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“Breakdown for the Broken” by M. Marlett

While walking up the dim driveway, I avoid all cracks and abnormalities in its cold pavement, and the spicy stink of kim chi grows stronger and stronger. Butterflies fill my stomach and perspiration engulfs my palms, so I take a deep breath, count to ten, step up the cracked stairwell and try to contain the joy and nervousness flowing through my beating veins. The crisp air shows steam off my breath as I let out a steamy sigh and knock on the front door. Immediately, footsteps scramble in the distance until they reach the other side of the threshold.

"Who there?"

"It's Peter."

"Who Peta?"

"Loh's old friend, Peter Lamus. Remember?


"Ooh, Peta! I remember!" The racket of dead bolts and chains coming undone slightly distorts her voice.

The door swings open followed with a twelve-year old vengeance of kim chi and a silhouette of an old woman standing in its way. The dark figure steps into the light, revealing white frizzy hair and a glass eye in the left socket. As she approaches me, the cottage cheese and spider veins in her pasty thighs slosh back and forth in a slow meditative wave, making the butterflies in my stomach nauseous.

"How you?" She said, in her thick Korean accent.

"I'm feeling better, thank you."

"Come in, come in. You hungry?"

"No thanks, I already ate." I said, stepping over the threshold into the foray.

"Loh in her room. You go down hall, you know where it is."

"Yeah, I know. Nice talking to..."

The old woman turns away and disappears into the darkness, leaving me alone, taking off my boots. I set each on the floor, side by side, left to right, and decide to start down the black hallway, where scattered memories hang sadly on the off-white walls like old photographs. One particular photo with an orange 4:02:97 burnt into the lower left corner catches my eye; a couple in love, we sat in front of the world's swimming pool as the bronze and crimson star fell into darkness. A photo taken minutes after Loh had jumped over our table, and pumped the ice I was choking on out of my throat, saving me from suffocation.

"Knock Knock."

"Who is it?" Her sweet voice, smooth as cream brings an uncontrollable grin across my face.

"Who do you think it is?"

"I don't know. Someone told me that my crazy boyfriend just got out and was coming to get me tonight." The old knob squeaks and her door flings open.

"Peter!" The beautiful scent of French vanilla shocks my system and fills my body as Loh squeals and falls into my arms. "Get in here!" She pulls me into her candle lit lair of bliss and slams the door.

Eyes fixed on the dimples guarding her luscious, blood red lips, I approach her petite body for a kiss. The sweetness of Loh's mouth envelopes me in a state of euphoria, rendering me helpless. Lit up in the dancing candlelight, we pull back and I gaze into her dark, almond shaped eyes, surrounded by pale complexion and purple bangs.

"Give me a minute or two, or three." She said.


Loh slowly turns away, leading me into darkness through her velvet curtain. I become lost in a world of passion, like that unforgettable night four years ago at the Terreza Jamay, a decrepit, two-story punk rock club in the middle of Los Angeles. I stood at the edge of the crowd with bodies pressed together, limbs intertwined and banging against one another in a mangled mass of flesh when I was suddenly jolted in the head. An angel appeared in my arms and I immediately knew my life was going to change forever. With long, jet-black hair, tied back into two braided tails, and a ruby red smile that could melt butter, she looked up at me with trusting eyes. The windows to our souls met, I became capsized within her presence, causing the rancid sting of cigarettes, body odor and my claustrophobia to dissipate into nothingness.

"Are you okay? I landed on your head pretty hard." Her voice had put shivers up and down my spine.

"I'm fine." I said, setting her down gently.

"My name is Loh. Thanks for not dropping me."

"Your welcome. My name is Peter."

"Well, I'm gonna go back in there. See you."

"Wait. Can we talk later?"

"Do you have a pen?"


"I'll just give you my phone number."

"Are you sure?"


Her hand fluidly ran across the slip of paper leaving behind a trail of red numbers and a name.

Handing me the piece of paper her index finger smoothly caressed the top of my hand, causing all of the air to abandon my lungs, leaving me breathless.

"Okay, well, I guess I'll call you sometime."

"Yeah. Do that." She flashed me a warm smile and vanished into the mass of bodies.

Loh's long black dress clings to her body, emphasizing firm breasts, stomach, and hips, only to be covered up by a heavy, char-coal shaded trench coat. As she reaches for her black, vinyl handbag, her lips slowly approach my ear and whisper, "Let's go." Our fingers intertwined like two mating serpents, we walk through the house, out the back door and into the frigid night. Dark clouds in the distance move closer to the moon, eventually blocking out its romantic illumination.

"The seasons seem to get colder and colder, don't they?"

"Yes, they do," I replied, avoiding cracks in the walkway.

"I see being institutionalized for three years still hasn't cured you 100%."

"I still have a few problems that need to be worked out, but nothing too serious."

"How serious is too serious, Peter?" The change of tone in her voice puts negative chills up and down my spine, reviving the butterflies in my stomach.

"I'm on medication now."

"What, Prozac? Zanax?" She said cynically.

"Actually, yeah."

"Still thinking out loud?"

"No. Only schizo's do that. I'm not like that anymore. I mean, I still have a problem with germs and chemicals and I can't step on any cracks, and..."

"Are you going to be beating the piss out of anyone anytime soon?"

The nature of the question catches me off guard. "I, I don't think so."

A dead silence comes over us, and I turn to look at her. "I would never physically harm you purposely, if that's what you're thinking. I would never have harmed you before committing myself and I still won't. You have to believe me."

"I believe you." She plainly replied.

We approach our bench sitting by its lonesome in fragments of shattered moonlight. I walk up to touch it and run my fingers along the chips in its black paint from the night Loh and I stole it. We had been wandering aimlessly through the neighborhood at three a.m. on a hot summer morning and found it sitting in a condemned Burger King parking lot two blocks away from her house and knew we had to take it. Loh and I had lifted it up and walked stealthily down the street. Suddenly a pink low rider rolled up next to us and its passengers pelted us with eggs, causing us to drop the bench, chipping it's glossy, black finish.

Now, we sit down on the bench. It lets out a tired, broken squeal that echoes through the ferns, wild flowers and boulders surrounding us in her backyard forest. Crickets and nightingales accompany us with their dismal songs while we vegetate on our stolen bench. Loh's lack of speaking and energy puzzles me.

"Is everything okay?" I asked kindly.

"Yes, of course." She looks down at her hands, now clasped together in her lap.

"Okay. Just making sure." I put my arm around her and attempt to enjoy the twilight, knowing that something had to be wrong, but obviously she didn't want to talk about it.



"We need to talk."

Immediately knowing what is going to happen and be said within the next couple of hours, my heart explodes with adrenaline.

"What's going on?" I ask her, removing my arm from her shoulder.

Loh pauses for a moment, looks down, unzips the top of her handbag, reaches in and pulls out an object the size and shape of a softball. The glow from the glossy sphere illumines her face, making her more remarkably beautiful than I had ever seen.

"This is for you, Peter." She drops the heavy, crystal, sphere in my hands. A softball sized globe attached to a small, black altar. It sits in my palms, while one man inside sits alone, face buried in hands, sitting on a bench just like ours, surrounded by loose, gray snow.

"What the hell is this?"

"That's my break up present for you."

My heart and soul melt away into oblivion. This is what I knew was going to happen and be said, I just needed to hear it from her.


"You know why. You were in a mental hospital for three years. How was I supposed to know if you were coming back 100% or not? I don't want to take that risk."

"But I told you before, I would never intentionally hurt you. Not before and not now."

"You hurt me when you almost killed Jason."

The mention of that name ignites fire in my eyes and raises the hair on my body, while the smell of wild flowers and vanilla is taken over by the dank stench of carbon monoxide.

"How the hell could you do this to me?"

"I was alone for three years, and when you got out, if you ever got out, how was I supposed to know you'd be back to normal? After Jason got out of the hospital, he called me and apologized for what had happened. I needed someone, Peter, and he was the only person I knew that could fulfill what I wanted."

"Why didn't you tell me while I was still in there? I could have at least stayed in for a few more years."

"Well, I'm telling you now, it's over."

"But..." My voice is interrupted by the obnoxious rumbling of an old Volkswagen's broken muffler as it pulls up into Loh's driveway. With the engine still running, a car door slams and foot steps travel along the serpentine walkway, presenting the silhouette of a husky individual in the distance.

"Who the fuck is that?"

"That's Jason, my fucking ride. Now leave."

Fluids racing through my veins at unknown speeds, I lose all muscle control, frozen on the bench from anger and shock. Thoughts race through my mind, what do I do? WHAT DO I DO? WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO?

"You're not going anywhere? Fine, I'll leave, but you better be gone when we get back." She grabs her handbag and disappears with the shaded character into the darkness. The sound of two Volkswagen doors slam shut, and I set the globe down on the bench as the roar of the car fades into the darkness.

"My doctor said to wait and think about my actions before committing them. He'd always say, 'Sleep it off, sleep it off, sleep it off, I guarantee you'll feel better in the morning and you won't want to hurt anyone anymore.' That's what I'll do, I'll just sleep." I pause, thinking to myself, "Shit, I'm thinking out loud again." Silence surrounds me and tears begin to well up in my eyes as I realize the events that took place tonight. Bury my hands in my face and become one with the bench, sobbing together, all alone, in each other's despair. I sadly reach into my right jacket pocket, pull out a translucent orange pill container labeled; AMBIEN. DO NOT INGEST MORE THAN TWO TABLETS MORE THAN TWICE A WEEK. DO NOT OPERATE MACHINERY OR DRIVE AFTER INGESTING. I drop two too many of the Tylenol sized pills into my palm and swallow all three of them. The rough tablets sluggishly move down my body into my stomach and in minutes they'll hit my bloodstream, taking over my consciousness.

"How ya doing kid?" A familiar voice and smell remarks in the distance.

Startled, I quickly wipe the tears from my face and look in the direction of the voice. "I've seen better days, Lou."

"I noticed. Want to talk about it?" He asks, walking towards me. His cherried pipe lights up his unwrinkled, sixty five year old complexion and blonde stubble.

"No, not really. Besides didn't she already come to you about it?"

"What do you think? She's my daughter, of course she did."

"Well, I don't really want to get into it right now."

"Do you need anything?"

"Can I have a ride home?"

"Sure you can, Peter."

"Thanks, Lou."

"Your welcome. Do you want to go now?"

"Yeah. I think so."

I pick the globe up off the bench and Lou stands up to his feet while I follow. Still puffing away on his pipe, he turns to me, "You were always my favorite of all of Loh's boyfriends. If you ever need anything, let me know. You'll always be my friend." His warm, fatherly voice comforts my racing fluids as we reach his car.

"Thanks, Lou. I'll remember that."

I open the door to his old, cream colored Chevy pick-up, get in and fall asleep.

The golden sun breaks over the hill tops, illuminating the city, breaking through my curtains, and onto my eyelids. It's heat and glare brings consciousness back and I sit up. "How the hell did I get in here? How long have I been out?" I ask myself. Looking around my old one room studio, white walls remind me of the hospital, plain and indifferent. With crusty eyes and frizzy hair, I look at the clock and it reads April 5, 2003. 11:13 AM. I notice a slip of paper sitting in front of my door. I get out of bed and pick it up. "You passed out in the car so I used your keys and put you in bed. Take care, Lou. 4/3/99 11:23 PM."

"God damn, I slept for two days. What the hell is in that."

A sudden vision of freedom overcomes me and I am able to see clearly. The slip of paper glides through my fingers and floats to the frostbitten hardwood floor. "I now know what needs to happen to put closure on all of this. This and everything else in my world. Time to go, shit, I'm talking to no one again, shit. I really need to control that." Noticing myself thinking aloud disturbs me, so I grab the crystal globe, put it in my black nap sack and leave my studio, pursuing my vision of freedom.

Brightness like hellfire, I shade my eyes with my hands and approach the garage. Dead leaves and dirt fill the path while crisp roses sit still in the dead soil off to the sides of the cobblestone driveway. Under the wooden canopy my car sits, covered with a blue sheet and a thick layer of black silt. I reach around to my back pocket, pull out a clean handkerchief, cover my hand and rip the dust ridden sheet off of my car. A black gremlin materializes through the thick dust cloud as I open the car door. Welcomed with cold stale air, I fall into the seat of the vehicle, shove my keys in the ignition and turn the key.

Split seconds turn to seconds, seconds turn to minutes and minutes turn to an hour as street signs and playing children fly past my eye.

I sit tensely in my car as I slowly creep down Washington Ave. Broken houses sit in rows, some with cars on the front lawn and some with garbage strewn across the landscape. Shattered glass and oil stains paint the street a dark rainbow in the sun as I finally reach the house I'm looking for. The white stucco comes off in flakes, while black wooden blinds hang by duct tape off the face of the one story house. Dead roses and prickly bushes guard the front yard, behind the waist high, iron ore fence, holding up a wooden sign with "23 Washington Ave." burnt into it.

"This is the place." I mumble, trying to control the habit of speaking my thoughts out loud.

I grab my nap sack, get out of the car and leave the keys in the ignition with the car still running.

Fluids flowing steadily and cool, I casually walk up to the black, iron ore fence, and jump over it. I land on my feet with the soft dirt pathway under them and continue to move towards the front door. Dust kicks up with every step I take through the narrow path led by dead vegetation.

"Knock Knock." I bang on the filthy and torn screen door.

The door opens, his image distorted and shaded by the glare off of the screen. "What the fuck do you want?" A nervous voice calls behind the shade.

"I want to make things right, Jason."

"Make what right? What the hell are you talking about? Aren't you supposed to be locked up?" He fumbles with the knob and the screen door drifts open. Under thick eye brows and greasy, brown hair, the expression on the husky twenty-two year old's face shows nothing but fear and anticipation of the worst.

"I got out yesterday. But I'm not here to talk about that, Jason."

"What do you want?"

"I'm here to make my world right. I know you took Loh away from me and I'm just here to let go." I reach into the nap sack with my right hand. His eyes light up with horror as I pull out the crystal sphere Loh had given me.

"See this?"

He lets out a sigh of relief, flooding my nostrils with peanuts and beer. "Yeah, what is it?"

"Loh gave this to me last night. When she dumped me."

"Uh huh. What are you going to do? Kick my ass because she'd rather be with me?"

"Well, no. But the way I see it is that this globe is from you. I'd just like to give it back."

Fear leaves his face and a slight grin follows.

"That's all?"

"Yes, that's all." I raise the heavy object to my chest and take a deep breath. Lungs filled with oxygen, I close my eyes and my heart combusts with adrenaline. All consequences, good and bad flash before me as I choose my fate. Stepping forward, I open my eyes, raise the spherical bludgeon and introduce it to Jason's forehead. A cherry hue explodes into the atmosphere, spraying onto everything within a ten foot radius. Brown eyes roll back into his skull as splinters of it float lightly to the hardwood floors now submerged in blood. Ankles lose balance, knees buckle, back slumps over and he falls to the floor in his pool of urine and blood. The globe sits imbedded in Jason's skull over his empty stare into death.

I serenely turn around, let the screen door glide shut and walk away to my car. Glowing plasma trails follow me walking down the dirt path. I pull out my handkerchief and wipe the crimson juice off of my fingers while a slight breeze picks up and brings on a refreshing moment. "Freedom at last." I say out loud with a petty chuckle.

I get in the running car, close the door and drive back to the institution.

“Cammie” by Marianne J.

As Cammie's mother shook her head at her daughter for coming home so late, she sighed. Ever since Cammie's father had died when she was 13, she just wasn't the same. Cammie was coming home later and later, and her grades have never been the same for years now. Cammie just wasn't the bright, intelligent girl she had always been.

"She is growing up, Amy," Cammie's mother said to herself. "She is 16 now. Maybe it's just a stage..."

"Cammie," Amy said to her daughter, "why didn't you come home for dinner? I was hoping you would, my boss was here tonight. I knew he would have been delighted to meet you."

"I didn't feel like it, okay?" Cammie said coarsely to her mother. "Why are you always treating me like a little kid? I can take care of my self."

Amy thought back about when Cammie was 13. She was such a sweet girl. She had friends, a boyfriend, and she was a good student. She rarely disobeyed what her mother and teachers told her not to do.

Now she has "F's" and is frequently suspended or getting calls home from worried teachers. She was smoking crack. Amy learned that last year when she went through Cammie's room... God knows how many other drugs she may be smoking by now. Amy was sure that she wasn't a virgin, another thing she found in her room, not like that mattered much. She couldn't stop her, even if she wanted to. She was putting on a lot of weight lately too? maybe because of the drugs.

"Here, have some soup. I'll heat it up for you," Amy offered her daughter.

"I don't want anything," Cammie said with a sneer.

"Umm... How was your day today?" Amy asked, trying to brighten her daughters mood up before she got into a serious discussion about a phone call she got earlier.

"Why do you want to know? Will you just butt out of my life?" Cammie started out of the kitchen and was about to go upstairs.

"I got a call from your teacher, Mrs. Saldenez. She says that she has the suspicion your doing drugs," Amy brought up the subject. She knew she had to bring that up with her daughter.

"Mrs. Saldenez is a bitch, Mom. She makes stuff up," and with that Cammie went to her room and cranked her music up full blast.

An hour later Cammie's new boyfriend pulled up on his motorcycle. He came to the door and asked for Cammie. He wasn't one of the guys Amy would want Cammie to be seeing, but that couldn't be helped either.

"Cammie, your boyfriend is here," Amy shouted up the stairs. Eventually, Cammie came down.

"Hey, Cammie." He glanced back at Amy and looked back at Cammie.

"Hey, Roberto." Cammie said and then gave her mother a look and told her to leave.

About 2 minutes later Cammie came into the living room where Amy was reading her book. "I'm going out with Roberto," Cammie said and started to leave.

Amy was sick of Cammie walking all over her. "No, you're not. It's 9:30. You're staying home and doing your homework. You have enough to keep you busy. Now go to your room and get cracking. I don't want any phone calls to be made, and you can't go anywhere 'till you make up all of your work. If you even think of sneaking out, I will send you to a convent."

Cammie stormed off to the front door and then closed it. She ran up stairs and slammed her door shut.

Amy started to wonder if she had been to harsh on her. She remembered when she was a 16 year old. She wasn't quite as bad, but she was still rebellious. "No," Amy thought, "I did the right thing." It was still hard for the widow to take care of a rebellious teenager.

Amy went up stairs and decided to go to sleep. She needed a rest anyway. Around 3:45 in the morning, she got a phone call, waking her up.

"Ugh... Hello?" Amy moaned.

"Ms. Tonies?" a voice said on the other line.

"Yes, this is her," Amy said, trying to wake herself up. "What in the world could be important at this hour?" she thought.

"Ma'am, your daughter Cartherian is dead," the voice said.

That immediately woke Amy up. "What are you talking about??? Who is this!?!" Amy was shouting at this point.

"This is the city deputy. We got a call a half-hour ago from Mrs. Saldenez, we believe she's your daughter's teacher," the deputy said.

"Yes, she is," Amy said.

"She was woken up this morning by someone crashing into the street light in front of her house," the deputy stated.

"H-h-how did she crash into the street light if she's at home?" Amy said.

"She wasn't. She was with Roberto Martinez. They were on a motorcycle with out any head protection. We did a blood test on the two. Cartherian had traces of LSD, crack, angel dust, and several other drugs in her blood. To make it worse, her alcohol level was above the limits for driving. Ma'am, I don't think you'll want to hear this..." the deputy said trying to keep a calm voice.

"Hear what!?! My daughter is dead! What could be worst than my daughter being dead?!?" Amy screamed.

"Your daughter was 6 months pregnant, we think. The baby looks as if it was killed in her womb. Possibly from the drugs or from lack of care," the deputy choked a bit.

Amy started to cry right there. "I lost my daughter... Oh, god, what did I do to deserve this?" she thought.

"Ms. Tonies?" the deputy asked.

"Y-y-y-y-es..." Amy choked a little while talking. Her blonde hair fell in to her face and into her tears.

"We will need you to come down here to fill out some paper work," the deputy said in the kindest voice he could.

"Wait... Did Cammie go through any suffering?" Amy asked. She hoped that at least her daughter died with out pain.

"She died about ten minutes after she was found. She was too out of it to feel anything," the deputy said almost silently.

"I'll be down there in about 5 minutes," Amy said then hung up. Still not believing that Cammie was really gone, she went to her room. Her window was open, and she had left a note on her bed. Amy picked it up and read it.


I went out with Roberto.? I'm not coming back.? Ever since dad died, you've been a controlling bitch.
I hope you die, and leave me the hell alone! Doesn't matter now, I'm not coming back, and I hope I never see you again.


That broke Amy. She just screamed and grabbed her favorite china doll. She then threw it on the floor. Crying still, she fell to the floor. The darkness of her child's room seemed to overcome her. Not more then six hours ago, Cammie was alive.

"And the last thing I did was ground her..." she said out loud for no one to hear.

Amy then got up. She wiped away her tears and went down to the kitchen. She got her steak knife and slit her wrist. She had nothing left to live for anyway. Her husband was dead, her child was dead, her grandchild was dead before it even came into the world. What was left?

As she sunk to the floor and saw the world grow darker and darker, she remembered Cammie when she was a sweet 13 year old.................

“Marco Polo” by Amanda J. Lee






"POLO!" Where is she? Just at the same moment I felt the water ripple as she swam. I reached out and grabbed her foot.

"You're it!" I yelled.

"No fair," she whined. Chelsea may be my best friend, but she is a champion whiner. We had been playing Marco Polo everyday that it was nice enough to hang out at our neighborhood pool. School was out and it was time for me to get out of my childish stage and gain some independence. I guess getting a great tan may nothave been the best way to go about it, but I felt a certain freedom I had never felt before when I wasn't spending my days in the house. Playing this game,eating picnic lunches, and sleeping over at each other's houses became our lifestyles. Of course we have always been a big part of each other's lives, growing up together and all. We had been in the same kindergarten class, and since the day I met her in the sandbox, we have been inseparable. I suddenly came out of my reminiscing world by Chelsea's patient tapping on my shoulder.

"Your turn." She disappeared under the surface of the water. I was about to follow her, when I saw my mom walk up the pathway. I glanced at my watch. I was late for dinner.

"Katherine May Voight, I told you to be home half an hour ago! What's your excuse this time?" She tapped her foot. You would think only moms in the movies do that, but no, my mom does everything unbelievable.

"Well, Mom, you see, I was, um, what I mean to say is, well we were just about to, you know......"

"We were just about to call you," Chelsea cut in, "to see if Kate could have dinner at my house, my dad already said it was okay, she can even spend the night if she wants to." I nodded nervously and cast a glance at Chelsea, she was calm and cool, as usual.

"Well, all right, but I want you home early in the morning, let's say ten o'clock, no later." She looked at her watch. It's kinda funny, but my mom looks her best when she's under stress.

"Yes, Mom."

"Are you going to come home to get your things?" I looked at Chelsea, she mouthed the word "no".

"Probably not, I'll borrow from Chelsea," I said. I mean, it was what I usually did anyway.

"Well then, goodbye, honey. Get some sleep tonight okay?" We both smiled, and once she was out of earshot, began to laugh at the lie we had just gotten away with. Her smile slowly dissipated.

"What's wrong?" I asked, my smile leaving as well.

"What about my dad?" Chelsea's parents were divorced and the only time she got to see her mom was when she made a trip to Paris where her mother lived. It was hard to believe, but Chelsea was born in Paris. When she was five her dad and she moved here to the quiet town of Highland, Illinois. Don't get me wrong, I like it here, but, Paris, how could you not want to live there. I mean, even if someone you don't love is there. I had questioned mom on this many times, all she said was "you can't keep following the footsteps of a broken heart." I think what she was trying to say was that her dad wanted to start over. I guess that also meant that he can't start over in Paris.

"We'll just have to suck up, a lot." Chelsea rubbed her arms, it was getting kind of cold. I realized that we were the only ones left at our neighborhood pool. I also saw that the sky was turning a weird shade of gray.

"We better go home, we don't want to be caught in the rain." Chelsea is awfully motherly for someone who grew up without a mother.

"Wait a minute, couldn't we just talk to Diane?" I said, beginning to brainstorm. Diane was Chelsea's stepmother. Her father got married to her three years ago when Chelsea and I were ten. We got to be in the wedding as flower girls. Twins in perfect white dresses. Each of us still had those dresses and loved to
dress up in them from time to time. Diane was really nice, and would agree to practically anything.

"Yeah, now let's go," I could tell she was getting worried. It had already started raining and I thought I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. We gathered our things and set off towards home.

As we walked in the door of the small atrium ranch styled house, I could smell garlic and the strong perfume that Diane always wore. Chelsea's house was comfortable. I always felt at home when I got to go there. I think that Chelsea felt the same way in my house.

"Hi hon. Hi Kate," said Mrs. Tupper without looking up from a large cookbook.

"What are we having?" Chelsea asked giving a glance to the cookbook.

"I was just about to ask you the same thing," she said turning around to give us a smile.



"Can Kate spend the night?"

"I guess so, is it all right with Kate's mom?" We nodded and trotted off to her room. Once we got there, I glanced outside to see that it was already pouring. Lightening shot across the sky. We both counted while we waited for the thunder. CRACK. It was close. We were waiting for another lightening bolt when we heard
the phone ring, making both of us jump. Chelsea reached to her phone.

"Hello? Oh, hi mom! Yeah, oh right... that's cool... really? Yeah I miss that too..." I looked around Chelsea's richly decorated room. Her mom was in the money as they say and the entire room was decked out in leopard skin stuff from some expensive designer in France. Chelsea was the only person I knew that could pronounce his name. I listened impatiently to Chelsea's end of the conversation. The only thing that kept me interested was the more Chelsea talked,the more excited she got. She hung up the phone quickly and jumped off the bed.

"Oh my gosh, Kate, guess what!"


"My mom is flying me out to Paris, and she said I can bring you with me!"


"In three weeks!"

"No way!"

"Yes! Can you believe it?" I couldn't. We were jumping up and down making a lot of noise, when we heard Diane call to us to say that dinner was ready. We ran downstairs and ate quickly and barely even swallowed before we were back up in Chelsea's room planning the aspects of the trip. The night was spent talking away about everything that Chelsea knew about Paris. As we drifted off, we talked sleepily about things.

"Chelsea, you are my best friend. You know that right?"

"Yeah Kate, I don't think you and I will ever not be close."

"Chelsea, what's Paris like?"

"Kate, we've talked about it all night."

"That's not what I mean, what does it feel like to be there?"

"Well, it smells great, like pie."


"Yeah, apple cinnamon pie crust."

"I like pie," I said, almost asleep.

"So do I." And we were asleep, dreaming about Paris, and pie.

"No, absolutely not! I'm not sending you to Paris, a foreign country, to live with a woman for two weeks when we don't even know her. Are you crazy?"

"Dear, you mustn't be too harsh on her. Honey, imagine how homesick you'll get, and how much we'll miss you. Besides, flying by yourself? I had to drag you on the plane the last time you flew."

"Mom, I was six, you seem to forget that we never leave this little town. We are boxed in here for our lives and we take it. I want to leave, I want to experience life outside Highland."

"Don't talk back to your mother."

"As I was saying, I would be overcome with worry. Maybe the fact that you haven't been out of Highland means something. You know how much this will cost us."

"Her mom is paying for the plane ticket."

"I'm talking about phone calls, food, souvenirs, sight-seeing... the list, it's just endless honey. I don't think that you are ready for this kind of a thing."

"So, in other words, this is not the summer when I can finally grow up and gain some independence from this small town life. Well, that's just fine." I ran upstairs. I had been home for an hour, the entire time spent arguing with my parents about the trip to Paris. I threw myself on my bed, and cried for a little while.Then I picked up the phone and told Chelsea the bad news. We talked, but I decided I didn't feel like making conversation and told her my mom needed thephone. I lay back on the bed. I fell asleep, again dreaming about Paris, but this time, a lot less hopeful.

Chelsea and I were at the mall. I was completely broke, but Chelsea hadn't bought anything yet. It was like this every time we went to the mall. I always spent my money the minute I walked in the mall and she spent all of her time looking at the same pair of shorts and analyzing actually purchasing them. She finally decided to buy a pair of khaki shorts and a blue fitted cardigan. The price of the stuff was outrageous, but Chelsea's family was rich, she didn't have to worry about it. Her mom had wired her the money along with some for me, which my mom forced me to give back. We were on our way out of the mall when this womancame up to us that was from the new travel agency. She handed each the us a plane shaped magnet with the phone number of the agency on it. As she began to walk away the basket of magnets she was holding got knocked out of her reach and all the magnets went crashing to the floor. My first thought was to help the ladypick up the magnets, but suddenly this weird feeling came over me. I kept seeing the magnets fall again and again. Chelsea gave me a strange look.

"Hello? What's wrong with you? Come on, help me!" She gathered up another handful of magnets and handed them to the lady. She pulled my arm.

"Come on! Earth to Kate. Earth to Kate." She waved her hand in front of my face. I was still seeing the airplanes. Finally I jerked myself back to reality.

"Did you say something?"

"Yeah, I said you are too weird for words. What is with this spacing out thing? Come on, are you feeling okay?" She pulled my arm again, but I wouldn't budge.

"I'm sorry. It's just that this weird vibe hit me when that lady dropped the planes."

"Are you going to pass out or something?"

"No, really, I'm fine." I gave the lady with the planes one last glance and allowed Chelsea to pull me from the mall. I knew it was an omen of some sort, but I didn't want to worry Chelsea, so I kept my mouth shut.

It was storming outside. We had been getting a lot of rain lately, unusual for this time of year, but I was happy for any kind of change around me. There was nothing to do. Chelsea was shopping for clothes with an additional amount of money that her dad had given her for the trip. I hadn't been speaking to my parents. If they want to deprive me a trip to Paris, then I was going to deprive them of speaking to me. I knew it sounded childish, but I couldn't believe they were making me pass up a chance like this. I was thinking about this when that my little brother walked in through the doorway.

"What are you doing?"

"No, the question is, 'what are you doing' in my room?"

"I came to see if you wanted to see me beat my video game."

"No, get out of my room, and shut the door behind you!" He scrambled off to his room, leaving the door deliberately opened. I turned over so that I wasn't facing it, but soon the rhythmic beeps of his video game started up and I slammed the door shut. I was seriously depressed, what was I going to do while she was gone? Chelsea was leaving tomorrow. It was going to be a long two weeks. Just then there was a knock at my door.

"Who is it?"

"Dear, please open up the door. This moping around isn't good for you. Please talk to us about it."

"Mom just leave me alone. I don't want to talk about it."

"Are you going to have dinner tonight?"


"We already ate, an hour ago, and I am starting to put the leftovers in Tupperware." Tupperware, that's what they called Chelsea. Her last name was Tupper. It was one of those things the boys called you which you pretended to hate, but secretly loved. Of course, I was her best friend and I knew she loved it.

"I'll be down later," then I quickly added, "Maybe."

"Suit yourself." I could tell my mom was starting to get ticked. I didn't care. I'm sure she could tell that I was ticked about not going to Paris, and she didn't care about that either." My reason for being mad was a little more practical anyway. Suddenly I wasn't finding my mother's stress so cute. I finally decided that I couldn't be in my room forever and my stomach had started growling an hour ago. I walked downstairs to find my dinner,spaghetti and meatballs, fresh rolls, and a small salad. I ate every bite of it, having skipped breakfast and picked through lunch. As I ate I thought about my promise to Chelsea to see her off tomorrow. Maybe there was a way I could get out of it. No way, I scolded myself, Chelsea would be devastated. I promised her, soI'm going. I looked at the clock, it was only eight-thirty. I went upstairs and pulled out the book I was reading. I curled up on my big arm chair and read until almost eleven o'clock. I fell asleep exhaustedly on my arm chair.

When I woke up I realized that I had to be at Chelsea's house in fifteen minutes. I pulled on jeans and an old sweatshirt, brushed my hair, and looked in the mirror. I didn't look too bad so I decided to go to the airport like this. I ran downstairs and after calling a goodbye/be home soon, I ran out the door.

I got to Chelsea's house just as her dad closed the trunk to the car. Chelsea walked out. She was wearing a beret and striped black and white shirt over black drawstring pants. She looked very French.

"Bonjour, mon amie!" she cried as she ran to give me a hug.

"Hi," I answered trying to sound cheerful. I didn't do a very good job.

"Don't worry, my mom is coming back here with me, and then she can meet your parents, and then you can go with me next year!" I brightened up, even though deep inside I knew something would go wrong by this time next year, I mean, with my luck, I would never get to leave this town.

"Let's go now, that way you can get all those bags checked and still have time to say your good-byes." We both looked up at Diane who was suddenly standing behind us.

"Okay," we answered at the same time. We both got into the car. The nearest airport was in St. Louis, which was an hour drive. The whole ride was silent and solemn. We all seemed to be deep in thought. I studied Chelsea's family. Diane was chatting with Mr. Tupper. She had this soft smile on her face that neverleft, in fact she smiled when there was nothing to smile about. It was as if she had happy memories in her mind that if she would run out of things to smile about she could think to. As for Mr. Tupper, he had this set expression that showed no feeling. He had a low monotone voice that he used at all times. They were a nice family, better than mine. I knew that was a bad thought, but sometimes, I wished that I was a Tupper. Chelsea's sister. It would be great. We came to the airport and quickly found a parking spot. We awkwardly got out of the car, but once we checked the bags and had stepped into the noisy airport, we all seemed to regain the ability to talk to each other.

"Which gate, Dad?"


"That's right there!" We abruptly walked into the seating area for that gate. Chelsea opened up her knapsack. She pulled out a package and handed it to me. I looked at the label, it said 'baked apple pie'. I laughed.

"This is to remind me of Paris! How thoughtful, thank you!" I sniffed it.

"Mmm, cinnamon!" We both giggled loudly until we realized that the gift wasn't that funny. I fiddled with the hem of my sweatshirt.

"I'm really going to miss you," she said and I smiled at her. I could tell she was getting ready to cry.

"Hey, you're going to be fine, really, and so will I. I just don't know why we didn't get this upset last year."

"I think it's because you weren't going, or at least you didn't have the chance." I nodded.

"Flight 935 to Paris is now boarding at gate forty-two! Flight 935 to Paris is now boarding at gate forty-two."

"That's me," Chelsea said, her voice choking. She hugged Diane and her dad, and saved me for last. I hung back and watched her dad give her last minute instructions. I started to cry when she hugged me. We drew back and wiped or eyes. She picked up her carry-on bag and turned to leave. She was just about to gointo the gate when she turned. She looked directly at me.

"Marco." A tear rolled down my cheek, but I smiled.

"Polo." She smiled, turned, and gave a final wave. We watched the plane as it took off. Then we all made our way to the exit of the airport. The ride was again silent. As I climbed out of the car I gave a final wave as Chelsea did.

"Goodbye Kate. I'll have Chelsea call you, and then you can come to pick her up from the airport with us, okay?" I nodded.

"Bye Diane, bye Mr. Tupper." I walked in to find a note from my parents saying they had gone out shopping. I decided to watch TV while I waited for them to return. I was in the middle of a commercial when a news flash came up. I switched it to a cable channel so that the news crews couldn't bother me. Before I knew it I had fallen asleep.

When I woke up, I was on my bed and my mother was sitting at the end of it. She looked very troubled, but when she saw me awake she tried to cover it up with a smile.

"What? What's wrong?" I asked rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I checked the clock, it was almost four. Her eyes had a tinge of sorrow in them.

"It's been all over the news, and we weren't sure, but then the call from Diane, I just don't know how to say it..."

"Mom, what?" I sat up. Her eyes were filled with sympathetic tears.

"Chelsea... her plane... something went wrong with the engine, they crashed. She, she's... dead." Somewhere deep inside my brain, I heard my mother's words, but the only thing that I could hear clearly was the ear shattering sirens going off in my head. I covered my ears, but they just wailed louder as if to say, "she's dead, she's dead, she's dead." I saw the magnets from the mall crash over and over and over again. I couldn't cry. All I could do was sit there and wait for me to wake up, to wake up from this awful nightmare that I have been calling life. If Chelsea wasn'talive, I wasn't, what would I do without her? I was bored when she went shopping for one day and devastated when she went out of town for two weeks.Now I would never see her again. Her mom, her dad, Diane, and I, we would never see her again. I could see Diane's perpetual smile shrink from her face, and her dad's set expression turn into tears of fury. They all knew she wouldn't grow up and get married, go to college, or do anything. It waslike someone was throwing a huge party and she wasn't invited. That was when it hit me, the sorrow that had been coating my heart and brain for the past few minutes. I began to sob. My mother stroked my hair like she always did when I was upset. But I couldn't feel it, it was as if, for the moment, I was dead too.

It was a beautiful funeral. I didn't actually know, I just remember people coming up, who I remember from another time, to tell me what a beautiful funeral it was. Luckily, it was a closed casket, if I would've had to sit through a funeral watching people look at my dead friend's lifeless remains, I don't know what I'd do. After the funeral Diane held a little reception at her house. I got to meet Chelsea's mom, but it didn't matter. I wasn't going to Paris the following year anyway. Something did go wrong: Chelsea died. It pained me to see so many people laughing, not crying, in the room. I stood up and walked out of the room. But, even in the kitchen, there were people laughing. So I ran out of the house. I didn't know where I was going, but in spite of it all, I found myself back at the pool. I sat at the edge, staring at the still, crystal blue water. Diane walked up behind me.

"You know, it's okay to remember the good things about her life. She would have wanted it that way." She wrapped her arms around me. It felt good to cry. I knew that when I got home, I would have to apologize to my parents. I was still alive because they had kept me from going on that trip. This small town life had for once, saved me.

"Do you have a journal or a diary or something?" I shook my head. "Maybe it would help to write everything down." I shook my head again.

"I don't think so, no one wants to hear how terrible life can be."

"A ship in its bay is safe, but that's not what ships are built for," she quoted. I smiled and nodded. I knew it would help me not to follow the footsteps of a broken heart, and to help me remember the good times that we had together. She walked away, and I went back to staring at the water. I thought about all the fun things that Chelsea and I did together and how I could document it all. A feeling of peace filled me. I could feel, for the moment, that Chelsea was there with me, beside me.

I saw that life is one big game of Marco Polo and instead of finding what you want or expect to find, you find yourself. I didn't find the independence I was searching for that summer, and maybe its a good thing I didn't. I found something better. Me.

"Marco," I called softly into the water. I stood up, and walked away.

“A Brief History of World War II” by William Thompson

It’s only been six months, but the way time has been moving for me it might just as well have been six years since I moved into the quiet little garden bungalow in south Berkeley. So many things can happen to a man’s life in six months that it seems an untenable task, a labor as unfulfilling as sorting the grains of sand on a long beach, this, the telling of the why and wherefore of how one finds oneself standing at any particular place.


On the surface everything was fairly simple. Downright predictable in a late twentieth century sort of way. My wife left me early this fall. Or rather, told me to leave her. She called me at my office late one Friday afternoon and told me not to bother coming home because the locks were already changed and she probably wouldn’t be there anyway. She had some place important to rush off to and didn’t have much time to talk. She said a couple of other things too. Stuff about how distant I’ve become and how unhappy she was and something about needing a change in her life that I really couldn’t possibly expect to understand. Those were her words, not mine. But I don’t quite remember everything she said. It was hard to concentrate. I felt a little ill, like I had a fever coming on and I began to sweat just a little, right on the sides of my head, just above my eyes.


I was used to taking orders from her and she was used to my silence, so I let the receiver hang away from my head for a long moment while I looked out the window down to the street below. My face being held hostage to a blank stare as I tried to think about what all of this meant. I could see a long chain of pre-schoolers; two and three-year-olds being taken on a walk by their teachers. They were heading across the busy swell of 14th Street to the tiny green triangle of Snow Park. The kids were holding on to a long rope. A strong looking rope, maybe an inch thick, with a huge knot tied every four feet or so. Every kid had their hand firmly gripped around their knot. Every last one of them happy and secure as a squad of ducklings bouncing along behind heir mother, their view of the world falling no farther than the knot on the rope directly in front of them. I watched the long line of kids cross the street. Saw each of the kids make it across and up onto the curb. I saw them, at a word from their teacher, let go of the rope and take off running, happily burbling about the blue sky and the green grass before I put the phone receiver back to my ear and said, okay sure. Where do want me to go, what do you want me to do? But the line was dead. And she was gone.


Six months is a long time to remember the detail of feelings and I would be falling prey to the construction of a fiction if I said that I felt much more than a buzzing dullness when I met the Realtor at the tiny house to pick up the keys to my rental. Time and action were moving slowly for me these days, having only the week before quit my job and given myself the present of a few months of a retreat that I hoped wouldn’t turn into a wholesale surrender, and small, ordinary interactions were becoming increasingly more difficult for me to understand. Joy seemed to be far away and gone, but as of yet, nothing had stepped in to take its place. Not sadness, not terror, not loneliness. Just a kind of flattened lethargy, a weariness that hung heavy around me like a rain soaked coat with a rusted-shut zipper. I thought I at least ought to have felt some kind of profound sadness when I walked into the quiet house, a late afternoon sun splitting the faded wood floors like a knife. After all, tonight would be the first time sleeping without my wife, or at least without her reflected presence shouting out from every corner, for a solid 12 years. But all I can honestly remember thinking as I sat on the living room couch was that this house smelled like Berkeley. I hadn’t lived in Berkeley since my college days but I can remember like it was yesterday, the signature herbal teas, brown rice and coffee thick as roofing tar leave in wooden walls. It sometimes seems that every house I’ve ever been in, in Berkeley, has had a previous occupant that cooked curries and baked 10-grain basil and pimento bread. I used to call Berkeley houses whole grain houses back in the jaded days of my youth. But just then I breathed deep and lolled about with the profoundly comfortable feeling of being home.


The cottage was short and straight in design. A one-story wood frame forest cottage on a flat, sunny street in south Berkeley. Nondescript in every way, right down to the dying bougainvillea vines over the a splintered arch that ushers one up to the front steps. I entered the house without thinking. Walking in a direct line from the front door, a person walking without purpose could make it through the entry hall, dining cul-de-sac, through the kitchen and out a flimsy screen door onto an ivy screened porch in about twenty paces. The house, though empty, seemed altogether too noisy with the respective ghosts of the previous tenants. Not to mention all the ghosts of my own that tailed me, room to room, doorway to doorway. But the porch I instantly saw as my point of refuge. Walled in on three sides by an ancient sagging trellis, overgrown into a tangle of passion flower and Kiwi vines. It felt like a cave of wonders and I sat down on a rickety metal chair that was stuffed into one corner behind a leaf strewn table. A light breeze worked its way through the vines, along with just enough of the mid-afternoon sun to lay a light glow over the table, bringing with it a hint of the coming fog, which clocks in most every afternoon around three. I remember being able to almost set my watch by a Berkeley summer day’s fog bank.


Damn, I thought as I settled back into the not uncomfortable chair. Is this what I’ve come down to, living my life in a panorama of indigo memories? I always used to wonder what it would be like, to be one of those odd, Berkeley urban hermits. You could see them everywhere in the old days and you still can; scurrying about with an unruly sheaf of papers stuffed under one arm and reading a smeared copy of The Nation with the other, while bowling their way down Durant Street like a rat on a mission for more cheese. No, I don’t have the requisite burned-out Ph.D. look about me to pull that off with the proper élan. But it would be easier than I might care to admit to park myself in this back porch oasis for far too much of every day. Living on strong coffee and pastries bought every morning during a furtive, dawn foray down the street to the local bakery. It surely wouldn’t take long before people were noticing my furtive coming and goings and wondering what it must be like to be me.


I was just thinking how brilliant I was for coming up with the original idea of an afternoon coffee fix when I first heard the sound that would become my daily companion. A tinkling run of notes on a piano from somewhere off and through the barrier of vines. A thick sheaf of notes, then a dark, softly hit chord. Plaintive, saddened but somehow forward looking. Then the left hand settled in with a supporting movement running into an upward drifting string of chords and melody and counter melody. This wasn’t little Suzy or Benjamin doing their daily scale exercises. Not by any incredible stretch of the imagination. This was heartfelt and deeply hued music. But not the harsh, intellectually driven, bombastic chest-thumping stuff I always seem to hear the times I’ve gone to see the symphony or the ballet. And it certainly didn’t feel like the musical equivalent of a gaudily covered romance novel which is what so much music for the piano sounds like to me. This was soft and assured, even when the movements were dark and angular. Matured lines spoken from, with and to experience. I sat mesmerized, all thoughts of going out and looking for food and drink pushed to the back of my mind. I heard the tune all the way through. A tune either impossibly long or incredibly chard couldn’t tell for sure, time seemingly stopped while the magnet of the notes drew me into different swells of text, sub-text and emotion. Maybe it was my weakened emotional state leaving me prey to accepting rides from strangers, but I was taken on a series of turning twisting streets through my own internal emotional landscape. I felt happy and sad, disheartened and afraid, invincible, and as vulnerable as a child fallen out of his crib and left to cry alone. All in ten minutes time. What was this song, who was the player? I eagerly awaited the next song, but there wasn’t one to be had. A few seemingly random brushing of the keys, a couple of phrases played over from the first performance. Key phrases that the player obviously wasn’t happy with, played over two or three times as if to cement the proper locution and control. And I’m thinking, if the notes were played any finer, any closer to the magical plateau of perfection, my heart might have been ripped from my chest. I lay in wait for the next tune, but it never came. I fought the urge to shout through the cover of vines to ask for another song, but for once in my life I showed a reasonable degree of social discretion. I somehow gleaned that having an eager audience, the player might color the tune differently, and I wanted to hear the music played by the artist, solely for the artist. I only had to wait.


And reward came the next afternoon. At the stoke of 2:30, just as I could begin to smell the fog on the leading edge of the westerly breeze, the notes from the mystery piano began to float through the greenery. I immediately recognized the tune as one and the same as was played the day before. Impossibly beautiful, serene and assured, and yet emotionally jolting as the scrambled thoughts from a long running fever dream. Again I was transported, brought alive, made to laugh at all the tiny vagaries of my closeted little life. How such beauty and complexity could exist close enough to almost touch and yet be invisible behind screen. I held myself aloft and listened with my whole body. Afraid to move lest I scrape the leg of the chair and momentarily block out a note or a chord. The song ran through my veins like a drug; easing, blocking, fine-tuning and rearranging the way the afternoon looked to me. But in all too short a time it was over. And like the day before, a brief five minutes of brushing over a few lines, repeating a run or two until it felt right and then silence.


And so my days took on a modest form. Mornings were spent rustling about the small house that felt too large by half-again. I was on the verge of becoming one of those types who hold long, detailed conversations with themselves while making the morning coffee and it made me laugh to think where that might lead. But I guess the fact that I could still laugh at myself was a sign that I wasn’t completely gone around the bend with the neurosis of my isolation. The house seemed uninhabited, even by myself, as I bounced around the four walls, changing seats with each section of the daily newspaper. It seemed so right somehow to read about all the amazing things going on to real people out in the real world. I knew I’d have to join them again someday, but for now I was comfortable only in my own company, however thin that shield may have been.


Around 1:00 or so each afternoon, I would make myself a modest lunch and sit out on the porch with a book, waiting for the music to appear. It never began before 2:30, nor later than 3:00. The piece of music never changed, and after a month or so of hearing the one piece and nothing else from their fingers, I gave up on the idea that the pianist was rehearsing for a particular performance. Obviously, someone with such a great degree of skill at their instrument must be capable of playing dozens, if not hundreds of pieces. But the one was all I ever got to hear.


Of course I was intensely curious about the player and kept an eye, in passing, on the equally small, red trimmed house. At first, I hoped that the player would be a youngish woman with long braided, yellow hair and flowing skirts who would, seeing me emerge from my house on my daily errands, ask me in for a cup of coffee. Or, if I was exceptionally lucky, a glass of wine over which we would fall deeply in love with each other; living happily ever after within the folds of her music and the mythic poems I would write in her honor.


Yeah, right. All I saw when walking past the house or looking out my front window, was an old man, bent and white with age, working his way down the front steps and out of his yard. He left first thing in the morning and returned promptly at 12:25 each day. I can’t recall ever seeing him leave the house at night or in the late afternoon, but then I’m not a detective and I’m sure he had more to his life than one trip out into the world each day.


As I said, he was small and gray and stiff. Nothing in his appearance spoke to the depth of emotion that rang forth from his piano each afternoon. I held out hope for a short while that his granddaughter, she of the yellow hair and hippie skirts was slipping in and out of the house when I wasn’t around. But before long I realized that I was glad that there was no beautiful young woman. Glad that the maker of the music didn’t have any physical impact on me. In a small way I was already in love with the very fact of the old man’s existence. Cloaking the desirability of the music within the folds of sex, or any of the other land mine of human relations would strip it of much of its power.


One day, against many quietly voiced protests, I found myself walking up the path to his door. I had decided that I needed/wanted to hear the music with less of a barrier. I also wanted to know the name of the tune that had added such a firm structure to my life. I’d gone on one or two occasions to a couple of the more esoteric vinyl record stores in Berkeley hoping somehow to find a recording of a song that I didn’t know the name of by a composer or performer that I didn’t have a clue to. I queried a couple of clerks, even going so far as to try and hum the tune. I’m sure the clerks remembered me after I left, probably told a few good stories that night over dinner or happy hour about the loony who came into their shop that afternoon. But to their credit they were mostly kind and helpful and didn’t treat me like the obviously crazed person I was. But then, Berkeley is a town built upon the shoulders of the obsessive and the slightly demented and I wasn’t all that different than a good many of the people roaming its streets. So finally, instead of living in ignorance, I decided to just go up, knock on his door and ask him about the song. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe he wouldn’t even speak English. In which case I could pretend to be a political activist and get him to sign a petition or something. I certainly looked the type. And its always a good idea to have a plan ‘A’ at the ready.


Up his path I walked. Past the neatly pruned rose bushes and up the cracked paint steps to his door. I could hear the sound of my three knocks echo quickly through his house. There was a short wait of silence, then I heard muffled steps, slowly working their way toward the front of the house.


Of course I noticed his hands first. The fingers were long and slender and anchored to an almost brutishly strong palm. While the rest of his body was quite old and withered, his hands remained youthful and strong. It was as if all the energy he could conjure up was directed to the flow and grace of his fingertips. Even holding his balance against the door frame, there was a certain grace and ease with which his fingers moved and shifted to hold him perfectly still and erect. It was as if he was playing a silent sonata against the rough wood. He stood propped up against one side of the doorway looking out at me expectantly. And suddenly, I had nothing much to say. “I’m, uh, your neighbor, Phil,” is all I could manage to produce. Its not that I’m shy or often tongue-tied around people. I have reclusive tendencies but I’m a relatively garrulous recluse when the mood strikes me.


“Of course you are,” he said. “Please come in. I’ve seen you many times in front of your house. Phil, hmm. What kind of name is that? English, perhaps? Please, do come in.”


I was led into a small dark room and motioned to a settee. Well, a couch really. But there was a certain dignity about the old man and the old, one might be tempted to say lacquered look of the furniture and decorations in the house, that I felt that he must call his couch a settee. Or perhaps, a divan. I sat down and he excused himself for a moment and went off to his kitchen to get us a cup of tea. I resisted the urge to go and inspect his bookshelves. A habit I freely indulge in when I first come in to most peoples houses. But here I felt it might be seen as impolite. Sooner than I would have thought the old guy must have had a pot already on the stove, he was back with a tall blue porcelain carafe and a service, perfectly outfitted for two. For one split second, I was transported into a Somerset Maugham novel, my favorite literary fantasy. A glance down at my unwashed jeans and dusty tennis shoes pulled me out of high tea on the French Riviera at Maugham’s and back to this tiny, slightly stuffy living room in south Berkeley.


“I’m sorry. My manners, what can I be thinking,” he said, pouring out a cup to the brim with dark brown tea and aiming it my direction. His whole body slightly trembling with effort to bend, but his hand steady and true. I involuntarily reached up to take the cup, watching him step shakily to me, but he held up his other hand. “No, it is quite all right, young man. My body is old and it shakes, but my hands, God be blessed, when given a task still remain firm and resolute.”


He took up his own cup and sat back in a stiff-backed chair he had drawn up next to the couch, took a sip and smiled at me.


“I am Alexander Rokusek. And you, Phil, are my neighbor these three months and now you come to see me. Call me Sasha, please. It would make me more comfortable. ” He saw my eyes start when he mentioned how long I’d been living in my bungalow “Yes, three months. You are surprised? An old man has little to do with his time except to spy upon his street. Of course I see you when you go out and about your business. I hope you will forgive this small hobby of mine, watching the world rush by in all its whirlwind of activity. An old man has very little else to fill his days. So I watch…and I speculate.


“And you play the piano. I’ve heard you play the piano, when I sit on my porch in the afternoons. I wanted to ask you, I wanted to know.”


“You want to learn piano? Oh, I don’t think so, I no longer teach. I no longer have the patience for it. It’s funny, Phil. One always thinks that old age brings wisdom and patience. That’s what you think, isn’t it. But I will tell you, the older I get the less time I feel I have to spare for that which does not directly affect me. And I have so much myself left to learn of the piano in the days I have left on this earth that it would feel to me a crime to spend any time teaching another. So please forgive me, do not think me to be impolite if I choose not to teach you of the piano.”


“No, Sasha. I don’t want to learn to play the piano. I’ve no desire to play, just to listen. I’m curious about the song I hear you play every day. What is it called?”


“The song you hear me play? It is a simple piece. And I work on it most every day. It is coming along. Yes it is coming.”


“But it is so beautiful, Sasha. And you play it perfectly every day. If you’ll forgive me for being perhaps a bit more poetic than is necessary, I don’t think I could live without hearing you play that song every day.”


“Poetry is good for the soul, Phil. It will keep you alive on this Earth longer than any other Medicine. So promise me that you will never apologize for being or feeling poetic. But perfect? Do not take offense, Phil, but what could you know of perfection. It does not exist within a piece of music. And the piece of music you speak of, this song, is a long way from being mastered by me. Sometimes I am afraid that I will die while it is still my master and not the other way around.”


“But why do you play only the one song? And why only once a day? You must know hundreds of other pieces of music.”


“Yes, Phil. I know many pieces of music. There is much beauty in the world. Perhaps if I tell you a story you will understand why I play my song every day in an attempt to play it to the furthest reach of my meager abilities. Do not worry, Phil. It will be short story. It will be finished before your tea is cold. Oh, my manners again. Your cup.” Sasha reached over the small glass table between us and slowly and laboriously re-filled my cup with the dark, bitter tea, without losing a drop.


“There. You are comfortable? Yes, okay. My story? Many years ago, Philip. You are a Philip, not a Phil are you not? You are to an age where Philip might begin to fit you better. So if you don’t mind, I will call you that. Yes, many years ago I lived in a town in the country where I was born. Havrnck was a small village in a small green valley in the south of Czechoslovakia. Our town was small and our fields were small but the land in Bohemia is lush and our town was well supported We were able to have a small school of our own, two churches and even a music teacher. I fell naturally toward music, and if I am not being too immodest, it quickly fell into me. I was forever sneaking to it whenever the work of the fields and my schoolwork could be put aside. Sundays were the finest because with the exception of the harvest time, no one was compelled to work on a Sunday and my parents being religious but not without feeling felt that my wanting to sit at the piano from sunrise to sunset on even the most beautiful Sundays was an act of faith as strong as any they had seen within the wall of the town’s church. They held out hopes that I might one day win a scholarship to the conservatory in Prague. I secretly wanted to go to Vienna when I reached an age but I kept this to myself. I knew my teacher’s feelings about Dvorak and about the love he had for the music of our country. The music that made us all feel the heat of our patriotism. And I knew that that was the music he would want me to study. So life went. Work, study music.


“Now, Philip, you are not to think that we were like your American hillbillies, cut-off from the world in our little valley. We had a radio and we knew what went on in the world. So it came as no surprise when one fine, blustery Fall afternoon, just as the village was stirring back to life after taking its noon meal, the Germans marched into our valley and into our village, all shiny leather and curled lip arrogance. I remember it as if it was yesterday.


“Being fifteen and fit, I had taken to the fields and woods with the other boys and young men. We had it in our minds to fight and kill a German or two, but in reality, all we wanted to do was stay out of their way and thus avoid being a mourned corpse before our next birthday. We had heard all the stories flying from one town to the next of German atrocities. Were we cowards to leave our families, our sisters and mothers and sometimes our aging fathers behind? No! We were Czech and strong. But we knew that the Germans only wanted to kill the young boys and young men. The ones that might hold up a long barreled rifle against them or cut their throat while they slept drunkenly as all Germans do after drinking our sweet Bohemian wine. So when the Germans marched into town we watched from the woods with hatred at what they might do in our absence.


“The German army is nothing if not efficient. They marched straight into the center of town, went from building to building, house to house and pulled everyone out into the town square. Old, young, sick and frail. It made no matter. All were bullied out into the crisp Fall day that now had lost most of its sweetness. They were angry, of course when they saw that there were no boys over the age of eight or men under forty to be found. Angry but not surprised. They knew just what was happening. They were well trained and this was not their first Czech village.


“A group of officers sat down to wait, taking over the largest table on the outdoor court of the village cafe. Laughing and ordering the serving girl, Marta was her name, I remember it all, to bring them the best wine and cheeses and whatever bits of pate and cold meat she could find. They told her to save her Czech beer, so they might use it later to bathe in. Ah, to be home in the biergartens of Munchen drinking real German beer. That is what they wanted. Not to be forced to subsist on this piss-water Czech beer, which is all they’d been able to find since the beginning of this campaign. In no time they were half drunk, chairs pushed back and boots muddied from tromping across our fields lounged atop the tables, soiling the fine embroidered linen Marta spread out so evenly every morning. She did her best to wear a smile and serve them as quickly as she could, pretending not to mind their clutches and thinly cloaked suggestions as to what other things they would like served to them. She was badly frightened by what they might do if they felt even the smallest slight come from her or anyone else in the village. We had all heard the stories of how any kind of resistance was met. So as soon as she could, she said that she needed to fetch more wine and sent her aging grandfather Helmek, out to bring them more cheese. Fortunately for her, and for Helmek, the soldiers were getting too drunk to care one way or another for a lowly Czech serving girl. Preferring to boast and thump their chests and talk loudly of the strength of the Aryan race and to laugh their rough horse laughs at the feeble resistance put up by the Czech army and partisans. How they wished that there had been more fight in the Czechs so they could have shown what the German army was really capable of. ‘Wine. More wine, schnell, schnell.’ The bastards were running poor Helmek ragged. He was not so young in those days, though I could see by the look in his eyes that he remembered the man he was thirty years back and wished even half his strength back so he could club their thin German heads together. ‘Music, we want music. Hey old man, don’t turn your dirty Czech back on me when I’m talking to you.’ The biggest and drunkest of the officers shoved back is chair so hard it fell into another table and crashed to the ground. ‘Hey, you. Old dog, come back here. I’m talking to you. I told you I wanted to hear some music.’ Helmek kept walking away toward the kitchen, while the other soldiers began to laugh and taunt the big soldier, who by now had adopted a glower and a flexed knee stance as if he was waiting for a fight to begin. The soldier pulled out his Luger and fired two shots into the air. ‘Can’t you hear me old man. I want to hear some music.’ By now his friends were near doubled up with laughter at this unexpected carnival. Some of them were shouting for the big drunk to sing, since he couldn’t get the waiter to provide any music. Bets were being taken on whether he would sound more like an ox or a sheep. Marta cowered in the kitchen and Helmek kept walking. I could see this all from behind a hedgerow not fifty paces from the cafe. I wanted to run out and throttle the bastards. But what could I do, I ask you? Nothing, that’s all. I stayed hidden and hoped that nothing bad would happen. Helmek passed through the rope-hinged door to the kitchen leaving the red-faced officer standing in the middle of the cafe patio, a gun in his hand and his fellow officers burying him in hard laughter.


“A short minute later Helmek came back out through the door with three bottles of wine. ‘Oh, you’re back already,’ the drunken soldier started in. ‘And what’s with this wine? I told you I wanted to hear some music. What’s wrong with you, are you mocking me, are you, you Czech pig?’ Helmek tried to slide past him with the wine and said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you said you wanted more wine. I must have heard you wrong.’ The soldier swept a bottle out of Helmek’s hand as he moved quickly past, and leveled the gun at the back of his head. ‘Maybe you can hear this the better old man?’ And he shot him dead. Right there in the middle of the cafe. I had never seen anything more cold-blooded or horrible in my life. But this was only 1938 And What did anybody yet know of horror in 1938 I ask you? The big drunken soldier bulled his way through the kitchen door and dragged poor Marta out. She saw her Grandfather laying in a pool of blood and brains and began to cry and shake. ‘Now you, Czech bitch. By God you’ll get me some music. Do you want to end up like this old dog?’ Marta just began to cry harder. The soldier gripped her roughly and shoved her back up against a heavy wooden table. ‘I’ll have some music out of you one way or another, you bitch.’ And he proceeded to push her until she was laying flat on her back across the table. To a tremendous cheer from his compatriots, he pulled her skirt up high, exposing her for all to see. The poor girl, she tried to kick and fight but he slapped her twice hard right across the face and she went back down, stunned senseless. He began to rub up against her, roughly kissing her tear-streaked face. ‘Sing for me, Czech songbird. Sing loud enough for your whole town to hear.’ Marta, regaining some of herself raged against the drunken lout and tried to push him off. It was then that we all heard the notes of a piano begin to sound. It was my music teacher. Not quite young and swift enough to hide with us in the forest, nor old enough to safely be seen in town, though all the good it did poor Helmek, I can’t say– he had remained hidden in his cellar to watch alone. But poor Helmek’s fate and Marta’s predicament had drawn more out of him than he had been known to possess. He was sitting at the battered old upright piano that was used mostly for folk songs and drinking songs on Saturday night at the cafe. A piano vastly unworthy of his skill and very much unused to producing the depth of emotion than came from his fingers at this moment. He began to play clearly and strongly and with no lack of patience, a passage from Dvorak’s Symphony #9, The New World Symphony, arranged in the spur of the moment by himself; all the sweeping strings, darkly quiet fissures and thundering brass coming flowing out of the old upright piano like a Spring river swollen with the melt of Winter’s snow. My teacher’s head was thrown back, eyes closed and he played with the blank faced concentration of a man who might never stop, so deeply was he lost in the music. The seated officer’s laughter stopped as if it had run up against a brick wall and the animal holding down Marta twisted his head toward the sound as if facing a pursuer.


“Marta, seizing her moment, pulled free from under the soldier and disappeared in a rush and a wink. ‘What is this crap you play?’ said the officer turning angrily toward the piano. ‘Play some real music for your betters. Some German songs. Play us a tune we can sing to.’ The Officer, his gun back in his hand, advanced on my teacher, who played on, ignoring everything but the swell and beauty of music. I have heard Dvorak performed many times but never have I heard him played with more force, with more immediacy than by my teacher, while threatened by a gang of murderous soldiers, on an untuned piano with many beer and wine stiffened keys.


“The officer buoyed by alcohol and indignation bellowed up to my teacher who played with his back to the Germans. ‘I told you to stop playing this primitive music. You Czechs only wish you were Germans, only wish your music could reach to the level of ours. Stop now or you’ll finish your song like old Grandpa over there.’ He gestured to the inert form of Helmek, who by now had run out of blood to shed and lay as if sleeping off a drunk in a spread of red flowers. When the music continued, the officer raised his gun and leveled it at the back of my teacher’s head. ‘You stupid Czechs. Must you all learn your lessons the same way?’ He glared with arrogance and disgust. Just as it appeared that my music teacher would meet the same fate as Helmek, Marta rushed back from the kitchen with a 14” meat chopping knife held in front of her like a flag. She swung it hard at the German officer’s neck, trying to kill him as one would kill a chicken. Suddenly sober, the soldier whirled and fired as if he was a dancer in a ballet. Marta dropped in a bloody heap not three steps from her Grandfather, the knife clattering harmlessly to a stop at the German officer’s feet. Still my teacher played on. Dvorak, glorious Dvorak. I felt my heart become frozen, stiffen and then break, all in one breath.


“A roar of motors and dust brought our scene back to a different reality. The German column was beginning again its advance. Most of the drinking party of officers pulled up to their feet and began moving out of the cafe. They had bigger fish to fry than our little town with its one cafe and two churches. The drunken officer still stood faced off with the still, bleeding Marta and dead Helmek. He seemed uncertain as to where to turn. Perhaps he was even drunker than he appeared. He lowered his gun at Marta and fired twice more, her body leaping with each intrusion. ‘She tried to kill me, you all saw that didn’t you?” he said to the other German soldiers who were still moving toward the exit. They all, to a man ignored him. He turned back toward my teacher, who finishing the movement, stepped away from the piano and looked upon the sad scene with the eyes of one who put his hand to the fates. I don’t think he wanted to die just at that moment. But I do think that he could see the future of our village, of our country and I don’t think he had any expectations beyond the walls of the cafe.


“The soldier began to raise his gun, which I think he thought had enough bullets to kill everyone in our town, but was forestalled by another officer. ‘Come on, Gert. Stop wasting time. If it’s killing you want there’ll be more you can stomach tonight. We are called to advance and they say that there is a group of stupid Czechs that thinks it can fight with Germans, 25 kilometers in front of us. Forget this stupid old man. He’ll get his before too long. Come on, we’re already falling behind the column. And with that he took his fellows arm and pulled him out of the cafe, leaving my teacher standing at the piano wondering where in the world his next step would lead him.


“That is the tune you hear me play, my new friend. I play what I can of the New World Symphony because for me this is the only piece of music that holds onto a meaning. I play it to remember. I play it for Marta and for Helmek and for my old music teacher. Though I haven’t seen him or my village since that day. The war took me many places, far and away from Havrnck. I was even in Vienna once. But for me there was no place at the most famous of the conservatories. I play this piece from my memory and try to take from it again, from my own hands, a fraction of the passion that was given to me that afternoon.”


I sat, looking for a long moment at my stone cold tea, still resting on the glass table top where Sasha had placed it for me. “Will you play for me now?” I started to say, but Sasha was already moved to the piano and was taking a series of deep breaths, his eyes closed to this pallid time we think of as our all encompassing world of troubles and importance.