"A Dirt Road, Washington County" by Christopher Woods; http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/
About this image: "I divide my life between the city and the country. If you were to ask me which one I prefer, it would be easy to answer. I prefer the country. I drive down rural roads with my wife Linda, and we can never be sure what we might see. In the city, there are many buildings, and traffic, and noise. There is also culture, much of it. But as time goes by, I am drawn more to the silence of nature, to the roads that lead through the woods and across the fields, green or brown depending on seasons, and to the surprises that always seem to await, to beg a witness. I have become a devoted witness.
This photograph, "A Dirt Road in Washington County," was a discovery of sorts. We had been driving up and down dirt roads for a few hours, photographing hay fields and old houses and barns, and suddenly we came to this scene, a look up a road, the sun beginning to set at the end of it. There was absolutely no one else around. Silence. And for a holy moment, in this wildly cacophonous world, there was a sense of peace, of beauty. I knew I was fortunate to be there, for that moment. It approached the spiritual. And I was thankful." —CW
Welcome to Our Fiction Section!
The Trouble with Leopards Garden of Orange Peels In Memory of Lexxxi Love Hide and Seek The Golden Years
The Trouble with Leopards
by Joseph LoGuidice
I worried about my face because she read it so well. She said I had two of them; normal, and deer face when something was up. Deer face because my eyes told the story, large and dark without direct eye contact. Not like a cow that glares and chews and doesn’t care. A deer, an alert being that is easy to read. I could have skipped one visit, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Deer face would have gone public even if I’d waited a year. Besides, visits to her were precious.
When Ray saw me sitting by the window he blew the horn and lifted his hands. I left the house and slid into the car, slamming the door. He stared at me. “Doing the savant artist thing?” I didn’t answer so he punched my shoulder and pulled out of the driveway.
We listened to commercials, and the wipers on the windshield. I preferred the wipers, but turning down the radio might force me to say what I saw.
It was Ray who turned down the volume. “I’ve heard you on the guitar a lot lately.”
“So I know how you get at him. You’ve been jerking that thing off every night.”
“You’re supposed to be the next Paganini,” he said. “Not the next Malmsteen.”
“I don’t care what he thinks.”
Ray drove through an intersection. “Yea, I guess he just pays the bills.”
“Mom paid them, too, jerk.”
“What’s with you? Save the attitude for the press.”
The sun broke through a kaleidoscope of brightening clouds. One final downpour receded to tidbits of rain then done. Ray clicked off the wipers. “You want to cheer up before we get to—”
“Dad f#$ked my violin teacher.” I ripped the Band-Aid right off.
Ray laughed at my deadpan pronouncement. “Wait, what?”
He got another coordinate of the road, and I ripped off another Band-Aid. “He fucked her…upstairs.”
“Sarah? Don’t be an ass. He couldn’t score that on his best day.”
“He scored Mom.”
Gravel crunched under the tires until the car stopped on the side of the road. “You’re serious?” I stared at the droplets of water dripping from the trees next to us. Ray stretched an arm over the wheel. “And you know this how?”
I looked at him.
“Oh man,” he said.
We made the long walk from the parking lot, through the entry corridor, and past the old woman at the information desk. The elevator was full of people that didn’t know our mother was dying, and our father was f#$king my violin teacher. A passing oncology nurse smiled as we paused by our mother’s door. She slept to a muted television, and we entered in a kinship of silence.
She rested for a little while longer before opening her eyes. “My church mice. How long have you been here?”
“Just got here,” Ray said. “Are you hungry or anything? You need anything or anything?”
“Anything or anything?” She adjusted herself beneath the covers. “How was school?”
“Okay,” we answered. “Same old. Yea, same old.”
“Do you have a date for your prom?” she asked Ray.
“Don’t look so hard,” she said.
I shifted on my feet, hoping for one of those personal type nurse visits that might send me out.
“Ricky, if only your eyes were visiting, it would be enough for me.”
“Should I send them in a jar?” I asked.
Her giggle elicited a latent, grim cough. Ray went for the water on her nightstand, but she waved him off.
“How are your lessons going?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said, with a strained, unnatural attempt at eye contact, as if this could fool her. My eyes are awful bastards I tell you.
“You have your something happened look.”
The exotic, India Mina, had a mysterious quality that resonated with me. She was English born, as was my father, but she had stories and pictures of visits to her mother’s homeland with people in traditional dress wearing beads with dots on their skin. None of my classmates had a half Indian mother with connections to wisdom and accents rich in jovial crescendos.
“The nurse said school got out early today,” she said.
I nodded. There was a nurse there with a kid in my district.
“And you went right home?”
Ray looked at me, and that was dumb because my mother was an acute woman.
“Something at home?”
“Yes,” I said. Ray backhanded my shoulder.
“Stop it. I know.”
“Huh?” Ray said.
“I know about it,” she said, rolling her eyes at the ceiling and shaking her head. “Oh Martin, you incorrigible leopard.”
“How?” Ray asked.
“I knew it. I waited too long,” she said.
“How do you know?”
My mother sighed and held her intubated left arm with her right hand. “Because her car is there when it shouldn’t be.”
“For how long?”
“For some time.”
“Who told you?” I asked.
“Our neighbors know?”
My mother waved her hand. “Oh God, who cares?” She clenched her little fists and dropped them on the bed. “Why did I wait so long?” She turned to me. “I heard of the dismissal, but it was too late. It hit me the way some things do, like a certainty.”
I couldn’t look at her because I didn’t want to go into details. She didn’t press, as someone with a brain wouldn’t.
“I only care that your heads are right,” she said. “Ray? Raymond?” My brother’s scowl could burn holes. “My worst fear is that this might damage you. You mustn’t let it.”
“What about you?” Ray asked.
“I’m only angry that he’s been so careless.”
“That’s all you’re angry about?”
She tucked her chin. “Dying cuts through everything.”
“Bullshit.” Ray jumped from his chair with his hands flying around. “You can just forgive him? NOW?”
But my mother was right. As soon as she mentioned dying, I almost forgot about my father. It seemed so little.
“I’m counting my blessings.” She nodded at us. “One, two.”
She was the woman who sat with our homework spread on the table, fixed our meals and talked to us about girls. She insisted on perfect grammar just as she had from her special education students all day. And she was a petite brunette with black eyes and skin of sunlight through honey who gave our friends pause. I was proud of having one of the hot moms.
And now she was dying.
“I hate that,” Ray said. “That 'someday you’ll understand' stuff.”
“I didn’t say it,” she said.
“But you’re thinking it.”
“It’s true. Time brings different feelings.”
“Can we be mad?” I asked.
She motioned for the water she hadn’t wanted. “You can.” I handed her a cup and she sipped and rested her head. “Don’t make this into a stone or it will drown a part of you.”
“What part?” I asked.
“Oh, all of them to a degree,” she answered. “I only care that your heads are right.”
What is a right head? I guess it’s a head with some grace, but grace can take years.
Goose bumps sprouted on my arms from the air blowing through Ray’s window. I thought he might light a cigarette, but the pack lay between us as he drove with a thoughtful head cocked to one side. Our departure from the hospital was like the entrance, the difference being that the strangers who were ignorant of our father screwing Sarah Burke were also ignorant that our mother knew.
“I wanted to kill you back there,” Ray said.
“You looked right at me when she asked if I went straight home,” I answered. “You blew it right there.”
Ray shook his head. “I don’t get it. You could have stalled and bought us a day to figure shit out.”
“She knew, Ray. And figure what shit out?”
“Screw it. You had that face, anyway.”
I bit down on a piece of nail until it snapped between my teeth. “I needed to tell her.”
Ray contorted his face. “You f#$king little Momma’s boy. You pathetic little—”
I swung across my body and struck Ray’s jaw with the heel of my hand. The car swerved into the left lane and back. Ray pulled off to the right and threw up the column shift. I tried to throttle his throat, but he slammed me against the passenger door and smacked my head and face with both hands while I covered up.
“She knew!” A hard slap caught my jaw. “She knew, Ray, she knew.” I kept this up until Ray relented and deposited himself in the driver’s seat. He lit a cigarette, and I noticed the pulsating vein in his temple as passing headlights lit up the car. That was his face thing.
Ray dropped a dying fist on his leg. “I know, kid.” He pulled down the column shift. “She knew.”
Incorrigible leopard. The leopard part didn’t pique my curiosity the way her use of incorrigible did. I figured she was calling Dad a bad cat, which happened to be a leopard. I didn’t know the saying about the spots. But incorrigible stuck with me because my mother was big on words, and she was dying when she used this one.
I stepped out of bed and switched on a desk lamp that cast a glow across the floor where my chestnut brown violin lay in its open case, and my white Fender Stratocaster guitar, despised by my father, stood erect on its stand. I loved my violin, but it echoed his words. You will be known as Richard. Ricky is for disk jockeys. I opened my dictionary.
1. (of a person or their tendencies) not to be corrected, improved or reformed.
Innocence is a beautiful shell, pure and real. And for everyone there is a chipping away—the world takes its pieces. One by one they fall to the garden until a person is left bare. It can start with big brother sitting on little brother’s face yelling there’s no Santa, or it can be foreign soldiers pounding the streets. What you thought was, wasn’t. It’s different for everyone, but it starts somewhere. And the pieces drop.
It started for me after the custodians smelled gas and the kids went packing. I walked home from my stop with extra time before my lesson. Sarah Burke’s red Jetta was parked next to my father’s black BMW X5. She wasn’t due for another hour.
I spread my peanut butter, laying one slice over the other and snipping off the crust with scissors, thus giving me a perfect square with taste to the edges. I poured milk and took my first bite at the counter. My stomach backed off and my ears took over. Sarah must have been waiting with a book in the finished basement. She was always reading. But her violin case was at the bottom of the stairs in the living room.
Muffled thuds broke the silence, and I went to the foot of the stairs. Then a delicate moan, and I had that inner sense that knows a thing before the thing is realized. I waited the way people do when listening for a confirmation.
I climbed the stairs and edged along the wall, stopping at the master doorway to hear the grunting and the jingle of a loosened belt. I needn’t have looked, but I did. It was my father’s bare ass in the dresser mirror with his twisted face, and Sarah bent over the bed. My mother’s bed. I edged away.
There was nothing to do but go down to the finished basement. I heard footsteps and casual voices followed by an abrupt silence. In that silence, I realized I’d left my knapsack on the floor, and the food on the counter.
Sarah Burke descended as black flats and legs bare from ankle to knee, to the black skirt that wasn’t hiked up over her narrow hips anymore. Her torso followed in a gray cashmere sweater wrapped around softball breasts. The star of this figure was the alabaster face framed in straight black hair and bangs like the communist girl in my history book. She carried her violin case toward me as if she’d just parked the car.
“Have you been waiting long?”
Sarah rested her case on the coffee table without looking at me. “I mean because you left some unfinished food upstairs. Would you like it before we start?”
“No, I wasn’t that hungry.”
“You changed your mind mid-sandwich?” She fussed with the clasp on her case, and still didn’t make eye contact. I figured she was feeling me out the way adults did when they weren’t looking and wanted to know something. “I wouldn’t have the will power,” she added.
Sarah sat across from me. “How is Mendelssohn coming?”
Deer face got caught staring at her breasts. I reached for my violin by my feet. “I, I haven’t gotten as far as I wanted.” The violin slipped and hit the floor. Sarah took a considerable inhale. Slowly, and while still leaning over, I looked up. Her cheeks puffed out as the air passed from her lips.
Neurotic and self-conscious, yes, but I’d never been one to grow nervous with an instrument in my hands. Now all this because Sarah just offered her fresh backside to my father. My fumbling about, the eye contact—it told the story. She knew.
“I’m not feeling quite well, actually. I shouldn’t have…I don’t want to pass anything on to you.” She headed for the stairs with her arms pressed to her sides.
“You don’t have to...” I hadn’t expected this fear of losing her, of losing another woman. She didn’t turn to face me. “You don’t have to go,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Ricky.” She placed a foot on the first stair and paused. “You’re ready for someone better.” She ascended until the little black flats disappeared. My father’s voice came from somewhere, but there was nothing from Sarah except the sound of the front door closing behind.
His Bostonian’s clicked off the floor, and he called from the top of the stairs. “Richard, was something wrong?"
Yes, a lot of things were wrong.
“She said she was sick,” I managed.
“Oh…hmm. Well, heading off. Ray is coming for you.” He closed the stairwell door.
I imagined Professor Towers above the university orchestra, hands in the air, commanding neophytes with his invisible puppet strings. I thought of school the way anxious kids do. Hey Ricky, heard she likes your dad’s violin bow. What’d you learn in those lessons anyway?
I went upstairs to wait for Ray. The first piece of my innocence shell dropped to the garden at my feet.
I waited outside her room before nudging the door. All was quiet—just the silent flashing of the wall-mounted television, and my mother resting with blanketed legs.
“Hi,” she said with cancer defiance.
I handed her a The New Yorker and a New York Times from the gift shop. “I brought you these. And this.” I pulled a Reese’s Easter bunny chocolate wrapped in gold foil.
She chuckled. “I can do this in nibbles.” She rested her gifts on her lap. “Where’s Raymond?”
“He’s wherever. I took a cab.”
“I wanted to come alone.”
“Don’t make a habit of that.”
“I have some money.”
“I don’t want you riding with strangers.” She clicked off the television. “Yesterday was a difficult visit. I didn’t expect—”
“I looked up 'incorrigible,'” I said.
“Incorrigible. I looked it up.”
She paused. “Okay, why?”
“Because you called dad an 'incorrigible leopard.'”
She sifted through her recollections. “So I did.”
“It read. The dictionary read.”
“Right. It read that 'incorrigible' means a tendency that can’t be reformed.”
“A word gone awry.”
“He did other stuff?”
“A slip of the tongue,” she said.
Smiling news anchors on the muted television offered little distraction, and she’d blown any idea of saying “no.” A “no” needed immediacy.
“Tell me something,” I said.
There was nowhere to go, and nothing to protect. No good-old-Dad reverie, the posthumous talk of his life. That Dad, well he got through the problems. Just went off course for a bit. It was an awful time, but deep down (the old deep down stuff) he loved us all. There wouldn’t be any of this.
So she told me a story. Just one.
My mother had a friend whose husband was a cop, and that worked because friends whose husbands are cops can find out things about license plates. In this case, it was a plate number embedded in a snow bank the plow guy had built up. My father had a vanity plate—MZRT VIO3—not 676 EKK.
How could a woman after a long day teaching notice white on white? Fate and headlights. Her beams washed over the imprint as she turned for the garage. She sat for a moment, the nose of her Accord pointing at a snow bank, then clicked the garage door opener and pulled inside.
She walked through the kitchen, following the sound of Debussy in the living room. My father looked at her from under his glasses with a smile that said I’d love to say hello, but I’m grading. She went back to the kitchen, pulled a tray of lasagna from the fridge and slid it into the oven.
He’d explained himself out of a snare before, and she bought him with the reluctance of a young bride who buys things with reluctance. Martin was supposed to be out with a friend named Greg Summers, but she bumped into Greg Summers at Home Depot, and had to catch herself from asking where Martin was, thus dumping an open can of worms on top of an open can of worms.
His explanation was that he was cajoled into a strip club stag by some frat brothers, and he didn’t want her to be mad. Zero dithering and pretty slick. So she made that purchase, but now her intuition about the license plate had a leg to stand on. So it was in the kitchen with her arms crossed inside her pea coat that fate and the headlights converged. She made her best guess at something, and took a pad and pen outside.
“Did you confront him?” I asked.
“Did he admit it?”
I sat on the large, vented windowsill looking at a blue to purple sky. “Why did you stay?”
“Why did I stay?” she said, as if talking to herself. “I stayed for Raymond, and for you in my tummy.”
“It’s an old story, that kind of thing,” she said.
I looked down to the people and the cars that she couldn’t see from her bed and wouldn’t see again. “If things were different, would you have left?”
“Yes,” she said. “I planned to leave him. But now it just doesn’t matter, my ego has mercifully left me.”
We sat for a time looking through the window, seeing what we could see. Me, everything. Her, the sky.
“Your father isn’t a bad man, just a flawed husband…unconscious. You mustn’t let this destroy you.”
I left the blue to purple sky, and went to give her a kiss. She didn’t release her grip on my arm until I locked eyes with her. I knew this. It was how my mother branded her thoughts inside me.
I sat in the dim kitchen chewing each bite of my peanut butter sandwich to a nutty cream, and rubbed my index finger along the trace of the utility knife in my pocket.
There was no need to edge along the wall before staring into my parent’s room. The bed was empty, and the dresser mirror reflected only the fading light from the window. But the room and its emptiness couldn’t convince me that it was just space.
I needed to be there for her when she went to the purpling sky. Screw my father, and Ray, even. I pressed the blade to my left wrist until my skin wept. A frightening thought occurred to me; I couldn’t be the one to send her. I watched a thin line of blood trickle down my forearm. No, I couldn’t kill her like this. She would have to wait. But I needed a statement, a rebellion. Something.
There they were, silent, competing, and all that I had. I swung my left wrist past the violin, stopping it above my guitar, the blood dripping onto the maple fret board, and running to the white body.
Bio- Joseph LoGuidice is the author of the novel Blue Baby, as well as other pieces of short fiction appearing online and in print. He is working on his second novel and lives in Westchester County, New York with his wife and two children.
Garden of Orange Peels
by Cassidy Trudeau
Dusty Georgia noon nests over the clay-packed road leading out of town, red brown redecorating our Chuck Taylor’s and Levi’s. Mocking birds, blue birds and woodpeckers sing over the beeps of our Game Boy’s, each clack of plastic against plastic causing blood to ooze down square lights. Gregor jumps on his tip toes, tongue wrapping over his upper lip.
“Got ‘em! I got ‘em boys!” Fists raised, he stomps as if he’s King Kong. “Tot’l domination!”
Henry frowns at his own palm-sized war zone as we huddle like a patch of dandelions growing from asphalt.
“I ain’t got no luck beatin’ that son of a gun unless he crawls outta there so I can shoot ‘im with my daddy’s huntin’ rifle,” Henry admits, scanning the distance as if trees and clouds spell out cheat codes.
Silence settles as we shove our Game Boys into our back pockets. Beside us, the Garden Man’s 180 acres sprawl past the city line; the fence follows the road until it hits Frog Creek. One summer our daddies split the wood that now makes the sagging arms, their initials carved on the post three past His mailbox.
John nudges Henry with his elbow, “Come on fellas, let’s check the initials.”
We crowd around the post like parishioners at altars, feeling the past against our palms.
From behind wild ivy and blackberry thistles, the Garden Man looks out from under His ball cap. He smiles with sun-bleached teeth.
We know the Garden Man is old, raisin skin stretching over bones; every juncture jabs out like spines of a cactus. His bald head shines like the summer sun. Grass grows around His pupils, and He holds His knotted back like a regal oak tree.
Candy-colored plastic bulges from our pockets, catching His attention as He tosses us oranges from a basket at His feet.
“That right there, gentlemen, is real. All your senses workin’ together. Life wasn’t made for pixels, remember that.” The Garden Man’s voice rasps with the rustle of leaves.
We nod our thanks, letting orange musk fill the atmosphere.
We reset our positions on the bases in the field across from the Garden Man’s house. Leather mitt smacks against ball, bat cracks against ball, bodies grate against sod, dust flies with shouts and sweat. Our game continues as mosquitoes grow fat on our forearms and fireflies blink as if to keep score.
The glass mitt of His upstairs window catches Gregor’s pop fly with a shatter.
A silhouette appears behind the hole while we stand in shock. The Garden Man pads barefoot to His Front Gate.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” Gregor says, jogging up to the fence and gripping it with white knuckles.
The Garden Man chuckles, bouncing the baseball in his palm like the crack of a whip. Shush, whack. Shush, whack.
“It’s mighty refreshing to see you boys out here in the sun and not cooped up with that new technology.” Shush, whack. Shush, whack. “I’ll tell ya’ll what. You boys help me around my garden for a week, we’ll just forget this happened.”
“Yessir, we sure will,” we say, watching the ball. Shush, whack. Shush, whack.
The Garden Man grins, tipping His cap up in a salute. “I’ll see you boys tomorrow afternoon. You can have your ball back after you’ve finished.”
Turning to His home, He whistles. Shush, whack. Shush, whack.
Beating out a tune with his knuckles, Henry hovers over the mailbox while we wait for our tools. We bob our heads to the beat, laughing and singing as trees tickle the sun’s stomach.
Arms laden with rakes, clippers, watering cans, and baskets, we go about the chores assigned five days before. The Garden Man gads about, teaching us how to take care of this, how to use that, what tastes good in what dishes. With each movement, He whispers lemon slices of advice.
Stroking a tomato vine, He meets our gazes. “Leaves have open handshakes.”
As sky glazes over with gold haze, a glossy replica of the nutrient heavy soil, the Garden Man stands with Gregor in front of a brown bush. The leaves had rolled into themselves, harboring their inner rot. Mold the consistency of yellow crayons covers the branches. The Garden Man kneels to scoop up soil, packing it in Gregor’s hand. He dips Gregor’s fingers into the mixture like a priest baptizing. “Boys, soil still loves even when everything dies in its arms.”
Few people in town know the Garden Man’s real name. In grade school, we played guessing games as we watched Him test plots with bare toes. A name excavated from attic dust, something that rings with war stories and 50 years of marriage.
Our mothers converse over sweet tea and bridge about the poor old man who lives on the town line. He stopped going to Sunday worship and gets little to no post mail. Cards fold and shuffle with whispers of how in His grief over His dead wife, the man took to gardening. He became a hollowed body of organs, living day to day in isolation.
We scoff and snort at their comments, baring sunburns on our shoulders. Skin peels away like new growth from the trimmed branches of rose bushes. We wear the blood from velvet skin and dirt-shadowed wrinkles like our grandfathers’ old war medals.
The Garden Man has the sun’s nuclear energy, the sky’s gentle touch, and the earth’s sturdy shoulders. His energy sprawls from time worn plots as vines and flowers and vegetables and fruits. He whispers to trees and tickles the underbellies of flower petals. Plants grow from Him like silver hair on His chest. He rises and sets with each day, rooted in His garden.
Ambulance lights. Pendulums of red strobe through the neighborhood. The sun kisses His forehead as paramedics carry this body down His front porch. Sirens blare in mourner’s lament. Crows sing angel prayers, feathers rippling like oil slicks in the last halos of light.
Our Garden Man is dead on a dwindling August day, heat shimmering over us like storm clouds. Fireflies flash like lightning in our thunderous breaths.
They bury him in a garden of stones. Everyone has moved on, leaving us to stare.
Chuck Kingsley. Such a common name for a man who spoke the scripture of the elements.
Each of us kneels before His marble name, parting dirt with cracked nails. Henry holds a branch between his forefinger and thumb as Gregor empties sandwich bags of garden soil. We pat the mound down with our dress shoes, a slow dance with the rain.
The leaves shake our hands. We return their grasps, knowing one day oranges will grow and fall from their embrace. Now he will smell summer, taste acid rain, feel pulpy flesh as He listens to Earth’s steady heartbeat.
Bio- Cassidy Trudeau, a graduate of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, now attends Hollins University as an English major with a focus in writing. She hopes to become an editor at a publication house or newspaper sometime in the near future. Besides writing, Cassidy enjoys reading works of every genre, binge watching shows on Netflix, and talking with her best friend. While this is her first non-academic literary publication, Cassidy has won awards from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for multiple genres, and was previously the Editor-in-Chief of DASOTA's award winning newspaper, The Artisan.
In Memory of Lexxxi Love
by Sarah Archer Moulton
It was her eyes he liked the most. Their roundness, their openness, sealed with a hazy black perimeter of kohl. The way they glowed out from the unhealthy blue light of the laptop with a warmth. The way they saw him.
The name inscribed in loud pink at the top of her website was “Lexxxi Love,” but obviously that couldn’t be her real name. Max decided it was Alexis. He’d been watching her videos off and on for several months, first more off, then more on, so it was time they were on first-name terms. It was only civil. Even in the midnight world they inhabited, the two of them alone, after his wife had gone to bed, there was a structure of gentle propriety. She was a good girl and he owed her that.
Today had been like all the others before: alarm, coffee, car, email, meeting, email, car, takeout, yawn, lamp, click, off. He dozed while Laurel slept in her sweats that were the same cut as her scrubs. They touched at night, sometimes, accidentally, grazing each other, like leaves from the same tree. When the first cycle of his non-sleep ended and he woke fully, he slipped out of bed and down the hall.
He’d stumbled onto her site through some internet rabbit hole or other, link leading to link leading to link. There was nothing blatantly different about it, no niche community, no underground fetish, just another girl making the middle class through doing in front of a camera what he reasoned she would have been doing anyway.
But Alexis herself was different. She talked to her audience, to him; she asked how he was. “I’ve been thinking about you. I thought of you this morning and couldn’t wait to get home to film this. I’m thinking about you right now.” The background of her videos was a drape of sumptuous black fabric. Sometimes it wavered and he could see her bedroom around the fringes. On a wall-mounted shelf sat a couple of cheap plastic trophies. In school she had done something athletic, but not too athletic, he decided. She had the bevel-edged calves of a dancer.
She’d loaded a new video that day, as every day, and he watched. But when he finished, he wanted more. Their relationship had progressed to a point where it demanded not just a connection but details, legitimacy. He meandered through her website: a video archive, a collection of self-shot photos that started with her smiling coyly into the camera and progressed downward. He avoided the comments page; how could anyone else’s voice be anything but an intrusion onto their shared experience? He clicked on the bio.
Lexxxi Love loves hot cocoa, beach days, funny movies, and most of all, you. She’s studying to be a nurse because she’s always felt like a healer—after all, she’s a Sagittarius! She lives with her beagle, Sam, in Oak Port, Maine. Her birth name is Joan Davis.
“Joan,” he said, very quietly.
The next day, like all the others before, was like all the others before. At work he spent an hour meticulously renaming files he never used just to avoid looking up from his screen. Laurel went for a drink at six with her fellow dental techs and came home smelling like other people’s beer. She flipped on the TV and asked how Max’s day was without taking her eyes off the news.
That night, Max was disappointed when he logged on the site. There was no new video. At first he felt annoyed, neglected, ignored. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she had said at the end of yesterday’s video, with a vampy kiss. “Sweet dreams.” She had made a promise and broken it.
But when his alarm sounded and he woke the next morning, his feelings had slid towards anxiety. Maybe she hadn’t forgotten him. She had never broken a promise before. Had something happened? She was studying to be a nurse—maybe she had an exam and didn’t have time to film. Maybe it was a family thing. Life gets in the way. He took a breath. He understood.
But all through the morning, his worry followed him. Over his 11:30 conference call, as voices pinged on and off with polite beeps, a gentle ebb and flow, his mind picked over hypotheses: Lexxxi bent over a long library table under a banker’s light, reading; Lexxxi pacing her apartment’s modest kitchen, phone to her ear, brow stitched, her mother on the line; Lexxxi out with a brightly-futured young man, a med student from her school, his structured arm hooking around the small of her back like a fence… She must be sick, recuperating in bed, her lean tan body swallowed in a blanket. Poor girl, poor Alexis, poor Joan.
Nobody liked to be sick. If only there was some way for Max to reach out to her, to send her the warmth of his feelings, like a hug. He would let her know he was thinking of her, that it was okay that she hadn’t posted, he understood, he wasn’t upset.
That night Laurel brought takeout again. She knew to ask for packets of honey mustard because he had never liked ketchup. He squeezed a sweet-smelling brown puddle onto his plate as she talked about work. “So now they’ll have to replace the whole machine and Neal isn’t even going to make her pay. If I did that, my pay would be docked for a month. You’re getting crumbs on the floor, Max. I swear the bitch is sleeping with him.”
But he wasn’t listening. He was thinking about what he was going to do. Later that night, after his wife’s breathing had shallowed and evened, like the ripples subsiding on a lake, he crept down the hall. There was no new video from today—poor girl, she must really be out. But this time he went straight to the comments page. He had already mentally composed the message he would leave. Something caring, uninvasive, a word between friends. “Hope whatever’s got you down isn’t too much of a beast. I’m thinking of you, Joan. Miss you! xo” He deliberated over the “xo” but it only felt right. She blew him a kiss every night.
He wasn’t going to look at the other comments. They were probably full of filthy fantasies of what those creeps wanted to do to her, not the support she needed right now, the support he was giving. But after he entered his message and pressed submit, the comment at the top of the page caught his eye. So stunned—you’ll be missed.
It was anonymous. Stunned by what? Missed for what? His heart vibrated in its cavity, a cartoon bomb ticking to zero. He clicked from tab to tab on her site again, looking for news or clues, any alteration to the pages with their Sanrio palette of garish adolescence, the colors that he knew belonged to Lexxxi and not Joan. He stopped on the bio—Joan Davis. Oak Port, Maine.
It came up with the first search term he entered. When he pulled up the obituary, he didn’t even read it; an instant’s scan was enough to supply him the meaning—at age 24 . . . survived by . . . memorial service. He shut the laptop lid and went to bed.
Laurel first noticed Max was not himself when he left his coffee cup full, the flat, silty top of the liquid pitched to mirror the slope of the sink he set it in, just short of spilling. “Just in a hurry,” he said. “I’ve got a lot going on at work.” At work, his boss snapped when Max failed to get his report in on time. “Just something going on at home, I’m sorry,” Max said. The receptionist noted his failure to return her smile. “Looks like someone’s ready for the week to be over!” He allowed himself a quick fantasy about how the toothy bitch’s smile would fall if she was fired and escorted from the building to her vanity-plated station wagon.
Nobody could know how Max was powerless. Even if he could tell them about his romance, the loss sounding through his interior, would they understand? Joan was five states away, and she was gone. This would be a part of his life that would consume him, then distract him, then occur to him, then be forgotten by him, and once he died his connection with her would be a footprint made in the middle of a snowstorm, impressed in snow, filled with snow, melted with the snow that it had been and had been the absence of.
At lunch, for the first time, he snuck onto her site from his work computer. He left a comment: “Is there somewhere I can send flowers? What can I do?”
Max’s private grief clung to him, itching beneath his undershirt. It was like an old shameful memory of some act he regretted from childhood that he couldn’t share and couldn’t forget. After dinner, Laurel exhaled with raspy annoyance when he scraped his congealed rice and chicken into the trash. “What are you doing? I told you to save the leftovers. Aren’t you listening?”
That night he forced himself back to the obituary. He located the time of the memorial service in Oak Port, Maine and booked a hotel.
The rental car had a plastic, disposable feel to it. Everything about it said it was one of many. As it brought him nearer to Maine, the trees grew grayer. He twirled the dial until he found a radio station where different voices introduced the same songs he listened to back home.
The service wasn’t until the next day, and he knew no one in town and had no business there. There was nothing to do but check into his hotel early. The room was offensively inoffensive, maroon, square, with blurry aquatic watercolors indecisive enough in their particulars to be of anywhere. His email held scripted condolences from work: “We’re so sorry to hear about the loss of your aunt. Our thoughts are with your family.” His phone was busy with texts from Laurel: “Hope they appreciate you filling in at the conference like this. Talk to Dan about that raise?” “Going to drinks, good night.”
But Max was comfortable in the strange space. He finally felt a lightness as he looked around the wallpapered box and breathed its thick air. This was different. This was good. Here he was within reach of her and the people who loved her as he, or almost as much as he, did. When the thirty-year-old boy with acne who checked him in at the counter asked “What are you in town for?” Max could tell him “A funeral.” He almost smiled.
He dozed a little on top of the comforter. Its stiff, somber blossoms seemed to stretch from underneath him and droop down over the side of the bed, unwilling to fight gravity. He got up and drove to the first restaurant he saw and got his food to go. The restaurant’s bright plastic booths and the images of overflowing, parsley-dabbed plates in its laminated menus seemed indecent. This was a man who was here to pay his respects, and he would act like one. And so he ate before the flicker of the hotel TV, its heavy cabinet of dark wood surrounding it like a hearth.
After dinner, he opened his laptop. He clicked around for a while, but wasn’t really looking at the screen. There was nothing to do except wait for tomorrow, when there would be everything. He went deeply to sleep.
It was not a church but a funeral home, a modest one, with puffy green valances frosting the plastic venetian blinds. Max half expected someone to question him as he walked past the hollow-eyed usher with the slicked black hair, a too-appropriate funereal caricature, but no one did. They avoided his eyes and nodded, their voices a dim hum in the background of the room. They made assumptions and respected his grief. He blended in, and this made him proud. It was what she would have wanted.
He found a seat at the back, but not the very back, and looked around. Where the body would be was a picture, blown up, mounted to pasteboard, and propped on an easel. Joan smiled out in a cap and graduation gown of pale, shimmery blue. Her makeup was modest, her arms looped around two people trimmed from the picture. She looked younger. He had never seen her smile with so many teeth before. Max looked into her eyes but they were looking at someone behind the phone, into his or her eyes, where there was a history, a comfort, a message.
He felt a vibration against his thigh. “You sure you’re OK? You didn’t sound like yourself this morning.” He wrote half a text to Laurel, deleted it, and replaced it with, “OK, just stressed, busy here.” He turned off his phone, a mark of respect.
The service was a middle-aged mother with a face wrung like an overextended tissue, a fresh-faced friend who had never dressed for a funeral before, a large-bodied father who couldn’t decide where to put his hands. Her shaggy teenage brother sat in the front row, scuffing his feet, looking down at them. They talked about a student, a competitive volleyball player, friend, cousin, babysitter, treasurer, volunteer, singer, someone bright and wholesome and helpful and involved.
Max kept waiting for the parts that would outline her shyness, a picture of the sensitivity that unspooled itself like a ribbon. But all he saw and heard was her open, simple, shining face. Nowhere in their words was the agile woman’s body moving in front of a swath of black. None of these people knew her vulnerable and soft, the red depth of her quietness. He wasn’t sure if she felt more or less his own. He was speaking into a high church and waiting for an echo that kept on not coming, until there was nothing to do but go home.
Max was pulling out the key to his rental, back in the sun on the half-grown grass, fingering for the unlock button he didn’t know the feel of. He hated this car; it was common and crude. A woman waited by her adjacent sedan for her husband, who was talking with another man, hands secure in their separate pockets. She smiled at Max, a sad, mellow-eyed smile with closed lips.
“How did you know Joan?”
Bio- After studying English, Creative Writing, and Screenwriting at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Sarah Archer Moulton worked in film and television development in Los Angeles, where she was involved in projects ranging from Monk to House to the upcoming series People Are Talking and Uncle Buck. Writing in a variety of genres, she has sold a script to Comedy Central's show TripTank and been published in such venues as The Brooklyner and Tract. She recently relocated to the island of St. Maarten.
Hide and Seek
by Terry Korth Fischer
“Thirty-six, Mister Potato Head. Thirty-seven, Mister Potato Head,” Rachel crouched alone in the garden, buttocks to heels, head tilted down. She looked through the crack of folded forearms to study the ground. Dismal and lifeless, the garden was barren now that summer had passed. This year the patch had filled the cellar. She gave a sigh knowing winter was coming on. Her eyes tight, she counted, “Forty, Mister Potato Head.”
Aaron’s giggle drifted to her as she counted out the cadence. She projected her voice, “Forty-six, Mister Potato Head,” and heard the chain rattle. The tire swing, he’s going to hide behind the oak. Gabriel had hung the swing when they first married. In those days, he would push her high. She’d throw out her legs and pump as hard as she could, skirts dragging in the dirt and lean her head back, laughing, looking at him upside down. The chain was rusty now. Still, it was tough enough for one little boy. “Forty-nine, Mister Potato Head.”
The autumn breeze stirred the dampness, rich earth, and mossy soil; the fertile smells full of fall. Through her narrowed view, Rachel saw the asparagus in the leaf litter; they peeked from beneath the debris. Green tips that fought their way up, insistent on a second showing. If the frosts came early, the tender vegetation would never make the trip. Rachel rooted for them, remembering how she and Gabriel had ordered the mail-order sets. The plants were in their third season—with luck, there would be more to come. She wouldn’t count on it; nature had its own way of dealing out a blow.
The squeak came with the next breeze as two golden leaves nestled at her feet. The gate behind the barn. She heard the wet thud of Jack’s paws as he crossed the yard, his wolfish snort and the unanswered whimper that followed. “Fifty-one, Mister Potato Head,” she called out. In her mind’s eye, she saw the boy with his shaggy companion, a wiry bundle with a right ear that flopped forward. One had grown to adulthood while the other held the promise, still awkward and adorned with grass-stained knees.
The gate snapped shut, all pretense of stealth abandoned. Rachel heard the honks of migrating geese pass overhead. And later, in the silence that followed, the leaves reverse position in the trees. Where is he?
“Shhh, Jack not now,” came Aaron’s whisper, his voice muffled by the soft ballad of gentle wind and insects. In that muted moment, Rachel heard an apple fall, and then another. Finally, Aaron’s padded tread as he stole across the lawn, a sudden stop, and his rubber sneakers when they kissed the autumn grass.
Rachel had been thirty-eight when Aaron was born, long after they had given up hope. It was after the empty years when they buried their youth along with Gabe Junior and baby Mary in a cloistered spot behind the apple orchard. Gabriel held fast to his faith, but Rachel bowed under; resigned to the certainty of never-ending winter and soggy springs. The October sun warmed Rachel’s head and a golden tress blew across her folded arms. Aaron came seasons after she learned to be afraid of love. She fell back, allowing herself to settle into a cross-legged position on the ground and continued, “Sixty-four, Mister Potato Head.”
Apple pie. There were bushels of apples this year. After the applesauce was made, she would bake some pies. Gabriel and Aaron loved them and the pies took more time than effort. Rachel imagined the scent of cinnamon, then just as quickly it flapped away, folded into the sheets that billowed on the line. She wished they still had the chickens. She missed the eggs. But, the rooster had declared Aaron a mortal enemy as soon as he could toddle. No regrets, the bird had made a wonderful dinner. In the distance, came the pounding of Gabriel’s hammer and the answer of a mocking crow.
It was too quiet. The gate flapped loose on its hinge. Down the hill old Bessy bellowed. Rachel felt the moisture seep through the cotton seat of her dress and realized she had lost count. She didn’t hear the boy.
Rachel began to rock with tiny consoling motions, swallowing hard. He liked the wood shed. Her breath came in shallow tufts; her lower lip was between her teeth and she gnawed on it there. He couldn’t be far. Rachel shivered, although the day was warm. Where did he go? He wouldn’t venture over by the well. No, he didn’t like the groans the old windmill made. Still, it would be a good place to hide. A bead of perspiration walked slowly down her spine.
Behind, she felt the presence. It moved in silently and settled in the emptiness that opened in her heart. Heat radiating toward her carried on a breath that was deep and raw. Without a sound, a weight pressed against her back. A whimper and Jack’s wet nose burrowed into her hair.
Rachel jerked her head up, eyes opening wide. Two inches from her face, crouched Aaron. Buttocks to heels, his face spread wide in a Mister Potato Head’s smile. His young arms were held wide to surround her. Relief spread from her heart to lips. Rachel saw the promise of spring in Aaron’s innocence. Optimism budded at his eagerness; she found renewed strength in the unshielded trust shining through his eyes.
“Ready or not,” Aaron said. He beamed a gap-tooth smile.
Rachel leaned forward to accept his embrace, gathering in the gossamer thread that tethered her to hope. And, at that moment, nourished by Aaron’s unconditional love, Rachel’s day became amber and wheat colored gold. In seeking, she was found.
Bio- Terry Korth Fischer lives in Texas where she is a part time IT Coordinator and enjoys technology, travel, and playing in her church hand bell choir. Terry is an active member of the Clear Lake Area Writers Group and is a contributing author in their publication, Clear Lake Area Writers - Selections Fall 2014. Her work has appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time and numerous anthologies.
The Golden Years
by Michael Tidemann
I was a college junior and already calling myself a writer when I took a room in the Johnsons’ house on Clark and Plum. Their house was across the street from a sorority—which offered some interesting sights—and just east of the college tennis courts. The rent was $40 a month—a steal for even forty years ago. I saw moving in with the Johnsons as a new start. I’d just come off a couple bad breakups—one a girl I’d been seeing for four years and another who nearly destroyed me.
Mr. Johnson had to be the most hen-pecked man I’d ever seen. He would drive his 1967 Oldsmobile home every night from his watch and clock repair shop, park squarely in the garage as he had for the past forty years, and walk into a wall of flying invectives.
“Henry, why are you home so late?”
“I’m sorry, dear. Isn’t it exactly 5:15? The usual time I arrive home?”
“Oh, I guess it is. Well, why couldn’t you have gotten home sooner? I could have used the buttermilk for this recipe. I’ll bet you forgot it.”
“Here it is, dear.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose you forgot the vanilla then.”
“It’s right here dear. Right along with the buttermilk.”
“You don’t have to get so smart with me.”
“I’m not trying to be smart, dear. I was just telling you that I’d brought the vanilla.”
“Well change out of those awful frumpy clothes and go check on the furnace. I think we need a new filter.”
I and Will and Lee, the other guys who rented from the Johnsons, would gather at the top of the staircase that was a megaphone for the Johnsons’ conversations. Afterward we would explicate their exchanges. Will, a psychology PhD candidate, had determined with absolute certainly that Mabel Johnson was manic depressive while Lee, a PhD candidate in biochemistry, thought she had a severe chemical imbalance possibly exacerbated by intense radon poisoning. I suggested the problem was merely biological—that Mr. Johnson needed to grow a set of balls.
Since the rent was cheap, I stayed on longer than I had expected—all the way through undergraduate and graduate school until I acquired the house through unforeseen events I’ll talk about later. It was that first fall I began to see signs of Mr. Johnson’s demise.
He started to forget things. Obvious things. I found that a bit odd since he was just sixty, but he began to forget the buttermilk and vanilla—unforgiveable, in Mrs. Johnson’s mind. The night he came home without his Oldsmobile and asked Mabel if she knew where it was, she exploded.
“You idiot. What’s the matter with you? Are you losing your marbles? I’m going to put you in a nursing home if you’re going to be that stupid.”
Apparently Mrs. Johnson later checked into the cost of a nursing home, because she no longer insisted Mr. Johnson go into one. But her tirades continued.
One early November day when the leaves had crisped to gold and scarlet and mauve all along Clark Street, a sure sign of fall and football and girls bundling up and burying their treasures until spring, Mr. Johnson failed to leave for work. My first class didn’t start until ten, and I listened from the top of the stairs as Mrs. Johnson screamed at him.
“Henry, what’s the matter with you? Why are you just sitting there? Are you listening to me? Henry!” Then I heard her voice calling my name from the bottom of the stairs. “Harrison?”
I just about jumped out of my shorts, thinking she knew I’d been spying on them. I waited a couple seconds then crept downstairs. “Yes, Mrs. Johnson?”
She stood there in mid-fume, as though confused about what to do next. I looked past her to Henry—seated in his chair, staring blankly out the window.
“Is Mr. Johnson okay?”
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Johnson worried her arms together into an impossible knot. “He doesn’t respond to anything I say. All he does is sit there and stare.”
I approached Mr. Johnson, quite frankly a little afraid. He looked fine—blue eyes clear, healthy glowing skin. Actually, he looked pretty damn good for sixty. The only problem was he just sat there, staring straight ahead.
“What do you think’s the matter, Harrison?”
Behind Mr. Johnson, I motioned for Mrs. Johnson to follow me through the dining room to the kitchen where I quietly closed the door. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Johnson, but I think he has Alzheimer’s.”
Mrs. Johnson looked up at me like a small bird caught in a trap. “Alzheimer’s? That’s impossible. He’s just sixty. He was doing just fine the other day.”
“Yeah, but crazy as it seems, I think that’s the problem.”
“Oh my God.”
I wasn’t sure just then how much money the Johnsons had. I figured they were comfortable, but I didn’t think they were by any means rich. They had the income from Mr. Johnson’s shop and three or four student tenants—and I figured that was about it. I knew if he went into the nursing home Mrs. Johnson would have to sell the house and the money wouldn’t pay for Mr. Johnson’s care before he passed on. For the first time, I felt sorry for her.
I skipped my first class and helped Mrs. Johnson walk her husband to their car and went along with them to the clinic. I stayed with her in the waiting room until the doctor came out and confirmed her worst fears.
The young, prematurely balding doctor rested his hand on her shoulder as he told her. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson. All tests indicate your husband has Alzheimer’s.” He handed her a handful of brochures—nursing homes, in-home care options. None of them sounded very good—or cheap.
With no possibility of any response from her husband to her rants, Mrs. Johnson’s tone toward him mellowed—maybe even softened—now that she had to feed and bathe him and help him to the bathroom. I saw a vastly changed Mrs. Johnson. What had before been an evil, malevolent shrew was now a sweet, tender woman who saw to her husband’s every need. Incredible as it seemed, she became a saint.
I had a fairly light semester. My classes consisted of a creative writing seminar, philosophy, earth science, the American transcendentalists, and the American novel—I was glad to focus on my writing.
It was a hard winter for Mrs. Johnson. Any extra time I had outside of class and writing, I spent helping her—scraping snow off the sidewalk and blowing drifts from the driveway. Before, Mr. Johnson had done everything, so she was pretty helpless. I offered to take the Olds into the service station to have it winterized, and she gladly agreed. I did quite a bit of work for her. If she’d had the money to pay me, I know she would have. Just before the end of the spring semester I found a job as a camp counselor—something I’d always wanted to do. They were even going to let me teach poetry and guitar. Before I left, I offered to plant a vegetable garden for Mrs. Johnson, and she was pretty happy about that. I tilled up a nice, sunny ten by-twenty patch and planted lettuce, beans, carrots, potatoes—just about all the vegetables she would need through the summer. She promised me she would let me have my room back in the fall then we hugged and both cried when I left. She had turned into a real sweet lady.
Camp was a blast from the first day when I met Jean—an art student from Laramie. She was there for the same reason I was—to make a few bucks over the summer, build a resume, and maybe meet somebody.
Jean was five-seven, raven locks falling to the middle of her back, dark-brown eyes, olive skin, and a laugh that curled its fingers around you and held you in its clasp. She was maybe one fifteen and gave the Levi Strauss company a whole new image—that was Jean.
We shared ideas too. I guess that was where the philosophy class came in handy. After seven every night was free time, and we would sit on a granite ridge and watch the sunset burn through the mist-troughed Black Hills all the way to the Bighorns a couple hundred miles away. I took her hand the second time I met her there and I kissed her the third and by the fourth time we went there, we were in love. She wasn’t real happy with Laramie—too many cowboys, she said—and I told her about the BFA and MFA programs at the U and she decided to transfer. I knew what that meant, of course. I’d have to find a different place. There was no possible way Mrs. Johnson—or Mr. Johnson when he still had all his faculties—would let an unmarried couple live together in their home.
It took several seconds for her to answer the phone. “Yes?” Her voice sounded tired and weak.
“This is Harrison, Mrs. Johnson. How’s your summer been.”
“Well...you know.... It’s an awful lot of work taking care of Henry. So I didn’t get out much, you know.”
“How’s the garden doing?”
“Well...I haven’t really had time to get out there much to weed, you know. What with Henry and all.”
She sounded like she was a hundred years old. My heart plunged at what I had to tell her next. “I’m real grateful that you promised me the room again this fall, Mrs. Johnson. It’s a great deal. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to find something else. I’m sure you can find another renter pretty easily.”
“Why on earth aren’t you taking it?” I swore there were tears in her voice.
“Well, I met this girl here at summer camp, Mrs. Johnson. She’s transferring to the art program at the U. We’d like to rent a place together.” I was awful careful not to say live together. That would have been far more than Mrs. Johnson could have handled.
“Well... Is she a nice girl?”
“She’s fantastic, Mrs. Johnson.” I waited for her to give her blessings and let me move on with my life.
“Well, the other two graduated and moved out. Would you be interested in their rooms too?”
I wondered then if she was starting to suffer from Alzheimer’s too. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson. This girl, Jean, is moving in with me and...”
“I could let you have all three rooms for a hundred. That would give you a study and maybe a little art studio for her.”
“Mrs. Johnson. We’re not married. We’d just be living together. In your home.” There. I’d said it.
“Well, you said she was a nice girl.”
“The best, Mrs. Johnson.”
“I trust your judgment then. Will I still be seeing you this fall?”
“Yes... Yes, Mrs. Johnson.” I almost choked.
“And does a hundred sound okay?”
“That’s way too cheap, Mrs. Johnson. Beside, you could probably use the mo—”
“You’ve been a big help, Harrison. If you can pay me a hundred dollars a month you and your girl can have the upstairs.”
It was an absolute steal. Even back then it was easily worth two-hundred. “Thank you, Mrs. Johnson. Thank you.”
I knew I should have talked to Jean first, but when I told her how nice Mrs. Johnson was—meaning the new Mrs. Johnson—she wanted to move in just so she could help with Mr. Johnson and keep up the house too.
I couldn’t believe what I saw when we pulled up to the house. The grass was over a foot high and large branches from a summer storm cluttered the yard. The worst was the garden, now a patch of four-foot weeds. Jean huddled close and clasped my arm. “Are you sure this is the right place? It looks abandoned.”
I double-checked the address. Yep, 820 East Clark. “This is the place, all right.”
“It looks spooky.”
“Well, let’s go say 'hi' to Mrs. Johnson and pay the rent.”
We went to the front door and I rang the bell. It was totally silent. I knocked, and a hollow echo sounded as I turned to Jean. “Something’s wrong.”
As I opened the door, a rank smell roiled from the back of the house—a mixture of garbage and cooking smells and moldy dishes. We entered, and a fly buzzed me like a Japanese zero. “Mrs. Johnson?”
The floor creaked, and I turned to a bare, sparse figure weighing maybe ninety pounds. Mrs. Johnson’s hair was severely tied back from a blanched face and eyes that had the thousand-yard stare of someone who had seen war. She crept toward us with a cane, the first time I’d ever seen her use one.
She tried to bite up a smile. “Harrison, it’s so, so good to see you.” When she looked around me to Jean, she finally managed a smile. “And this must be your girl.”
When Jean went to shake hands with her, I swear it was just like Mrs. Johnson received a blood transfusion. Their connection was instant. “This is Jean, Mrs. Johnson. We’ll both be living here.”
Mrs. Johnson’s smile filled her face as she turned to me. “Such a lovely girl. You’re such a lucky fellow, Harrison.”
“I sure am,” I admitted. “How’s Mr. Johnson?” I asked, hating to ask if he were dead—which I presumed.
“Oh, he’s in the living room. The TV’s on—just to keep him company, you know.”
I took Jean’s hand. “I want you to meet Mr. Johnson.” We went through the pantry then the dining room where I heard a chuckle. I looked around to see where it had come from. “Mr. Johnson?” I asked as we entered the living room.
The iron-gray head froze in the lounge chair. Jean and I went around to the front and there Mr. Johnson sat, staring straight ahead, as a sitcom played on the television. “Is someone else here?” I asked Mrs. Johnson as she entered the living room.
“No...” she croaked—I swear it was more of a croak than a voice. “It’s just the two of us.”
“Huh.” I looked a little closer at Mr. Johnson. His face was ruddy and his arms looked like a prizefighter’s. Compared to Mrs. Johnson, he looked half her age. “How are you doing, Mr. Johnson?”
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a blank stare at vast, empty space.
I turned to Mrs. Johnson. “I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Johnson. Why don’t you let me hit that yard with the mower and pick things up a little bit. Then Jean and I can see what we can find in the garden.”
Mrs. Johnson lifted her nose like an ancient bird’s beak and peered through tired, fading eyes. “That would be nice.”
I paid the rent—she looked at the money as though it was the first she’d seen in months—and we took our luggage and my guitar and Jean’s art supplies upstairs. We’d just gotten up there when Jean turned to me. “She’s so sweet. But she looks terrible.”
“I know.” I honestly wondered how much time she had left.
As soon as we’d brought everything upstairs I went to the garage where Mr. Johnson’s Olds sat, cobwebs glistening in the late-afternoon light as I opened the garage door. Cobwebs even drifted from the antenna to the ceiling. I brushed my way past them and found the mower and a nearly full can of gas and filled the tank. I knew it would be pretty tough going so I raised the wheels as high as they would go and started the mower and pushed it through the grass. It kept clogging up and killing, but I finally made it around the yard, piling up branches as I mowed.
In the weed patch that was once a garden we found some lettuce, onions, carrots, and even a zucchini or two. Jean made dinner while I finished weeding the garden, first finding a vegetable then weeding around it until I found another. It was an absolute mess. When I was done I had what somewhat resembled a garden with a couple pickup loads of weeds.
Jean offered to feed Mr. Johnson—who responded pretty well to her—and Mrs. Johnson ate like a starving lumberjack. Jean had made a salad and zucchini with chicken and herbs and Mrs. Johnson cleaned her plate and asked for more.
We managed our schedules so we could help with Mr. Johnson. He needed help with everything—going to the bathroom, even. I hated to ask Jean to do that but she offered. After she’d helped him to the bathroom one night she tugged at my sleeve to follow her into the den. Her eyes looked as though they’d seen a ghost.
“After he finished, I bent him over to wipe him and when he sat up, there was this, this...”
She looked at Mr. Johnson, sitting quietly as laughter came from the TV in the next room, then at me. “His boner was absolutely huge.”
I held back a laugh. “Bigger than mine, even?”
Jean’s eyes gazed into mine. “Yes. Way bigger.”
“It must be some biological thing. Maybe the blood from his brain all flowed to his...well, you know.”
“He was absolutely huge,” said Jean, eyes wide with wonder.
Mrs. Johnson was the first to go to the hospital. Jean had gone downstairs one night to get a glass of milk and I heard her cry out. When I ran downstairs Mrs. Johnson was lying right there, staring off like she was already dead. I called the ambulance.
The doctor said it was a stroke. I have to admit I felt a huge responsibility right then. Here I was, just a renter, and one of my landlords had Alzheimer’s and the other was in the hospital. I sat with Mrs. Johnson and held her hand for a while until the nurse said it would probably be better for both of us if I went home so we could get some rest.
When I got back Jean was reading to Mr. Johnson from a book of Jack London stories she’d found in their library. She said she thought he liked them. When I said that was impossible because he had Alzheimer’s, she insisted that she thought she detected some response, that she felt his eyes on her as she read.
We helped Mr. Johnson to bed then went upstairs. As much as I wanted Jean right then, I had all I could do to kiss her good night before I drifted off. She continued to toss and turn, and I asked her what was the matter.
“I keep thinking about that story about the man they left alone with the wolves all around him and then I keep thinking of Mr. Johnson and mixing them up in my head. Maybe I just need to finish the story to find out what happened.”
“I can tell you how it ends.”
“Don’t spoil it. I’m going to go get that book and come back and finish the story.” She tossed off the covers and headed into the hallway completely naked—that’s how we slept.
“Aren’t you going to put something on?”
“Who’s going to see me? Mr. Johnson?” I caught a glimpse of her hip as she laughed and continued down the hallway and felt myself stir. Maybe I wouldn’t go to sleep right away after all. I waited for her to come back. And waited. And waited. Annoyed, I got up and put on my bathrobe and went downstairs.
She wasn’t in the living room so I poked my head into the Johnsons’ bedroom where Jean was bent over looking on the night table beside the bed for the book. This time I really felt myself stir because I could see all of her. As she walked around the table, still looking for the book, in the glow of the nightlight I saw Mr. Johnson follow her with his head, the bedcovers lifting over his lower body. As Jean spread her legs and bent over to pick the book up from the floor, the covers lifted even higher. “Oh, I found it.” Jean picked the book up from the floor and I met her in the living room. “Oh, you came down.” She smiled. “Were you lonely for me?”
“Very lonely.” As I wrapped my arms around her to kiss her I wanted to open my bathrobe and close it again with her inside.
“Ooh, is Mr. Happy waking up?” asked Jean, pressing against me.
“He’s been awake for a while.”
“Ooh, let’s see if we can’t do something about that,” she said, taking my hand and leading me upstairs.
Mrs. Johnson never did return home. I found her daughter’s phone in her address book and called her first thing the next morning after her stroke. I was all set to apologize for not calling her the night before, but all she seemed concerned about was her father.
“Well, physically he seems fine.” I certainly didn’t want to go into detail about what I’d seen when Jean was in her parents’ bedroom. “But his Alzheimer’s seems pretty severe.”
“I’ll tell you what. I can’t get away right now, but the term at the high school where I’m teaching ends the twenty-fifth. Do you think you could possibly stay with Dad until then? I’d like to see him for myself before I decide on what to do with him.”
“He needs to go to a nursing home.”
“You’re probably right. Will that work though—if I’m there the twenty-eighth?”
It will have to, I thought. “Sure, that’s fine.”
Other than having to care for Mr. Johnson, it wasn’t such a bad deal for us, actually. Our classes were over on the tenth and it would give us a couple weeks to unwind before we returned to our jobs at the camp June 1st. It would also be a year since Jean and I had met, and we couldn’t wait to see everyone’s faces when they saw the couple we’d become over the past year. We’d have to sleep apart for a few weeks—that was a real bummer—but we still had our spot and I had some pretty imaginative ways of how we could make use of it.
When Marie came—that was the Johnsons’ daughter—she was all business. The first thing she did was balk when she heard how much rent we’d been paying.
“A hundred a month? That’s ridiculous. That apartment would probably be two-fifty in Topeka.”
“But we’ve been caring for Mr. Johnson, though,” said Jean. And that takes—”
“I don’t care what it takes,” Marie snapped, sitting there severely in her business skirt and blouse. “As far as I’m concerned, the two of you have been robbing them. It can’t be that tough to feed an old man and put him to bed. I’ll probably just stay here through the summer and do it myself.”
I knew right then that Marie didn’t have a clue about the rest of it. Helping him to the bathroom, the bathing, the wandering around in the middle of the night—three times the police had brought him back to the house after they had found him jogging around the block in his pajamas—and no telling how long he’d been doing that. I also knew we would have to find a different place in the fall. Marie was definitely her mother’s daughter—the Mrs. Johnson I’d first met when her husband still had all his faculties. Jean started to cry so I put my arm around her. I think she had grown to love the Johnsons even more than I had. “Well, we’ll probably find a different place then.” I gave her the camp phone number. “Could you please let us know if there’s a turn for the worse for either of them? We’ve gotten really attached.”
“I suppose,” Marie snapped, tossing the paper I’d given her into her purse.
It was absolute hell being away from Jean every night. Even if we’d been married, camp rules were that each of us had to stay in a cabin with the campers. So at two each morning, when their nickering little snores made it impossible to sleep, we would grab our sleeping bags and meet at our spot and make love in the cool mountain grass. We started sleeping there together for part of the night, so things got better. It wasn’t the same as sharing a bed at the Johnsons’, but it was okay.
The camp was closing for the summer and we had just packed up and gotten our last paycheck when the call came. “She’s dead,” Marie said.
“Oh my God.” Jean would be heartbroken. I had no idea how I would tell her. “Could you tell me when the funeral is? We really want to be there. She was just like a grandma to us.”
“It’s two tomorrow afternoon.”
We would have to push pretty hard to get there by then, but I guess that was better than grieving for several days. “How’s Mr. Johnson?” I asked. The only answer was a dial tone.
Jean took it even harder than I thought she would. She wailed—actually wailed—then sobbed for half an hour as I held her. “I never knew either of my grandmas. Mrs. Johnson was the only grandma I ever had.” Then she broke into tears again and I held her until the camp had nearly cleared out and the caretaker patiently waited for us to leave so he could lock up for the summer.
I cried a lot too. What I couldn’t figure out though was why the Johnsons’ daughter had hung up on me when I asked about her father.
We’d both taken the news about Mrs. Johnson pretty hard, so instead of driving all night we got a room in Wall. Jean was still whimpering over Mrs. Johnson, but as soon as we both realized it was the first time we’d been together in a real bed for nearly three months, she let me kiss her tears away. After we made love then later lay there watching a fat August moon dance across the sky through our balcony room window, we were able to talk about Mrs. Johnson and even laugh a little bit about some of the things she’d said and done. Jean said not ever being able to talk to Mrs. Johnson again made her want to see Mr. Johnson again even more—even if it was just to hold his hand and read one last story to him—if his daughter would let her.
Wall Drug still had two eggs with toast and coffee for a quarter then, so that’s what we had for breakfast. I took a picture of Jean sitting on the lap of one of the concrete cowboys—she giggled the whole time. Then we topped off our gas tank and grabbed another cup of coffee and hit the road. If you’ve ever driven across western South Dakota between the Black Hills and the Missouri River, you know how desolate it can be. Well, our thoughts were pretty desolate too.
We made Vermillion by one—just enough time to stop and see Mr. Johnson before the funeral. I was grateful for that because it would give Jean time to see him again and work out her grief with him.
As we drove down the elm-lined street, Jean and I reached for each other’s hands, not knowing what we would find at the house. What sort of reception would Marie have for us? Was Mr. Johnson even still alive? If he were, would Marie even let us see him? Let alone Jean read him one last story?
When we got there, we found the house exactly the same as it had been when we came here a year before—knee-high grass, litter in the lawn, a screen window banging loose in the wind. The one change was in the detached two-car garage. Beside Mr. Johnson’s 1967 Oldsmobile was a new, cherry red BMW roadster.
Jean turned to me, her mouth hanging open aghast. “Do you suppose someone else lives here now?”
“Let’s go see.”
We went to the front door and rang the bell. There was no answer so I knocked. Still no answer, I cracked open the door and called out. “Marie?”
With no response, we stepped inside. Jean was first to make it to the living room. She backed up from the doorframe, nearly colliding with me. Face pale, she turned to me with her mouth agape as though she'd seen a ghost.
I stepped past her to take a look. Mr. Johnson was energetically moving about the room to sort items, carrying a large cardboard box. He wore crisp, white shorts and a red polo and a light sweat glistened across his forehead, but otherwise he looked as healthy as a Triple Crown winner. The weight of my stunned-still body made the hardwoods creak. He looked up, eerily calm. “Harrison, old boy, great to see you,” he said, reaching out a bone-crunching handshake.
“Mr. Johnson? I...you...we...”
“Remarkable recovery, Harrison, remarkable recovery.” He winked as he took in Jean—all of her, standing there by the stairs.
“Your daughter Marie. Does she kn—”
“Oh let’s talk about something pleasant now, shall we? Oh, forgive me. Come in, come in.”
Mr. Johnson had us sit at the kitchen table. Jean and I pressed together, stiffly sitting in unison while he opened the refrigerator and cracked open beers for us and himself. “So how was your summer?”
Jean and I exchanged glances with each other, both of us convinced that the man seated with us at the table was either an imposter or a ghost.
Mr. Johnson smiled—maybe leered would be a better word—at Jean then focused on me. “Oh, I have something for you.” He jumped up and went to the kitchen counter and returned with a large manila envelope.
“Have a buck on you, Harrison?”
“I think so.”
He held out his hand. “Let’s have it.”
Wondering where this was all going, I opened my wallet and handed him a dollar and he shoved the envelope into my hand. “What’s this?”
“That makes it legal.”
“What’s this, Mr. Johnson?”
“Open it up and see.” He smiled as he downed his beer then went to the refrigerator for refills.
I pulled out two documents—one the deed to the house and the other the title to the Oldsmobile. “Mr. Johnson...I...I can’t accept these.”
“Oh, you earned it, Harrison. And especially you, Jean,” he added, winking at her.
He said Jean’s name as though he’d known her from the time they’d first met—when Mr. Johnson was supposedly in a catatonic state. “But...where will you live, Mr. Johnson?”
“Oh, I was thinking of getting a new place on the water—Myrtle Beach, Padre Island, maybe Malibu. You see, I did exploration and mineral rights acquisition for Standard Oil before the war. They slapped an iron-clad employment contract on me during the Depression. I got just a quarter of my salary with the rest in stock. Right after Pearl Harbor they tried to pay me all my salary again.” Mr. Johnson chuckled. “My lawyer said it was iron-clad for me, too. They paid me like that until I quit and we moved here in 1970. It was something I planned on enjoying in retirement. Wife never knew. Well, Harrison, I guess we’d better drink up. We have a funeral to go to.”
I rolled the deed into a tube in my hand. “This doesn’t feel right at all, Mr. Johnson. What about your daughter, her inheri—”
“She gets nothing. The house is yours.”
"Are you sure about all this?”
“As sure as I am that as soon as this funeral’s over I’ll be doing a hundred forty on my way out of town.” He eyed Jean one more time then winked at me. “Pretty cute girlfriend you’ve got there, Harrison. Hope you burn up a couple sheets for me tonight.” He took one last swallow of his beer and looked off with dreamy determination. “Wouldn’t mind something like that for myself. Well, now...” He crumpled his beer cans in his fist and tossed them in the trash. “I’ll see you at the funeral.” The screen door slammed behind him. Moments later, a cranking engine sounded, a wailing engine, screeching tires driving straight toward Hell at over a hundred miles per hour.
When I thought back to when I first met the Johnsons and Mr. Johnson’s illness and Mrs. Johnson’s demise, I had an epiphany. Like a vampire sucking the blood from his victim and continuing to live through eternity, Mr. Johnson had not only gotten even with his wife—he’d done far better than that—or worse, depending on one's perspective.
Jean looked at me, as lost as I’d ever seen her. “That night, when I came downstairs to get that book from Mr. Johnson’s bedroom so I could finish the story?”
“Did he see—"
"Yes." I put my arm around her. "And that just might be one of a number of reasons that we now have a house."
"Hmm. So it would seem." We looked at each other and smiled shyly, not knowing what else to do.
Bio- Michael Tidemann is an adjunct college English instructor living in Estherville, Iowa. His fiction has appeared in Black Hills Monthly Magazine, The Longneck, Struggle and thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org. His nonfiction has appeared in TheSan Diego Union-Tribune, Snowmobile, Overdrive, Truckers' News, Truckers USA, Western Business and the Des Moines Register. He recently returned from a month-long research trip to the (very smoky) Pacific Northwest where he researched the pre-Civil War exploits of George Pickett and Phil Sheridan for a novel he is working on, Letters From Elk City. His author page is amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann.