Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“The Weekend” by Thom Young

She came in on a red-eye from San Antonio. The girl from the hill country outside of the city. Her family lived on a ranch twenty miles up a dirt road. It was an ideal location to make illegal moonshine, and blow the fuck out of everything else. I had been to the place several times. I liked her dogs. They were eager to please like all dogs. That is what I admire the most. The loyalty. She took after her pets. She often drove up every other weekend. That didn’t put too much strain on our relations. She cleaned up my place. Taking care to empty the ashtrays and place beer bottles in the trash. I left dirty dishes in the sink. She cleaned those too, even going the extra mile by wiping out the shitter. I drove my old Ford to the airport. The place was tedious to navigate. Hell would have been easier. I pulled into a spot right by her terminal. I lit a cigarette. It was a no smoking facility. I didn’t give a fuck. I was standing up for the liberty of the little guy. His big brother was an ass hole. I had to embarrass myself by going through a body scanner. The perverts were storing my ass on a computer somewhere. I made it through that. I sat down and stretched my feet out. It felt good to be alive. Her flight was running late. I picked up a newspaper off a seat adjacent to me. The headline talked about the president signing a bill to save the bankers. The bankers had to be saved. The whole country was going to shit. It had to be done. All the senators congratulated each other. They were proud of their work. It was going to cost the taxpayers a billion dollars, but at least we could sleep good knowing the banks had been rescued. I flipped to the sports section. The middleweight champion was fighting next week in Dallas. He was a good fighter. Nobody could beat him. I was like him. I was a fighter. She wouldn’t beat me.

Then I saw her. It wasn’t my girlfriend. A young college girl was sitting across from me. Her skirt kept inching up her thigh. Every now and then she’d uncross her legs. She had on pink ruffled panties. I nearly blew a load in my jeans. I bet her life was easy. Her family wasn’t affected by the economic downturn. Money wasn’t a concern. It never had been. It was expected. Daddy made sure of that. “Daddy can I have another thousand?” “Why sure honey, I’ll put that in your account today.” She went on about her college life of skipping classes and blowjobs. I played out the little scenario in my mind. The she got up and left.

My girlfriend’s plane arrived. She saw me. She looked good. I think she looked a bit thinner. I was still fat. These things are allowed as a man. We are the dominant species. I put my arm around her. We walked to my car. “Sir, put that cigarette out.” “Go fuck off.” The security guard didn’t say anything. They weren’t use to that.

She talked about furniture on the drive home. She was talking about that or decorating. “I could really fix up your place. We can go look at couches tomorrow.” “Sure baby.”

I stared out the window on the drive home. The city was lit up like a drunk sailor. We were all sailing somewhere.

That night we had sex. It was becoming routine. “Aim for my tits, it’s not a safe time.” You had to admire a woman like that.

She came back a few more weekends. There wasn’t much to say anymore. I never got that couch. That was a year ago this May. I still think about her sometimes. Mainly when I see a dog.

Monday, August 30, 2010

“The Manleys And Me” by Marilyn Recht

In the early 1980s I was the best friend and neighbor of the Manleys, whose widowed mother had died young and bequeathed them an odd Z-shaped house on the waterfront. The first floor had landlocked living quarters, while on the second floor three bedrooms opened onto a corridor that led to a pier overlooking the bay.

Vanessa, a 20-year-old slim blonde, was the most brilliant of the three. Too ravenous for knowledge to tolerate the institutional pace of college, she spent hours a day reading and studying dimensional computer programs in set design, architecture and other manipulations of space.

Her brother Manchester (nickname “Buck”) was tall and gorgeous at 19. In retrospect he was a dead ringer for Brad Pitt who was still an unknown kid at the time. Buck was somewhat intellectually curious like his sister but mainly he was a flirt, provocateur and prankster. He enjoyed putting people on and making them uncomfortable. His choice of clothing was usually either “aw shucks” overalls or a rather sinister silky black robe for indoors.

Shelley was the youngest and the most beautiful at 17 and the only brunette. Not as intellectual as Vanessa or as extroverted as Buck, she was intensely private and focused. She had several projects going at once, usually of an electronic musical nature. As a 17-year-old musician myself, I felt closest to Shelley.

What all three Manleys had in common was sexual voraciousness. They thoroughly enjoyed their freedom from authority with wild parties and delighted in constantly changing sex partners. Since the town was small, they soon exhausted their supply of youth and left many of their friends and lovers bitter rivals.

I felt fairly safe from their amorality with my long-time boyfriend Fred, although I did cling to him a bit when we all hung out at the local bar. Like Shelley I was very focused, having studied classical singing since childhood. And Fred and I trusted each other completely, which is to say we were still naïve.

Shelley was cheating on her boyfriend Dirk—a sexy dark-haired loafer with a marked widow’s peak—with the “world’s best lover,” as she put it. She told me more than I wanted to know, like prolonged tonguing with penetration to intensify her orgasm. Dirk was mad with jealousy. Since no one could enter the bedrooms by land if denied main entry to the house, which he was, I could hear him yelling and splashing in the cold water under her room, demanding entry and promising to kill her lover Tyrell.

Once I arrived just in time for one of Dirk’s pathetic tirades. Shelley was showing Tyrell out a back door and I only saw the back of his head. We went upstairs and she smiled out at Dirk and curtained her window.

“Shell,” I said, “I think you’re cruel.”

She just smiled and put her headphones on and was soon lost in taping something or other. I sighed and decided to see what Vanessa was up to. Unfortunately for me ‘Ness (like her brother) always kept her door open and I could see her rolling around with two strange boys. When I went downstairs Buck was sitting in his favorite well-worn armchair by the window. He observed my discomfited face with amusement.

“C’mere, Gwen, I have a proposal for you.” I tried to ignore him and walk out but he tripped me so that I fell on his lap.

“C’mon, it’s not about sex.”

I shifted away from his hard-on onto the chair arm and said, “OK make it quick. I have to get home.”

He told me that he and his sisters had been invited to speak at the local high school about initiative and self-confidence. I started to laugh—what did they have to offer younger kids—they were all college dropouts! But he was serious. Both their parents had been highly respected teachers and the three children had a reputation for brilliance and originality. Buck said I should come too as an example of a more serious young adult with a real future as an opera singer.

I was flattered but felt compelled to ask, “What about Fred? He’s going to be an engineer.”

Buck snickered. “All I see Fred engineering to be is your husband.” And he tried to draw me closer but I got up.

“For your information, my boyfriend is every bit ambitious as me and…” but I saw it was useless because he wouldn’t stop grinning. I would have said, “What’s your ambition?” but he’d take that as a come-on.

In the end I agreed to meet them the next morning at the school. Someone had botched up the scheduling and we all ended up in the waiting room for several hours. Not used to having to wait on anyone, the restless Manleys started acting up. Shelley began doing exaggerated modern dance a la Isadora Duncan while Vanessa sang bad country songs off-key. Buck was happy just to mess with the heads of the waiting parents and officials. Wearing an old black suit and a fake beard with a clipboard, he pretended to be presiding dean of a neighboring college looking for excellent candidates. He had those people eating out of his hand. It was very tiresome and I was offended by their rudeness but they were having a grand old time. Seeing my disapproval Shelley made me dance with her till I had to laugh.

In the end the whole thing was cancelled but I think they were relieved. After all, what could they impart to serious students besides “Higher education sucks” or “Abstinence is for losers.” This way they left with dignity, their suspect reputations intact.

Vanessa told me that before they’d moved to our town she wrote a regular feature for a local magazine when she was only 13, and received thousands of fan letters. She said it was a diary of her “sexual and intellectual awakening.” Supposedly their mother had disappeared when they were young, and “Van” had “inherited her lesbianism.” The young Vanessa wrote about public displays of sexuality with other young girls. At 14 she continued her exhibitionism with young men and seduced the captain of the high school football team. He was her boyfriend for a few months but she tired of his dumb good looks and “ridiculous” demand for commitment.

She also told me that their mother died when she was just 15 years old. Her grandmother moved in and taught her all kinds of herbal and naturopathic treatments for illness and malaise. She also began a morning meditation routine that allowed her to “experience true violet” (whatever that meant) and accomplish her tasks without depression.
The darker side of her story was that she continually longed for her mother and her classmates, perhaps jealous of her, said her mother had been a whore and a thief who never loved her.

But as far-fetched as all this was, the bigger mystery was their seemingly endless supply of money. How could the pensions of two high school teachers support their extravagant lifestyles? There had to be another source of income. Shelley was the most accessible to me but she was also secretive. And I suppose it was partly their secrecy that kept me excited and attached to them.

There was a palpable bond between all three, despite the fact that I rarely saw them talking or hanging out with each other. Their bedrooms walls were thin so each was well acquainted with the others’ sexual lives. It seemed peculiar to me that siblings wouldn’t be embarrassed of such things until I got to realize that sensuality was their bond.

This fascinated and repulsed me since I was an only child and had had only one partner since age 14. But it was my naiveté that would be my undoing. Shelley told me she needed a lot of concentration for a new composition she was working on. She said some vague thing about funding from an arts group for experimental music.

Vanessa said friends lent her programs and gave her hand-me-down equipment but that didn’t account for packages I saw being delivered to her.

Buck didn’t require much because he just liked to mess with people. One time when I showed up he answered the door with his black robe hanging loose so I could see absolutely everything. (I noted unhappily that he had much nicer body than Fred.) Another time he kept his door ajar and made lewd gestures at me from his bed when I saw the tenting in his robe.

Vanessa’s room was the biggest since she needed the most space. Whereas Shelley’s equipment was neat and stackable, ‘Ness had a large computer set-up as well as strange plants growing everywhere. She claimed they never needed to go to a doctor because she was versed in herbology. I believe some plants had psychedelic qualities and that her brother was a big imbiber. I often passed him lying on his bed or sitting in his favorite chair smiling absently and tracing patterns in the air with his fingers. This was the alter ego of the exhibitionist, withdrawn and unseeing of others.

Vanessa was always excited about some discovery she’d made in physics or chemistry. Her room was a mess: soil on the bed, jacketless dusty CDs, etc. She enjoyed an eclectic mix of music, everything from corny western ballads to cacophonous modern jazz. Shelley loathed her sister’s taste in music and was forever shouting at her to shut her door and use headphones.

Shelley’s own music collection was discreet and neatly organized. She liked to make mixes for friends and lovers she’d dumped so they’d have something to remember her by. As for the secret project she was working on, she waved away my questions with: “Oh, it’s not very professional. You wouldn’t be interested.”

Once she asked me to sing her an act from Rigoletto and closed her eyes in seeming ecstasy as she recorded it.

“You’ll go far, Gwen,” she’d say, “but you’ve got to drop that Fred guy.”

“But why? Why don’t any of you respect Fred?”

“Well, he’s nice,” she’d say slowly, “but he’s just not on your level.”

“But he’s different from us, he’s an engineer.”

“Mmmm,” she’d say absently, already many miles away.

“I don’t see what’s so great about Dirk,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. Dirk was dead sexy and witty and Fred was just a nice guy. And 17 year olds unfortunately don’t appreciate niceness till sometimes it’s too late.

I envied how Shelley kept Dirk tied around her little finger while she cheated on him so outrageously. I was dying to know who her mystery lover was but she refused to tell me, not so much out of mistrust but because the secrecy intensified her pleasure.

One day she said, “Hey Gwen, Buck’s going camping this weekend. Why don’t you and Fred stay in his room?”

She knew Fred and I were always trying to get away from our parents. I leapt at the suggestion.

“Are you sure we won’t put you out?”

“I’m not feeding you,” she said. “I’m just giving you a clean bed and some towels. The rest is up to you.”

I was thrilled and so was Fred when I told him. We showed up Friday after our last class with our little matching backpacks. My parents loved Fred but out of respect I told them Shelley was having a girls-only weekend slumber party. As if!

It was a great weekend. Fred and I felt very amorous in that spare wooden room with a view of the bay. I thought I heard buzzing and scratching at night but dismissed it as the wind. I was intent on proving to Shelley that my boyfriend was totally satisfying and I ignored her all weekend, not that she cared.

We skinny dipped in the water and hiked in the woods. We walked to town, bought groceries and cooked in the little-used kitchen. The girls were on a Rastafarian raw foods diet and Vanessa was attempting to grow vegetables too. The refrigerator had radishes, cabbage, and beer, and not much else. There were also jars all over sprouting various seeds and beans. Buck never ate at home. He was always surrounded by a posse who were either wining and dining him or cooking for him. He repaid them in entertainment and/or sex.

Sunday afternoon while Fred was napping I couldn’t resist doing some snooping. I went through Buck’s desk drawers, finding only some scraps of paper, notes, and receipts. Then I started to feel guilty and Fred woke up and we made love again.

Christmas rolled around quickly and the Manley’s had their annual New Year’s Eve bash. They strung lights inside and out of the house, creating a gorgeous reflective shimmering on the water. There were usually a dozen of us who showed up, having pooled our allowances for chips and booze. Our state’s legal drinking age was 18 but the liquor store owners were lax.

This year the usually modest Shelley surprised us with a slinky low-cut black mini-dress. She raised her usual gin and tonic and said, “Here’s to the best friends a girl could have,” looking at each of us meaningfully. “I want to unveil my new composition but first I want all of you to get toasted!”

Everyone roared their approval and it didn’t take long for each of us to get stinking drunk, especially since the only food was chips and dip.

I noticed that during the past few months Buck had traded in drinking for drugs and tonight he was definitely high. In my uninhibited state I felt disappointed that he wasn’t flirting with me. He just sat in his favorite worn chair smiling blankly at everyone’s drunken antics.

Around about midnight a sober Shelley ushered us all into her bedroom for the unveiling. We were all buzzing with excitement although I felt a certain trepidation.

Fred and I held hands as everyone listened in rapt quadrophonics. First was a lovely medley of lapping water and bird chirping which segued to splashing water and shouting. My heart sank as I heard Dirk yelling, “Shelley! Let me in! I know what you’re up to, you whore!” “You whore!” was repeated and spliced with the splashing till it sounded like a lonely drowning crow. Then there were some soft wind sounds followed by murmuring. With a shock I heard my own voice moan, “Fred. Do it there. Yeah.” Then that was cut and spliced several times and speeded up to a ridiculous chirpy caricature: “Fred! Yeah! Fred! Yeah!” I wanted to jump up but my body felt leaden and there were too many bodies. Then I heard Buck in his softest, smoothest voice: “Hey Gwen.” Then a sharp intake of breath and, “You know I know you want me.” I tried to say to Fred, “It’s not me—it’s a trick.” But my throat was closed and my brain was mush. Then there was my voice, “Buck, get away from me.” Then the middle was deleted and we heard, “Buck—me. Buck—me.” The finale was female giggles overlapping and alternating with lapping water and climaxing with an ocean’s roar and Buck’s triumphant orgasm.
I was furious. I wanted to shout, “Why me? Why not your own perverted sex life?” But no words came out. I felt drugged as well as drunk. Fred had detached himself from me and I could see him leaving with his head down. After a confused scattered applause everyone else staggered to their feet and followed him out. I was the last one left and had to hold the walls as if the house was rocking—or maybe it was. Buck was still sitting in his chair laughing. I hated him with all my might, the more to erase Shelley from my mind. Vanessa was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly Buck got up and took off all his clothes. “Whew, it’s hot in here.” He walked out onto the pier and jumped into the icy water laughing. Shelley came out of her room glowing with pleasure. I muttered, “Thanks for ruining my life, Shelley.”

She tried to hug me. “Oh my sweet Gwen. You always did take things too seriously.”

I shrugged her off and almost bumped into Vanessa who was running down the corridor gleefully waving a sheet of paper. “Shel! Ches’! We’re rich! Our bonds matured—we’re rich!”

Shelley hugged her over me as I squirmed away. They both stripped and ran onto the pier and jumped into the water too. I could hear them all splashing and laughing, “We’re rich! We’re outta here!”

I left the house in slow motion, knowing that in the morning I’d have to start my life all over again.

When I woke up late the next day with a vicious hangover, thinking my last revenge would be never to see the treacherous Manleys again, I looked out the window and saw the entire house boarded shut with a big “FOR SALE” sign across the side.

Friday, August 27, 2010

“Babe Rockefeller” by Kirk Marshall

I was heading my way up north, in slow but surly pursuit of the seasonal mallard migration, in the hopes that there would be some shooting at the tooth of Powder Mountain. It had proven one helluva long racket, both in physical mileage and in manifestation, from my outpost as Store Manager of the town of Whistler’s Timber Supplies and Woodwork Shop. I’d hung our sign reading “Closed Till after fall” in our shopfront window – knowing well that drifts of blue autumn snow would soon obscure the glass – and had bedded down early, with nary an eyeful of William Carlos Williams and a kick of gin before sleep stole on me. 4 am the next morning, and with a burning cigarette bummed from the deck of Red Devon quashed into my shirt-pocket, I’m surveying the lay of the country at the cabin of my Winnebago. Extinguishing the cigarette onto the sole of my boot, I crunch out of the caravan’s threshold into the snow, and of a sudden it’s falling freely onto my shoulders like the stoat-robe of a boggart-king, or the nuclear fall-out from some misbehaving hydrogen bomb. I’m breathing gin into the woodland air. The smoke hangs for a moment so that my eyes sting, and the song of a warbler resonates in the thick of the treeline. A star looms sharply at the height of the sky’s thermals, right above me, and I can still make the shape of a few others, night’s celestial survivors clustering to a raft in the wake of day. I do a hard and savage piss at the back of the truck, thrust the hood of my parka over my scalp, and shoulder the supplies.

Winter game, as a stoic sort, can be pretty timid and selective in when they choose to break hibernation: but like those possessed of even the best stamina, it ain’t wrong to anticipate the transgressions of deviants. It’s near to a koan what my daddy imparted to my childhood sister and I, before he suffered a heart attack and suffocated to death in the ore mine: You ever seen a caribou read? Nossir. And you know why? Because caribou harbour no concern for the theories of those animals who can. I wasn’t presuming to pretend that a population of buck elk would be fanging through the pine at Brandywine Mountain, especially not so early in the season. One evening at the shop, I just became consumed. A feeling of urgency descended upon me. My heart beat like the handshake of a Blackjack champion. Standing at the counter, I had to excuse myself. The sweat was streaming off me, lashes of it, and I retreated to the shed, out back in the frost, fists balled to my abdomen. Panting, I shut out the birdcall and the susurration of engines at the front of the store. I was being called. It felt like an invitation to fight, simultaneously mean and polite, and I knew the ghost of my daddy was calling upon me to forge my way northward. I’d heard tell of rogue black bear coasting like sludgetankers through autumn’s yellow revolt, and of a convoy of wapiti which made their claim of the maples in a clearing somewhere north-west of Brandywine Falls. A reverent people, elk. This herd was said to be decades old, the veteran phalanx of some lost generation, vaulting over river cascades and through bitter snowfall in a feeble plight to recreate the grandeur of a winter exodus. Either unprepared for or contemptuous of the commitment necessary to abandon the choreography of an annual migration, these elk took to the highest fucking climes of British Columbia in order to satisfy tradition, and the onus of their forebears.

I couldn’t much discern the point, not at the time, but it took me more than a few months after the event to realise that I wasn’t just seeking a trophy for validation to justify the beckoning which had begun to seize me up during the day, invading the mental refuge I’d established for nights of unaided sleep. It took me more than a few months, actually, to appreciate that I’d long been hibernating on my feet. I had yet to endure two different heartbreaks and confront the possibilities of unnegotiable catastrophe, kill a creature that wanted my future, and dispense with daddy’s 77 magnum over the smoking foundry of Brandywine Falls before returning home. Bullet cartridges blossomed from my fist down into the swell of the rapids, darting from beneath my presiding shadow like a shoal of red salmon into rhapsody, into deep water. For hours my hands would stink of gunpowder as I tramped back up the foothills, leaving prints for a flank of wolves to divine in the permafrost of afternoon.


At 7,700 feet, Powder Mountain prevails over the icefields which extend from the mouth of the Squamish River to the south of Whistler all the way to the furthest topography of Ganbaldi Provincial Park, devolving into a ridgeback annexe which wallpapers the frozen horizon, describing a circumference of caldera lakes and stone promontories which no hand of miraculous intent could properly sculpt. I’m fond to regard the summit as the centrifuge of some widespread storm front. Rolls of thunder descending in parabolas of molten basalt. Forks of lightning carved from granite, and wind-smoothed like striated glass. But I ain’t much of a proponent of narrative-fantasy, leastways not over a long-haul: I can’t seem to muster the longevity, nor maintain the lie which an athletic imagination demands. So I’m swift to calculate that Powder Mountain is really only as vertiginous and impressive as fable might protest, when it’s viewed in the bracing clasp of a chill violet dusk. Looking at it square, like I’m fixing to deter a returning shark, I can’t assemble the syntax, nor the breadth of wonder which that mountain provokes in me when I survey its implacable contest, ingest its scorn and tiger beauty. Hunching low to the undergrowth, I squat and exhale vapour. I’ve long been loathe to exchange parry or parlance in the language of the clock, but it takes me a sure ten minutes kneeling in the new lawn of snow to fasten the gas kerosene, like a bedroll, to the centre of my back. In seconds it’s aflame behind me, a fist or blade of orange light cleaving the conspiracy of forest blackness embroidering the pinewood canopies. The flame flickers as I walk, sending and disrupting silhouettes to the borderzones of my peripheries, fire-shapes like autumn leaves dancing on the canvas of a Canadian morning. Oil fumes escort my passage as though the jet of ink enabling a squid’s escape. My feet are breaking tiny icicles as they fall; and still the buoyant squash-racquet devices attached to the underside of my snowshoes erase these furrows which my progress leaves: like the ribbon of a typewriter spun from silence, quietly reclaiming words as it surfs across a page. This begins the lonely march. It’s an hour before I palm a cigarette into my mouth, striking the waxen match-head against an emery board I’d misplaced in my jacket pocket; another hour after that, as daylight intrudes with the welcome vehemence of an old pro, before I stop to gauge my bearings and refill my water-flask.

Sometimes all this snow, all this vibrant ice can make a man believe things his own blood would accelerate to disconfirm. It’s the violence of wind loping uncaged and luminous through the trees, or the sound of a branch snapping a pace of twelve feet behind you, or the illusion of movement at the height of the closest foxhole undergrowth when everything is disorientating and obscured by logpile mists that can converge to spook a man. I was being haunted by birds. At the outset of my trek there had sounded the occasioned warble of a thrush, the startled alarm of a wood-pewee as its red-breasted platitudes reverberated through the gaps of conifers, voices like bells from thoraxes of glass and throats of melody. It didn’t take six cigarettes to start hearing the whoop of a pride of kestrels hunting above me, or the manic chattering of magpies between the leaves and the opaque peat-like fog. I’d divined fresh rainwater after harvesting a bushel of ice from the edge of a snow-bank, malingering on my haunches and snapping like rabies at the wheel of a pocket-lighter with my thumb, melting the frost into the bottleneck of my flask, when I heard wind of the barks. It sounded like laughter at first, dark choleric laughter, a coughing that wheeled and escalated between the snowfall, the flakes tumbling too heavily to discern where the murder or merriment emanated from. A wing flapped. A cough, a bark. I shouldered my pack, the kerosene lamp curiously contributing no measurement of security to my passage. I forged through the snow, doubling my efforts, scaling higher ground, running, tripping, clawing without traction at the mantle of white death, forever judging and collapsing the mortar and marrow of men, snow above me, snow below me, snow sweeping into my fucking eyes, snow. The light was venomous, silvering, spangling through prismic sleet like chaos braiding chaos between strange attractors. It kept falling, would not concede, did not recede. It continued to blind me, and the voices were sharp now, viscid and insistent. When I couldn’t move any more I waved my arms about, sundering my umbilicus with the forest floor and its autumn graves. I shook off clover, snow, sky, ghosts, snow. An apparition formed before me, and I knew it was both the birds and not the birds: a scarecrow united through, and agglomerated by the forms of a parliament of ravens; black birds with red hearts and pupils, come before me to build the body of a man. The wraith engineered from this swarming, rustling roost of ravens was looking at me, manifest before me with two hundred persecuting eyes. He outstretched his arms, the forms of arms. The birds chittered like a Spanish monkeypuzzle tree, the tide of quarrelling, carolling laughter shivering down the scarecrow’s body. His arms were wings, and they were the assemblages of wings. I could not discriminate a face, if such a creature can be said to possess one, but he did have a chest because it rose and fell with the breath of two hundred others.

‘What the fuck do you want?’ I screamed, my face hot with tears. ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’

A voice as bright, as accusatory, as noxious as a firework held back the advance of day.

‘I need to know the state of my son. I need to know Babe Rockerfeller, my son, possesses the fortitude and gamble to devour this fucking mountain and all its power.’

‘Dad,’ I croaked, my voice hoarse, ‘I’m okay now. Just demonstrate me some fucking peace.’


I spun around wildly, stumbling in the snow, now succumb to the visor of blackness which had hooded me, screaming into the night, breathing hot pillows into the air, breathing lotuses. The warbling and politics and brilliant chatter of the ravens expanded, coalesced to seal me into an envelope of corvid speech and blue illumination, a realm of sound where no compass nor cartographer could have proven useful. I squared up into a boxer’s stance, my eyes and forehead lowered, the cleft of my chin sharp with my chest. I would fight the visions of the night, I decided: I would not allow the moon its crimson victory, I would violate, I would seize the hearts of ravens, still dark and beating; condemn them to lands leagues beneath our earthly wind. I would swing my fists. I would eat the ripest cries for mercy, never mind the bitterness, and spit out the pips. ‘I taunt you with a dare!’ I shrieked, my voice and its hoarse promise failing through the blanket of snowfall which cloaked my mouth and eyes. I spat out snow, but it did not abate: it continued to enter me, burrowing into my ears and nostrils, blinding me with a sharp frost which accumulated like glass-crafted dew over the lids of my eyes. ‘Reveal yourself, and I shall kill you without pleasure!’ I whispered, my throat strangulated by the deed of some unapologetic apocalypse. I could see nothing; the windows had been boarded from the outside, by swift and unholy hands, and I was trapped behind once-inviting walls, clawing like a feeble animal at where I guessed points of light used to penetrate. Blindness is like being in a condemned church that is about to be razed to its foundations. I couldn’t see the fire – my eyes were too fast-closed to afford me the luxury of witnessing my demise – but there was a flame forged by devils encircling me, I was compelled to admit to that much, and before the weapon of the night struck me its savage blow, I felt good about having seen my daddy, and my body exhaled like the chrysalis of a leopard moth until it was fit to rupture. Something sudden and wet and angry rustled beneath the schism of my chest, and I could feel the gin leave my stomach and exit my mouth in plumes of dragon breath, until my ears burned and my head pounded. There were sounds in my mind, somewhere, like a rage born in driving rain. I fucking hated this snow. I hated the moon, I hated the forest which had me skulking on my belly like a cornered fox, I hated the birds, conspirators on wings, I hated the witching hour and the dark which had flooded my body, burying me whilst I still yet breathed. I tore off my gloves, and scratched at my eyeballs, unvigilant and furious, shouldering the blizzard wind and all this molten ice, unending space-junk being shed from on high, to the hackles of my back, murmuring to myself, Get behind me, get behind me, give me only your blessing. My hands found their purchase, and my eyes graced the cold clearing, vision rushing back like sound through a wave-pounded ear.

I was standing alone, and it appeared the snow had long since stopped falling. The sun was banding the trunks and boughs of trees, emerging from between the thick of pines. The sky was light, unclouded, bearing the hue of a honeycomb city. I heard owls make off, their great wings thrashing, into the woodland’s barren centre, where the shadow of dawn retreated the slower. I stood within a cairn of volcanic stone, the surface and contour of each metamorphic rampart gleaming like an evil prize beneath the treeline. My eyes were bleeding, the trickle feeding into the apexes of my mouth, and though my lantern was extinguished, as dead as the world in a historical photograph, I could only smile. My breath returned, ragged and euphoric, like a dog pulled from the body of a river and reclaimed by its master. The morning was trembling between the teeth of conifers and the needles of powdered snowflake. I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing. As cool as new steel, the fist of my heart unclasped itself, wholly inviting the ebullience of this new event and embracing the sun as it gloried in my surroundings.

Not three metres from the pinnacle of my shade, at the centre of the cairn of stone beat the flesh and thresh of a giant monarch butterfly, with a span of orange wings more vast than the days of spring. The insect had to be a metre-and-a-half wide at the diameter if I’m to own up to my talent for the measurement-tape at all. It was labouring over an egg of ice, drinking its fill with the singular zeal of a fey thing, all proboscis and wisdom and iridescence and wing. I lay down beside the butterfly, unfastening my pack, and watched it open and close like a fist or a flower, until my head became heavy, and sleep smote me of reason.


‘There are some who sleep as though fearful that their indiscretions might surface in their slumbering behaviours, thrashing and shunning away from the rose-dark toxicity of dreams.’

The voice entered my head with a means to usurp me, upturning the furniture of fantasy to sit astride the throne of the black kingdom behind my eyes. It smoked sweet tobacco, and purred its witticisms with a face like that of the red astral tiger. ‘There are still others, however,’ the voice demurred, ‘who sleep with the abandon of escapologists. Succumbing to the night’s helm to evade eyes who might wish to ask discriminating questions.’ It paused to inhale deeply from its filterless smoke. Red Devon. My brand. My deck of cigarettes. ‘In theory, one such question could manifest itself as: “Who the fuck is it that I find sprawling in his own spew on country repatriated to the remaining ancestors of the Squamish Indian Tribe, and why does he carry nothing but books of William Carlos Williams and ten boxes of cigarettes?”’

I woke, then, all breath evacuating the fortress of my sternum. A man of Indian descent with deep-set eyes, a green so dark they appeared lapis lazuli, had the peak of his knee set with a violent mathematics squarely into my ribcage. I screamed soundlessly, my retinas casting their aspersions whilst I held clenched teeth. He observed these silent allegations with a quixotic amusement, and shifted the fullness of his weight so that my lungs could do nought but embrace the trespass. I choked, and I mouthed something from a Herman Melville novel or a Billy Zane flick. It made no impression: the blood of the Squamish ran through this man like centuries through the Squamish River. I couldn’t do squat to him that might lend an edge of malice to the drama of my ill-forged threats. He looked equipped to arm-wrestle the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds, least of all a carpenter from Whistler with a receding hairline and the scar of a car collision wrapping the bridge of his boarish nose. I ascertained the commonplace: the Squamish maintained the advantage.

‘What do you want me to say? What the hell do I have to say to get your carcass off me?’

He exchanged a stare with me that was a dazzling thing to behold. In the spangle of afternoon light, I could neither identify nor guess at where the whites might be. It was a gaze to shovel away the violet dusk. The Squamish was smiling. ‘Ah. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow.’ He withdrew his knee, and my lungs swelled to burst, pitching me forward until I was involuntarily possessed by a coughing rage, gulping in droughts of air, shuddering with jaw agape, sucking it in, all that damaged life. I watched him shrink back beside my pack, as I lay cradled like a foetus in the bower of surface snow. Laboriously, his face a crossword puzzle of scar-tissue, he sank to his ass and thrust his palm into the innards of my supply-pack. ‘Get your claw off my shit,’ I grunted, feeble enough not to mean it and smart enough not to try. I saw the coyote, then. It sat on vigilant haunches, the gums of its teeth bared and marbled-gold. It was calculating the arithmetic of a kill: how swiftly did it need to seize my jugular between its jaws before I might react, before I might demonstrate competition for my own life? Or maybe it wasn’t contemplating much at all. My daddy always said a dog’s as dim a specimen of creation as you’re likely to find during the prowess and on the plane of mortal man. Just what do you reckon a hound wants to ask of you, if it were privileged the intellect? I tell you, now, Babe Rockerfeller: Why does the master never have to lick his own balls?

‘Can you tell your ungovernable fuck-dog to go eat a deer or something?’ I groaned as I struggled to propel myself onto my elbows and sit upright, with daylight encircling my gin-fug forehead.

‘You whine like a bitch,’ The Squamish trilled. ‘You best be wary. White Wake is the duke of all coyote, and never neglects an opportunity to sow the seed of future pack-kings.’ The dog looked to its master, before returning to entreat me with a gaunt, funereal glare. White Wake’s teeth caught the phosphorous frozen light, his tongue lolling between its cage like a gladiator at the entrance to the field of battle. I might have chosen to say something dumb and cavalier, but I hadn’t evaded death by raven to suffer murder by a wolf’s basest and most primeval prejudice within half a day’s hoof from the crag of Powder Mountain. Instead, I encouraged within the Squamish his satisfaction. Instead, I rolled the die and entered the game.

‘Okay, okay now, River Phoenix. Light me up a Red Devon, and maybe prevent your coyote from raping me, and I’ll show you a like courtesy.’

An unsealed deck of cigarettes fell on my chest, followed by a pocket lighter. The Squamish’s head cocked quizzically toward my own, his lofty eyes divined my every moral measure, drinking my frostbitten uneasiness like it constituted the best part of the milkshake. I could almost imagine the appetitive slurps. His hard face slackened. The crow’s feet which had claimed sovereign territory of the topography around his eyelids started to conspire. The Squamish was grinning. ‘Those of the Squamish First Nation who still retain the Salishan dialect call me Blue Bluff Crow,’ the Squamish muttered with a voice that pirouetted between that of a horse-whisperer and that of a wharf-blown fishmonger. He extended me his palm, vice-like and skeletal. I took it, and using the grip like a fulcrum he pulled both himself and me wholly onto our feet. ‘Of course, today a name like that’s been disinvested of both its significance and power. And it’d seem prosaic of me to pretend like I live out here in the pinewoods – perpetuating an existence of diasporic mimesis – pitching fistfuls of flammable, iridescent dirt into the autumn wind like some hokey alchemist or huckster-shaman.’

The Squamish had yet to release my hand. Still, I felt it’d be somewhat insensitive to divorce him of the chance to deliver his reverie, by alerting him to the fact that my wrist had gone numb. I felt pockets of inspiration rise within me like pearls of helium. ‘But I gotta call you something. You understand: the colonial mission’s taxonomising instinct: 1066 and All That. If I’m remiss to classify you now that I’m within a bear’s-hug of you, I won’t ever get my name canonised in The Century’s Great Naturalists, along with those other genius-anthropologists John Ford and Al Jolson. This is my potential for being the Great White Hype we’re talking about. You’re not so savage as to refuse me that?’

I waited, indiscreetly searching the Squamish’s wan, cobalt face for an indication that his penchant for swift-footed banter and my self-deprecatory sarcasm had somehow converged to locate a common ground of expression. His face was inviolable, impassive, weathered with its tattoo-like network of skin depressions, heavy lining and scars by either fatigue or seasonal erosion. Observing the peninsulae of flesh rippling across Blue Bluff Crow’s face was akin to contemplating cloud forms: the longer you stared, the more you’d start to see. Islands warped and waned over his countenance, like the sundering of Pangaea. Fissures bisecting Blue Bluff Crow’s cheeks and mouth adopted weird, distorted shapes, not dissimilar to the effect of pareidolia associated with the knots and callouses of redwood trees. I could see ravens flocking east; a spring ascending the face of a mountain; my daddy whittling wooden birds with a pen-knife whilst standing by the sink and whistling; white perennials strewn by my ma’s burial plaque; my first fist-fight at school; the Toulousain broad who’d fucked me for birthday well-wishes before stealing off to leave me a heartless dandy; the interior of my shop devoid of occupancy, wood skeletons engineered into familiar shapes to afford me some semblance of company.

The Squamish broke out into riotous peals of laughter. ‘You fucking guy,’ he was repeating, his chest beneath its leather jacket shuddering with a private, pious mirth. ‘“The Great White Hype”. Hoo!’ I was on safe soil: the Squamish harboured a bellicose highwayman’s sense of comedy. ‘You want a name? For you, I’ll be Charlie Chinstrap. A colonised man of gentrified heritage such as yourself should feel right at home in saying that.’

‘Right on, Charlie,’ I baulked, retrieving my palm from his. ‘Like the brother I never had and always wanted.’

He hooted like a nocturnal visitor from out of the woodwork, directly beneath an unadulterated Canadian sky. White Wake took up chorus to Charlie’s chuckles, arching his lupine snout back and lowing with wanderlust at the distant image of Powder Mountain. It damn near sent my hackles astir, but I could still catch wind of my daddy’s voice telling me the best jokes are those that, upon hearing, give you the willies, just that itty bit.


I’d long since unfastened the ironwork kerosene-lamp from my pack like a limp and lurid thing, and had begun sculpting a tubular parcel of smoke-dried beef with the sickle of my hunting knife, acquiring a satisfaction and feel for the method. I was fixing to tuck in and palm a hemisphere of the preserved brown meat into my gob’s wet yawn, but White Wake wouldn’t suffer nor tolerate any of it. Fucking canine. His jaw and its legend of serrated teeth were mechanisms of unsurpassable architecture. I dispatched the log of charcoal-salted jerky directly into the coyote’s maw. Fucking asinine.

‘I know a good thing too many about coyote.’ I hazarded a philosophical leer.

Charlie, for whom I’d hastily developed a perplexing fondness for, was occupied in administering dimestore shaving foam in a lather to the crevasses of his cheeks, before sweeping them clean with the whetted filament of a single-edged razor. It reminded me of something; but the shape and veracity of the memory had been eroded and reconfigured by years of forgetting, so I pushed it away, and out it went again, a coracle departing the moor to be reabsorbed by a lingering fog. ‘I’m addressing you, Chuckles.’

‘And I’m maintaining my damndest to ignore your every squeal for favour.’

He was proud of that one: the vertices of his mouth contorted vaguely, a grey man emerging from a snowstorm of experience; an old man reunited with his dignity, remembering how to dress himself. Such were the gravity and relevance of Charlie’s linguistic victories. ‘Ho, now, Chuckles! Reveal your intention to deploy me one of your half-liners next time.’ I hunkered over my snowshoes, fingers steepled in the frost. I began to fastidiously relace my boots. ‘Otherwise you might blindside me. I’m lucky I’m even breathing after that last palaverlanche.’

‘Fuck your mother,’ was Charlie’s response, and I had to admit I was stalemated.

He encapsulated me, attended to me with those deepest, winter-woozy eyes. Charlie’s eroded, spider-vein face was shorn of its final vestiges of decay, irradiating the new moon’s lacklustre reflection. ‘What? No retort?’ He rotated to face me, and I understood, perhaps like I’d never understood before, that sometimes a person knows the exact moment when they’ll meet death, but even an agent of purpose, even a man of elegance and virtue will not betray that same confidence and slink with resignation to their venue of passing. I was staring at a boy, and I was staring at a ghost. Somewhere in the morphology between the two stood before me a regal fucking Charlie Chinstrap, and I held his gaze, because I was going to be privileged with witnessing something I sensed was both glorious and terrifying. I’d never been so scared in my life as in that unnavigable chasm of seconds prior to Charlie speaking his next endorsement. I don’t believe I’ve been ever so scared since. ‘We’re hunting, White Wake and I. If you know something of coyote that might work in my favour to possess, I’d be obliged to you, lumberjack from Whistler.’

‘I’m firstly compelled to clarify my means of employment,’ I croaked, placing a lit cigarette to the cushion of my lips. The longer and more persuasively I stalled, the more time I’d retain in preventing Charlie from whatever exigency or manufacture of death he was willing to surrender himself to. As I was standing right there, whole hours away from the snarl of mountain country I’d embarked four torrid days prior to embrace, I became sure: I would not allow this sad, time-crippled Indian man the leniency of a triumphant, allegorical death. It ain’t life’s duty – nor its responsibility – to convey the morality found in fiction. An honest man has no entitlement to demand a subtext for his plight, a meaning in the way or wend of a river. Boy: You’d be nought but a marvellous fool to hope for some final meaning, and your mother didn’t birth no fool I ever held. My daddy’s words, my saving grace. ‘I’m a carpenter: not a lumberjack. And, Chuckles, I can tell you this much, without a transitory invading doubt. Whatever the fuck you’re out here beneath the echelons of Powder Mountain to hunt, White Wake won’t be capable of taking down.’

Charlie Chinstrap became Blue Bluff Crow in the dance of heartbeats. There was no mirth here.

‘What is it that you think is out there, Babe Rockerfeller? What is it that you believe a senile old Squamish bastard and his slow-starving lap-mutt is committed to fighting? What are you convinced of?’

I extinguished the cigarette into the snow, and breathed deep from the constellation of smoke.

‘I’ve got a reasonable idea,’ I exhaled, sheathing my hunting blade to the kiss of its scabbard.

If this were any sort of mythopoeic quest narrative, I’d have expected nothing less than the following; but I couldn’t consider myself the idle construct of an author-god’s fable, the benefactor of some perverse, arduous fantasy – I stank of sweat too much, and wheezed too much from the altitude of the ascent to disprove the factual currency of my present situation. That’s why, when both Blue Bluff Crow and I heard the unearthly thunder bellow through the steaming bracken, we blanched perceptibly from the causal theatricality of the sound, and exchanged wary silences with our eyes. The noise repeated, this time accompanied by heartbeat echoes of throaty reverberence, and birds evacuated their canopied roosts, wingspans erupting near, far and away. It was the third call which reified my hunch that the entity making it was not of meteorological or geological persuasion. There was no possibility in hell, no way. An animal was advertising a challenge. It was recruiting for a purpose.

‘It wants us to find it,’ I said, withdrawing daddy’s 77 magnum from the holster on my back, and tightening my fingers around the weapon grip. ‘That’s no cautionary threat. It’s inviting us to go find it.’ I lunged around to confront the Squamish. ‘What the fuck lives out here in these blue mountains?’

‘Shepherd’s bane,’ Charlie grinned. ‘That song’s the fighting dirge of Powder Mountain’s very own Black Stag. And hoo-boy, White Wake and I’ve been tracking this thing from the mouth of the Squamish River two weeks tramping south of here.’ The Indian gripped me by the elbows, and breathed something rotten, tropical and sickly sweet onto my neck. His eyes were dancing pugnaciously, and I knew then that this was how he’d prepared to do it: Charlie Chinstrap would claim the hide of this illegitimate beast, or be killed beneath its head and hooves. ‘Don’t you see, lumberjack from Whistler? The Black Stag is the devil’s hand, incarnate. It’s a creature so rare and loathsome that any evidence attesting to its existence has warped into rumour, has faded into folktale. But I’ve seen it once before.’ Charlie’s face shone from within, made epiphanic by some secret and furious inspiration. He looked like a lunatic. I pulled away, but he clutched at my wrists, propelling me forward to hold his gaze. ‘It doesn’t take on the form of your private psychical horror – it manifests a new one. Your own father thought that if he could tame it, he might be able to locate solace in the feral eyes of the Black Stag. If you fish in the abyss for revelation, stare into that lonely chasm for some justification to continue living, the abyss fishes in you for every last hidden minnow of regret.’

‘What are you saying?’ Charlie loosened his vice-like hold. I seized my fists into the folds of his leather jacket, pulling him back, but he was lost to me; he was laughing giddily, giggling even, and I would have slapped him of all daylight with the open splay of my palm, if he didn’t artfully dart through my grasp, and make off in a half-bent run beyond the clearing into the thick of the treeline. ‘How did you know my daddy? What do you know about it?’

I was screaming into vacant space at the centre of a cairn of stone. Screaming with me, the raucous bray of the Black Stag exploded from amongst the conifers. His brazen silver coat flashing past me, White Wake was a fleeting lupine shape whole yards away, already the size of my thumb-nail.


This whole thing teeters on the cusp of cliché. I was breathing hard, my lungs pumping. Some quiet exultation burned in my chest. I blew oxygen into the night. The branches of trees thrashed against my running legs, leaving scars and gashes like a coastline breeze. I couldn’t see Charlie, or White Wake, but ravens were flying overhead, flitting like kites through the greenery, and I knew daddy was directing my vengeful hand. I had the rifle lashed fast to my sternum, and the snow was as soft and forgiving as heather. A full autumn moon hung billowing above me, luminous and melancholy. It cast shadows onto the surface snow. I could feel my feet quicken, swift as a kill. I began talking then, whispering things to myself which I can neither recall nor decipher. I was vaulting through forest vegetation, my ribcage churning, and the Blag Stag’s thunderous voice remained half a yard in front of me; quarter of a yard. I could do this without Charlie, without his coyote. This belonged to me – this was the destiny I’d authored. The Black Stag’s head was mine for possessing. Racing now, I capered through pine needles and tangles of maple, blood bubbling from bitter cuts to my forehead. I broke into an up-slope culvert of mountain-rock, breath smoking like a blade on a forge. Five metres away from my entrance, the Black Stag was champing the wind with its great fleecy head lowered.

An ash-black ewe with the red tufts of a fox’s winter-coat sprouting from its throat, the Black Stag of Powder Mountain snarled, stamping cloven hooves the hue of funeral soil into the plateau. I smiled recklessly, maybe the first time I’d felt closest to daddy since he’d left for that last ore-mine appraisal. I raised the sight of the 77 magnum to my right eye, caught the demon between my crosshairs. Hurriedly, I sought motivation, casting about for a hero’s sentiment. I remembered the words of the Squamish Indian.

‘Fuck your mother,’ I told the Black Stag as it cannonaded into me, squeezing the trigger, razing the mountain with a blast of gunpowder, the recoil and my adversary sending me without purchase wheeling into free air.


I was lying stunned and inert on my back, my head swimmy in a poetic breed of darkness. My blindness was total. I couldn’t discern the fingers of my hand, even when I pressed my palm to the tip of my nose. I had either lost my sense of sight irrevocably, was dead, was writhing in the abdomen of a leviathan, had departed the plane of mortal territory, or had fallen into a crack of torture’s making. My body ached; I felt afire, and my stomach felt like it had suffered the brunt of a prizefighter’s wrath. I pitched forward, throwing up the alkaline contents of my tiny, torn gut all down my shirtfront. A car had hit me. No, a freight train. A jetfighter, right in the eye of my chest. I vomited again, half-gagging when no new pre-digested remnants followed. Rocks of various shapes and classification rustled beneath my back, stabbing into the fleshy contusions between my shoulder-blades. I rolled, groaning, onto my side. There was a stave of light protruding through the implacable black vicissitude presiding above me on this side of my enclosure, and I could half-make out the ambiguous, geometric shapes of abandoned pick-axes and a coiled tether of horsehair rope. ‘A fucking mine-shaft,’ I growled, coughing a pulpy slurry of blood and phlegm into the charcoal beneath my chin.

I hauled myself upright, swearing, onto the balls of my knees, and squinted with bloodshot eyes into the unilluminated confines of this mine-shaft beneath the carbuncles of British Columbia. I knew where I was, though I’d never seen it before. It was like recognising the face of the stranger you instantly wish to wed amidst a thrall of anonymous, comingling people. My deceased daddy’s supply-pack lay crumpled a handspan away from my sluggish grasp. Through the visor of a belligerent headache, I identified it with my eyes without needing to debate the obvious. My hands hunted in it, squeezing the dirt-clothed baggage beneath my nose, wanting to inhale the history of a family legacy now long vanished. I came out with a compass-watch, a cylindrical flask of water, a paperback edition of A Voyage to Pagany, its pages gummed together by dew and fungus. I was breathing so hard. My heart was booming, here, beneath the surface of the snow-dappled universe. I held it. I’d been travelling doggedly, for five days, for five years, for five million tears to feel the shape of this ending, its rectangular form, between the cathedral of my fists. I held it. A reason for my daddy’s desertion. I couldn’t prevent myself from howling. I stared at the object more fragile than an infant love in the clutch of my fingertips.

I rotated the letter in my hands, exhaled, and tore open the envelope. A single page withered in my grasp. I made my way towards the light, scaling the rock, pushing against the underside of the mountain with my snowshoes until I could see that new day sky. It’s not a blue. It’s unclouded and azure.

I read daddy’s words.


Look. The thing a person needs to appreciate is that there forever arise trials to untether a strong, generous being, and sometimes there’s no method of evasion which you might hope to call up to benefit you whilst the world shrinks to hug you in a human-chain of calamity and the basest evil. But stories neither demand nor expect a hero of an immaculate cloth. That’s not what’s expected: what makes a man into a beautiful victor, what marks a man as an agent for certain justice all depends upon the pact he’s forged with the very guts which any reputable diviner will confirm contains the most forsaken future hidden to him. You can always tell a good one from the way he holds himself! Dignity resides not at the surface of tissue, muscle, or even bone. Goodness – that rarest and most cultivated fungus – a true man’s goodness proliferates like a cluster-fuck in the blood, in the marrow, and nowhere else. Like mushrooms chairing a committee in the dark. You can’t cast disputations. You can’t disregard the mane of a champion, no matter how gorgeous or mutt-ugly it veils his hard, blue eyes. You can’t blow smoke-rings around his visage. You can’t hope to thwart him, not by binding yourself to his fucking ankle. You mustn’t obstruct his passage. A hero is a thing of the greatest, divine and most violent of creative acts. It is a thing that casts constellations to the winds. He is a wonder. He is marvellous and ungovernable. Do not reckon with a hero. You will only weep later, when you recall the way in which you retreated to kiss his feet.

I cannot stress the importance of this thing I am about to tell you, son: When your mother died, I understood how desolate and tiny a man I was. For the first time, son. It was like squinting through the other end of a telescope to look at myself from a distance of kilometres, and I could only suffer the amazement of how so much love can diminish to something so broken and gambled and unshared. I walked down that hospital corridor. The tears were flooding my face. I fell to my knees. The wardens swarmed upon me, and my fingers hooked into the indistinguishable grooves of white adobe tiles. I probably called out names of people I hadn’t seen in decades. I know I cowered somewhere amongst a collusion of rubber-soled sneakers, spitting when I couldn’t cry and crying when I couldn’t utter the word “No” anymore. Losing your sweetheart is a wicked wound, boy. And fingers whispered over my body, kneading me into boozy reaction, but I can only accurately quantify the ache by establishing the following context: in fifty-eight scrofulous years, I’d never before been exhausted of light leaving me, like that, not ever.

They say – those bad, forlorn souls with foul hearts and corrupt hungers – that when you break a man, there’s one moment before his heart cavorts spastically into its awful descent. And it ain’t anything as graceful as a flock of swans bearing the newborn babes of God Himself falling without music or glory into the black watches of some silent wood. It’s the death-blow that misery anticipates. It’s the bullet to an innocent dream formed of colour and revelation.

I don’t think I ever explained, not to you or your tiny sister, what your mother meant to me.

A man is an animal, and he must exist in solitude, and it’s an artefact of his honour to keep that moment which broke him like a whip to himself. What I’m saying is that I ran underground. I’m a coward, boy. I sought escape in my Canadian mine-shafts; some place I could sculpt a foundation and prize jewels from the bedrock of disorder; torchlight so bright I would hope to go blind and forget the joy of your mother’s face. I’m a fool, understand? I might hope to succumb to the bloom of cataracts, but what I was rejecting was the fact that I had a happy ending. It was staring at me. Like two awesome trophies waiting to be remembered with faultless patience. You’re my hero, Babe Rockerfeller. Your sister is my hero. The trick of a hero is to exchange every endless kindness until an old, sad fucking fart fails to discriminate the meaning behind that sacrifice of self. You and your sister shouldn’t have had to suffer the collapse of someone you admired, whilst life had already robbed you of someone you loved.

I made a second marriage of my work. And that was wrong. I never told you that. So I’m sorry.

The moment I knew the break in my gut wasn’t irreparable wasn’t a momentous realisation.

Not even an event lambent with fortune, promise or resolution.

The hospital orderlies pushed me through the door, and there you and your sister were. Standing there. Your faces were already shining from the tears. But it was your hands, boy. Your hands were there to lift me up, right beneath the arms, and I’ve never known a hero who had such a hidden wealth of fortitude. You’re more than a man, Babe Rockerfeller. You’re a son. And I’m a father who forgot it. Maybe for a minute. Before you buried my face into your shirt.

What can I now say? I’m sorry I had to do this. I couldn’t wait any longer. Not for her. I will miss you.

But you know that. You were always smarter than your old man.

Locke Rockerfeller.


When I think back on my time searching desperately for a direction or directive at the foot of Powder Mountain, all those years and seasons ago, the memory that comes most readily to mind is standing over the cascade of Brandywine Falls after the rifle floated away from me, tumbling and pitching with the white-water swell. A rogue elk meandered up to the river on the far bank. Its kingly crown of antlers was host to hundreds of perched and staring ravens.

I cocked my head, with measured reverence, to the image of my daddy’s legacy, and turned my back on Powder Mountain, even though its peak vibrated with splendour and sunshine. I shook my daddy’s compass, turned south, and began the short, sublime march.

Somewhere not quite near, a coyote lowed at the starless morning sky. I wiped my palms onto the frost, and walked into the winter of Whistler, calling out the names of the trees as I passed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Brintz” by Jeff T. Kane

The mean sadness came strong for Gretsch today.

It hoped Father Cummer would come, and press play for the music.

The CIA found Gretsch in a small glass tube.

Some people called it Venus juice.

Gretsch didn't know.

Father Cummer said sodium pentathol.

Sodium pentathol is something called truth serum.

Father Cummer said this got mixed with black mold and Gretsch came alive.

Gretsch watched everyone else through the little holes in the blinds that the strings ran through.

It didn't like to move the shades.

Gretsch didn't like to scare people.

Father Cummer told it its name was Gretsch.

Gretsch is the only sound it makes.

Father Cummer told Gretsch when it was a baby it burned some people's fingers like acid.

Then Gretsch got bigger, and when bugs crawled and melted on to Gretsch, it got more bigger.

Father Cummer came a lot to Gretsch's shack.

Its shack was stuck on the side of a house that nobody lived in anymore.

That was Gretsch's fault.

It missed the people and the sounds they made.

Father Cummer was now the only person who wasn't scared of Gretsch.

The police weren't scared of it, but not because they didn't think Gretsch was bad. They knew how to kill it. They had what Father Cummer said was an electric water gun with the only thing that hurt it, the strong burning water called rubbing alcohol.

Ever since Gretsch did the accident that made the people next door go away, it was on something called house arrest.

Before house arrest, Gretsch couldn't go outside without Father Cummer but now it could never go outside at all, and if it did, the police would come and spray it.

Alcohol made Gretsch's slime melt. They sprayed Gretsch after he made the accident. The accident that made people call Gretsch evil. Made people want Gretsch to go away.

Father Cummer asked the cops, he asked them a lot to let Gretsch live, and they told Father Cummer, "Okay because of the science in it," they said about it, "But it can never leave."

Father Cummer was the only way Gretsch understood things. He was what people called priests and he knew about the thing that made everything, all the people and Gretsch. The thing called God.

Father Cummer said to Gretsch once, "God doesn't tell you what you can or can't do. Nobody's made good or evil. People are made to be free and do whatever they want and anything that tells you otherwise is not God."

Father Cummer always said things that made Gretsch feel good and it could never say them back besides, "gretsch..."

Father Cummer taught it some words it could make with what people called pencils. Gretsch knew some words and how to make the lines for them but since it couldn't hold pencils Gretsch made drops of it sizzle on the wood floor.

Enough drops made words.

It made CAT, DOG, CART, first and those were the hardest, now when Gretsch had time it could make any words. Sometimes it didn't mix the letters together right but Father Cummer wouldn't be mad and he understood it and told Gretsch to mind its spelling.

Any part of Gretsch could slime through the holes in the blinds and it could see out the window. It could see out all three windows if it wanted.

But it wasn't fair because it could only see what the three windows saw.

From two windows next to each other it saw across the street to a big house with funny, angry looking girls with shaved-off heads that Father Cummer called lesbos and from the side window Gretsch could see the house across the driveway.

A place where a family of quiet people with black hair and funny eyes lived and many other funny eyed, black haired people came by and left their kids there in the day. Father Cummer said the people were called Asians and he said their eyes were funny.

Gretsch didn't understand, because all those balls called eyes were funny.

Father Cummer told it that these Asian's job was something called daycare where people left their kids when they had to work. The daycare makes your kids safe.

Safe from bad accidents.

From monsters.

Gretsch wished Father Cummer were here so bad because its mind was in every part.

When Gretsch sat alone too long it saw mean pictures in its mind.

Gretsch looked out the side window to make the pictures leave.

It saw the one called cat.

The one that was covered in gray, fuzzy parts called fur.

Cat didn't talk like other people but instead made words that sounded like, "Meow meow rearr rearr."

Father Cummer said this was called cat, but Gretsch knew it was really called Brintz.

Brintz was the first thing Gretsch ever learned alone.

Sometimes Gretsch liked to watch Brintz as he made sleep on the windowsill and listened as Brintz made his special music at night.

Gretsch liked to look at Brintz because, on the hand he had with the curved nails in it, there was a shiny thing.

Something Gretsch saw before in a book of pictures called Vibe. On the hands of brown people.

Father Cummer told him this was called a "five-finger ring"

Brintz's five-finger ring had the word BRINTZ made on it with shiny glass rocks.

Gretsch knew the kids who the daycare protected stayed in the back room but they were too short for it to see. Gretsch always saw the grownups though because they stood over the windowsill and it knew since it didn't see them all the time that Brintz was alone with the kids sometimes.

Brintz protected them for the grownups when they weren't around even though he was small.

Cats were good.

Father Cummer said that when you rubbed on their bodies, and they loved you, their fur vibrated.

Father Cummer said it was a nice soft feeling. Gretsch wished he could touch Brintz and feel that. It hadn't felt nice or soft in so long.

Gretsch saw that Brintz was licking himself and his ring and it wondered what the ring felt like.

Brintz straightened up on his furry arms and legs and stretched out. He couldn't stretch out the way Gretsch could because people and cats had bones in their bodies, bones were what made it so they weren't blobbed out all over the place like Gretsch.

Brintz jumped off the windowsill and inside the room.

Gretsch wondered what the kids did with Brintz.

It slimed all the way up to the top of the blinds. Nobody was outside now to get scared if they saw Gretsch's purple body oozing around the edges of the window, and it missed kids.

The accident was the last time Gretsch was near one.

Gretsch pushed through the top hole and could see over the windowsill.

The daycare had pictures on the walls of things called horses, lollipops, and dragons.

Gretsch saw three Asian kids.

It saw Brintz on the floor with a boy that had glass over his eyes like the kind Father Cummer wore.

The boy looked sad.

Gretsch wished more than ever that Father Cummer were here because the way Brintz rubbed the boy with his paw and made white slime come out was bad.

It was the baddest thing Gretsch had seen.


Gretsch worked on the wood, letting each drop splash the board and sizzle away leaving a small, mushy, gray mark. It took so long it got dark outside and so much longer that the sun came.

When Father Cummer came, he would see it on the floor: Brintz Touch Kids.

Gretsch had watched Brintz take his furry paw, hold the boy down after making the white slime come out, and rub his swooshy tail back and forth across the thing in between the boy's legs that Father Cummer never told Gretsch about.

Gretsch knew that touching wasn't bad with other animals like it was with Gretsch. Other thing's touching didn't burn. But the way Brintz touched the boy and the way the boy's face was so sad, made Gretsch wonder if Brintz was doing a touching that was worse than burning.

It felt the floor vibrating under it and heard loud banging on the wooden steps outside.

There was knocking on the door and the goofy voice of Father Cummer, "Gretsch you in there?"


Father Cummer was silly because he knew Gretsch couldn't be anywhere else so why ask except to be funny?

"Can I come in?"

Gretsch heard many clicks to unstick the door and then Father Cummer came through with all this light from outside.

Father Cummer made the door close and stuck it.

The light went away.

The door wasn't stuck to trap Gretsch. Nothing could contain it. Gretsch could slip out through the cracks. The door was stuck to keep vigilantes away.

Vigilantes were what it heard from a radio once about the people who tried to burn Gretsch's shack one time and throw alcohol on it through the windows but they were stupid because the alcohol they threw wasn't rubbing, it was this stupid kind called beer.

Father Cummer said those people were mean. He said when he used to go to a place called Belgium in the summer that the beer was a lot stronger than here, that it probably would have killed Gretsch.

Gretsch hoped Father Cummer wasn't sad that he couldn't go to Belgium anymore because he had to watch Gretsch.

After the mean talking made him too sad, Gretsch wrote No Radio and Father Cummer took it away. He brought back only a CD player with a CD of songs he remembered Gretsch liked, except this time the songs didn't get broken up by the mean stuff that made Gretsch sad.

They said Gretsch was a baby killer.

"It's a long weekend," Father Cummer opened his mouth big and made a sound of blowing air as he stretched out his long giant body in the flowery chair.

Father Cummer told Gretsch he was so big because he played this game called football when he was smaller.

He wore these brown colored sheets of cloth and his hair was yellow and looked like the fur from birds and the hair floated around easily.

"No class till Tuesday."

Father Cummer made this class called Philosophy of God at a place called University. Many people called students sat around and listened to him say the same things he said to Gretsch and they made letters of everything he said.

Gretsch wrapped a circle of itself around the piece of floor marked with new words.

"Who's Brintz?" Father Cummer stood up to look closer at the spots, "you messing with me?"

He took the glass off his face and looked at it without them.

"You've made your first joke," Father Cummer made a big laugh and almost touched Gretsch with his flat hand and Gretsch tried to make itself smaller so his hand wouldn't touch but Father Cummer pulled it back.

Gretsch was stupid. It made mistake. How could it forget that Father Cummer didn't know that cat was called Brintz. It should have made the letters Cat Touch Kids. It would take so long now but it would have to make new letters for Father Cummer to see the next time.

Father Cummer sat down and put the glass on his eyes.

"Gretsch I have plans tonight," he said, "let's cut this visit short."


"Us fathers are going to the Quarter for Southern Decadence."

Gretsch didn't know what Southern Decadence was but it remembered the Quarter was the place that Father Cummer always came back from giggling.

"I have to get some papers graded."


"Remember I was telling you about penance? Like how some people have fake guilt, and they pray, and some people have real guilt and they hurt themselves."

Gretsch remembered the penance Father Cummer talked about but he always put so much in his speeches Gretsch couldn't let it all dissolve into itself.

"Father McCord was telling me about this longshoreman named Kit Latura. You don't need to know what that is," he said, "all that matters is that he was cheating on his wife."

Father Cummer shook his head at the floor.


"You would not believe how guilty Kit felt," he said, "according to Father McCord, Kit paid a doctor to take a loose piece of flesh hanging off his ass and make it into a butt pocket. You know what Kit did with that pocket?"


"He cut his dick off and stuck it in there."

Gretsch did not understand why this was so special a penance? It could make parts of itself come off all the time even bubble off in the heat.

Father Cummer sat and looked at Gretsch.

He stood up and walked to the CD player.

"Should I press play?"


It wanted music so bad.

Father Cummer pressed play.

Gretsch heard the scraping the CD makes and then the music.

Father Cummer waved to Gretsch and unstuck the door.

When the light from outside was gone, Gretsch made it so it only thought of music.

It was not sad that Father Cummer left.

Gretsch felt bad in a different way.

It didn't make Father Cummer know about the kids.

It didn't make Father Cummer stop Brintz.

Gretsch hurt on purpose by letting the pictures in its mind come out.

The music made it worse.

Songs make meaner pictures than anything else and the words inside this song were the meanest.

They talked about Gretsch's accident.


I was standing.

You were there.

Two worlds colliding.

They could never tear us apart...


Gretsch was outside with Father Cummer, sitting on this thing called grass.

Father Cummer said grass was nice.

Gretsch wished he could feel it but when he went on the grass it all melted.

Bunnings was outside too.

He was small like a cat.

He went around on his hands and legs.

He made his hands bang together and made laughs at everything.

His eyes were this color called brown that was so nice and soft.

Gretsch didn't understand why if everyone else was scared of it why this one called Bunnings wasn't.

Father Cummer carried Bunnings around and talked to him funny. The big people called his parents were scared of Gretsch but Father Cummer said Bunnings was safe with him while they went to a place called Wynn Dixie.

Gretsch watched Bunnings and bubbled up inside because it felt so good. It felt together with Father Cummer and Bunnings. It thought that being this thing called a monster wasn't always bad. When two people thought you were good, nobody else's thoughts mattered.

Father Cummer made Bunnings fly through the air, Bunnings made laughs, and smiles that were so much like the thing called sun.

Father Cummer put Bunnings on the grass.

Bunnings made his hands go in it, pulled up the green broken pieces, and smacked his hands together.

Gretsch oozed away.

Bunnings made his funny walk like a cat, went closer to Gretsch, and made a big smile.


Gretsch wished Father Cummer would take Bunnings away.

Father Cummer didn't look.

He poured into his mouth from a metal box. There was rum alcohol in it.

It made Father Cummer act happy.

But he needed to look at Gretsch.

Bunnings made his hand go out.

Smaller, Gretsch made himself smaller.

Bunnings was so close.

"gretsch gretsch gretsch..."

Bunnings made a bad sound then Father Cummer looked.

Gretsch couldn't help it; it rushed over Bunnings's body in waves. There was burning and steaming and Bunnings's mouth filled with Gretsch and he made no sounds and the soft parts of his face were all gone and the white hard part called skull dissolved.

Gretsch made the eating go faster, it made Bunnings melt so he wouldn't feel it.

Father Cummer pulled on the parts of Bunnings called feet.

They came away alone with red.

Father Cummer made the worst sounds.


Gretsch made new words, the most complicated and favorite mix of words he ever made. Gretsch knew they were words that would make Father Cummer understand.

miss boy
sad hurts
want pennens

Gretsch slimed over the blinds covering the front two windows.

It saw lesbos outside sucking on white sticks with smoke coming out of their mouths. Their mouths moved.

One of them had a thing stuck on their ear called a phone.

Gretsch thought, shut up Gretsch doesn't care what you say, that is what Father Cummer said when they made mean words at him.

Father Cummer said lesbos always made mean words at priests.

It left the front windows, letting the shades stay messed.

It wanted all the light in.

It didn't care if people were scared. They were always scared of Gretsch.

Gretsch was too scared to watch Brintz since it saw the bad thing but Gretsch knew that not looking didn't make bad things go away.

Gretsch slimed the side window and went to look in the room.

Brintz did bad things.

He made this thing called a dance.

The boy with the glass on his face sat on the floor with all his clothes off.

Brintz took the glass off the boy's face, put it on his own, and made more of his dance.

Gretsch could see the boy had red all between his legs and he had water on his eyes.

The other kids, called girls, looked sad with water in their eyes.

Gretsch wondered if Brintz touched all kids or just this boy.

Brintz took in his paw a bended piece of metal that opened and closed like a mouth and bitted it on to the boy's part between his legs.

The boy made high sounds and crumpled up.

Brintz made laughing sounds and made his paw twist back and forth. The light bounced off the glass rocks on the five-finger ring and onto the girls' eyes. They made their eyes close up and Brintz made more laughing sounds.

Gretsch was scared when Brintz took a thin purple stick and made the boy take his part out again.

Brintz took the metal mouth off the part and slid the purple stick inside the part's mouth. When the stick was half gone, Brintz took a blue box out and made fire in it. He stuck the box of fire against the tip of the purple stick and many sparks came out of it in a big ball.

Gretsch made the blinds shake so much and the boy made sounds louder and louder.

Gretsch made the blinds shake too loud.

Brintz puffed out his mouth and emptied it to make the sparks go away.

Then Brintz looked at the window.

He looked right at Gretsch and closed his eye into this thing called a wink and opened it again. Then he made his paw go up, stuck it in the air, and did what Father Cummer called pointing.

Brintz was stupid.

He thought it was okay to point at Gretsch.

Gretsch bubbled and felt a bad feeling that was meaner than sadness.

Something Father Cummer never told it about.


The lesbos made loud sounds as the first part of it slipped into the outside light.

Gretsch made itself flat because the space below the door was tiny.

It went slow.

Over each step, splatters of Gretsch burned steamy holes into the wood.

The lesbos voices were loud.

Gretsch saw one talking to her phone.

"That thing..." she said.

The person on the phone would only need to know that. Gretsch knew if she called the cops it would be good. It would be good for them to bring the alcohol.

It slipped off the steps and the grass sizzled under it.

Gretsch oozed over the grass and left a wide trail behind it.

The police came so fast when people screamed about Gretsch.

It finished the grass, touched the gravel, and heard a hiss sound come from the windowsill.

Brintz made his curved nails sticks out far from his paw and the fur on him moved far away from his body.

Brintz's eyes were mean.

Brintz made cat sounds.

Gretsch heard the screaming that the police cars made.

Gretsch slimed up the side of the house to Brintz but he was so high.

There was lots of banging and Gretsch looked away from Brintz.

Two cops in their blue shirts ran.

They held the red water gun that looked made from bubbles.

It said the word NOPD on it.

They came close to Gretsch.

"Get away from that cat!"

They didn't know how easy it was for Gretsch to eat them.

The alcohol wouldn't be fast enough to stop that.

They made it spray on Gretsch.

It burned.

It stretched as much as it could before the alcohol made Gretsch like thin water.

Brintz stuck his paw at Gretsch and yelled in his cat words but Gretsch couldn't reach.

The police kept yelling and more alcohol came.

Gretsch was so small now.

Gretsch made a part shoot out like a rope and it only splashed some burning drops on Brintz.

It couldn't get Brintz.

Brintz scratched at Gretsch's rope.

He made screeches.

His fur turned purple, wet, and steaming.

It was easy for Gretsch to dissolve the paw and spread over the rest of the fur.

Brintz made all his cat talk and singing, louder than Gretsch ever heard.

The cops sprayed and sprayed until it was a puddle.

Gretsch was going away and it wasn't sad.

It had Brintz together with itself.

They could never tear it apart.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“The Box” by Susan Scutti

After years in a static job, a viewless Queen’s studio, and a six-year love affair with an inert boyfriend who refused to commit (then married the first girl he dated after the break-up) — having battled economics, the city itself and romantic frustration — Pandora finally found a husband. Not a boyfriend, not a partner, but a husband. James was a decent man with a good job and in most ways —movies, food, news anchors— she agreed with him and liked spending time with him only one jot less than her best girlfriend. More importantly, he seemed destined to be a good provider.

Her own parents had never sailed easily along the cash flow. Sure, they’d begun their union snugly pegged within the upper middle-class of a quiet New England town, but when Pandora was still young her father had become incapacitated from a stroke. After that, he collected disability checks while her mother found employment as a secretary for a small company close to home. At fourteen, Pandora worked her first job at an ice cream store in the mall and after graduating high school, she went to college in the contemporary spirit of a woman who could and would eventually earn her own living. Talking late into the night at the house of a high school friend, she dreamed aloud her own future life. “… traveling and a husband and two kids and a life different from my mother’s.”

“Oh, yeah, different. Wouldn’t that be great?” Her friend’s voice rose to a note of near hysteria. She herself later married the dentist’s son, remaining in their hometown, and became PTA Chairperson as well as mother of a large, primarily athletic brood.

Despite her dreams and abilities, Pandora somehow could not succeed in rising above a subsistence-level lifestyle and chronic disappointment to attain her vague yet modest ambition of doing better than her mother. Her very self-confidence got in the way. She’d graduated college with a pragmatic double major (Accounting to balance out all the Art History classes), but once she began job hunting, she decided that earning money didn’t need to be her central aim. So instead of the lucrative corporate careers her accountant friends sought, she chose to move to New York City and work at a not-for-profit agency that funded arts programs. A fair exchange: less money, more satisfaction.

What she hadn't counted on was the fact that a “ladder” existed even in the not-for-profit world. Worse, no part of her wanted to climb. Years slipped by where she passively watched as others who possessed either a truly arty style or a more cutthroat sensibility traveled into the spheres of power above her. No matter how often she told herself that it didn’t matter, there were other things in life and she shouldn’t focus on money and power, money and power had become the qualities she thought about most.

In those medicated nighttime hours of her lonely thirties— in the long, narrow, deserted alley beginning once the six-year love affair ended and lasting until she met her future husband— Pandora decided that she had failed at her career in pretty much the same way she had failed at love. She had given, but clearly she hadn't given what counted most.

What she automatically offered (loyalty, competence, practicality) weren't the qualities that prompted employers to take note of her — or inspired men to marry her. Someone else, someone more competitive was always offering something more. And so she never became a boss or a bride. Pandora lived those final months before meeting her husband in a kind of humiliation. She sleepwalked through her weeks. Returning home by subway each evening, she microwaved a frozen dinner then watched TV, maybe talked on the phone with one or another girlfriend. At night she swallowed anti-depressants and by day she witnessed everyone around her enjoying a life that seemed to place love and pleasure at bull's eye. On weekends, she traveled backwards into her past, taking the bus to visit her parents and her high school friend; she returned to New York on Sunday evenings with time enough to prepare for the coming week. Often she wondered: Is this hollow life a kind of punishment for daring to want more than my mother? She simply couldn’t imagine how she had reached such a late age without finding a lasting relationship unless, of course, there was something drastically wrong with her. Staring at the shape of her once bold and now somewhat fearful-looking yellow-brown eyes reflected in the darkened window of the bus, Pandora wondered what she’d done wrong in her life, what exactly had she done to render herself loveless.

After both encouragement and steady badgering from her friend Megan, and hours replying to an on-line dating questionnaire, Pandora and three single women and four single men met for dinner at a B-list restaurant in Brooklyn. James arrived late and claimed the remaining seat on her left. He looked to be about five years older than Pandora, slightly taller, too, he had a wiry build and a gentle manner. Within fifteen minutes Pandora had disqualified him; she disliked his hands, his smile showed too many teeth, and nervousness caused him to knock a fork to the floor when he handed his menu to the waiter. Once dinner got underway, she nodded without looking at him whenever he inserted a remark. Her own early attempts at humor misfired badly that night so Pandora spent the remainder of the meal concentrating on the focal conversation. The chicly under-dressed attorney across from her and the editor with long sideburns and sophisticated convictions on her right shadowed the other six dinner guests. Pandora felt the way she always felt: she wished she were one of them, the gleaming half of a perfect couple instead of another aging single woman sitting dully alone beside James.

After coffee cups were drained and the bill neatly divided into eight, the diners exchanged digits, email addresses and cards. Only James asked for Pandora’s information. With a wavering smile, she provided it. One week later she did not refuse when he called to ask her out. After that uninspiring evening, she even agreed to a second date. Although she doubted they’d ever have chemistry, the one thing Pandora did know was that she was lonely and tired of the revolving door of first dates. Maybe James did not inspire love-at-first-sight (or even second sight). Maybe she would have to try really hard with him. But maybe perseverance could awaken … something?

The afternoon before their fifth date, a man flirted with her in the grocery story and Pandora had decided anyway that she absolutely had to stop seeing James, there just wasn’t anything there. That night he arrived later than usual, saying a friend had called just as he was leaving his office. Glancing up at him as she led the way out of her apartment, she saw the signs of exhaustion in his face and felt a pang of compassion. Later, after a movie neither enjoyed, they finally had the conversation she’d been waiting for, the inevitable, Why are you still single discussion. After telling her own story, she ordered another glass of wine then sat back and heard what at first sounded unbelievable to her ears; his story was nearly identical to her own.

He, too, had been involved, engaged actually for years to a woman who in the end didn’t want to marry him. Following that were many months of patient waiting during which he went about his life assuming he’d just meet someone naturally. Being an only child, he explained, he very much wanted to have a family of his own, a family to make his parents proud. (Pandora leaned imperceptibly toward him, a rapt expression on her face.)

“Unfortunately, you can’t do that alone,” he said, his wet eyes glittering somewhat oddly.

Meanwhile, he was trying to establish a practice, which required long hours at work, leaving him little time to date. Having created enough security in his work life, he began to get out there again and meet people but he’d found no one who even remotely seemed right.

“No one.” James repeated. “Until you.”

Just then, a waitress passed their table, her honeysuckle perfume wafting through the air.
Sniffing the familiar Vermont scent, Pandora smiled unconsciously and seeing her face, James reached forward and for the first time grasped her smaller hand in his own.

Within six months he had bent his knee and proposed. Although she felt embarrassed by his gesture—years later the only thing she would clearly remember about it would be the crumbs on her carpet beside his knee—she could not fail to understand how providential the whole thing was. After all, James was more than a decent guy. Her friends downright envied her.

He appeared to be the traditional package in terms of his demeanor, politics and conversational style — he wore his straight brown hair trimmed short, voted for conservative Democrats, and rarely discussed the less savory aspects of the medicine he practiced in his mid-town dermatology office. He loved to show Pandora small signs of appreciation: flowers from the deli on Fridays and a chocolate bar... whenever. On the home front, James told her that, once they married, of course, Pandora would someday care for the children but it didn’t matter to him whether she worked or not in the meantime… just so long as she entertained his parents during their brief unannounced visits. On top of this generosity, he promised to set up a joint account and replenish it with a limited but steady allowance.

Needle in a haystack? Pandora had found the one man willing to give her what, over time, she had learned to value most — a life similar to her mother’s. And so, on that May day when Pandora stood beside her black-suited husband on an altar redolent with the scent of lilac and honeysuckle, wild tears coursed down her unveiled face.


Before applying a second coat of nail polish, Pandora’s mind wanders from memories of her wedding day to the endless discussion she plays out whenever she’s not sufficiently occupied: What, exactly, is wrong? Absent-mindedly she waves her hand through the still air as she desperately attempts to select the word for the trait her marriage lacks. She shakes her head. Her cheeks briefly puff as she blows on her wet nails. I know this much: I don’t love James as much as I should. Does she love him as much as the boyfriend she dated for six years? She shudders slightly, unknowing yet still somehow aware that horrors will fly out if she dares open that particular box. She sighs, stands, paces the living room of the home she shares with James. The toxic scent of her polish remains in the air as she waves her fingernails dry. Eventually, her vacant stare settles on the highest shelf of the bookcase as if there is the spot she might hide her heavy emotional box. Up, up, way beyond reach.

Having journeyed through courtship and arrived at marriage, having been married now for close to a year, Pandora more thoroughly understands the complexity of a union between a man and a woman than she ever had during her single years. So her mind naturally turns to an examination of her relationship with James as well as the relationship she once shared with her former boyfriend. I will never love James as fiercely as I loved…. Abruptly, she sits, sighs audibly. Making a noise not unlike the rattling of a cage, Pandora shakes the bottle of nail polish, then twists it open, unleashing another invisible cloud of foul scent into the air.

Objectively, James is not less appealing than her former boyfriend. But she always notices ridiculous details like the hair on his fingers or the way he purses his lips like a woman as he forms an argument before speaking. Once again, she begins the small fine strokes along the nails of her left hand. More than that, she never feels the masculine gravity of him. She never hears the sound of his call, feels the need for response.

Pandora shifts the nail polish bottle between hands, while her mind insistently arranges the facts for an opposing argument in the same manner she positions her various knives in the kitchen drawer. I am exhausted and getting old and I’ve wanted a child for so long! (What about that? some inner voice cries.) James is a good provider and always decent to her and… and he married her! He’ll be there for her if she gets pregnant and has a baby. End of story! Oh, to be a mother to a child, a beautiful child. She’ll be able to fulfill that dream with James, won’t she? A dark fog passes through her mind, icy fingers touch her heart; she’s left feeling weighted, swimming under murky water with no knowledge of the sky. Stealthily, Pandora clamps the big box shut, sits on it and opens instead a less significant emotional compartment.

With her former boyfriend, hadn’t she come to resent his way with her? Oh, she had loved him, admired him when she met him. That first night he’d held her hand as he told her his dreams of rising to the rank of executive management at the software company where he worked. His hazel eyes shone warm and bright, and glancing around the nearly empty nighttime park where they sat touching on a bench, she suddenly felt as if she were home in Vermont. He had a different style of intelligence than her own; his mind was penetrating and overwhelmingly painstaking. Not that she herself didn’t have a small genius for details, it was just that his thorough-goingness was far beyond that of her own or anyone she’d ever met. More than his mind, she admired his maturity in matters of career. After her few experiences with college boys, she understood him to be a real man.

Except in the way he approached her sexually. First he’d been somewhat quick with her, which she chose to interpret (also somewhat quickly) as love. Poor boy needs me, she would croon silently in her mind as each night, after exhausting himself, he’d lay with his head between her breasts. And although she remained unsatisfied, although she wanted him to take care her own more complicated, more uncertain needs, she felt her heart go out to him as if he were a small boy. “Rub my neck,” he’d say lifting his face to hers like a boy. So she’d rub his neck, forget herself. Afterwards, while he slept, she would roll him onto his back and soundlessly satisfy herself, wondering why she never dared share this with him?

Years later, her husband James promptly proved himself to be a completely different story. Although they only rarely had sex before marriage, he made an effort to please her. Eyes steadfastly closed, he worked till she felt the small thrill of pleasure. Grateful that first time, she gushed her thanks but he quickly shushed her.

Eventually, she felt less effusive and gradually felt a little taken aback by his ways —there was something strangely cold about his silence and firm, almost rough, touch. She couldn’t deny the great relief of being pleased but it didn’t feel like intimacy. It didn’t feel like love. During the first month of marriage, things changed; he began to favor a different position. Even more, he began to place her hands so that she could help herself whenever they made love. Embarrassed the first time, he placed his fingers against her mouth when she began to speak. Soon she learned how to expertly satisfy his desire as well as her own while her eyes, mimicking his, remained closed.

More or less. Usually, Pandora ever-so-cleverly glances back at his face through half-closed eyes. She has learned that a spasm in her husband's upper lip reveals his nearness to satisfaction. She's come to rely on it, and to watch as it shifts into a pucker. At this sign, she herself becomes mildly excited (or at least relieved) knowing that he will soon be finished with her. And whenever she drifts back into the world by herself, when she goes shopping, say, or to the cleaners, she finds herself noticing the upper lips of unknown men, wondering if their faces resolve into a similar expression when completing the act.

“That's your fetish?” Her therapist’s downward-turned mouth suddenly lifts.

Pandora’s eyebrows rise. “Fetish? I wouldn't say fetish...”

“If that's what gets you thinking about sex, it's a fetish. Think of the word as a technical term.”

“A technical term?” Pandora says, laughing.

The therapist resists rolling her eyes and looks down at the pad on which she's written three possible names for the baby she is carrying. “There’s nothing wrong with liking sex,” she says in the voice Pandora hates most.

“I don't exactly see myself that way. As a woman who likes sex,” Pandora states uncertainly, tasting the truth of each word.

“Maybe you should start seeing yourself that way.” Now the therapist's voice sounds both authoritarian and pleading. Pandora nods vaguely and looks away from the other woman's eyes. What does she know? Pandora’s gaze wanders towards the clock on the end table as she politely changes the subject. Her well-paid therapist doesn’t challenge her.

Driving home, Pandora decides that if she is not a great wife on the sexual level, at least she is good enough. At a stop sign, her eyes rest for a moment on the potted geraniums decorating a front porch. Her husband is not what she would describe as demanding. He leaves her be, for the most part, he usually attends a full schedule of ADA events and meetings and protests overwork most weeknights. Generally he approaches her on Saturday nights only — and this is after they'd enjoyed a relaxing dinner with the usual glass of wine, followed by an extra glass of bourbon just for him. In this non-demanding milieu she has learned sexual satisfaction even if the overall style of what happens leaves her feeling a little put off, a little isolated. Still, maybe her therapist has a point; maybe this is Pandora’s own way of “liking sex.”

Do her feelings of distaste really matter?

Pressing the gas, she considers the fact that she has risen above what she once saw as her fate. Renewed, Pandora refashions her mental self-portrait with the colors of choice… and price. Only a weak woman— the emotional type, like her friend Megan— would be unable to endure the small penance of an imperfect marriage in order to gain a better life for herself and her future children. “Why don’t more women bargain for security first when marrying?” she says aloud as she pulls into James’ (her?) driveway.

Pandora swiftly emerges from her car, locks the door behind her, and leisurely walks into her solid house which straddles the border between Queens and Long Island. The largest trees are beginning to show buds. Not even a year has passed since her wedding. The March days were unusually mild and so the shift to April's sunny spring passes imperceptibly. Yet this lack of seasonal temper disturbs Pandora’s psyche. Something inside that has been taut for too long suddenly loosens. Although she continues to maintain the high gloss of her appearance, one can detect something weakening within Pandora’s core; she's begun to take long naps each afternoon simply because she can’t think of anything else to do. This unfamiliar languor shows in her face the same way a taste for fried foods, say, or an unusual sexual indulgence might show on someone else's. Her eyes no longer gleam as brightly as in the days before her marriage; and the skin around them swells just enough to make her once poignant eyes look small.


On a damp evening just before her husband arrives home from work, Pandora brushes her fair hair. She watches herself in a mirror, notices the way her pretty pink and white face rises like a bouquet of pansies from the collar of her lawn green blouse. She went to the gym that afternoon and feels strong, stronger than she has for some time. Last night after supper they talked (just talked) about the fact that she was still not pregnant. As she dabs cologne behind each ear, she looks into her momentarily unsteady eyes. We will simply have to try harder.

It is no coincidence that on Sundays—the day following her usual night of sex—Pandora makes a point of calling Megan, one of her remaining single friends in the city. Usually, as Pandora silently sweeps lingering nighttime memories from her thoughts, she will sympathize with Megan who still deals with the all-too-familiar single problem: the near-impossibility of meeting an attractive, uninvolved man in one of the biggest cities in the world.

“And everyone who doesn’t live here thinks this must be the easiest place to meet guys.” Megan will sigh. “God, I hope you appreciate James.”

Commiserating with her friend, Pandora will silently formulate the reasons why she (and not Megan) has managed to escape a spinster’s fate. Even though Megan is pretty— she is blonder and more petite than Pandora— her voice has an acerbic edge, which betrays her exacting nature. Guessing that, probably, Megan will never inspire a man into marital action, Pandora sighs and murmurs her understanding words while straightening the upholstery on her exciting new couch.

Now, the hand that holds her blush brush pauses halfway to Pandora’s face. She will definitely have to stop napping in the afternoons if she wants the puffiness in her face to go away. Once I have a baby all my free time will disappear. Smiling, Pandora daydreams that she is holding a small child. It will be worth it, worth all the sacrifices I've made. With this thought, her eyes narrow as if trying to focus on some distant, unseen pain. “Sacrifice,” she repeats aloud, a new habit now that she spends more of her time alone.

Pandora stares blindly in front of her as her thoughts settle on the idea of trying harder to have a baby. She’s tried to bring up her dissatisfaction to James in the past. She’s tried but has always felt like a fool for doing it. The last time it happened James face assumed a pained expression almost immediately after she began speaking and listening, he gently balanced his fork along the edge of his plate. (Seeing this, Pandora nearly shrieked but somehow maintained her impassive demeanor.) Finally, her unhappy words petered out and, after a pause, he spoke. “You don’t think I treat you well?”

“No, of course you do. It’s just…”

“Darling, I’ll try harder.”

Pandora winced, apologized. Later, in bed, she was even more compliant. Now, she rouses herself, finishes her makeup then stands and looks out the bedroom window at Mrs. DeMita next door — a widow whose only child, a daughter, recently married and left for a life in Saskatchewan. Pandora watches her neighbor kneel and spiritlessly pull weeds, one by one, from her garden. His smile didn’t reach his eyes… when he said he’d try harder, his smile was… hateful really.

Minutes later, James walks into the living room carrying a small box, one that unmistakably contains jewelry. Pandora laughs and straightens herself on the couch. The magazine slips from her hands and she bends to retrieve it. Oddly, she has an immediate sense of foreboding — the muscles around her stomach clench all at once — and so she tries not to appear too hurried in opening James’ gift. Self-consciously, she pauses in the middle of loosening the bow to say, “How sweet of you!” Then, she quickly brushes her lips along her husband's cheek. Finally, she reminds herself to act gracious even if it doesn’t contain the gold earrings she'd recently pointed out to him.

The extra glass of wine she'd drunk at lunch causes her hands to tremble slightly when she lifts the lid, uncovering a thick gold chain necklace attached to a large, half bronze, and half silver coin. Some kind of ancient… coin? Pandora shows her strength — the only sign of her disappointment is a sag in the line of her shoulders. She places it around her neck and watches as it dangles just below her breasts. Mainly, she feels bewildered; so large and gaudy, it isn’t even his taste. Why something so ugly?

“Thank you,” she repeats. Where did he get this? She thinks as she takes her place at the dinner table. She will need to exchange it for something she actually likes, later claiming she lost it. Tasting the fish, she says, “I think I should have broiled it for one minute less.”

“Yes,” James says, “But it’s still very good.”

Cunningly, she’ll even pretend for a while it’s her favorite piece of jewelry.

“I had three new patients today, referrals.”

“Good for you!”

Since her wedding, Pandora has learned her passive ways—unrewarded at her job—are viable tools for getting what she wants with her husband. She has honed three skills in particular: silence, hinting and waiting. As she spoons up a helping of green beans for James, she asks, “Where did you buy this… coin?”

“I thought you'd like something you could wear everyday. Similar to a wedding band,” her husband says as he lifts one of her floral linen napkins to the tight line of his lip.

She laughs appreciatively then places her fork beside her dinner plate. While he continues to eat, she stares for a moment at the wall beyond him. He hasn’t answered my question, has he? Behind his head, the wallpaper has faded from direct sunlight. (She will have to remind Zondra to leave the curtains closed after she cleans.) Pandora sighs and touches the chain of her new necklace, a weight almost as heavy as lost hope. Oh, it is nothing but a whim she supposes, a strange whim she will simply have to endure. She moves her hand to the clasp at the back of her neck. How long till the glamour of it wears off for him? How long till she can casually remark as they get ready for bed, “I must have lost it while I was at the mall. I don't know how — the clasp worked perfectly!” This too will pass. She finishes her wine, warm in the glass and overly sweet, and smiles throughout the rest of dinner.

Unexpectedly, her husband reaches for her in bed that night. Some small resistant sound escapes her lips but he doesn’t appear to notice. He ignores her mouth, concentrating his kisses on the new gold chain instead; roughly, he lifts her nightgown. Beside the surprise of his desire, his touch is different this time — more forceful. Even urgent. She feels mingled shock and disgust; she watches his mouth twist with passion as his kisses follow the long chain along her chest to the coin twisting around her left breast. He takes it in his mouth as he turns her and enters her. When he finally begins to pulse, she twists her head and sees how his mouth becomes suddenly slack and the bronze and silver coin, wet with his spittle, falls from between his lips.

He makes love to her again on Saturday night and once again, he reaches for her on Sunday morning. Hours later, she still feels too exhausted to dress … or even to call Megan. While he works in his study, she sits doing nothing, nearly motionless. A cup of soothing Oolong steams before her on the kitchen table. Again, her mind orbits the events of her recent past. When James first came into her life, she knew immediately that he was not perfect. But she had wasted years on a man who never truly loved her and had gone for years after that without meeting anyone interested in her. The night James told her he wanted to marry her, all her bitterness dissipated as swiftly as the taste of sour once it’s followed by something sweet. Implicitly, James promised her a new life — he would make up for all the disappointments of the past.

A sudden vision of the bronze and silver coin falling from her husband's mouth rises to the surface of her mind; bile also comes up. Hastily she swallows hot tea, scalds her lower lip.

The problem with her marriage is sex and if sex is the problem, that has to be her own fault. It’s that simple. No! some inner voice shouts, No! Didn’t she also resent sex with her former boyfriend? By the end of that relationship, he’d taken to whining his requests of her. (Unconsciously, she clenches her right hand into a fist.) Another flash on James’ curling lip, the coin falling, the sensation of his rough grip on her hips. Gingerly, she sips the steaming tea and out of nowhere, she suddenly understands that her former boyfriend expected her, maybe even wanted her to dislike sex. Believing that allowed him to approach her in his little boy way, a selfish way, so that he could avoid treating her as an adult. An adult who enjoys her physicality. An adult who has desires and expectations of her own.

She pulls the necklace from beneath her robe and plays with its chain. My good fortune has not fallen from the sky. Yes, she finally lives in a real place, a house, not just a cramped studio apartment. Yes, she’s finally in a position to have a child. But she is paying for all of it. In the living room the grandfather clock softly chimes the hour. Sighing, she grasps the hard coin in her hand then listlessly leaves the kitchen to go and dress.

As she strips off her clothes, she thinks, it’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of feeling. Yet she believes that James will never leave her even though he doesn’t feel what she expects. Examining her figure in the mirror, Pandora senses there’s still something she doesn’t understand, and this something is the lock that keeps her safe, closed tight as a box. More importantly, she knows that she just doesn’t have the strength to leave him now. She’s exhausted with life, and she’s tied to him in very real ways, too; she no longer has a job, or her own home. Besides, there’s still the lure of a child as well as all that is unfinished between them.

An hour later, sitting beside James in the car, Pandora’s normally erect posture appears a little crumpled. They are driving to the house of his college friend in Westchester. David is having an afternoon party. Pandora met David, her husband’s closest friend, a few times before she married and then again at the wedding. Usually, her husband meets him for lunch or for a brief drink after work.

The car jerks as James brakes for the exit ramp. He turns and smiles at her. For a moment, she wonders about him. A new thought occurs to her. Perhaps her physical distaste for him mirrors his feelings for her. I’ve been assuming he likes having sex with me, but isn’t his prowess fueled by an extra glass of bourbon? They pull into a gravel driveway and slowly roll towards a picturesque gray house with pale green shutters.

“It’s lovely!” James pronounces as he parks their stolid Volvo behind a forest green Jaguar. “Just perfect, don’t you think?” Before she can answer, he eagerly steps out onto the drive.

He walks quickly in front of her. An impressive maid answers the bell and placidly leads them through immaculate rooms to a patio in the back. Pandora turns to tell her husband that they have arrived too early; very few people stand clustered around the bar. She says nothing, though, when she sees the sudden glimmer in her husband's eyes as his gaze lands on David, who stands at the center of the party. Completely unaware of her, James walks over to the other man. Watching the men speak from a short distance, Pandora notices that her husband seems subtly different. Vital.

Just last week, David had been in her husband's office when she called and he'd said hello to her over the speaker phone. Now, the mellifluous sound of his voice recurs to her as a mental echo. Pandora moves toward the two men, old friends, her steps as deliberate as those of an actress trapped in a cinematic slow motion sequence. Her face forms a perfect mask of curiosity and a sound like the ocean blots out everything but the moment when her husband calls her name then says, “You remember David?” This other man reaches for her hand and Pandora automatically extends her own. Magnetically, her eye is drawn down from his gaze, pausing only briefly on his upper lip, which curls with … disdain?

Down her eye travels, down, until her gaze is snagged on the golden strands of a chain necklace and what hangs beneath the semi-transparent fabric of David’s shirt—a large bronze and silver coin identical to her own.