I could see the guy outta the corner o' my eye. Looked like he was wearin' all black or somethin'. Ain't nothin' unusual, I thought. It's an office buildin'. Everybody wears black suits. Then he sets his scythe against the wall, between his pisser and mine.
Yeah, his freakin' scythe. That got my attention, I'll tell ya that for free. I turned and looked at the guy, and I realized he was a damn skeleton. I mean, all I could see was his face and hands, but they were just bones, with no skin at all. No muscle or nothin'. He fiddled around inside his robe like he's pullin' out his wanger, then he stepped a little closer to the pisser and I heard water hittin' the urinal, like he was pissin'. Like Death was takin' a friggin' piss right next to me, is what I'm sayin'.
I was still drainin' my lizard, but I decided right then to just choke it off and haul my butt outta there. I didn't even realize I was still lookin' at him until I was zippin' up and he asked me, "See somethin' you like?" I was pretty surprised to learn that Death had a Southern accent, I'll tell you that. Especially here in Trenton freakin' New Jersey.
I think I mumbled somethin' like "No, sorry," and got ready to book out the door when he asked me, "Ain't you gonna wash your hands, Lenny?" Now, I knew that, being Death and all, he would naturally know who I was, but it still shook me up a little.
"Uh, yeah, thanks," I said, and headed back to the sinks, tryin' my best not to look at him.
"One other thing, Lenny," he said, "Sorry to bother you, but could you tell me where exactly Carl Atchison works?" He was still pissin', rockin' back and forth on his heels and lookin' dead at me. If you'll pardon the expression.
"Uh, Carl?" I asked. "Short guy, goin' a little bald like me?"
"Yeah, that's him."
"Yeah, uh, he's up in Personnel. Fourth floor. I don't know what office."
"Ok, thanks," he said, and fiddled around in his robe some more. Then he walked over to the sink beside mine and started washin' his big skeleton hands.
I wanted to get outta there like you wouldn't believe, but I gotta admit, part of me thought it was pretty damn cool, standin' there in the bathroom washin' my hands and havin' a conversation with Death. He seemed like a pretty regular guy, so I decided to talk to him some more.
"So, uh, you're Death, huh?" I asked him feelin' like a moron. I just couldn't think of anything better to say, y'know what I mean?
"Yep, that's my job. My friends call me Joe, though." We both finished washin' up and headed to the air dryer by the door. "And you're Lenny Baker."
"Man, I hate these things," he said. "Why can't they put some damn paper towels in like they used to? I ain't got time to stand around under this wussy little thing, y'know?"
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I usually just shake 'em off and dry 'em on my pants leg."
He laughed. "Yeah, I hear you." He wiped his hands across the butt of his robe. "Good thing about wearin' black all the time. Nothin' shows up on it."
"I guess not." He was headin' towards the door, so I said, "Hey, Death, don't forget your scythe."
"Hell," he said, turning back, "I'd forget my head if it wasn't tied on. Thanks. And I told you, my friends call me Joe."
"Um, okay, Joe." That part of me that thought this was all cool was pretty happy about that. I was Death's friend. I couldn't wait to tell the wife.
"Well, take it easy, man," he said.
"Hey, Joe, wait a minute," I said real quick, before he could leave. "Look, I'm sorry to bug you again, but...well, are you gonna kill Carl?"
He turned back around and looked at me. "Man, to tell the truth, a bad plug's gonna kill Carl. Just shock the snot out of him. But I'll be there to collect him, yeah. Why?"
"Just wonderin'. I kinda like Carl, is all."
"Sorry, man. I don't know what to tell you."
"It's okay. Just doin' the job, right?"
"Yep." He opened the door to go.
"So is he gonna see you comin'?"
"Yeah." He didn't turn around this time. "Everybody I pick up can see me right at their time. That's how it works."
"Well, then, why can I-" I started, but then I slipped on a wet spot and fell. Next thing I knew, I was standin' over myself, lookin' down at my own body. My neck was cocked at a weird angle. I figured it out pretty quick, though. That bastard didn't even warn me.
"'Cause Carl's not the only one I'm here for, buddy."
The hardest thing to copy was her speaking style. I listened to her for about 3 months, and I practiced in the mirror, watching my lips form words, keeping a mental picture of her lips in my mind. I said, "Hello, Ms. Wanders," with her lips wide open at the W. She likes to exaggerate her words, her vowels long, her consonants hard. She has a choppy voice that it gets people moving. She makes them laugh or she infects them with something. They like her.
I finally figured out that it was the way she spoke. It wasn't her body, which looked like mine, a little skinnier, but a quick diet fixed that. It wasn't her face, since ours is almost identical. Her bangs hung almost into her eye, she slouched while she walked, and hated to have her picture taken. But when she spoke--wow--she just got people talking back, and she made them comfortable. It was as if her voice transformed her into this combination mother/sex goddess/professorial type. Which pretty much covered all the bases with most people.
Of course, she had a rocky marriage, and as I found out later, she hadn't had sex with her husband for about 10 months. She wore this awful cotton night gown that went all the way to her heels, and she insisted that her husband face away from her at all times, because he snored. I thought that her husband was gorgeous, and I am looking forward to snuggling him all night. But, I underestimated her again.
Today, after I stole her, and went to her first class, I found out that she is having an affair with one of her students. He came up after my lecture was over, and did this flirting thing with his eyes (I've seen her do it also), and after everyone had left, he pinched my butt. At first I was surprised, and wasn't sure if that was part of her normal routine. But later at lunch, her best friend asked me how my lover Bill was. Since Bill was the kid who pinched me, I put two and two together. I got to practice my new infectious laugh (god, it took me forever to get that down), opening my mouth really wide. For some reason that satisfied her, and we went on eating, afterwards.
I was a little nervous at the time, since it was suddenly new information I hadn't accounted for. When I saw him later at his tutoring session, I decided to blow him off. He threatened to tell the Dean, which made me furious. I mean, I could always bring her back, and let her live her life again, if things got bad, but I wanted things to be okay for me. I wanted her friendships, her job, her husband. I didn't want this Bill or any grief he was giving her. I had enough grief in my own life.
So, I did something that seemed to really shock Bill--I threatened to fail him. "But you promised you would never do that!" he stupidly blubbered. I replied, "I guess I changed my mind," and quietly told him to leave. For some reason, it just felt right--I was positive that I got her serious "I'm in charge" attitude I had seen her do so often with so many people.
That was the only real snag, but otherwise, the day was easy. And the amazing thing is that people actually seemed to like me. I was the same person,, still me, but by pretending to be her, copying her voice and everything, I slipped into her happy life way more easily than I thought I could. Wasn't there some essence, something about a person, that distinguished one from another? Or is it just the voice, body, and mannerisms, that people actually paid attention to?
Of course, this is something I debated with myself for months, while I was learning about her. Could I actually fool people? I had a few test runs, walking around campus, letting myself be identified as her. Later, people confided a little in me, like when a few friends and I went to a coffee shop that I knew she had never been to.
But then her screams. I couldn't figure out why shy struggled so hard. I had planned this so far in advance, practically ambushing her this morning before her class, that she had no chance, but I didn't understand why she fought me for so long. She saw me, in the mirror, behind her, and her eyes were wide with terror. It was as if she knew, could read my mind or something, what I was planning. She begged me, "Please don't," never saying what she didn't want me to do, but as if it was an unspoken knowledge we shared. She kicked my knees, and later I had to wear dark stockings, to cover the bruises. Lucky that I get to wear the long night gown tonight, so her husband won't notice. I was very careful not to harm her, overpowering her, and holding her deftly.
It was almost as if I had some respect for her--she had built her life, and even if I was going to take it, I felt I didn't have to insult her by beating her up. My intent was to take from her, not harm her. I am convinced that eventually she will thank me.
Because I had read in her journals that she was tired of her life. It had become mundane, and depressing, and not even her work or husband sustained her anymore. I felt angry at her, reading those entries. She took everything she had for granted. How many people had such a cozy life? With so many friends, a husband who loved her, accomplishments that most professors would die for. For god sakes, she even had a dog. I feel that I am doing her a favor. I want her life, and she isn't exactly appreciating it herself, so I am giving her an opportunity. She's finally getting the break that she thinks she deserves. Of course, I was planning on taking her before I read her journals, but now I don't have any guilt.
I imagine I hear her screams, now, from the closet I put her in. I know she is screaming, since she told me she would. No one knows about the closet, except us, and I found out about it from her journals. She had awful dreams about it. I will talk to her later, and explain that no one can hear her--except me. Of course, she already knows it, but it
will nice to remind her. And see the look on her face.
This evening, I am alone in her house--alone in her house for the first time. I am waiting for her husband to get home, from walking the dog. I've tried the ultimate test-- I had doubled for her, with her friends, and coworkers, without anybody noticing--but could I fool her husband? He was the easiest one of all. I came home today and found
him in front of the TV, asleep. I snuggled up against him, and whispered in his ear, "I'm sorry I haven't been spending enough time with you." We even had sex, right on the living room couch.
Sometimes, I wonder, what would I have done if she had ever caught me--for instance, right there on her couch. Maybe I did this, not just for her life, but for the excitement, the thrill--it made the shock on her face even sweeter, since I had even fooled her. I wanted to say, to her, this morning, while I held a knife under her throat, daring her to kick me again, "You should have been more careful with your life."
The day had woken just like any other. He was once more surrounded by the smell of sickness. The deep white sheets remaining cold and dry around him. Crisp. As if he had lost the ability to perspire.
Every morning that he woke in that bed it seemed surreal to him. As if he couldn't have been sleeping there last night. Every morning the cold light and the crisp bed clothes would return as if from a distant place. Even now as he lay, conscious, in his everyday surroundings, he felt the distance.
This place, this confused light, this life all seemed wrong. As if he was in a bright shadow of himself. He felt distant from his present and longed to recall his past.
The old man was lying in his bed. The bed that he had lived in for uncountable days. He was in the living room, where his bed had been since his niece had decided that the loneliness of upstairs would be too much for him to bare. She had moved him down stairs without a question, but he had never protested. He knew that she wouldn't have listened. "She'd have just talked down to me in that horrible matter of fact way," he told himself. He was too weary for that.
He hated having his bed in that room. It made him feel like a freak show. Like his sickness was being put on display. So that friends, cousins, and nephews could come in and pity him. They all showed him that empathy. They all knew that he was going to die.
He woke up to the smell of his medical cabinet. The air was tepid and stale. After seven minutes of semi-consciousness he noticed that he smelt the ashes from his fireplace. His bed was directly opposed to that gray mound. Soon the smell of extinguished fire had filled the room with death.
This was the time which he feared more then any other. He glanced at his old grandfather clock, which was situated prominently by the mantle-piece. Six thirty three. He knew that he'd have to lie there - alone and breathing that death - for another hour and a half. Then his niece would awake and fill the room with her comfortable banal conversation. He hated the fact that he needed her.
He drifted in and out of sleep for an hour or so. Then she arrived. She was by now, an old woman herself. Her short gaunt hunched frame shuffled busily in through the door. Every morning that he saw her, he was startled by how old she had become. Her misplaced faith and silly make-do happiness which he had once taken for youthful naiveté had stayed with her throughout. He knew, though nobody would ever have told him so, that she was now commonly regarded as an old fool.
She had been taking care of him since his wife died of cancer nearly forty years earlier. It was something which she was only too glad to do as she was by that stage already thirty nine, and not yet married. This was regarded by the whole family as the best thing for both of them.
In the earlier days he had rejoiced in showing her up in front of his friends by addressing her with witty sardonic comments beyond her comprehension. She would always respond to the joke with the same matter-of-fact logic which had framed her whole life and had seemingly never failed her. Not for one second.
That thought made him smile now. Never had he been anything but her superior. He was an educated man. A family man. A success. And now... Now his life relied on her. It made him furious to be in her debt. He detested that guilt.
He swallowed down her ludicrously bright pills. He was told about the weather forecast, the morning headlines, the obituaries from local radio, and all of the other minuscule details which seem to give her world its own unique sense of meaning.
Then she was gone again. Gone to prepare his morning porridge which she always said that he insisted on having. Her conversation was little more to him then background noise. He did not listen to anything she said. Nevertheless, he felt better after her visit. He made a conscious decision to go back to sleep. He knew that that would do him good.
Sleep came easily to him that morning. Normally he had to struggle with himself. He would detest the fact that he was tired. He would feel aged and lonely. This morning was different however. As he began to doze, he just knew that this sleep would do him good.
It wasn't until his eyes had finally shut that he began to think about death. Then the thought hit him suddenly. His dream-like state had not prepared him for this. His first thought was that he had to fight the feeling. However, he knew instantly the futility of this thought. He was too old to struggle. Too weary to fight death.
He was now resigned to that finality. Thrown into a fit of fear. All through his life he had ignored this. When he fell ill he had fought it. When he grew old he detested it. Now suddenly death was real.
Death was real, and present, but still it eluded him. As he struggled for his last breath, the mystery persisted. Meaning eluded him. This should not be so. The old man turned in his bed in the middle of his living room - everything that was to him abominable. Still searching for that final dignity which only death could afford him - revelation. Still reaching for his final breath.
Revelation was short, kind, and terrifying. Nothing. Glorious Nothing.
"May I help you, Miss?" He spoke suddenly, causing her to jump.
"Yes, um?" her voice trailed off.
"This is on of the most atypical pieces of history I have owned in quite a while. It a has rather extensive history." He began speaking as if he knew what she was going to ask. "It used to be housed in an old castle in Northern Ireland. It is said to have supernatural powers."
Abbie snickered at his words, wondering how many people fell for that line. "Sure it does." She said sarcastically.
The strange man's tone turned serious. "You don't know what has gone on inside its reflective gaze. You don't know what happened to people who have owned it." He stated and turned to walk away. She stopped him.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you." He stopped. "How much does it cost?"
"For you, Miss, fifty dollars." She was surprised by the cheapness of the piece. She paid the fifty dollars quickly, wanting to leave as soon as possible. She never noticed the sinister smile on the man's face as she walked out the door. Something about the shop made her skin crawl.
She drove quickly, wanting to get home as soon as she possibly could. When she got home, she hauled the immense frame into her house. She walked around the house, trying to decide where to put the massive frame. She decided to put it in her bedroom, moving her old mirror into the hall. She went to her room and stared at herself in the mirror. She turned from it to get ready for bed, too quickly to see a hand reach out of the glass after her.
That night Abbie couldn't sleep. Her room seemed bright. Moonlight shone in through an open window. She finally fell asleep. A strange light began to radiate from the glass, piercing the darkness. Abbie quietly moaned in her sleep, turning to face the mirror. A ripple began to form on the smooth surface of the glass. A dark shadow appeared the glass, forming the shape of a man. Abbie was in a deep sleep, oblivious of the transformation that was occurring in her bedroom. The figure stepped out of the mirror, moving soundlessly onto the hardwood floor. The air tuned frigid as Abbie began to shiver. Her skin turned pale with cold. The ghostly shape walked towards the bed, eyes glowing with sinister delight. Abbie began to dream. It walked over to where Abbie was sleeping and lay an icy hand on her neck. Abbie still dreamed. The figure closed his glowing eyes and entered her dreams. A slight breeze filled the room. Inside Abbie's mind the figure followed her. She ran through the darkness, running from the shadow with the glowing eyes, deeper into the unknown darkness in front of her. A hand reached out to grab her. She screamed in terror, waking up hot and cold at the same time. A shiver ran down her stiff body. She wrapped her blankets around her, staring into the darkness. A shadow moved across the floor and disappeared at the mirror. Abbie was alone.
The phone rang, bringing Abbie out of the restless sleep she finally had. Her tired hand searched and finally found the cordless phone.
"Hello?" She whispered.
"Abbie?" the male voice asked.
"Mmmmmm?" She was still asleep.
"Abbie, it's 12:43. Where are you?" Abbie's eyes popped wide open as she realized who was on the other end.
"Michael? I'm sorry. I barely slept last night. I kept having these dreams?" Her voiced trailed off.
"What kind of dreams?" Michael asked, concerned. Abbie rarely dreamed, let alone lost sleep because of them.
"I don't know," she began, "It was a nightmare of sorts.
"Probably something you ate." He replied.
"I didn't eat last night."
"Maybe is was something you didn't eat." Michael laughed. "What did you do yesterday?"
"Nothing really. I worked around the house and found this unusual antique shop. I bought a very particular mirror."
"Mirror, mirror on the wall?" he began singing. "Well, are you getting out of bed, Miss Forgetful?"
"Give me thirty minutes. Sorry about the lunch date. Have you eaten?"
"No, I decided to find out what was up with you. I did, however, meet this nice young lady?" He said jokingly. Abbie ignored him.
"Thirty minutes." She hung up the phone and crawled out of bed. The shower did little to loosen the stiffness in her back and neck but the tired eyes remained. She stood in front of the mirror for a long time trying to find a way through makeup to cover the dark circles under her eyes. She moved her wet hair off her neck to pull it up. She didn't notice the small burn-like mark on the base of her neck.
The doorbell rang just as she was walking out of her bedroom. She walked slowly to the door, knowing who would be standing there.
"Goodness, Abbie, you look like crap!" He exclaimed as he walked in her door and gave her a quick kiss.
"Thanks, Michael, you sure do know how to treat a lady. I know I do look pretty bad but not as bad as I feel." She rubbed her neck. "My neck is so sore."
"Is that supposed to be a hint?" he asked. "Sit down." She sat down as he began to massage her neck. He leaned his head slightly to kiss her neck when he noticed the something. "What is that?"
"What is what?" she asked him as she turned to face him. He pointed to a strange mark on her neck. With a confused look on her face she got up to look in her old mirror in the hall.
"That mark." he repeated. It looks like a, a burn." He looked at it closely again. "Wait."
"What?" Abbie asked, trying to see what he was looking at again.
"Its in some weird shape." She finally turned her body in such a way as to see the mark.
"I've seen that before." She said quietly.
"What did you do Abbie, go out and get a tattoo with out telling me?" Michael grinned and gave her a hug. Abbie could still see the mark as Michael held her, both of them wondering what the mark was and where it came from.
That night she was afraid to go to sleep. She laid in her bed, clutching an extra pillow. She stared at her reflection in the mirror. Something about the mirror was strange. Her eyes wandered over the frame and came to rest on the top. She put a hand on her neck where the mark was. Her eyes finally closed. The figure from the mirror moved across the floor and once again came to rest at her bedside. It laid a hand on her again as he entered her dreams. Abbie turned her head sharply but still slept. In her dream, she was lying on her bed, this time, and unable to move. A shadow began moving across the floor to the foot of her bed. She tried to cry out but no sound would come out of her mouth. The shadow slowly began to move across the bed, covering her. She stared up into a pair of glowing eyes. Her heart began to beat fast as she struggled against the sudden paralysis. A scream finally ripped through her throat, echoing throughout her room. She stared at her reflection in her mirror. A shadow lay behind her. She turned quickly but it was gone. She grabbed her blanket and pillow and moved into the living room to the couch to sleep. Her eyes never closed. She stayed awake for the rest of the night, afraid to close her eyes.
The phone rang early, waking Michael up. He reached for the phone, looking at the time at the same time.
"Hello?" he said and asked at the same time.
"Its me." Abbie replied. Michael sat up in his bed.
"What is it? What's wrong? It's 4:34 in the morning!"
"I had another dream."
"Again? So, you are having a reoccurring nightmare."
"I don't think so. I saw the shadow again."
"The shadow in your dream?"
"No, this one was real. I saw it the night before too, always moving towards the mirror and disappearing once it reaches it."
"So?" Michael was wondering what she was getting at.
"I know where I saw the mark."
"The mark on my neck." Michael grunted. '"It's the same pattern that is on the mirror."
"So what? What, did you get burned by the mirror in your sleep or something?" Abbie shook her head as she tried to explain her reasoning.
"Michael, the man at the shop told me that the mirror had supernatural powers." She was whispering now. Michael began laughing. "What?"
"You must be going crazy! Do you think the mirror is to blame for all this?"
"I don't know, Michael, I don't know." She sighed. "All I want to do is figure out what is causing all this."
"Try to sleep. You're tired and stressed. I'll talk to you in the morning then we'll figure out what's going on."
Abbie sighed and hung up the phone. She walked back to her room and stared into the darkness of the glass. The hair on the back of her neck began to stand up. She saw it again, the shadow, in the corner of her eye. She reached for a large wooden cross from her dresser. The room suddenly became chilly as a breeze began to blow through the room. She then saw it in front of the mirror. Two glowing eyes hovered in the darkness, in the midst of a translucent outline. She stepped back in fright. Suddenly it was gone. Her eyes searched the room wildly for the circles. She felt something move past her as she moved to the middle of the room. Her breath became audible as she stood, searching for the ghostly shape. She felt something on her neck. It was icy cold. Metal-like fingers dug into her skin. Her heart began to throb as she became paralyzed with fear. It led her to the mirror. The glass had changed from a reflective surface to one of ripples and spirals. It began turning, twisting. Its motion began to hypnotize her. She tried to resist but was powerless to the invisible force behind her. She saw that she was still holding the cross. She raised her hand and threw it. The glass shattered, spraying her with flecks of glass. She fell to the floor as she heard her front door open. Someone ran into the room, turning on the light. She was blinded temporarily but from the arms that wrapped themselves around her, she knew who it was. Michael began talking quickly as he looked around the room.
"I tried calling but the line was busy. I got worried when I couldn't reach you and remembered that you said something about a shadow." Abbie was crying by this point, exhausted. "I remembered that I had a key so I got here as quick as I could." He looked around the room. "What happened?" Abbie couldn't speak. All she could do was cry and cling to Michael. He whispered in her ear. "It's all over now, it's all over..."
G'Day mates! That's me up there catnappin'.
Let me introduce meself. The humans call me Sammy, dunno why, 'cos I would answer to Pus!
I live in "Down Under" land they call Australia.
Great place mate, it be full of Aussies. :)
Well I dunno how old I was in 1992/93 when it all began. You see I was just a little tike when I was walkin' wiv me Mum up the road, when all of a sudden I heard this human woman voice say, "Pus, Pus." Of course I was curious. (Guess what? It never kill me.) So, I trots over to the woman and I licked her toe. Well mate, that did it, I was set. She picked me up and hugged me. :)
That human woman is now me "Mum" and she luvs me sooooo much.
It was her daughter Erin (now me sis) who named me Sammy - I get Sam, Samualson, Sambo, Baby Catz, and Baby *ugh*. "Mum" got me de-sexeded, so I got no doodads and can't make off-springs. I used to have a bro called "Bowie" and a sis called "Duchess" but they got disappeared. The story goes that they was stolen for the Chinese Restaurant. Lots of me mates went missing that way too.
Me life is good agen now, for awhile it weren't.
Ya see, me "Mum," she up and went to Texas in the USA and I had to stay wiv Erin and Andrew, me other bro. and sis ya know? The human kind? Well I didn't like it there - I stayed under the bed, all day and all night, until one day they let me outside - ah ha, FREEDOM. So I runded away. I went back to me old house to find me "Mum" and ask her why she do this to me. Alas! No "Mum." I look everywhere, she be nowhere to be seen. Strangers in my house wiv little humans. So I hide under the house and me "Mum's" beaut garden now gettin wrecked by them lil' humans. They scared me, call me "kitty, kitty." *ugh*
Anyways, (this I ain't proud of) I had ta eat, so I became a murderer of birds, roaches, moths and mice! I missed me Sardines and me tin chicken and me "Mum."
The months went past and oh so slowly. Then one cold and windy night when I was huddled under the strangers house, I heard a distant vaguely familiar voice! Could it be? Was I dreamin'? Nah! So I wented back to sleep. An hour later I hear it agen, this time I knows it's not a dream cos I was wakin' up to go get me a snack. Then the voice stop agen. So I goes on the prowl lookin' for food and I stopped at the front gate of me old establishment when I sees her - she be approachin' me, she do look so familiar - smells familiar. "Sammy, Sammy," she call.
Well I knows now. It's me "MUM" and she's come HOME!!!!!!!!
So I rolls on the ground at her feet and she passes me test! She rubs me belly as I say "purrrrt" and I knows it, it be her. She picks me up and takes me across the road to where she be stayin'.
Mate I tell ya, I scared so I scratched her and bolt back across the road, and she come after me wiv tears in her eyes. We go thru' the same process agen only this time she very strong and gets me in the 'nother stranger's house and I roar and climb all over the fly-screen door but she get distressed and hold me all the time. Then! she feed me :)) And mate I be sooooo hungry. I succumbed.
So, here we are together agen in our own new place with some strange furniture but lots'a luvs and cuddles. I don't leave her side no more and I don't venture outside ever, 'cos I gotta keep me eye on her.
Besides, she got a computa' and I finded me a cyber-girlfriend called Abby who live in the USA. So I gotta keep all of me lives intact...
"Yeah." He's so nonchalant.
"I figured. She wouldn't tell me outright. Just kind of hinted at it."
The question that goes unasked is "Was she better than I was?" But she already knows the answer, even if he won't say it. She feels as if her insides will melt out of her, like blood will pour from her eyes instead of the salty tears she has been holding back for so long. But what does it matter now? It's over with. She can deal with it. She has before. So what if he has meant the world to her, if he has been the only thing keeping her alive in this shit hole of a world? She obviously doesn't mean that much to him. She knows now that she was just another fuck to boost his already too-high ego. But like she told herself before, it doesn't matter now. She'll go home to wallow in self pity alone, like usual.
"Let me have another hit. Then you can drop me off wherever." He passes her the bowl. The wood is worn smooth from being handled so much. It fits in her hand like it always did; the object is comforting to her. She inhales deeply and holds in the thick smoke.
"You don't have to be such a bitch about it. I never said I cared about you, or that I loved you, or anything. I never made any promises." He's getting angry now. He gets this way a lot with her.
"Yeah. Sure. But you made me think you cared. You never fucking told me anything god damn it! You could have told me when you fucked my girlfriend! You could have told me you didn't want me anymore! You could have said SOMETHING!" Now she is getting frustrated. She thinks she might cry. She looks out the window and stares. Her high is already wearing off. She wants to be out of his car, away from him, so she can cry and not humiliate herself. She thinks of the razor she has tucked into her wallet, and she smiles a secret smile.
GG Allin is singing from the speakers. "Carmallia, hold me tighter, oh I think I'm sinking down... And I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town." He had been the first to introduce her to GG, the rudest, crudest, most vile and degrading punk rocker ever. She loved GG.
"Why should I have told you? It's my life isn't it? Did you think you meant that much to me that I should tell you everything I did without you?" His eyes burn like embers in their dark sockets, scorching her mind with imagined waves of angry heat.
"Yes god damn it. I thought we were friends for christ's fuckin' sake. You could have said SOMETHING." She is getting repetitive.
She sings to herself, a Nine Inch Nails song that perfectly suits her mood. "I used to be so big and strong / I used to know my right from wrong / I used to never be afraid / I USED TO BE SOMEBODY / I used to have something inside / Now just this hole that's open wide / I used to want it all / I used to be somebody / I'll cross my heart and hope to die / But the needle's already in my eye / And all the worlds weight is on my back and I don't even know why / And what I used to think was me is just a fading memory / I looked him right in the eye and said 'goodbye.'"
She realizes he is saying something. "...way out of proportion."
"What?" She asks. She feels stupid now. But she can't very well get any lower in his eyes.
He shakes his head and laughs. "Nothin? dude. Ferget it." He turns in his seat and starts the car. He drives fast. She can tell he wants to be rid of her. It's too late now to change anything. She's fucked it up again, just like she told him she would. He hadn't believed her. Nobody believed her until it was too fucking late. And nobody told her anything.
She swims in her haze of self hatred. She doesn't want to go home. She will have to see her mother, have to talk to her, explain the tear stains on her face. She can't handle that right now. "Just drop me off here." He slows down and she opens the door. "See ya 'round like a fruit loop." She slams the door behind her and watches his taillights as he speeds away.
She reaches into her pocket to get out her cigarettes and her lighter. She pulls out a Lucky Strike and lights the sky-blue Bic. Just as she is inhaling the first hit, a rain drop hits the end of her Lucky and it goes out. "Fuck me up the ass. This WOULD have to happen now." She flicks at the end of the damp cig and relights it. "It's okay. I was feeling too dry."
A cold wind makes her trench fly out behind her, whips her green braided hair around her face. She shivers and wraps her arms around herself. She thinks the tears might be freezing into trails of ice... But no, the rain is washing her tears away. She can't even tell if she is actually crying anymore, or if it's just the rain dripping onto her face.
She reaches the playground and seats herself on a wet swing. She is still hugging herself tightly. Her worn-out Docs dig holes into the soggy sand beneath her. There is a flash of pain and she notices that her Lucky is almost out, burned down to where it is clutched between her fingers. She takes one last hit and flicks it into the dirt. She decides it is time to go home.
She trudges through the puddles on the street, soaking her striped socks and her cammy pants. She feels pain, like a distant throbbing, from the burn on her hand. The pain is so far away... She can't tell if she likes that, the feeling like she's numb all over, like the pain is just a memory of pain from a long time ago. She guesses it is better than feeling it head-on. She reaches her back door, turns the key in the lock. Two wild-eyed children with mussed hair and dirty faces are playing on the living room floor. They call her 'sissy.' One of them, the eldest, starts to run around, goading the younger to follow. The noises fall around her like shattering crystals of sanity. She goes up the stairs to her room, peels off the wet boots and socks and lays down on her bed. The springs dig into her side but she is used to it. She cries herself to sleep.
She wakes up from a dream she does not want to leave. He was there with her, holding her, talking to her after such a long silence. But now her eyes are opening, and the last shreds of her dream are wiped away like spider webs from a dusty corner.
She sits up and licks the salty tears from her lips where they fell. She walks to her closet and pulls down a black lace shirt. she strips off her torn, long-sleeved cotton shirt, given to her by yet another ex-boyfriend, and pulls on the lace one. She walks to the bathroom and looks at her reflection. There is a spider crawling down the mirror, right above her right eye. She does not like what she sees. But she decides it doesn't matter, because no matter what she does no one else will like what they see either.
She swats a green braid from her face and turns on the tap. The cold water shocks the last of the sleep from her tired body. She goes downstairs and out the back door, lights a Lucky and sits on the porch. The sun has not yet reached the place where she sits, and she is grateful for that. She hears someone walking through the parking lot and looks up with an inquiring expression on her face. The confusion turns to a surprised grin.
Weazil walks up and stands in front of her. She is dressed in a pair of plaid bondage pants, which she constantly trips over, and a small black and white tank-top. Her Docs are worn out and dusty, and the cuffs of her pants are as faded out as her eyes. Her hair is a snakes nest of dirty blond tendrils, spiked out with dry glue. In a voice so quiet it is barely audible, she says hello.
"Hi..." Ghost replies in a voice just as soft. "I was kinda hopin' I'd see ya today. I just woke up."
"Dude, it's like, four in the afternoon."
"Yeah well. When you're asleep you tend not to care about what goes on in the outside world."
"Yeah I guess yer right. So anyway, let's go. Don't ask where, just get yer ass up."
Ghost stands and goes to the door. "Just let me get my shoes." She steps inside the door, pulls on her Docs, and yells for her mother. "I'm goin' to the park. I'll be back later."
She walks out before her mother has a chance to respond, or protest. She steps off the porch and they walk through the parking lot towards the street. Ghost reaches for Weazil's hand and their fingers intertwine. They speak without speaking, the very contact of their flesh a silent conversation.
"I talked to Vlad yesterday."
"Did you really now. Isn't that great." Her voice holds so much sarcasm, like stinging shards of glass driving into Ghost's soul. But she's used to it by now and pretends it doesn't hurt.
"Insanely interesting. We had a great time. Whatever. I'll not bore you with it."
"No, please do. I want to hear."
"Tough shit, yer not gonna hear. All you need to know is that I know. So now you don't have to hide it. It's not like I'm stupid, I figured it out a while ago. Did you think I was that unobservant? But anyway..." She untwines her fingers from the grip and wraps her arms about herself.
"Whatever. It's not like you own me or anything."
"I never claimed that I did. I just thought it meant something to you. There I go thinking again." Ghost starts walking faster. "Vlad's house isn't too far away, why don't you just walk there and spend some time with him. You'd probably have more fun there anyway."
"Yer right, I probably would. He's a better fuck than you anyway."
"How the hell would you know? You fucked just about everyone but me."
Weazil turns on her heal and stalks away. Over her shoulder she shouts "I'll tell Vlad you said hi." Ghost can hear her laugh echo through the trees. She sits on the muddy ground and puts her head on her knees.
Back at home Ghost pulls out a small plastic ziploc bag and her razor. Weazil is gone... gone for real this time and Ghost knows it. She cuts the coke into thick white lines with her blood-rusted razor and leans over with her rolled-up dollar bill. Something wets falls onto the line she is about to snort. She drops the dollar bill and puts her hands up to her eyes.
"No. Not again... please..." Pathetic, she thinks to herself. But she can't stop. She sits up and swipes away the wet drop of powdery stuff and sucks it away into her dry mouth. She forms a new line and snorts it, then another and another. She waits for the burn to fade and snorts the last line. She lays back and waits for the numb oblivion.
Pathetic, she's thinking again. So worthless. How do you kill nothing? She asks herself. She picks up the blade lying on the table and answers herself. "Like this."
The blood from her throat seeps into the floorboards to create a lasting impression, her final message to the world.
There were no special articles about it, no critics reviews. It appeared one day the signs and advertisements giving the same information with the date. When the week arrived the dates were dropped. That week's television guides gave no description. Nothing but its mystery made it special, yet 30 million people watched the first night.
For those that saw it, it was the topic of conversation. Yet oddly no one could remember what it was about. They could remember that there was romance and action, horror and comedy, thrills and drama. Every type of genre possible. It was the most amazing movie ever. Yes movie. The budget of a big screen movie yet put directly on television. People were able to watch it in the comfort of their own home, with the lights off and the shades drawn.
The next night was a repeat showing for all those that missed it the first time, and for those wanting to see it again. Husbands who had watched it alone the night before had their wives watch; wives their husbands. Parents let their children watch and children asked their parents to watch it with them. Children missed their bedtimes to stay up late and parents forgot early morning meetings to watch the whole thing.
It became a family gathering. Whole households watched together, and began the bonding they had forgotten about. And still the next day no one could remember what it had been about.
There were still people who missed it, not caught up in the initial mystery. But as the week wore on and the subject of The Door didn't diminish but increased, they began to wonder what they missed. Those that had missed it tried to put the mystery out of their heads. They had missed it and it was too late to see it. Though they stopped talking about it, it remained strongly on their minds.
Those that had seen it were worse off. They couldn't put it out of their minds or conversation. Those that had seen it once wanted a chance to see it again (and were secretly jealous of those who had seen it twice). Those that had seen it wanted to see it a third time (and were secretly bragging to themselves for seeing it both times).
But it was hopeless wishes. The ads had been replaced by potatoes, facial cream, news clips, and other uninteresting commercials. They looked for new ads but none admitted to it. They all knew the show had gone and it was futile for such hope.
Then the rumors began. Another station was playing the commercials. Commuters thought they heard it between being advertised between yesterday's top hit and today's. Others swore they caught a glimpse of it on buses as they turned the opposite corners. For all those rumors no one remembered putting commercials on the television. The DJs didn't remember playing the clip between songs, and not one of the bus riders remembered seeing it on their bus.
The rumors escalated as people insisted seeing the commercials on numerous stations. Monday morning two weeks after the last showing a new exciting rumor started. Those that saw the ad said there was a new part. A number. People speculated it was the channel number. But when they went to see what was playing on that channel there was nothing but fuzz. A channel that just didn't exist. Calls poured into the cable companies who did everything they could to insist that channel just didn't exist. Pure snow. The Door, no matter how much the cable companies employees wanted it, was not showing on that channel.
The week wore on with agonizing slowness the way weeks can when there is a promise of fun. The Saturday, normally filled with plans of frolic were spent inside hiding in dark corners. Televisions were left on all day flipping between channels, always landing on the non existent channel. Snow filled many screens that day. People went to bed early hoping to get the day over as quick as possible. It was like Christmas in the middle of summer and everyone was expecting Santa Claus.
By going to bed so early many woke earlier. They lay in bed not admitting to being awake, tossing and turning. They put pillows over their heads and pulled the covers to their chins trying to deny day its admittance and keep it night. Finally admitting defeat people emerged from their sleep and went about wasting the day. They made and ate breakfast. They cleaned those dishes and then proceeded to clean the whole kitchen. Gardening was done, cars worked on, toys broken and then fixed, crafts finished and started, books started, phone calls made and little to no television was watched during the daylight hours. (No one wanted to jinx themselves into having the television burn out on them before The Door was suppose to air.)
Though the television was ignored the time was not. Clocks were checked and rechecked, wristwatches wound and alarm clocks set. And this was only before lunch. It only got worse after lunch. Projects were still being done, only now have their attention was fixed on the time. Casual glances at the time became long stares trying to convince the seconds to go by faster. Many people were frozen in place for long periods of time their minds drifting away on the face of a clock. They were able to drag themselves out of their stupor to find that time had passed. Happy that it was moving they would begin their project a new. Their eyes would slowly drift back to the timepieces and the process would begin again.
Slowly the clock ticked its final minutes to 9pm. TVs were turned on and tuned into the channel. There was still snow, but they waited. No one dared to flip the channel for fear of missing any of it. Clocks reached 9pm within a few minutes of each other. Yet there was still snow. The anxiety began to rise as people stared at the screens and their clocks. They were afraid maybe they got the time wrong, the day wrong, the week wrong.
Waiters stomach knotted at another week of waiting. As the anxiety began to rise further the snow stopped. The screen went black and all eyes waited.
Not everyone had seen the movie. For some reason or another many of those that had had yet to see it, missed it again. All that had seen it before watched again. Not one missed it. And again it was discussed. People who had never spoken to each other before began conversations in hallways and bathrooms. People that had been too shy, approached everyone knowing they could join in. And those that hadn't seen it were beginning to feel left out.
The next night everyone that could watched. Houses were dark with only the glow of televisions to light their homes. People watched with their mouths open and drooling, their eyes wide yet looking at something further then the TV. Their minds were blank as they watched the images of The Door. All chuckled lightly when something amusing happened, they held their breathes during the fighting moments, became excited during the sexual scenes.
Images filled everyone's head, playing the same movie in everyone's head. And at the end of the 2 hours people pulled themselves out of their self inflicted stupor. They had to blink their eyes several times, smack their mouths, many had to make dashes to the bathrooms. Slowly and regretfully televisions were turned off. None found it odd or strange that only snow and static was playing on their televisions, no rolling credits and commercials, just the snow.
The next day at work started off tense. There were still a few out there who hadn't seen it, for lack of a television, working, or lack of a television at work. And somehow all that had seen it knew who hadn't seen it. While driving those that hadn't seen The Door cut off those that didn't, nudging them out of the lanes and purposefully drove slow.
At the office conversations were cut short and glares were happening more at work. At shopping centers those that hadn't seen it were made to wait in longer and slower lines, were given more hassle when making payments and were watched closely and followed. In every situation possible those that had watched made things difficult for those that hadn't and couldn't. Those left in the minority searched for each other. It took them longer as they didn't have the special vision the others did, but eventually they found each other. They talked in whispers and in corners, trying to avoid the others.
All of this was done unconsciously. The two groups clung to each other by some unknown bond. One the powerful the other the fearful.
The Door began playing every night. The separation of the two groups became wider. And those in the seen began to fragment into their own subsections. Starting with the number of times they had seen it and then into the genre they liked best. Horror freaks, sex addicts, adventurers, romantics.
Slowly those in the had not seen moved into the have. They formed their groups slowly, into the once seen, twice seen and so on.
Soon whole offices were members of one of the numbers. There was no longer the have not seen to out cast. So they began with each other. Ones fighting with tens. Romantics fighting with sex addicts. Arguments flared and the fighting escalated. But The Door continued to show night after night. And in those few hours there was peace and silence. No movement anywhere, except
Out where static meets to make the televisions crackle and fuzz It waited. Playing with signals, changing patterns. For hours people watched Its snow seeing the patterns swirl and wrap around. It played with the minds that watched, touching emotions long since subdued. It wanted to separate friends and family, and to turn to It for guidance. And it began to happen. People began to look for answers in the static, seeking what wisdom It could give. And It made the static dance, and gave Its advice. Those with the highest number saw it first while others were just beginning to understand.
Species finale. Everyone understood It was time to do. The message was clear. The Door would continue to play every night forever. But as always a good show must come to end. The message swirled among the static and let Its watchers create the best ending ever.
The following is part of a daily journal kept by a Detroit detective. At first, his name was kept secret, under the circumstances in which you will learn. I will tell his name though, not that it matters now. Because no one cares. The detective's name is Alex Wylie. No, you don't know him.
Alex was one of the best detectives in the Motor City. I don't want to go through any details about the man. There was only so much information they'd give me (they being the wonderful men and women who keep this sort of thing quiet). I didn't want to rely on them too much for fear of becoming too dependent of them. Now you're probably asking what my name is, since under the title of this article reads: "Author Unknown." That's just the way I want to keep it, thank you. Besides, there isn't a soul out there who'd give a rat's ass to know me anyway. Well, maybe a few of those high ranking secret keepers. I can't keep a secret, that's why this journal is going public. If you find it bizarre, unusual, or even unbelievable - don't worry, you're not alone. I hardly believed it myself. Anyway, if you don't believe it, too bad, you've already bought the magazine this article is in.
Since you've probably already read every other article in this magazine, and you're reading this article out of sheer boredom, believe this - it happened. It happened for real. So, with no further delays, here's an excerpt from Alex Wylie's journal.
January 21st, 1995:
The day the body was discovered, if you could still consider it a body. Though all the parts were still there, it was hard to decipher what the hell happened. Hell, even the coroner was puzzled. Heaven help the poor soul.
January 24th, 1995:
I saw the autopsy report today. It read: "Severe dismemberment (no shit-I saw that with my own eyes), and not a trace of blood." Dismemberment, of course, but no blood? None what so ever. The damnedest thing about the body parts; they appeared as if someone drained the blood out of them. Sorta like in those vampire movies I've seen as a kid. I pray this is one, and only one psycho we catch before things get out of hand.
January 25th, 1995:
Dental records show the body to be that of a Jeffery Springs, age 34. Local business man. Closed casket.
January 29th, 1995:
The worst day, if that's possible for Detroit homicide. Two more bodies were found. I was the first at the hideous scene, wishing I hadn't been called at all, but I want to catch this sick son of a bitch. Almost identical killings, except the bodies are intact. The way it looks someone or something beat the hell out of them, then ripped out their throats. Once again, no trace of blood. This city seems to have someone or something pissed off big-time. I hope this doesn't get to me. The bodies were that of a male and a female. Just kids. Looks like another closed casket, only for two.
January 30th, 1995:
Woke up (damned mistake), ate breakfast, and went to work (6:30 a.m.). Write more if anything happens. 12:46 p.m.: Nothing really happened, no drained bodies, no suspects, and of course no leads. Hopefully, something will come along in the next couple of days. Almost forgot, Sheri Milner wants to go out, but I've got more pressing matters. Maybe a night out is just what I need. We'll see.
February 2nd, 1995:
Got the latest autopsy reports, the bodies were those of Adam Kaiser, 19, and Julie Abrams, 17. This is the reason my job sucks and nobody wants it. Should have been a prison block supervisor or even a McDonald's manager. Over 50 billion served, or some shit like that. God, I still hope this doesn't go too far. No leads, no clues, no motives, just clean murder in and out. Oh, and no blood of course, but a faint sign of fingerprints. The lab can't get an exact match. They said the prints could have been smeared during the struggle. Those kids went to Garland High. Go Tigers! Though it seems hardly the time.
February 6th, 1995:
Yep, same ol' shit. More bodies, all the same. There was two again this time. Oddly enough, Mr. Springs was found just eight miles from my house. The two teens were found only four miles away. Coincidence, or just pure ol' screwed up imagination. Can't hardly sleep anyway. Who could after writing and seeing all this shit happen. For what it's worth, goodnight.
February 7th, 1995:
Too damn tired to write anything.
February 9th, 1995:
Don't want to go into details about the two bodies found. Do I need to remind you? I still haven't got shit on who or what is doing this. The Detroit police put a curfew in order. Hope like hell people listen.
February 10th, 1995:
Still haven't found anything. Besides, that's not what I'm writing about this time. Sheri asked me out again. Sort of like a take it or leave it deal. But, in my own best interest, I decided to accept. Maybe it'll help me get my mind off the things happening.
I still hope.
February 13th, 1995:
Another body found. That's not anything new, is it? You guessed it, blood gone. BAM! Vanished without a trace. What's unusual about this one is, like the first body, there was dismemberment, but no sign of the body parts. Arms and legs, nowhere in sight. Hell, even the head was gone. The pants were stripped off. That was the only way we could tell what sex the body was, it was male.
February 14th, 1995:
Forgot to mention yesterday, the body was found just two miles from my house. Starting to get a little paranoid about that. It kind of bothers me. But, then again who wouldn't be bothered by it. Can't wait until my date Saturday with Sheri. If going out doesn't take my mind off this, I don't know what the hell will. Write more about the body later. I'll know more myself then.
February 16th, 1995:
The body, or what was left, was a John Doe. It appears to be in the range of mid thirties to early forties. Once again, no motive. Should I mention, I'm on my fourth cup of joe? Getting damn near impossible to sleep. This killer(s) has no set pattern like normal killers. He or she, or it, just kills when they feel the hunger to kill. No motive, no clues, and no witnesses. I have to believe I'm doing my best.
February 17th, 1995:
Finally, something came up. The missing body parts I mentioned earlier, they were found. Some old lady found them dumped in her back yard. She said the sight almost gave her heart failure. I can relate. Being in this business for so many years, finding strewn body parts in the back yard isn't my cup of tea. To top it all off, the back yard they were found in is a mere mile from my front door. Anyway, got a little sleep last night. Not enough to write home about. That reminds me, I'll do that later. My date with Sheri is tomorrow night. Tell you all about it.
As you may or may not know, Mr. Wylie didn't get to write about his date. Why? Go ahead, put everything together. Alex Wylie, a well known and respected detective of the Detroit Police department. He wrote he couldn't sleep. Wrote that fact almost redundantly. All of the killings happened just after midnight. Strange coincidence he couldn't sleep? Can't ask him anyway. "Why?" you ask again. Alex Wylie is dead. Let me take you through the events that led up to his death. Remember, this is the best information I could get. Alex and his date, Sheri, went to some fine Italian restaurant. The name isn't important. What I'm about to tell you is. After eating they headed to the theater, deciding to catch a late show. The film let out, which from what I was told, it was quarter till eleven p.m. Driving in Alex's car, of course, the two went to Sheri's apartment. When they arrived, I imagine she asked him to come in. In which he did. By this time my guess is that it was 11:30 p.m. Some say they had sex that night. On the first date, but this is the 90's. Some practice safe sex, some don't give a damn. The ironic part is coming, be patient. Remember, I said the killings occurred just after midnight. Well, I got the coroner's report to confirm it. Alex kept his journal with him everywhere he went. Odd that way I guess. I secretly obtained the last entry. Don't ask for my sources, you'll be wasting mostly my time. The crucial part of the journal was kept out of the news. No one read it. That's because no one in the Detroit Police department believed it. Even the FBI dismissed it. How I got it isn't as important as reading it for yourself. Here it is:
February 19, 1995:
This apparently is my last entry. I'm lying here bleeding to death. Everyone wondered, now I know. Just wondering how long it will take before I fall unconscious. From what I've seen of the other victims, I hope to hell it's soon. Was caught by surprise. I didn't mention Sheri lived just down the hall, did I? Laying in bed half asleep, and then I felt a sharp, sudden pain in my left wrist. Sheri had bitten into it. I don't know why she's letting me write all this. I guess she'll be moving on, claiming more victims for her hunger. If you don't believe, you'd better believe now. Vampires do exist! I'm slowly being killed by one. Getting dizzy, hard 2 wriiii wrrite anymor e Can't belive it wazzz sommone I trusted..........
This last entry was not tampered with in any way. It is brought to you here in it's original text. Alex Wylie was found in his home, oddly enough, with his left wrist torn out. The autopsy report also showed the remaining blood in his system had been drained.
Believable? I know you ask yourself the questions; A rampant killer on the loose? The victim's blood drained? Some dismembered? Alex Wylie, investigator of the murders, found dead in his home? Blood drained? Impossible. Then you ask; Why not ask Sheri about that night? Damned impossible. You see after Alex was found, Sheri disappeared. Is another city or town in this country having the same murders happen? Is Sheri the vampire Alex claimed she was in his journal? Maybe she actually had feelings for him, he didn't turn up like all the others. If Sheri is what Alex wrote, I doubt her appearance will be the same.
Believe what you believe.
Thank you for your time.
"C'mon Steve! Have some fun - it's Halloween!" she said pulling off her hairy mask. Steve just smiled. He loved Halloween as much as Shannon; he just wasn't too thrilled at her idea for costumes. He turned back to look at the mirror, posing and observing himself when Shannon called him over to the front window of the shop.
"Look at this Steven! You gotta get it! It'll be perfect!" she turned to look at the lady at the cash register to her right, "can I pick this up?"
"Sure thing - just grab the top of it and wiggle it off the stand." The cashier didn't bother to get up.
Steve couldn't see what Shannon was doing.
She turned around to face Steve "Well, what do you think?" She handed Steve a big latex mask. Steve examined it in his hands. It looked very realistic. The rubber head looked like a slightly balding, middle aged man with a bushy mustache and a monocle.
"At least put it on." Shannon prodded. Steve relented. He grabbed the bottom of the huge neck with both hands and stretched the mask open. Placing both each on either side of his head he tried to slide the rubber head on. It wasn't working. The neck almost seemed too small.
"I don't think it fits me." Steve said.
"Here... " she said grabbing the mask from his hands. She secured her hands on the front and back of the head. Placing the inside back of the mask on top of the back of his head, she re-adjusted her grip taking hold at the front of the neck. With one quick motion, she pulled down. The mask effortlessly slid over Steve's entire head. He adjusted it and smoothed it out so it would fit better on his face.
"Well, whaddya think? It looks great! Comfy?" Shannon was grinning widely. Steve walked over to the large floor mirror and gazed at his new head. She was right, it was very convincing; it was snug, not tight though.
"It looks pretty good," he admitted - the rubber face and mouth moved perfectly with his speech.
"Pretty good?! Fix your neck!" Shannon walked over and started stuffing the neck under Steve's shirt and did the top button up.
"You look very good!" the cashier suddenly chimed. She had gotten up and walked over to the pair.
"We'll take it!" was Steve's response.
Fifteen minutes later the couple walked out of the store, each holding a box containing their costumes. Steve however, had the big latex head draped over the top of his box. Placing their outfits in the trunk of Steve's Chevy Cavalier they headed home. The rest of the day seemed to fly by for the two. Steve had the day off from his job at the aerospace research company. Shannon didn't work. She lived at home with Steve and had for some time. They had begun dressing at seven and left the house just in time to miss most of the little trick-or-treaters.
Steve looked over at his girlfriend. Shannon looked as good as ever, except of course for the obvious differences. Her long brown hair draped onto her black furry body, her stubby ape hands clutching the good looking rubber gorilla head in her lap. She met his stare and smiled. Steve turned back to face forward, keeping his eyes firmly on the road ahead. He smiled in anticipation of their evening. The car slowed and came to a stop at the red light. In front of the car a ghost, rabbit and a witch clumsily made their way across the street, tightly holding their candy and laughing amongst each other.
The light turned green and Steve accelerated. He had been with Shannon for as long as he can remember - which isn't saying much. Steve never could remember anything past a few years ago ever since that car crash he had been told he was in. Shannon had told him that someone running a red light had broadsided him. But Steve had no recollection of the event. He remembered no childhood, no graduation. He had no memory of his experiences in high school or university, yet he still retained all of the learned knowledge.
The two had both been looking forward to this costume party for quite some time. They both loved dressing up for Halloween and had rented their costumes in the hopes of capturing the best costume prize. The two were a pair - Shannon, the noticeably shapely gorilla, and Steve the perfect caricature of a wealthy safari hunter.
The car pulled into a gravel parking lot and stopped. Shannon whipped open the door and flew out. She opened the back door behind her seat, reached inside the darkness and pulled something out. Steve had meanwhile gotten out and locked the doors. Shannon was holding his mask in her hand and was displaying it to Steve who couldn't help but smile. The rubber head looked very realistic and it was a tight fit, but it was comfortable once he was able to stuff its neck under his collar. Steve walked over to Shannon on the other side of the car and grabbed the head. Turning around and bending over slightly, Steve grabbed the bottom of the mask and pulled it open wide enough to accept his head. He started pulling the rubber head over his own with little success. So he readjusted the opening so that the inside back of the mask rested against the back of his head and gripping the front with both hands pulled down. The mask began to slowly slide over his head until he was fully inside. Steve stood up and smoothed the rubber face over his own and fit his lips into those on the face. He could now talk with relative ease. After tucking the neck under his collar and buttoning it again, Steve turned around to see a big, hairy gorilla. Shannon's mask was also a snug fit, and although she could not move her mouth nearly as well as Steve could, she could talk pretty well.
"Nice mask... Dr. Livingston I presume?" the muffled voice joked.
"Yeah, thanks... at least I look human!", Steve was looking into the side mirror on his car while he adjusted his face and put on his hat. He did look very convincing and so did his ape. Satisfied with his appearance the two walked, hand and hand into the arena. At the door the couple met up with a clown, Shawn, who was a good friend of the two and who worked with Steve at the aerospace company.
"Evening folks. You guys have ID? There's alcohol at this party." was all the clown bouncer said.
The couple produced some ID, much to the clown's surprise. "Shannon?! Steve?!!?" their was noticeable shock in his voice. Shannon pulled off her head and smiled broadly, "Hey Shawn, nice getup! I didn't think that clowns were your type... "
Shawn took the joke with good humor and laughed... "How 'bout you sir?" he looked at Steve, "I need to see your REAL face to let you in..." Shawn was smirking.
"Shawn, c'mon, you know it's me... jeez, it took me forever to get this thing on..." the mouth and face of the safari hunter moved in perfect synchronization with the voice.
"Holy crap Steve! That's not a mask is it?"
"Yeah, it was Shannon's idea..."
"That's incredible!" Shawn inched forward to look at his face "you mind?"
"Nah, just don't play for too long, eh?" was Steve's reply as he stood under the nearby light while Shawn examined his face. Shawn was touching it and pulling the hair. He took one strong grasp of the nose and tugged - the hunter's face distorted as it was pulled outward.
"Jeez! Stop it will ya? That hurts!!" Steve cried. Immediately Shawn let go and the mask snapped back to place on his face. Steve rubbed the nose.
Shannon had already replaced her ape head and began walking inside, her muffled voice cried, "See ya Shawn!" Steve followed quickly behind and the two entered the arena to mingle with the several others already on the dance floor.
The evening went on for hours, the gorilla and her captor never breaking away from each other. It was a fun evening Steve had thought, although he was hot. Since he could talk, eat and drink without any problems, he hadn't removed his mask all night. It was really hot and he needed some air, so after motioning to Shannon he left the arena. Immediately the cool air outside was refreshing. Partially relieved, Steve walked across the parking lot and sat at a picnic table. He was under a large oak tree, with just enough light from a nearby street lamp to illuminate the tabletop. He closed his eyes and sighed loudly as he unbuttoned his collar. He placed his hat on the table and reached under his shirt to liberate the rubber neck. Cool air flowed under his neck; it was quite a relief. With that, Steve grabbed a tuft of warm brown hair on the top of his head along with some of the rubber scalp. With a quick burst of effort he pulled upward. He could feel the head stretching, but it didn't feel at all like it did before when he had unmasked at home. Never the less, he continued for what seemed like minutes while he made little progress. Finally in classic cartoon fashion with a loud snapping sound the mask released his head and returned to it's original form. With his eyes still closed, he placed the mask on the table, although it seemed a bit heavier than it did when he put it on earlier - but he just assumed it was all the sweat from his four hours inside.
Enjoying the cool outside air, Steve wiped his hand down his face but stopped midway. His face felt really smooth, and was covered in a sticky gel. In disgust he wiped his hands on his pants, making green streaks on his tan suit. Looking around the empty parking lot he got up and walked over to a nearby window on the arena's side. He looked at his reflection in horror. A lime-green, bald headed reflection stared impolitely back. Where were his ears? His nose was much flatter and he had no hair at all. Panic-stricken, Steve bolted over to the picnic table and grabbed the latex mask he had just taken off. It was still warm. Frantically he grabbed the bottom of the mask and tried to pull it open - but something didn't look right. It looked as though there were two layers inside. Curious, Steve pulled the inner layer away from the side and quickly examined it. With the inner layer in one hand, he grabbed the hair on hunter mask in the other and began pulling in opposite directions. Almost immediately the inner layer came out. Shocked, Steve dropped the hunter and stared in disbelief - the inner layer was another mask! A mask that looked exactly like Steve's real face. He examined the new flexible head - inside was a sticky green gel, like that on his face right now. By now the cool air outside had begun to dry the gel on Steve's face. With little more though, he began pulling the human mask over his head and adjusted it. Almost immediately it felt as though the rubber head was attached to Steve's face. He pulled at his nose, and it didn't move - but it did hurt a lot!
Grabbing the hunter mask and hat, he ran inside the crowded hall where the announcer had gotten on stage and was talking to the large crowd. He found the big gorilla and stood next to her.
"STEVE! Where have you been? And why aren't you wearing your mask?" without waiting for a reply Shannon continued "c'mon, put it back on! It's the judging!" Steve just stared at her for a moment. Shannon wasted no time. She grabbed the hunter mask from his hands, opened the bottom up and started pulling it over his head. The sweat inside the mask had lubricated it and it slid right over his head. He just sighed and started tucking the neck back under his shirt then buttoned it up. Shannon had already put his hat on him.
"The winners of this years costume contest are... Peter and Julie as Mickey and Minnie mouse!"
He could tell that Shannon was disappointed, but the announcer continued, "the runners up are... that crazy amazon hunter and his gorilla, Steve and Shannon... C'mon up all of you guys!"
Mickey and Minnie stood hand in hand next to the hunter and his ape. The crowd silenced again as the announcer blasted through the noise, "all right, since it is midnight, it's time for the traditional unmasking! Everyone take off your masks and show us who you really are!" The audience was again rustling with noise as everyone pulled off their masks. Minnie and Mickey had also removed their heads. Shannon, who had waited to unmask, looked at Steve and removed her gorilla head. Steve didn't budge though. With the audience finished, the announcer walked over to Steve and looked him right in the eye. "C'mon Stevie, it can't be that comfortable in there?" he was grabbing Steve's face. Amidst the laughter in the audience, the announcer began stretching his mask and moving it around trying to get it off. Steve lashed out! "NO! STOP IT!" he knocked the announcer's hand away and ran for the door. Shannon followed, "STEVE! HEY WAIT! What's wrong?" She didn't catch up to him until the two were at the car. "C'mon, let's go! I need to get out of here!" was all he said as he unlocked the doors and got inside. Shannon jumped in after him and the car sped away.
"STEVE! What's going on?" there was no answer.
"Just leave me alone..." was all he said until the two were parked at his house. He bolted out of the car and ran inside. Shannon followed her ape head tightly in hand as she entered.
Steve was in the kitchen sitting at the table. His head, still wearing the mask was resting on his folded arms on the tabletop.
"Steve? What's wrong?" Shannon said. She had removed her gorilla costume and placed it on the counter.
"I, I can't explain it... besides you wouldn't understand..."
"Steve, c'mon I know you well enough to understand you. Hey, let's get that mask off ya so we can chat person to person", Shannon said touching his head. Steve smacked away her arm and stood up.
"All right, you want to know? It's gonna scare the hell out of you though... I warn you!"
"Fine, fine! Anything, I want to help you", Shannon drew closer.
"All right." Steve reached under his shirt and produced the rubber neck. He grabbed the front of the neck and began to peel up the mask. Slowly the rubber hunter was drawn off his face until finally, he had the inside-out latex mask in his hand. Just the one mask though.
"This! You see, this..." Steve was pointing to his face. Shannon seemed confused.
"I don't understand. What?"
"MY FACE SHANNON! LOOK AT MY FACE!"
"I don't see anything... this isn't about a zit is it?" she was becoming annoyed now.
"Nothing? Nothing!" Steve ran over to a wall mirror in the hall. He looked exactly as he had always looked - plain, human, Steve.
"I don't get it... I looked... different before. I had green skin, no ears... and there was this goo on my face!"
Shannon's smile disappeared. She turned away from him and started walking towards the window. She pulled down the blinds.
"Shannon? What're you doing?". There was no response.
"DAMN IT! I should have thought about that damn Halloween mask! It was too tight! Steve, were you hot in there?", Shannon was pacing around the room frantically.
"Shannon? What the hell is going on?"
"STEVEN! Was it hot in there??"
"I guess... yeah it was... really hot at one point - that's why I went outside." Steve looked really confused.
"DAMN IT! The heat in that mask, the tight fit and then the temperature change you experienced outside! How could I be so careless!!" Shannon hit her fist against the wall. "Everything screwed up because of a stupid man-made, trick-or-treating mask!"
"Shannon? What's going on? What the hell are you talking about?" Steve was looking scared, and had sat down again at the table next to his Halloween mask.
"All right. Your real name is not Steve. It's..." Shannon let out an odd screeching sound, "and you're not a human. You're my partner. We were sent here to study the humans and observe them as they enter the space travel age." Steve's jaw was hanging wide open; he was in disbelief.
Shannon continued pacing as she spoke. "In order to effectively infiltrate their society, I was to pose as your jobless girlfriend who lived with you. You had your memory altered so that you would not remember any of your past. When you awoke for your memory de-programming I fed you your information about Steven under hypnosis. We were both sealed inside these rubber human bodies before we were sent here."
"Really? Then, why did my face come off?" Steve was puzzled. He walked toward Shannon and reached at her face "why doesn't yours come off?" He backed away.
Shannon sighed loudly, "when our craft landed you hit your head on a control panel and were injured. I had to cut away your human head to save your life. After that I basically glued on this face", she pointed at Steve "which I got from our supply of replacement disguises and which you removed earlier. Apparently the heat and the other mask inadvertently helped you to take off your human face. I'll have to manually reprogram your memory and we'll have to restart our study in another area. We'll have to eliminate Shannon and Steve so that no one suspects anything."
Steve started to laugh. "Really? Now you're scaring me. Besides, how come your memory wasn't erased?"
Shannon looked grim, "Firstly, the memory is not erased - it's... displaced with other information. And secondly I am the leader of this mission, and I was left as per normal so I could deal with extenuating circumstances and log our findings. That's why I'm at the house all the time. I don't have the full cover benefit of ignorance like you do. You can't accidentally reveal your true identity or the mission because you don't know it... at least consciously."
"Uh-huh... well, I know what I saw tonight, and I've heard your explanation, and I just don't believe it! It is Halloween, and weird things have been known to happen." Steve snickered.
"Oh really?" Shannon walked over to the counter and grabbed a pair of scissors from a drawer. She dug a blade into her neck and began cutting her skin around the bottom of her head. There was no blood. Steve had gotten up to stop her, but sat back down when he saw that she was not bleeding. Shannon filled the sink with hot water, sardonically smiled at Steve and dunked her entire head in. After several seconds, she came up. Her face was distorted. Shannon grabbed the top of her head, hair and scalp, and tugged quite hard. There was a loud sucking sound as her scalp raised up. Within seconds her still dripping head slid off and was in her hands. What was underneath looked very similar to what Steve had seen in the window reflection of himself.
"The goo," Shannon began as she wiped her hand across her lime-green forehead "is the bio-adhesive."
Steve was not nearly as frightened as he thought he might have been. In fact he looked at Shannon and grabbed his own scalp in an attempt to unmask. However there was no movement, and Steve felt great pain.
"Ow! Crap that hurts! How come..." He was cut off as Shannon began laughing loudly.
"The bio-glue is very stable at room temperature, but under extreme heat or temperature change it's useless", Shannon led Steve to the sink and dunked his head. The water was very hot, and Steve had to resist the urge to come out immediately. She pulled his head up and motioned for him to try again.
Once again Steve took a hold of his scalp and started pulling upward. Slowly his neck broke away from his chest and allowed his entire head to move upward. In a short time he too was holding his flabby human head in his hands. Looking in the mirror only confirmed what he had assumed. Steve looked exactly as he did in the window reflection earlier.
"I don't believe it... the car crash story?" Steve questioned.
"Just to make this all believable, you're a skilled engineer but can't remember your past because of a car accident. The story works all the time Steven."
"This is incredible"; he looked at his human face "so where do we go from here? I can't walk around like this?"
"We've got a mission. There's no time to waste -sorry, but it's time to play human again. I've got to prep you so we can move." Leaving their human heads on the counter the pair went upstairs to their room. Shannon pressed a button under the carpet by the door and the wall behind their walk-in closet disappeared. Behind it was a large space filled with communications equipment, computers and a side counter with a dozen or so latex masks in front of a large mirror.
"Sorry friend, we've got to kill Shannon and Steve - we've got to start again... somewhere else." She produced a small black rectangular device and touched it against his neck. Steve fell unconscious to the floor.
She lugged his body onto a table in the corner of the new room. Reaching into a jar on the side counter she removed a handful of green gel and began spreading it over her partner's lime-green skin. Satisfied with her work, she wiped off her hand on her pants and grabbed one of the latex masks by the mirror. It was of a light skinned, handsome male with short brown hair. She grabbed the opening and began pulling it over her partner's head until the latex mask completely engulfed him.
The next day, hundreds of miles away a light skinned, handsome man with short brown hair adjusted his tie as he walked down the open hallway. "Excuse me? Could you tell me where the aerospace interviews are being held?" The secretary, dressed in a white business suit with the letters N.A.S.A on her chest responded politely as she pointed, "Down the hall..."
As he continued walking, he passed by a man reading a newspaper - the headline read:
Angered boyfriend drives car off road on way home from costume party.
Victims dressed as gorilla and safari hunter pulled from wreck...
"Goddammit. Of course I'm ready, you old hag. Can't you leave me alone for once in your too long life?" Larry mouthed the words without sound, only wishing he could say them aloud. But of course he couldn't. Mother would be angry and upset. She was only calling him down to breakfast like she had every morning for the past forty years or so. She only had his best interests at heart. Wasn't she always saying that a good day starts out with a good breakfast? Larry stopped rummaging through his dresser drawer for a second and listened. Nothing. The old man would no doubt be hunching over his oatmeal, Stirring in the half pat of butter and the allotted teaspoonful or so of milk he was given every morning for breakfast. Larry wondered if the Boraxo he'd poured into the oatmeal tin last night would leave a strange aftertaste. Would the old man even have a clue as to what was happening when he swallowed the first bite. Would he know why his throat was constricting and he was having trouble breathing. Would Mother know anything was wrong or would she lap hers down also, oblivious to the deadly mouthfuls. Larry hoped they would die together. Calling his name and begging for help. He hoped things would work out this time. Not like the little accident he arranged in the garden. That was a fiasco. He was embarrassed to remember it. Even when he was sitting all by himself. Sitting in this same stinking room he'd woken up in every morning of his life since he was four years old. The cowboy and Indian wallpaper Pop had put up for his sixth birthday was a touch faded but still unpeeling. He hated that damn wallpaper. Wished in his heart that he could tear it down with his fingernails. It reminded him of everything he wasn't. Reminded him that he wasn't living on his own. He, Larry K., holder of 42 patents on just about every medical electronic imaging advancement in the last eleven years. Larry K., boy savant and middle aged emotional cripple. When what he wanted to be, how he saw himself in his heart was Larry K., Montana Cowboy. He had, ever since his tenth birthday, wanted to move to Montana and live a cowboy's life. He wanted to live in the bunkhouse with the other cowboys and do cowboy things all day instead of sit in front of a computer in his deathly quiet office at the lab. He wanted to have a cowgirl for a girlfriend. Someone named Kate or Maggie. A clear eyed, rawboned, red-haired woman who would make his shirts by hand and go for long rides with him on his day off. Larry wanted a tall black, yellowed eyed horse that would stand for no one on his back, save Larry. He wanted the courage to spit in any man's eye who looked at him crossways.
"Larry, honey. Come on down, you'll be late for work." Mother's cry rang out like a cracked bell. Larry started, involuntarily twitching his tie into place and rubbing the front of his loafers against the back of his slacks. A neat appearance is so important mother always says. He moved like an automaton down the hallway and to the head of the stairs. He could hear his father rustling the paper and snorting something to mother about what he was reading. Damn. The Boraxo didn't work either. They must have caught on somehow. He hurried down the stairs lest he turn a suspicious eye on himself. He would do better next time. Maybe a drop or three of sulfuric acid on the brake lines of Pop's old '65 Valiant. A clear-cut accident, impossible to trace. He could see their car heaving up against a tree on their daily trip to the post office. Go ahead, stare at me he thought as he silently swallowed his boring breakfast. Laugh while you can. We'll see who laughs last. Larry thought, for the sixteenth thousand time, about how his day would be starting on the ranch. He could almost smell the leather and sweat of the stable, taste the dust and hear the snorts and yells of the men.
"Like I said, Larry. Larry, are you listening to me? Honestly. You haven't answered one thing I've said for the last ten minutes. Are you having one of your spells again darling?" Mother chattered away as she handed him his brown sack lunch. The same damn sack lunch she'd been making him for the seventeen years he'd gone off to work at the lab. The same goddamn tuna sandwich and red apple and three Oreo cookies he always got. That was going to be the first big change. Maggie or Kate or Bess or whoever he found in Montana was going to make him a different lunch every frigging day of the week. Yeah, the old brake line trick. That would do just fine he thought as he pulled away from the curb and headed down the street.
"Did you say something honey?" Mother asked to the blank spot where the car had just been. It had sounded like he said something about the brakes and she hoped it wasn't dangerous for him to be driving the car. "Father,", she yelled back into the house. "Put this on your list of chores. Check the brakes on Larry's car when he gets home from work today." Larry's Pop flinched at the blast and instinctively lowered his eyes before shuffling off to the garage, muttering something about tools, dreaming about his own personal Montana.
Yes, for me too, that was my first encounter with a real impostor. Of course, I did not believe it at first. I behaved as everyone did. No one wanted to believe that our Yehoshua, Shuka Mashiah, the platoon clerk, was an impostor from so far back that a long-standing dossier of suspicions against him amounted to a thick file. As later became clear, he was no mere impostor but a cruel one. He worked as a junior associate in a small town law office in Gush Dan. His manners were so refined that I could not imagine that he was capable of such despicable acts.
But these were professional airs he affected, a magisterial flourish of the hand when signing a document, the aura of a haughty sense of confidence while examining a contract’s fine print. These were the clever traps he set at his desk. He was a small man, slightly built, not strong. He was quick to redden at the slightest matter and whined like a woman. “Shuka, come here, girl,” the men taunted him. “Shuka, hey, don’t go. Be a good girl, Shuka, and bring us something to drink.” The jeers thinly veiled the revenge they sought for the man who had betrayed their trust, who had cheated them like faceless clients of his law office, as if they had not cowered together, shoulder to shoulder, night and day, under mind-numbing bombardments.
He was called up some days after the war broke out. He was not easy to find, he told us, which was why he joined us late. We could not possibly lose the war, he teased: every position in the platoon had been filled before he arrived. A spot was found for him as assistant to the platoon clerk but he soon took control, ensnaring our apathetic commander in a craftily woven web of compliments and flattery.
Why had he not been found at home? Why had he been late arriving at the emergency depot? Pure idiocy, the blockheads in mobilization forgot that he had recently changed addresses. He had moved to a run-down Orthodox neighborhood in Bnei Brak of small, crowded homes forever steaming with heat and dampness in summer and cooking fumes in winter. From their cramped porches bursting with children rose swarms of flying bees and a melody of foreign Hebrew mixed with Yiddish. There was no post office or telephone, nor any conscripts to be rounded up. His call up order skipped from one end of town to the other until he was finally located.
The neighbors watched in surprise as he went down the peeling steps. Still unsure what to make of him, they accompanied him with muttered prayers of mercy. “Yes, go, don’t worry. We will pray for your safety without rest. Fear not, my servant, be not afraid, O worm Jacob.” And then, quietly, they whispered to him, “The war won’t be over so quickly. Some crumbs of the cake will be left even for you.”
Bnei Brak is a small town in the Gush Dan region, built long ago on swamp land overrun with brambles. There is nothing behind it but dense groves of oranges. In his dreams, the dark groves were like the patches of children’s forests back in Europe. Twice each day, the train to Jerusalem whistled just outside his window. On rainy winter mornings, puddles of water lapped over the sidewalks and doorways into the little houses. He never spoke so much as a word about the family he once had, even on evenings dripping with heart-rending nostalgia. When we sat in the dark, sealed in our bunkers and frozen hilltop outposts, hearts opened and the men recalled events of their former lives buried for years. But Shuka Mashiah did not soften.
Yes, its true, he once had a family. The battalion gossiped about the two small daughters and a wife he had been obliged to place in a hospital. They had scattered to every corner of the land. He had erased them from his life and now, though he was certain they knew he had been called to the northern front, they did not even write him. He really did seem truthful describing the breakup of his family. We secretly inspected his personal mail for some weeks. No word at all came from his kin, only those scented pink and blue letters from the divorced woman in Tiberias whom he deceived free of any guilty pangs of conscience.
He was a junior associate, shuffling papers from one desk to another in the law offices where he was employed. He raced after the attorneys when they called on clients, set out refreshments, served them cups of tea and cleaned up when they left. How easy it is to see him, a foppish smile on his face, taking on extra tasks as he did with the platoon’s papers. The work, though not exceptionally demanding, by its nature was humiliating. He makes that a game with them. They move him about like a piece of office furniture. “Fine, but we’ll see.” He labors like an Arab porter. There is something in the joke that changes the entire picture. Shuka Mashiah, a junior associate in whom their confidence was still reserved, very reserved.
But he laughs at all of us, the soldiers and commanders and lawyers, even his landlord. He grunts with effort. A glow suddenly flickers on his red face deep in heaps of paper. He winks at us watching him with trepidation. Then, in military jargon seasoned with a dash of the hybrid language of Bnei Brak, he says, “We’ll see who is really the boss around here.” Not all his virtues and charm were revealed when he became our platoon clerk. Still, with Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, I made the effort to travel to the law offices where he worked. It was clear from the earnest descriptions the people in the office provided that they too saw him as a strange bird ill suited to his tasks. But it never crossed their minds either that they were dealing with a skilled con artist.
I learned from them about his movements, his appealing delivery, his clownish games. He would spend hours glued to the telephone, head bent over the receiver, in hushed tones whispering every imaginable term of endearment to women far, far away. The boys once accidentally overheard a call. It seems he was engrossed in pledging marriage to a nubile secretary he knew in another office. What didn’t he promise her? What words didn’t he speak? He boasted that there was nothing he couldn’t do for her, even going AWOL and deserting the trenches. The way he coaxed her, he was nearly kneeling before the telephone. They were not exaggerating in the least. I confirmed their accounts and even added to them. What I could not forget were the long telephone conversations with his betrothed, the beautiful, innocent divorcee in Tiberias.
“My little darling, sugar, listen to me. Listen to me for a minute. You just don’t know what you’re saying. You’re such a simple innocent, they’ll eat you up. Listen to me, I know my way around this sort of business. It’s not just because I’m an experienced lawyer. I work magic over the clients. They simply can’t resist me. You’ll see.” The men were utterly bewildered by this flood of sweet talk. Not once could we determine the subject of his conversations with the naive little darling. Lots for sale in a Tiberias neighborhood? The battered car he urged her to sell? Money she and her elderly mother kept in a savings account? This swindler, inflicted with the disease of selling lots and buying apartments, cheated his women without a qualm. Like a busy spider, he spun his webs of fine silk. He snared them the way he might drape their bodies in a new dress he had bought just for them. None of the men attributed much importance to his burblings. There was a war out there, and it shook up everything else. Nothing was as solid as it had been before. Men seduced women on the telephone or on long rides to the front or in the dance halls of Tiberias. No evil was apparent yet in any of his actions. How could I guess that Shuka Mashiah – “Fear not, O worm Jacob,. go, we will pray for you” – how could I guess that he was a criminal charlatan?
I remember one icy morning clear and crystalline as the tang of a glass bell. Shuka Mashiah rose early as usual and flung himself into the snow accumulated in the encampment. He undressed and rubbed his red body with handfuls of packed snow. Where had he learned such alien habits of hygiene? He gargled cheerfully, danced on the snow and inhaled the cold, translucent air. Each morning, he made a short run around the basalt compound. Burning his skin, he leapt over low stone walls and hopped into the armored personnel carrier encrusted with ice. The boys set an ambush for him and waited for the right moment to bring him down. His morning acrobatics disgusted them. When he was done, he would do nothing the rest of the day. He stuck like a leech to the tongue-tied cook, bullying him and shooing him to the coffee on the stove. He pestered the platoon’s blas? commander, meddled in our files and fixed the rosters for guard duty and leaves.
When he finished his exercises and dashed home to the glowing hut, the boys blocked him outside the door. He was dragged just as he was, in his long underwear and winter issue undershirt, back into the snow. The daily ceremony of pampering his body enraged the boys. Franco the driver swore to pay him back with a good whipping. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, I’m begging you, take off that undershirt for just a minute. Come on, let’s see that manly body of yours you tend every morning.” He groveled before them in the snow, naked, but the boys showed him no mercy. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, come on, let’s see what you have under your long johns.” The boys pulled off his underwear and pounded his genitals with fistfuls of crushed snow. He screamed and pleaded and tried to alert the platoon commander. No one heard his cries for help. Sobbing, he turned red to the roots of his thinning hair and tried to kick the boys assaulting him. “Shukeleh you cuteseleh, show us the jewels between your legs.”
He growled in the snow. The boys laughed in his face at his threats. “Listen to me, Shuka, listen to a man of experience. Stop annoying us with your ritual of skin creams and ointments, spare us your toupee. You’re nothing but a platoon clerk, a lowly paper shuffler, no more. You are not the platoon commander’s lieutenant. Nor are you the adjutant. Really, you are nobody. You do not plan the ambushes or decide where the guard posts will be. You can’t deny anyone a pass. Make an impression with your papers on the recruits. What a miserable little clerk you are, a worm prettying himself with cosmetics.” They planted themselves in a circle over him. He writhed in the snow, his pink flesh sparkling as far as the eye could see in the glass-like clarity of the morning. Finally, they stamped on his body as though he were a bag of trash.
Then the door of the shack slowly opened and the platoon commander stretched his limbs and yawned into the bright sun.
“That’s enough, leave Shuka alone I say.” The boys walked off, disappearing into the kitchen and the fuel depot and the ammunition dump. Some returned to the bunker to clear the door of snow that had drifted up during the night. Shuka Mashiah smiled at the platoon commander and quickly slipped on his long underwear. “Keeping in shape, eh, Shuka? I’ve never seen such a health fanatic. I swear, you’re as fit and sleek as a cat. How do you manage it? Hurry up, Shuka, after breakfast we have to drive to battalion headquarters. There is plenty of work ahead of us. Come on now, get dressed.” The platoon commander walked to the urination wall at the edge and leisurely relieved himself as though he had seen nothing and heard nothing, as though he did not understand what no one could have failed to grasp from the sight before him.
Meanwhile, Franco the driver grabbed Shuka and, out of sight of the others, dragged him away from the shack. “Just a moment,” said Franco, “we’re not done yet.” A brief fist fight broke out, ending with Shuka once again prone and helpless in the snow. The boys rushed back, got him to his feet and helped him into the shack. “Hey, health worm, you heard what the platoon commander said. You have to get going.” He was thrown into his bed and cried soundlessly on the soaking sleeping bag until his pale skin regained its unalloyed pink hue. In the motley language he had acquired in Bnei Brak, he muttered oaths of vengeance. It was not long before he made a complete recovery, truly a cat that always lands on its feet. Already, his sharp tongue had the cook serving him at his beck and call and heeding his command to fry up the pancakes at once for the early trip to brigade HQ. By the afternoon, he was seated again in his makeshift office between the tight rows of beds. He stretched out with the telephone, telling his little darling, the beautiful and innocent divorcelah, how pleasant mornings were here in the trenches.
And how quiet everything now was. The cannons did not thunder and fluttering flocks of black jackdaws flew past outside. Their chatter was music to his ears. They roosted by the camp’s little garbage dump. “My sweet, did you know that a small, abandoned orchard was left there? Some bare almond trees and a poor poplar. Our cook is excellent and generous to boot. No homemade porridge can warm your heart like the chocolate porridge he cooks on chilly mornings. What is there for you to complain about, sugar? You know there was never a time when life was so kind to us. Oh, as for the price of the lot that cheat of an agent offered you, don’t you dare listen to him. That crook, a liar and the son of a liar. He’s another of those war parasites taking advantage of unsuspecting women in uniform. No signature, no notice and no documents until its time for a leave. Then together, my darling, together we will go and see about buying the lot.”
When the platoon commander and his aides returned that evening from a long reconnaissance tour, the kerosene heaters were already burning, the shack already alight. The skittish motor of the generator raised a racket behind the earthen embankment. Shuka Mashiah, snapping at the cook’s heels, drove him into the kitchen. “Hop to it, dinner for the platoon commander. And make sure its hot. And a small serving, too, for these bone-chilled men. You’ve wasted enough time today. You play cards the whole day long, shoot dice at night, drink against regulations, the works. Don’t think we don’t see or know it. This platoon’s tireless clerk records it all in his files. It’s our good fortune that he received first rate preparation in the law office.”
Just then, the platoon commander spoke up in a loud voice audible throughout the little post. “Make any good deals today, Shuka? Did you sell cheap flats to half the battalion? Tell us, where do you get it all, eh? You’re agent and broker and contractor all in one. Don’t you gild the lily just a little, Shuka? No need for caution?” The boys stared at him. All the blows suffered that morning, all the humiliation, everything was blotted out as though it had never happened. He told them with a laugh how his pious neighbors in the cramped house in Bnei Brak had seen him off. But he omitted the whispers, “Fear not, O worm Jacob. Our prayers will protect you. Go, go, don’t worry, your share of crumbs from the cake of war will still be there.” Nor did he tell them that he could swiftly translate those words into Yiddish. He did not need to tell the boys everything. He had said more than enough that day.
How much more do I remember of that eventful day? Nearly everything that happened. I am slightly uncertain only of the order of events. I remember the exhausting ride from the Golan Heights to Bnei Brak. I remember the tense return in the dark, then the way a vicious quarrel sprang up in our shack. Shuka Mashiah lost all control of his actions. He pointed his Uzi, cocked and ready, at Moshe from the motor pool. Only my own unexpected presence of mind in the crisis prevented a fatal burst. I pounced on him just as we had been drilled in basic training years and years before. I raised the barrel with my left hand towards the pocked metal sheeting on the ceiling of our decrepit shack while with my right, which was still nimble at the time, I pressed hard on the magazine catch and tried to re- tract it. Shuka squeezed the trigger in anger, and the bolt snapped free into the barrel. But the magazine had already ejected onto the sleeping bag and no shots were fired.
Then, and only then, when the magazine clattered to the floor, and each man watching breathed a deep and secret sigh of relief, the platoon’s indifferent commander glanced up from the evening newspaper we had bought on the road. “Enough horsing around, boys,” he said, “I want you to settle down now. Don’t go too far. I know how to blow my stack, too.” He lowered his eyes to the page again. I paled. So did Shuka Mashiah on his bed. Moshe from the motor pool bent over him, and the other men backed against the walls, also turned white. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Something heavy seemed to strangle me. I threw the empty Uzi at the platoon commander’s bed and said, “That’s enough for me. I need to get outside for some fresh air.”
What I really wanted was for the platoon commander to step in and take charge of the quarrel. Instead, he merely drawled across his newspaper, “You’re all just getting too excited. I’ll bet any of you that Shuka would not have fired.”
I stumbled to the door and down the wooden steps. The frigid air cut through me like a razor blade. A cold, dry night had settled over the hill. A freezing wind roared in from the east, shearing everything in its path. The sky was so clear, and the stars so close, I felt that, if there is such a thing in this world as the smell of stars, I could catch their scent. He should at least get up from the newspaper. He should at least say, “I’m confiscating the Uzi until the inquiry is over.” He could have dressed down both of them: “You two, the shooter and the target, I’m putting you both in detention until the end of proceedings. Come on, don’t dawdle, hurry over to the battalion stockade.” His indifference drove me crazy. A sudden weakness seized me. I reproached myself for interfering in a quarrel that was not my own. On the other hand, it was true that only a split second separated ejection of the magazine from a burst of fire from the cocked Uzi. A shiver rippled through me at the thought of what might have happened after the shooting. I suddenly felt the gnawing urge to smoke a cigarette.
I stood by the shack on the side sheltered from the savage wind. A rime of frost glittered on the flanks of the vehicles and the silvery gas tanks and the glistening roofs. A dark night, yet so bright within. I could easily guess the location of the checkpost by the forest, where the road made its first sharp curve on the way to the quarry. Beyond the road, it was possible to see the outlines of the abandoned orchard, the thin limbs of the bare almond trees and the slender branches of the lone poplar. All this was real. It was no dream. This was truly happening. I stood bundled in layers of wool and cloth against the damp and the cold. The dumbstruck men still sat on the other side of the thin wall. Only after I left did they begin to understand the tragedy we had all escaped. I was wracked by the urge for a smoke.
What was it about Shuka Mashiah that so inflamed Franco the driver and Moshe from the motor pool? What was it that even the petite clerk in the law office bore him a grudge? Was he indeed an inveterate liar or did he merely affect the look of a crook? Did the lust for filthy lucre make his head spin and draw him into shameless, transparent lies? Until then, I had never met a real impostor. Here and there, I had heard stories, but I had never lived with him at close quarters, cheek to jowl, one bed next to the other. Is that how a real impostor looks? As we stood in Bnei Brak early that afternoon, he seemed so well-mannered, polite and gentle at the cafe table, so fastidious and extremely eager to be of help. He showed himself a smooth talker there. How clear everything became when he dissected the fine print. “The contracts are not hard,” he smiled, “it is the clients who are hard.” What, indeed, was he, a failed student of the law? An exam cheater caught and expelled from the university? Someone who had bought his legal degree by correspondence? They knew him for what he was at the law office and still willingly took him in. But in wartime, they were glad to see any mobilized soldier home on a short leave, even if he was but a lowly messenger boy.
The guard on duty stopped when he came upon me on his rounds. I begged him for a cigarette but he had only pecan nuts he chewed, sent by his wife from the farm. I took some of the pecans. At first, I found them difficult to crack. I was still jittery and my fingers would not obey me. He showed me the easy way to split them and their slightly bitter taste calmed me down. I told him what had happened in the shack. He had heard nothing outside besides the usual shouts, which gave him no cause at all for suspicion.
Anyway, what did he care what happened to that sleek platoon clerk of ours? “He got what was coming to him,” the guard said. “I saw how he wallowed in the snow. Don’t take pity on him. Too bad the boys didn’t give him a fat snow ball between the legs.”
“I was with him today in Bnei Brak,” I said.
“So what’s the problem?” asked the guard. “Give me a good car and I can make the trip there in less than three hours.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s what we saw on the way. This country has gone crazy. Nothing has changed.”
The guard said, “Look, the war will hardly be over before everyone goes back to his little schemes. Jews, what do you want. The war hasn’t ended yet and the Jews are already cheating one another. Look at our impostor. That dandy isn’t worth spit,” said the guard, “it’s really a shame to get excited over him. I’m just sorry the boys didn’t jam his ass with snow.”
I returned to the shack. It suddenly felt cold. The fever that had gripped me after the attempted shooting was gone. The nuts grated on my teeth and their bitter taste calmed me down. I no longer hungered so painfully for a cigarette. Inside, too, tempers had cooled. The men busied themselves, a night like any other at the post. They read the newspaper, played backgammon, made love to the telephone. Shuka Mashiah was one of those waiting in a seat for the phone. When he began to talk with the woman in Tiberias, the unit erupted with him in shouts of joy. “How are you, my little darling? How was your day?” All the listeners lost their hearts to his beautiful, innocent divorcelah. They clung to the phone cord, sent her their warmest regards and swore like merry sailors. Shuka was warned that if he pushed them back and didn’t let them eavesdrop on his sweet nothings, they would drown him again in a bath of snow outside. “Don’t listen to them,” he shouted to her through the tumult. “They’re just sick, starving soldiers.” And they yelled to her, the way street urchins years ago harassed necking couples, “Don’t believe him like a fool. He’s lying to you again through his teeth. Don’t believe him.”
When we arrived at Bnei Brak at long last, Shuka Mashiah took his time instead of hurrying us to his law offices. He led us through narrow, winding streets on the edge of town. Moshe from the motor pool was fidgety and hostile and I feared that he would soon explode and fall on Shuka right in the car. I sat between them in the back seat. For some reason, it was my fate to be a witness to the machinations of Shuka Mashiah. I did not volunteer but neither did I refuse when the men proposed that I go down to Bnei Brak with the two litigants. “You don’t have to do a thing,” they told me. “You just have to play the part of an arbitrator.” I thought, what could be bad about such a trip in the midst of the war? Perhaps it even harbored some good. It would be pleasant to descend from the cold, dry heights to the cozy, caressing lap of the wintry coastal plain. After the dark mole’s life we led in the bunkers, it would be nice to go back and see the routine of city living. To feel again the simple courtesy of civilian passersby, to hear the calls of parents and the joyful squeals of children in the parks, that too would be soothing. It was a pleasure to read the bright-colored entrance signs to parking lots and office buildings. What I loathed were grey tin signs with strange place names and code words for assembly points carelessly daubed.
During the ride, a philosophical discussion, profound yet strained and irritating, was conducted in the car. Yehoshua Mashiah argued that now, after the jarring shock of the war, what was needed was a policy of letting bygones be bygones and wiping the slate clean. Whoever had fought, whoever had taken part in the battles, needed to erase all trace of his criminal file, whether it was in the hands of the police or buried in other bureaus. Whoever had been called up during these oppressive months, whoever was ready to risk his life on the battlefield, deserved expunction of whatever petty offenses were attributed to him. He was entitled, perhaps even obliged, to start life anew without the hobbling fear that his charge sheet would trail him forever. We had seen what the old ways had brought us to. Yes, he was prepared to confess that he behaved more than once before the war with galling impudence. Many had acted that way. That was the atmosphere that prevailed among the people he knew. If he were to repent, he would not be alone in that. He was willing to join in a mass wave of repentance. After all, what was he in the final analysis? An insignificant lawyer struggling to make a living? What was he compared to the monstrous liars and cheats who overran the land? What was he compared to the nouveau riches? What was he compared to the contractors who had built the Bar Lev line?
Moshe from the motor pool squirmed in his seat with silent rage. I sensed that he did not believe a single word that left Shuka’s lips. What was this, letting bygones be bygones? Why suddenly this proposal for wiping the slate clean? What reward did criminals deserve? Those who were lawbreakers before the war remained so afterwards. Worse, they were clever, swift to learn their lessons. Someone who was a small time thief before the battles became a major felon after the truce. What hypocrisy was this? Just where had Shuka acquired the piety he now assumed? With our own eyes, we had seen how much injustice the war brought. The good were punished as usual, and how! They were the first to fall, they died in droves. They lost their money and were forced to close their businesses while the wicked, those who had brought all this on us, they alone profited from the disaster.
“Watch them slinking, one by one, from their holes. How quickly they hid when the battles started. Now you can find them everywhere, continuing what they began, even piling new sins on old crimes. They put on airs, thumb their noses at the law and honest, hardworking people, and cheat just as they always have.”
Partly to cool tempers and partly to stem the violent tide of tension flooding the car, I shifted the conversation in another direction. I announced that I had heard an intriguing rumor circulating in the battalion about a senior officer who was popular in the police command. In fact, he was beloved wherever he went. Why? Because he was one of the surviving heroes of the war of independence. Though he was quite old now and no longer knew what he was doing, everyone showed him respect, especially the veteran soldiers of the battalion. No door in the General Staff was closed to him, there was no minister in this bumbling government whose ear he did not have day, night or the Sabbath. He toured the battalion’s pint-sized positions, offering kind words to the soldiers. They had been called up in the first days and felt unjustly abandoned and betrayed, one might say deceived and deluded.
In each outpost, a small celebration was prepared in his honor. The men served up a cooked meal for him just the way he liked it, piping hot bean soup seasoned with a spicy tomato sauce. The moment he sat on the rough wooden bench and slurped the broth, the world around him utterly ceased to exist. He did not speak or reply to pointed questions. He did not even laugh at the crude jokes for which, it was well-known, he had long had a soft spot.
His spirits rose after the meal. He went up to Tel Ha’afar, below the observation post. From there, he bestowed his scintillating comments on the frozen, bundled boys seated at his feet. “In 1948, what do you know, we set out for dreadful battles each night. Night after night, more than 20 times a month. Do you understand what that means? Every second man was wounded. Each soldier knew that if a bullet missed him that night, it would strike down his best buddy.” The boys sat in silence. They had long since grown accustomed to his sprays of saliva as he trembled in hollow enthusiasm. Some chuckled, others interrupted him with catcalls. “Where was our vaunted intelligence? Why weren’t the reserves called up? For god’s sake, who is responsible for this catastrophe? But everyone knows that this is a game. The rules are known and the play ordained. It is all carried on with comradely warmth. The aged officer is already very ill. The battalion whispers that his days are numbered. There are agonizing, sleepless nights when he prays to the gods of war to let him fall in battle, if only by a stray burst of fire or a defective shell. Anything, so long as he doesn’t die in the hospital bed that awaits him. But each such visit, every flyspeck of an outpost, extends his life. He is grateful for his fate and the soldiers at his feet.
The instant he concludes his remarks, wretched soldiers pounce on him seeking favors. Support them with interest-free loans; grant them special bonuses; grease their way with recommendations of one sort or another; plead their case with the top brass, who know him as one of their own. He swells with emotion and fatherly pride. He embraces each of them, shakes their hands, jots their names in his distinctive shorthand into the famous notebook. He promises one and all that he shall fulfill their requests. “You deserve it,” he placates them, and instills in them serene confidence and a warrior’s pride. “You alone are the mighty pillar on which the nation has leaned in these dark days.” Even when his brief visit to the post is over and he rushes to his car, lone soldiers, those who have special requests, surround him. Everyone in the battalion knows the meaning of special problems that cannot be heard out in public. These need privacy, a whisper befits them. We are speaking here of wiping the slate clean of minor criminal offenses, infractions committed rashly and in the folly of youth during the squandered years before the war. No one imagines that things will turn out this way. They are all but grist for the rumor mill.
Rumor now had it that, apart from the official pardon the president granted those convicted of serious crimes, a flurry of pardons for minor offenses was now sweeping the country. It was some sort of clandestine dealing between the senior staff officers of the army and the police. Amnesty would be granted to anyone who had fought in battle, for he had atoned for his sin. Now nothing remained but to assure that the bureaucracies knew of the expunctions, that the papers would be destroyed and the files buried. By the grace of god, everyone’s clock would be turned back.
Shuka Mashiah listened gravely to what I had said while Moshe from the motor pool fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. It was difficult for them to discern from my words whether I had reported the truth or was merely mocking the great man and our battalion and the remorse awakened in the nation during these days of war. For the few minutes until we arrived at door of the law office, a bewildered silence prevailed in the car.
Snow covered the dark basalt rocks for nearly a full week, then gave them a brighter look as it slowly melted. Rivulets of melted snow trickled among the stones and the black jackdaws roosting in the abandoned orchard took off for the horizon. Heavy vehicles again made their way to the quarry at the peak of the hill. The great tractors returned to their work and tufa dust rose from the excavations. Then the Syrian guns, too, renewed their damned morning bombardments.
For a little while, the boys mistakenly had thought the pleasant calm would never end and rushed to bring their private cars to the post. Now they moved the cars in a panic out of range of the cannons. The entrance to the deserted bunker was cleared and heaters brought inside. We spent long hours there each day. Shuka Mashiah disappeared from the shack for some days and the boys didn’t miss him a bit. On the contrary, they rejoiced at his misfortune. They said he had been summoned to battalion headquarters for an extraordinary investigation into the discovery that the platoon’s adjutant had forged documents. Suspicion had fallen on him. But their celebration of sweet revenge proved premature, for he returned a few days later. All the malicious rumors – that he had gone to clear his name and see that his file got “lost” – were baseless.
Then, one morning just after the dreaded shelling of the bunker, while the haze of blazing shrapnel still hovered over the puddles, his divorcelah appeared. She was as lovely and innocent as she sounded over the phone, the little darling from Tiberias. She stopped her small car in the empty parking lot. The stunned boys instantly gathered around her.
“Where can I find the lawyer Shuka Mashiah?” she asked, starting from the car. She wore a heavy old army skirt. Stung by the biting cold, she breathed aloud and her hands were numb.
“Shuka’s in the office,” they answered. But it was by no means certain that he was a lawyer. That was a matter yet to be finally confirmed.
“Where is the office?” the little darling asked. “In that shack?”
“No, he was moved to the bunker when the shelling started again. Be careful as you go up the slippery path to the bunker. It’s muddy and littered with rocks. Beware of whatever he says. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t believe a single word.”
The indifferent platoon commander was called from his lair and emerged from the shack blinded by the sun’s bright light. “You’re crazy,” he bellowed at the young woman. “Who gave you permission to pass the checkpoints? All positions are on full alert and the shellings can start again at any moment. I have specific orders.” She pulled woolen army gloves from her fingers and quietly explained that Shuka had instructed her before the trip how to outwit the checkpoint guards. He hadn’t told her that orders barred civilians from the line positions. In fact, the soldiers at each point had let her through without hindrance and even wished her success. Only here, by the warped tin sign at the bend below the quarry, had some rude guards, attempting an inspection, insisted on seeing her pass and pawed her papers. But she had learned a few tricks from Shuka. Dear Shuka, helping her even when he was not at her side. Now she must see him right away. She had an urgent problem that would not brook any delay.
The listless platoon commander was perplexed. On the one hand, he wanted the young woman removed at once, escorted by a car assigned to make sure she went back down to the junction. On the other, if her heart was set and she had already taken the risk to get this far, perhaps it really would be better for her to see Shuka. Maybe they really did have compelling business. As the weeks went by, and their stinking time in the trenches dragged on, the men’s pressing problems multiplied. He had no doubt that everyone by now loathed their depressing, inescapable situation. The endless war weighed heavily on us all. He relented and allowed her to enter the office.
She trod the muddy ground leading to the bunker. It was the very spot on which the boys had tripped Shuka, laid him in the snow, stripped him and crammed snow between his legs. Here he had screamed in pain and here they had packed ice on his groin. This was where Franco the driver had tormented him and flung him after their fleeting fist fight. When he fell, his toiletries had sunk into the snow. Now that the snow had melted, one could smell their odors. The scents permeated the mud. When the wild wind momentarily ceased to blow, and the smoke from the generator shifted the other way, it was possible to hug the cold earth and inhale the sweet perfume rising from the dough of muck. Rubbed raw by the snow, his pink body had reddened while his fair, thinning hair gently bobbed beneath the lumps of snow splattered on his head.
So astounded were we all by the rapidity with which events then occurred that I was barely able to follow their precise course. Trailed by the little darling, Shuka Mashiah burst from the bunker. He was forcibly pulling the young divorced woman behind him. She struggled to break his grip and show him the papers in her hand, but he was possessed by a devilish rage, red all over, without the jacket forgotten in his office, sweat glistening on his angry face. They fell and rose, rolled in the mud and rose again entwined in both wrath and desire. As they passed us, Shuka called to the platoon commander, “I have to take this crazy woman back to Tiberias.”
“Very good,” the platoon commander shouted so he could be heard. “You’re saving me some trouble.”
“Don’t worry,” Shuka went on, “I’ll be right back. There’s no need for an escort.” Then to her: “What an imbecile you are. Who told you to sign the papers without me? You idiot, why didn’t you first check out who the property belonged to?”
The young woman fixed us with terrified, apologetic eyes. She was helplessly dragged behind him, stumbling over every pebble. “Where did you hide the keys?” Shuka roared at her. “Give me your purse.” He brusquely snatched her handbag. “Give me these too,” he insisted, and grabbed the sheaf of papers. “You can throw these forged papers to the winds. I’ll prove to them that you were insane when you signed.” He opened the car door and pushed the befuddled little darling inside. He threw her purse after her and locked the door. “If that’s what you want, I’ll prove that you were out of your mind. How did you get here, peabrain? You’re crazy, who drives into a bombardment? And who promised you the rent money? And why didn’t an idiot like you first check out who the damned lot belonged to?”
As he maneuvered on the parking lot, he shouted to us, “I left everything on the desk in the bunker, the duty roster and the guard shift rotations. Just don’t make a hopeless mess of everything for me.” Through the tiny windows of the departing car, we saw the innocent beauty from Tiberias sagging limp against her beloved. He must have dealt her a sharp, furtive jab of his elbow, for her face contorted with pain and she lurched back in her seat. We could only guess at how he cursed her in his rage and wailed in his self-righteous voice, “How did I ever get mixed up with you?” To himself, he surely whispered through teeth gritted in fury, “‘Fear not, my servant, O worm Jacob, we have saved a worthy crumb of the cake of war for you too.’ What a fool you are, you’ve worried for nothing. It is not the war that will cut short your life but this lunatic at your side, the innocent, unfortunate woman from Tiberias.”
I could not prevent any of it. I simply was unable to do a thing, either to stop events from taking their inevitable course or to divert the inexorable flow in which these events hurtled past one another. I sat myself down at the little outpost on the high peak of the hill, deep in the enclave captured from the Syrians. From my lofty perch, I observed the yellow bulldozers biting into the veins of tufa in the quarry below. Exposed beneath the receding snow were remnants of the terrible battle fought for conquest of the hill. When had that been? How many months had passed since then? To me, it seemed not months but years. Torn coats dotted the defensive trenches now abandoned and clogged with cascades of earth. Odd bits of personal equipment left by the Syrian soldiers lay scattered on the ground. Chinese hand grenades were strewn around shattered entrenching tools. Every scrap imaginable had been swept into the shallow ditches. Wherever one looked, shell fragments were rusting among the crocuses.
And what could I have done if Shuka the impostor had aroused some small measure of compassion? Could I have found him on my own? Could I have stopped him by myself and stayed his swindler’s hand? Could I alone have marched him to the judge advocate’s chambers and said a few words on his behalf? Had anyone asked for my opinion? Besides, he had disappeared after returning the little darling, and not even this mighty colossus of an army could discover where he had gone to ground. It was as though he knew that the summons to an official inquiry awaited him on his return. He did not report and since then had held the dubious status of AWOL.
The platoon commander gave up on him after a week and went down to the battalion adjutant. Among other matters, he reported Shuka Mashiah’s absence. Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, fearing that he would be too lethargic to follow through on a complaint, volunteered to go with him. They wanted to help with the report and inundate the military police investigators with tales of Shuka’s crimes. Had these two met Shuka on their way down, lying wounded by the side of the road from a surprise artillery attack, they would not have lifted a finger to save him. He disgusted them, pure and simple. They would let him howl in the ditch until he died, just to stop him from maligning them.
They returned that evening, tired from the long trip. The platoon commander was weary and did not want to repeat everything he had learned down there. He said only that he had given a report on Shuka. To his surprise, the adjutant’s office already knew the name. They knew of his scams and were waiting only for a complaint that would stand up in court. From an anonymous source, the battalion adjutant had received detailed, nearly comprehensive tips about his earlier swindles as a civilian in the cities where he had properties in Gush Dan and complaints from women he had cheated. But the senior officer, the favorite of the enlisted men, had faltered and failed to complete his investigation. He could not surmount the obstacles he encountered in tracking Shuka’s amazing flim-flams.
Shuka was accused of a host of crimes. He had defrauded the innocent and deceived the foolish, posed as a notary and drafted false documents. He had once even impersonated a building contractor and sold fictitious apartments. But there was always someone who felt cheated and immediately lodged a complaint. The description of his features grew more accurate with each report. His ruddy skin was noted again and again, as were his light, thinning hair and even the ever-present scent of his ointments. Most of his crimes consisted of conning divorced and abandoned women into bogus real estate deals. It was amazing how they fell into his traps time after time. They gladly placed in his hands small plots they had inherited, little apartments bought with their last cent and sums of money put aside for a rainy day.
Our platoon commander lost his temper this time and added his modest account to the statements in the file. “I needed to take you,” he said, “not those two hotheads. They got excited right away, they babbled, they became unruly and had no telltale details to add. You would have described him better. You slept in the bed next to his for months. You saw him rolling naked in the snow each morning. Whether you liked it or not, you heard his endless telephone conversations with the innocent divorcelah from Tiberias.”
“But I might have forgotten all that on purpose,” I said. “Maybe I would suddenly have felt sorry and asked myself, ‘Why should I turn in this poor fellow?'” What’s more, he had never done me wrong. Anyway, the Bnei Brak detectives were on his trail, joined now by the military police. And how could I have been of help? I did know him well. He was no hero. We all had seen how Franco the driver sent him flying into the snow with the first punch.
But his two ardent antagonists swore before the platoon to find him and take vengeance. Now they had permission from every police department in the world, now they were certain he was indeed a wanted criminal and not merely a noxious amateur. Even the big-hearted officer, who did right by the common soldiers over the heads of their commanders, had failed, his indictment gone uncharged. Shuka’s blood was fair game, a man hunt had to be launched at once. Take him alive. Yank him by their own fingers from the rat hole he had scurried down. They swore before us to tear him limb from limb. They would flay him to the last sinew until no sign remained that he had once been a man. They would clean out his pockets, leave him without so much as a coin, and compel him, dead or alive, to pay the debt he owed his victims.
Moshe from the motor pool turned indignantly to me in his new-found insolence. Had I not interfered in the violent quarrel that broke out in the shack and cast the magazine from the cocked Uzi, justice would have been done long ago to that filthy impostor. Whoever protected the wicked in the end was tainted himself. I would have to feel for myself, with those refined sensibilities of which I bragged, that this dandy, this scented paper-worm, this coddled bachelor, was nothing but a wanted criminal. The war had not purged the guilty. The nights spent waiting in ambush would not shave even a hair from his due punishment.
But I could not have prevented anything, not the fate that was Shuka Mashiah’s and not the suffering inflicted on the poor divorcelah. When the revenge-hungry boys fell on the telephone and dialed her little apartment, I could not stop them from pouring out their wrath on her. They cursed her and swore foul oaths in her ears until I could bear it no longer and left the shack. I remembered how this small woman had managed to pass every army roadblock. I remembered how she had shriveled in the fierce cold that gripped the hill. But I had failed to block her path to the bunker and the makeshift platoon office. I had failed to save her from the hurtful hands of her beloved, who treated her like a hostage, not a sweetheart. Yes, I was obliged to make amends for my inability to shift events from the course set for them long before.
Only later did I learn the full story of the hunt for revenge. It was some days before I found out that they had gone straight to Bnei Brak and immediately located the law office. The astonished secretary who met them said that it had never occurred to her that he was an impostor. He had never been registered as a lawyer. With some difficulty, he had served as an assistant in the office, a sort of a messenger boy. She knew he had printed up elegant business cards and exquisite stationery. She knew of his knack for mimicking the measured language of the lawyers in the office. Now and then, she had peeked into private papers not intended for her eyes. But she had considered all this a big joke.
When they asked her for his address, she gave them a number of listings scattered in the office’s nooks and crannies. They diligently and methodically checked these out, one after another. Late in the afternoon, they arrived at the little neighborhood at the edge of the developed section of Bnei Brak, not far from the orange groves. Frogs croaked in the sea of stagnant puddles around them. Gray crows circled above the open ground. One could easily see the tree trunks, the rusting iron gates, the blue-tinged hills in the distance. The train rumbled as it passed close overhead. Its whistle rattled the roofs of the quarter’s humbles homes and falling soot coated the sidewalks below.
In silence, they climbed the steps and blocked all the doors to the building. They closed in on him like an animal caught in a trap. Only afterwards was I informed how they broke inside and surprised him in his sleep, how they rushed forward and overpowered him without a glance at the young woman in his bed. They were polite to her, however, made no threats and let her go. They didn’t even ask for her name. “You don’t know this criminal,” they said. “After we settle our score with him, we’ll explain everything.” Then, and only then, they collected the debt he owed.
I later learned that the men of the platoon lingered several days exacting it. He had promised Moshe from the motor pool a cheap apartment, for which he received a sizeable payment. To Franco the driver he had promised a small parcel of land next to his house outside the city. Franco had been helplessly confused by the stack of papers Shuka induced him to sign.
How did they collect the debt? That is a silly question. They rousted him in a daze from his sleep; on his knees, he signed a release for each of them. They sprained his ankles, and he gave back all their money. They thrashed his back, and he swore never to cheat anyone again. And finally, when he thought they were finally done with him, the revenge seekers, still unsatisfied, came at him again and made him crawl back and forth on his belly through the festering puddles.
Even the battalion adjutant’s office did not know who had called the Bnei Brak police. They found it hard to explain how he had turned up, sick and feverish, at the jail or how the report had arrived at battalion headquarters directing them to come quickly to secure his release. “It’s wartime,” the police shouted. “Who needs worthless parasites shirking their duty here?” The kindly officer who had survived the bloody nights of the war of independence personally went to help return him to the battalion. “We don’t abandon a soldier,” he faintly whispered in his escort’s ear, “even if he is a bit of a stinker.” But even his appearance was of no use. Shuka Mashiah, the impostor from Bnei Brak, remained in jail.
I could not prevent his pious neighbors from crowding his door when the police arrived to take him into custody. Nor could I stop them from blessing him. Was it one of them one had called in the tip? “Fear not, O worm Jacob, what did we tell you? No need to rush. The lord looks after all men. Neither shall he diminish your lot. Just as you won the crumbs of the cake of war, so you shall the crumbs of the judges’ justice.” They whispered to him in secret, as though concealing notes in his clothes for the long trip, “Go, go. He who protected you there will protect you also inside the walls.”
The months after that passed quickly. I even failed to keep up with the newspapers. Had they covered his trial in the breathless police blotter columns? Had they named all his victims? Did he actually get his charges quashed? I was not called to testify. No one cared for my thoughts. And then I met troubles of my own and lacked the time even to ask the men of the platoon if he had conned the judges. Had he succeeded in having the slate wiped clean? When all was said and done, had the beautiful, innocent divorcee from Tiberias forgiven him?
“Clean Slate” translated by Alan Sacks
Many years ago
When King John married the Russian Princess Nadia, it broke Gwendolyn's heart. When he died at the age of twenty-five, it almost killed her.
Gwendolyn's grief was great, so great that she couldn't leave her bedchamber for over a month. She wanted to hide from the public because she wasn't his wife. Gwendolyn couldn't express hardly any emotion, let alone grief, without raising eyebrows. The gossipy Royal Court watched her every move, and seemed to comment on her every movement. On her days in court, Gwendolyn saw them standing idle around the Royal Castle, talking about her. She knew that they were, for their eyes were suddenly diverted and the voices were hushed. The ladies of the court loved to gossip about those who were higher up in status, and you couldn't get much higher in the court than Gwendolyn. She was the daughter of the Lord of Folles, the closest advisor to the late King Joseph, and hero of the Battle of Milston, and the wife of the Duke of Mulengrad, closest friend and advisor to the late King John.
But Gwendolyn had bigger plans on her mind at the moment. She was expecting her first child. There were plans to be made and family to be notified. It pleased her when Thomas, her husband, insisted she stay home from the Royal Court and allow him to take care of her family business for her. It was really a relief to be away from the gossip. She thought she would enjoy being home.
She soon learned being home wasn't that great of a blessing. Gwendolyn realized how lonely she was. Thomas was swamped with both family estates' business now to take care of and was not around that often. As a result of her loneliness, she found herself thinking about the past constantly. Gwendolyn yearned for her mother, who died when she was young, she barely knew her. Every time Thomas discussed business with her, she thought of her father and how he should be handling the estate affairs, not her. He died only a year ago.
Gwendolyn often thought of her sister Jacqueline and cried. She remembered how the family blamed Jacqueline for her mother's death, since she died in childbirth. The memory of Jacqueline haunted her for she alone felt she was responsible for her fate. Jacqueline ran away, possibly from taking Gwendolyn's advice a little too much to heart. No one knew where she was. But most of all, she missed John.
His memory made her smile. She remembered her childhood with him and Thomas. Their playground was the Royal Castle. The members of the royal court smiled when they saw the future King playing with the children of his father's closest advisors. They laughed at them as they ran by them, saying how contagious their laughter was.
When Thomas was young he was groomed to enter the clergy and he spent more time studying than Gwen and John. It seemed natural that Gwendolyn and John be drawn to each other: they had known each other all of their lives. They fell in love when they were five. The Courtiers murmured she would be the next Queen. John said he would marry her one day. It wasn't meant to be, she told herself as she remembered those days. In order to seal a treaty with Russia, John had to marry Princess Nadia.
Her father promptly sent her back to the family estate, a large sweeping castle and lands called the Folles an hour ride from the royal court, after he informed her of the engagement. Everyone agreed it would be for the best. "For the best" was a statement she loathed. Her entire life people had said that to her. "It is for the best that your sister stay at the Folles," they said when her sister was ill, which was often, and couldn't ride to court with her and father. "It's for the best that you don't visit your mother's grave", they said when she found out where it was and snuck there one day. And now, instead of being the Queen, she returned to the court as his childhood friend, ranking somewhere around his cousins in social importance in the court. Everyone kept staying it was for the best that she stay away for a while and that made her blood boil.
But she knew she would have to come back to court eventually. So, almost a month after the wedding, Gwendolyn made her first appearance to the court to meet the new Princess. She found it dreadful. She heard the whispers of the court as she entered the reception room at the Royal Castle. The female Courtiers lined the walls talking about the wedding until they saw her. Then their faces turned sad. They started saying to each other "Such a shame," "What will she do?" But when she approached them, they embraced her with great sympathy. They wanted her to be Queen. She was one of their own. She loved John and would care for him. She at least spoke their language, and they knew what the inflections in her voice meant. They told her this with their eyes and expressions. Many of the women in the court patted her hand when she greeted them and gave her the most wonderful looks of understanding. It made her cry.
Before the Princess Nadia would be introduced to the court, she tried to leave. She left the room and ran into Thomas in the hallway. "What are you doing?" he asked. He saw the tears pouring down her face.
"I can't do this. Not for all the gold on Earth."
"Gwen, you can do this," he said as he gave her a hug. "You can't hide from the court forever."
"Yes I can! I can't face her. What do I say?"
Thomas smiled as he let her go. "You courtesy and say 'Hello, I am Lady Gwendolyn of Folles and you are an awful person and I hate you." They shared a laugh together, just like when they were kids. Thomas sat with her until she was ready. Then, together, they turned around and headed back to the reception room. It was Thomas who held her hand when the Princess was introduced to her.
"So you are the Gwendolyn I have heard so much about," her interpreter said. Nadia looked her over as Gwen noticed how beautifully overdressed she was. There was a moment of terror in the court as the awkwardness of the situation set in. The two stared at each other for a moment. Nadia broke the silence as she inquired where Gwendolyn was during the wedding celebration. It was Thomas who answered for her.
"Urgent family business at the Folles. It's her family estate. Quite breathe taking. You and John should come with us one weekend to visit." It was the first time that Thomas ever referred to them as "us". It made her feel wonderful. John started sending for her shortly after the death of his father, who died just two months after the wedding. He was as miserable as she was. But when they were together, things were okay. It felt like home to her.
Thomas knew all about it. John and Gwendolyn confided in him everything. Thomas was the politician, and the plan maker. Since his father and brother died in the great illnesses that happened around every winter, he became the Duke of Mulengrad. He was also the closest advisor to the King and one of the most eligible men in the court. It came as no shock to anyone when Gwendolyn and Thomas's engagement was announced. However, Thomas married her to protect her, not completely out of romantic love. Their commitment to each other was of solidarity to the past and friendship, and the marriage worked. No one asked questions when she learned that she was pregnant. Everyone assumed the child was Thomas'.
That was the past. Now, in the confines of the Castle of Mulengrad, just a ten-minute ride to the city gates, Gwendolyn wandered around the house as the baby grew and wished she could have seen John before he died. His death was too sudden. She didn't get to see him. Not on his deathbed, not at his funeral (she was too ill in the early stages of pregnancy to go), so she never had a chance to say goodbye.
Gwendolyn decided she had to say goodbye; maybe she would start to be happy again, have some sense of closure. Her mind whipped up a plan to see his grave and say goodbye. He was laid to rest in the Abbey at Shergold. Shergold held the royal and some of the noble tombs, including her mother's family and Thomas's family. It was only up the road about a half of an hour away.
Every Tuesday and Saturday morning at eight thirty, the Memorial Mass was said at the Cathedral. She would ride to Shergold on Tuesday at seven, say her prayers to her family and most of all to John, and ride back for the Memorial Mass. It made wonderful sense. Most people only visited Shergold on Saturday or Sunday. No one would be there. No one would see her.
The first Tuesday, her groom rode her to Shergold in a borrowed carriage. Gwendolyn entered the abbey alone. She went to her family crypt, and visited her grandparents and her namesake, Aunt Gwendolyn. Carefully, she said her prayers and left the vault. Her family's tombs were near the royal tombs towards the center of the abbey. In fact, they were across from each other. She knew exactly where they were; she remembered it from her childhood. Careful not to make too much noise from her skirts and shoes, Gwendolyn walked over to the Royal Vault. Much to her shock, She found a metal gate blocked the only entrance. She searched her memory, trying to see if the gate had always been there and she had just forgotten it.
Angrily, Gwendolyn tugged at the gate hoping it would open, but it shook loudly and the sound of metal being ground against its self echoed through the vaults. The sound tore her ears and echoed so loudly that she was sure she would have caught the attention of a monk on his way to early mass. With her hands still on the rails of the gate, she peered in. Then as if in a memory, Gwendolyn remembered being there when she was little. John and Thomas were with her. They played around the tombs while some tutor rambled on and on about the history of the royal family. She thought for a minute she heard their laughter...
Icy tears ran down her face. Why do I want the past, she said to herself. Why do I want to go back so badly? Why can't I let it all go and move on?
A bell tolled somewhere, marking the half-hour. Realizing that she wasn't at home, and that she was sobbing uncontrollably, she pulled herself together and left. Gwendolyn had not felt this horrible in a while; not since the death of her mother or the disappearance of her sister or even John's death. Gwendolyn realized that if she were younger, or even if she wasn't pregnant, she would have climbed the gate. It really wasn't that tall. Gwendolyn was determined that by next Tuesday, she would figure out a way in.
The next Tuesday, she still had not figured out a practical way to get in; but she went anyway and paid her respects to her family. Gwendolyn walked over to the royal tombs just to look in. A small part of her felt defeated, but at least she was here in spirit. John would know that she tried to say goodbye.
She leaned up against the gate to look in. There was a slight sound of metal screeching, but it opened. Gwendolyn looked around in amazement. Maybe someone was around. She looked around to see if there was a monk or member of the royal family had entered the tomb. But there was no one there.
Gwendolyn gathered up her skirts and walked in carefully, not to make too much noise as she walked through the tombs. The tombs came up to her waste with their names on the sides. Each tomb was carved with an effigy of the person in stone. They stared up into space blankly. There was no real statement on their faces; no personality, no sign of what they were really like in life. John's tomb was towards the back. His effigy looked nothing like him. In fact, he looked old to her. There was nothing to indicate he was young or anything about him.Gwendolyn suddenly felt worse for visiting. It bothered her to be here. She didn't want him to be remembered this way.
"I'm a fool," she muttered aloud. A stupid fool, she emphasized to herself. It's over now. John was king for almost three years. Not even long enough to establish any sort of legacy. He will be one of those kings her children will learn about as a filler between two other kings.
Tears poured out of her. She couldn't control herself. Gwendolyn collapsed on the floor. Lost in grief, the noise of footsteps didn't register with her at first, but when she heard them again Gwendolyn quickly composed herself. Fearing the gate became locked, she ran for the gate. It was still open, and she ran out. Someone saw her. She knew it. In fear, Gwen ran up the stairs and out of the abbey. When she reached the carriage, Gwendolyn ordered the groom to speed to the cathedral. They didn't slow until they passed the city gates.
Once she reached the Cathedral, Gwendolyn heard the mass. It had already begun. So she headed for the Lady Chapel, the small chapel to the side of the main sanctuary. It was a place Gwendolyn really liked to be when she wanted to be alone. In her head, she would pray to her mother, just like she always did when she was a child.
Gwendolyn wasn't sure how long she had sat there. She was lost in her own thoughts. It surprised her when without thinking she walked up to the small altar in the chapel. She wanted a closer look at the statue of the Madonna. It was a graceful statue of the Madonna holding the Infant Christ. It seemed so delicate. Gwendolyn looked at in detail, from head to toe. On the base of the statue, there was a small dedication plaque. It was tarnished, but Gwendolyn was able to make out the dedication:
Lady Louisa of Folles
Beloved Mother and Wife
"One of our prized treasures," a voice said from behind her. It caught her off guard and she spun around to find the source. Cardinal William was walking towards her. He was a tall man, looking even larger in his red robe. A small red cap covered his graying hair and he walked forward with the longest strides she had ever seen. When he reached her, he stood behind her and gazed at the statue in awe like she did. "It is from France. Hand made and taken to the Holy Land to be blessed."
"It is dedicated to the memory of my mother," Gwendolyn said in shock.
"It is a good thing you are her daughter. For a moment, I thought I was seeing a ghost," he said with a smile.
"You knew my mother?"
Carefully, he looked at her again. "Yes, I did. In fact, I married your parents." He paused and took another look at her. "And I baptized both you and your sister."
Gwendolyn turned and watched as he walked away from her to the row of chairs in front of the altar. He sat down rather pompously, she thought, for it looked like he was now about ready to hold court. That sort of arrogance normally angered her, and the Cardinal seemed to be oozing in it. However, she was intrigued. She had never known anyone who spoke of her mother freely. Most of her questions were rejected or avoided.
"How did you know Mother?"
"We grew up together. Much like you and your Thomas except quite plutonic." Gwendolyn blushed with this comment. Even if he didn't know all the facts.
She turned and walked over and sat down next to him. "So you know Thomas?"
"Like most members of the court I watched the two of you and King John as you grew up," the memory of this made his face light up. "I was so pleased when you and Thomas married."
"I love him dearly." She added.
"Yes, I know," he said sharply. A little too sharply for her comfort.
There was a pause in the conversation. The Cardinal stared a head at the little altar. Gwendolyn searched for the right questions about her mother. Since he was there at Jacqueline's baptism, he had to be at Mother's funeral. He was one of the few people she felt would have the right answer to the question she most wanted answered. Gwendolyn took a deep breath and asked: "Your Eminence, I must ask you a question and please don't feel you have to answer it. But do you blame Jacqueline for Mother's death?"
The question caught her off guard. It was obvious to her that he searched for the right answer, for it took him a while to answer. "No. Why would I?"
"Everyone else did."
"My child your mother died bringing Jacqueline into this world. That's how much she loved her. Anyone who blamed Jacqueline is being selfish."
Tears welled in her eyes when Cardinal William finished his statement. "Father always did."
"No, he didn't. It was however a painful reminder and with Jacqueline being such a sickly child, he feared he was going to loose her as well." Cardinal William spoke authoritatively, as if he was in expert in her family's relations. "You may not know this, but you are more like your mother than Jacqueline is. Jacqueline was more like your father in disposition. It pained him greatly that there was nothing he could do to ease so much of the pain she went through. And I think it disturbed him as well that she bared it gracefully. She never once complained or whined. Not aloud anyway."
Gwendolyn was intrigued by his arrogance. "How do you know so much?"
Cardinal William looked shocked. "I was there."
"Why don't I remember you?"
"Because you were too wrapped up in your own world, which consisted of Thomas and John, and your cousins."
Possibly, Gwendolyn thought to herself. She was a typical child. "How do you know so much of what Father was thinking?"
"He told me. It was a terrible blow to him when Jacqueline ran away. He went through a lot of trouble to arrange that marriage to Prince Stephan. She could have been Queen of Bron today." He said this with a smile of wonder, as if he was visualizing the possibilities.
"I miss her," Gwendolyn muttered.
"You two were close, weren't you?" He asked.
"Yes. I always felt I had to love her since Father didn't; didn't at least show her anyway. I wish she was around so that I could talk to her."
"Angry because she ran out of her own wedding?"
Gwendolyn looked up in shock. "Angry? There is no way I could be mad at her for that. That was the single bravest act I have ever seen a woman commit. I am proud of her for it and will be forever."
"What do you have against marriage?" Cardinal William asked in horror.
Gwendolyn was getting angry. The constant line of questioning was beginning to bother her. "Nothing."
"Are you happily married?"
"Why praise your sister for running out on it?"
Controlling her temper the best she could she stood up. "Your Eminence, I love my husband. We have known and loved each other for years. I praise my sister because she would not accept a marriage with someone she did not love simply because it fit into her father's plans."
"I'm sorry to have angered you so. I see you have much of your father in you now. That legendary temper made your father a hero you know." He looked at her stomach, bulging noticeably out of her layers of dress. "This can't be good for you. Please, sit down," as he motioned for her to sit next to him.
He looked down at his hands. Gwendolyn stared at that statue on the altar. There was a moment of awkwardness. "I'm sorry if I have upset you," he said as he continued to stare at him hands.
Gwendolyn hadn't felt so much grief in her life. In a moment, she was grieving for her past: her mother, father, sister, and her love. Never before had the pain loss been as great. All she could ask about was the statue. "Where did you get that?"
"Your Father bought it for your mother. I don't know the details. But when your father left for the Holy Land he carried it with him and had it blessed at the site of Christ's birth. It was your Mother's favorite piece."
"So why is it here?" she said angrily.
"Your Father gave it to me when he furnished the funds to build this chapel. It was right after your mother's death."
Cardinal didn't know what to say. He simply uttered the fact that he didn't know. Another awkward silence began. It lasted a few moments until the sound of mass exiting the cathedral broke them back to reality. "Are you looking forward to motherhood yourself?" he asked.
"Very much so."
"I suspect you will not be at the formal coronation ceremony next month."
"No, the baby will be too much in the way by then."
"I suppose too it is hard being so close to King John to see the coronation of Prince Stephan."
"Yes, it was all very sudden." Gwendolyn added.
"You know I was with him until he died along with Queen Nadia. Will it give you any comfort to know he died peacefully?"
Gwendolyn froze for a moment. She didn't know what to say.
"I also took his last confession."
Angered, Gwendolyn looked at him. The comment angered her. It was almost like he was flaunting a secret. She searched her mind for a diplomatic way out of the conversation. But he continued. "He wanted me to look after you."
Angered by this comment, Gwendolyn got up and stormed out. Cardinal William followed her as she tore out the Lady Chapel and out to the door. When he caught up to her she was almost to the door. "Did I say something to offend, Duchess?"
"For the record, I prefer to be called by my father's family title, which makes me the Lady of Folles. And if you are hinting at some innuendo or courtly rumor about me and King John I really don't appreciate it."
Angered, he stormed in front of her. "Follow me," he said as he stormed towards the confessionals. Usually, Gwendolyn did not take orders. Being a member of nobility, she gave them, she never took them. Yet, she swallowed her pride and anger, and followed him into the confessional. She sat down on the bench, placed her hands on her belly.
She watched as he opened the confessional window.
"My child, I loved your mother as a sister. She was one of the kindest women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. In respect your mother, I would never hurt you."
"I'm sorry if my actions were defensive, your Eminence," Gwendolyn said without apology. "I have heard so many rumors about me and my child I'm sick of them."
"Would you like to know about John's last day?"
Gwendolyn looked at him in shock. She didn't remember saying yes, but he began to tell her anyway. "He was in and out of consciousness, but he stayed lucid enough to give me his final confession. I can tell you that he loved you dearly and felt horrible about not being with you."
Tears poured down her face as he continued. "He did not want to die for he was excited to see his child. He told me that he wanted to live long enough to see you give birth. He was so weak though, I knew it wouldn't happen. And he told me I was the third person on earth to know the truth about your child. He begged my silence."
"So why are you telling me this now?" Gwendolyn said between her tears.
"So that you may have a friend other than Thomas. Admit the fact that you are alone in the world. Aside from Thomas, you have your fundamentalist uncle and aunt who oversee the Folles. You can't tell them anything. You don't know where Jacqueline is and I am the only link to your family. Truth be told I miss your mother's friendship and I was hoping that you and I could be friends."
Gwendolyn thought about this for a moment. "I must have your total confidence."
"I swear on your mother's grave. You have my word."
Gwendolyn whipped the tears out of her eyes as the clock in town struck the half-hour. "I need to go," she said as she got up and walked out of the booth. She was halfway to the door when she realized she never thanked him. Gwendolyn quickly turned around and walked back to him. He was standing there watching her walk away.
"Thank you," she said as she took his hand in hers. "You have given me a great deal of peace and for that I don't know if I could ever fully repay you. Would you please come by our home sometime and tell me more about my mother?"
Cardinal William stood there in shock. He didn't know how to respond. He uttered the words "I would love to." She smiled a smile that reminded him so much her mother and he felt a tear roll down his face as she walked out the door.
At dinner that night, Thomas commented on how much happier Gwendolyn seemed.
"I discovered an old friend today," Gwendolyn answered on how she had changed her mood.
Thomas dropped his goblet.
"Do you have any idea of who he is?" Thomas asked as the servants cleaned up the split cup.
"He was a childhood friend of Mother's."
"He is an advisor to King Stephan."
Thomas saw that she didn't care. "Anything you say around him could be taken to the King."
Gwendolyn got up and walked over to his chair. She bent down and whispered in his ear: "Are you asking if he knows about the baby?"
"He swore on Mother's grave the secret dies with him."
"I can't believe you told him."
"He already knew."
"John told him."
Thomas was upset. He got up from the table and walked over to the fireplace. Gwendolyn remained beside his chair for a moment. Then she walked over to him. "It hit me today during my visit to Shergold that John will be remembered as a filler king. You remember those long lists of Kings we had to remember in history. His name will simply be a name to be memorized on a list. Nothing else will be remembered. No one will mention his kindness; or how he tired to help the poor or bring peace with Brittany and Spain." Gwendolyn whispered.
"I never knew my mother. Mother was gone and you remember how my father was never around. Every time I asked, no one ever told me anything about her. If something happens to you and me Cardinal William will be around to tell our children about us. About John and the good he tried to do. That way, we will live on."
"Stephan may very well be insane," Thomas whispered back. "And if he finds out the truth we could die."
"Small price to pay for a friend," she said, smiling.
Enraptured, to the very core of my aesthetic being, I sought out the title of the work. I found it engraved upon a tiny silver plaque at the bottom of the frame. It bore the legend:
"The Exquisite One"
She certainly was! The title was quite a perfect testament to the girl who modeled for the painter.
I became very curious as to the identity of the lady, and sought out the attention of the museum's curator. He was a wizened old man, I guessed his age to be approaching the eighties mark, and when he spoke it was as though one were conversing with a spirit of the desert - his voice was possessed of an overwhelming dryness. I can recall now, upon hearing that voice for the first time, how it made me shudder in the most intense discomfort - the deep timbre of his speech brought to mind terrible images of droughts and crumbled papyrus; it was as though his mouth had never before known the luxury of saliva.
When I succeeded in grasping the old mans attention he fixed his dolorous, gray eyes upon mine; then arched his bushy white eyebrows in a mark of interrogation. I recognized my cue to speak:
"The model - in that picture." Here I indicated the "The Exquisite One." "Have you any idea of her identity?"
A slight frown furrowed the curator's brow as he attempted to open the vaults of his vast memories. For almost an entire minute he waded through a sea of useless information and superfluous recollection, before he opened his parched, cracked lips and spoke in a sterile bass:
"The name, I am afraid sir, quite eludes me at present; if indeed I ever knew it at all."
The crestfallen look upon my face must have implored him to speak still further of the painting. He did so, in an evidently much aired speech; his voice adopted the monotonous and unchanging tone peculiar to such practiced soliloquies:
"I can, however, tell you as much as you may wish to know about the painting itself. It was completed two hundred and twenty three years ago by a young artist named Darius Drake, who began the work as an anniversary gift for his young wife. It is she who is the 'exquisite' one featured. While this is the only surviving example of Drakes work - the rest were destroyed in a horrific blaze that consumed his home and himself - we may conclude from the personal diaries of those who knew him; and also from reviews of his other works that remain extant, that he was an artist possessed of an unusual passion. Indeed, at least this much may be gleaned from even a fleeting study of the work you see before you. It is quite a striking painting - everything depicted within it is crafted to the point of the most eloquent perfection - from the detail upon the lady's cheeks, to the ghostly aurifery that he has managed to have radiate from the painting by a meticulous study of the appropriate shades of color and techniques of application. There is no doubt that Drake was an artist of the highest rank, and that the blaze which gutted his home has deprived the world of many great masterpieces."
Here, he paused, and inhaled a great amount of air - evidently exhausted after delivering his speech for what was, perhaps, the thousandth time. I grimaced when I heard his chest give a dry rattle. It amused me to see him lick his ravaged lips, for his mouth was at least as dry as they were, and he did not succeed in moistening them. Perhaps his objective was merely to dust them, as one would an old antique.
I turned my attention once again to the painting, my eyes hungrily embracing all the divine sensory data that they could receive. I was about to thank the curator for the information that he had supplied me with, when I heard him utter something more under his breath. Even though it meant hearing the dust of that worn voice again, I begged his pardon.
He looked quite uncomfortable as he realized that I wished for him to repeat his silent remark, and made motions to usher my attention towards some other subject. I pressed him further and he protested that he had said nothing of any interest or importance. I politely requested once more, and with a disparaging sigh he repeated:
"His talent. A testament to the deadliness of man's passions!"
I stood, somewhat taken aback by the nihilistic nature of the statement, and - despite the curators obvious unwillingness - I attacked his restraint and pleaded with him to tell me how such a talent could possibly prove to be "deadly."
At this, the curator grimaced - which produced quite a startling effect as his face was already considerably wrinkled - and prepared to speak once again. His obvious discomfort displayed that he quite clearly had absolutely no wish to relate the story, which made me want to hear it all the more. When he began to speak my ears relished the sound of his voice - as thought my insatiable curiosity had dressed it in attractive silks, instead of the rough fabrics in which it was usually shod.
As he spoke, his eyes stared distantly into a vacant vacuum of private space, and the rest of his body remained entirely stationary. Only the thin, cragged, lips of his mouth moved as he spoke, softly and slowly; drawing out the aggravating husk of his parched voice.
"I have already told you how passionate the man was about his painting. With him, painting seemed to be the way that he could attain the very summits of god hood - he spiritualized the physical vistas he saw before him through the medium of his paints; it was said that no matter how ghastly the object he painted, the end result that stood upon his easel always shone with a divine effulgence. Drake was a master, and, like all masters, he had his own strict routine of working. Whenever he was painting, it was entirely necessary that he remained in a locked room with all of the materials and equipment pertinent to his latest project. He also brought with him a leather bound journal, which still exists and is housed in the library of this very museum."
My face must have registered my delight, for the old man nodded reverently and signaled for me to hold my silence. He continued his monologue in a hushed voice, which was barely elevated above the pitch of a whisper:
"The journal he used to record his meditations concerning the painting he had just completed, to list the outstanding details of the work - and also to write how he felt about it.
"He would not emerge from the room until he had completed his painting, and recorded all of the appropriate details inside his journal. It is said that he often stayed as long as four or five days locked inside this room, forsaking food and drink - all forms of nourishment, in fact - and also very likely neglecting to sleep.
"Drakes dedication to his art was utterly ferocious, he lived and breathed the very essence of the gifted artist. It seems that this was enough to make his wife jealous. There exist tales that tell of the most feral arguments occurring between each of them; all concerning where Drakes adoration's should be focused the most - upon his wife, or upon his painting. Given the frequency of these arguments, it would appear that Drake favored his painting. It was perhaps in order to appease his wife that, upon their anniversary, he informed her that he wished to 'immortalize her in the flowing rapture of art's ardent flood,' as he wrote concerning the portrait in his journal."
It was at this point that I first noticed a change in the old mans character. His face took the appearance of one who is entirely ill at ease, if not a little frightened - and his voice, now slightly cracked in its unnerving husk, began to sound almost foreboding. Despite myself, I felt an entirely unpleasant shiver torment my body.
I swallowed as he continued to speak, all the while wondering and waiting what unpleasant scenes his stony voice would soon relate.
"So Drake set to work upon 'The Exquisite One.' He made no allowances in his eccentric and very unhealthy method of work. He, as usual, took with him to the rooms interior all of the materials necessary for his new picture - this time, of course, including his wife - and began right away."
Here the curator again paused, merely to clear his throat. It was an unnecessary action - his throat was not blocked in any way. A dry rumble coursed throughout his chest. He resumed his recitative; and I noticed that it was becoming quite an effort for him to speak, his speech began to lose a good deal of its previous eloquence. The curator's story was obviously making him very uneasy; I sensed that he had not shared it with others very often.
"He worked with a great fever of strength unusual even for him - almost bestial, it would seem. To his wife he acted like an utter tyrant, he would not allow her to move or change her position an inch - he required her to stay put - to stay entirely still; as he wished her to be. Drake required that his working environment be utterly without fault, everything had to be perfect, even his wife's position, right down to the exact millimeter. You may imagine the torture the woman felt! To most of us, sitting still for a mere half an hour is an abject impossibility - but to do it for the time that gifted despot required for his portrait to meet his own strict satisfaction - unthinkable!"
"How long did it take for Drake to complete the portrait?" I all but blurted the question out. I could not believe that any man could be so Draconian, and yet produce such images of beauty and perfection.
The curator sighed in a curious form of detached resignation. His answer fell from his lips as easily as would a heavy boulder from a cliff - his voice I now found to be almost as harrowing as the ghastly account:
"It took Drake eight days to complete the portrait."
As this answer, phrased in a terrible simplicity, sunk in, I could feel my skin shrivel in an unsubtle chill. My entire body, I noticed, was quite tense - I unclenched my fists and found a cool sheen of sweat upon my palms.
"Eight days," I repeated, I could not bring myself to comment any further. It was simply beyond my comprehension as to how Drakes wife managed to stay in position for such a time, nor could I understand why she did not protest to her cruel husband.
The curator, intuiting my chain of thoughts, continued. His voice acted as a deadly measure against any hope that I may have had in collecting my peace; it was charged with emotion and as rough as the gravel of the streets.
"Of course, she could not resist changing her position - but even then she managed to regulate her composure for a remarkably long period of time. Drakes journal reports that she often did not move an inch until the pain of the inevitable cramping caused her to weep. But imagine the cycle she followed - sitting for hours in great discomfort, then almost collapsing from pain, and repeating it over and over again - all for the sake of her husbands pernicious demands."
"But why did she not argue, protest against his wickedness?"
"I can only assume her love for him was tremendous, but that she knew his love for his painting was greater. Perhaps she thought that if she were capable of entwining herself within his art, his adoration would be redirected towards her."
"And deservingly so," I muttered.
"She submitted to agony, for love's dear sake. But please remember that her ordeal was worsened by the complete absence of food and water - even sleep."
The curator stopped speaking, too disgusted to continue.
It was then that the breath caught in my throat, a terrible realization impressed itself upon my horrified mind. For it was at that moment I recalled the curators remark which had originally prompted this macabre narrative:
". . . the deadliness of man's passions!"
With the acutest desolation spreading within my very being, I allowed my gaze to fall once more on Drake's masterpiece. I caressed the picture with a despondent eye. It no longer evoked inside me an ecstatic delight for the beauty of the painting and model alike; but rather, for the black selfishness of man. What dark embraces had that broken beauty yielded to? What perfidious attraction had Drake cast over that fallen angel, so as to cause her to submit to his hideous command?
Observing my entirely wretched stare the old man spoke, his voice resonating like a cracked bell - pulling me further down the spiral.
"As you have obviously surmised, when Drake lay down his brushes and victoriously finished the last sentence in his infamous journal - he found his wife to be quite dead. In a berserk fury he flung journal and portrait alike from the room. He instructed his manservant to take the finished portrait and journal to the town hall, so that future generations would learn of his appalling downfall.
"When his servant left, Drake set alight his studio. The flames were possessed of terrible strength, for his paints were very flammable, and they soon spread to the remaining quarters of his home. When the fire had sated its terrible hunger, they had consumed Drake - his physical being, and his spiritual ancestry; in the form of his paintings. The corpse of his wife was, inevitably, swallowed within the flames along with everything else."
The curator, satisfied that he had explained all as best he could, slowly walked away; his face set like granite. He retreated to a chair in the far corner of the gallery and began to smoke a long black cigar; relishing the smoke wrought by the heat of his matches flame.
And so I stood. I stood and and I stared. As I stared my vision was fraught with scarlet fingers of glowering fury, - which created a mock halo around the picture - and the roar of a mighty inferno rocked within my ears. My fevered mind reproduced for me those hideous moments when all was decimated within those searing flames - and the hideous deeds of Drake were dissolved in a cleansing caress.
perfect against the brilliant sky
whispering beauty to the wind
the Temple stands
reflected by the sea
Long ago I called your spirits
hiding behind Doric columns
fearful they might hear
and so awake them
from ancestral sleep
I will climb the narrow path
upward to the mountain
Not as I did once in childlike fear
I will wait for them to wake
The climb to the top was steep. The only access, a narrow winding path. Ruts and dislodged stones from torrential winter storms, and an occasional fallen tree branch made the ascent difficult.
The Mediterranean sun beat down without mercy on two small figures moving slowly up the mountain, their slender young bodies bent over to steady themselves against the strong wind. They made this climb many times before, but never in August, when the dreaded sirocco blew across the island, its fiery fingers reaching as far as Arles across the sea.
The sisters' fine leather sandals, not fit for climbing, gave little protection against the rough terrain. Whenever Gina cried out in pain, Ariana stopped to wipe away the tears and comfort her.
Nonna Maria, reluctant though she was about her grandchildren's frequent visits to Monte Erice, would give permission only if an older cousin went with them. This Sunday morning, amid the chaos, the tears, the cries of anguish, Gina and Ariana hurried away without consent.
Ariana extended a dusty hand to her younger sister, helping her up the last few steps to the plateau. The hot wind, slightly cooled by the sea below, was now bearable. In a few minutes they would reach the Temple that loomed in all its majesty before them. This is where Gina and Ariana, and cousin Lola spent many hours at play away from the prying eyes of adults. When it was too warm to play, cousin Lola recited stories about Venus, who rose from the sea in her golden cockleshell chariot and her son Eryx, the giant.
Reaching the Temple, the two sisters sat in their favorite spot near the altar that Venus built, their usual high spirits subdued by exhaustion and anxiety.
Gina broke the quiet. "Ariana... I'm thirsty."
Ariana got up and led the way to a shallow brook, that would become a deep river as it flowed down into the valley. In cupped hands they drank the clear cool water, then splashed some on their flushed moist faces. They sat down on the mossy bank, kicked off their dusty sandals, and stepped carefully into the water. The sight of frightened minnows scattering in all directions made them laugh, forgetting for the moment the fearful scene earlier.
The morning had started out happy and full of anticipation. They were going to a Festa in celebration of Santa Rosalia. Nonno Pepe had prepared the painted cart with bells and ribbons, and harnessed Titina the mule, for the short journey to Palermo. There, they would meet other family members. The previous day, the sisters' uncle Vito, had gone hunting with his best friend. They planned to cut the hunt short on this Holy Sunday, and join in the celebration.
Gina and Ariana had finished a breakfast of bread and coffee. They were busy helping nonna Maria pack lunch, when they heard zia Flora's shrill cry. It was difficult at first to understand her. But as she came closer to the house, her cries became clear and terribly familiar.
"Compare Vito is dead! They have killed him!"
Gina was still too young to comprehend. But Ariana had heard those ominous words before. Only a few months ago, Donna Caterina's son, Andrea, was found dead, a cork forced into his mouth. He lay on his back on the cobblestone piazza, blood oozing from the many lupari gunshots; eyes wide open, still filled with terror of his own death.
"I want to go home. I'm hungry," complained Gina.
Ariana answered with adult patience. "In a little while we'll go back."
"Are we going to the Festa?"
"It's too late."
"Ariana, I'm afraid. Are you afraid?"
Ariana's answer was slow and careful. "Yes... a little.."
"I don't like Zia Flora. She made nonna Maria cry. Why did she make nonna cry?"
"I think it's because... maybe... zio Vito is never coming back."
"Never, ever? Why?" Gina's dark eyes opened wide in disbelief. Ariana had to tell her now.
"Gina.. listen... some bad men killed zio Vito... like they did Andrea."
Gina choked back tears. "That's not true! He'll come back. Zio Vito always comes back. He promised to bring me green almonds."
"Gina... Gina... zio Vito is dead. We will never see him again. He's up in heaven with Andrea."
"No... no! Don't say that! He's home... you'll see... and he will come to the Festa. Please Ariana... let's hurry home."
Gina was hysterical now. Lenora's frantic calling was barely audible over Gina's loud cries, as she appeared at the edge of the plateau. Gina scrambled to her feet, and ran into her aunt's waiting arms. Ariana put on her sandals and picked up her sister's pair.
"Zia Lenora, is... is... zio Vito still in the piazza?"
"No Ariana. He's home now."
"Do we have to go home? Do we have to see him?"
"No cara... you and Gina can stay with me for a while."
Ariana trembled. For the first time that day she cried. Lenora embraced and kissed her. With Gina holding tight to her aunt's apron, they started the long slow descent.
Hearing himself referred to as "mister" caught the stranger off guard, for he was only eighteen, not much older than the boy who had just offered him that token of respect. In no hurry for a response to his question, the boy took a clean rag from his hip pocket and dunked it in a bucket of water he brought to a weak froth by wringing out his rag in it. Leaning over the hood of the car, he took one corner of the rag and flung it over to the far end of the windshield, and then he slid up on the hood, on his belly, and wiped that far half thoroughly. Then, emitting a groan that made him sound older than his fifteen years, he eased back down and went to work on the driver's side of the windshield.
He stood back and admired his effort. With his thumbnail he removed the only bit of gunk standing between him and a job well done. Then from his other hip pocket he took a second rag and dried off the windshield, once again slithering over the hood to reach the far side. "Won't you have anything else, mister?" he asked again.
The stranger wondered what more than gas there could be to the place, but his upbringing and good sense kept him from saying as much. But it did feel good to the stranger to be out of that stuffy car for a minute. He reached into his shirt pocket and took out his cigarettes and lighter. Impressed with the stranger's fancy cigarette lighter, the boy stepped up for a closer look, sending wafting into the stranger's nostrils the harsh scent of the gasoline embedding itself in the boy's overalls, causing the stranger to fear that the boy might be combustible. The stranger put the lighter safely back in his pocket, the still unlit cigarette behind his ear. He asked the boy if there was anything to drink inside.
"Sure there is," said the boy. "I'll let you have a cold drink for nothin'." How lonely this kid must be, thought the stranger. He followed the boy up to the building. It wasn't a service station by any stretch of the imagination, just a frame building with a corrugated tin roof, from which one or more of the boy's relations observed the gasoline pumps every day . . . every day each year. What a racket a Texas hailstorm must make of that place in the springtime, was the stranger's reaction to the structure.
Before the building stood a vertical water tap beside which lay a pet's overturned plastic bowl. The industrious boy took the minute it took to rinse the bowl and refill it, and then he carefully placed it in the shade of the building, accidentally sloshing some of the water on his put-upon overalls. The boy held open the screen door for his guest. It was a sparse room filled with nothing but two chairs, a table, a large soda case, and a box fan on the floor, into which was fixed the staff of a tiny American flag that was now only hanging from a thread or two, flapping madly.
A black cat was resting curled up on top of the soda case. With one sweep of his arm, the boy sent the startled cat hurtling, but, as all cats do, this rudely awakened one landed on four padded paws, stood there stunned for a moment, and then wandered over beneath one of the chairs and massaged its back against the chair bottom, his tormentor forgiven.
The boy then took a chilled bottle of soda from the case and used the opener hanging from a wire tacked to the ceiling. He held out the bottle, saying, "Here you are, mister. You just sit down and drink this. You can have it for nothin'."
The stranger thanked him. Not wanting to disturb the cat, the stranger hopped up on the soda case and leaned against the wall. After setting out an ashtray for the stranger's use, the boy had gone to sit behind the table, so the stranger felt he was at a safe enough distance to light his cigarette, which he did, with three smooth and practiced motions of his quick fingers, all of which were noticed by the boy, who was duly impressed by them because there were no smokers in his family, and if there were, certainly none with such a fine lighter, which disappeared back into the stranger's pocket after its brief performance.
"What's the name of your town?" asked the stranger, more for something to say than to learn the name of the place.
"Why, this isn't any town," said the boy, laughing, slapping the table. "This is just a few houses alongside the highway. Town? Ha! That's a laugh, mister. Nearest town's Hyde, two miles on down the way you were headed. My daddy works out there." Though curious, the stranger didn't have the strength just then to ask the boy what his father did in Hyde, so he just nodded his head in comprehension and shut his eyes. The stranger had been driving since dawn, and it was now 1:00 p.m., so he was rightfully tired.
Having scratched its back thoroughly, the tomcat eased out from under the chair, stretched itself on the cool, vinyl floor, and, in one smooth motion, gracefully leapt up and lit on its favorite spot beside the young man on the soda case, taking care to leave itself in range of an outstretched arm should the visitor take a notion to stroke him. But the only movements the man made were ones involved with smoking his cigarette. At last the cat rose up and crept over beside the man, making contact with his blue-jeaned thigh, causing the man, still not bothering to open his eyes, to grope for the cat's head and scratch between its ears, causing the cat's motor to run as if they were old familiars.
On the opposite wall from the front door was the back door counterpart, left open, as was the front door most years from March to October, creating a fairly reliable draught that aided the box fan in keeping the still, heavy air moving in that close room. A screen door kept out the insects. Suddenly the back screen door was opened silently, and in stepped a young lady. She accidentally let the screen door get away from her, and it slammed with a clap that would have awakened any dead within a dozen miles, and then she looked up and spied the stranger on the soda case. In a wordless expression of OOPS!, she lifted her fingertips to her mouth in surprise.
Because of the murderous reflection of the sun given off by the windshield of an old pickup truck parked just beyond the back door, the stranger couldn't make out much besides the girl's splendid form beneath her back-lit daisy-print dress. It wasn't that she had forgotten her slip; she just never bothered with one when she wasn't going into Hyde. She stepped out of the light and into the otherwise poorly illuminated room. The visitor leaned forward and let his eyes adjust for a better look, but then he remembered his manners and slid down off the soda case and took a blind man's step toward her; he nodded his head to her.
"You've gone and woken him up, Taffy," said the boy. "Just look what you've gone and done."
The girl smiled a wicked smile and then closed the two steps between her and the stranger. Balancing herself by placing her hands on the stranger's shoulders, she stood up on her bare toes, saying, "Here's for that," and kissed the surprised stranger full on the lips. Stepping back away from him, wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she said, "Well, I think that should make everything about as all right as before I let that door slam." She crossed her arms over her chest and, without knowing it, arranged her bare feet in perfect third ballet position.
Not knowing what to say, the stranger said nothing. He just watched the girl, standing there with a look of expectation all over her face, an expectant look she augmented by beginning to tap her right foot. The stranger's ears were ringing. He detected a metallic scent to her perspiration when she kissed him, and some of that perspiration and scent was left upon his upper lip--and it wasn't unpleasant; he found it outdoorsy, natural. He stood there, his weight back on his heels.
Finally the girl bent forward at the middle, causing the stranger to shift additional weight to his heels. Turning to her brother, she said, "This one talk, Franky? Have you heard a word out of his head since he pulled up?"
"Sure he can talk," said Franky. "Me and him's been talking about all kinds of things."
Then the girl seemed to have lost all interest in the mute stranger, who, by this time, had managed to go back and lean against the relatively safe haven that was the soda case, and she went and sat atop the table, before her brother; she gazed out the window.
"I thought you said you'd be pickin' weeds till dinner," said Franky to his sister.
"Oh, I picked a trayful, but then I saw your gabby friend here pull in and not drive on, so I thought I'd just come in and see who was passing through. Anyway, you can't get any sun; it's all clouds out there now except for the sun shining through a pretty circle in the clouds. Come see it." She got up, and Franky followed her to the back window just in time to see the last sliver of sun become overrun by black rain clouds. "Oh, shoot," she said. "I should have shown you right when I came in."
Then the two of them went and took their places at the table. Moments later the first fat raindrops began to sound on the tin roof; the brother and sister looked at each other and smiled. Franky stood up and edged around the table and stood by his sister. The racket on the roof increased, and lines of water limned from the eave above the back door. Then the girl hopped off the table and slowly straightened up to her full height beside her brother. "Shelter!" she cried. Then she gave her brother a firm shove, and the two of them raced past the stranger and out the back door, allowing it to slam freely.
The slamming of the door took the stranger's mind off the girl's kiss, and he found himself alone. Beyond the walls he could hear the boy and girl's whooping and hollering, and it was plain they were making their way around the house. They weren't outside for more than two minutes when they came clamoring back inside, panting for breath in between the general hilarity of their laughter.
Shelter was a game they played on rainy days. The two of them would run around the house, clinging as best they could to the walls beneath the eaves, and the winner was the one who was driest after making it around the house. Soon followed the usual argument about which of them had one. "Oh, then, let's ask him," said the girl, turning to the stranger. She led her brother by the wrist, and they stood before the stranger. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Joe," he said softly, the first words to pass his lips since the girl first barged through the door and cast her spell upon him. "Joe Bragg."
"Well . . . which one of us looks the driest?" she asked. Joe knew that she and her brother had been disagreeing about which of them was driest, so it wasn't necessary for the girl to explain to him her curious question. He quickly looked Franky up and down and then lingered some over the girl. Joe decided the girl and her brother were equally sopping, so the contest was declared a tie. The girl then got a disgusted look on her face and said that only someone with no guts would say it was a tie.
And then Joe Bragg said, just as gamely, "I think that someone with no guts would have said you were the winner."
"Oh, you do, do you?" she said haughtily. She stared at him for a moment and said, "I do, too." She smiled for him. She was lovely, even in her disheveled state. Her nose was freckled, and her hair, though rendered brown by the rain, he knew from before that it was blond and straight, and that, though now it clung like some serpent round her fine neck, its usual nature was to rest softly upon her shoulders, just as it had done when she had kissed him. He admired her spirit, but he was pleased that she was showing signs of warming to him.
"Taffy's not really crazy, mister," said Franky. "It's just that she's got no manners."
Taffy had moved toward the back door, leaving an unsteady and diminishing line of raindrops to mark where she had passed. "Just see how it's coming down now!" she said, causing the others to join her at the back door. And the rain was surging in its intensity, raising a terrific clatter on the roof. Then, following one last increase in its strength, the rain began to let up and then stopped altogether.
Calm was restored to the room, and the three held their breath better to appreciate the subtle sounds resulting from the brief storm: the clink, clink of drops falling from the roof and striking against the blade of a shovel left leaning against the back wall of the building, and then bursting into a fine mist and falling noiselessly into a trickle of runoff passing the width of the building, on its way to the swollen creek ranging east and west beneath the highway bridge just down the way; the thwack, thwack of drops on the rim of the plastic cat dish out front, now murky and undrinkable to a picky cat that was often treated as royalty--when it wasn't being swept to the floor from its perch on the soda case.
Like the rainstorm itself, these remnant sounds of it soon abated and were forgotten when the three young people resumed their places--brother and sister at the table, Joe Bragg atop the soda case. The girl asked Joe where he was from. He said that he was from Oklahoma, and that he was driving through Texas on his way to Mexico, where he would be spending his spring college break.
"How long are you off for?" asked Franky. "Seems like you'd just have to turn back by the time you got down to Mexico."
Though Joe considered his days as a college man behind him, for he didn't plan on going back, he said that the holiday was nine days long, plenty of time to see some of Mexico.
"What are you studying up there at college?" asked the girl.
"Oh... business," he said.
"Business?" she said, not approving. "If I was in college, I'd be taking something fancier than that. I'd be in music or art, something like that. Business. That sounds as dull as anything I've ever yawned over."
Joe hated hearing that, because he had lied to them about what he was studying. Truth was, he had been taking art--painting--but he thought people at this lazy Texas stop would find that sissified, and not something with which a real man would be involved. He wished he had back his statement about what he was studying in school. Then he thought he saw an out to his mess:
"Oh, business isn't all I'm taking. I'm taking painting, too."
"Painting!" said Taffy, her interest piqued.
"Sure. My trunk's full of all my gear. I'm going down to Mexico to paint."
"Oh, I want to see it! I want to see all your gear!" said Taffy, hurrying over to the front door, holding open the screen for the two boys. As if negotiating stepping stones, they stayed to the few patches of grass while traversing the yard. The going became messy as they neared the car, for the dirt running alongside the gravel road had become slick with sucking mud. Taffy didn't care. Without hesitating, she went on tough bare feet to the rear of the car and stood there with her expression of expectation on her animated face, while the two boys fretted at the mud for a second prior to leaping over it, Taffy steadying Franky after his rough landing.
"Oh, lift this thing," she said of the trunk, wringing her hands impatiently.
Joe found his keys and opened the trunk. Taffy leaned over for a glimpse at what an artist's tools of the trade might look like. It wasn't much: a box containing three sketching pads, four sketching pencils, an unused sandpaper pad, and one tube of paint missing its cap. "What's this ol' junk?" she demanded, lifting out one of the pads, fanning through it and finding only blank pages. "You said you were going down to Mexico to paint." She picked up the paint tube and gave it a squirt; nothing came out. "I don't see any paint here, but for this dried-up tube of it."
Joe was embarrassed. Thinking quickly, he said, "Don't you think they've got paint down in Mexico? I'm just sketching stuff along the way down there."
Then Taffy asked him where he kept his sketches since, by now, she had looked through all of his pads and found nothing. Before Joe could answer, Franky, peering through the back window of the car, said there was another pad on the back seat, adding that he was sure that one was filled with sketches ("masterpieces" was the term he used).
Taffy saw Joe's face fall when Franky said that, so she raced around the car and, finding the back door locked, opened the driver's door and unlocked the back one. She opened the door and had to wrestle a bit with Joe to be first to the pad. He released her when he found his arms around her waist and her frowning at that. She opened the pad and found a charicature of Joe's denim-covered ankles and his shoes. Then she fanned the pages, and the rest were blank. She saw the shoe sketch for what it was: something done by a would-be artist grasping at straws, one not knowing what to draw or paint.
"Here's what I think of this," she said, taking the tail end of his drawing, letting the rest of the pad dangle, then tearing the drawing in half vertically, handing the torn-off half back to its owner who stood still with it for a moment until it gave way and fell into the mud and gravel, one half of the abused drawing still in his hand, showing his ridiculous left shoe and pantsleg.
With a vengeance, Joe wadded up that half a sketch and flung it into the trunk. He slammed it shut. Still thinking the best of the stranger, Franky knelt down and retrieved the pad from the mud. As he rose up to hand it to Joe, his sloppy sneakers slurped in the mud. Joe looked down with disgust at what the boy offered him. Half the pad was sopped, and the chocolate liquid ran off the cover as if ashamed at what it had come in contact with.
"Aw, that won't be any good now," Joe said resignedly. "Get rid of it."
Franky looked all around. He wound up slinging it beneath the car, for it was plain Joe was right, the thing would be useless. Taffy had stood by, watching the boys, her arms crossed over her chest, shaking her head at them--mostly at Joe, who had begun to disappoint. She walked up to Joe, and he gave her an embarrassed smile, the kind a child might wear if he had just been caught weighing and shaking wrapped Christmas gifts.
"Well, I can see it all clearly now," said Taffy, gazing knowingly into Joe's eyes. "You're only a pretend painter."
"I am not," said Joe. "I just haven't seen anything worth sketching yet. I drove half of Oklahoma and half of Texas, and I still haven't seen anything worth sketching."
"Half of Oklahoma and half of Texas?" demanded Taffy.
"That's right," said Joe.
"And you think drawing your old shoe was better than drawing all the pretty things you must have passed on your way here?"
"What of it?" said Joe.
"Well," said Taffy, "if it wasn't for your car sitting here, I'd say you must have sleepwalked the whole way."
"Oh, go on. You don't know anything about it," said Joe, his self-confidence long lost, his self-respect going into hiding.
Taffy regarded him closely and began to take pity on him. Then she had an idea. She told him to open the trunk back up, which he did, and then she took from it one of the sketching pads and a couple of his sketching pencils. She said, "All you need is a little inspiration. Come on!" She took him by the hand and led him through the building and over the stepping stones to the small garden she kept behind the building.
Joe looked at her garden. There were tomato plants of various shades of wilted brown and green lynched on wooden stakes, none of them bearing fruit. All that could be said for the garden was that it was void of weeds; and there in the middle sat the stool Taffy sat on to pull them, the seat sheeted with rainwater.
She said, "Isn't it just so much prettier than anything you could ever even have a dream about?" She went to the back of the house and took from there a folding aluminum chair she sat in every evening so she could admire her garden. She walked the chair over to Joe, set it down for him, and handed him his pad and sketching pencils.
Joe sat down and began to sketch.
So the other day, we're on the way home from the theatre. It's around midnight... and I'm sure right now you're thinking -- hold on here Georgie. You mean to tell me that it's midnight in the bronx and your walking home with your dyke girlfriend, and you didn't expect to get mugged. Well no, and thanks for your compassion. So anyway, we're a few blocks from our apartment and these five guys, they start following us. And Jody thinks it would be funny as hell to yell out -- You know, sometimes I wonder why I'm a lesbo, but then I look at guys like that, and it all comes back to me. -- Not real smart.
You know, after you spend enough time in the hospital, you really get desperate for entertainment. I haven't even been in to see Jody... I beg the doctors, but since I'm not "family," at least immediate, I have to wait. So... over the span of the last four days, I have read every back issue of Reader's Digest -- twice. Memorized both the English and Spanish versions of the health poster on the wall -- Your prostate and you. Eres prostate y tu. -- And I've composed an entire Italian opera. Well, at least I've been productive, huh?
I also spend my time, going over what happened in that ally that night. "Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe." I remember screaming at Jody, as she lay there. Bruised, beaten, bleeding. "In and out. In and out. Come on Jody, don't stop fighting on me now."
Now, I hear the sirens like I'm right there with her on the street. Only they are coming from her room, not the ally. But to me it makes no difference. I am still back there in that ally. Frozen. "You mother fucking dykes. You mother fucking bitches. You better run you mother fuckers."
Five minutes later the doctors exit the room... false alarm. Thank God.
Yeah, I'm a dyke. And you want to know how it feels? Well, let me put it this way... There's a lot of hate out there. So much that sometimes, it closes in on you. And you feel like you're choking. And you're struggling for air. And you just can't get a breath.
So, y'know, I was home when they came for Moet and me. Her name is really Keisha, Moet is her middle name, but she wanted everyone to call her Moet because she said it sounded sexy. I don't know how she knows what sexy was or wasn't, but momma busted her butt when she heard her say that. I call her Moet just so she would shut up already.
Anyway, like I was saying, we were watching a talk show, sitting on the floor in the living room. I was lying on my belly, my face propped up by my hands, squinting at the people on television. The topic of the day was "Reuniting With That One Night Stand." Moet was curled up near me, her feet tucked under her body, playing with one of her braids. Momma was in the kitchen cooking oxtails and rice and peas. She worked evenings, so she would be getting ready to leave soon, when Aunt Claire came to stay with us. We were watching the television and didn't even hear the knock on the door until Momma yelled from the kitchen for us to see who was there. We ran over to the door and peeked out from the curtains at the same time. We were trying not to be seen in case it was one of them Jehovah's Witness people. It wasn't them. It was a policeman and a lady standing there. The policeman was staring straight at us. My heart was beating really fast and I yelled to momma that there was a policeman at the door. Me and Moet sat back on the sofa and peeked at the two people standing outside in the drizzle as momma bustled towards the door, wiping her hands on her skirt as she walked.
When momma opened the door, the lady spoke.
"Good afternoon, ma'am, are you Isabel Penney?"
Momma was looking at her and then at the policeman and back again.
"Yes I am. How can I help you?"
Momma had that voice on, that voice that Daddy used to call her cultured voice. Where it sounds like, real proper, but she's usually really pissed off. "My name is Sandra O'Connor, Ms. Penney. I'm with the Bureau for Child Welfare. This is Officer Briggs. Can we come in?"
Somehow, even as I strained to hear the conversation, I knew she really was gonna come in anyway. I mean, she was here with a police officer, momma was supposed to let them in, right?
So I guess that really wasn't a question.
"Ah, yes, sure. Come in."
They came in from outside, and I stared at them as they wiped their feet on the mat and stood in the middle of our living room. Moet was sitting right in front of me, and I pushed her slightly so I could see what was going on. It used to piss me off that she always got in front of me in everything, but before Daddy went away he told her that I was her little sister and she was supposed to take care of me and also momma. So I guess that means she went first in most everything. Anyway the lady was talking to momma.
"Ms. Penney we are here to speak with you about your daughter Keisha." She turned to us and smiled," Which one of you pretty little girls is Keisha?" Keisha's hand shot up as if she had won first prize in a contest. I stuck out my lip and frowned.
Why does it always have to be Keisha? The lady turned back to momma. "We got a report from the school that Keisha had some bruises on her back and arms on Friday. Do you know what happened to her Ms. Penney?"
The lady was staring at momma as she spoke, but momma was not even looking at her. She was staring down the police officer. She finally turned and looked at the lady. She still didn't say a word. The lady was starting to look a little upset, and momma just kept on staring at her.
The policeman finally said something.
"Ms. Penney, could you answer the question? Do you have anything to say?" He spoke so softly I almost couldn't hear him. I leaned on Moet's back to hear better. Moet was quiet as she picked a hole in the sofa. The hole was where Daddy had accidentally burnt the sofa when he was drinking and smoking one night with Uncle Tony. Momma had yelled at him when she came in from her job at the hospital and saw them sleeping there with cigarettes and they had a huge argument. I was gonna tell her to stop but then momma spoke.
"What exactly do you want to hear?"
Her voice was very quiet, and I started to feel afraid. I don't know why but I felt really bad. I looked at Moet but she kept staring at the hole and kept picking at it with one hand as she sucked her thumb with the other. That's two no-no's, right in front of Momma. But momma didn't see her, momma was still staring at the woman. She spoke to momma again.
"Ms. Penny, there is no need to get agitated over this. We are just checking to see if everything is okay, that's all. This is the second report we have had in the last three months."
Momma shook her head.
"You bring a policeman into my house just to check up? No, Ms. O'Connor what exactly do you want from me?"
The police officer spoke again, raising his hands as if to calm Momma down. She gave him a quick angry look and I jumped back. Everyone turned and looked at me. I looked at the carpet and started to feel my ears burning.
"Ms. Penny, we have to do this, so please let's not make it any more difficult than necessary."
He sounded very smart, like he talked like those people you see on the news. I don't watch the news but momma watches it every evening at six before she left. The police officer spoke again.
"Did you put those bruises on Keisha, Ms. Penny?
Momma looked very angry now. Moet was still staring at the hole in the sofa and I glanced at her and back at momma. I wanted to pee now but I was afraid to get up and walk past everyone. I was starting to fidget on the soft next to Moet but no one noticed me.
"Yes, I disciplined her! Is that what you want to hear? I spanked my daughter."
This was the Ms. O'Connor lady. She now looked real angry. Why would she be angry with momma?
"Ms. Penny, where is the children's father?"
Momma looked at her angrily and looked at the officer. He had his arms folded and looked upset too. The lady sighed and glanced at the police officer. He spoke up again.
"Ms. Penny, does he live here? He wasn't here the last time we came. Is he in jail? Is anyone else living here?"
"Is he... how dare you? How dare you come into my house, question me about my child, my husband, disrespect me in such a manner?"
Momma took a step toward the lady and I got really nervous. Momma looked like she was going to fight the lady. My heart was beating really fast and I looked at Moet again. She was now staring at the scene happening before her. I saw for the first time that Moet was shaking.
The policeman was talking to momma again. He had stepped between her and the other lady.
"...them with us, Ms. Penny, at least until the case is more thoroughly investigated and it goes to court."
Momma was silent but still looked very mad. I was confused. What are they talking about? What do they want? Momma looked at me and Moet.
"Get dressed, girls. Go ahead."
We got up and walked silently to our room. Moet had her head down and she looked like she had started to cry. I looked up at momma as I went by, but she seemed to be staring into space. Her eyes looked like she was going to start crying also. My chest felt funny and as I followed my sister up the stairs everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. They were still talking as we got to the top of the stairs but I don't know if momma heard even one word. She was still staring off somewhere.
When we got to our room I turned to Keisha.
"What's going on, Keisha? Why're you cryin'? What's going to happen?"
Keisha sat on the bed sobbing and sniffling. She didn't answer. I felt like crying too cause I felt something bad was gonna to happen. I sat beside my sister on the bed and we both cried softly until momma yelled up the stairs for us to hurry up.
Everything started happening real fast after that. When we got to the bottom of the stairs the lady held our hands and took us outside to her car. I noticed it had stopped raining as we walked to her little brown car that was at the curb. There wasn't anyone outside, but I know that nosy Ms. Franklin next door was probably peeking out at us and calling all the neighbors "spreading our business" as momma always said. Momma never liked Ms. Franklin too much, and she cursed her out after Daddy left. I think Ms. Franklin was spreading stories about what happened to him. Momma put her in her place. Anyway I was looking for her as we was walking to the little car but I didn't see her.
Momma was not around as we were walking out, but as we got into the car I saw her standing in the doorway, looking at us. Her hands were together in front of her with a coat over them and that policeman, Officer Briggs, was holding on to her arm. I couldn't tell from that far away, but I think she was crying. I had never seen momma cry before, and as we drove away, I kept looking at her, watching as Officer Briggs took her to his car. She was looking at me too, and I felt tears running down my face again.
Ms. O'Connor drove us to Queens General Hospital. On the way there, she kept asking a lot of questions. I didn't feel like talking to her and I guess Keisha felt the same cause she was quiet the whole way there. When we got to the hospital Ms. O'Connor took us up in the elevator to the third floor. She left us in a room with one of those long doctor's tables and two chairs. Me and Keisha sat down quietly and waited. Ms. O'Connor came back after a few minutes with a white lady. This lady was much shorter and fatter than Ms. O'Connor, with red hair, a round face and these big round glasses on. She was wearing a green uniform, and Ms. O'Connor introduced her as Dr. Debbie Ross.
She smiled at us and rubbed our heads as she said, "Hi, girls." Keisha smiled at her but I didn't like her. I don't like people patting or rubbing my head. I didn't like nobody putting their hands in my hair at all.
"Are you Keisha?" asked Dr. Ross, pointing at me. I shook my head and pointed at my sister.
"Okay. Keisha, Ms. O'Connor told me that you were hurt the other day. Can I see where you were hurt?"
Keisha slowly pulled up her sleeves to show the doctor where momma had spanked her, using her free hand to wipe her nose. It was cold in the room, and I'm thinking to myself, it's October and they got air conditioning on. "My back too," said Keisha quietly.
The doctor looked at the bruises touched her on some of them and asked Keisha to turn around so she could see her back. Keisha had started to have her monthly thing recently, and momma had bought her a box of maxi pads and a training bra. Everyday I would see her in our room doing some stupid exercise to make her breasts bigger. She was wearing her training bra now, and she moved it up so the doctor could see the mark on her back. I sat there quietly as they examined Keisha. The doctor asked if she could take some pictures of her. Keisha shrugged her shoulders and glanced at me. I turned away and pretended to watch the wall. The doctor took a little camera out of her pocket and I turned back to see and rolled my eyes. The doctor had the camera raised to take some pictures and stopped as she looked at me.
"Why did you do that?" she asked me.
"Why you asking her for? You already got the camera, you know you gonna take her picture whether she say yes or no."
The doctor looked surprised. Ms O'Connor looked at me with one of them faces like I had slapped her or something. Ms. O'Connor was the one that answered.
"Well, ahh... yes we do have to take these pictures, but it's not... right... to just take pictures of someone. It's not right." She looked at the doctor and spoke again. "Your mommy and daddy told you the difference between right and wrong, didn't they?"
She was looking at me as she spoke, and all of a sudden everyone was staring at me. I just looked away. She turned to Keisha, who had pulled down her shirt. "Why did your mommy beat you, Keisha?"
Keisha was quiet for a few seconds and I knew she was looking at me. I wasn't gonna look at her cause I know she be making shit up all the time, and as far as I know this was all her fault.
"She spanked me cause she heard I was kissing Bryan Phillips."
Ms. O'Connor nodded. I kept quiet and just pretended to not be listening.
"Did she ever beat you before?"
Keisha nodded, and looked at me again. I still ignored her.
"Did she use her hands? Or did she hit you with a belt?"
"She hit me with a belt this last time, but she hit me with her hands plenty of times too."
The doctor was still looking at me, but I was just ignoring all of them. Ms. O'Connor continued.
"Listen, Keisha, what your mommy did to you was not right, and we are going to have to keep you away from her for a while. You and your sister." She looked at me. I turned away.
"We will put you with some other kids, you will have a nice new family. It's only going to be for a little while, and I'll make sure everything goes all right, okay?"
I was listening to Ms. O'Connor and I couldn't say a word. I felt really bad. First daddy and now momma? What's going on? I looked at Keisha, who was now showing off her bruises like it was something special as the doctor took pictures. For the first time in my life I really began to hate my sister.
We didn't see momma after that, and after that day me and Keisha fought all the time. We got put in this home with this family, the Bennetts. Ms. Bennett was a fat, old lady who was always shouting at the kids. I saw Mr. Bennett twice. Some other kid said he worked at Transit and was always working double shifts. Besides me and Keisha, there were five other kids there. Keisha liked it, cause they let her do all the stuff momma wouldn't let her do and in two weeks she was talking to this boy Jamir, who was the oldest boy there and the one that beat up on everyone. I hated the family. I hated the house. I wanted to go back to my momma and I told them that every day.
It was two weeks later that momma came to see us at school. I just got out of homeroom when momma came to the door of my class. She was wearing daddy's favorite coat and it was big on her. She looked like she had lost weight. I ran to her and hugged her as she picked me up and squeezed me.
"How are you, my angel?" she asked.
"I wanna go home momma. Why can't I go home?"
My homeroom teacher saw me with momma, and I saw her walking fast to the principal's office as we walked down the hall to Keisha's class. I was talking to momma and paying no one no mind. I was never so happy to see her. When we got to Keisha's class, she wasn't there, so we walked down to the first floor. All the other kids were leaving class, most were heading home, some were hanging outside.
"So how's your sister doing, baby?"
"She's okay. She's talking to some boy. I guess she likes him, but I don't like that place momma. I want to come back home. When can I come back home?"
Momma was looking at me and I could tell she was really unhappy. She didn't even answer me for a long time.
"Well, baby, I am trying to see what I can do. You know, I have to go to court and ask the judge if you can come back home with me." She held my hand really tight as she spoke, and her face looked really tired. "I don't know if they'll allow me to take you home, but... They tried to say I was really bad to you and your sister, baby. It might be a while, but don't worry, honey, momma is gonna take care of everything, okay?"
Just then a police car pulled up and I saw two policemen get out. As we stood there talking they were walking towards us. I recognized one of them as the officer that was at our house. Officer Briggs. Momma saw them too, and she held me tighter and hugged me. Over her shoulder I saw Keisha coming from inside the school building with Jamir. She stopped when she saw us. Momma didn't see her, and for a second I thought Keisha was going to run away.
"Listen, baby, I just want you to know that I love you. I would never do anything to hurt you or your sister, you know that, right?"
"Just promise me you will remember everything I taught you and be a good, smart girl, okay baby?"
"Okay baby, I have to go. You go inside and get your sister, okay. Kiss her for me, okay honey? I have to go now. Don't stay out here, baby. Go on inside."
"No, momma! Don't leave me. Please, can't you stay a little longer?"
The policemen stopped right near us and Officer Briggs spoke up.
"Ms. Penney, I hate to do this, but you know you should not be here."
Momma let me go, and I ran up the stairs towards where Keisha was still standing. She was kind of hiding behind one of the columns, and Jamir was giving me a mean look as I walked up.
"Momma wants to talk to you!" I said to her as I got to the top.
Keisha just looked at me, and Jamir pushed me out of the way.
"Yo, Moet! They gonna arrest your moms!" he said.
I turned around, and as I did I saw Officer Briggs reach out to grab her arm.
We were all there watching, and then momma pulled out daddy's gun from the pocket of her coat.
Officer Briggs backed up as she pointed the gun at him and the other officer.
All of a sudden I heard some kids screaming and people started running. Momma just stood there with her back to us, as me, Keisha and Jamir stood on the steps staring.
"Get away from me, Officer Briggs. You, you and that lady are the reason for all of this! All I'm doing is trying to raise my daughters right and you come into my house, arrest me in front of my kids, and take them away from me. Ruin my life!"
"Ms. Penney, calm down. Please, put down the gun before somebody gets hurt..."
"Don't tell me to put down the gun! You took away my kids! You ruined my life! How could you do this to me! I'm not a criminal. My daughter is fourteen years old and mixing with the wrong crowd. If I don't set her straight now, when am I supposed to do it? When she's a crack addict? When she's dead? No, Officer. What you all did was wrong. Wrong!"
"Ms. Penney this isn't the way to go about this. Put down the gun, please. Let's talk about it. Your can still get your kids back. If you put down the gun we can talk to the judge for you, it's not too late..."
"NO! It IS too late! You took away my reasons for living! I can't get them back! What kind of crazy world is this! I'm a christian, I go to church, they told me abortion is wrong, when I'm eighteen years old and pregnant! Marriage, that's the thing to do. That is the right thing to do, drop out of school, sacrifice to raise your kids right... I try to raise my kids properly, and you arrest ME! If I don't punish my children, people like you arrest them and put them in jail! Or if you don't put them in jail they're going out there on the streets with no sort of control! What kind of crazy, sick world is this..."
Momma turned slightly and even though she couldn't see us I could see her. I saw her face, tears streaming down, eyes all red as she kept the gun pointed at the police officers.
"I love my girls. And I'm not a bad mother."
She turned back to face the two officers, and sighed. As we all looked she put the gun to the side of her head and pulled the trigger.
I had never seen anyone killed before. I mean, I see it all the time on television, movies and stuff but never in front of me. I saw my mother fall sideways, heard the loud boom, heard the splat of blood hitting the pavement right before her body did and right before I closed my eyes and blacked it out I heard the loud scream from Keisha as she watched momma die...........
I am sure that the main reason I took to the creek was the absence of parental control. Sure, I also went to be with my friends, who were always there, and of course because there was always something to do in there, but the freedom of youth was the ultimate privilege. In the creek, you could say or do whatever came to mind, as long as it didn't require money. I abused that freedom, and participated in events that were quite disreputable, yet it was all in the spirit of youngling adventure.
The most interesting thing, in retrospect, that I ever partook in, was the routing of the lobsters, the besting of the cray fish. These crustaceans never seemed to take any hostile interest in us, the habitat-spoilers, unless they were manhandled or invaded in some form. Still, their pinch was tight, so I had heard, and for that the unworldly children as evil incarnate looked them upon. I myself was always careful around the beasts, picking them up gently and with my hand adeptly placed on their spine, so the claws never found purchase. So I really didn't view them as dangerous, though I too saw them as hellspawn, for how could so many others be wrong, especially friends. It was a very impressionable period of age, that, with the dares and so forth, and peer-pressure getting its sudden jump in popularity. It wasn't peer pressure that made me think that the lobster holocaust, which didn't have a name then, was a great idea. I don't remember what made we want to do such a destructive thing, but it isn't really important, if you realize I was about 10 years old. In the most likelihood of events, I was bored, and it was something entertaining to do. So I did it.
There were six of us on this excursion, and it was sometime in the summer. It isn't important who the people were, since little boys tend to be the same, and we were all little boys. Realizing that such an undertaking would require the proper tools; we each came up with a bucket, pretty deep but lightweight, from our respective homes. Mine was an orange Halloween basket, shaped like a pumpkin. We all met at one boy's house, waiting for him to finish his lunch. It was one of those interesting scenes I so vividly remember. Us boys on the porch, for his mother distrusted letting such rabble destroy her lovely furniture, the boy wanting to leave, desperately, arguing his case by saying he wasn't hungry, and the like. Finally, he was allowed out, with a stern and motherly look. I loved those days, where you could just go to someone's house and ask if they could go out and play, rather than the days of the new where appointments are necessary. After chastising the boy for making us wait, we set off for the fence.
Every boy knows how to climb a fence, at that age, and it was not a difficult task to swiftly get over into the dirty, unsupervised creek, even with barb wire threatening to snatch a piece of loose clothing. Once over, the search began. We walked along the muddy floor, careless of where we stepped; we searched for the lobsters as the SS searched for the Jewish in World War II. Every one we found would go into the bucket. Every now and then there would be a puddle that was too deep to hop, and we would have to go around it, up onto the yellow weeded bank. For the most part, though, the summer heat had evaporated most of the regular stream, giving the whole area a withered quality. Eventually, as it began to get cold, we had so many cray fish that it would be a hazard to add more to the buckets, as one might spill out and exact its just revenge. So, now we had to decide what to do with the 60+ lobsters. One of us had a whimsical brainstorm, and I don't think it was I, for I would have remembered such a malicious thought. We boys would go to an exit off the creek, which led to a busy street.
I didn't know what rush hour was, then, but I knew that at this point, with it beginning to get dark, the cars would be everywhere. With over-exhilaration at what we were going to do, due to unused adrenaline, we crouched at the sides of the street waiting for a good opportunity. Finding one, all six of us ran into the temporarily empty street and deposited the buckets of lobsters. Bless me, but this moment was going to be one of the most satisfying moments of my life.
It was these next few minutes that I most remember today. With elation on par with my first fireworks display, I jumped up and down. Then, the first car came, not knowing what it was about to do. With a sickening crunch, lobsters began to die. They bleed yellow, and I remember thinking that was odd. As the cars kept coming, the street became more and more yellow, and not one car stopped. I could see the blood on the tires as the vehicles sped away, for they had an almost fluorescent quality. There were scrambling lobsters, trying in vain to get to water and mud, and just ending up confused and dead. There were some lobsters that had only parts of their bodies run over, and they still tried to move away, they didn't give up. What struck me as odd was that not one of the pseudo-lobsters was able to escape; though if one did we would probably have put it back for another round. When the carnage was over, we went home, for it was dark. I didn't tell me mom what I had done, for I would definitely have been punished.
Something odd: I felt no remorse for my sins, for taking life, for being a murderer. It was just another day, a fun day, and a great day. I slept well, I am sure. Also, I feel fine about it now, writing about it. What this says about me as a person, I'd rather not discuss, so I will leave it at this: I was involved with the lobster holocaust, and I am glad to have known something so terribly bitter, yet so terribly sweet.
You turn on the computer and log onto the Internet, just to say hello to a few chatters you have struck up a friendship with. The chatting room you log into is WBS (Web Broadcasting System) Forty Something. In this room you post a photo of yourself or your alter ego beside your name and you send a big "G'Day mates" in the message box and off you go down the scroll bar to see who is going to answer. They all do! There are one hundred and forty five chatters on line tonight. And guess what? You answer them all. It might take all night but you get through them. While exchanging all the pleasantries and beginning to loosen up (someone has made you laugh), out of the blue, a pleasant looking man is on your screen addressing you in a fashion that takes your breath away. And the whole world is reading his enthusiastic words, but you don't care, out of one hundred and forty five chatters, this man is talking to you. You decide, maybe this man is just the medicine you need and your heart begins to thump and a smile crosses your quivering lips. He is overwhelmed by you and your photo as you are he, but you don't tell him that. Once the introductions have taken place, the who's, where's and what's are taken care of, he tells you he would very much like to get to know you better and asks to go to a private room with you. You agree, and so glad you did. You have so much in common with him and after an hour of chatting you are "finishing each others sentences." You can't believe this is happening. At last! Your soul mate!
Before you know it, five hours have slipped by. There is thirteen hours difference between you, his day, your night. You don't want to leave to go to bed but you must. So you arrange to meet again on line when you wake in the morning. Bed!..... Why go there? You know you can't sleep, visions of him and the things he has said flashing through your mind all night. How can this be happening? You are an adult and you have just interacted on a machine! How does he feel about this, is he thinking about you too? You toss and turn all night, then at last, its time to get yourself out of bed and go on-line. "Oh God! Will he be there?" Did you dream it all? Where did this strange over length phone number come from then? Logging on is slow, you begin to panic, thinking, will he wait for you? Did he sleep, is he still asleep? (He is out of work, but is studying computer technology.) Finally the modem has gone through its hissing and groaning and you are ON........... Yes, there he is waiting, your heart skips a beat and flutters like it's going to fly out of your chest. He tells you he has been awake thirty six hours, chatting. Okay, he has other girlfriends. What did you expect? So you play it cool and he is still so energetic with his words and you try with all your might but your heart still flutters. god, woman you have only just met this man, how can you be jealous? Are you falling in love?
The time is getting on and you have to leave for your daily outside (REAL TIME) life but again you don't want to leave. You make him promise he will sleep while you are away. He agrees and off you go. But, do you get on with what is required of you? Very hard to do when it's him that is the only thing on your mind..... This is how it flows for the next three weeks.
Yay, home time, gotta get on line, gotta get on line your mind chants. Oh, will he be there? Yes, he is there eagerly waiting for you, he has missed you too. You exchange phone numbers again. So after the normal six to seven hour chat, you ring him while you are preparing for bed. The sound of his voice is mellow and smooth sounding. "Thump, thump," goes your heart again. Then the clangor! He says, "I love you!" and your knees buckle, the words, the wonderful angelic voice on the other end of the line is too much for your ears, you almost faint...... He hears the sound that has caught in your throat and asks if you are okay. "Yes," you tell him and hang up. You don't know what to say, he has taken you off guard and you feel as silly as a love sick teenager. How could he do this to you, he has only known you for three weeks. But you know you feel the same and you are not going to tell him, not yet anyway, you don't want to seem to easy.
Then there is the ache in your chest when one morning you are set to go on line and the computer is broken!........ You panic, you want to cry, you ring him but his phone is busy, of course, he is on line waiting for you. You ring a girl friend in Sydney and beg her to send an e-mail to him on your behalf..... Then you ring a mutual friend in Melbourne and request she do the same, just In case the first party's e-mail fails and again the same procedure to a friend in Perth. Of course they are happy to oblige as they have cyber-loves too. Then with a heavy heart you head off to do your daily routine. But as usual your mind is on him. What is he doing, who is he chatting with, is she pretty, do they do the cyber-sex thing? And wonder why he hasn't done it with you. Is there something wrong with you? Why hasn't he? (Not that you want it, you are just curious.) Has he got the e-mails yet?
You decide it is time to tell him you love him too. So you write him a poem.
You walk the meadows of my unconsciousness
weaving threads in dreams
You, a tantalizing stranger
from another time zone
I can only reflect
with bated breath
in time elapsed
What excitement, sensation,
Your face dominant
minute by minute
Your energy, your will
A chance I don't stand
The undertow stronger than I
Declare I do
my love today.
The computer is repaired, you are over the moon and you send off your poem then begin reading the twenty seven e-mails he has sent you. Is this man crazy for you or what? He is very impressed on how you "found a way" to contact him and how god is on our side. You are sad though because the hour you have logged on, he is sleeping and you are anxious for him to know that you love him. When next you meet online after intense anxiety you are flattered at his being flattered on the way you have chosen to inform him of your love and he is very much in love with your sensitivity and of course the title of the poem is related to his "handle" online. He won't be out done, and he writes a poem for you. You are besoddened with tears because no one has ever written a poem especially for you. He calls you his Mentor. This inspires you to collaborate a poem and he then writes you a song, "The Sun Is Setting In Your Eyes," and he posts it to you via snail mail... On receival of this tape, the sound of his singing voice sends you into a trance beyond belief. Then those words again, "I love you, Terri." You cry and vow to yourself and god that you will be with this man one day.
The ultimate then happens. He invites you to the USA to be with him and the "m" word is mentioned in passing. You are lost for words once again. You have to think about it, you tell him, but deep down inside, this is a dream come true. He wants you, he loves you, he needs you, he wants to marry you. But! This is an enormous decision. You must move to another country on the other side of the planet. You have commitments that will not be fulfilled until the end of the year, only four months to wait. You have kids, you love your kids. Your kids are adults, they are capable of looking after themselves. It is your turn at happiness, your turn to live and love again. It has been a long time since you have ventured beyond the walls that you built around you to protect you from men who get pleasure by manipulating you, degrading you, emotionally and physically. Yes, you know all these things, but you have a one track mind, you trust and love this man and you want to grow old with him. He makes you laugh again, he up lifts you and encourages you, he helped you through the death of your last surviving parent, he believes in you and loves you for your intellect.
You discuss and plan with this man of your dreams and he informs you that he will pay half of your ticket and pay for all the extras that go along with your travel over to the States. He gives you his credit card number to pay for the ticket. Wow, does he trust you and love you to do this? What is stopping you? The decision is final, you are going to him. You arrange with your real time life other options and apply for your visa, but you opt for a visa waiver, which gives you three months in the country, then you leave. You both decide this is the way to go because you will work on the visa side of things when you get there. If only you knew that things were not done that way. A visa waiver is no option, when your three months are up, they are up! You do not interfere with this form of non-visa.
Everything goes to plan, you are chatting every chance you have and the phone is running hot. It is far cheaper for him to ring you at 28? per minute compared to your 99? per minute. You have a garage sale and sell everything, because, you tell yourself and everyone you know, you are not coming back. And you honestly believe this, because you have never felt this passion for another human being in all your life, that you can remember anyway. The passion that burns in you rages night and day, you can't eat, sleep, or concentrate. Your mind is filled unconditionally of him, you are so in love. Your arms ache to hold him and have him hold you and protect you. The countdown begins, you are like a cat on a hot tin roof. Three days to eternal happiness. You board the plane on the tenth and arrive on the eleventh but it is the twelfth in Australia. You feel nostalgic. But then, THERE HE IS!
He isn't as tall as you expected, his smile is wonderful, and that voice! You melt in his arms and he holds you firm so you do not buckle, his kisses are soft and tender just as you imagined (two out of three ain't bad). You are melting. His accent is driving you wild, you can live with this, it is so smooth and not an annoyance. Of course he loves your accent so much that he is too busy listening to how you speak and not what you are saying! This unsettles you a little because you do not like having to repeat yourself. Then it's home to his "trailer." You knew about this but it is so small, where are you going to put your things? Why didn't he make room for you? He had plenty of time after all. Oh yeah, that's right, he did get a job so that would explain it.
Two weeks later, the honeymoon is over, the perfect bliss has a hole in it. He yells, screams, and swears at you. You smoke too much, you drink too much coffee, you are on the 'puter for too many hours. You yell back, you are new to the country, don't know a soul, have no transport, you are homesick what is expected of you? You know a few people on the computer who are living in the same county, so you ring one and arrange accommodation. As you leave you see a tear in his eye. You are torn up inside when that night he rings you and begs for a date, of course you accept because you are in love still. You stay the night and he promises to be patient with you until you are accustomed to your new surroundings. It goes well for a few more weeks and he blows up again, because you don't feel like going out on his day off to visit with more strangers, you tell him you would rather spend the day with him alone, but he won't see reason and tells you that if the shoe was on the other foot and he was in Australia, would I not want him to meet my friends? You tell him it's done differently in Oz. "We have a BBQ and invite all we know to it so everyone gets to meet a special friend." But he is hard to get through to and he goes on and on. So you move out again only to return five days later because you only have two more weeks left in his country and you want to give it another shot. All is well until three days before you leave and he is at it again and he tells you it won't work because of the coffee and cigarettes. You are emotional but you remain silent, after all you will be out of it soon and home with the people who accept you for all your faults. You will not make love with him one final time. This hurts him and you are happy.
Home to begin again, life to repair. He helps you a little financially and the e-mails are less frequent and the chats non-existent, but he says he still loves you. What is his game? Is he still wanting to control you, is his ego hurt?
LOVE AFAR? Never again........... I only talk to a computer.................