Short Stories 

 

 

 

Friday
Oct162015

Short Stories by Jay Shearer, Les Bohem, Pete Able, Toti O'Brien, and Tom Tolnay

Vigilantes of the Spirit World

by Jay Shearer

 

 

The memory returned and hung over him, a sudden cloud, pregnant with horror. Jerry hadn’t thought of it in ages. At the corner store for an afterschool snack, his son—Danny, 1st grade—held before his father a familiar butterscotch and blue monstrosity famous for its length and girth. Among candy bars, a kind of bully.

“Daddy, what’s this?”

He’d never cared for candy bars and found these especially heinous. They were overly sweet and unnecessary. Enablers of dental pain and Type 2 diabetes; tasted like concentrated wood shop shavings dipped in chocolate and future nausea. Jerry stared down at the thing. And the memory hovered in, a high school era moment of truth starring his old friend Warren Butwin, also known as ‘Butterfingers.’ Or sometimes: ‘Butwinfingers.’ But never to his face. He was six two, brawny and formidable, and didn’t care to be reminded what he’d done.

On a hike for a local day camp, a field trip to a mountain on the outskirts of town, Jerry and this Warren Butwin, both freshly minted counselors, only sixteen, had hurried ahead with a few of the kids, one a little girl Warren liked to goof with. Near the top of the trail, they came to a steep drop-off, a sudden ledge or cliff. Warren had been giving the girl a piggyback ride, and swung her around, pretending to toss her over. She shrieked and he did it again. Then he took a bold step to make it scarier, and lost his footing where the path met the grass.

A collective gasp, a soft blast of panic, then they watched her go. Spilling down, up and around, bouncing off the rocks and roots that jutted from the mountainside. This Raggedy Ann-ish cartoon tumbledown, just brutal, with oomphs and uunnhs and cracks of bone, bouncing all the way. Then totally still down at the bottom, her legs and arms weirdly set. Like a figure in an Aztec frieze. Like that, she was gone.

After, Warren B wore it hard. A solid B student and stellar athlete, he began to slip in all categories. Midway senior year, after the worst of it had passed, someone left in Warren’s locker a solitary Butterfinger. The candy bar propped to be read. To let him know they knew. Then a Butterfinger in his desk. Another in his bookbag. Some anonymous asshole vigilante had decided to torment him.   

A quarter century later in the corner store, Jerry snatched the candy from his son.

“That’s not for you,” he said. “That can kill you.” His son looked up, perplexed, like: seriously? Solemnly, Jerry nodded. They left in silence without a snack, Jerry holding his little son’s hand tightly as they crossed streets.

 

Jerry tried to forget, but the effort proved futile. The memory had arrived with force and endurance. The candy bar sections in pharmacies and stores seemed to be everywhere: louder, brighter. He’d turn on TV late at night to find cartoon animals dropping from cliffs, the extended whistle of a cartoon fall playing in his ears long after. Later, he’d see these as advertisements, movie trailers for the moment to come, sent by cruel phantoms. Like: asshole vigilantes of the spirit world.

 

Months later, Jerry sat contemplating his options after a cancelled flight at O’Hare. He stared at the aggressive snowfall, the steady bombing that would keep him in town and kill his place in the given conference. Which bummed him out completely. But then:

“Jerry!” He looked up. “You motherfucker! I heard you lived here.”

By his side stood Warren Butwin: over forty and smiling broadly, arms out, expecting embrace. Jerry froze, then stood, and they hugged. Warren pulled him in tight. He was brawnier, bigger in every way, extra vital and alive; perhaps medicated. Dyed hair in an expensive haircut. Sleek suitjacket, no tie—top shirt buttons open, revealing some chest—plus a thin, golden, MC Hammer-ish necklace that tipped the impression’s scales toward corny. Jerry was flat out stunned.

“My god,” he said. “How is it you’re here?”

"Time machine,” said Warren and snapped his fingers. “Come on. Let’s get back in it.”

They sat at an airport bar and ordered drinks. Warren’s flight—a connecting, to LA—had been cancelled too. Looked like he’d have to stay the night. Maybe even at Jerry’s place. He made this joke a number of times—so many it was clear he meant it. It was all forced jokes and reunion filler: awkwardness in the other’s presence. Then Warren opened up.

“I’ve seen some hard shit, Jerry,” he said, suddenly serious, tracing his finger around the rim of the glass. “I’m sure you heard all about it.”

“I …” Jerry winced. “Well, I have a vague notion you were charged with a crime.”

Warren grimaced, surprised. “Just the one?”

But Jerry knew. He’d heard all the stories. He hadn’t lived in his hometown since high school, but over the years, had heard plenty. Thanks to gossip’s power and the ease of the internet, the image arrived before the man. Warren Butwin didn’t stand a chance. Assault charges. Possession. Success in finance, then disgrace. Some murky white collar crime. He’d done a little time for that, in fact. Officially a felon. When Warren got around to it, Jerry feigned surprise.

“Between you and me,” said Warren, “incarceration is no longer in my future.” He nodded, raising his whiskey. “To starting over”—they clinked glasses. “And … to staying over at Jerry’s house and flirting with his hot young wife!” Warren raised his glass again. Jerry didn’t take. “Aw come on. I’m kidding! Geez.” Warren shook his head. “Still the same old pussy.” He reached over and cradled Jerry’s neck. He gathered him in; foreheads touched. “I love you, brother. Don’t ever take that away from me.”

Jerry nodded, I won’t. Got you. An hour had passed, and he was getting nervous. Warren Butwin loves him and wants to stay the night. By this point, he’d made that abundantly clear. Let’s see what you’ve made of yourself, he’d say. Or once too often: let’s go meet that wife. He wanted to drink it up, bask in the chance of it. Look at that storm, dude! Neither of us is going anywhere. Then leaning in, cradling Jerry’s neck: nowhere but your house.

Jerry excused himself for the bathroom. At the urinal, he mulled it over. The bathroom was a good thirty feet from the bar, out in the airport proper. A shocking impulse: he should just leave. He hadn’t even picked up his luggage yet. Just get the bags and go. Get em and go.   

He hadn’t stepped ten feet from the bathroom when he bumped into Warren B. His familiar bulk. The big guy had gone to buy a paper and was heading back to the bar.

“You … you’re going the wrong way, Jerry. What is …?” He cocked his head. “You weren’t leaving, were you?”

“What? No.”

Warren nodded, perhaps suspicious. Then he smiled. “Naw … you wouldn’t play me like that. After all these years?” He shook his head, then leaned in to whisper, “You were there, man. You know all about it. Don’t ever forget. Now …” He placed a firm hand on Jerry’s shoulder. “Let’s go to your place and have some goddamn drinks.” 

Jerry shook his head. “I uh love you too, Warren, but that is not going to happen.”

Warren popped his eyes. “It sure as fuck is!” He smiled. To him, it was certain. “I’m gonna get my stuff from the bar. You … stay right there. Don’t fuck me now!” He pointed with a half playful smile. “Don’t you leave.”

Jerry froze as Warren moved off. The big guy looked back; Jerry nodded. When he turned at the bar’s divide, gone out of sight, Jerry hesitated a second then turned and ran. Bolted hard, whirring past bodies, exhilarated, thrilled. A hundred yards off, he stepped on an escalator going down, but in the whir of the moment just before, noticed a well-lit candy bar stand in a store off to the side. 

Halfway down the escalator, he stood rock still. The image returned as if the girl were going with him, falling slow motion at his side. He heard in his mind the oomphs and uunhs, the gasps of panic, cracks of bone. He saw Warren opening his locker and finding the cruelly named candy. Jerry shook his head, conflicted.

Soon enough, he was going up, escalator the other side, hot and sweaty, regretting it already, looking for the face he was next to certain was coming fast this way.

At the top of the escalator, though: no Warren. Nowhere in sight. Jerry moved ultra-patiently through the airport, scanning the passing faces. Nope. Not him. Not her. Not them.

He crept ahead, covering the hundred, hundred twenty yards to the bar at glacial paranoid pace. When he reached the outer far fringe to the bar, he slowed even more and approached soft of foot, breathing heavy. He stood at the furthest corner of available sight line: the angle where one remained unseen. Or at least hard to see. Yet he could see—and quite clearly—a significant sliver of the bar’s interior. And he saw, about three barstools in, the undeniable brawn, the heavy hunch, of his old pal Warren Butwin: solemn and still at the bar, staring down into his drink. Totally still. Completely still. Unclear if despondent or depressed. Immersed in this wax museum meditation, one hand holding the glass.

It was freaking Jerry out a bit. Too intense. A shiver shot through him, ready and electric.

The bartender approached Warren a half second later and the big guy came to. He looked up and smiled, then downed the drink—a solid half glass of likely whiskey—and wiped at his mouth and asked for more. The bartender, cleancut, done up, necktie and all, big beefy white dude—a kind of reboot Flintstone—chuckled, said something like, “Thirsty, huh?” (Jerry couldn’t really hear.) Warren smiled warmly and nodded his approval.

The big beefy 21st century Flintstone poured another for Warren, also a massive presence. The two shared an inaudible joke. Warren spoke first, then the bartender replied. They laughed pretty loudly at something he’d said. Warren parried, gave response in kind, and they cackled even harder. They nodded to each other, proud of whatever they’d come up with. They shared an understanding. Some brawny enthusiasm. A nice moment to witness, in fact.

Abruptly, behind Jerry: SMASH!

Startled, half hunched, Jerry turned to see: a pudgy airport luggage guy standing next to his in-house mini-vehicle, staring down at a small pond of shattered hard glass. He’d bumped his vehicle into the edge of a kiosk and knocked over some sort of massive royal punch bowl.

A razor sensation slashed the nape of Jerry’s neck. He looked back toward the bar, where Warren and the bartender both stood, craning to see the source of commotion. 

Warren seemed to see him then. (Ah!) The big guy winced, just slightly. Jerry lowered his head and turned away, stepping out of sight. Five, ten feet off, he broke into a run, straight for the airport’s side wall. Panting, he stood just slightly hidden behind a marble half-pillar built into the wall. A spiderweb of cold sweat seemed to sprout from his skull’s central peak, like a hairnet or hood, the nervous system fishing for its master.

He waited a while, here and there peeking over at the bar.

Nothing, no one. No sign of Warren. At least not yet. Though he might have shot out after Jerry and was further now down the airport hall.

More likely, though, he said fuck that guy. The transgression now twofold, thought Jerry. He’d bailed, jumped ship—on a good old friend who’d bared his soul—then paddled back in a covert canoe to spy like a sneak with binoculars. Only to flee when discovered. Like some kind of creep.

Jerry peeked around the pillar built into the wall. No Warren. No one. Stillness. Silence. Plus also the given noise and movement (the airport passersby).

Jerry slid back against the marble edge of the half-breed pillar. He pressed his face against it. He cased the scene once more to be sure, then very carefully, ever so gingerly, made his way back toward the escalator.

Here and there, he looked over his shoulder. But no one. Just people. The great seething mass. None of it containing Warren.

 

Later, in his house, on the second floor, in bed, nearly but not quite asleep for the third time, consciousness refusing to cave, Jerry perched up on an elbow to take in Rachel: dead asleep at his side, snoring gently into her elbow’s crook, peach blonde locks fanned across the sheets. He yawned, then whispered to himself: shit.

The evening had shaken him. He could not, would not, sleep. He sat up further, mattress crickety-creaking. From the forward-facing bedroom window, he could see the soft snowfall: less of a bombing now, more of a landing. Lightweight commandos parachuting in. Steady steady. On and on. As relentless in its peaceful slow way as the other.

A sudden burst of light appeared—some car with its brights on. It stopped somewhere near the front of their place. The engine idled in the snowfall near or in front of their house. A long silence.

A horn honked loudly, twice. Jerry tensed.

The driver waited a while, then whoever it was pressed down hard. Hoooooooooooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnkkkkkkkkk.

The hair on his arms shot straight up—felt that way at least. Sudden cacti: a cartoon feeling. Jerry waited. Save for the idling engine, silence.  Rachel moved a little beside him. He touched at her shoulder, rubbing softly—shhhh—then slid out of bed and stepped toward the window.

In front of their house, a taxi hummed: an American United, red white and blue. Transparent cones of too-bright light shot forward, the snow floating down and through the grains of light, shooting, swirling, a weird film. Jerry bit at his lip.

Again: Hoooooooooooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkkkkk.

Jerry stood taut at the window; fresh goose pimples rippling up his back, his neck, a high-speed infestation. Goose pimples like lice or tics.  Behind him, Rachel stirred. Groggily, softly, she asked, “Who is that?”

Jerry stared down at the idling American United, so still and demanding. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I … have no idea.”

Softly, from the bed, she said, “Tell them to stop.”

He whispered “Shhh. Go to sleep. It’s nothing”—and stepped barefoot across the carpet, sliding into his threadbare blue boat shoes and out to the hall. He stepped swiftly toward the staircase, but stopped abruptly at his son’s bedroom door. On a protective whim, he turned the knob.

Jerry stuck his head in, then winced, squinting hard, unsure if he was seeing right. He stepped into the room, toward the bed, which was … empty, totally evacuated, the sheets spread wide aside. Jerry froze, unnerved to the core, and just as soon, in essentially the same moment, darted back for the door. He shot down the steps, hand on banister, wild thoughts of tragic consequence pressing.

Down the stairs at record speed—what the fuck is happening here?—then turned at the banister to see his son standing at the open front door. A wash of sweet relief, then just as soon: a plague of goose pimples. Just at the sight of it. His son Danny (1st grade) stood rock still before the outer glass door, having opened the tall wooden front one, sidelong light from the cabbie’s beamers streaming over and above his head, his shoulders. His little son Danny standing in the half light, transfixed by whatever he saw out there, as if aliens had landed in the front yard and lured him to the door with telepathy.

Jerry walked in softly behind him. Hearing this, the boy turned to look.

"Ah!” He shook—a nervy spasm. “You scared me.”

“Sorry, bud. Sorry.” He stood behind his son, his hands on the boy’s shoulders, gently at the clavicles through black cotton Batman pajamas. “What’s going on out here?”

Danny stared out at the cab. “Who are they, daddy?”

Jerry patted at his soft pajama-ed shoulders. “No one,” he said, and stepped around him, opening the door. He looked down at his son. “No one who can hurt you anyway. You stay right here.” Danny nodded okay. “I’ll be back soon.” Danny nodded tightly, repeatedly.

Jerry stepped across the small-ish porch and down the broad front stairs, toward the light, toward the figure, the unmistakably hulking silhouette that just then exited the cab. He was standing and waiting next to American United, not shadowy or elusive or hard to make out: his old friend Warren B under the washed out yellow streetlights, his arms spread out broadly, as in: what the fuck, man? Why’d you run off like that?

Jerry stopped on the front walk, about ten feet off from Warren. He stood in the lazy falling snow, arms crossed in his old school flannel pajamas, no coat. He nodded to his accuser, acknowledging his earlier failing, the obvious rudeness. The cowardice.

Jerry shrugged, trying a playful smile. “Jesus, Warren. How’d you find me?”

“Internet, my friend. The internets. They come in handy.”

“Clearly.”

"Nets catch fish, Jerry—slippery fish—and hold them there til they die.” He nodded at Jerry, smiling broadly, knowing he’d have no reply. “It’s all there, man, ripe for the taking. Your numbers, your dollars, your secret habits. My internet guy tells me you’re quite vulnerable. Ripping you off would be easy, he says, without your ever knowing. In fact—and I don’t meant to alarm you, Jer, but, well … he thinks it’s pretty likely someone has already.”

“How would—?” started Jerry. A white flash crossed his vision. “Really?”

Warren raised his chin and smiled at Jerry, shaking his head in playful reprimand. Then his face slid down to serious. There was hurt in his eyes. Confusion, betrayal.

“Why would you do that to me?” he asked gently.

Jerry had no reply. A sharp current of guilt coursed through him. He lifted his hands slowly, shaking his head. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, stammering just slightly. “I … I’m sorry, Warren. I just didn’t think—”

“How do you justify that?” he interrupted, then stared deep and hard into Jerry’s eyes, through them in fact, sort of poking through the back filament, as if seeking executive function.

Jerry looked away, his gaze slanted slightly down, to the left. 

“I don’t, Warren,” he said. “I uh I really don’t.” 

“Hell yeah you don’t! You can’t.”

Jerry looked up to meet his eyes. They faced off like that through the sinking snow, outrage vs. apology.

From the porch behind them: “Jerry? Everything alright?”

Jerry and Warren both looked over to see: Rachel on the porch in her most favored nightwear, checkered pajama bottoms and a flimsy t-shirt. Danny stood pressed behind her to the side, his little arm curled around her leg.

“Everything’s fine,” Jerry told her from the sidewalk. “Go on up stairs. Seriously. Put Danny back to bed. I’ll be up soon.”

But Rachel didn’t budge. Nor did Danny.

“That’s her, huh?” said Warren, suddenly at his side. He wrapped an arm around Jerry’s shoulders. Jerry bristled at the touch. “Tell her we’ll be up,” he said. “Both of us. Let’s have some drinks together. The whole gang.”

Rigidly, slowly, real irritation rising, Jerry swiveled his head toward Warren. He clenched his teeth. “No drinks tonight, Warren. Not here.”

“That’s a fine class of woman. I mean it. Hope you don’t mind my saying, but that’s a sweet piece of ass you got there.”

“Listen …”

The big guy stepped back toward the cab, arms out collegially, as if it all made perfect sense. “Hold on. I’m gonna pay this guy and then we’ll commence with festivities. You got beers in there, right? Or wine at least?”

Jerry’s heart sank to the pit of his guts, a pale gray ham in a soup of despair. Warren looked absolutely serious. Jerry turned to Rachel, who was still on the porch. She shrugged, wide-eyed and tense, like: what is this? Jerry patted the air to reassure her, then turned to see Warren, again approaching with a broad smile, the cab idling behind him. He looked up at the porch.

“It’s Rachel, right? Your wife?”

Heart racing, Jerry gave no reply.

“It’s okay, Rachel!” shouted Warren. “Everything’s gonna be okay!”

He stood before Jerry, still smiling. “Isn’t that right, buddy? Everything will be A okay?” He snickered, shaking his head. “Your whole life. Everything. All you have acquired will be just fine. Now … what do you say we go upstairs together and share the goddamn wealth?”

Jerry shook his head defiantly. “Don’t do this, Warren. This … this will end badly.”

"Oh you think so, huh?” He laughed, then trailed off into snickering. American United idled behind him. Warren smiled, delighted, really living it up. “Who’s coming? The cops?”

“Maybe.”

“Ha! Maybe! Is that maybe a threat?” He laughed sort of warmly then. “Come on, man.” He spread out his arms as if for embrace. Jerry went wax museum stiff. Warren reached over and gripped—stiff-arm style—at the sides of his frozen shoulders. “I’ve been messing with you here,” he said. “One last blast for old times.” He tilted his head, meaning it. “Don’t forget old times, Jerry. Don’t ever forget.”

He pulled Jerry in for a tight embrace. His warm heft pressed against him, plus the scent of hard liquor, a sharp waft of bar food. Buffalo wings or a high end salsa or some rank combination of both. Warren said softly, into his ear, “It’s done between you and me, Jer. Already was. Probably ages ago. But I forgive you. I mean fuck you but I forgive you.” He stepped back, still gripping the sides of Jerry’s shoulders. “Look at me, man. You’ve lost a pal. Your old friend Butterfingers. I’ve vanished!” He shook his head, then smiled sort of wickedly. “Don’t worry, Jer. You’re still here.”

Jerry’s mouth hung open. He meant to speak but language wouldn’t come. Warren dropped his arms and moved back without expression toward the cab. He got in, staring ahead, and American United snailed away.

The cab putzed along through lethargic snow. The storm had slowed, lightened further. When the taxi turned at the corner, gone from view, Jerry stood in the cheap gold streetlight and watched the lazy parachutes sink through the air, which seemed to be warming. Just slightly.

When he turned back toward the house, he found Rachel and Danny sitting on the front stoop. The boy on her lap, she held him close, enveloped him fully, a mother bird securing her nestling, as if to never let go.

 

 

Elvis Presley

by Les Bohem

 

The Pink Sunset Mobile Home Park was a good-sized facility just off the Santa Ana Freeway on the way from downtown Los Angeles to Disneyland. The homes were the larger sort, not trailers hitched to a car, but permanent mobile structures. They were set in rows of ten and spaced so that each home had its own backyard and a spot for a small front lawn.

We lived one of these homes.  My dad, Jack, and my mother, Sally, and me. Our home was in the second row up from the entrance. The rows had been given names and our row was called Coral Avenue.

In front of our home, my dad had put small white rocks with shining mica specks.  He worked long hours and this was easier than a grass lawn. Once a month he had to pull the weeds out from among the rocks. That was all he had to do.

            The home was a one-bedroom model with the living room separated from the kitchen by a Formica bar. The kitchen itself was small and my mom complained that it was impossible to cook in it. She often burned her dinners because the heat of the electric stove was too hard to control.

My dad worked as a welder at electronics firm in the City of Industry.  In the autumn of 1981 he was forty-two years old. My mom was thirty-eight. They had been married for eighteen years.  I was six.

My dad had been in the army for three years. First a year in Louisville and then two years in Munich, Germany.  If I had to describe him for you physically, I would say that he was solid.  That’s how I remember him then.  He was maybe six feet tall with a working man’s muscles, the beginnings of a gut.  But that’s not my six-year-old memory.  I remember a solid man.  Someone you could not slip past.  He had met my mom in Louisville. He had also learned welding there.  He had bought the mobile home twelve years before that on his G.I. loan and he would own it outright in 1992.

I remember my mom as a careful, practical person. I think that she saw a simple pattern in life. She took it for granted that there was a way in which things were done. If she got a little angry or unhappy, she would just do something, some housework or a jigsaw puzzle, or she would try a new recipe from the paper, until the feeling went away.

I had started school the year before, and she spent most of her days now with several of the other women who lived in the park. They would get together in the afternoons to watch soap operas on television. They took turns on the trailers. My mom liked the days at our neighbor Eve’s the best. Eve had the largest television. It was a Sony and the color was very good.

I suppose that my mom hoped that someday we would get a bigger place, maybe one of the real homes in the tract across the freeway where several of her girlfriends had already moved, but I don’t think that she was unhappy where we were. I don’t think it occurred to her to be unhappy. 

I know my dad didn't think much about the place where we lived. He had been duly proud of it when he first bought it, but now it meant nothing special to him.  He had just done what you did. You got out of the Service, got a job, got married, got a place, had a kid. He didn't think about it any more than he thought about the rest of his life. It was just something that was there. It was like air.

The only thing that my dad ever really thought about was his collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia, a collection that took up almost every inch of our bedroom and spilled over to the living room where I slept on a hide-a-bed couch.  It was a collection of souvenirs, posters, ticket stubs, records; everything that had anything to do with Elvis Presley, from bubblegum cards to velvet paintings that glowed under a blacklite.  It was one of the three largest collections of its sort in the country. It included an autographed copy of the single “Return to Sender” and one of the jumpsuits that Elvis had worn on  his 1974 tour when he played Monroe, Louisiana.  It was called the “Blue Flower” suit.  It was a white suit with blue embroidery and beaded blue patterns everywhere but on the inner thighs, which were pure white. 

My dad spent all of his spare time with the collection. He had all the items in it carefully catalogued. He had built shelves to display some of his favorites, although he kept some of the most valuable in a safety deposit box under their bed.

My dad had worn his hair like Elvis ever since 1956 when, as a teenager in Pomona, he first discovered the King.  He had driven to Los Angeles to see Elvis play at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. He had been so dazzled by the performance that afterwards he could hardly remember it at all. Still, he considered it to be the high point of his life.

He had aped Elvis’ changing hairstyles through the years and now, with Elvis dead, he kept to the sprayed, slick, black-dyed styling that had been his idol’s final coiffure.  I can remember my mom trying to get the dye stains off our pillowcases.  Even with bleach, the dye left grey smears on the white cotton.

On the first Sunday of every month, we would drive up to Los Angeles for the Record Collectors Flea Market.  My dad had had a copy of the Blue Flower suit made and he would wear it every month. We’d have to get there at four in the morning to set up the booth. Memorabilia as well as records were sold at the flea market, and my dad would sell certain duplicate items from his collection. My mom and I would mind the booth while he went off among the other booths looking for new treasures. Often he spent more than he made.

His collection was so well known that a German documentary film company had sought him out for an interview. They had filmed him in our home, surrounded by his souvenirs. He explained several of them to the camera.

“This mess here, it’s the one Elvis used in the Army in Germany.  I was stationed there the same time, though we were not in the same unit, and he gave it to me himself. Shook my hand and wished me good luck.”

The crew has also filmed us at breakfast.  The director had wanted the scene to seem candid, completely unrehearsed. It was my dad’s idea to wear the blue Flower suit.  At this time he had not yet had a copy made. He sat in his chair with the stiff, turned-up, sequined collar, hot under the film lights, no doubt hoping he wouldn’t sweat too much in the outfit and stain it.  I hadn’t started school yet, but the director wanted my mom and dad to pretend to be sending me off to class. The idea was for Father to offer Son a few words of good advice.

“And Elvis saw this old Negro woman looking into that show room window at that Cadillac Eldorado," my dad said, his voice cracking nervously at first but then, as he warmed to the role, gradually taking on a bit of Elvis’ “Memphis” slur. "And he said to the woman,  ‘Scuse me, ma'am, but I’m Elvis Pressley and I sure enough would like to buy you that car.’ Now, son, you’ve got to always remember, no matter how far you go, how big you get, you've got to keep your heart. You can bet Old Elvis kept his, right up to the end.”

He reached over stiffly then, trying not to get his sleeve into the grape jelly that sat between us on the table, and ruffled my hair, also being careful not to lose any of the sequins from the suit.

For a while after the Germans had gone, my dad was a celebrity around the trailer park. Neighbors would come by on the slightest excuse to get a look at him and his collection. They would ask about all the men with the cameras and the lights. It was during this time that he had the copy of the suit made. He would put it on each day when he came home from work and walk around the park in it. It had been all right to wear the original for the television show, but it would have been ruined if he’d had to wear it day after day.

After a few weeks, the neighbors stopped coming over.  The novelty had worn off, or perhaps they had lost interest when they’d realized that the T.V. show would only be shown in Germany and not in the States, where they would have been able to see it.

My dad continued to wear the imitation stage suit until my mom asked him to stop. They had a fight and he broke a chair and several of her favorite plates, but after that, he only wore the suit to the record swap meets. He could never quite forgive either my mom or the neighbors for what he considered their fickle lack of respect, not for him, but for the legend that he thought himself a small part of.

His collection continued to grow. The records alone took up almost all of the bedroom floor. He had two filing cabinets filled with photographs. Soon the collection started to spread into the living room. He bought a wardrobe in which he hung the original stage suit.  The copy he kept in the bedroom closet with his other clothes. That way, my mom had to it to see it every day as she dressed.

He built a bookshelf in the living room in between the wardrobe and my hide-a-bed. He filled it with his collection of Elvis books; biographies, photo books and songbooks. He had several of the velvet paintings framed and put them on the walls. The year before, we had made a summer trip to Elvis’ home, Graceland, in Memphis. The souvenirs that my dad had bought on that trip were still in boxes in the living room, waiting to be sorted, listed, and arranged for display.

One morning, I woke up with my dad standing over me.  He was shaking me and swearing.  I remember a sharp jolt of fear, a feeling from a dream of a room where the floor has fallen away. I looked up at my dad and he hit me with his fist.   Knocked me out of bed and to the floor.  He stood over me with his fists clenched.  I tasted blood in the back of my throat.

Then my mom was in the doorway.  She was shouting for him to stop.

My dad didn’t turn around.  “Just look at the little bastard,” he said.  “Look what he’s wearing.”

My mom came across the room to me and took my head in her lap. She looked at me and I could see the realization of what had happened.  I was dressed in Elvis’ Blue Flower suit. The pants legs and the sleeves extended well past my arms and legs and I must have looked shrunken and little inside the thing.

“ Look what the Goddamned baby’s done,” Jack said, pointing at my crotch where a yellow stain ran down the length of one thigh. I turned my bloody head into my mother’s breast and begin to cry.

“I just wanted to try it,” I said, sobbing.  “And then I went to sleep.”

I’d been about to get into bed.  The door of the new wardrobe my dad had bought for the stage suit was open and I could see the sequined sleeve of the suit through the opening and I had wanted to put it on.

“I wanted to be Elvis Presley sleeping,” I said.   “I wanted to be Elvis Presley while I slept.”

 

The Woman and the Nanny

by Pete Able

 

My apartment is on the ninth floor of an eighteen-story building—halfway up and halfway down. Sometimes on the elevator I forget whether I’m coming or going. Sometimes I think it wouldn’t matter either way.

A woman lives with me who is not my own. She occupies a minimum amount of space. She reads the newspaper when I am finished. She is a voracious reader. Everything points to her being smarter than me. This would not be such a stretch.

Men come by to see the woman and they act as if I am not here. They chat her up and I listen in disbelief. The woman’s laughter is formidable. She puts my diluted chuckles to shame. I could never compete with her at a comedy club.

I give the woman some money for groceries every week. She complains that it is too little. I compliment her on her cooking and she accepts graciously. She happily comments on her own adequacy. She does not overdo it.

I can’t remember how this arrangement started. She was a free woman and I was a free man and then somehow we were thrust together. It was something beyond our control. Like being paired in a ballroom dancing class. We were the last to choose.

“Can I leave the apartment today?” asks the woman. This is an unusual request. Other than her weekly trip to the supermarket, the woman never leaves the apartment. She is not a prisoner. She does not need my permission. I don’t know what to say.

“Yes. Yes, of course you can,” I say. I have so many questions. I want to ask her if it is about a man. I want to ask her if it is about a woman. I think maybe it is a health concern. This is what I tell myself. It comforts me.

When the woman comes back I am waiting for her in the armchair. The woman’s hair is wet from the rain. Her mascara is dripping down under her eyes. It is the first time I think her beautiful, the first time I take notice.

The woman doesn’t tell me where she went and I don’t ask. I try to prepare a casserole for us but I leave it in the oven too long. The woman is appreciative of the effort. She prepares something more palatable.

It’s strange to be suddenly falling in love with a woman you’ve been living with for eight months. Our routine is such that we hardly notice each other’s existence. Now to be noticing her is like attempting to read a map of someplace for which I have no context.

“I need to go out again.” the woman says the next day. I was afraid of this, afraid that it would turn into a trend. I want her here.

“Okay,” I say. “Will you be back for dinner?”

“Um. I think so.”

I am afraid of losing her, not that I ever had her, but now it threatens the stability of my home. I have relied on her silent presence. It keeps my head on straight. It keeps me from bouncing off the walls. And, now, with my growing bewitchment, I can’t imagine being without her.

Waiting for her to return I prescribe busywork. I organize bills and receipts. I put the bills and receipts into folders and put the folders into files so I don’t have to look at them anymore. Once they go away I am free to sit and pine after the woman. She has been gone for three hours. I begin to expect her.

The woman comes in humming a tune. I look up from the book I am pretending to read and offer a noncommittal salutation. She gives me a cheerful hello. This exchange leaves me wanting. Further information is not forthcoming.

“How was the party?” I ask. I don’t know if she’s been at a party or not. She certainly didn’t say she was attending a party. It is just a stab in the dark, a nosey lunge for the truth.

“How did you know it was a party?” she asks bemused. “I guess you could call it a party. Though I guess the technical term is ‘shower.’”

“Oh, it was a shower,” I say, relieved. I don’t know why this relieves me. I guess I think of a shower as a wholesome event.

“We’re having a baby,” the woman says, smiling.

“Who’s ‘we?’” I don’t know to whom she could be referring. She isn’t in any relationship that I know of.

“You and me is ‘we,’” she says.

“You and me?” I don’t know what to say. I am floored. But just a sec: I don’t remember ever having sex with her! And I would remember that. I tell her this but she is unperturbed.

“Nevertheless,” she says, “the baby is yours.”

“How do you know?”

“I can tell.” That settles that, apparently. There is no argument that can break down her proclamation. A woman’s intuition is truth, apparently.

Time passes and somehow we are married. The woman is still not mine but also she is. I can’t make any sense of it. We sleep in the same room but with separate beds. Hers is a queen-sized mattress and mine is a twin. She assures me everything is as it should be.

With her belly growing, and her skinny nature diminishing, the woman becomes less attractive to me. Her belly isn’t the only thing that grows. Her arms and legs fatten like a blow-up doll.

When the baby comes I fall into the role of father. I read books on child rearing, but I have no paternal instincts. In the beginning there isn’t much for me to do. The baby wails and feeds and wails and feeds. Sometimes it smiles and laughs and I am a part of it and it is magical. Yet I keep my distance.

The woman doesn’t read the paper anymore. She spends all her time with the baby, only leaving its side to eat and sleep. Some nights I stay up with the baby but usually it’s the woman who does. She is obsessed with it.

The baby grows older. It gets fatter and learns to crawl. It gets taller and learns to stand with the use of a cane. It’s like Benjamin Button. Could he be physically older than me? Is he aging the opposite way? This is just a passing fancy.

For the baby’s first birthday we finally give it a name. It is a name we think it can wear like a plate of armor. The baby will be strong. He will be charismatic. He will be a lady-killer. His name will serve him well.

The woman talks in baby voices. She talks to the baby in baby voices. She talks to me in baby voices. There is no separation between the baby and me. We are both part of the same family unit. And so is the woman.

The woman’s cooking has taken a turn for the worse. She simply doesn’t do it anymore. She spends suppertime shoveling pureed fruits and vegetables into the baby’s mouth. Meanwhile I am left to microwave my own Salisbury steak boxed dinner.

I accept that the baby is mine. I accept he came without our being physically intimate. But I find it much more difficult to accept that the woman and I shouldn’t sleep together now. We are married, aren’t we? Isn’t that part of marriage? And yet the woman hasn’t once allowed the pushing of beds together. It confounds me.

The woman, my wife, begins to complain about the toll the baby is having on her time. She misses reading, she says. At length a nanny is hired, a young girl. The girl is attractive in every way. She looks like Scarlett Johansson. You can imagine my predicament.

The nanny is a godsend. In addition to looking after the baby, she cooks and cleans. She is always pleasant, ready with a smile and an understanding word. She can change a diaper perfectly in under a minute. I have seen her do it. She has it down to a science.

The nanny lives in the second bedroom. Sometimes I have a crazy thought that she wants me to come to her in the night. And maybe she does. But she is much too professional to consider it to the extent I have. I have gone so far as to think of ways I can get the woman out of the house for the night. So far I haven’t come up with anything. It seems unfair to be living with two women who will not sleep with me. One is understandable, but two?

When the woman goes shopping it is one of the rare occasions that I am alone with the nanny. This is the time to showcase my charm. I feel pressure to be as charming as possible. The nanny cradles the sleeping baby in her arms.

“You’re really great with him,” I say.

“He’s such a good boy—it’s easy.”

“Okay, fine, don’t take any credit.” I smile broadly. She is kind enough to smile back. It is a sexy smile. She must know what effect she has on men.

“Well at least take credit for your cooking, everything you make is delicious.”

“That I will take credit for. I worked hard at learning to cook.”

“In that case I’ll try to compliment you on it more often,” I say goofily. She stifles a laugh, careful not to wake the baby.

Keys jingle at the door and the woman comes in with groceries. I hurry over to help with the bags. I want the nanny to think I am a good husband.

“Can you help me, Nanny?” says the woman.

“Of course. I’ll just put the baby down.”

The woman must suspect my attraction to the nanny. She always interrupts us with perfect timing. Even though I am not attracted to her anymore, out of habit every once in a while I proposition the woman, but she still won’t let me push the beds together. I am less and less disappointed. My sole attraction becomes the nanny. She is the ideal to me.

The woman grows meaner and more unhappy. She must miss my devotion to her. But she brought it on herself. You can deny a man sex for only so long. If only she hadn’t hired such an attractive nanny. If it wasn’t from the beginning, our family has become dysfunctional. It is not my fault.

The woman is unkind to the nanny. She never thanks her and is short with her demands. The nanny takes it in stride. She handles a bad situation beautifully. It makes me desire her all the more. She has strength of character.

The nanny has delicate ears. To me her ears are her most desirable feature. If I could only touch them I would be content. I could leave it there. Would touching and caressing another woman’s ears be considered cheating? Probably. Everything else is.

The nanny is playing at blocks with the baby.

“You’re so good with him.” I say. I know I have said this before, but it is still true and thus still a relevant thing to say.

“It’s so easy. You have such a great son.”

“He’s growing so fast. Soon he’ll be taking standardized tests.”

The nanny giggles. Her game playing becomes distracted, and the baby is frustrated by her inattention.

“I imagined you being the home schooling type,” she says.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” I say. “I am very smart. Perhaps I will.”

We share a laugh. It is an intimate laugh. I am scared of how well we get along. Meanwhile, the woman and I couldn’t be more distant. I didn’t really choose her after all. We were put together at random. She isn’t the one. It’s the nanny I want. But I know I shouldn’t want her. It isn’t right.

I begin to avoid the nanny. If I do not see her I will not want her. That is my reasoning. It is not realistic though. I think about her while at the coffee shop. I think about her while I’m getting the car serviced. I think about her at the mall and at the office and at the sporting goods store. She is always on my mind. But it isn’t right.

After a few weeks of minimal interaction between us the nanny asks if she can talk to me. She has an uncharacteristically serious expression on her face. She puts the baby down on the floor next to his toys and sits on the sofa. I sit in the armchair. She looks as if she is struggling to begin, as if there are several different places to start from from which she can’t choose. Finally she meets my gaze.

“We’re pregnant,” she says.

 

The Statue

by Toti O’Brien

 

 

 

The statue was life size, realistic of course.

A man in a suit, with briefcase in hand, faced a building. His head disappeared into the wall, bronze seamlessly meeting the concrete. His neck sharply bent forwards, the guy seemed to willfully strike the façade with the summit of his skull… a desperate gesture, no doubt.

The effect wanted, however, wasn’t tragedy as much as eerie surprise.

Mostly achieved.

I was used to the statue. On my way toward a weekly commitment it was kind of a landmark.

Upstairs, on a platform leading to a single skyscraper, it was distanced from the area where people walked.

Not many people: that neighborhood wasn’t so crowded.

Probably the statue was pouting, disappointed by its lack of exposure. By its uselessness.

I passed by in early mornings. The night dampness evaporated in fog, the colors still muted: cold, metallic shades of grey. It’s an hour when most of us wouldn’t mind burying our head into the pillow, pulling up blankets for an extra measure of sleep: the man’s gesture didn’t feel utterly absurd, notwithstanding the hardness of the material he chose to hide from dawning reality.

Only a bit of excessive strain, an exaggerated tone of fatality disturbed me. Vaguely, since I didn’t devote much attention to it. But, I mean that feeling of “how do I get out of here if I ever change my mind” hit me sideways, slightly making me cringe. For a split second: after all that was only some kind of art.

I had never seen people close to the statue. As I said it was removed from the sidewalk. I went by at daybreak: any business the skyscraper hosted was still dormant. I did not even see folks on the steps, leading to the platform…

Only a tourist (they are early people), sometimes looked up with an amused stare. Maybe he stopped, took a picture. That I would have done as well if I were a tourist.

But I never saw locals by the statue.

Besides one morning. Three of them: an Asian man by himself, a Hispanic woman accompanied by a boy. They stood slightly in the back, upstage, I could say. Clearly, reason suggested the presence of something behind them, although invisible. Maybe a double door, maybe an elevator, or an office of sort where that morning, supposedly, something would happen. Maybe a line was forming itself before opening hours. Maybe a bank, located at a higher story, added a money machine at ground level… from the sidewalk I couldn’t tell.

The trio in wait, though, did not form a line. They were stationed on opposite sides of the bronze: at an angle, looking in its direction. They stood still, in the limits of human faculties. That seemed natural for the small Asian man, more surprising for the mother and son. Aunt and nephew, whatever…

They communicated non-verbally, with uncanny scarcity of means. Concisely, barely. Mostly as if the adult, once on a while, simply checked on the child’s patience, encouraging it. What were they possibly doing?

How could I know? I just passed by: not an opportunity for discovery. Only for fleeting impressions, hypotheses… quite likely wrong.

But impressed I was. If the statue was meant to be eerie, its effect was nothing compared to the absurdity of that living tableau.

Since from my point of view (incomplete, I know) the poor three seemed to wait for their turn… to take the bronze’s place of course.

They came early to make sure they would get their chance. One could see the fatigue of sleep interrupted and a slight anxiety, a slight nervousness. That tension, when you expect for your number to be called. And I couldn’t help figuring a bigger crowd lining up, their tickets in hand.

What could that be for? What?

Maybe a new form of massage. A containing device holding your brain from all sides, without an inch of allowance. Not even a sixteenth of an inch. Everything in your mind, so compressed, would fall in place. No room would be left for hesitations or doubts (those disturbing loose ends). Alien thoughts, extraneous juices would be squeezed out painlessly.

A great thing to get on a Monday morning, for instance, before work. Or the other way around: on a Friday afternoon, as a matter of fact.

That didn’t sound right. Something in the angle of the man’s neck denied relaxation. A thrust was apparent, an effort to intrude, to see. There was certainly something to look at, on the other side. Or inside the building, the wall: a sort of peep show.

Pornography? I didn’t think so. That seemed like the wrong location, wrong hour, wrong crowd. Although you never know.

Fabulous vacation landscapes to relieve urban claustrophobia? I doubted it. Too cheap.

It had to be something more personal, more urgent, more intimate. Maybe visions of your dead, as if they were alive still, if you only had provided good pictures in proper time. They would be there as holograms, shockingly tridimensional. You could talk with them, ask whatever you wished. Perhaps they would respond. Or at least…

You could pray. Why didn’t I think of it earlier? You could pray, sure. That was nothing but a confessional, a modern one. No religion, no affiliation was needed, also agnostics and atheists were admitted. Anyone could confess whatever they liked. All would be mutely forgiven, once you accepted the cold kiss of stone. If you were brave enough to dare temporary decapitation.

Maybe (I promise this is my last guess) it was a dream machine. Please trust me: I think I got close. Yes! If you came early, promptly, sacrificing your breakfast, forgetting makeup (toothbrush in your pocket for later)… if you dove headfirst in the wall without reticence, you could resume your night dream. Whatever it was. Follow it to its very end, get the best of it. Not, as usual, just a useless scrap.

Some of us really care for conclusions.

But of course you couldn’t stay there indefinitely. That was not you private spot it was a public commodity.  If someone was in line you had to pass after your given time. Twenty minutes? Five, ten at most. After all there was a risk of asphyxia and a slight one of madness. You need to open your eyes and breathe fresh air once on a while.

Was the statue dreaming? All the time.

Was he, truly? The man with the briefcase? Or did the attaché mean he was a doctor, an analyst, someone scholarly endowed with the skills to observe, study and properly unscramble dreams? I believe so.

All dreams? The entire city’s dreams?

That seemed a sound interpretation. Or a good dream: where early mornings belong, even when you are up and walking, as I was.

Dreaming, still.

 

Stephen Crane & The Mentor

by Tom Tolnay

 

Though I’d gazed out my window in Selden Hall hundreds of times, often, admittedly, to cast my eyes away from the stack of student papers on my desk, on this particular evening—one made fragile by the chilled breath of late autumn, it was disquieting to realize this was the first time in twenty-three years at Bartholomew that I’d observed the campus with such razor-edged delineation:  undergraduates in green and tan and red woolen sweaters swarming over footpaths mashed into the turf by countless predecessors, by-passing the slate walks to find the shortest distance between two classes; the individuality of each brick in the triple-layered administrative edifice, with gray strips of mortar standing out between the ruddy rectangles like passageways through a maze; a row of somber spruce lined equidistant apart, their spiny branches silhouetted so sharply against the bruised sky they might’ve been cut from black construction paper; the spray of blade-winged, darting swallows which, like me, regarded these ivy-strung structures as home.  This view came with background music: collegiate shuffling and bellowing in the corridor beyond my closed door—passing phantoms indistinct through frosted glass, accented intermittently by a shriek I thought at first were tires spinning out in the parking lot below but which, after a moment’s concentration, I determined were coming from the mouth of a saxophone in a practice room at Crandle Hall.  And as I waited for Eugene Jarvis to appear for an evaluation of his final narrative of the semester, the thought that it was possible to perceive anything in the same precise way only once in a lifetime saddened me.        

            It was the common-sense, old-world configuration of Bartholomew’s tidy campus, along with the anonymity of its setting—notched into the rusted slopes of southern New Hampshire—that had drawn me here.  Born and tutored in the Midwest, and having been settled in New England for less than a year, Tabitha and I had stumbled across Bartholomew during a drive from Boston to a rented cabin for a weekend of “leaf-peeping,” a recreation we’d read about in travel columns of the Indianapolis Star.  Two autumns later, without much warning, our marriage had crumbled like the brittle leaves beneath our feet that Saturday; an event that seemed so distant not in time but in layers of experience that I sometimes imagined it had happened in someone else’s life rather than my own.  

            Even now I cannot say precisely why we’d disengaged from each other.  Yes, I have been known to be opinionated, especially when conducting class, and tended to be more abstract than was comfortable for a person like Tabitha who, while quick-witted, was more apt to trust the logic of her forthright breasts and crest of auburn hair than that of her keen mind.  And for someone who appreciated, needed focus, she had an unfortunate flair for being distracted too readily by any passing flare up.  But how could such pedestrian divergences of personality interrupt the compelling momentum of two beings obeying the same human laws and moving at about the same speed in the same general direction?  How could they foster such despair in a woman I’d always considered to be strong-willed?  Such consternation in a man who attempted to approach each uncertainty with positive expectations?  

            Once I had vacated her life, including the four-room walk up we’d shared for nearly three years, I had a mystical experience, at least that’s how I accounted for it later.  An image of the Bartholomew campus popped up in my mind like an advertisement on the Internet:  rigid, snake-like vines strung so tightly they seemed to be keeping the brick buildings from falling apart, and within one iron-framed Tudor window a line up of attentive students taking in whatever was being uttered at the head of the class.  This sighting of what turned out to be Selden Hall could not have lasted more than a second or two as Tabitha and I motored along a road adjacent to the campus; and yet, two and a half years later, those strung-out vines and eager faces began surfacing with regularity in my mind.  What troubled me was that this glimpse of an isolated moment from the past kept getting in the way of things that had to be reconciled in the present.  But over the months I began to interpret this recurring vision as an opportunity, as a call to purposes more consequential than my marriage or occupation at a publishing house.

            The summer our divorce had been “finalized”—now there’s a word to freeze human hope—I composed a detailed letter to Elaine Robson, Chairperson of the English Department at Bartholomew, and as such matters will occasionally, rather miraculously work out, a writing instructor had unexpectedly declined to return that semester.  Though a couple of other candidates had apparently expressed interest in the vacated post, the fact that I was a “civilian,” someone without any academic track record, clearly ingratiated me to Mrs. Robson.  It was as if she, along with tenured Department members, were wary of their own kind, of anyone who had been disconnected too long from the demands of commerce.  Thus, on the basis of my lack of teaching credentials, and my professional literary qualifications—which included the husbanding of assorted fiction and non-fiction titles into print at Little Brown as well as the publication of a few of my short stories in little-known, little-read literary magazines—I was hired.  The providential timing of this circumstance did not strike me as remarkable: in some irrational way, I’d counted on providence to make up for what it had already taken away.   

            Not until I saw the Charles River receding in my rearview mirror did I fully grasp that I was, in effect, backtracking to a psychological fork in the road in order to resume my travels in the direction I’d imagined for myself years earlier—long before the business of adapting to my parents’ and my teachers’ and my wife’s and my bosses’ expectations had detoured me.  At Little Brown I had been a reader and editor of other people’s manuscripts.  Now I was going to write a book of my own, for I believed, audaciously, that I had something to say and, furthermore, that I could say it more provocatively, more persuasively than a number of the writers whose manuscripts I’d nursed into print.  The monastic atmosphere at Bartholomew, abetted by a rented cottage on a dead-end lane, seemed well-nigh perfect for such an aspiration.       

            Before I could embark upon this personal expedition, I needed to acquire a smattering of the skills required to impart the craft of fiction to young minds intent on writing their way out of these unnerving, ivy-clad stone walls.  The immediate problem I encountered was that every one of my students struck me as tenaciously, sometimes cruelly intelligent: It was like trying to hold forth before a classroom filled with twenty-seven Stephen Cranes.  That first semester was brutal, the students exposing my limitations, my willfulness as if they were peering through a pane of broken glass into my soul.  Even my colleagues smiled at my tales of these classroom jousts.  But fate came to my rescue once again: By the end of the following semester, on the brink of quitting Bartholomew, I found the lessons my colleagues and students had been conveying to me were beginning to settle like gold dust into that compartment in my mind where I could make practical use of them.   

             Once I’d established the confidence in class to deal with these bright-eyed, male and female Stephen Cranes, a rush of creative productivity took over my life.  Even my co-conspirators, many of whom seemed to go about their academic duties with a finely tuned indifference, were impressed by my determination to write, expressed in part by an adroitness in sidestepping their social invitations.  This strategy was aided immeasurably by the fact that the campus, and the village abutting it like an appendix, offered little more in the way of distractions than a faculty tea, a visiting paleontologist or philologist, a couple of poetry readings and student chamber recitals per semester.   

            Rarely I did succumb to a dinner with someone from the Department, mostly preferring to keep to myself; though I did manage, over the years, to become interested in two or three women on the faculty (not to mention Genevieve, a former student of mine from Quebec).  Curiously, they demonstrated interest in me as well.  By interest, of course, I mean sex, the opportunity for which surfaced from time to time like perspiration in the armpits.  None of these “relationships”—another chilling word which to me suggests quite the opposite of what it‘s supposed to mean—progressed beyond a certain invisible, yet seemingly solid barrier; this mystified me almost as much as Tabitha had.  In retrospect I can see I’d made myself inaccessible not merely in overt ways, which can be forgiven by reason of their being so obvious; but also by too many subtle measures for Jeanne or Dorothea—for anyone to have gotten close to me with any intimacy beyond the casual connection of bodily parts.  (As for Dorothea, in retrospect I think she’d turned out to be rather too similar to George Eliot’s Dorothea for us to be well-suited to each other’s expectations.) While this was a lonely road to travel, it seemed entirely fitting for an artist, as I earnestly wanted to think of myself:  As the existentialists remind us, ultimately there is only one meaningful human story—our quintessential aloneness up against the star-splattered blackness of the universe.   

            During those four or five years—what I shamelessly call my creative period—I completed eight short stories and nearly as many essays or articles, as well as a novel, Night Without End, containing, I believe, the strongest sustained work I’ve done.  Why should it matter, I have asked myself periodically, that the novel reposes in a bond paper box on a shelf in my bedroom closet, unpublished?  Along with my second novel, Wandering Alone Through Time.  I’d sent both manuscripts back to Little Brown for “a look,” as editors refer to this process, meaning they scan a page or two, a chapter or two, unless of course you happen to be a contemporary incarnation of the likes of a Stephen Crane.  Although there were a couple of acknowledgments of my accomplishment—that I’d “sat down and written a perfectly readable piece of fiction”—I received no offers of publication, including from the other half dozen houses I’d exposed myself to.  What is disturbing is not that those manuscripts never found their way into print, that my name did not appear in the book review pages of the Times and the Globe.  Rather it’s that so much I had felt so strongly—or imagined I had, and had worked so conscientiously to convey—should merely be accumulating dust to the same degree as a lampshade in my sitting room; that those feelings had no more validity than the paper—now entirely used up—on which they’d been outputted; that all of the feelings we expend, ultimately, are of no good to anyone, least of all ourselves.

            Moreover, though I never mentioned this to my colleagues, the act of writing became an increasingly grueling chore, lacking as I did the genius that Crane had found waiting for him to draw upon each morning in his short life.  Because of this more than anything else, I found myself writing less and less, and though the Department continued to regard me as a “working author”—as one who was everlastingly revising this story or that chapter, by degrees I became entirely non-productive as a writer; not including an occasional brief “book review” of campus interest or the appearance of a story that had been accepted for publication years earlier by one of those obscure semi-annuals.  When questioned about my “latest project,” with an inscrutable smile I would allude to something I’d started a long time ago and which I hadn’t completed.  And never would.

            Without quite noticing how it came about, reading took the place of writing in my daily routine.  It was not my usual sort of reading—not for scholarship or information or even entertainment, but simply an intensive, somewhat obsessive involvement with graceful stanzas and brilliant paragraphs held captive within the framework of a printed page.  Sometimes I would quote favorite lines from these readings to myself as I sat in on faculty meetings or watched a student read from her work in class.   When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain….  Early on I thought of this involvement as a kind of secret love affair with language.  Of course I couldn’t flaunt this private passion for it would’ve been like confessing to my fellow monks that I’d found peace in the Old Testament.  But now it seems to me I valued those words, positioned side by side so strikingly, so memorably, not as products of human minds but as free-floating entities unto themselves, the way emotions are a thing apart from the people who declare strong feelings for one another.

            My commitment to reading in highly charged spurts struck me as rather orgasmic—instantaneous, briefly pleasurable implosions.  The experience resembled sex too in that, upon completion, I always felt vaguely more significant than I had before the connection took place.  Anyone can be an average writer, or so went my reasoning.  But how many have managed to become quite so gratifyingly intimate with the words they have been interacting with as readers?  This special strain of reading—this rationale—gave me a sense of accomplishment.  Not because I’d had my way with those words, or because of any knowledge I might be acquiring—I never let myself forget how very little any of us really knows; no, it was because of the seriousness with which I undertook this mission.  So seriously that I sometimes wondered if things might have worked out differently between Tabitha and me if I’d put the same level of commitment into our marriage.     

            With the passage of time, I lost hold of the sense of significance, of accomplishment I’d been extracting out of this attitude toward reading: partaking of charged snippets rather than whole pieces of thought, as if those high points of language constituted the essential worth of the total works they represented.  The English Department at Bartholomew College would’ve been troubled to learn that one of their own, who had hung around long enough to become largely immune to the law of “Publish or Perish,” rarely read anything any more.  Not counting the term papers and fictions I was forced to read in order to keep up with the rent on the six little rooms through which I found myself wandering, increasingly, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

            In the course of my progression from editor, to teacher, to writer, to reader, to . . . I’m not quite sure what, my hair—I now permitted myself a glance at the reflection of myself in the office window—my hair had frosted over, and my eyes and nose and mouth and ears had drawn closer to my cranium. So here I sat, icy-haired and bony-cheeked, on this evening of keen awareness, waiting to conduct yet another conference with yet another young writer.  Only this was not just any young writer. 

            If I’ve learned anything in delivering sermons from my academic pulpit, it’s that the faces of students, and the personalities lying in wait beneath their noncommittal facial expressions, come and go like currents in the Charles River, most of them as unmemorable as the characters in the stories they entrusted with me.  These young people—yes, after twenty-three years you have to remind yourself that they are people—are quickly obliterated in the preacher’s consciousness by the continual amassing of more immediate visages and personalities semester after semester.  Eugene Jarvis, however, was different.  I knew already I would not be able to forget him.  Ever.

            In Jarvis there seems to be an in-bred, rather urgent need to dissect and interpret whatever comes within the range of his senses through language on a page, coupled with a startling ability to say coherently as much as he can possibly know at his age on any given matter.  Or, really, more than he ought to know.  It is my impression he is capable, much like the author of The Red Badge of Courage, of coming to grips with perceptions beyond his own experience—the way Crane wrote about a war he’d been born too late to witness first-hand—simply by allowing them to pour out of his mind onto paper, as if words to him are not merely symbols but the actual psychological and physical circumstances they were conveying.

            The first time I read one of his pieces, surrounded in my study by ceiling-high shelves of the world’s great literature, I was stunned and then, within moments, suspicious.  The twelve pages struck me as far too economical, far too under control, far too insightful to have dropped whole out of nowhere: Jarvis had shown up at Bartholomew from a hamlet too tiny to appear on a map of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; with him he brought the shabby sweatshirt on his back, a batch of books in a tattered knapsack—and no academic distinction whatsoever. It seemed to me he must have plagiarized some little known, yet accomplished writer, toying with the language to cover himself and, thereby, unintentionally introducing the few weaknesses that had crept into the piece. 

            It was a character sketch of a sister who had died in infancy, and whom the narrator had allowed in the prose to grow up into a young woman, but with her unconscious experience of death intact.  I could see the hollow-eyed solemnity of his protagonist, Amelia Thaine, vividly, as if she were standing beside my armchair in milky shadows, anxious to explicate the experience of death so that all of us might face it without fear, without remorse. Upon conjuring up Jarvis’s demeanor in class, however—he was pitiably shy, savagely curious, and unabashedly, yet genuinely grateful for my observations on what constituted good and bad writing—I remembered his having alluded to a sister who had died as a child, and suddenly I found myself acknowledging that the work was by his own hand. 

            “Are you incapable of trusting anyone?” I chastised myself aloud at the time, the words reverberating hollowly as if all of the room‘s books had been removed to make room for self-recrimination.

            To compensate for the spontaneity of my lack of trust, I began jotting a host of encouraging comments in the margins of that stirring fragment.  It was only after I’d handed the assignments back to the class that it occurred to me my notations had been too enthusiastic, that they might set back rather than advance his development.  In a sense Jarvis was a natural in the spirit of Malamud’s Roy Hobbs, only in a different sport; he had to be approached with extreme caution so as not to disturb the fine balance of sensitivity and intelligence operating, however unwittingly, within him.  In particular, I realized, it was important that he not be bombarded with praise, steering his mind away from his work and into a destructive self-awareness.  Thus I made a pact with myself to be diligent in paying more attention to the shortcomings than to the achievements of his writing.

            Though I’ve always considered certain theories relating to the creative process as psychological and/or mystical hogwash, in this case I was more than tempted to accept that Eugene Jarvis was functioning less as a writer than as some sort of ethereal conduit for the insights and imagery that seemed to spill effortlessly onto his papers.  It reminded me of how the young Stephen Crane had astounded the veteran writer, Hamlin Garland, by composing several of “The Black Rider” poems in his presence, the words flowing out of the youth’s pen “as easy as oil.”  Unlike Crane and his mentor, however, Eugene Jarvis and I, Arthur Markam, had an inordinate imbalance of power between us in that his utter lack of sophistication led him to accept as chiseled truth virtually everything I had to say on his work, on literature and, I daresay, on life at large.

            Not sure what to do about him, I’d discussed Jarvis with Phillip Bradley, a sometimes poet who teaches classics at Bartholomew.  His assessment of my “exceptional student,” as I referred to him, was that if he were really as good as I claimed then this “undergraduate,” a word he uttered with undisguised disdain, would figure out the important things for himself.  “It’s the ordinary, not the extraordinary who find use for the likes of us,” he said with bearded smugness.  I found Bradley’s reaction more cynical than wise, but it forced me to accept I was going to have to work out my own responses to what was occurring in one of my classes, in my one and only life.

            As the semester staggered into December, it became increasingly evident that in order to benefit Eugene Jarvis in any meaningful way, I was going to have to answer some questions about myself:  Was I a writer who taught, or a teacher who wrote?  Did my growing, yet prudently concealed disaffection toward the existence that had taken shape around me indicate I really had been meant to be an artist?  Or did the teaching, for better or worse, constitute the true substance of my creative life?  Having used writing as a public disguise and private self-deception for many years, I needed to know if my real purpose had been, all along, to use the facade of literary art as a cover up for my failures in the art of love.

            In the midst of this reverie a series of soft knocks sounded on the door, each of which struck me as reverential of the glass and wood used in the door’s manufacture.  Swiveling, I saw the round-shouldered shape through the frosted glass, which made the figure look like a caricature that had been partially erased.

            “Enter.”

            A young man in ragged brown corduroy slacks and a washed-out blue sweatshirt stepped into my office.  His face, too white, was smooth as a glazed coffee mug, yet faintly cracked around the edges of his orifices; his eyebrows were so black they seemed to have been rubber-stamped onto his forehead.  Neither tall nor short, he tilted slightly to his left as he shuffled toward me, as if burdened by an overly weighty heart.  Truly a comic figure, are the words that came to mind.

            “Sorry I’m late, Professor Markam.”

            I am not a full-fledged professor, but I let it slide once again, waving him closer.

            Eugene Jarvis stopped beside my desk, hands at his sides, almost at attention.

            “Have a seat,” I said, vaguely annoyed by his politeness, as if it constituted poorly disguised condescension.

            “Thank you, sir,” he said, settling into the sidecar chair, sweeping a clump of dark hair away from his silvery eyes.

            Steeping a hand into the sagging leather briefcase beside my chair, fingering through wads of student papers, I was struck by the notion that this could just as easily have been Stephen Crane at my desk, a hundred years earlier; except that the young Crane probably wouldn’t have accepted my theories about writing or anything else quite so readily.   

            Locating Jarvis’ most recent effort, I placed it with a bit too much deference on top of the appointment calendar lying flat upon my desk.  It was apparent this short story, untitled, had been influenced to a noticeable degree by critical comments I’d scrawled in its margins, and though this should have pleased me, I could not help feeling this was a disservice to him.

            Dangerously close I came to calling him Stephen, but quickly corrected myself:  “Well, Eugene, as usual you’ve turned in a very . . .  readable piece of writing,” I began, leafing through the first few pages of the manuscript, “but today I’d like to talk to you about voice.”

            “Was something wrong with my narration?”

            “I’m referring not to narration but voice, or what I think of as the persona which a writer carries into virtually all of his work.”

            “Guess you didn’t like my story very much.”

            “How much I liked it, or didn’t like it, isn’t the point,” I said more sharply than I’d intended.

            When Jarvis’s body seemed to shrink in the chair, I felt a powerful urge to confess I was merely one of thousands of writing instructors who had failed at writing, failed at life; and that what all of us put together had to offer him was of little or no value.  I wanted to advise him to leave college at once—to take a job as a cook on a tramp steamer bound for Singapore, to hitch-hike to the Yukon with a knapsack on his back, to erect a grass hut on a South Seas island and live by spearing fish, to drive a timber rig across Oregon’s great forests and fall in love with a waitress at a roadside diner: to live as those two Jacks of all trades had lived, London and Kerouac; yes, to become a literary cliché, if necessary, as long as it would carry him far away from Bartholomew College, from its faculty and, especially, from me.  But I was forestalled in following through on this impulse by a curiously exhilarating surge within me, by the knowledge that I could open or shut his mind, perhaps in some immutable way, as it pleased me.

 

 

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