the body, and
then back again. At last, with a start, he did as he was bidden. He had almost expected the sight that
met his eyes, and yet the shock was cruel. To see, fixed in the rigidity of death and naked on that
coarse layer of sackcloth, the man whom he had left well clad and full of meat and sin upon the
threshold of a tavern, awoke, even in the thoughtless Fettes, some of the terrors of the conscience. It
was a cras tibi which re- echoed in his soul, that two whom he had known should have come to lie upon
these icy tables. Yet these were only secondary thoughts. His first concern regarded Wolfe. Unprepared
for a challenge so momentous, he knew not how to look his comrade in the face. He durst not meet his
eye, and he had neither words nor voice at his command.
It was Macfarlane himself who made the first advance. He came up quietly behind and laid his hand
gently but firmly on the other’s shoulder.
“Richardson,” said he, “may have the head.”
Now Richardson was a student who had long been anxious for that portion of the human subject to
dissect. There was no answer, and the murderer resumed: “Talking of business, you must pay me; your
accounts, you see, must tally.”
Fettes found a voice, the ghost of his own: “Pay you!” he cried. “Pay you for that?”
“Why, yes, of course you must. By all means and on every possible account, you must,” returned the
other. “I dare not give it for nothing, you dare not take it for nothing; it would compromise us both. This is
another case like Jane Galbraith’s. The more things are wrong the more we must act as if all were right.
Where does old K—- keep his money?”
“There,” answered Fettes hoarsely, pointing to a cupboard in the corner.
“Give me the key, then,” said the other, calmly, holding out his hand.
There was an instant’s hesitation, and the die was cast. Macfarlane could not suppress a nervous twitch,
the infinitesimal mark of an immense relief, as he felt the key between his fingers. He opened the
cupboard, brought out pen and ink and a paper-book that stood in one compartment, and separated
from the funds in a drawer a sum suitable to the occasion.
“Now, look here,” he said, “there is the payment made–first proof of your good faith: first step to your
security. You have now to clinch it by a second. Enter the payment in your book, and then you for your
part may defy the devil.”
The next few seconds were for Fettes an agony of thought; but in balancing his terrors it was the most
immediate that triumphed. Any future difficulty seemed almost welcome if he could avoid a present
quarrel with Macfarlane. He set down the candle which he had been carrying all this time, and with a
steady hand entered the date, the nature, and the amount of the transaction.
“And now,” said Macfarlane, “it’s only fair that you should pocket the lucre. I’ve had my share already. By
the bye, when a man of the world falls into a bit of luck, has a few shillings extra in his pocket–I’m
ashamed to speak of it, but there’s a rule of conduct in the case. No treating, no purchase of expensive
class-books, no squaring of old debts; borrow, don’t lend.”
“Macfarlane,” began Fettes, still somewhat hoarsely, “I have put my neck in a halter to oblige you.”
“To oblige me?” cried Wolfe. “Oh, come! You did, as near as I can see the matter; what you downright
had to do in self-defence. Suppose I got into trouble, where would you be? This second little matter
flows clearly from the first. Mr. Gray is the continuation of Miss Galbraith. You can’t begin and then stop.
If you begin, you must keep on beginning; that’s the truth. No rest for the wicked.”
A horrible sense of blackness and the treachery of fate seized hold upon the soul of the unhappy
“My God!” he cried, “but what have I done? and when did I begin? To be made a class assistant–in the
name of reason, where’s the harm in that? Service wanted the position; Service might have got it. Would
he have been where I am now?”
“My dear fellow,” said Macfarlane, “what a boy you are! What harm has come to you? What harm can
come to you if you hold your tongue? Why, man, do you know what this life is? There are two squads of
us–the lions, and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll come to lie upon these tables like Gray or Jane
Galbraith; if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like me, like K—-, like all the world with any wit or
courage. You’re staggered at the first. But look at K—-! My dear fellow, you’re clever, you have pluck. I
like you, and K—- likes you. You were born to lead the hunt; and I tell you, on my honour and my
experience of life, three days from now you’ll laugh at all these scarecrows like a high-school boy at a
And with that Macfarlane took his departure and drove off up the wynd in his gig to get under cover
before daylight. Fettes was thus left alone with his regrets. He saw the miserable peril in which he stood
involved. He saw, with inexpressible dismay, that there was no limit to his weakness, and that, from
concession to concession, he had fallen from the arbiter of Macfarlane’s destiny to his paid and helpless
accomplice. He would have given the world to have been a little braver at the time, but it did not occur to
him that he might still be brave. The secret of Jane Galbraith and the cursed entry in the daybook
closed his mouth.
Hours passes; the class began to arrive; the members of the unhappy Gray were dealt out to one and to
another, and received without remark. Richardson was made happy with the head; and before the hour
of freedom rang Fettes trembled with exultation to perceive how far they had already gone toward safety.
For two days he continued to watch, with increasing joy, the dreadful process of disguise.
On the third day Macfarlane made his appearance. He had been ill, he said; but he made up for lost
time by the energy with which he directed the students. To Richardson in particular he extended the
most valuable assistance and advice, and that student, encouraged by the praise of the demonstrator,
burned high with ambitious hopes, and saw the medal already in his grasp.
Before the week was out Macfarlane’s prophecy had been fulfilled. Fettes had outlived his terrors and
had forgotten his baseness. He began to plume himself upon his courage, and had so arranged the
story in his mind that he could look back on these events with an unhealthy pride. Of his accomplice he
saw but little. They met, of course, in the business of the class; they received their orders together from
Mr. K—-. At times they had a word or two in private, and Macfarlane was from first to last particularly
kind and jovial. But it was plain that he avoided any reference to their common secret; and even when
Fettes whispered to him that he had cast in his lot with the lions and forsworn the lambs, he only signed
to him smilingly to hold his peace.
At length an occasion arose which threw the pair once more into a closer union. Mr. K—- was again
short of subjects; pupils were eager, and it was a part of this teacher’s pretensions to be always well
supplied. At the same time there came the news of a burial in the rustic graveyard of Glencorse. Time
has little changed the place in question. It stood then, as now, upon a cross road, out of call of human
habitations, and buried fathoms deep in the foliage of six cedar trees. The cries of the sheep upon the
neighbouring hills, the streamlets upon either hand, one loudly singing among pebbles, the other
dripping furtively from pond to pond, the stir of the wind in mountainous old flowering chestnuts, and
once in seven days the voice of the bell and the old tunes of the precentor, were the only sounds that
disturbed the silence around the rural church. The Resurrection Man–to use a byname of the
period–was not to be deterred by any of the sanctities of customary piety. It was part of his trade to
despise and desecrate the scrolls and trumpets of old tombs, the paths worn by the feet of worshippers
and mourners, and the offerings and the inscriptions of bereaved affection. To rustic neighbourhoods,
where love is more than commonly tenacious, and where some bonds of blood or fellowship unite the
entire society of a parish, the body-snatcher, far from being repelled by natural respect, was attracted
by the ease and safety of the task. To bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful expectation of a far
difFerent awakening, there came that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and
mattock. The coffin was forced, the cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in sackcloth, after
being rattled for hours on moonless byways, were at length e~posed to uttermost indignities before a
class of gaping boys.
Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let loose
upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had lived for
sixty years, and been known for nothing but good butter and a godly conversation, was to be rooted
from her grave at midnight and carried, dead and naked to that far-away city that she had always
honoured with her Sunday’s best; the place beside her family was to be empty till the crack of doom; her
innocent and almost venerable members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the anatomist.
Late one afternoon the pair set forth, well wrapped in cloaks and furnished with a formidable bottle. It
rained without remission–a cold, dense, lashing rain. Now and again there blew a puff of wind, but these
sheets of falling water kept it down. Bottle and all, it was a sad and silent drive as far as Penicuik, where
they were to spend the evening. They stopped once, to hide their implements in a thick bush not far
from the churchyard, and once again at the Fisher’s Tryst, to have a toast before the kitchen fire and
vary their nips of whisky with a glass of ale. When they reached their journey’s end the gig was housed,
the horse was fed and comforted, and the two young doctors in a private room sat down to the best
dinner and the best wine the house afforded. The lights, the fire, the beating rain upon the window, the
cold, incongruous work that lay before them, added zest to their enjoyment of the meal. With every glass
their cordiality increased. Soon Macfarlane handed a little pile of gold to his companion.
“A compliment,” he said. “Between friends these little d—-d accommodations ought to fly like pipe-lights.”
Fettes pocketed the money, and applauded the sentiment to the echo. “You are a philosopher,” he
cried. “I was an ass till I knew you. You and K—- between you, by the Lord Harry! but you’ll make a man
“Of course, we shall,” applauded Macfarlane. “A man? I tell you, it required a man to back me up the
other morning. There are some big, brawling, forty-year-old cowards who would have turned sick at the
look of the d—-d thing; but not you–you kept your head. I watched you.”
“Well, and why not?” Fettes thus vaunted himself.
“It was no affair of mine. There was nothing to gain on the one side but disturbance, and on the other I
could count on your gratitude, don’t you see?” And he slapped his pocket till the gold pieces rang.
Macfarlane somehow felt a certain touch of alarm at these unpleasant words. He may have regretted
that he had taught his young companion so successfully, but he had no time to interfere, for the other
noisily continued in this boastful strain:
“The great thing is not to be afraid. Now, between you and me, I don’t want to hang–that’s practical; but
for all cant, Macfarlane, I was born with a contempt. Hell, God, Devil, right, wrong, sin, crime, and all the
old gallery of curiosities –they may frighten boys, but men of the world, like you and me, despise them.
Here’s to the memory of Gray!”
It was by this time growing somewhat late. The gig, according to order, was brought round to the door
with both lamps brightly shining, and the young men had to pay their bill and take the road. They
announced that they were bound for Peebles, and drove in that direction till they were clear of the last
houses of the town; then, extinguishing the lamps, returned upon their course, and followed a by-road
toward Glencorse. There was no sound but that of their own passage, and the incessant, strident
pouring of the rain. It was pitch dark; here and there a white gate or a white stone in the wall guided
them for a short space across the night; but for the most part it was at a foot pace, and almost groping,
that they picked their way through that resonant blackness to their solemn and isolated destination. In
the sunken woods that traverse the neighbourhood of the burying-ground the last glimmer failed them,
and it became necessary to kindle a match and reillumine one of the lanterns of the gig. Thus, under the
dripping trees, and environed by huge and moving shadows, they reached the scene of their
They were both experienced in such affairs, and powerful with the spade; and they had scarce been
twenty minutes at their task before they were rewarded by a dull rattle on the coffin lid. At the same
moment Macfarlane, having hurt his hand upon a stone, flung it carelessly above his head. The grave,
in which they now stood almost to the shoulders, was close to the edge of the plateau of the graveyard;
and the gig lamp had been propped, the better to illuminate their labours, against a tree, and on the
immediate verge of the steep bank descending to the stream. Chance had taken a sure aim with the
stone. Then came a clang of broken glass; night fell upon them; sounds alternately dull and ringing
announced the bounding of the lantern down the bank, and its occasional collision with the trees. A
stone or two, which it had dislodged in its descent, rattled behind it into the profundities of the glen; and
then silence, like night, resumed its sway; and they might bend their hearing to its utmost pitch, but
naught was to be heard except the rain, now marching to the wind, now steadily falling over miles of
They were so nearly at an end of their abhorred task that they judged it wisest to complete it in the dark.
The coffin was exhumed and broken open; the body inserted in the dripping sack and carried between
them to the gig; one mounted to keep it in its place, and the other, taking the horse by the mouth,
groped along by wall and bush until they reached the wider road by the Fisher’s Tryst. Here was a faint,
diffused radiancy, which they hailed like daylight; by that they pushed the horse to a good pace and
began to rattle along merrily in the direction of the town.
They had both been wetted to the skin during their operations, and now, as the gig jumped among the
deep ruts, the thing that stood propped between them fell now upon one and now upon the other. At
every repetition of the horrid contact each instinctively repelled it with the greater haste; and the
process, natural although it was, began to tell upon the nerves of the companions. Macfarlane made
some ill-favoured jest about the farmer’s wife, but it came hollowly from his lips, and was allowed to drop
in silence. Still their unnatural burden bumped from side to side; and now the head would be laid, as if in
confidence, upon their shoulders, and now the drenching sackcloth would flap icily about their faces. A
creeping chill began to possess the soul of Fettes. He peered at the bundle, and it seemed somehow
larger than at first. All over the countryside, and from every degree of distance, the farm dogs
accompanied their passage with tragic ululations; and it grew and grew upon his mind that some
unnatural miracle had been accomplished, that some nameless change had befallen the dead body,
and that it was in fear of their unholy burden that the dogs were howling.
“For God’s sake,” said he, making a great effort to arrive at speech, “for God’s sake, let’s have a light!”
Seemingly Macfarlane was affected in the same direction; for, though he made no reply, he stopped the
horse, passed the reins to his companion, got down, and proceeded to kindle the remaining lamp. They
had by that time got no farther than the cross-road down to Auchenclinny. The rain still poured as
though the deluge were returning, and it was no easy matter to make a light in such a world of wet and
darkness. When at last the flickering blue flame had been transferred to the wick and began to expand
and clarify, and shed a wide circle of misty brightness round the gig, it became possible for the two
young men to see each other and the thing they had along with them. The rain had moulded the rough
sacking to the outlines of the body underneath; the head was distinct from the trunk, the shoulders
plainly modelled; something at once spectral and human riveted their eyes upon the ghastly comrade of
For some time Macfarlane stood motionless, holding up the lamp. A nameless dread was swathed, like a
wet sheet, about the body, and tightened the white skin upon the face of Fettes; a fear that was
meaningless, a horror of what could not be, kept mounting to his brain. Another beat of the watch, and
he had spoken. But his comrade forestalled him.
“That is not a woman,” said Macfarlane in a hushed voice.
“It was a woman when we put her in,” whispered Fettes.
“Hold that lamp,” said the other. “I must see her face.”
And as Fettes took the lamp his companion untied the fastenings of the sack and drew down the cover
from the head. The light fell very clear upon the dark, well-moulded features and smooth-shaven cheeks
of a too familiar countenance, often beheld in dreams of both of these young men. A wild yell rang up
into the night; each leaped from his own side into the roadway; the lamp fell, broke and was
extinguished; and the horse, terrified by this unusual commotion, bounded and went off toward
Edinburgh at a gallop, bearing along with it, sole occupant of the gig, the body of the dead and
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850 – 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. His most famous works are Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson now ranks among the 26 most translated authors in the world. His works have been admired by many other writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Marcel Schwob, Vladimir Nabokov, J. M. Barrie, and G. K. Chesterton, who said of him that he “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.”
photo by whatleydude