Short Stories 

 

 

 

Thursday
Jul162015

Short Stories by Molly Mansker, Liana Vrajitoru Andreason, Penn Javdan, Patrick Pfister, Diane Rogers

A Fish. A Knife. A Boy’s Story.

by

Molly Mansker

 

When I was a boy, school gutted me, and our farm always wanted more than any of us had to give. At the end of the day, whittled and carious, I took what little bone was left to the river. There, breath reentered me every time I heard the sturdy plunk of lead on water. In the fall and spring, if I did my chores before the sun lined up with the cow barn, and if I crossed the Kunkle place at a dead run, I could fish until sunset. Winters, I made lures and practiced casting in the pond.

            Summers. What can I say of summer? Only this. I didn’t ride the horses, I didn’t play baseball in town, I didn’t make birdhouses, I didn’t trap squirrels or train the dog or build a fort or improvise elaborate jumping platforms in the hay barn. I worked the farm and I fished, and I improvised elaborate schemes to do more of one and less of the other.

            By my eleventh summer, no one complained if I slipped away in the early afternoon because I always came back with a string of fat brown trout for supper, even when I fished the crackling August afternoons, so hot the straw weeds lining the Clearwater whined and bit into my legs with their draught-sharpened edges, their burrs filling my socks and shoes with tiny swords. Still, I fished. I’ve never known again such complete satisfaction with myself, with my mountain. My aunt Marit used to say I would always measure my progress in the world against that satisfaction. Maybe she thought it would make me reach for more, that somehow owning those moments of boy peace could make up for everything else.

            Inequitable September. September on the river could be a tale of heaven or hell. She could bring mild, cool breezes or stillborn heat waves. On these windless, singed afternoons I liked to test the waters first. If some hungry sucker rose against all odds and currents, I’d keep going. If I didn’t get a bite in the first half hour, I’d pull up and find some shade where I could wait out the high heat. I liked to close my eyes then and picture the land as if I were a hawk. Silently gliding over the desiccated suede hills, chalky as the surface of the moon and only slightly greener. The rusting of fall would barely touch this place, nor the deep grays of winter. I imagine it looked like this a hundred years ago. I imagine it will look like this a hundred years from now.

            This day I barely lasted the half hour before the sun drove me off the river. I scaled the large rocks lining the bank and scrabbled under the few pines able to survive the relentless seasons of the canyon. I’d left the real forests a mile uphill. Despite the heat, I decided to walk upriver until I hit the creek. In winter, Whiskey Creek tumbled out of the forest and farm land on the ridges overhanging the river. In summer it was barely more than a damp pucker. But I knew if I followed it back over the hills toward its source, I would be rewarded with a sweet, cool trickle and plenty of shade. I sat under a pine bower and began scraping dry needles away from the ground in hopes of finding softer, cooler ground for my rest. The pine pricked like sewing needles, but soon the earth softened and dark loam caked under my nail beds. Then my fingers clawed something improbable. Hard. Cool. Metallic. I slipped my entire hand into the cleave between matted needles and soil and pulled out a rusty hunting knife. I raked my hands through the matting until I’d darkened a two-foot patch around my original find, but only turned up a lump of black crusty leather.

            We were not the first to farm this land. All along the Clearwater and up into the logging country above it, hoes paused on the unfamiliar flat of an arrowhead or a glass opium bottle, bloodless remainders of other men’s dreams. No matter how many you’d seen or heard about, the flash of color or glint of light off the smooth surface jarred you. Of course, others came before us, but we moved about our farms confident in a shared assumption that whoever paused here before had come through solely to pave the way for us.

            The knife was something different. I went back home early that night and snuck into the barn. I found a rag and some linseed oil and began cleaning. The steel blade was rusty and pitted. The bone handle was grooved and chipped and on one side bore a square patch of inlaid metal into which the initials “RF” had been stamped. I pulled out the Case folder I received for my last birthday. I laid it next to the bone knife. Compared to my sleek black factory knife, the old hunting blade looked like something I’d fashioned from horseshoes. I left it wrapped in a burlap sack in the barn that night. After I’d milked the cows the next morning, I slipped the knife in with my books.

            After school, I ran to old Pete’s, or Machine Gun Pete, as they called him in his log camp days. Mack down at the feed store liked to tell how Pete was legendary for his ability to clear a bunkhouse after a bowl of Cook’s famous chili. All that notoriety ended for Pete the day a widowmaker snapped off in a gust of wind and pinned his leg. Now he collects Nez Perce stuff and abandoned logging equipment. He loves tools. All kinds. Hoes and rakes and shovels ran all along the backside of his building. Like post-legged cowboys waiting for the dinner bell.

            Sometimes I had an hour or so before Dad could pick me up so I’d shoot over to Old Pete’s and he’d tell me stories of the wannagins and let me fiddle with the chains and harnesses. On rainy days it was hard to squeeze in under the smell of machine grease and mothballs, but Old Pete always welcomed me. Some days he’d share some extra corn bread or sourdough from his lunch.

            Old Pete looked at my knife for a good long while. He turned it over in his hands, humming, taking his time. He rummaged through a drawer crammed with broken pencils, bolts, snuff cans, until he located a smudged monocle. Then he studied it through the wavy glass, copied the initials. All at a maddeningly slow pace. Old man pace. “How’s your dad doin up there? Almanac says this winter’s supposed to be rough. Get lotsa wood in.” Then he limped back to a shelf of what looked like phone books. He began thumbing through them, mumbling to himself and jotting down notes on the back of an old recipe card. To keep myself busy I walked around the store and looked at old pulley blocks.

            Finally he called me to the counter. He looked at me blank-faced for a few minutes before breaking into a back-slapping grin. “This is quite a find young man. If I’m right, your knife was made back East in the early part of last century. Now you’re a smart boy. I’ll give you a minute to think about that while I go get you a case for this thing.”

            I didn’t have to think long. Lewiston was 45 miles downriver and connected by a bridge over the Snake River to Clarkston. As a state we were loyal to the dead men who’d put us on the map, literally, by nearly starving on our land. Every school-aged kid could recite the particulars.

            When Old Pete returned with a beat-up leather knife case, I didn’t wait for him to speak.

             “Lewis and Clark? Really?” I couldn’t wait for him to answer, I was so excited and nervous and my thoughts were jumping ahead of my tongue, then tripping on it, then racing off again before I could pick myself up. “I found this along the river, on Kunkle’s place down near where Whiskey Creek drops in. I thought they stayed on the Weippe Prairie. Besides, these aren’t their initials anyway and how could a knife survive that long in the open, and--”

            “Whoa, cowboy.” Old Pete held up a weathered hand and chuckled. “It’s just a knife son, not the Declaration of Independence.”

            “Come over here. I want you to see something.” He walked me to the back of the room to a dusty bookshelf which held dozens of back issues of Popular Mechanics, The Farmer’s Almanac,  the odd equipment manual. On top of the bookshelf sat a three-volume set of the history of Idaho, with an entire section devoted to Lewis and Clark, an entire chapter devoted to their journals from the Idaho portion of their travels.

            He turned to face the bookshelf and began rearranging porcelain light switches, dime store moccasins, outdated magazines, and soiled cookbooks, finally opening the history book to the expedition.

            “Now if I remember right, you’ll find something pretty interesting about midway. There. Read.” I put my forefinger where he instructed me to and read the words aloud, forcing them into the twentieth century with the flesh of my hand. “Weippe Prairie. ‘Those Indians Stole out of R.F. Shot pouch his knife, wipers, Compas &Steel,which we Could not precure from them.

            “Just because the knife was stolen on the prairie don’t mean it had to stay there. If this is the one we think it is, it’s been taken care of over the years. Can’t have been by that creek very long to be in this good a condition. I’m just glad you had the smarts to bring this to me instead of guttin squirrels with it. Now you get to decide something Jack: What are you going to do with it?”

            After school I showed Nils the knife. Later than night, Dad. Nils begged to see it and asked me over and over all the details. Where did you find it? Which tree? Were there any scalps buried there, any dried blood on the blade? On and on until he exhausted all the possibilities a six-year-old mind fueled by Indian legends and isolation could hold. I found him in our room before bedtime, scraping the hide-side of an old rabbit pelt with the knife and calling out across the empty room “Don’t worry men, I’ll make sure we eat this winter. Has anyone seen Merriwether?”

            Dad was reared in a Norwegian silence. He would save his opinion until the knife had been authenticated. But even then I knew better than to expect anything. He would have been more impressed if I’d found a fishing lure since I went through so many and had to use valuable wire to make my own. He only asked one question; “Where did you find it?” When I told him he just went back to filing the saw blade. Didn’t even nod.

            That night I lay in bed and pondered my future in a way I never had before. For the first time I could see downriver and beyond, to a wider world. A world where people drove paved streets to a grocery where they bought bread and eggs, then back home where they read newspapers and played checkers at night by electric light in warm houses with carpeted floors and flushing toilets.  

             Why didn’t my knife bring on adventure fantasies? Why didn’t I, like Nils, dream of Nez Perce warriors and dead explorers? Instead, I had sliced my way into a modern dream. A world where discomfort wasn’t the line running underneath all the words. A world where farm boys weren’t allowed but a clever student of history might be. 

            I went to sleep on the lip of a new world, but by the end of the next day I had lost my knife, and the slit through which I viewed my rosy, carpeted future had bled and resealed itself.

            Nils never understood he was the one who ruined it all. Who knows, maybe I would have bragged eventually and the same thing would have happened. When Sheriff Sims came to the door that night, I was at the table by the window, trying to make use of the last bits of daylight to copy addresses from reference books I’d borrowed from the town library. The Smithsonian Institution was first on my list.

            Sheriff Simm’s voice returned me firmly to my real world.

            “Evening Knudt. Like to talk to your boy if I could.”

            “Like to know what it’s about,” Dad said. Simms shifted uncomfortably. He held his grey felted hat in one hand and ran the other along the rim and then back again, so that he could have been winding rope. They stood for a minute looking at one another, the silence heavy with apology, belligerence, pride, resignation. I stood behind my father now, wishing I was at the river, or in the barn, anywhere else.

            Judging my father’s silent nod as permission, Simms looked at me and spoke. “Jack? Is it true you found a knife, a pretty old one?”

             “Yes, sir.”

            “And where did you find it, son?”

            I looked at my feet so the men couldn’t see I knew exactly what was coming. I wanted them to think I never thought about the fact that I had been on Kunkle’s place when I found the knife. Then maybe they wouldn’t have the heart to take it away. But everyone knew that Kunkles owned half the mountain. We crossed their land nearly every time we left ours.

            “Just above where Whiskey Creek drops into the river, sir.”

            “Is that on your place?” He looked at my father now, who shook his head. No. “Then it belongs to Kunkle, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t expect to find a hunk a gold in another man’s mine and then claim it for yourself, would you? I know you wouldn’t walk over to Johnson’s place and start sawing down firs. Would you? These were humiliatingly simple questions, like Sunday school for kindergartners, where all the answers are the same: Jesus.

            Jesus, it’s different, I wanted to scream. It wasn’t a tree or gold. It was more like a pheasant or a steelhead. It was just passing through, summering over, maybe. We had unspoken agreements with all our neighbors. There weren’t a lot of roads through the mountains then, and everyone accepted that sometimes the quickest route was across someone else’s piece. It was the way it was up there, the only formal agreement anyone had about anything was a deed. No agreements to hunt or fish, but everyone we knew did. Besides, if it was the knife we thought it to be, it was stolen some thirty miles away on the Weippe prairie. Did it belong to Kunkle any more than the people who farmed the prairie now, or what about the descendants of R. F.?

            But the arguments stayed in my own head. These objections were for other people, people who argued with authority, people who broke laws, people who did not go to church, people who aired grievances in public, people who gave in to displays of emotion. Non-Lutherans. Loggers. Swedes.

            I looked at father. His thin lips were set tight against each other, a habit that would eventually cause them to recede completely into his mouth, leaving only tributaries of disapproval to the north and south. Could everyone else read this map? Or could only a son understand the strict moral code, the rigid sense of “good” those pink swellings represented? It didn’t matter if I was his son. I knew the sheriff would receive the same unquestioning respect we reserved for teachers, even the bad ones, ministers, librarians, and all elected officials. We would give no one reason to doubt or criticize us; those rights were reserved for family.

            That night after everyone was asleep, I snuck out of the house wearing the moccasins Old Pete had given me a few years back.  I retrieved a few tools from the barn before slipping into the forest, where I followed rivers of moonlight to the big oak tree on the ridge just below the house. There, I buried my marbles--the cat eyes, the blue rheumy one and the big shooters, too. If they could take the knife from me, what was to stop them from taking everything? The one thing it seemed certain they could not take was the land.

            I held my own a few days later when Stu Kunkle brought the knife to school and presented it at a special assembly attended by the mayor. Principal Howe skillfully employed the passive when referring to the knife’s recovery, but praised the quick-thinking Stu for recognizing the importance of the artifact for both the town and, indeed, the country.

            A week later, The Clearwater News featured a front-page photo of a beaming Stu and his father. There was an interview with the state historical society director in Boise who hailed the knife an incredible discovery.

            The following spring Stu was again pictured on the front page of the local newspaper. This time, instead of the knife, he held a letter up for the camera. A letter from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. thanking him for his invaluable contribution to the living history of this great nation, a contribution to the understanding of the immigration to and eventual settling of the West, and could he attend a special after-hours tour of the museum as a special thanks? Young Stu and his mother were taking the train that very afternoon.

            That night I slipped out again, this time down to the big elm by the pond, where I buried my fishing pole.

 

Rabbit in the Hat

By Liana Vrajitoru Andreason

 

 “He looks like a fish,” Mrs. Martin said with a wide-mouth laugh. Her dress glittered as it shook around her bones.

Her husband nodded while his small shoulders did the laughing. He motioned with his hand for her to lower her voice. In their small group, everyone held a glass of wine. Mrs. Martin bent over the table to pick up a deviled half-egg.

“Your wife doesn’t seem too fond of Morris,” the tallest man in the group said. “Don’t you and Morris go way back at the museum?”

“Maybe—I think I could be his oldest coworker. I don’t remember. But, you see, my wife has good taste in men.”

“Still, you’re friends, I assume?”

“Well, you do become close after so many years,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s been forty years for him, right? I still have a few left in me.”

“Honey, yes he is your friend. You’re the one who’s never been mean to him, right?” said his wife.

“Never,” he answered. “But he makes himself an easy target.”

“What do you mean?” the corpulent wife of the tall man asked.

Mr. Martin scanned the people around the large room. Small groups just like theirs filled the space with discordant choirs of polite talk. As the wine refilled more and more glasses, the room became less restrained, the murmurs turning into impertinent bursts of unguarded conversation.

Around the escargot and bruschetta table, a group of artists and art promoters had become the loudest.

“But where on earth is Morris!” exclaimed a voluptuous woman pushing middle-age. “His own retirement reception, his own house, and he’s letting us wait?”

“Margie, you know Morris,” said a younger man, touching her elbow. “He keeps people guessing.”

“Yes, Pete, you would know! You always tease him about his size, and he never dignifies you with an answer.”

“He’s just so… petit! I don’t blame women for staying away from him.”

Margie gave out a sharp laugh. She gulped down the rest of her wine and three men reached for the bottle to fill her glass.

“Morris is sweet, I guess,” she said. “Who else would offer his own house for his retirement party? We were the ones supposed to surprise him with a restaurant party, right?”

“His house is impressive,” said Tim Wyatt, the museum’s art liaison. “Just look at the statues in the corners of the room.”

 “Margie,” said a small, balding man, folding his arms to his chest. “Morris isn’t exactly everyone’s father figure at the museum. But I give him this: he’s never held any grudges.”

“Morris does know art,” said an otherwise quiet, gray-haired lady. “His workshops on conservation have been wonderful.”

Everyone looked at her as if she had just offended them.

“I wouldn’t say he has too much appreciation for modern art,” Tim Wyatt said. “He’s more interested in preserving cultural memory than advancing with the times. He despises art as ideology. Never paid attention to politics.”

“Why would he?” said Margie.

“A misanthrope,” Wyatt sniffed. “When I had discussions with him about art, he would say that art is life—but what does he even mean? What is life to him, living away from people like he does? He says the truth in life can only be preserved in art.”

“But he’s gay, right?” the balding man blurted out.

Margie burst out laughing, then stopped herself and looked for something to fan her face with. There was a stunned silence.

“Well,” the balding man said, “he’s never been married. Hey, have you seen my wife?” he added. He left the group, making his way with quick steps among the partiers.

In the group where he found his wife, Tommy Ryman was quiet for a while. Sarah Ryman, a mousy, graying woman, filled a glass for him. She pinched his cheek.

“Tommy! Where have you been, dear? We were just talking about you, and how long you’ve known Morris.”

“Why do you all call him Morris?” asked a sober man dressed like the best man at a wedding.

“That’s his last name, but it’s better than Bill, a large, bearded man explained. “He’d have to be just a tiny bit more masculine to be a Bill.”

 “Morris is more artistic,” explained his equally large wife, who had short, artificially red hair. She looked uncomfortable standing and, leaning on the table; she kept moving it and pulling it back.

“Yes, Sarah Ryman said, ‘Morris’ is pretentious like someone working at a museum for forty years.”

“Pretentious is not the word,” Tommy Ryman said. “When someone’s permanent mood is sarcasm, he better be named Morris.”

“So what is the word then?” insisted his wife, holding him by the waist.

“He’s here!” a nearby voice whispered. The words “He’s here” traveled fast around the room. The choir of rumbling chatter imploded, leaving only small humming murmurs here and there.

Morris came through the door, smiling at everyone, and crossed the room while people made a corridor for him. He was dressed in a white suit, perfectly fitting his small, gracefully framed body.

“You’ve got a rabbit in the hat, Morris?” someone shouted. As Morris grinned, reassured laughter filled the room.

He reached a small podium he had placed at the center of the tables, which he’d arranged concentrically around it. The guests turned toward the podium. He surveyed the room. His eyes, softened by age under the perfectly white, thick hair, were still inscrutable, narrow and scornful. He was not exactly ugly, but his face was long, with disproportionately high cheekbones, while the drawn cheeks were too stretched even with the multiplicity of wrinkles. His lips, once thick, retained their crooked, protrusive exuberance of form that seemed designed by nature to offend. He grinned again, and his teeth, also, were too big. For a man of his small frame, his face appeared bigger than it should have been, which created an effect of drawing all attention to itself, perversely thwarting any attempts to ignore it—and him by extension.

“Let us, as Picasso put it, wash the dust of daily life from our souls,” he started. “Thank you for being here—I know you are here for me and for me only, which is astounding, if I think about it. It is something I’m not sure I wished upon myself, but here we are, with the outline of years subtly stealing the life away from our faces.”

A few murmurs, a few smiles encouraged him to go on. He paused for a moment, his gray, sharp eyes choosing a few people’s faces upon which to linger uncomfortably. He picked an empty glass and poured himself a small amount of white wine.

“Thank God he’s retired?” Morris teased. He lifted the glass. “Of course, I’m joking,” he said, though his smile had something remote and painful in it. “I remember one year we held a special collections tour for a group of Chinese diplomats. There was one child with the group. Who would’ve thought? But it was that child who asked me a simple question: ‘Do you paint, sir?’ It was an extraordinary question because the child was visibly worried that he may not be speaking correctly and that his parents would disapprove, but he asked it anyway.” He looked at the people nearest the podium. “Do you remember—does anyone remember what I answered? Tommy, do you remember?”

Tommy Ryman shook his head, and his wife whispered: “Think, Tommy! Does he paint?”

“You all know that our museum is a display of our cultural life operating at its best, yet no one who works there seems to be concerned about what we, the small people making it happen, what we may aspire to leave to the world, if we have sufficiently become a mix of public and private investment.”

Puzzled faces, puzzled murmurs flared up for a few seconds.

“No, I don’t expect you to remember what I answered to the little Chinese boy, whose concept of art, God knows, must have been an entirely different species than what we nurture here—our successive generations of increasingly abstract, increasingly bold artists, some gimmicky, some of them transcendent souls that I admire. In fact, this gathering today is also a tribute to them, the field dreamers, but also to that Chinese boy who seemed so suddenly concerned with whether I was appropriately fitted for that sacred place where art lives. To be fair, not everyone has talent. Are we to say that those who can’t, organize exhibits? How about you, Miss Tanya,” he asked of a young woman with sparkly eyes. “Do you paint?”

The woman blushed and shook her head. Morris was silent for a while.

 “But let me not bore you anymore with speeches,” he said. “I have only one more thing to say before—well, let’s not anticipate. What I was leading up to with my story is a confession to you all, as we celebrate my retirement. I am not a braggart, which is why I’ve never told anyone about my passion. You may think, why would Morris, a quite boring fellow who works at a museum have secret aspirations as an artist, which he’s never tried to use for his financial benefit or at least for that fleeting tremor of the inflated heart, which we call pride? It isn’t really a surprise to any of you that I keep to myself, and I despise the crowding of the soul that comes with too much exposure. That is why, when I started developing an interest in painting, I didn’t think I would ever show any of my work to anyone. But then I asked myself, if your paintings are life, should you not give back to life what you read of life, within life? The moments that I stole on my canvas, moments of ecstatic self-realization, should they not be returned to those who gave them to me? Which is precisely why I gathered you here, instead of going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, as you might have planned for me.”

            “Come, Morris, say what you’re trying to say,” a few voices whinnied.

            “Art is a gift. When life becomes so concentrated, so rewarding in one single moment that it crosses over into the sublime, something in you wants to give it back. That is why I want you to finally see the art I’ve created. Now, can I bother all of you to follow me? Take your glasses with you—you may need them.”

            With those words, Morris led the gathering through several rooms in his house, to a door that led to a large annex in his back yard—a whole other building, in fact. The first guests to enter gave out small cries of amazement and utter surprise: the annex was a small art museum, elegantly floored with quality wood, its rooms connected by large, doorless frames.

            “Is this a replica of the museum, Morris?” Sarah Ryman said, breathless. “These are museum paintings! You copied them? They’re perfect, Morris!”

            “It is a replica, and it isn’t. I’ve organized the three rooms based on the purpose of the paintings. Yes, the first room is my homage to a place I love, because it taught me that the people I work with are irrelevant, since art is what matters. How else would I have stuck it out working there?”

            “Morris, we’re not that bad, are we?” objected Margie.

            “These are my favorite paintings at the museum. I have meticulously created reproductions of them, and I am quite proud of how close they are to their originals. Here is a Mary Cassat reproduction, although I’ve chosen to paint slightly more light around the human characters, to give more hope to the scene. Here,” he pointed to an orange-filled scene of Civil War soldiers, “is my Trego.”

            After the awe at the first room was exhausted, he showed them the second room, on whose walls he had hung original work—mostly cityscapes with strange, larger than life birds hovering above buildings, humanized animals sitting on benches, large, fully clothed larvae crawling on sidewalks, and other anthropomorphic scenes in whose grim comic only he seemed to revel. Morris grunted and nodded as questions about meaning and symbols filled the room. He abstained from commentary, as wise artists tend to do when confronted with an outpour—genuine or any other variety—of curiosity.

            “Please, let’s all gather in the third room, which is where I hope to reach your souls, one way or another,” Morris said, a sudden burst of light from a large window filling his face and leaving his distorted mouth, his haunted eyes in full display.

            The guests looked at each other and their steps hesitated. By the time the last of them made it into the room, there already were gasps and angry shouts from the first people who had entered. Here, about twenty to thirty paintings adorned the well-lit walls. All of the paintings, without fail, represented women—naked women—an absolute spectacle of mellow shapes and colors. Some were grotesque, yet there was beauty in every single one.

            “Sarah, that’s you!” Tommy Ryman was the first to exclaim what in the end became a refrain of male voices, each recognizing a wife, a lover, or merely a coworker.

             Sarah Ryman’s body was imperfect, with a slightly sagging stomach, yet her hair was not gray in the painting. Her shoulders were smooth and small, and her timid breasts, already in their declining years, were full of life as she tried to hide them with one hand. On her face, Morris had captured the fleeting joy of a moment, which few had ever seen, possibly not even her husband.

            “Sarah, he’s got the birthmark under your right breast right,” said Tommy Ryman, his voice quivering like a small child’s, whose ice cream had fallen to the ground.

            “That’s Mrs. Martin,” someone whispered pointing to the wall. Just then the small, bony woman ran out of the room, followed by her husband. “Would you have thought she had so many bones?”

            “But it’s still beautiful,” someone murmured.

            Right next to Mrs. Martin’s painting was that of the large woman, whose bearded husband was now staring, unable to move or blink, at the flowing shapes of his wife in the frame. The generously padded buttocks rested on a large pillow, and the glowing-orange skin was spotted in places. It was beautiful. That was what the eyes of the remaining guests were saying, many blurred with their bewildered tears.

            “I didn’t pose—I wasn’t posing,” Margie said in front of a painting of the most exquisite, violin-shaped body, passion swelling every inch of flesh.

            To the dwindling audience, Morris lifted his glass, scrutinizing the fallen faces, the free flowing mélange of hurt made manifest either by guilt-like cowering or by useless anger.

            “Thank you for my farewell party, my dear friends. Don’t be ashamed of how you feel right now. Art begins and ends with being moved. After all, wasn’t Paul Cezanne who said, a work of art that didn’t begin in emotion isn’t art at all?” He looked around. His eyes maintained a steel composure. 

            The group scattered, retreated. The shouts of betrayed men exploded again outside the house, mimicking each other, yet each with its own palette of newly discovered disgust.

Morris was left alone in the middle of the last room. He was laughing—and not like someone who had just seen grown people fall on ice. It was as if something inside him had at last reached the world outside, and it really did find the world a funny thing.

 

You Can’t Lose Them All

By Penn Javdan

 

My mother won the staring contest. Winning against my old man as he hobbled off to board a bus without knowing who my mother was when my mother was around. Now my Janelle’s around. I haven’t told Janelle about him because I know what she’s going to say. She’ll say, “Your old man’s crazy.” And I know what I’m going to say. I’ll say, “That’s impossible. They don’t even know what he has yet. They’re still trying to dream up a term for the worm in his head.”

Then my old man checks himself out of the nuthouse. He never asks to stay with Janelle and me. He knows I know he might do something. That’s the thing. The crazy don’t know nobody needs them anymore. Laid off after being fired before being unemployable, my old man knows. So I’ll tell Janelle she’s wrong once I find out where he lives. But I don’t tell her. I find him stacking rocks into figurines on the boardwalk by the lake. I find him sleeping in stairwells. When Janelle finds out I’ve taken him in, I know what she’ll say. She’ll say, “Cole. You’re the oldest babysitter in the world. The oldest babysitter babysitting the oldest baby in the world.”  

For a minute he gets it together. He polishes cars at the car wash. He sleeps on our living room couch. Mornings we’ll sit in the kitchen and I’ll go, “Here old man,” and pour him a cup of Chocomel chocolate milk. Janelle will sit across from him and go, “Please pass the salt,” and he’ll go, “Only if you have some Chocomel with me.” And he’ll look at me and go, “Call me dad.” But old man is the best I can do. So that’s what I keep calling him. Then one night at work, he has a gun stuck in his face, lets two masked men empty the register, is fired by the car wash owner surveying the incident and is barred from every other car wash job as a result of the reported robbery. So now anytime anyone asks him to do anything, my old man’ll go, “What for? Whatever I do people ride me and when people ride me I never get better, so for what? Forget it,” he’ll go, “Forget being good.” And now my old man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even move. He’s morphed into a vegetable. He’s a potato. He’s a carrot. He’s a shred of onion. “I’m telling you,” Janelle goes, “He’s just going to ruin you like he did your mother.” “Janelle,” I go. “It’s going to be different this time.”

My old man goes in again and every time is supposed to be his last. Then I check him out of the wing for the neurologically damned and install him in the passenger seat. “Take me home,” he goes. Janelle’s at home, too. For a month she’s saved up and bought this tangerine sundress. Janelle’s at home, arms crossed, fingers crossed, waiting for my call.

 I pour the Chocomel and float it to the living room. My old man fidgets with the sun dress to sew up a loose thread. He tries to put himself to work. He tries to be useful. “Stop,” Janelle goes. He keeps tugging. He leaps up and knocks the Chocomel out of my hand. It spills into the fibres of the dress. “That’s it,” Janelle goes, “Either him or me.” But I don’t get a chance to decide. She’s cramming her underthings into a carryon and my old man runs down the street in his pale pock marked ass.

They call me from another clinic in another area code and say I should move there. “Your father’s listed you as the only contact,” they go. And I go, “Thanks,” then hang up. I ignore that wound for the next three days. I don’t want to talk. I’m trying not to think about him or Janelle. I’m trying not to think. But I can’t because I can’t decide what to do or how. I think about hauling over to that area code. I don’t know if I should go or I should stay.

Janelle makes me want to stay.

Then my old man dies. His heart couldn’t take it anymore. It refused. It just stopped beating. If he would’ve, I know what he would’ve said. He would’ve said, “I could’ve been me in another life.”

I remember the day we went out with my mother and she wanted him to hold her hand and he held it. You had to see the light in someone’s eyes to trust them and she couldn’t see it in his. If she could’ve, I know what she could’ve said. She could’ve said, “Your father’s given up on himself,” knowing then that she was ready to leave him for good. Knowing what happens when you can’t trust anyone. You’re not safe or strong. You’re not free. You’re just alone.     

***

“Please,” Janelle goes, “I’m sorry.” She cradles a Chocomel carton at my front door. She’s all pathetic and pretty and perfect. I close the door on her and remember why my old man held his wife’s hand anyway which was for her and that’s the only reason why. So that’s what I decide to remember. And this is what I tell myself. I tell myself, this is the real him. This is my dad.

 

Eyes of a Clown

By Patrick Pfister

 

   Changing his face would not be easy.  His nose and cheeks would have to go, his eyebrows could thicken into bushes and his hair might turn flame red or avocado green.  But Mario had no choice.  He could already feel a new face forming. 

He climbed down off his fruit crate and folded up "The Great Zico" sign.  After removing his bulb nose and washing off his greasepaint with baby oil, he stored the fruit crate behind a kiosk.  He stuffed his white gloves, wig and costume into a backpack and pushed through a wedge of tourists.  The muggy night smelled of sweat.  Along the crowded boulevard coins struck tin buckets in front of human statues.  Twenty years ago when he had arrived in Barcelona from Argentina there had been one performer on Las Ramblas, a white-haired geezer murdering Mozart on a splintered violin.  Now, the wondrous promenade had turned into a carnival lane of Gaudi dragons, alien acrobats and geisha girls. 

Mario drank a cognac in a Raval sawdust bar, chatted with the barman and counted coins.  Ten minutes later, he entered his cramped, fourth floor flat near the port and found his wife Silvia bent over the sewing machine, her twisted fingers feeding a cotton dress across the needle plate.

"You're early,"  she said, throwing him a faint kiss.

He circled his long arms into an imaginary basket and manuevered to catch an enormous kiss.  Her nose wrinkled, as if she had caught something too: a whiff of the cognac.  A horn honked down on the street.  He dropped his arms and went to the sewing machine.  She made no move to turn her mouth upward, so he bent and kissed her perspiring forehead.  Three months had passed since the abortion and she still flinched at every affection.  Before the final decision, they had talked about the accidental pregnancy, approaching middle age, financial instability, common sense, overpopulation and Downs Syndrome.  Then they had entered the clinic.  Silvia had come out in tears and obsessed with the idea of going home to Argentina.  Since then their kisses had blown aimlessly through the air or landed on cheeks and foreheads, but never on lips.

"I'm going to change the act,"  Mario said. 

Now she turned her head upward and the overhead bulb gleamed on her damp cheeks.  Her fingers tightened on the dress. 

"It's just not working anymore,"  he said.

"Will you still do Zico while you're figuring it out?" 

She meant, would he still bring home a bit of cash, or were her aching hands destined for more dresses?

He took the coins out of his pocket and dumped them on the table.  They rattled into a flat pile as her gaze moved over them. 

"I've got the birthday party tomorrow,"  he said,  "and the hospital gig on Saturday."  He had wanted to cancel both but now thought better of it.

"What about Las Ramblas at night?"

"I'll have to see how it goes."

She turned back to her work, adjusted the stitch length knob and pressed her right tennis shoe onto the foot pedal.  The machine began to whirr.  As she leaned forward, her black hair fell over the side of her face. 

In the bedroom Mario sat on a straight-backed chair in front of the smoky mirror.  He wiped his clammy face with a hand towel and stared into his own eyes, detached yet alert.  As an adolescent in Buenos Aires, he had apprenticed to Fernando the Fool, who had taught him: "You can't change a character like you change a shirt.  It takes rigor and heed."

Mario focused his attention on his visage.  Thinking about the abortion had caused his facial muscles to contract.  He wiggled his mouth and rolled his head from side to side.  Stiffness began to pass out of his neck and shoulders.  He tried to banish all Zico smiles and frowns, all memory of Zico performances, not only on Las Ramblas, but in malls, parades, schools and office parties.

As he peered and squinted at the mirror, Silvia's tennis shoe tapped on the foot pedal out in the dining room and the machine whirred.  He heard impatience in the tapping and annoyance in the whirring.  He became impatient himself.  If his new character contained a joyous or suffering heart, he could not say.  Nor could he find a name.  The birthday party and hospital event weighed on him.  If he was still doing Zico, he would never discover a new face.

Staring at his reflection, he felt increased unease.  The Great Zico quivered on his features.  His furrowed jowls highlighted Zico gags and pratfalls.  The new character would be neither fool nor stooge nor joker, but the face remained hidden on the far side of the mirror.  Something blocked his view, like a shadow shrouding the glass.  Then, in the darkness, he discovered two black eyes staring back at him.  Despite the stifling heat, he shivered.  The eyes made him feel afraid of his own face.

 

                                                   ****

 

The birthday party brought the Great Zico back full force.  Even bouyed by the elated shouts of children, Mario left the event perplexed and unsettled.  Still, Barcelona's uptown parents had filled his capacious clown pockets with tips, so he decided to risk telling Silvia he was going to cancel the hospital on Saturday.  If he did Zico again, he would bury his new character beneath more shadow. 

When he entered the apartment, Silvia was just turning off the machine.  She reached for the tobacco and rolling papers and rolled a cigarette.  Mario dumped two handfuls of change onto the dining room table.  She looked at the shiny coins and rolled a second cigarette for him.

They went to the open window and leaned out into the humid night.  Silvia lit a cigarette, passed it to him and lit the other for herself.  Four floors beneath them the narrow street was packed and noisy.  Every night they listened to the same sounds: drunken shouts and motorbikes and the laughter of diners departing restaurants they themselves could not afford. 

The neighboring buildings framed a square of sea view, which the statue of Christopher Columbus at the foot of Las Ramblas rose into.  Silvia looked past Columbus to a cluster of ship lights in the harbor.  After a minute Mario sensed her gaze traveling beyond the lights.  He observed the craggy lines across her forehead.  They had appeared after the abortion.  He remembered trying to smooth them out with his forefinger, remembered her whispering, "My god, what have we done?"

Halfway into his cigarette, Mario said:

"I'll need a new costume." 

Silvia's gaze remained faraway and dreamy but her voice sounded worried and on edge.  "You're still doing the hospital, right?"

"I guess so."  Twenty minutes ago he had guessed not.

"We need the money, Mario."  She nudged the ash of her cigarette into an empty beer can.  The hiss seemed to send out a message. 

"What kind of costume?"  she said. 

"Not a traditional whiteface.  That's all I know right now."

"Do you have a name?"

He shook his head.  "It'll come.  I can't get it when I'm still doing Zico.  But maybe you could start saving scraps."

She looked farther beyond the ship lights.  A racket of screeching tires and gunshots came from a neighbor's television.

"I always save scraps,"  she said, handing him the beer can.  "What time is the hospital?"

He stuffed his cigarette into the can.  Same hiss, but no message.  "Noon,"  he said.

The lines across her forehead turned softer.  So did her voice.  "I skyped my brother today."

"Yeah?  How is he?"

"Fine.  The kids are fine.  Everything's fine." 

A pair of seagulls circled Columbus and one landed on his outstretched arm.  Pointing to the New World, Mario thought. 

"So we started yakking about stuff,"  Silvia went on,  "and he said we could stay with him until we were on our feet.  They've got that extra room so it wouldn't be a problem."

Mario looked at her.  "Our feet?  What're you talking about?"

"Maybe it's time to close up the whole act, Mario, not just Zico."

The pulse at Mario's temples began to throb.  "We left to find fresh air.  We're not going back to the same stink."

"It's not a stink.  It's our home."

"Our home is here."

He turned back into the apartment, grabbed his backpack and left for Las Ramblas.  The dank streets teemed, packed bars about to burst.  He walked quickly, weaving his way.  He thought about the hospital event the following morning and cursed out loud. 

An Italian cruise ship had docked in the port that afternoon and well-heeled passengers now swelled the old quarter.  In front of the Liceo Opera House, dozens of tourists pressed around two human statues costumed as Predator and Alien.  The pair made threatening gestures while suntanned Italians posed for photos in front of them. 

Mario pulled his fruit crate out from behind the kiosk but swore again and stuffed it back in place.  He pushed through the throngs to the sawdust bar.  When he entered, the barman poured him a cognac and said:

"You aren't working tonight?"

"Working on a new act,"  Mario answered.

The barman swiped a ratty towel over the counter.  "Remember what they say—if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

"It's broke,"  Mario replied.  "Maybe I am too."

He wasn't sure if he had spoken financially or emotionally or both, but the barman took his own meaning.

"Oh,"  he said.  "Then you better fix it fast."

Mario sipped cognac and inspected his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.  Fernando the Fool had taught him that a new character's face was constructed from within, tailor-made not only to project, but to conceal.  Mario raised his eyebrows and scrutinized the arch.  He searched the mirror for hints of expression, gesture, style.  He grinned ecstatically, scowled tragically.  The barman poured another cognac.

Mario had always preferred the street corner to the circus, but now he considered bringing the circus to the street.  Clean comedy, he thought.  No patter or hokum.  "Silence is the key,"  Fernando the Fool used to say.  "Be mute.  Let your audience make the noise."  Still studying the mirror, Mario thought he saw a downward-turned mouth and a wide-eyed gaze.  Then the same black eyes appeared again, sending a tremor into his depths.  He gulped down the rest of the cognac.

He stored the image of the downward-turned mouth in the back of his mind and carried it home to the bedroom mirror.  Sitting on the straight-backed chair, he struggled to peer deeper into the wide-eyed gaze, down to the depths where the tremor had stirred him.  Meanwhile, out in the living room, the sewing machine whirred and clacked.  Sometimes the combination of the smoky mirror and whirring machine guided him into a trance.  He saw human statues collecting fortunes on Las Ramblas, saw children laughing at the hospital, saw the tiny black eyes.  He went out to the living room.

"I'm about halfway there,"  he said. 

Silvia hit the power switch and the machine fell silent.  "What do you see?" 

"Not a whiteface or Pierrot, so no jump suit, piping or ruffles.  No sequins or rhinestones, nothing like that.  No--"

"You're telling me what it isn't.  I need to know what it is."

He shrugged.  "I see sort of a battered hat.  A sooty beard.  Gloves, I guess, but not white.  They'd be old and worn…without fingers."

"A Tramp?"  Silvia cut in, massaging her own fingers.  "You're going to do a Tramp?"

He stared at her, astonished by his own blindness.  It had been in the mirror behind the shadow. 

"But you've never done a Tramp,"  she said.

The rat-a-tat of a passing motorbike rose from the street.  He fumbled for a reply. 

"Will it be hard?"

"Hard?"  Incredulity raised her voice half an octave.  "You mean for me?  Not at all.  It's just rags and patches, hand-me-downs and discards.  You can use your same comedy shoes—just spray paint them black.  But you don't have any routines, Mario.  You don't have any props or gags."

She meant he didn't have any money or time.  She looked pale.  "Mario, we need to talk."

"About what?"

"You know what."

"Listen, now that I see it, the rest will come fast.  Don't get into a funk."

He walked into the kitchen, feeling the heat of her glare on his shoulder blades.  He snatched a set of colored pencils off the counter.  At the table he began to sketch a face.  When he finished, he pushed the drawing aside and started another.  Ten minutes later he drew a third and carried all three into the bedroom.  He took out his makeup kit, stuffed his hair into a shower cap and toweled sweat off his brow.  He imagined his face as a canvas.  He put on a base coat of clown white and began to apply colors: orange, yellow, blue.  He used Q-tips to outline and erase and then patted a powder puff against the makeup.  Staring into the mirror, he saw pain.  "Tears of laughter,"  Fernando the Fool used to say.  "Smiles of sadness.  They're the foundation of any face."

Mario ignored the whirr of the sewing machine, Silvia's tapping foot.  He tried to forget the hospital gig.  He tossed Zico's red bulb nose aside and painted his own nose ruddy.  Now his Tramp began to manifest.  He was unemployed and unemployable, downcast and downtrodden.  His pockets held a few dirty coins and would never hold more.  His walk was a splayfoot shuffle.  Gullible, sunburned, woebegone, he was wounded at his core. 

The effort to conceptualize so much combined with the cognac and tension left him weary.  He washed off his face and fell into bed.  The sewing machine went on whirring into his dreams.  In one dream, a flying machine sailed past the Christopher Columbus monument; in another, a dynamo opened and closed emergency room doors.  Every hour or so he roused into a kind of half-conscious insomnia.  The oppressive heat had coated his flesh in sweat.  Out in the living room Silvia was still at work.  He called her to bed but his voice sounded like far-off thunder. 

Much later he became aware of Silvia tiptoeing into the bedroom.  He forced his eyes half-open, saw her set something onto the bed and realized she was going to sleep out on the sofa.  An hour later he sat up, drowsy, sweaty, still adrift.  He wiped his eyes.  A pile of clothes sat on the sheet near his right foot.  His new costume.  Silvia had sewn green and purple patches onto an old suit coat and added ridiculously large buttons.  A frayed hankie peeked out of the breast pocket and a rope belt snaked through the loops of stovepipe trousers.  There were red suspenders, rainbow socks and a turquoise bowtie.  A bright plastic tulip stuck out of a battered derby hat.  Now his Tramp had clothes but still lacked a name.

The alarm on the nightstand read 10:17.  He sprang out of bed, stuffed his new costume into his backpack and rummaged through his clown supply box.  He brought out juggler's bean bags, twisting balloons, his makeup kit, an oversized plastic stethoscope and a white lab coat.  On the way through the living room he paused by the sofa where Silvia slept wrapped in an old sheet.  A thin film of sweat covered her eyelids and her parted lips quivered with each expelled breath.  He bent to kiss her but then stopped and went to the dining room table.  On a scrap of paper he drew an arrow pointing to the center of a circle and wrote, "Official Kiss."  He pressed his lips against the circle and stuck the note to the bobbin winder of the sewing machine.

One hour and ten minutes later he stood fully dressed in the pediatric ward of San Juan de Dios hospital.  Cubicle walls had been pushed aside and young patients had been brought from every corner of the hospital.  As a nurse led him around, introducing children, he told himself, I am no longer Zico.  He did a hobo-shuffle between beds and wheelchairs, twisting balloons into poodle, sword and sombrero shapes.  Three semi-bald children from Oncology gaped when he offered the balloons to their teddy bears and dolls.  The nurse introduced Julia, an asthma patient who giggled through her oxygen mask.  There were kids with IV drips, bandages and crutches.  Most wore brightly colored pajamas, as if they had dressed up as clowns themselves.  Mario stumbled and floundered toward the far side of the room, finally arriving at a lone crib.  He hesitated.  He had performed in dozens of hospitals but had never come across anything like this.  He guessed the deformed infant inside the crib was a boy but it looked more like a fetus than a child.  The nurse said his name was Toni, that his mother had been a prostitute and heroin addict, his father an AIDS victim.  Mario noted that the other children kept their distance from the crib, even the nurse shied away.

He twisted a yellow balloon into a tiny giraffe and set it on Toni's pillow.  Toni stared at it, his eyes like two chips of coal.  Mario shivered and headed back across the room past a scattering of nurses, parents and gayly colored plastic toys.  On the way he bumped into beds and tripped over his comedy shoes.  Gleeful shouts and laughter sped him along.

He did a series of clumsy magic tricks, acting more surprised than the kids when his handkerchief disappeared or his magic rope obeyed his commands.  Again and again as he flopped and blundered through routines, he felt the presence of the crib at the far end of the room.  He forced himself to return, forced himself to gaze into the coal-chip eyes.  He summoned every gram of will and talent into his act.  Cavorting and prancing in front of the crib, he invented a new skit for his Tramp and knew Zico was gone. 

He made a final circle of the ward, pressing his giant stethoscope against children's ears and feet.  Afterwards he posed for photos.  Some of the parents gave him tips.  He took a last glance at Toni and left the hospital in tears. 

He stopped at the sawdust bar and drank cognac.  He was too drained to chat with the barman.  The clink of glasses, the hum of voices, the whoosh of the overhead fan lulled him through the afternoon.  He wandered home along the steamy streets.  He felt both saddened and relieved to arrive.  When he pushed the door open, the apartment was dead quiet.  His gaze went to the dining room table.  The sewing machine was gone.  In its place lay his note.  He stood motionless for a long while and finally took off his backpack.  He went into the bedroom.  Staring into the smoky mirror, he christened his new character, Toni the Tramp.

 

Into The Deep

By Diane Rogers

 

If on that day—the last day of swimming lessons—you would have asked the four year old me why I did what I did, I could not then and I cannot now tell you. My actions at the pool that summer afternoon remain an enigma even after all these years. And neither could I explain myself later to the grown-ups who asked me incessantly, “Why? Why? Why?”

Something overtook me. I recall watching my small feet padding across the white-hot cement, deliberately wandering from the safety of my mother’s watchful eye. I walked without stopping. Fixated on a singular endpoint, I conducted my mission as though locked in a tractor beam pulling me toward the mother ship. When I finally reached my destination, I pressed myself between kids who were double and triple my age to secure a place in the growing queue.

To this day I wonder whether I was fully aware of what I was doing. Though knowing my personality, I feel certain I must have been determined to be one of them—the competent, confident kids I had studied all summer long—the daring few who jumped off the high dive. Still, I cannot say precisely what motivated me to go. Whatever it was dwarfed my fear of the water.

When it came to swimming, I felt hopelessly inept—leaden. My strange slapping arms could not carry the lump of my body across even a very short stretch of the pool. Others swam. I sank, gasped, choked and begged for mercy. My teacher was unimpressed with my progress. I’m sure my mother also would have wished for a better result if only to ensure my future survival.

         I really hated those lessons.

At four I knew nothing of confidence, talent or success, yet the will to achieve ran deep in my veins. I wanted to be like those I admired—able to scale the 10-foot ladder and jump fearlessly off the high dive. Some kids tried to push me out of line, telling me I was too little to be there; but I set my stubborn jaw and stood steadfast. Until, of course, I was far enough up the ladder that the people began to appear smaller. All at once I realized that I was punching above my weight.

I longed to back down, to return to the safety of my shallow-end place near my mother where I could just dangle my feet in the water. Holding fast to the scalding hot metal ladder, my eyes desperately searched the crowd for my mother’s face. I couldn’t see her anywhere.

I held my breath, sucked in the fear and tried to back down the ladder, but the kids further down began to jeer. Even at age four, I understood peer pressure. The taunts coming from below were more intimidating than the thought of moving forward. I continued reluctantly upward until the sounds of my pounding heart drowned out the heckling. When the top of my head reached the upper rung of the ladder, my wide blue eyes stared straight down the long, white springboard.

         This was the end of the line.

The two stick legs of the boy in front of me disappeared from view and the girl below me poked my bottom impatiently. “Go-oh-oh,” she snarled in annoyance. I heard a splash before the crowd cheered.

         It was my turn.

Although I desperately wanted to reverse down that shiny silver ladder and skulk away, I edged my hands onto the sides of the platform and pulled myself up robotically. It wasn’t until I was fully upright and inching toward the end of the diving board that I realized the magnitude of my decision. The kids were calling for me to hurry up, but everything slowed to a halt. The plank seemed to go on forever. It wobbled up and down as I tiptoed cautiously toward my fate. With each step, the springiness of the board almost unhinged me. I neared the edge and scanned the horizon for my mother—for any familiar face—one last time. Though I still couldn’t see her, I noticed a number of women pointing up at me.

         That was when I reached the end.

The view from the top was astounding. Suddenly, my mind was alive. I recall that moment with the greatest of clarity even to this day. The pool below appeared much smaller and the blue water sparkled, dancing cheerfully in the afternoon sunlight. The sight was dazzling. The people also looked different, more like moving dolls than humans. To a four year old who could barely swim, hated swimming lessons and was afraid of the water, this change of perspective was heady. But I wasn’t yet sure if I could jump, if I would jump.

I glanced back at where I had come from. The irritated faces of the kids waiting their turn in line stared back at me. Reversing back along the quavering board and down the ladder, not only seemed the less attractive alternative, it appeared virtually impossible. I was more afraid of that angry mob’s reaction than I was of jumping off.

I drank in an enormous gulp of air, a single, life-giving breath that summoned the force of courage. In that instant, my lungs held inside them a power far greater than me. Seconds before I jumped, I grew calm in the awareness of what I must do. Clarity, I’ve since learned, shifts everything.

With eyes wide open I moved my right foot forward and willed myself to step off, entrusting my whole being to the air. It never occurred to me that I could fail or that gravity wouldn’t take its course. The free-fall presented an entirely new feeling of exhilaration and the moment I submerged into the water was a sublimely victorious experience. The vastness of the deep water embraced and empowered my reed-thin body. Electrified, I soared gracefully to the surface. Without faltering, I instinctively knew what to do. I stretched out, slicing my arms through the water. Momentarily without teacher, peer or parent, I languished in those few triumphant moments in the deep end of the pool. Me. Alone. Achieving what no one expected, what even I did not conceive I could do.

         I swam.

As I neared the side of the pool, a commotion grew. People were on their feet and at least a dozen outstretched hands were waiting to pull me to safety. My mother’s familiar face emerged at last out of the crowd. Wrapping a towel around me as the strong arms of surprised strangers guided me to the side, my relieved mother just shook her head.

         What else could she do?

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the vantage point from the end of that high dive completely altered my perspective of the water. Above the pool, above the people, I didn’t feel fear-less necessarily, but I did, for the first time, experience a sense of being in control of my own decisions. In that moment I lost my smallness and felt what it was to be big—giant, in fact.

At age four I didn’t know about such things as destiny, or that my future would include many monumental springboards, or that I would hurl myself into the unknown so often I practically took up residency there. Eventually I would learn to fiercely occupy that liminal space between the free fall and the jubilant surfacing in the deep end. I would change and change and change again.

I was certainly not the first four year old in the world to terrify her mother by slipping away and engaging in a random act of risk-taking. My mother was perhaps the least surprised of everyone at the pool. Only a year earlier I attempted to invent my own circus act by standing on the handlebars of my tricycle trying to do what I had seen the ladies who rode the horses at the circus do. Because three-year-old children are clueless about gravity, I lost my two front teeth that day.

Call them what you will—turning points, crossroads, personal crises, dark nights of the soul or simply life’s deviations. We all come to unexpected intersections that funnel us down the path of choosing between two options. Before you lies a choice with far reaching consequences and unfathomable long-term effects. Behind you is your familiar story, your entrenched pattern—the devil you know. Nonetheless, with one foot already committed to the air and the other wishing it could turn back, you step quietly into the void hoping against hope that your wings will unfold.

Life, like all good stories, begins at the point of departure. For me, that brazen step into the deep end was the first of many.

 

 

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