"At some point, in writing about flash fiction, I wrote that flash is for the fearless."--Randall Brown
Incident in a Meadow
Lester poked my arm. "Look at that spider," he half whispered.
The web hung between two saplings, its strands still showing tiny drops of dew in the early morning air.
Our fishing plans momentarily set aside, we stared together at the fattest spider I had ever seen, its spherical abdomen large as a big grape, its fanged cephalothorax hardly noticeable by comparison. The sources of the spider's plumpness littered the grass beneath the web--a collection of shrouded fly and grasshopper corpses the spider had sucked dry.
"Dare you to touch it," said Lester.
"What, and get bit? Not me."
I winced as he reached out toward the web. The spider did not move until too late. He grasped the round abdomen lightly but firmly and plucked the spider from the web. Its obesity limited its movements, and its eight legs waved helplessly in the air.
"Now for a little fun," he said, and as I watched he used the forefinger of his free hand to bend the spider until its tiny fangs touched its abdomen--and closed in a sort of involuntary seppuku. Brown liquid gushed from the abdomen, and it shrank visibly. Lester set the mortally wounded arachnid among the skeletons of its victims and laughed as it struggled to crawl. "Spiders are so stupid," he observed.
Just before we left the web, I noticed an egg case at one edge, fastened to a twig. Baby spiders would soon be hatching and fending for themselves. I knew nothing about the role of mother spiders of this species, but I knew that some mother spiders--notably wolf spiders--carried their babies around with them after they hatched.
We walked on and tried our luck fishing in a narrow channel of the Fox River, but we caught nothing. I found it hard to talk with Lester as we fished, as we stowed our gear, and as we walked home.
That was the last time I went anywhere with my former friend.
A Useless Belated Apology
Dear Fellow Runner,
I am so terribly sorry for what I did to you yesterday in the last few miles of the White Rock Marathon. I hope your injury is not permanent. I hope you will eventually forgive me, though the blow I dealt you was in some sense a deliberate and cruel response to your innocent inquiry.
I wish there were some way I could actually convey this apology to you, but I do not have your name, your address, your telephone number, or any other means to identify you as my victim. Had I noticed the number you were wearing, I might have consulted the booklet of race results, but at the time I had no interest in such matters. I cared less about you than about a small irregularity in the pavement beneath my feet.
We had both run over twenty miles at that point. I might try to plead exhaustion, but that would be a lie. For months now I have been running at least ninety-five miles per week, and I am in superb physical condition. I was probably less exhausted than you, and there is no point in trying to excuse myself on so spurious a ground. No, I am entirely to blame, and I make no excuse.
I have heard it said that a marathon race exposes the truth about a participant. One cannot fake the ability to run 26.2 miles at a single stretch. A person who has not prepared honestly will finally have to walk or quit. This is a truth about the body. There are, however, other truths that may emerge. A person may, during such exertion, drop all social niceties and speak his mind, disregarding the feelings of his hearer.
That, to your misfortune, is what I did.
When you asked me, "How are you doing?" I responded with absolute honesty.
I said, "Not so well. My son was killed in a car wreck yesterday."
You dropped back then, and I'm sure what I said was the reason. You dropped back so far that even though we had both run much of the race, I probably finished half a mile ahead of you--if you finished at all.
That was four months ago. Only yesterday, still living in the fog of grief, I began to feel guilty about what I said to you.
Maybe this poem I wrote will some day be published. Maybe you read poetry. Maybe you'll see it and realize that it was written by the black-clad runner who said the unforgivable true thing to you that morning on the crowded street in Dallas, Texas. It's the only way I can communicate with you--a chance, perhaps, in a hundred million, like the lottery.
Putting It Off
When it happened I was peaked, ready for running
My best race of five, and I couldn't stop.
When it happened, I was on the last nine miles
Before my marathon, ready
For a thirty hour rest and a race
To beat my personal best, and he was driving
To the lake with friends to carouse,
As scornful of my ways as I was scared of his, driving fast
Into a low bridge and a dry creek bed, the car
Tearing against concrete, turning over, tossing him out
And landing on him.
When I learned he was gone I went on running.
Sixteen he was, almost ready
To be a man, serious, reserved, ready to run
With other men for the trophies
He never would see, and I,
Peaked, hard, tearless for a little longer, ran.
I beat my best time in my big race, my marathon,
Drank the free beer, drenching the chair with sweat,
And started to mourn my son.
That's the context. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, you will perhaps be helping both of us in the coming years.
Living in the Great Depression
"Charlie, come! Hurry!" came the peremptory croaking voice.
Charlie, lean and fit at fifty eight, bounded up the stairs toward his mother's room, passing the chair lift by the rail, wondering if it would ever be used again.
At the door he said, "What is it, Mom?"
"There's a dead rat there." Propped on pillows almost to a sitting position, she pointed a knobby finger at the corner by the window. The full-time private duty nurse, wearing 1930s street clothes, shook her head sadly as he entered.
He looked, dutifully. A pair of gray wool socks lay on the carpet.
"What would you like me to do about it, Mom?"
"Cook it, of course. We can't waste meat, with this depression going on. I don't want Patricia to have to do it."
"Of course." Charlie picked up the socks, left, and placed them in the dry cleaning bag in the closet of one of the upstairs bathrooms. They were his, placed deliberately in the corner while his mother slept to give her something to misinterpret. She needed stimulation to keep her from fantasizing too freely. He had not been sure what she would make of the socks, but he thought they would focus her mind on something more concrete than the vague horrors that would otherwise overwhelm her.
He passed by her room and saw that she slept. A little peace. Good. Sandra, the nurse, could relax a little from the feeding, the cleaning up, the strange conversations, and the impersonation of Patricia, Charlie's long deceased, much older sister, whose presence his mother had demanded with such emphasis. Charlie had been quite willing to work with the agency to find someone with both nursing and acting ability, and to provide clothing suitable to the time in which his mother believed herself to be living. Thank goodness money was no problem. He did not want his ninety-nine year old mother to have to go to a nursing home, no matter how well funded and competently staffed.
Downstairs, Charlie wandered about until he came to his huge kitchen. Cooking a rat, he thought. Had the family really been that desperate in the 1930s? He knew that his father had been out of work for nearly ten years, that his mother had taken in laundry for many wealthier families, that Patricia had perished in her twenties not long after suffering from exposure to severe cold while delivering newspapers on foot.
Now here he was with a Bentley and a Mercedes in the garage, a fifteen acre lot, a 6400 square foot house, two tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, and a two engine private plane, and none of this would suffice to bring his mother out of the Great Depression.
His heart ached with love for the frail caricature of a strong woman on the bed upstairs.
Then Sandra appeared at his side, her face somber.
"What is it, Sandra? Is she awake? Does she need me?"
"What is it then?"
"You should come upstairs, Sir, after I clean up. Your mother has died."
It felt as if a sledge hammer had struck him in the chest. But all he said, in a choked whisper, was, "What do you need to clean up?"
"Your mother, Sir. And the bed. There was an involuntary bowel movement, not fully contained by the diaper. It's common in these cases."
"Let me help."
"Not necessary, Sir."
As he trudged up the stairs, hot tears coursing down his cheeks, he felt the weight of the Great Depression begin to shift from his mother to himself, and he imagined an army of rats gnawing at the foundation of his house.
Washington, DC, 2020
"Oh, come on! You know I didn't mean it like that ..."
"I don't care how you meant it, Sir. You said it, and now it's part of the public record. It went out to millions of viewers as you spoke, and it can't be taken back now."
"But I thought I was off mike."
"Sir, when you're out in public you are never off mike--not with everyone's cell phones recording your every word and gesture--oh, no, here you are on YouTube already. This is going viral within the hour, or I'm totally clueless."
"But what can we do?"
"I don't know. You have managed, in just a few sentences, to anger the unions, the charities, the Israelis, the Arabs, the entire entertainment industry, the military, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the entire Supreme Court, and every governor in the US. No, not just to anger--to enrage. The news I'm getting already is building to a crescendo so fast that I think your impeachment and conviction is inevitable."
The White House Chief of Staff pulled an envelope from his left inside coat pocket.
"Here, Sir. I dislike having to do this, but this is my letter of resignation. If you do not accept it, I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, your authority in personnel matters no longer applies. Good bye, Sir, and good luck."
The tall grey haired man in the Oval Office was, for the moment, alone. His phones were mercifully silent. He sat down at his desk and took a pen and a single sheet of paper from a drawer and began to write. It was years since he had written poetry, yet the words flowed onto the paper in the form of an English sonnet:
As iron-gray skies now veil the land in woe,
As helpless birds now sing for want of tears,
As all in unrequited love still go
On living, so must I face the bleak years.
One hapless moment brings on certain doom
Too often in a world so full of sin
And now my thoughtless words will ever loom
Before me, hurting me and all my kin.
I am to blame, and I must pay the price
For what I can't unsay or well explain,
And no one's love, respect, or kind advice
Can cancel or ameliorate this pain.
One minute's words, ill-chosen in this place
Have brought me where I fear to show my face.
He read the sonnet over, counted syllables until he was satisfied, and put the page and pen back into the drawer. Somehow, he felt better. He drew a deep breath, rose, and moved to the door where he would begin to face his inevitable public.
Incident in a Schoolyard
As I watched from a great distance I saw a ring of children in a schoolyard, their arms rising to zenith and coming down hard. I realized they were throwing stones. I counted eight boys and three girls. They appeared happy, or perhaps merely lustful, as they threw and threw.
I moved closer so that I could see more clearly what they were stoning, but then I drew back a little as a solitary child ran toward the group and squeezed himself in between a boy and a girl. I thought for a moment that he was going to join in the stoning, but then I realized that though he was with them he was not of them. He moved right into the center of the circle and knelt down, and I moved right up to the schoolyard fence, perhaps twenty feet from the circle, and watched.
In a sort of inertial response, the children threw a few more stones, hitting the child, but he did not flinch from the blows, and they all moved off to swings and slides and seesaws, having clearly lost interest in their sport.
He remained and picked up the object of the stoning. Tears streamed down his face. I moved right through the fence as though it did not exist, walked up to him and knelt by his side. What he had picked up was a small harmless reptile--a garter snake, its striped back marred by many bleeding patches where the sharp stones had struck it. Its head was moving back and forth, its tail was twitching feebly, but clearly it was dying.
I said to the little boy, "It's no use. You can't save it."
He seemed not to hear me, but kept sobbing as if his heart were broken. He looked to be about seven years old, but his tear-filled eyes looked older--looked as though they had known more sorrow than a seven year old child should have to bear.
He spoke to the little animal then as I laid a clumsy hand on his shoulder and tried to comfort him with clumsy words, which he ignored completely. As the snake's movements grew feebler, he said, "They didn't understand. They're cruel because they're stupid. I hate them. Please die soon. I have to go back to class in a few minutes." He did not acknowledge my presence. Perhaps he was too wrapped up in his private emotions to have any perception of the outside world, but I kept on trying to comfort him.
Finally the snake stopped moving. The boy used his hands to dig a hole in the ground, dirtying his fingers and even cutting a couple of them, When the hole was about six inches deep, he placed the dead snake in it and scooped dirt and gravel over it. He did not attempt to mark the spot but pressed down on it until it was nearly invisible. "Good-bye," he said. "I hope you're in a better place now."
He continued to ignore me as though i did not exist, and I understood that for him I could not, in fact, exist. I moved off through the fence and far beyond it, separated from that schoolyard by a distance of more than sixty years. I was shedding tears of my own now. It isn't always pleasant to look at the child I once was, especially when I'm observing one of the events that have kept me forever separated from my fellow human beings, distrustful, socially inept, always a little afraid that once again they will encircle me, and this time they will stone me to death.
Valentine's Day with the Shorts
Why I had come to Jimmy Short's house, I don't know, but there I was with my hulking, leather-clad classmate, who seemed to like my company, temporarily. I don't think he had any actual friends,
Perhaps I was merely wishing to postpone my arrival at my own house five blocks away. Multiple annoyances waited for me there. I would have to walk Banana, the yellow Lab. I would have to listen while my younger brother Harold (Motormouth) gabbled on happily about his classes or the girl he'd begun talking to or his chances of getting on the track squad in the spring. Whatever he did or thought, the whole world had to know.
Finally, I would have to endure my parents' inevitable Valentine's day sentimentality, reminding me yet again that I had the nerdiest family on the block, complete with mushy cards and flowers and even a large collection of sappy love songs playing on a device my father still referred to as a "ghetto blaster."
"Hey, you want a watch?" Jimmy asked as we approached his front door.
"A watch?" I asked, wondering if his family was into big V-day gifts. No--not possible, surely.
"Yeah, I found it in the crapper. Some idiot just left it there. I got a dozen. Here."
And he showed me a handsome Citizen watch, easily worth a hundred fifty dollars.
I had a watch, which I seldom wore, since my smart phone told me the time whenever I wanted it. Still, I held out my hand, thinking I'd turn it in to Lost and Found tomorrow, an action Jimmy would never consider. Clearly, he was a taker. I wondered whether he'd actually found the watch or stolen it, but I didn't even consider questioning him. Not only was he six inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than I was, but there were rumors that he had recently beaten another guy so badly he had to be hospitalized.
Once inside, I could see that no silly celebrations would mark my visit. We walked straight to Jimmy's room. He spoke to no one and no one spoke to him.
In the room, which turned out to be the biggest bedroom in the house, what I noticed were a narrow unmade bed, a set of heavy free weights, an electric guitar and an elaborate drum set. He went straight to his drums, sat down on the red swivel stool, grabbed his drumsticks, and launched into such a deafening, hostile-sounding drum solo as might be used to soften up a suspected terrorist for interrogation. His rhythms were off, but he didn't seem to care, merely pounding away at quadruple forte for fifteen minutes, according to the watch he had given me.
When he finally stopped, breathing hard, there was a timid knock at his door.
Jimmy scowled and shouted, "Yeah? What the hell do you want? Open the damn door!"
A thin graying man opened the door halfway without entering. "Uh, Jimmy, your mother--"
"What about her?"
The man cringed visibly. "She wonders what you'd like for supper."
"Tell her fix whatever the hell she wants, and give me forty bucks. I'm going out. Hey, don't come in here. Just throw it down and get out. Close the door."
I could not believe what I was seeing. With trembling hands, the thin man drew two twenties from his wallet, dropped them on the carpet, and closed the door.
Jimmy picked up the twenties, then sat on his bed and uttered a string of obscenities I do not care to record about his stupid annoying parents and his idiot younger brother. He concluded, "I have to knock them all around sometimes just to remind them who's boss around here. I tell you, if they keep pissing me off, I'm going to burn this place with them in it."
I did not feel free to express my own opinions, and after listening politely to his ranting for another twenty long minutes, I made my excuses, claiming I had a bear of a math test tomorrow that I had to pass or else probably fail trigonometry. It was a lie, of course. My grades were golden, especially trig. But I had to get out. As I exited that house, I felt as though I were escaping a natural or perhaps unnatural disaster.
At my own front door, covered with bright red hearts, I could hear the sound of Shirley Jones singing the old Music Man song "Goodnight, My Someone," which my father always claimed was the greatest love song ever written. I informed him years ago that the tune was the same as the old march "Seventy-six Trombones," just done more slowly. "Makes no difference," he told me. "It still brings tears to my eyes and makes me go kiss your mother every time I hear it."
As soon as I was inside, Banana thrust her warm muzzle into my hand. I rook her leash from its hook in the coat closet, fastened it, and called out that I'd be back soon. Yes, back to my sappy parents. And my brother. And to our traditional Valentine's Day dinner. I breathed a silent prayer of thanks as a rush of warmth flooded my whole being. "True love can be whispered from heart to heart," sang Shirley Jones. Or shouted, I thought as Banana and I set out on our joyful afternoon walk.
People often stare at me briefly and then look away. I hate it when they do that, but I understand. In their place I'd do the same. What else can they do when I'm so thin my knees are twice the diameter of my thighs, and my skull-like face makes children hide when they see me coming?
I don't want to be this way. And there's no physical or common psychological reason why I should. I suffer from no wasting disease, and all my systems, so far, are fully functional, though I must admit my sex drive has disappeared along with my other appetites. I'm not exactly anorexic in the common way; I don't imagine I'm too fat, nor do I look in the mirror and see an overweight person. Actually I try to avoid mirrors. I frighten myself when I catch a glimpse of my cadaverous physiognomy. I really hate the saying "You can't be too rich or too thin." Whoever thought that one up wasn't really thinking at all.
I haven't always been like this. I used to be presentable enough, with normal appetite and a slight bulge at the waist. I tipped the scale at a hundred eighty pounds, which is close to normal for my slightly over six foot frame. I wore a size sixteen collar, and I often thought I might do well to lose a few pounds to improve my tennis game.
My problem was the way my cat Felicia died.
Felicia was a beautiful little white-footed grey tabby, three years old and perhaps six pounds. She would sit on my lap for hours at a time, purring loud enough that everyone in the room heard her. She followed me everywhere, and I had to be careful where I stepped, lest I tread on her paw or her tail. My wife Cynthia sometimes referred to her as my detachable appendage, though Felicia sometimes sat on her lap as well--but only when I was not in the house. Both my son and my daughter enjoyed playing "chase the string" with Felicia, and she would happily oblige. She would also fetch a little ball if any of us rolled it across the room when she was present. We would joke that we didn't need a dog because Felicia played the dog role for us
Once Felicia saved our house and perhaps our lives. It was one in the morning, and we were all asleep. An electrical outlet in the kitchen, damaged perhaps by insects, caught fire and ignited the window curtains over the sink. Felicia began meowing so loudly that I woke up and rushed to the kitchen where she was pacing about, watching the blaze, and crying at the top of her lungs. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the pantry and got the fire out before it damaged anything beyond a little patch of ceiling.
I have never felt as attached to any animal as I felt with Felicia. If ever a perfect cat lived, Felicia was it.
That all came to an end on a Friday evening eight months ago.
Cynthia's younger brother Eric came to visit. Unlike Cynthia, who is small, slim, and startlingly attractive at forty-two, Eric at thirty-six is tall, morbidly obese, and as unprepossessing a person as I know--slovenly of habit, malodorous and sullen. He had arrived unannounced, seeking to "borrow" money for a down payment on a used Chevrolet convertible he wanted. Although his five year old Toyota sedan was perfectly serviceable, he claimed it bored him. Cynthia and I had previously tried to explain that getting another car, possibly a less reliable one, was hardly reasonable, since he had recently been fired from his job at a fast-food restaurant and was living with his parents. But he was insisting. We had been talking to him by telephone and exchanging e-mails up to now. i suppose he thought a visit would help change our minds, so he'd driven the two hundred miles from Lincoln to Evanston to press his point.
He stomped into the living room and plopped himself down on the sofa. From under his fat rump came a muffled scream.
Felicia had one bad habit. She would burrow down between the sofa cushions and the rigid backrest, and we always had to check the sofa before sitting to make sure she was not concealed there. Eric was unaware of her habit. When Felicia screamed, he exclaimed, "What the hell?" and not only did not rise but merely shifted his 350 pound bulk a little on the seat. The screaming stopped. When I finally got him to stand, curses in my mouth and a hot rage engulfing my whole body, it was too late. I shoved him so hard that he fell, breaking the coffee table. I ignored him and retrieved the limp little body.
He rose unhurt, and what he said next made him forever unwelcome in our house: "Goddamn stupid animal. It deserved what it got, hiding like that."
"Eric," I said, "If you want to stay healthy, you'd best get your fat ass out of this house. NOW!"
He saw that I meant it, and he left, muttering unintelligible sounds, I buried Felicia in the back yard, weeping uncontrollably.
Since that day, I've had to force myself to eat. If I take more than a few reluctant bites, I vomit. I'm seeing a counselor almost every day, a highly empathetic woman specializing in eating disorders. She's starting to help me. This morning I ate almost an entire hard boiled egg and kept it down. But I really, really hated the taste, and I haven't eaten anything at all in the past six hours. Eventually, I suppose, I'll get back to normal. It might help if Eric would hang himself. But he'd probably break the rope if he tried.
Young and Old Together
My father and my son had their heads close together as they examined some old photographs. I watched in speechless rapture as they softly chuckled at the comic pose of a distant relative I had met once or twice more than thirty years ago.
"You see," said my father, "Henry could never take anything seriously--not even his own life. When he married, he made such a joke out of the ceremony that his bride's family--I think she was one of the Harmons--were all mightily offended. But he was so generous and kind to them that they soon got over it. Never really approved of his flippancy about what they thought were serious matters, such as his new brother-in-law Sammy flunking out of the University of Illinois, but they finally accepted him--especially when he helped find Sammy a job at a good salary."
"When can I meet him?" my son asked. It was unlike Jake to be so eager to meet distant relatives ever since he had a couple of unpleasant exchanges with a great aunt who disapproved of everything he cared about--his music, his hair style, his clothes, his ambitions. He'd tried to win her over by pretending to admire some of the books on her shelf, but she was immovable. Actually, she disliked all young people, and I told him so. But the word "relatives" took on a negative meaning for him, and I was glad to see he was growing more outgoing.
"Soon," said my father. But there are a couple of others you might want to meet too, and maybe we can meet all three of them together."
"Excellent, Pop," said Jake, and my heart glowed with pride and happiness. I must have done something right to have my father and my son so happily engaging with the extended family this way--my eighty year old father, who today looked more like forty-five, and my sixteen year old son, who seemed mature far beyond his years. My father's hair looked darker than usual, and I wondered if he had started dyeing it, My son's soft features appeared to have grown firmer overnight.
But it was getting close to suppertime. My wife had asked me to find them and let them know. I drew close to them and said, "Hey, guys, I don't mean to interrupt the two of you, but I think Louise has fixed something special for supper . . ."
They took no notice of me. It was as though I did not exist. They looked at a few more pictures and then strolled off, arm in arm. My father, whose joints had been so stiff and sore from arthritis that he could barely walk, was suddenly straight and tall again, walking easily.
I noticed that we were all in a completely unfamiliar environment--a park of some sort, with many people of all ages sauntering about, communing closely with each other in groups of two, three, and four. How had I come here, and why did they ignore me? And why was there no snow on the ground? It was early February in northern Illinois. Yesterday I had driven slowly to work on streets covered with snow, and on those same streets I had come home again in even heavier snow, with the temperature far below freezing.
That evening my father offered to help Jake with his winter driving. Though Jake had taken his driver education course at school, he confessed that he didn't feel secure in this situation and was reluctant to get behind the wheel. My father, long a professional chauffeur and only recently retired from driving tour buses all over the Chicago area, offered to give Jake some on the road instruction, as he had done for me many years before. Jake accepted eagerly, and I was grateful that he would be instructed by the best driver I knew.
Wait--that wasn't yesterday evening. It was a week ago. I remember looking at the calendar as they drove off in my father's Chevrolet sedan, and it was still January.
And it all came back in a flood of memory. The railroad tracks, The train. The speculations about why they had not got out of the car quickly enough. The strange double funeral. The closed caskets. The crowd of old and young at the church. The endless expressions of sympathy. The faces of people I had long known as friends and neighbors, suddenly strangers whose names I had to ask.
I woke, sweating heavily, and like poor benighted Caliban, I cried to dream again.
A New Year Omelet
"I smell a powerful odor of mendacity in this room," said Burt in his best Big Daddy imitation, looking back meaningfully at Katherine, who winced a little.
Larry ventured an older line: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"It's not hard to make a lot of money if all you want to do is make a lot of money." George.
"That's the thing about the world--it's all one big toilet." This from a much younger resident Katherine did not know.
"I am Oz, the gweat and tewwible," Donald. Again Katherine winced. She should not have read that Stephen King novel.
None of the men seemed to be paying attention to anything anyone else said, yet all were reciting remembered or partly remembered lines from movies. All five of them faced the large window of the recreation room, their wheelchairs lined up with almost military neatness. Katherine watched, listened, and shook her head.
Lunch was over, the dishes cleared, and several residents were dozing. A faint odor of urine reached her nose, but nothing fouler. Thank goodness she didn't work here, she thought, holding her Aunt Mabel's limp hand with which she could no longer lift a forkful of the pumpkin pie that was today's dessert to her lips.
She glanced at her watch. Almost time to go. Surveying the room with its holidays' decorations , Merry Christmas and Happy New Year vying for space among the paper ornaments on the walls and the smiles of the pictured staff, she was glad Aunt Mabel had been able to afford this excellent facility, now that she could no longer care for herself.
Aunt Mabel, who had remained almost silent all through Katherine's visit, finally spoke, hesitantly: "Kat. You come here. A lot."
"Of course, Aunt Mabel. I love you."
"Powerful odor of mendacity," growled Burt .
Katherine ignored the surly old man.
"Kat. You're one . . .of my two living relatives."
"Not really, Aunt Mabel. I've been afraid to tell you this, but--there was an accident. Gene was killed by a hit-and-run driver two nights ago."
Tears formed in Mabel's eyes and rolled down her cheeks. "My . . .only . . . son." she said, great sobs racking her frail ninety year old frame. Suddenly she reached for her throat. Her breathing had stopped.
Katherine hesitated a moment before rushing to the nurse's station to report the situation. A crash cart and two nurses were at Mabel's side in half a minute. The old woman's face was turning blue.
Soon an airway had been opened, and Mabel's color was returning to normal.
A nurse practitioner she didn't know told Katherine, "That wasn't as bad as it might have been. We didn't have to do a tracheotomy."
"I'm so glad," said Katherine.
As she left the facility, Katherine took a complimentary chocolate from the box in the lobby. She wasn't happy about having to pay that hit man to force her cousin's car off the road and into the concrete barrier, but to make an omelet you had to break a few eggs. It wouldn't be too long now, she was sure.
Heading for her car, she thought she heard Burt bellow once more, "Mendacity!"
A Paltry Thing
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress . . . .
--Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"
"Grampa, how old are you?"
"That sounds really old, Grampa."
Holly was four. Though it was well past breakfast time, both of them were sitting at the kitchen table. Joe was looking over the morning paper while Holly drew pictures in a blank notebook. One picture, he noticed, was an attempt to depict Santa in his sleigh, pulled by eight very tiny reindeer. Christmas was three weeks away, yet it seemed to Joe that he had only recently been removing the decorations from the previous Christmas.
"You know, I don't really feel old, Holly."
"How does old feel?"
Joe hesitated. Too much information could be a mistake. He decided to keep it short and safe.
"I guess you just start slowing down."
"You mean like when you're in the car and you see a red light?"
"Something like that. You walk slower. You even talk slower and think slower."
"Oh." Holly went silent for a while. Joe worked on a crossword puzzle, noticing that such puzzles took longer to finish than they used to. Were they getting harder?
The puzzle finished, he stood. Holly had left the table, he noticed. Probably she was now in the basement, where Mary would be doing laundry. After forty-seven years of marriage, both of them had settled into comfortable routines, and taking care of the grandchildren from time to time seemed to be no burden. He could not remember exactly why Holly was here today, but her presence pleased him. He thought about going down to the basement, but the stairs hurt his feet a little, and he decided to sit on the enclosed front porch instead and read.
From his little library he selected a children's book he had read many times--The Hobbit. In another two or three years Holly would be ready to hear this one, and he thought he might refresh his memory of Bilbo Baggins' adventure so he could provide an enticing preview for Holly and the two other grandchildren old enough to appreciate Tolkien's tale.
He handled the paperback carefully, trying not to crack the fragile spine or cause pages to fall out. He chuckled aloud as he read the dwarves' amusing disruptive song on page twenty-five:
Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates--
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
But he stopped reading when Mary spoke to him from the door. "Joe, could you please come down to the basement and entertain Holly? She's starting to get into your tools, and I don't want her to get hurt."
"Of course. Do you think she'd like me to read to her?"
Mary saw what he was reading. "Maybe, but not that. She's too young."
"Oh, I agree. I was reading it for myself. What would you suggest?"
"Maybe one of the Fancy Nancy stories."
"Where's that? Never heard of it."
"It's in the basement. She'll get it for you. Maybe you didn't notice, but I bought her a whole Fancy Nancy outfit for Christmas. You drove me to the store and were with me when I bought it."
"Funny, I don't remember. But I'm happy to read to her." He put Bilbo and the dwarves aside and stood up, steadying himself on the chair arm, and ambled toward the basement door. His hand tight on the banister, he started to descend the stairs but stopped halfway down. His left foot hurt like the devil, but he knew it would be all right in a moment. A line from Yeats came into his head: "An aged man is but a paltry thing." Yes, he thought, and I'm slouching toward nonentity.
His foot stopped hurting, and he prepared to start down again.
But suddenly the expectation of getting fragile and feeble overwhelmed him. Tears formed in his eyes. Holding the banister with his left hand, he wiped his eyes with his right. Holly waited below, a book already in her hands, its bright cover depicting a garishly dressed girl. He smiled.
"Hi, Grampa," she said. "Can you read this to me?"
"Of course, Princess," he said. A wave of pure love overwhelmed him then, and he had to wipe away yet a few more tears before he descended the rest of the stairs, his soul singing just as "Joy to the World" began to play on Mary's radio.
The training was scary.
In a twenty by ten yard pool at the YMCA, a bunch of us would-be guards were put through every sort of emergency drill to get us ready to rescue people in panic at the prospect of drowning. We learned that they might hurt us, since to them we would be nothing but strange bodies.
We took turns being victims and rescuers. When we were victims, we tried to simulate panic, but we were careful not to hurt our rescuers.
Unfortunately, Terry, the biggest at six feet five and by far the strongest member of the class, got too deeply into his role when he became the designated victim. An emotional guy, he convinced himself that he really was drowning--and he nearly did drown. He started hitting out in every direction and kicking violently at anyone who tried to approach underwater.
You see, the normal method of getting control of a panicked victim was to go underneath, grab his ankles and push up so his head was out of the water. Then we climbed up, supporting him the whole time, until we could get him in a cross-chest carry and swim him to shallow water. Terry was having none of this. In his confusion, he thought anyone underneath him must be a shark or an alligator, and he aimed kicks at us that might have discouraged an actual predator. In the end, all we could do was back off and wait for him to calm down.
Poor Terry. He actually got water in his lungs and swallowed a lot more. When he stopped thrashing, he was unconscious.
Five of us were able to drag his limp body out of the pool, and Jesamine, always the first to take on new responsibilities and challenges, reluctantly volunteered to give him mouth-to-mouth. Soon Terry twitched, coughed, and vomited profusely on the tiles and on our bare feet. While working with a mop and a wringer bucket, our instructor, Lilian, was pointing out how this was a good example of what could actually happen in a live rescue, and I must say we were all fully impressed. Not only was Lilian obviously right, but our bumps and bruises gave an edge to what she was saying.
Eventually, Terry was able to speak. When the EMTs arrived, he meekly submitted to being carried off on a stretcher. We later learned that he was released an hour after being admitted to the hospital; everything checked out fine. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and began to examine our injuries. Diane Dickson had to go to the dentist with a loosened front tooth, but she was the only one besides Terry who needed professional attention. Diane didn't even blame Terry afterwards, and I admired her for that.
When we all, including Terry, finished the program and got our certificates, lifeguard jobs were waiting for us at lakes and pools all over Will County, Illinois. I landed a job at a resort lake owned by Commonwealth Edison and regularly used only by its executives and their families. One day during the summer--July 4, of course--ordinary employees were permitted to come there, and we guards--an attractive young woman named Antonia Marlowe and I--were warned that the workload would be especially difficult and dangerous to handle. I was worried, but I thought Antonia would be fully aware of what to expect, since she had guarded this lake the summer before, a few months after moving from Brisbane, Queensland to Joliet, Illinois. She exuded confidence. "It'll be all right, Bill," she said in her delightful Australian accent. "You got trained by Lilian, and she's the best. Did you know she was my teacher, too?" That surprised me as well as boosting my confidence.
Still, when I flashed back on Terry, I faced the fourth with trepidation, wondering why the company hadn't hired extra guards to watch the crowd of over three hundred. We normally had no more than thirty people in the water. This was bad. Antonia and I got to the beach early and discussed the course of action: one of us would sit in one of the high red chairs and watch; the other would roam the water's edge. Every half hour we would switch roles.
And sure enough, a guy got into trouble.
I was walking the shoreline when I saw violent splashing and heard a man yelling for help. Adrenaline pumping, I blew my whistle (the kind all the guards I knew used, called the "Acme Thunderer") and started into the crowded water, but before I was even up to my waist, four men were already dragging the frightened swimmer toward the edge of the water. I came back out, and by the time I reached the little group of five, the four rescuers were all laughing and joking, and the man who had yelled for help was sitting up with a sheepish grin on his face.
"Are you okay?" I asked, as Antonia arrived at the scene. "Do you need an ambulance?"
The rescuers and the victim all laughed, rather rudely, I thought. "Do I look like I need an ambulance?" the victim said. "What I need is another beer!" He jumped up and headed to the concession stand with the others, who all turned out to be his buddies. I followed and got his name--John Lovell--just in case something about the event might come up later. Of course, it never did.
Back on duty, I turned to Antonia. "That went well," I said. "I sort of feel like an idiot."
She laughed. "No worries, you'll get over it, Bill," she said, putting a hand on my arm. "You take the chair now, and I'll walk." So I climbed up and sat down, suddenly aware how fast my heart was beating--not so much from John's near crisis as the fact that Antonia had touched me. Wow, she looked, smelled, sounded and felt good. But I never got up the courage to ask her out. I knew she already had a boy friend--another Australian immigrant named Charlie--and I figured there was no point.
All that happened years ago. It was the nearest thing we had to a crisis the entire summer. At the time, I didn't consider it good luck. But recalling the training in that little YMCA pool, I'm now glad it happened the way it did. Sometimes an anticlimax is the best ending for all concerned.
One of the ugliest men I'd ever seen stood at the bus stop as I drove up. I almost hesitated to open the door; I didn't want that face any closer to mine. He climbed aboard and flashed me a crooked yellow grin without putting a token or quarter in the box.
"Fare?" I asked, not really wanting to converse.
"Nah, but here's a tip," he replied, winking and holding out a dime.
I took the dime, hesitantly. He sat close to the front, and I pulled back out into traffic.
"Haven't seen you before, this route."
"I just got the job last week," I replied.
"Ask your boss why I don't have to pay."
"The name's J.W. Worley."
An elderly woman, wearing loose jeans and a wrinkled denim jacket, waited for me at the next stop.
"That would be my dear friend Edna Grogan," said J.W. Worley.
Edna Grogan got on, deposited her token, and noticed J.W. Worley.
"Hello, Butt Face," she said.
"Ah, full of compliments, as usual. How's the knee?"
"Still able to walk a couple of blocks, thanks. Ibuprofin helps some."
Ever try Percoset?"
"Yeah, for two days. Bound up my bowels so bad I thought I was going to burst."
"Whoa, shit storm!"
They both laughed until they started coughing.
"I took it for a while for my back," said J.W. Worley. "But I was afraid I'd get the habit, and I quit. I'd rather just hurt than get addicted."
They went on discussing pharmaceuticals, symptoms, doctors, hospitals. and related matters. At twenty four and medication free, I thought briefly what it might be like to be old, but then I no longer listened and focused on entering and exiting passengers and on the traffic ahead.
It was necessary to pay close attention to traffic. The air brakes on our buses were frighteningly ineffective. They seemed to be set more to keep passengers comfortable than safe; if I jammed the pedal to the floor, the big vehicle would glide smoothly to a stop, and woe to anyone who got in its way. The brakes were not remotely legal, but the authorities did not give the company any trouble about them. Evidently, I thought, they had been told by the insurers that passengers slightly injured in a sudden stop would cause far more trouble than motorists or pedestrians killed or maimed by driving or stepping in front of a moving bus.
Back at the barn after ten hours of driving the Black Road route, I checked my assignment for the next day. Being on the Extra Board, I had to know all the routes in the city, substituting for other drivers on their regular days off and the days they were ill or pretending to be.
Martin Overholzer was the dispatcher and my immediate supervisor. "What's the story on J.W.
Worley?" I asked him.
His face darkened with evident distaste. "Oh, that bastard. He sued us for so much money he's now set for life. But he always rides for free, even though that wasn't part of the settlement. No one has the nerve to challenge him on it. Afraid he might sue us again."
"Wow, what happened?"
"I'll give you the short version. He used to be a shoe salesman. But when he was riding a bus a few years ago it stopped short to avoid a truck. He cracked the bridge of his nose against the metal rail at the top of the seat in front of him. Broke it bad. The reconstructive surgery was botched--surgeon may have been drunk. Then the site got badly infected, and the final result was the mess that you saw. He couldn't sell shoes or anything else. No one could stand to look at him. So he sued us and collected a bundle."
"That's quite a story."
"There's more. He's the reason all our buses now have lousy brakes. We had to weigh one kind of safety against another, and our lawyer told us her opinion. The people higher up agreed with her. The guys who inspect the buses simply ignore the brakes now. And the result is that all you drivers have to be extremely aware of the forward traffic. It's a good thing you can see over the cars for a block ahead."
Years later, I read an article about our litigious society and some of the damage lawsuits have done. The article never mentioned bad brakes on city buses. Evidently the author had never heard of the shockingly ugly J.W. Worley.
A Useful Nerd, 1962*
It was my second year of college, and I knew a lot of my fellow students. They often needed help, and I was usually willing.
Sometimes Lana or Sandra or Virginia or all three got disabled Friday or Saturday nights and one would call me, her slurred speech enough to tell me where to go--their favorite club, D'Amico's. It was a place I did not care much for, and I never even went in. The pervasive smoke would have made me cough, I was a terrible dancer, and I mostly avoided alcohol because I did embarrassing things when I drank, having already embarrassed myself enough for a lifetime of self-recriminations.
"We need you, Bill. We're totally sloshed."
And whatever I was doing, I got my 1949 Nash Ambassador ready, covering the seats and floors with thick towels in case someone suddenly vomited, and venturing into the night, my young heart beating faster because I was at least being Useful to these pretty women whose daytime space I shared in classrooms and meeting rooms at the college, where I was president of the Student Education Association. I liked the name of my car. I thought of myself as ambassador from the society of nerds and geeks to the society of the cool ones who occasionally needed help from the likes of us.
I never dated these particular women. I was only the friend they relied on, however much I might wish things were otherwise and I was one of the cool men on campus that they seemed to dote on, leaving me to date women not of their circle.
But they wanted no cool men to drive them. These men were as drunk as the women were, and Lana, Sandy, and Virginia were just conscious enough of their personal safety to want someone sober and safe to pilot them home.
I didn't much like the idea of being safe, but I did like being Useful.
One Friday night, following mid-semester examinations, Lana, Sandra, and Virginia were all too drunk to walk or call me. But someone a little more sober found my number in Lana's purse and tried it at a pay phone outside the club.
I did my usual thing with the towels and got there as fast as I dared to drive. I found them leaning against each other, with Virginia clinging to a lamp post near the green vault-like canopy that shaded the ornate scarlet front door of D'Amico's. I guided them into the large back seat and drove off, listening to their silly profanities and trite endearments, as they talked about doing things to me--sexual things--that I knew they would never actually do, and I shook my head sadly as I drove with great care these women who spoke intelligently in classes where history and botany and literature were our daytime subjects, these women who one day might be politicians and executives and scholars.
How responsible and mature I felt, driving them to safe homes to sleep off their evening's debauchery.
Sandra and Virginia clung to me as I escorted them to their familiar front doors, clung hard enough to hurt my arm, but I did not mind when they smelled so sweet even after such a night, and they entered, letting me go, leaning on door frames, chairs, countertops and tables until they vanished inside.
But Lana was fast asleep, and I could not wake her. Her I had to carry, a beautiful dead weight in my anxious arms, to her screened-in porch, where I placed her gently on a futon. She couldn't even murmur good night. I kissed her lightly on the forehead, wished her well, and left, a little frightened.
My fear grew, quite irrationally. Until she showed up in class Monday morning, as fresh and pretty as ever, I tormented myself, terrified that I would never see her alive again because I--thinking of myself more as a lustful beast than a true friend--had slightly savored the touch of all that unresisting, unresponsive, lovely flesh.
*For a poetic version of this same story, see "A Safe Driver," Chapter 5.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."--John Muir
"So why do you do it, Don?" my wife asked me a few weeks ago.
"Oh, I just enjoy making certain people uncomfortable," I said. "It makes me feel more alive."
"Well, I just think it's weird, and it's going to get you into trouble," she complained.
I wish I'd paid attention, but I was too inclined to argue.
"Look," said I, "Half the police officers in this town are my friends. The other half know of me, know what I do, and quietly approve. The town is small, but they still have to concentrate on more important offenses."
"But what about the people you're harassing? Aren't you afraid?"
"No. Practically all of them are cowards and weaklings. I may not be the toughest guy in town, but if any one of these punks comes after me, I can just about bet you he'll be in the hospital for a while. I actually hope one of them tries."
I am so stupid.
I thought I was safe. You see, I didn't deal with the Mafia or with serial killers. I dealt, privately, with petty thieves, vandals, litterbugs, and habitual parking lot dingers--you know, the ones who leave all those little scratches and dents on other people's cars by opening their doors without regard to what they hit.
Case in point: I saw a guy I was following dump an ash tray full of butts on the street when he was stopped at an intersection. I didn't follow him home, but I copied his license number and called one of my cop friends to get his address. At 2:30 AM that night a nice gift was deposited right outside his front door--ten pounds of fresh, moist dog poop right from a local kennel, whose owner is also a friend of mine, carefully smeared over the porch and the welcome mat, with a printed note pinned to a tree explaining precisely why his property had been so attacked and warning him that further violations of other people's space would result in far worse punishment that he would not be able to correct with a garden hose.
I'm quite an expert pickpocket, and some of my highest risk activities involved this contact sport, which I engaged in with petty thieves. Recently I heard one bragging to his friends about how he was given over five dollars too much change at a drug store and walked out, fully aware of the clerk's mistake. He was twirling his car keys on a forefinger as he bragged, and I noted which pocket he put them in. After he left his friends, I pretended to be distracted by a text message and walked right into him. Of course I apologized profusely, but I got his keys. Then I discreetly tailed him to his car and got his license, which led me to his mailing address. I sent him a letter telling him where to get his keys--the very drug store from which he had stolen five dollars. Once he got there he would be able to collect his keys, but only by paying back the money he had stolen, plus whatever interest the clerk wanted to charge.
I really thought I was cute. And I still think my petty vigilantism was doing some good. But I won't do it anymore. I'm just hoping I'll be able to walk again. My physical therapist seems optimistic, so I'm trying to feed off his optimism.
A few nights ago, I was starting out on a mission to wreak havoc on the home of a vandal I'd seen flooding a park men's room by stuffing loads of paper towels into one of the toilets and then flushing it repeatedly. He had parked his car behind the building, and of course I got his number and did my usual thing with the police. I was going to flood his house with his own garden hose, but as I headed down the sidewalk at 3:30 AM, a black Lincoln stopped at the curb and two big guys jumped out of the back seat. I started to run, but they tackled me and dragged me into the car. I tried to ask what they thought they were doing, and all they said was "Shut up."
So I shut up.
They drove to an abandoned grain elevator just outside town and parked behind it, where I could not see the road. I saw that a couple of other big guys were already there, and when they cut the lights, I knew I was in big trouble.
I was forced to stand in moonlight, each arm in the crushing grasp of a man half a foot taller than I was, facing another big man dressed in an expensive suit, who examined his well-manicured fingers for a while before his spoke. When he did speak, he sounded cultured and even polite.
"All we're here for, Mr. Jacobs, is to explain something to you in a way you will understand. All of us are businessmen. We have a product to sell, a cash flow to maintain, and a clientele we serve faithfully and reliably through a network of minor sales representatives. Our little organization earns approximately ten million dollars' worth of profit in this town in an average year. But this past year, our profit margin is down by fifteen percent, and we have, after considerable study, learned that you are the reason.
"The man whose porch was covered in feces was one of our sales leaders. Over a hundred people depended on him for their cocaine supply. After your little act of vigilantism, he got careless, and he and a couple of his customers got caught by the police. He's still in jail. And the man whose keys you stole--well, let's just say he was a good customer, but now he has cut us off. Claims he's a reformed character, and won't have anything more to do with us or our products. These two stories are typical. You have been hurting us, Mr. Jacobs, so now we're going to hurt you."
I don't like to think about what happened next. Four guys held me down, and a fifth went after my knees with a heavy rubber mallet. Then they dragged me back to the car and drove me to the local hospital. They stopped at the emergency room, blew the horn, tossed me out on the pavement, and roared away.
I am so stupid.
The doctor left, having delivered the bad news.
"So," said Max.
"I can't believe it," Irene whispered.
"Well, it's true. We might as well get used to it."
"But he's our baby."
"He's seventeen. He played football. Things happen."
Irene now spoke aloud. "They didn't have to happen. If you hadn't encouraged him to join the team, they wouldn't have happened. I asked him if he really wanted to do something so dangerous, and he was just like you. He said it was something to do to get out of his boring gym classes. He said you didn't object at all. He said his girl friend liked the idea of going steady with a quarterback. It's all just so--so stupid."
"He knew the risks."
"Maybe he knew in his head, but he didn't really understand. He didn't have any wisdom. That was your job--to give him wisdom. And all you did was sign the damn permission form and wish him good luck..."
"Irene, you signed it too."
Irene now was almost screaming. "Only because you practically forced me to. I was scared to death for him. I wanted to protect my baby. You didn't care. You talked about college scholarships. You talked about business contacts. You talked about Heisman trophies and professional teams and money, money, money. You don't care about our baby. You don't care about people. All you care about is money and fame and all that crap, and now Timmy may never even walk again. Did you even hear what the doctor said? He has nerve damage in his neck. Do you even understand what that means? He may be paralyzed from the neck down. All because of your stupid damn football."
"Irene, please. You're disturbing the whole floor. Besides, it might not be that bad. Rehab ..."
"Oh rehab! That won't do any good. He's not even going to be able to sit up by himself. I'm going to have to spoon feed him for the rest of his life. He's gong to want to die. I'm going to want to die. And you're just going to go to the office and do your work and think about money, you bastard!"
"That's not fair."
A voice from the private room stopped the discussion. "Mom, Dad."
They hurried in. Timmy's eyes were open now. "Hey, you guys. You woke me up with that yelling. Look." And to his mother's and father's astonishment, he raised his right arm from the bed. "My throwing arm's okay. What did the doc say?"
Max grasped his son's hand and smiled.
Through her tears, Irene was pleading. "Oh, Timmy, promise me you won't ever play football again. Please, please, please, please promise your mother you won't."
September 17, 2020. They would come for him. It was no use trying to hide; he might be able to rip the microchip from his body if he knew exactly where it had been implanted, but their subtle microsurgical techniques under general anesthetic guaranteed his ignorance, unless he were able to bribe someone with access to a scanner. Not much chance of that. Those who ran the scanners were far too well paid and the penalties for unauthorized use far too severe to make such an attempt practicable.
So he waited. Two lines from Tennyson came unbidden into his head and he whispered them aloud:
The larkspur listens, "I hear, I hear;"
And the lily whispers, "I wait."
But what had old Alfred's mad forsaken lover to do with the waiting that faced him now? More relevant would be the waiting in Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." Truly, he would soon be in the hands of people whose malevolence exceeded that of the monks of the Inquisition and whose practical power was to theirs as was a nuclear weapon to a firecracker.
Helen now stood at the top of the basement stairs. "Charles," she said with unnerving calm, "Are you coming up for supper? The children are ready to eat."
Poor Helen. She was in complete denial. Setting the table, serving balanced meals, shopping for bargains, and keeping the house tidy occupied all her waking hours. She had no time for politics, she said when he warned her of the coming onslaught--the universal spy network, the forced labor camps, the slaughter of innocents, the rounding up of all the academics on the ground they constituted a threat to the new government. Many colleges had been forcibly closed, and the lower level schools, such as the high school where he taught, had been scrutinized for faculty with advanced degrees or publication in the journals. With his Ph.D in literature he was one of the obvious targets. Torture and probably execution lay ahead. Yet Helen said he was talking nonsense and went about her days as if nothing were amiss.
"Coming, Helen," he groaned, and dragged himself up the stairs. "Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them," he thought as he took his place at the head of the table and bowed his head to mutter a perfunctory blessing. He had no appetite, but he ate the baked ham, the red potatoes, the asparagus, all the while hearing his eight year old son and six year old daughter--Jason and Cheryl--going on and on about their school day. A newscast on the television was covering some football game. The commentators were acting as though nothing was wrong in the country except a few minor injuries in Chicago's defensive secondary.
He watched the excited but apparently unafraid commentators. How did they manage? He could not have put on such a show in the face of the horrors that awaited every educated person. Yet all the men and women on television, even the political commentators, seemed to have blinked away the truth as they remarked blandly that the stock market was showing wildly positive signs, that the Middle East conflicts had recently diminished almost to a negligible level, that the dangers of climate change were less serious than previously thought, and that the President was gratified by the 4.2 percent unemployment rate and the availability of abundant and inexpensive energy via the remarkable recent improvements in wind turbines and solar collectors.
Outside the dining room window, he saw neighbors mowing their lawns, chatting in driveways, and walking their well-groomed dogs.
His eye fell on the medicine vial Helen had placed beside his iced tea. The notation "for delusional ideation" met his eye. Had he ever seen a label like that before? It was a new prescription from his psychiatrist, a woman he trusted more than he trusted himself, but he did not recall getting the prescription filled. What was this? The instruction was two tablets with each meal. He opened the vial, shook out the yellow pills and swallowed them with a large gulp of iced tea.
Miraculously, in half an hour his fears had vanished. Sitting relaxed in his recliner he reflected on what had just happened. He must somehow have deluded himself that the government had assumed totalitarian powers, that academics were being rounded up--
Then he noticed that he could not move his arms or legs.
The doorbell rang. Helen went to the door and let in two large men in black coveralls.
"He won't give you any trouble, now, gentlemen," she said with a smile, and pointed to his supine form.
A Slow Death
I open my back door and the stink of decay hits me hard. Something dead. Something fairly big, too. No mouse or mole could emit a stench that pervasive.
I close the door quickly, go to the medicine cabinet and get the Vicks VapoRub, which I daub on the rims of both nostrils before going to the garage and getting the shovel. Fortunately, the garage is in front and the smell has not entered it, though the overhead door is wide open. I close it, just in case, and walk around to the back, smelling nothing but menthol and eucalyptus.
The yard is modest and small--one maple tree and trimmed grass. I spot the thing immediately--a dark brown mounded shape in the northwest corner. As I draw near, I see the wriggling white maggots--so many they are falling off the carcass and climbing back on, fighting for one more morsel of the rich necrotic flesh they crave. The adult flies, buzzing about the body, are evidently laying plenty of eggs. A little of the smell is getting through the VapoRub barrier, and I begin digging a hole quickly, a couple of yards away, before nausea overcomes me.
What the little carrion eaters are feasting on is a large box tortoise, its shell broken in several places, perhaps run over by a car before making its way here to die. I have the hole about two feet wide and a foot and a half deep now, and I'm ready to dispose of the body. I take the blade of the shovel and begin to slide the corpse into the hole when it rises on all four feet, sticks its head out of its shell and begins to crawl away.
I cannot believe my eyes. I shut them tight and open them again. The tortoise is walking along slowly, but it clearly has full use of its limbs. A zombie tortoise! I stop trying to bury it and watch as it moves away from me to the northeast corner of the yard, stopping at the cedar fence and going motionless again.
Nothing to do now but wait. Surely the poor creature will die soon as the gangrene reaches its heart and lungs. Probably it's not in serious pain. Reptiles' nervous systems are fairly primitive, and dead tissue feels nothing. I contemplate the dead parts of me--hair, nails, calluses. If something larger on me were dead, such as a finger, I could snap it off and feel nothing other than regret.
Three hours later, with darkness approaching, I go out to the back again, shovel in hand, nostrils anointed. But the tortoise is gone. A few maggots wriggle about where I last saw it lying. I squash them with the blade of the shovel and wipe it on the grass.
I go back to the hole and fill it back up, saying aloud, "O grave, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" and laugh grimly at myself.
I put the shovel away in the garage, go into the house, and take a long hot shower.
A Shot in the Dark?
I turn off the lamp in the living room and lie back in my recliner. My wife and daughter, sleeping in their rooms, breathe peacefully, and I have no wish to disturb them with my troubles--a job that squats on my life like a fat poisonous toad, an ache in my gut that I'm afraid to inform the doctor about, and a letter from the IRS that I haven't shown anyone yet.
In my right hand is my Sig-Sauer P228. In my left is a full fifth of Canadian Club. One can end the pain permanently; the other can dull it for a while. It's funny how well both the barrel of the one and the lip of the other fit in my mouth, and I put them both in alternately several times, tasting each, imagining myself a connoisseur of the flavors of inedible things.
At work, the assistant manager has decided to make me her special project. She scrutinizes my every move, every keystroke, every rest room break, every phone call, determined to find me slacking or stealing or surfing. If she could catch me doing all three, she'd break her arm patting herself on the back, the nasty bitch.
Then there's the ache down on the right side of my abdomen, deep inside, sometimes dull, sometimes sharp. Appendicitis? Kidney stone? Cancer? I don't want to know. I just want it to stop. It's bad right now. I shift a little in my chair.
And just today, the letter about an audit. I'm expected to take off work Thursday morning two weeks from now. I can request a different time, but any time will require me to miss work, and I've already reached my limit of days off. Any more time off, they'll dock my salary. And my tax records are in disarray, ever since Sandy, my sweet, curious five year old got into the file drawer and pulled everything out--receipts, copies of my returns, notes, everything. I thought I was done with income tax for one more year. I've never been audited before. I don't need this. Probably some snot-nosed kid half my age is going to sit there accusing me of illegal deductions, or unreported income, or who knows what.
Decision time is here. A shot of good old CC, followed by another and another and another? Or a single shot from the SS to grant me permanent oblivion? Maybe I'll flip a coin. But I'll have to lay one of my friends down to dig one out of my pocket. And I'll have to turn the lamp back on to read it. What to do? And if I go the permanent route, what dreams may come?
"This is just wrong!" Marge kept saying, with variations, over and over.
George and I stared at her and at each other between bites of our chicken salad sandwiches. We were in our usual lunch spot--a rear booth at Moe's, two blocks from company headquarters, where our little team has worked for several years. Moe has been dead fifteen years, but a name change might be bad for business.
Marge, a mousy little woman of 35, never married and alone in the world except for us, was close to tears, and what bothered George and me was that her present distress was caused by the very thing that has allowed us all to survive in the miserable economy that never seems to improve.
Her unhappiness can lead to big trouble. George and I have been seeing signs in her gestures and facial expressions, but now the problem has come out into the open.
We three are a team, working in the billing department of a big retailer I'm not going to name, but you'd recognize it. Marge's job is to add charges to customers' credit accounts--charges not publicly authorized but helpful to the company's profit margin. George's job is to field customer complaints about these charges, soothe the customers' feelings, and pass them along to me, Larry. My job is to make double, triple, or even quadruple reparations to the complaining customers, depending on how intense the customers' feelings seem to be. The complaints are to stop with me. I explain to customers that we're having problems with one of our computers, or that we have some new personnel in billing making mistakes, and we value their business. In other words, the usual BS.
You'd be surprised how few customers actually catch the extra charges on their bills. It's easy to award a customer a two hundred fifty dollar credit when the uncomplaining customers, most of them billed electronically with no paper trail, are paying ten thousand dollars they shouldn't owe. Marge's work, and that of a few others like her, carefully screened by HR for non-whistle-blower qualities, is so valuable to the company that she earns six figures, as do George and I.
"Marge," I asked in a near-whisper, "What do you plan to do?"
"I don't know, Larry," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
"You know the secrecy agreement we all had to sign," George murmured.
"The hell with the agreement!" Marge almost screamed, hushing herself at the last second.
George and I have families, and George has a slight gambling problem. We really can't afford to be out of work. It will now be my task to get the word to fat little Millard at HR. Obviously the company cannot afford a loose cannon in the delicate business the three of us have been engaged in.
It's far too late for any of us to develop a conscience, and any questions of counseling, a second chance, or simple termination of employment are off the table. It's in the fine print of the agreement we all signed.
I do hope my schedule will allow me to attend Marge's funeral. After all, I may be asked to do the eulogy.
Have you ever noticed how something you can't see, like the exhaust from an automobile, can still cast a shadow on the pavement in bright sunlight? When I see this phenomenon, I remember my high school friend's funeral.
Sixth period biology. The dissecting pans, one for every two students, held one large dead earthworm each. Mr. Burns said, "Today we're doing a basic dissection of Lumbricus terrestris. You have a scalpel, scissors, forceps, and pins. Please try hard to avoid cutting into the intestine, and be ready to make a drawing of your completed work. Each of you is responsible for his or her own drawing; you may divide the actual cutting and pinning any way you wish. Steady hands, now." And he sat down, leaving us to our task.
Jerry Grant, my partner, was more interested in girls than in biology, but he set to work with a delicate touch, and soon the worm was open from stem to stern, its digestive tract unmarred. Suddenly he turned, distracted, and said, "What's she doing here? She's gorgeous!"
I saw no one. But he continued to stare at an empty spot in the room. Then his head tilted back and he sighed with pleasure--just before collapsing to the floor in what appeared to be an epileptic seizure. We all cleared a space for him, and Mr. Burns called the school nurse, who evidently summoned an ambulance, since I heard a siren approaching fast just as Jerry's spasms started to lessen.
When he could speak, he muttered, "Something got inside me when she kissed me. It felt like a worm."
He grabbed for his groin. "It's in here," he muttered.
But then he writhed around and put a hand on his lower back. "It's moving up!" he said, sounding panicky, as paramedics arrived with a stretcher.
Then Jerry was clutching his head, his face gray and his breathing labored.
Once at the hospital, Jerry got steadily worse, the grayish pallor suffusing his whole body. The doctors in Intensive Care could do nothing for him, nor could they diagnose his condition, though one suggested a psychosomatic reaction.
His words were worse than his physical deterioration. Pointing with a quivering finger, he rasped, "She's right here. Don't you see her? She's here in the corner of the room! Help!"
My friend died at four the next morning. The funeral took place two days later. The word succubus was not in my vocabulary then, but I've wondered about it since.Throughout his graveside service, a girl shaped shadow moved on the grass. I watched, hardly able to look away, and I wonder still if anyone else saw it.
Save the Whales, Save the Humans
April 20, 2053. I hardly knew what to expect as I approached the University of Florida's Center for Experimental Marine Biology--an immense facility located on the southeastern coast of Florida where an all-out effort was being made to save earth's dwindling cetacean population.
Food supply was the problem. The decline of krill on which the baleen whales fed had become so severe as a result of oceanic pollution that the whales were literally starving and most had stopped reproducing. Population decline of 85% in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had alarmed not only the scientists but the general population to such a degree that the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to fund the CEMB had been raised quickly.
I was a stringer for the Miami Herald at the time, and because of my undergraduate work in marine biology had been assigned the story. I was met by Dr. Howard Hetzel, the public relations director, shortly after I walked in the door and paused, taking in the oceanic scents I loved. Much of the enclosed space was actually constructed over the Atlantic itself and encompassed several square nautical miles, with huge titanium nets extending to the ocean floor, where they were anchored deep in the substrate.
I asked him The Question.
"Yes," Dr. Hetzel said, "It's true that the creatures are here, and that they are thriving. There is hope that by releasing them into the larger environment we may do some good."
"Can I see them?" I asked.
"Oh, certainly. I have a two man sub ready, and I'll be happy to show them to you. Ever since the genomes of both whales and of many plants have been fully mapped, it has been a fairly simple matter to introduce vegetable DNA into whale embryos at a very early stage, so that the cetaceans are now capable of actual photosynthesis. We have a dozen right whale adults in the enclosure now. They're surface feeders anyway, so they seemed a good choice, being close to the sun while feeding. Our analysis suggests that they can now get fully twenty percent of their nutrition needs from sunlight itself, thus reducing their need for krill."
We entered the sturdy little vessel and were soon submerged to about fifteen feet. As we cruised out into what had once been open Atlantic water, I wondered what I would see and was soon rewarded. Within ten minutes we were within two hundred meters of a whale as bright green as a new maple leaf. I thought I was prepared for the sight, but actually seeing a forty foot long living whale that color made me gasp with wonder.
"That's our lovely Nicole," Dr. Hetzel was saying. "All of them have names, and they're as individual to us as humans. Nicole is six years old now, and we're about to let her go out on her own. At least she's safe from human predators, since the Japanese and Russians have at last fully abandoned whaling."
"But will this be a solution?" I asked.
"Who can tell?" he replied. "There are so many variables. Perhaps the new international regulations will eventually bring the krill population back. Perhaps the phytoplankton decline will reverse itself. If it doesn't, we're all doomed anyway. Most of our own oxygen supply comes from oceanic phytoplankton."
An idea suddenly struck me. "Dr. Hetzel, what about humans? Might the work done with your whales apply to us as well? Couldn't we be treated with plant DNA so that we too could get nourishment direct from sunlight? It could revolutionize sunbathing here in Florida. And help with oxygen supply."
He frowned. "And have green people suffering from third degree sunburn. I don't know. But it might be a subject for research. Meanwhile, we're low on fuel. I need to get you back to land."
As we started back, beautiful Nicole swam slowly at the surface, collecting sunlight and krill. As I watched her receding behind us, I turned my face aside. I was weeping uncontrollably for her, for myself, for planet earth, and I hoped I would be able to stop before we reached the dock.
--Marge, I've decided not to kill Harold after all.
--Oh? What made you decide?
--It was several things. I mean, besides all the foolishness with the police and the courts.
--Yesterday you said the court thing would be fun.
--I know. The publicity and all, with the lawyers bickering and the judge trying to look stern and the crowd looking on as if something important were going on instead of just another silly show. But I decided it wasn't worth getting dressed and made up every day.
--Yes, that is certainly a bother. But Sylvie, you said there were other reasons.
--And you want to know them? Are you sure you won't be bored, Marge? I mean, domestic life is always such a dreary topic.
--True, but you have a way of putting it, sometimes. And I am your best friend, n'est pas?
--All right, but stop me if I'm wearying you with the details.
--Tell you what, Sylvie. Don't give me details. Just cut to the heart of it. I'll tell you if you bore me. Don't I always?
--Agreed. Harold complimented me yesterday. Said I was exactly right to let the cleaning woman go. He said he'd been averting his eyes from corners and doorways for weeks but hadn't said anything because he thought I was satisfied with her work.
--That's certainly something. But you're starting to bore me now.
--He also won a bit at the track a few days ago and bought me a new Jaguar with his winnings instead of the boat he was thinking about getting himself.
--A car? Excuse me, Sylvie, dear. I don't think I want to hear any more. Nothing bores me more than car talk.
--Oh, stay, Marge. What really settled me on my decision was a phone call from Darla.
--Darla? Isn't she his mistress?
--One of them.
--Is she the redhead?
--No, the brunette. You're not really keeping track very well, Marge.
--Sorry. I was associating the name with--oh, never mind. What did she say?
--That she was going to kill him. She wanted to be sure I approved.
--Why would she want to do that?
--She found out about his other two mistresses. Said it annoyed her to think that she was insufficient entertainment for him. Besides, she's found a new boyfriend, much younger and better looking, and she thinks Harold would be bothersome about breaking up. Much easier not to have to deal with the drama.
--Did you say you approved?
--Of course not. I merely asked how she planned to do it
--It's a little odd.
--You have my full attention.
--You know how Harold enjoys phony s and m?
--Yes, you told me.
--And you know he's especially into those fluffy hand and ankle cuffs tying him to the bed.
--Of course. Nothing that would leave a mark or hurt in any way, unless he were to struggle extraordinarily hard.
--Well, she's been using those on him for a while. And she's been doing that other thing that's gotten so popular lately--putting manual pressure on the carotid arteries so that he almost blacks out. She's quite good at it. Knows exactly what it will take to induce a semi-faint when he's about to climax. He loves it.
--So I suppose she's going to merely take it a bit further.
--That's right. She just wants to be rid of him in a way that will only minimally interest the police. If she can make it look like an accident in the middle of their kinky sex routine, she can probably avoid the court nonsense altogether.
--Clever girl! That's almost interesting.
--I thought so. I told her I wanted nothing to do with her scheme, but that I still considered her a friend and would not stand in her way if she was determined to go through with it. She in turn said she would not involve me if anyone started asking questions.
--When does she plan to do it?
--Tonight, actually. I think my black dress still fits, but I may have to get it altered. Do you know someone who works accurately and fast, just in case?
--No, I don't know anyone. Try the yellow pages. I hope you don't expect me to attend the funeral.
--Of course not. I just hoped you could suggest someone before the deadline. Ooh! that was a good double entendre.
--Not really good. So-so at best. Anyway, I really hate funerals. Everybody just lies and lies about what a wonderful person the jerk in the coffin was.
--Naturally. I'll be lying with the best of them. Darla will be there too, weeping for the loss of her lover. We won't know each other, of course.
--I suppose afterwards I'll have lunch. Care to join me?
--Check with me in the morning, okay?
--We can have seafood. Harold did so love to fish.
--I remember. In pace requiescat and all that crap.
A Remembered Dream*
I dreamed of a place that was not a place--a sort of populated void, if that makes any sense. The population was both male and female, but males predominated.
Their bodies, all naked but wraithlike in the mist, floated, and no ground showed itself beneath their feet. They seemed unable to move about but remained the same distance from each other, able to speak but not touch.
And speak they did, in monologue fashion, all talking at once. I had to focus on an individual speaker and ignore the others to make sense of the cacophany.
Once I concentrated, I found that each was speaking coherently--lecturing, really, but no one was paying attention to anyone else. I focused on several in turn, and the lectures had a curious sameness about them--a dry, authoritative tone suggesting intellectual certainty on subjects I would have considered controversial--all on the subject of Christianity. Two samples from different speakers, both of them tall, thin, and loud, should suffice to give the general flavor of the lectures.
One was saying, "Bultmann and others have shown conclusively that the only viable method of scriptural interpretation, or hermeneutics, is one that excludes any suggestion of the supernatural. Anyone who seeks any respect as a theologian must, in other words, be a sound atheist. The task for churches is to grow out of their silly obsession with thaumaturgics--that whole impossible array of tricks they call miracles--and get down to the serious business of building a viable world view, or Weltanschauung."
Another was saying, "All that the liberal theologians say is utter nonsense. Only by assuming scriptural inerrancy and infallibility can any systematic treatment of anthropology, Christology, pneumatology, and theology hope to stand. All our troubles stem from the rejection of the supernatural and of absolute scriptural authority. The Scriptures must be seen as either absolute or obsolete. As a Reconstructionist I can assert with full confidence that any truly just society must include the properly regulated ownership of slaves. Also, our penal code must allow for the stoning of adulterous wives and disobedient children."
As an occasional student of philosophy and theology, I actually found the lectures quite interesting individually, but I was troubled by the way none of the lecturers seemed to care that the others were ignoring them and pontificating away about their own favorite concerns. None of them noticed me, and I assume I was invisible to them.
I felt that I had been listening for many hours, though I really had not so much a sense of time passing as a sense of stasis--as though time itself had stopped, and I was experiencing something like a philosopher's idea of eternity.
But a change took me by surprise. One of the lecturers--a woman, as it happened--went silent, and the overall sound of the pervasive babble deepened a little: perhaps a half tone. She had been lecturing on a radical feminist view of Christianity that included the eventual elimination, through cloning, of the unnecessary and oppressive male sex in human populations.
I watched her face, which had a look of astonishment, gradually turning to a sort of rapturous wonder. She turned toward others, listening for a while and then shaking her head. She raised her hands to shoulder height, went completely still and seemed to shrink a little. Then she began to glow. I became aware of the grayish pallor of all the others as she glowed brighter, and the brightness seemed to negate her nakedness as though she were clothed in light.
None of the others seemed to notice when, in a final burst of joy, she soared up, up, and out of sight.
After I woke, I knew I would never forget the way she looked as she prepared to leave the gathering of oblivious lecturers--the gathering I would later label as a sort of purgatory where one person had finally chosen to listen.
(*For a sonnet version of this story, see "Theologians' Purgatory" in Chapter Six.)
The Yogi and the Scorpion
(adapted from a bit of flash fiction that has come to us from the ancient world)
A YOUNG MAN, WATCHING
TWO WOMEN OR TWO MEN OR A MAN AND A WOMAN, AMERICAN TOURISTS
India. Beside the Jumna, a tributary of the Ganges River.
The two tourists enter together, talking inaudibly. A young man stands apart, staring at the water.
A yogi enters, hands in front of him in prayerful attitude, seemingly unaware of the others. At the riverbank, he gracefully performs the Sun Salute in preparation for meditating. As he performs the movements, the two tourists comment on them.
TOURIST #1: Oh look! He’s doing the Sun Salute. We learned it in yoga class at 24 hour Fitness!
TOURIST #2: What do you mean, Sun Salute?
TOURIST #1: It’s a warmup exercise. Bending and stretching. See, that’s the Downward Facing Dog asana. Then he’s going to do the Cobra. See?
TOURIST #2: What’s that word, asana?
TOURIST #1: It’s just a position, like sitting down or standing up. Now he’s bending forward again, see? He’s getting relaxed, preparing to meditate.
TOURIST #2: Weird. Doesn’t look relaxing to me!
TOURIST #1: And finally he returns to the original position. Now I’ll bet he’s just going to sit down and meditate. He probably doesn’t even hear us. He’s shutting out all distractions.
The yogi seats himself and begins meditating. The young man and the two tourists observe from a short distance. A very large scorpion approaches.
TOURIST #2: Omigosh, look! a scorpion! And he’s not moving. He doesn’t see it! Should we warn him?
TOURIST #1: No! It won’t hurt anybody if nobody bothers it.
The scorpion moves steadily toward the river and falls in. In the water, it writhes helplessly, and the yogi calmly reaches toward the water, plucks the scorpion out, and is painfully stung. But he overcomes the pain, sets the scorpion on the ground behind him, and resumes meditation.
TOURIST #2: But is he going to be okay? Aren’t those things deadly?
TOURIST #1: No, I read that those great big ones aren’t the deadly ones. It’s the tiny ones with the really bad poison. But the big ones hurt like the devil. I wouldn’t touch one myself.
TOURIST #2: Look! It’s heading back toward the river!
Slowly the scorpion crawls back to the river and falls in again, and again the yogi reaches out, takes it from the water, and is stung. He masters his pain, sets the scorpion on dry land again, and resumes his meditation.
TOURIST #2: I can’t believe he did that again. He must be crazy.
TOURIST #1: I don’t think so. I think it’s some kind of a religious thing. Maybe he thinks the scorpion is the soul of his grandfather or something. Hindus believe you can be reincarnated as an animal. That’s why they don’t eat meat.
TOURIST #2: Well, his grandpa must have been a mean son of a bitch if he thinks he turned into that ugly thing. Wait! Look!
Once more the scorpion blunders into the river, and once more the yogi rescues it and is stung. He sets it down on dry land and finally it crawls off and disappears offstage. He resumes his meditation. At last the YOUNG MAN bends down beside the yogi and speaks directly to him.
YOUNG MAN: Holy one, why did you keep saving the scorpion even though it was stinging you?
YOGI: (in a calm, clear monotone): It is the nature of a scorpion to sting. It is the nature of a yogi to help those who are in trouble.
TOURIST #2: All right. Now I’ve heard everything. What a crazy religion. That doesn’t make any sense at all. He should have just squashed that thing.
TOURIST #1: Oh, don’t be so intolerant. He didn’t hurt you, and he didn’t hurt your religion. Actually, he doesn’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s called ahimsa I think. A doctrine of non-injury. But I didn’t know anyone took it that far.
TOURIST #2: Well, it still looks pretty nuts to me.
The two tourists walk off, muttering to each other. The yogi remains, meditating, by the river. The young man stands and stares at the water.