“If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer. If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!” - Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The One Ton Woman and the Amazonian Half Man

The show was a flop from the very start. Carnivals as a rule had trouble in those days but time had made it impossible to relay on the old standbys. Bearded women were cured by cosmetic surgery. Snake charmers were a dime a dozen. Fire eaters were listed as an insurance risk. It was getting harder and harder for decent hard working circus managers to pull together a show.

And then there were the protests from the animal rights activists, complaining about the treatment of the elephants. The elephants! For godsake they were treated better than the people who worked there. But who the hell cared about the people right? The costs were adding up, the revenues dropping. You get ten tigers to stand at attention and roar with each whip crack you get a yawn from kids. Only candy sales were up. And that wasn’t enough to combat the lot fees, insurance, feed and housing of rare snakes, elephants, tigers, et al, and twenty very disgruntled overworked carnival hands who, if the sources are correct, were staging a Guatemalan revolt in their shared trailer.

The manager sat at his cramped desk in the back of his dimly lit trailer, and rearranged the bills for the seventh time. He stacked the past due and the really past due and the foreclosure warnings into three distinct piles. Not surprisingly, this caused no change in their collective arrears.

There was a knock at the trailer door and the manager barked to enter.

“Sir,” said the carnival hand, rubbing his dark hair back and forth with his large palm. “There’s a lady…er…to see you.”

“A lady?” The manager said re-adjusting his bill piles. “What does she want?”

“To see you sir.”

“Is she rich?”

“Um….” The worker briefly exited the trailer letting the door slam behind him and then
re-entered. “No sir, she says she’s not rich. She’s looking for work.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Here, sir. She’s looking for work here.”

“She pretty?”


“Is she an accountant? Can she make these bills go away?”


“Whatever, send her in.”

“I’m afraid I can’t sir.” The carnival hand looked genuinely terrified at his inability to comply with his boss’ request.

“Why not?”

“Because she can’t fit, sir,”

“Can’t fit, you say?”

“No sir.”

“Christ.” The manager got up from his desk and placed his hat up on his head. He shooed the man out of his trailer and before exiting checked his teeth in the mirror near the door.

“Morning, sir,” the woman said, as soon as the trailer door opened. The circus manager faltered but managed a feeble reply. Standing before him was the largest woman he had ever seen. The largest woman, he believed, that may have ever lived. She wore a pink strapless dress that stopped just below her knees. Or what the manager assumed were her knees, but seemed to be just more layers of pink and dimpled flesh. Her bust alone must have needed an entire bolt of fabric to cover. At her side was a small man, who had neither arms nor legs, just a torso and a head. He was tied sitting upright on a skateboard. The skateboard had a string tied to the axle and the end of the string was held by the woman.

“My name is Irene,” the woman said. “This is Vincent. We are looking for some work.”
“Work?” the manager repeated rather stupidly.

“Yes sir.”

He was surprised by how soft and childlike her voice was. Her vocal cords somehow managed, strangled and suffocating under the rolls of flesh and fatty tissue, to capture such dulcet tones.

“What kind of work are you looking for?” the manager asked. Unable to resist the urge, he ventured around to the back of Irene and her very tiny friend. Irene craned her neck to see him. Her bottom was even bigger than her front.

“Well I can sing sir and Vincent here, well, he doesn’t do much, but as you can see he’s got no arms or legs.”

“Indeed,” the manager said circling back around. He bent over to get a good look at the sad eyed Vincent on his skateboard. His diminutive features, those black coal eyes and pug nose, clustered in the center of his face, rallying together like bugs. His skin was pasty, slick looking.

“But we thought that maybe we could be part of the act.”

“Part of the act?”

“Yes sir,” Irene said.

“Part of the act?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How can you be part of the act?”

“Well sir, like I said, I can sing and Vincent here is something to look at.”

“Something to look at?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are both something to look at. I mean, my god, my great grandfather would
have killed to get his hands on you. But that was back then. You can’t be in the show now. I mean, look at you!”


“Listen, I get it. The Fat Lady and The Half Man. It would have been a huge hit. In 1896! You can’t go on stage today. They will run me out of town.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Look, Irene, you seem like a really nice…girl. And I’m glad that you are comfortable with your body, but this is the 20th century. I can’t go putting you on stage. It’s…well it’s just cruel. I’m sorry. I have no work for you.”

“But sir, every carnival needs a fat lady and a half man.”

The manager looked her at her face. It too was soft and tender looking, puffing at the cheeks and dimpling at her chin. The rest of her was just like that; as if she had never had a callous finger or a scabbed toe. She looked like an overgrown baby, soft, pink and gigantic. “Irene, I’m serious. I’ve already got the animal cruelty people on my back. I don’t need human rights people to join the throng. If I put you on stage, as magnificent as you are, they will string me up. You understand?”

“It’s a sad day when the freaks can’t even work at the Freak Show,” croaked Vincent, his voice much lower than anyone would have expected. The manager looked down at him but said nothing.

“I’m sorry for taking up your time, sir,” Irene said. “We’ll be going.” She turned around, waddling on her shockingly small feet and walked away, slowly, tugging Vincent along with each step. The manager watched them go.

“Wait!” he said before they reached the circus gate. “Wait!”

Irene was renamed Baby Irene and a placard was set up containing a caricature of her seated on a swing, with a small pink umbrella in her hand. In the background was a draped red curtain held back by two yellow cords. Her name was plastered over the top. In two small bubbles at the bottom it said “The One Ton Woman, 960 lbs” and in another bubble it said “Alive.”

Vincent got a similar sign treatment, though his caricature showed a much tougher looking creature. His sad bug eyes were gone and instead he was depicted with a snarl, a black wiry eyebrows jutting off his face, and his torso twisted to the side like a bean with no arms or legs. He was cast as the “Amazonian Half Man” and the placard informed customers that he was available “Only here” and “A fierce version of Nature’s mistakes.”

“You look handsome,” Irene said when she saw it. Vincent smiled at her.

“Everyone ready?” the manager asked doing the rounds. Though she was reluctant, she handed over the rope so that the manager could wheel Vincent down to his tent. She watched him go away, sadly hoping they would not be apart for too long.

“Through here, miss,” said the carnival hand holding back the tent flap for her. “You sit right there,” he said motioning at the swing in the center of the stage. There were three planks of wood hammered together and rigged to the ceiling.

“Is it safe?” Irene asked.

“Of course,” he replied. “We tested it on the baby elephant, miss.”

“Everything good?” the manager asked ducking back into the tent.

“Yes, everything is fine.”

“Okay, you are going to sit there and sing and let people get a look at you. Your costume is right there,” he said pointing behind a small wooden shoji screen.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Listen, Irene, if there are any problems, you know I’m going to have let you go.”

“I understand, sir,” she said slowly walking towards the screen. It would only cover half of her. She looked up at the manager.

“Oh right of course,” he said snapping for the man to bring another. “Good luck,” he said as he left.

Later that night, the townspeople wandered in. Oklahoma was a hard sell anyway, the Sunday preacher warning the townsfolk about strange devils. But the crowd was all right and the acrobats did the act where it looked like one of them was going to fall and die and then they caught each other at the last possible second. Always a show pleaser.
The manager made his way around to Irene’s tent. He watched the small group of people there open their wallets, hand over the admission price and file into the tent. He waited with baited breath, his ear pressed to the flap. There was a murmur of conversation that died down as Baby Irene took the stage. He heard stifled laughter, clearly from children who were hushed by their parents. He heard nervous coughing. It’s never going to work. It’s too much. They will be shut down in a week.

He did not stay to hear her sing. But when it was over, and the flap pulled back to let the crowd out, he noticed something strange. They were all stricken, as if they had just exited church after a particularly moving sermon. On their way out, each of them, pressed more money into the hands of the ticket taker. Women were moved to tears; men, stoic.

The manager headed backstage. Irene stood there, still in her pink performance outfit. He took her hand and kissed it.

“You must have been wonderful.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“They were giving me MORE money. This is….this is incredible.”

“Thank you, sir. So we may stay?”

“Stay? Of course. Of course you must stay, my sweet Baby Irene.”

“And Vincent, too?”

“Vincent, too.”

They extended the stay in Grady County, adding two weeks onto the tour. By the time they made it to Pushmataha, Baby Irene’s stature and voice where already on the lips of the townsfolk. The people thought she was an angel from God. The Guatemalans agreed. But the manager knew better. She was a Venus of Willendorf, a goddess robust in breasts and abdomen and vulva. She was fertile. She was land to be sowed and now, she was money. They were making more money than the manager ever had. He couldn’t even being to fathom his own fortuitous luck. Texas and Louisiana were similar. It wasn’t until Terrebonne Parish that things changed.

The Magician arrived in a black carriage pulled by four white horses. His name was painted on the side. He pulled the carriage to a halt, the horses snorting and foaming and dismounted without a word in the center of the fairgrounds. The Guatemalans gathered cautiously. The Magician opened the door for a twisted toothless woman. She exited the carriage, crippled and bent like a fisherman’s hook. The newcomers entered the manager’s tent without speaking to the workers.

“It is to your advantage,” he told the manager, who rubbed his face with his palm. He eyed the old woman.

“And who is she?”

“Of no concern to you,” the Magician said. The old woman, with her milky eyes, stared
upwards. Occasionally she whispered into the Magician’s ear.

“I have a main attraction. She’s done quite well. I’ve very happy with her.”

“Not like me,” the Magician said.

“Prove it.”

The Magician gathered them outside the tent. He rounded up the three ancient elephants the show had, their grey skin pocked with scars. When they vanished into thin air and reappeared on the other side of the circus, with trumpeting alarm, the Guatemalans crossed themselves. The manager nearly cried. There was no more discussion after that.

“Bruja,” they Guatemalans whispered when the old woman passed. She spat at them and they hustled away, crossing their chests and foreheads. Later they talked amongst themselves about how the fruit they fed the animals would rot as soon as she passed.

The glass tank arrived by horseback in the night. The Magician only practiced at night when no one could see his secretes. Baby Irene could hear the chains rattling as he refitted the locks and filled the tank. Each time she heard the sound of his body hit the water and the slam of the lid she held her breath. He struggled inside that glass water tank for what, to her lying in her bed, seemed like hours. When she heard him come out, coughing and gasping for air, she took would breathe heavy.

The crowd doubled. The Guatemalans held prayer sessions. They gave Baby Irene a rosary which was too small for her to fit over her head. They pressed it into her hand.

“Bruja” they warned. “Mantenerse alejado de bruja. NiƱo, rezar, rezar.”

When the show came to Biloxi, the Magician paraded the elephants down Main Street. There was still water flowing and their heavy fat feet splashed against it, trunk to tail, trunk to tail. The Magician announced the show. The people, lost, hungry came out of their broken homes, down the water swollen streets left by the hurricane.
After the show, the people, dazzled, charmed even, left money on their seats. They filled the hat the monkey passed around. They couldn’t give away their few precious dollars fast enough.

The Magician asked for the grandstand from inside Baby Irene’s tent.

“He’s bringing in more money,” the manager said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then he argued for the whole tent.

“You cannot have two main attractions. It doesn’t work,” the Magician said. The old woman stood just behind him, her fingers tugging at the tails of his coat. She opened her mouth, showing rotten gums and a blackened tongue. “Her or me.”

“But Baby Irene has been with us for so long now,” the manager said, looking away from the old woman. There was a buzzing in his head, as if it were filled with mosquitoes. Things had seemed so much easier when it was only money. “She’s harmless.”
The old woman whispered into the Magician’s ear. “You cannot have two main attractions,” he repeated and turned to walk out. “Her or me.”

“Okay, wait,” the manager said. “You can have the tent.”

It was moved for the performance that night. They put Baby Irene in the smaller tent. She had to share it with the acrobats who spoke no English but offered some of their stew to her.

Before the performance that night, the old woman wandered by alone. It was strange to
see her moving about without the looming shadow of the Magician and the carnival hands spat on the ground as she passed. When she entered Irene’s tent, she smiled a gaping toothless smile at her. Irene nodded and smiled back. The woman rummaged through the tent and approached Irene with a small hairbrush.

“Cheveux. Juste an peu..sil vous plait,” she said, her voice guttural. She put the brush in Baby Irene’s hand and then with two gnarled and twisted fingers she dug out some hair. She held it up to show Irene and opened her blackened mouth.
Irene sang that night. And every night after wards, as the carnival lumbered across the gulf.

Vincent noticed first, which of course he would. He asked if she was feeling alright.

“Just tired,” Baby Irene said. “Just tired.”

The Guatemalans crossed themselves when she passed now. The baldness started in the back of her head. It wound in concentric circles. Hair came out by the handful, clumps of it. Baby Irene only cried when no one was watching, her shaking hand compulsively touching the skin of her scalp.

They fitted her for a wig and she sang every night.

Then the rash started; a large red splash across her face and over the bridge of her nose. Vincent cried when saw it. Baby Irene hushed him and used her skirt to wipe away his tears. She promised she was fine.

They used makeup to cover it and she sang every night.

There were skin lesions, joint pain and swelling. Irene walked with a limp now. But still she sang every night.

The manager fretted. He feared it was contagious.

The Magician changed the name of the show. The manager didn’t protest. Not even when they painted the Magician’s name across the banner.

The Guatemalans held vigil by her bedside. The prayed over their beads, over Irene’s sleeping bald form. The lesions spread mapping their way down her arms and legs. Then, the worst part happened.

“Bruja,” they whispered. “Bruja.”

Irene started to wither away. It was a drastic weight loss, as if her skeleton was being squeezed out of her body. Her hand turned boney first, even as her arms were still fattened and dimpled.

The manager fretted. What was happening to the One Ton Woman?

Then, her voice went.

For the first night since she joined the carnival, she did not sing. She lay in bed that night and spoke only once.

“Please, may I see Vincent?” she asked, her voice like gravel.

The Guatemalans brought him in on his skateboard. Before he even approached her bed, he could smell her, the skin spoiling, the body rotting. The propped him up on the edge of her bed. They didn’t speak. Vincent’s tears dropped onto her shoulder.

“Are you dying?” Vincent asked.

“I don’t know,” Irene said. “My voice is gone.”

“I know.”

They sat in silence and listened to the lions roaring in their cages.

“I think it’s over then,” Vincent said.

“Maybe,” Irene sighed.

The manager with hands wringing brought in the doctor. He put the large metal stethoscope against Irene’s chest and listened.

“What is it?” the manager asked.

“Lupus. Possibly.”

“Are you sure?”

“I would need to do a test.”

“A test?”

“Yes.” The doctor reached into his black bag and removed a sheet of paper. On it, he
wrote a sum.

The manager took the paper and looked at Baby Irene. The Guatemalans had fitted her with the rosary. It hung limply on her buried in the folds of rotting skin, now splotched and marked with lesions and pustules clustered like fish eggs on her body. The manager looked at the paper and shook his head no.

The doctor closed his black bag and left the tent.

“Bruja,” the Guatemalans told Vincent. They pulled him on his skateboard away from the tent. Away from Irene. “Que fue maldecida por la bruja.”

When they passed the lion cage Vincent told them to stop. They left him there. He watched the creature for some time, its yellow mane tangled with knots and straw. It watched him too, with sharp unblinking black eyes.
Vincent knew what the Guatemalans spoke of. He knew what he had to do. Long ago he had a grandmother. She had not loved him, no one had every really loved him before Irene, but she taught him things. Things from the old country. Vincent knew there was only one way to undo a curse.

He leaned forward, and rolled off the skateboard. Using his neck and chin he inched his way across the grass to the edge of the lion’s cage. The creature stared at him with renewed curiosity.

He pulled himself, painstaking inch after painstaking inch, wriggling past the bars. This took a long time. He was tired and his neck hurt. His face was poked by the reeds of hay lining at the bottom of the cage. He struggled. He sweat. His tears mixed with the sweat and blood from the scratches. Finally, he pulled himself through the bars into the lion’s cage. He lay there panting, trying to be brave.

The lion, with renewed interest, stood up, and padded his way over to the strange thing that had crawled into his cage. It sniffed Vincent. Hot puffs of air blew out its black velvety nose. It smelled sharp, like raw meat and feces and fur. It nudged him with a paw and Vincent whimpered slightly. He thought of Baby Irene lying in the tent, wasting away to nothingness. The lion reached out a paw and pushed down on Vincent’s body. He felt the claws rise out of the creatures paw, slowly, and press their needle points into his flesh. The lion roared loudly and Vincent felt it in every molecule of his being. He trembled slightly. He closed his eyes. This was it. This would save her.
The lion sniffed him again, its nose rubbing against the side of Vincent’s face. He saw the creature pull back its lips, the whiskers brushing past his eye. It snarled, showing thick yellow fangs sunk in black gums. The smell of the lion coated Vincent.

“Please,” Vincent said softly.

The lion lifted its head and the cool night air again touched Vincent’s skin. It yawned,
letting out a small squeak.

“Just do it. Just end this,” he said to the creature. “Break the curse.”

But the lion lifted his paw off Vincent’s body, stretched like a kitten with its haunches in the air and headed back to the corner. It flopped down on the hay, curled up and went back to sleep.

And Vincent lay face down in the dirty hay, small specks of blood staining his shirt from the lion’s paw. He could just see the moon through the cracks of the bars and he watched it and he waited. He waited for something, anything, to happen.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The stray cat gave birth to kittens. Four of them lived, which was a bit of a miracle considering. Prior to the birth, she crept over the black stones of the tawny red clay city. The fat sun that hung so determinedly in the sky finally relented and slipped toward the horizon. The cat settled down. She moved only when the people hide. And when they moved, she hid as best she could. People started to come to life again now that the sun was gone. They crept out of doorways and opened shutters to let in the hope of a breeze. They carried their prayer books to the open mosque in the center of the square. They bowed and prayed and filled the hours.

She was pregnant. Very pregnant. And in being pregnant with a litter her movements where hampered which is a very unfortunate situation to be in as a cat. Especially in this area. There were children to contend with. They did not like the cat. Any cat. Especially the one girl.

“Get out of here!” the girl screamed, stamping her foot only inches from the cats face. The cat pulled back and hissed, baring all its teeth. She swiped a paw out and nicked the girl’s bare toe. The blood glistened. The girl ran away. The cat was pleased.

She cleaned herself, her fat rolling belly. The cat knew she had to find a place to deliver these kittens. There was nowhere safe in this city. There was a spasm of pain down her back that made her legs twitch. She wanted to run but couldn’t.

Later that night the girl came back. She yelled at the cat again, her face contorting into a snarl. The cat dug her claws into the dirt of the road and hissed back, teeth showing, ears flat. The girl kicked at the road, a shower of dirt and pebbles flew at the cat. She tried to run but managed only to hobble under a nearby car. The girl laughed and peeked under the car. The cat pulled herself in as close as she could. Her eyes stung from the dirt that was now stuck in them. She didn’t dare lick her paw and try to clean them out. She didn’t dare move. Still was safer. She waited for the girl to go away.

Days later, right before the waves of pain that would send the cat leaping, with a half born kitten falling out of her, the girl came back. The cat watched her; her and another one. Taller. Stronger. She could smell the boy before he rounded the corner. They spotted the cat and laughed. The cat purred to calm herself. The kittens inside her rolled over and over each other. The boy climbed the stairs behind her up to the balcony. The cat watched him and wondered what he was doing.
He lifted a glass jug which shone in the sun, the light blinking off it like a warning. The cat started. Something was wrong. She could feel that.

“Do it,” the girl on the street yelled. The cat turned her attention to the noise and the boy above her, on the balcony tipped the jug pouring thick olive oil out of it which splattered and smeared the cat in its slime. The cat tried to run again. The oil coated her fur making her skin itch horribly. Hobbled, she hid under the car, behind a wheel. The children laughed, their voices fading down the road. The cat tried to clean herself, desperately knew she had to clean herself. Her rough tongue pulled at the oil soaked hair. The kittens inside her rolled over and over again. It was time.

Only four would survive. They would be confused by the foreign smell of their mother, her fur still matted with oil. They would nip and cry and refuse to drink. The ones that died, their necks twisted, some half formed, she left under the car for a day. Later she would gather them, one by one, her mouth closing over the loose skin on their necks. Some had no necks so she dragged them by whatever she could. She lined them up, neatly, right on the front step of the girl’s home. She cleaned them each in turn and then she ran away to wait till sunset when the girl would find them. She would wait to hear the girl scream.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This is Work

“Split the log with a quick sharp blow,” my father said.

I felt the wooden handle of the axe in my hand, my toe tapped the steel point. My father took a step back, out of the sunlight that hit the back of the field. In the shade he seemed thinner, older.
I hefted the tool up, surprised by the weight of it, as if I were pulling in a great fish and propped it on my shoulder, the way they used to show loggers posed in magazines. I put one hand on my hip, being funny.

“What are you doing?” my father said, swinging his big paw hand around at the back of my head. “That’s how people get hurt. You think this is a game? This is work.”

I held the axe with two hands, brushing off his remark.

“One quick sharp blow,” he repeated setting the log upright.

I nodded. I lifted the tool over my shoulder and let it come down with just the force of gravity. I hit the log slightly off center and the axe stuck. I struggled to pull it out, but it refused to budge and then the whole mess fell over. My father put his foot on the log and with only one hand pried the axe out.

He lit a cigarette which he kept in his mouth as he flipped the log upright, lifted the axe and brought it down with a clean solid stroke that cleaved it in two. The sound of the axe in the wood echoed over the field, all the way back to the house.

“You see?” he said.

He handed me the axe. I watched him roll up his sleeve. The flesh there was still white, paler than the rest of his tan arms. I could see the scars on the inside of his arms, track marks.
He lifted another log back up on the post, exhaled a cloud of smoke over my head and nodded.

I hoisted the tool up and brought it down with a grunt. This time, I made contact but the log split unevenly, chipping the wood so that little flecks went everywhere. I covered my eyes fearful of anything getting into them. One section, like a piece cut from a pie, lay at my feet.

My father took the axe and cleaved the log in half. Mere seconds. He handed me his cigarette and told me to hold it. Then he cut another one. And another one. And another one. The sweat started to bead on his head.

“You see,” he grunted bringing the axe down, “this is how you do it. You need to know this. You need to know how to do this. Men need to know how to do this.”

His cigarette felt small and tender between my fingers. It was a damp where his lips had been. It felt like a little finger, like my baby sister's finger when she was still learning to walk. It felt breakable and I resisted the urge, watching my father lift and split log after log, grunting and sweating in the fading light, to snap it in half. Oh, but I wanted to. I pressed down on it with my forefinger and thumb, feeling the squish of the fibers in the filter. It was so tender, my fingers shook with need. My father continued to cut the log. He was speaking to me, I realized that, watching the sweat gather under his arms and around his neck. He was telling me about being a man.

When his head was down I brought the cigarette up to my lips, just to put them where his had been. Just for a moment.

“You hear me?” he said lifting his head and then seeing me there, “What the hell are you doing?”

Monday, August 2, 2010


The brown house was on fire to the attic. There was absolutely no way the damn dog was still alive but the man, moved to do something, anything really, kept approaching the firemen. They stalled him, pushing him aside. They had work to do. There was a fire. These were the things they told him. The feeling of displacement jarred him. He couldn’t help but notice how much he was not a part of this thing that was happening to him. He watched the flames crawl out the window. In stories they always say the flames lick something, the sky for instance. He noticed this was remarkably not true. When the firemen left, deeming this a job well done, the man looked up and down his street. He noticed with some degree of alarm that none of his neighbors had come out to gawk or worry over him. This wasn’t that kind of street.

When it was over, he walked inside, through the space that had once been the door. Immediately he felt what it was to occupy a negative space; an inverse; a nowhere. Inside were the guts of everything he once used and owned. Things he had selected from the numerous shelves in stores. His plates, his blanket, towels, razors, picture frames. The things we all collect to build a life. Now just twisted plastic melted into bizarre shapes, singed metal bent and mutated in its death. Cabinets in the kitchen stained from smoke and fire. In the living room, his couch was just metal springs, smoking soaked fabric. He ran his foot through ash and soot. It had happened so quickly he thought to himself. It was a simple decision; like a prayer murmured by a non-believer. It was spontaneous and obvious. Something had to be done about all the newspapers. This was the only available solution he had left.

He found the dog in the attic. It must have run up there in terror, he thought, leaning over it. The smoke must have killed it because the dog, the damn dog, was still untouched. Everything downstairs was destroyed, but not an inch of the dog’s wiry hair seemed singed. It lay on its side, teeth bared as if growling at the black curling smoke that entered its lungs. Its tongue was stained black. Only one eye was open. The man picked up the dog and noticed in death it held more weight than life. He started for the stairs. This was the change, he had prayed for, his finger rubbing together in need just hours ago. It did not last as long as he had hoped. It didn’t last as long as he needed. This was supposed to be a re-birth, he said to the dead dog under his arm. They were alone now, again, as they were before. It was so easy to step between the doorways. From a ghost to a man, briefly, far too briefly, and then without warning to a ghost again.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Bargain

The devil looks exactly as you imagine. That is the first thing you should know.

“Right here,” he said, pointing a long fingernail at the paper in front of him.

“And then that’s it?” she asked.

“That’s it.”

“And I get whatever I want?” She wiped a few stray hairs from her warm forehead. He tapped his finger again and though she wasn’t entirely sure she thought she say him roll his eyes as if this was a daily occurrence. And then it dawned on her, to him, it was.

“What happens afterwards?”

“After what?” he asked.

“After I die.”

“I own your soul. Look, I will give you everything you will ever want in life. Anything. You want it, it’s yours. Material possessions; new house, new car. Done. Physical changes; bigger boobs, smaller waist. Done. Fantasies; Being the envy of all your friends; amassing power and wealth. Done. Honestly,” he said with a slight chuckle. “And when you die your soul belongs to me.”

“What happens then?”

“It’s like a great big pleasure cruise. Lots of laying around, doing nothing, being waited on by my servants, occasionally be forced into banal conversations with other passengers and listening to over enthusiastic conductors slaughter classic do-wop tunes.”

She couldn’t tell if he was joking.

“Okay,” she said. She held the pen over the line and just before touching the paper it dawned on her how quickly she was willing to sign away her immortal soul. She had often been accused of not being a believer. You know those people who wait outside of grocery stores to convert someone in the summer heat while their tub of coffee ice cream slowly melts into the same oblivion the believers won’t stop talking about. She was that person you always see stuck talking to them taking handfuls of leaflets as you skirt by thinking, Thank God that wasn’t me, your ice cream soon to be safely tucked into your freezer at home. But though she had never been a believer per say, she often let her mind wander to the potential of life after death, as any creature capable of foreseeing their own demise. And not once did it ever dawn on her that she would wind up in Hell. Yet here she was, on a perfectly average night, fantasizing about how her life could change if she signed on the dotted line.

“Wait,” she said, pulling the pen away again which elicited another groan from the Devil. “But during my life, you know before I die, will you be needing anything? I mean, am I going to have to do your bidding?” she asked, her pen wavering over the line.

The devil sighed. “How did they all figure out this question?” he asked, to no one in particular. He concluded, correctly, that there must be some sort of leak from the inside that he would have to undoubtedly get to the bottom of. Someone needed to keep their little demon mouth shut. He looked at her. “Yes, on occasion, I might ask a favor or so from you.”

“What kind of favor?”

“Oh the usual. New recruits, creation of bridges, that sort of thing.”

“Creation of bridges?”

“Yeah, it was sort of necessary in the past but I haven’t needed any in awhile. Look, I wouldn’t really worry about it, okay?”

“What would you need a bridge for? To get to the world of the living?”

The devil held up his hands in exasperation. “Do you really think I need a bridge? I mean, here I am? No bridge in sight,” he said. She looked around the sparse landscape. She did not stand at a crossroads, as is often considered a popular place to parse out one’s soul. Nor was she at a carnival fairgrounds, where seedy characters of every nature might seduce a distraught young woman. Not that she was distraught, technically speaking. Or for that matter, young. They were not near a cemetery or a potential gateway of any sort. Instead she was in the parking lot of the mall that she worked at. Nor was it the first or last day of the month, or during the waxing or waning moon or midnight or 3:00 am, a purportedly known witching hour. It was a Tuesday. And it was nearly 7:10 which meant she was going to be late visiting her elderly mother at the retirement home which would lead to the inevitable accusation her mother always made that the woman didn’t even love her enough to visit her in the hell-hole that she had put her in nearly 5 years ago.

“The bridge,” the devil continued, “is a rather easy way to set up a toll.”

“A toll?” she said.

“Yes. Like a tax. For instance, I believe it is common around here to pay a fee of some sort in order to get to the other side of a bridge or tunnel. It that not still the case?”

“No, I mean, yeah, we pay tolls.”

“Well exactly.”

“So you collect money?”

“No darling, I collect souls,” he said again tapping at the paper in her hand.

“As a toll?”

“Pretty much. In the past, I used to have my faithful create bridges and whomever passed would forfeit their soul.”

“Wait a second. So anyone who went over this bridge automatically gave up their eternal soul without even knowing it?”

“Pretty much.”

“That seems a little unfair.”

“Well it was a rather difficult bridge to create and quite breathtaking to behold. Anyone
worth their salt, might have taken a look around and said to themselves, you know, this seems to go against the very nature of physics. Maybe I should think twice before crossing it.”

“That’s just wrong.”

“Be that as it may, I have the right to not play fairly. That is sort of my thing.”

“So do I have to build a bridge?” she asked. The woman didn’t have the foggiest idea how to build a bridge. She imagined there would be engineers involved. And zoning permits. The whole thing was starting to give her a headache. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe there were going to be a million little loopholes and she would wind up doing way more work than just giving up her soul. She put the pen in her mouth and chewed nervously.

The Devil reached over, removed the pen from her mouth, and wiped it on her sleeve. He put the pen back in her hand. “You will not have to create a bridge. It seems that in the end it was determined that the relative unfairness was too great and I was getting greedy, which let’s be honest, is sort of a joke, and collecting too many souls without doing any work so now, it’s all gotten a bit more complicated.”

“Complicated, how?”

“Complicated in that I’m standing in a bloody parking lot in a bloody mall explaining the whole thing to you!” he roared, dropping his voice to such a decibel that the woman could feel it in her very bones, in every cell of her being, in the very fibers of whatever her soul was made of and she shook from the intensity of it.

“My apologies,” the Devil continued. “I will not have you build me a bridge or steal babies or any of those other rumors you have heard.”

“Steal babies?”

“Yes, it’s too easy. Their souls come right out. There is no challenge. Even I can admit to that as a sort of cheating.”

The woman swallowed. She felt the weight of the contract in her hand. In stories it was always a single sheet of paper. This felt like a phone book and was covered in a degree of legalese.

And then a thought hit her.

“What if I wanted to?”

“Wanted to what?”

“Build the bridge.”

“Excellent. By all means, build a bridge.”

“I mean for you,” she said.

“I figured as much.”

“Okay,” she said and with a quick movement as if her body had to move faster than her brain she signed the paper.

“Thank you,” the devil said snatching it out of her hand. “Now the fun part. I think we should start with all this,” he said waving his hand over her body.

Twenty years later, she stood at the center for a bridge on the outskirts of town, waiting for her brother. As she gazed around the familiar landscape she knew she had picked the ideal location. There were trees, craggy mountains, a steep gorge, a small bubbling stream 50 feet below below. And the bridge itself, stone arched, like a woman’s back mid-tumble. Every season was breathtaking. It was perfect. It was romantic. And it was hers.

The first person had been the hardest decision. It took her awhile to track him down. She had not seen him since high school but when they finally met up for coffee she was amazed that he smelled the same as she remembered. It was like going back in time. He still had the easy laugh, only this time when he laughed it was with her. She frowned about his divorce and rubbed his hand that he left on the table. Every hour, he told her how amazing she looked and she smiled a sheepish smile. Indeed, she had changed, hadn’t she? Blossomed, if you will. Her face no longer pale and pockmarked. Her hair shiny. Her waist thinner than it was in high school.

She waited awhile before bringing him to her bridge. She wanted it to be a special night. The stone echoed under his shoes.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “I can’t believe I grew up in this town and never knew this was here.”

“It’s easy not to notice things,” she said looking down over her hands at the drop below them.

“When was it built?” he wondered running his hands over the smooth stone work.

“Oh I have no idea,” she said. “Probably a long time ago.”

“Doesn’t it seem like it was built by monks? I heard there was a monastery around here a long time ago.”

The woman chuckled at this and grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s go,” she said leading him across.

She was nervous. She had no idea what would happen. Would it be immediate? When he got to the other side, would he vanish? Would he shrivel up and die? Would the devil show up? Would there be screaming and pain and misery?

But instead, to her mild disappointment, they just crossed, continued down the path, toward the waterfall. He seemed fine. As if nothing had happened. She worried that it didn’t work.

Later that night, as he slept next to her, she removed the heavy band of papers from the nightstand, flipped through to the back and saw, underneath her own name, his. She smiled, and snuggled down into bed.

The others had been easier.

She checked her watch again. Her brother was no where in sight. She glanced over at the gazebo on the other side of the bridge. Everything was set up. A giant banquet table, the food was waiting. The tables decorated with the same flowers she had used on her wedding day, ten years ago.

She heard the crunch of gravel on the road and the chatter of voices, bickering, exhausted sounding voices growing. Her brother arrived, with his wife and their three kids. In front of him they pushed their elderly mother, now wheelchair bound.

“How did you find this place?” he said, gruffly.

“A friend told me about it,” she answered. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

“Yeah, you too, sis. I mean, it was a pain in the ass to get out here, but hey, I’m glad to see you.”

She smiled. That was typical of him. She kissed each of them on the cheek, thanked them for coming, and she ushered them over the bridge.

One by one.

Next came her father.

Then her stepmother.

Her sister and her sister’s family.

Two aunts and six cousins.

Then the long line of friends that she had only in the last 10 years been able to accumulate. Good friends. Who loved her for her kindness, her tact. Friends who weren’t jealous even though she had everything they could possibly want. They loved her too much to envy her.

And she thought about each name that was being added to that list.

Her husband made a toast. It was touching, about family and love being the things you can count on. The things that go on forever. About how lucky he was. About how lucky they all were.

“Happy Anniversary to the love of my life,” he said and she felt the tears gather.

Everyone smiled, clinked glasses and drank. And she thought to herself how beautiful it is that would always, always be together. Not even death would take a single loved one at this table. Not from her. They would all be reunited. She had made sure of that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Accident

She was listening to Lou Reed when the impact came.

It was not sudden, not like most accidents are described by those that survive them. It was, in fact, almost in slow motion but she will not remember that part. A week earlier she had been out at a coffee shop with her best friend. She told her that John Irving could save her life.

“How?” her friend said, licking the coffee off the edge of the To-Go lid. She put down her phone.

“Because, of the car accident.”

“What accident,” her friend said.

“See this couple, right, they were drunk so they had the twins drive the car. They had been out skiing and fighting or something.” The girl brushed back her hair and wiped her nose with a napkin. “So the one kid is driving the car. But he forgot to wipe off the back blinker.”

“What?” her friend said.

“The back blinker. You know the directional. The thing that flashes and says you are turning. He forgot to clean the snow off so no one can see it.”

“So this guy taught you to clean the snow off your car?” Her friend picked up her phone and fiddled with it. The sound of the espresso machine filled the room.

“No. Listen. First always clean the snow off your directional.” Her friend snorted but the girl kept talking. This was important. “But the thing is they were going to make a left, right? So they are waiting with the blinker going.” The girl could hear the sound the blinker would make in the car. The steady tick over the ruckus of the parents bickering in the back seat. She could see the whole thing. She could smell the sweat that still clung to their sweaters. “And the kid, the one driving, he turns the wheel.”


“He turns the wheel. Like this,” the girl mimics turning the wheel. “Cause he’s gonna turn as soon as the oncoming traffic is gone. Like this,” she bends her hand to show the car turning. Her fingers are slender and clammy. They seem to bend back for miles. On the palm of her hand is a blue dot, a stain, from childhood when the boy next to her stabbed her with a pen. The ink stayed, like a tattoo.

“So they are waiting for the traffic to clear and then turn. He turned the steering wheel so the wheels of the car are turned too. And they didn’t clean off the back blinker.”


“So this car comes up behind them. And it hits them. And cause the wheel was turned, they go like this,” she bends her hand again mimicking the motion of the car, “into on coming traffic and they die.”


“The kids.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, I didn’t even tell you the worst part. It’s gruesome. But I love John Irving.”


“The author.”

“Oh.” Soon after that they left the coffee shop.

She didn’t even like Lou Reed. Her boyfriend gave her the mix cd and she played it in her headphones as she walked home. She was beginning to wonder why she was even listening to it. And then she remembered.

Linger on. Your pale blue eyes.

She did love that song. By the time she got to 86th street and 13th Avenue she had decided to break up with him. It wasn’t something she gave much though to, just a realization of sorts. It came to her the same way Lou Reed’s voice did. A little soft message. It was time. She didn’t like the way he looked at her anymore. Those big soft eyes.

The girl crossed the street on the walk. She brushed her hair out of her face and heard Lou Reed tell her that he just didn’t know. She was in the middle of the crosswalk. There was a coupe on 86th street waiting to make a left. The man driving the coupe was not a bad man. In fact, he was a perfectly normal man. He worked hard. He had a wife. No children yet. He wasn’t a drinker or prone to violent outbursts. He watched the same television programs that everyone else watched. He worked hard at his job. He thought, on occasion, about a promotion but then tried not to. He could be superstitious. He didn’t go to church but considered himself spiritual. He was not, for all intents and purposes, a bad man.

Though later, he would be seen that way. Afterwards his wife would leave the city. She would tell her family she was going to France but really she bought a condo in Florida and on her 38th birthday she hung herself in the closet.

The man driving the car, the not-a-bad man, was making a left. He had his directional on. He did not turn his wheel in anticipation, though none of John Irving’s novels were on his bookshelf. He waited patiently for the traffic to clear. It is unclear if he had seen the girl in the crosswalk initially. He had his headlights on, in the fading twilight. Many other drivers didn’t. When they asked his wife later, she stood in the doorway stuttering and confirmed to her knowledge that her husband had never been an aggressive driver before. As he depressed the gas pedal and turned the wheel, he must have seen her, dead center, her bookbag over her shoulder, her headphones on, her long brown hair falling just past her shoulders, her hanging decision to break up with her boyfriend, because he braked rather sharply and the girl stopped in the middle of the intersection.

She was unsure whether to go back or forward. She lingered for a millisecond, though again, she would not remember this. Then, in anger and frustration, she held out her arms as if to prove her very existence. She held her ground in the middle of the crosswalk, as the coupe stood there, its engine rumbling. It was a challenge, a stand off, a showdown, western style. Neither moved. Inside the car, he was waving at her, telling her he was sorry, telling her to go. But she couldn’t see him through the glare of the headlights. And she didn’t go. She stood there, her arms outstretched, attempting for the first time, to own something, this moment, this piece of asphalt, her own life. Everyone has this point in their life. A point where they will not step aside. Today, was this girls.

During the stand off, a car, a white minivan, came down 86th street was not speeding. Everything would have been different had the driver not made the last light. Or had he left a half second later from his job, instead of five minutes early, sneaking down the back staircase, hoping his boss wouldn’t page him in the final waning moments of this Friday. It is likely that on a weekly basis, these three people come together, just missing each other, the girl on the street, the man in the coupe, the man in the white minivan, continue this weekly dance, day after day. This ballet of going home. But today it changed.

The man in the minivan hit the breaks, but it was a millisecond too late. He hit the coupe, hard. Impacts are strange. There was no noise, at least not any noise that anyone who saw the accident would remember. The minivan hit the coupe and it spun out. It spun directly at the girl in the crosswalk so that the back end of the car, hit her dead on.

The man driving the minivan, who paid extra for all the amenities the salesman offered, went through the windshield, like a rocket. His airbag did not inflate. Later there would be a recall. He was found in the intersection. For a man that went through a windshield there was very little blood. He was completely still laying there. He could be sleeping, except he wasn’t.
The man driving the coupe, who always wore his seatbelt, was not ejected from the car. Though his skull was lodged in the windshield. He was alive when the paramedics arrived, but by then he was speaking in gibberish and blinking rapidly. There was a pool of blood in his lap. It took 4 hours to extract him from the car. After all the metal was bent back, peeled like fingers, they lifted his body out.

Paramedics couldn’t figure out how the trajectory worked, but the girl didn’t wind up in the neighbor’s bushes as one would imagine. Instead she wound up under the coupe. Half of her was crushed. Her shoes were gone. Her eyes were closed. Somehow the headphones stayed on. Somehow Lou Reed still sang.

I just don’t know. I just don’t know.

Before the following and television crews, she lay in the hospital bed. When she woke, she heard a voice tell her he just didn’t know. Because the cd player was lost in the mayhem of the trip to the hospital, no one would ever question her. She would say she heard God as soon as she woke.
God said he just didn’t know.

Her mouth started to move, her lips working around the breathing tube, like a fish, gasping for air. Here eyes were still closed. Her family was there, but their heads were bowed in prayer. There was crying. They didn’t know if she would make it. The doctors told them it was unlikely.
But the girl, opened her eyes, and she listened to God tell her that he didn’t know and she understood. God didn’t know. She mouthed the words.

God doesn’t know. God doesn’t know.

It was a mantra. It was a prayer. It would, eventually become a slogan, written on banners, splashed on television, screamed from the mouths of young people.

And that is how the revolution started.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Between Living and Dying

She had never seen anything really dead.

At least not as dead as this.

Zero curled up against the wall of the shack and held her breath. She could hear the boys inside still. She knew her brother was in there. Zero rubbed her eyes and peeked back through the crack in the shed wall. She knew if he caught her out here he would kill her.

“Where’d ya find it?” one of the boys asked. Zero could only see a portion of the inside. She could see her brother’s face and then her neighbor Tommy. He scowled across at the other boys, but seemed to be looking right at her, or through her.

The thing lay under a blanket.

“Back in the woods. I told ya.”

“What are we gonna do?”

“Nothing,” her brother said. “It’s not our fault.”

“Yeah but its dead.”


“So…it’s here.”

“Well you are the one who brought it here. You should’ve left it in the woods.”

Someone sniffled. There was a nervous shuffle of feet. Zero’s leg was starting to cramp from crouching. She wanted desperately to move it. She also felt a tickle in her nose and feared she would sneeze. She wondered how fast she could run, if she could outrun those four boys. Possibly. But probably not her brother. And if he caught her out here spying that would be the end.

Tommy reached over and lifted the edge of the blanket. He cocked his head to the side. Zero couldn’t see what was under there, only Tommy’s expression of quiet wonder and disgust. She watched his eyes blink quickly as if he could ingest the image for so long before having to stop.

“Gross,” someone said.

“I think its Anna’s.”

“No it ain’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Cause I know. Just shut up.”

The boys rearranged the milk crates that served as chairs. Her brother spoke. “We gotta do something with it. We can’t leave it here.”

“It should be buried.”

“Maybe we should call the cops.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

“Maybe it was a bear.”

“Nah, there wouldn’t anything left.”

“Alright listen up,” her brother said, quieting the boys down. “We gotta bury it. It’s the only right thing to do.” There was silence and through the crack Zero watched Tommy nod his head slowly. He looked like he was about to cry.

“We should tell someone,” Tommy said in a whisper.

“No way,” Zero’s brother barked. “We can’t. We don’t know what happened. It coulda been one of us.”

Everyone was stone silent.

“Right,” Tommy said eventually. “Let’s get shovels.”

There was a rustle of activity as the boys stood up, the scraping of crate against wood, the click of the latch on the door. Zero pressed her back against the shack. If they decided to cut through the woods, she was caught. If the took the path away from the courts to the main road they wouldn’t see her. She heard their sneakers on gravel, a cough, her brother spoke but she couldn’t understand what he said, and then their voices faded. They headed toward the road.

Zero exhaled. She tucked her short hair behind her ear and waited and listened. It was quiet at the courts. Nothing but the panicked twitter of birds on the edge of the woods. They were gone.

Zero crept around to the shack door and pushed it open. She had never been inside before. It looked smaller than she thought it would. There were crates and boxes stacked in the corner. Magazines and food wrappings littered the floor. Her brother’s pack was rolled up in the corner. Profanity was written with marker on the walls. The place itself seemed to notice her, to assess her and then, to reject her. It smelled of sweat. Her mouth went dry, the knowledge that she did not belong in this place, that it was a world she was not a part of, filled her. Zero wanted to run, back to the house, back to her room. Her mother always told her to leave her brother alone. He’s a boy, she would say. Let him be. As if they were these otherworldly creatures. Not human. Not flesh and blood. But boy. Made of something different. Something that lived, that thirsted, that took, in a way a girl never could.

It was there, in the center, under the blanket. She refused to turn back now.

Zero kept the door open, so that she could hear the boys return just in case. She had never seen anything dead. Except for the fish. Her brother had caught it back at the lake, brought it home in a bucket. It was a small fish and Zero watched it open and close its mouth like it was telling her a story. She wanted to keep it. But her brother said they had to kill it. It was too small to eat, he said and they couldn’t leave it in the bucket. Her parents were upstairs. She could see the flicker of the television in the window. Zero had stood on the gravel driveway, as her brother picked the fish up and put it on the ground. It flipped over and over, like it was doing a dance and she had to cover her mouth not to laugh. She grabbed at it once, but let go quickly, the jagged scales hurt the inside of her palm. Her brother came back with a small plank of wood he found under the deck. He said it was the only way. It took a long time. So long that Zero was sure that her parents would hear the thudding. When it was over, and her brother saw her crying, he called her a baby and he pushed her hard on the gravel, right next to the fish. Its mouth wasn’t moving anymore. Its scales ripped.

Zero leaned forward and picked at the corner of the blanket. She saw her fingers shaking and chickened out. Maybe they were coming back. Maybe there wasn’t time to look. She shuffled around the room, trying to remember everything she saw, wondering if she would ever be back in here again. A car went by on the street. A dog barked in the distance. Everything seemed to stand still as she stared at the dirty green blanket.

She counted to three. And then she counted to three again. On the third try she stomped forward and grabbed the blanket edge without thinking and yanked it back so fast that she couldn’t chicken out.

She saw the teeth first. The black gums. The lips curled back. Empty eyes like glass. Its face locked in a snarl.

Then she noticed the hole. It was neat, almost a perfect circle. The dried blood looked black, like paint. The matted hair, twisted, and split, flecked with twigs and dirt and something white as bone. Tommy was right. It was Anna’s dog. Her name was Daisy. The hole in her chest was deep, so deep that it just turned black inside, and the more she stared at it the deeper it seemed to get, a passageway between the living and the dead. Zero wondered where the guts were, where the muscle was. It should be oozing all the insides out, she reasoned. But it wasn’t. It didn’t smell. There were no flies or maggots or anything. It was just still. Zero didn’t think anything could ever be that still. It was empty. Quiet. As if whatever had once been inside was gone.

Zero sat on the floor, pulling her legs up to her chin. She waited. She tried to stay as still as the dead thing. It seemed far away now. She watched it like it was just picture on television and tried not to be scared. She wasn’t going to cry. Little girls cried. She wasn’t a little girl. She was going to be nine tomorrow. Nine year olds didn’t cry.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mr. Bloom's Chess Game

Mr. Bloom decided to buy the chess set the year his grandson William turned three. He phoned his daughter to inform her.

“I think he’s a little young dad,” she said sounding distracted and Mr. Bloom knew she was. He both knew that it wasn’t easy to raise a child and that he himself had never actually done it.

“I think he would like to learn. You used to play.”

“I never played, Dad,” she said with a heavy punctuating sigh. “You taught me how the pieces move, when I was like… seven, and we might have played once. It wasn’t a fun game then. I doubt Liam will enjoy it. He’s only three.”

“I know that. But I think it’s a good thing to know. Kings and Queens played chess. It was the sport of a gentleman. It teaches character.”

“Liam doesn’t need to be taught character. He’s only three. He needs to be taught the word No. He needs to know he can’t have everything he wants. He needs to stop throwing temper tantrums and he needs to stay out of my drawer and stop pulling apart my pantyhose, okay? That’s what Liam needs. Listen Dad, I have to run.”

“Of course, Clarissa. My apologies for keeping you.”

“Don’t say it like that, Dad.”

“Like what?”

“Like I think you are a burden. I don’t think you are a burden.” Mr. Bloom listened for the fifth time about how busy Clarissa was and how her husband, Zack, was working overtime and how Liam was sucking every last minute of peace out of their life. He nodded and then realized, foolishly, she couldn’t see him. “I’ll get the set, and then if he likes it, we’ll play. If not, it’s fine.”

“That’s fine, Dad. I gotta run. Bye.” Mr. Bloom heard the phone rustle, the yelp of his grandson in the background and then nothing. He wondered why in movies there was always an immediate dial tone.

He bought the chess set at the shop on Tompkins Street in the city. It had been many years since he had been down there and he spent the rest of the day retracing old routes. He stopped by the bench in the park that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He thought about his wife and reasoned that it was 9 years and not the 7 that he had originally thought that she had been gone. This struck Mr. Bloom as a startling idea.

When he returned home he set up the chess set. It was marble and cost more money than he could afford. He debated bringing it back and getting a cheaper wood set but once it was out of the box, the idea of going back down to the city seemed exhausting. Instead he lifted each heavy piece out of its foam tray and unwrapped the bubble wrap. Mr. Bloom set them with a satisfying click against the board. He lined up the pawns first, white facing the reddish-pink marble that stood in for the black pieces. Mr. Bloom straightened them so they lined up neatly. He frowned. He didn’t like the reddish-pink marble. He preferred the standard black and white. Mr. Bloom unwrapped the knights, rooks, bishops, king and queen. When all the pieces were set up and facing each other he leaned back in the seat.

The phone rang, suddenly and just once. He looked it at, waiting, but it was then quiet on its cradle. His daughter wanted him to get a cell phone but Mr. Bloom never saw the point as he didn’t go often go anywhere.

When it rang again it woke him from his sleep. He wiped his face, feeling the rough whiskers and struggled to get out of his checked armchair. His arms felt weak. The phone jangled from its spot on the wall, screaming for attention, demanding to be acknowledged. Mr. Bloom, pulled the phone off the hook, dropped it, struggled with the cord to get it back up and then accidentally spoke into the wrong end before turning it around.

“Hello?” He said clearing his voice. “Hello.”

There was no answer. Mr. Bloom said hello again. There was a click and something that sounded like a rushing noise. The lines must be crossed, Mr. Bloom reasoned. “Hello?”

“The game begins.”

“Hello? Who is this?”

“The game begins. E4.”

“Margaret?” Mr. Bloom said, just once, in little more than a whisper. The static on the phone rose to a harsh buzzing and then, a series of clicks and then nothing. Mr. Bloom coughed and placed the phone gently back on its cradle.

The kitchen was untidy, as was often the case since his wife was gone. Mr. Bloom noticed the crumbs on the counter, the stains from yesterday’s teacup. There was still a drip from the faucet that patted out a steady rhythm. He made his way back to the living room and looked at the set.

The white pawn was moved to the E4 space. Mr. Bloom reached down toward the set, his fingers dangling over his own pawn. Tentatively he slid his own pawn to E5. He stared at the board but nothing happened.

When the phone rang again, Mr. Bloom was still standing over the board. He shuffled back into the kitchen and picked up the phone.

“Dad, it’s me. Listen, real quick, I just wanted to remind you that Liam’s birthday party is on Saturday.”

“I know that.”

“Yeah and the weather isn’t supposed to be great so if you can’t make it, it’s fine. I don’t want you troubling yourself.”

“It’s no trouble.”

“Okay, well, whatever you need let me know. Did you eat tonight?”

Mr. Bloom looked around the kitchen again. He eyed the crumbs. “Yes,” he said as he decided it was true. “I ate.”

“Alright. I’ll talk to you later. Again, no worries about the party. I don’t want you wearing yourself out.”


“Alright, bye.” There was a click and more silence.

The following morning the white knight sat on C3. Mr. Bloom sat across from the board. He moved his knight out and wondered when he had become such a copycat player. He used to be much stronger than this. But it had been years since he played. He thought of his old combinations. He wondered if it was too late for Fool’s Mate or if he could even remember the Traxler Variation opening. Mr. Bloom stared at the board and made his move. The clock ticked loudly.

Mr. Bloom closed his eyes and when he opened them the white queen was out on the board. He was surprised to see her so soon. His rook was now placed on the side of the board, having been taken. Mr. Bloom took a pawn opening up a passage way for his bishop. He licked his lips. It was all coming back to him.

The game last days. Or hours. Mr. Bloom recalled the sun setting at some point, and he recalled waking up in the armchair, his back stiff. He recalled the phone ringing again but he didn’t get it in time. He stared at the board and wondered if he could force a perpetual check, moving his King back and forth from one check to another. He was going to lose but at least a perpetual check ended in a draw. He wondered what that meant here. In tournaments that meant half a point for each player. But he had a feeling it would mean something quite different in this game.

He shifted in his seat and moved the king. The white queen slid up the board soundlessly. He was in check again. He moved his king back to its original spot. The queen didn’t follow. Mr. Bloom would not be able to pull off a perpetual check. The white rook moved to h7 eliminating the second rank. There was no where to move his king. He was not in check but he had only one square to move to that wouldn’t put him in check. Mr. Bloom reached his hand over the piece and noticed that it was shaking. The tremor in his fingertips moved its way up his hand. Glancing at the window, and watching the light creep through this closed blinds, he wondered if he took his pill this morning. He slid his king into the only spot.

White countered with a pawn putting his king in checkmate. It was over. He had lost. Mr. Bloom laid his king down on his side, in the formal show of concession. The phone rang, as he expected it would. He picked it up on the 5th ring and said “You win.”

“Dad?” his daughter’s voice sounded funny.

“I said, you win,” Mr. Bloom responded.

“Dad, it’s me. Is everything alright?”

“Oh, Clarissa. Of course. Yes dear everything is fine.” Mr. Bloom said glancing back at the chessboard. “Everything is just fine.”

“Listen Dad, I need to talk to you,” his daughter began but there was a knock at the door, which Mr. Bloom had been expecting as he had expected the phone to ring.

“I’ll have to call you back,” he said to his daughter. He pulled the phone away from his ear, noting how thin his daughter’s voice sounded coming out of that machine and placed it gently, as if not to hurt her, back on its cradle.

Mr. Bloom lifted the peephole cover and looked out into the hall. He put his other hand against the lock and with some struggle and a barely audible whimper slid the deadbolt out. He kept his eye against the peephole even as he turned the knob, a small tear forming, knowing that what he saw standing in the hallway in front of his door, was the end.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Maman Brigitte

She had been warned by her grandmother not to take the bus. But her grandmother always had warnings; not to gaze at the moon when it is waining because it will steal your baby (the moon is a jealous woman after all); not to cross the street behind tall men because their shadows will stay with you and haunt you. They were ghost stories, old country stories, and she was sick of them. The fastest way to the center of town was the bus. And the center of town was where the doctor was.

Before the girl left, her grandmother rolled her filmy eyes up at her, pointed at her and with a “tsk” and a shudder muttered something in the oldest language, so old in fact they were words that hadn’t been whispered aloud on this side of the ocean.

The girl threw her back her shoulders and walked out.

It was the last day of her first life, the last day she would be Marguerite, really truly. They wouldn’t give her the name Maman Brigitte for decades after her first death but they would still, in the stories that would be told, go back to this moment boarding the bus as her Loa birth, the moment she ceased to be mortal and became one of the Voodoo spirits of Haiti. The windows were open and the island heat rose in waves off the dirt. It was warm, warmer, than it should have been and Marguerite’s blouse damped with sweat and clung to her. She took a seat, feeling the sway of the bus making her queasy. It was 21 stops to the center of town. At the first stop, an old man got on the bus. At the second, a mother dragging 4 screaming children. Marguerite looked away. She could not make eye contact. The youngest child screamed in her mother’s lap, her tongue wagging like a wild thing, her head thrown back till it seemed the child’s neck would snap.

Marguerite closed her eyes for what felt like just a moment but when she opened them, the screaming children and the mother was gone. Next to her sat an old woman. Marguerite rubbed her eyes, and pulled her shirt away from her sweaty body as she scanned the landscape. They were not close to town. The woman next to her smiled at her and Marguerite smiled back.

“It’s a boy,” the woman said, showing a mouth full of broken teeth.

“I’m sorry…” Marguerite started to say. She stammered a few words but then just let them trail off.

“If you aren’t going to raise it, birth it, kill it and keep it, because it will have power. It’s a twin.”

“I…don’t know what you are talking about,” Marguerite felt sick suddenly and rose to leave. “Excuse me.”

“Sit down, child,” the woman said, grabbing Marguerite’s arm with her hand. Her skin felt so hot and her dirty nails dug into her flesh. Marguerite could feel the bile rising up in her throat. The woman with the broken teeth squeezed her arm and as she did, like a pump, Marguerite’s throat was a wash with acid, as if this woman were calling it out of her. She sat back down, as the woman with the broken teeth told her to do.

“You must be careful, in the city. You never know what people will do. Pickpockets. They will steal from you without you even knowing they are doing it. You are going to the doctor, yes?”

Marguerite finally found her voice, though it was just a whisper. “How did you know?”

“That you go to the doctor? Because you are with child. You are having twins. Twins are magic.”

“How did you know I was pregnant?”

“It is from Ezili Dantor, the Black Madonna. When a Loa spirit gives a child, you must use it. Don’t anger Ezili Dantor. She is quick to anger, unlike her sister.”

“I have to go,” Marguerite said as the bus rounded a particularly sharp corner. The engine whined at the road. She noticed for the first time that there was no one else on the bus. “Please let me pass.” She wasn’t going to talk to this superstitious woman. She sounded like her grandmother, spewing nonsense about deities and Loas. It was this kind of talk that destroyed this town, destroyed her mother. The old world religions had no place here, not anymore. And Marquerite was not the kind of woman to fall pray to superstition and voodoo. Not like her mother did, driving herself mad, and eventually to suicide with potions and cheroot and spells that are all garbage.

“I am only trying to help, child,” the old woman hissed. “You should be thankful. Pray to Ezili Dantor and she will show you the way. Light the Virgin Mary candles. You’ll see.”

Marguerite tried to push her way past but the old woman wouldn’t let go of her arm. Why did she take the bus? There were always crazy people on the bus. People who wanted money, thought they were blessed by the spirits, believed in this kind of garbage. “Let me go, please, I don’t…feel well.”

“Sit, child. You’ll make yourself dizzy.” The old woman pushed her back on the wooden seat, and as she did she brushed her hand across Marguerite’s breast and down her belly. It was then that Marguerite knew something was wrong. But she couldn’t move.

“Take care child. Remember twins are powerful. Magical.”

Marguerite felt a burning inside her, swelling up from between her legs, like she swallowed lava, a thick hot raw burn in her stomach. She doubled over and threw up. She lifted her head and, noticing that the woman was gone, put her hand to her chest. It was at this moment that she realized her left breast was gone. Marguerite yanked her shirt up, her head spinning and could see nothing but smooth skin etched with five white scars, like fingers, in the shape of a hand. She started to scream, but no noise came out.

That is the story they will tell about the birth of the Loa spirit they would call Maman Brigitte and it was also the beginning of the death of the mortal woman named Marguerite. The doctor told her she only had one child. But she knew that on the bus she had had two, much like she had had two breasts. And she knew the old woman had stolen them both. After that Marquerite became very very ill. Two weeks later the boy fell out of her in pieces. First an arm. Then a leg, like small doll parts. Marguerite screamed and screamed as her grandmother collected them in jars and took them to the shed out back. Her grandmother fed her, soothed her fever, nursed her through the curse.

That night Marguerite had a dream of a hot land. She crossed the hot stones of this dreamland and with her walked a small dark boy with no lips and no tongue, his hand clasped in hers. When she approached Ezili Dantor she knew who she was, the black Madonna, cloaked in a gold wrap. Ezili reached out for the boy, who ran to her, and hid beneath her dress. Marguerite said nothing, because you don’t talk to the spirits when they come to you like this. You wait for them to talk to you. Even Marguerite knew this.

“You have been wronged.” Ezili’s voice echoed inside Marguerite’s head. This is what talking to gods is like. “I gave to you a boy and a girl. The boy is with me. Your daughter was also saved, ushered into life by another woman’s womb, 250 years before now. Her name was Iwa. She lived as a high priestess in the old world. She bore many children. Those children were brought here carried in the belly of boats. Dutty Boukman was one of them. When they cut off his head and his arms the flesh never decayed. He was a warrior, like Iwa. He freed the slaves. He gave you your freedom before you were born. I did this.”

“Thank you Maman Dantor,” Marguerite whispered in her dream. In the waking world Marguerite rolled in bed, awash with fever and her grandmother whispered in her ear.

“I gave you twins. The girl has already saved your life. The boy will do so in later years. You will be a priestess. You will serve me. Here,” from under her cloak she pulled a long knife. “Your child ushered you into this world. In this harsh country you will now pay her back.”

Marguerite took the knife and placed it against her remaining breast.

“You will grow old but you will not die. Your name is no longer Marguerite. You are now Maman Brigitte. And you will worship me. I will give you power, for as long as you worship me.” Then the voice was gone.

Maman Brigitte woke, as an old woman and her grandmother was long gone. The blade was under her pillow. From her window she could see the flicker of the candles that the village women left her on her doorstep. Their prayers, their fears, their wants and needs flickering in the window. She was far from that island now, back instead, in another dark land having fled a thousand captors and a thousand lives. Before she went back to sleep her old hands, wrinkled, scarred from years of magic making, reach up to trace the scars on her chest. The five on the left had never faded. The one clean knife scar on the right bled still, on occasion, but that was to be expected.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Birdman

The joint was a roadhouse really. In the town I grew up in, it was one of the only real bars, at least real as in populated by the people of the town and not the men who drifted through on their way down to the city or up towards the river. It was local. It was the sort of place continuously strung with Christmas lights where, more often than not, a line of Harley’s occupied the spaces nearest the door. In the summer they threw sand in the backyard so they could re-create some faux beach volleyball match played by overweight mothers way past their prime who believed, when fueled by enough alcohol that they could still fit in the high school jeans they secretly kept in back of the closet. It was the sort of place my siblings wouldn’t step foot in, and that my mother wrinkled her nose at. But it was where Tim picked. And we went where Tim picked.

I parked the car in the back and turned off the engine. I flipped open my phone and called the house. My husband answered the phone.

“What’s wrong?” This was his typical greeting. Not ‘hello’, not ‘how are you’, not ‘how’s it going’ just ‘what’s wrong.’

“Nothing. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Everything is fine. I’m watching the game with your father.”

“Is Mom there?”

My husband proceeded to yell at the television for a few more minutes before returning to the phone. I could hear my father in the background.


“I said is my mother there?”

“No she went shopping. Something about desert for tomorrow. Hey you there?”

“Yeah I’m here.”

“Alright well have fun. Be safe. Call me if you need a lift home.”

“I won’t need a lift home.”

“Okay but call me if you do.”

“Alright, love you.”

“Loveyoutoo.” He always said it like it was one word. Loveyoutoo. Like he was naming
some exotic tropical bird.

I made my way inside the joint. Since it was the holidays, I had expected it to be crowded, loud, and exhausting the way the joint could be. I had expected to sit there with my old friends, and catch up on a years worth of life like we had been doing for the past 8 years. I stopped in the snow, right by the door. 8 years. That long?

But it was quiet inside, strangely quiet. Solemn. The frivolity that usually punctuated the joint this time of year seemed to have been sucked out of it. Like it sat in a void somewhere, floating out in space, oblivious. There were a handful of bikers at the bar, a couple families in the back eating and that was it.

I stopped at the bar and ordered the pitcher of Guinness that I knew Tim would want to toast with when he got here.

“Quiet night, huh?”

The blonde bartender nodded and took the money out of my hand. “Mostly everyone is down at the memorial.”


“Yeah, Jake’s memorial is tonight.”

I nodded. I had no idea who Jake was. I thanked her for the beer and settled into the bar. Martin showed up next. He made the same stupid face he always made, a mixture of a sly smile and stupefaction that he should find me here, tonight, of all places, even though this night had been planned since last year when he made the same stupid face. He wrapped me in a typical bear hug. Within 30 seconds he was showing me updated pictures of his kids. They looked just like him. Which is really a shame considering his wife was surprisingly cute. He married way out of his league.

Larry was next, slightly balder then last year and still twitchy over his divorce. Tim was last. I noticed that we all sort of sat around, with feeble conversation until Tim showed up. It was always that way. We may have known each other since we were kids but we were just the arms and legs. Tim was the head and heart. He had always been our leader.

Tim sauntered into the bar, leaned over, kissed the blonde bartender quickly on the cheek, took her hand and murmured something in her ear. She thanked him and smiled sadly. Must have been about the dead guy Jake.

“My friends!” he said. Tim hugged us each in turn and suddenly what felt strange before now felt right. “Another year, my friends. Can it be possible? Here now,” he pulled the glasses towards him and filled each one in time, retelling us about the time he was selected to be a Guinness Draught Master, the youngest American in Ireland the year he stayed there to study Irish literature for his second masters. There were few countries that Tim had not stepped foot on at some point. Not that I hadn’t traveled, I had done alright myself, thank you very much.

“To my dearest friends, my oldest friends, my truest friends. Since we were little neighborhood kids, dogging cars up nearly Crumb Road and wreaking havoc on old lady McGlinn’s pea pod garden to now, as Wizened Old Gentlemen,” Tim always referred to us as gentlemen. I think when we first met at only 6, he failed to notice that I was in fact a girl and has yet to really consider the position, “as Adventurers, as Captains of our Destiny and Kings of our Making. Merry Christmas!”

Our glasses clinked together and within moments whatever unease had been previously felt melted away inside the joint. Numerous pitchers were ordered. I lost count. We didn’t bother much with the updating of our lives. What was the point? We delved rather quickly into the past. Back to when the fort was built. To campfires in the backyard. To hiking up to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. We told the stories that made us feel as if those days were not as far away as they really were. We avoided naming years. Instead we dated time by our ages or by something big that happened that year. Like when Peter, my friend Beth’s old sister, bought that used car and accidentally drove it right into the lake at the bottom of the hill. We dated time by memory. And memory is fickle. We bickered over whether or not we found the dead dog in the woods before Tim’s little brother was bit by the rattler snake or after. We dated time by experience which jumbled together, mixing up in the muddle of our own making, in the fickle bitter tonic that is recollection. Then the conversation turned. It happened while I was in the bathroom. But when I returned to the table I could feel something had shifted.

“It was too. I found him. I saw him hanging there. I was the first one there,” Larry was saying, running his fingers through this thinning hair. Martin hissed at him to be quiet. I felt the beer turn on me a bit, as if I had walked into a different room. The air had changed, and there was a metallic taste on my tongue that I did not like. I tried to sit down casually. But I had never been casual and I was terrible at pulling off casual.

“What?” I said. I felt myself make a stupid grin that I’m sure Martin would have found quite agreeable.

“Nothing, darling,” Tim said pouring another round. He changed the subject to his current art installation. But I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the past some more. I wanted to talk about whatever it was that they were talking about when I came in. And I knew what it was. I pretended not to. We all pretended at some point not to know anything about it but I knew. So, in true suave form, I blurted it out like a mentally ill patient.

“Remember the Birdman?”

Larry cleared his throat. Tim looked from Larry to me to Martin and let out a howl of laughter that was ill appreciated by the bikers at the bar.

“The Birdman?” he laughed. “Of course we remember the Birdman.” He shook his head like he hadn’t thought of it in years, but I knew that wasn’t true.

“It was your brother wasn’t it?” I said.

“Mine? Never. No I think it was Ray’s older brother. Remember the one that lived up the block?”

Larry shifted uncomfortably. I knew why but I didn’t care right then.

“No way. I know it was you, you and your brothers.”

“My dear,” Tim said placing a hand over his heart, “I solmely swear, that while, I spent my childhood, up to No Good, I am not responsible for the Legend of the Birdman.”

“Remember when we found his shack out in the woods?” Martin offered. Larry stared into his drink.

“That old stone thing? Oh my god, didn’t I dare you to enter it?” I laughed, too loudly I realized. My stomach got tight. For a second, I thought I was going to throw up.

“Yes! You were going to pay me your five dollar allowance if I went in the stone shack and stayed there for ten minutes.”

“Wow, five bucks for ten minutes. That is so not worth it.”

“Why do you think I didn’t do it?” Larry laughed.

“Remember the prints?” I kept pushing it. I wanted to even though it felt like my heart was in my throat. No one said anything. “Remember. They were like this,” I dug threw my bag. “Hang on,” I jumped up and borrowed a pen from the blonde bartender. “Like this, right?” I grabbed napkin out of the holder on the table and traced a Y shape.
Everyone stared at it.

“No,” Larry said. It was the first thing he said since I mentioned the Birdman. “It was more like this.” Larry redrew the Y shape but made the end longer. Exactly like a three toed bird. We all stared at the paper in front of us. No one said anything for awhile. “But they were big. At least 2 feet across.”

“And what did he do Larry?” I whispered. My voice didn’t sound like my own. There was a part of my brain that was screaming to shut up. And another part that wanted to have this conversation.

“He would take you. The Birdman. He would take you while you slept. And all that would be left…outside…in the mud or the snow…were these prints. He would take you to his shack and…and…”

“Alright enough,” Tim said. He turned to me. “What gotten into you?”

But I didn’t care. “And what Larry. What else?”

“He could make you do things. He could make you do things you didn’t want to do. That you would never do. And then he killed you. Some say that he would eat you. But he didn’t. He killed you. Bodies would be found. Bodies pulled from the lake. Buried under leaves. Hanging…from…” Larry never took his eyes off the drawing on the napkin.

“Enough, Larry. Come on, boys. It’s Christmas Eve! Haven’t we happier tales to tell? I’m getting another pitcher.” Tim reached down and crumpled up the drawing of the Birdman’s prints. It broke the spell. When he returned we were already talking about how upon a dare, Larry had mooned the entire audience at high school graduation. Larry laughed too hard and choked on his beer, coughing and spitting all over the table. Tim slapped him on the back.

We said goodbye at the cars. Martin left first. Larry left second. He walked to his car with hunched shoulders and for a second I felt horrible for what I had done. He felt so thin through his coat.

“He’s been through a lot,” Tim said to walking me to my car. “You need to give him a break.”

Indignant I snorted. “I didn’t do anything. We were just talking about the past. God Tim, we were all talking about it.”

Tim wrinkled his brow and then it was gone. Any judgment he held against me, was wiped clean like new snow. “Merry Christmas, old friend.” He squeezed me tight.
I managed to eek out a quick ‘Merry Christmas.’

“You going to your brothers tomorrow?”

Tim nodded.

“Next year then?”

“I’ll be in city in February. We should get a drink.”

I nodded.

“You okay to drive?”

“Of course,” I lied.

I should have called my husband like he had asked me to. I should have left the car and called him but I wasn’t prepared for my mother’s disapproving looks on Christmas. I would rather take my chances. I checked my phone. No calls.

As I turned up the street to my house, I stopped the car. I parked it at the top of the hill instead of the driveway and got out. The cold air burned my lungs. It was quiet as outer space up here. The snow blanketed everything and the starts swirled above me. For another moment, I thought I was going to throw up but I didn’t. I walked to the edge of my parent’s lawn and looked at my childhood house. There were prints in the lawn from deer. I could see my husband inside, on the couch, talking to my dad. I watched him laugh, the way the smile spread easy across his face. I thought about going down the block to the courts, where the entrance to the woods was. I thought about it and decided I would go. I hadn’t been down there in years. We used to spend so much time there. Tim, Martin, Larry and I. But instead I walked the other way, past my car I parked on the side of the road and made a left towards the new development.

It didn’t take me long to find that house. It was empty. The rotten For Sale sign still posted in the ground. The wood of it molded with rain and snow. My feet crunched on the gravel but I didn’t dare step on lawn. The snow there was clean of prints, as if even squirrels and deer didn’t venture this way. I stared up at the tree at the edge of the lawn. All the branches were covered in snow. The broken branch, the one they sawed to cut him down was still there like an amputee’s nub. There was no snow on it. They say his parents found him first. But I knew that wasn’t true. We all knew the truth. We remembered Larry’s face when he came back, shaking and white. The boy was new. Adopted we think. The only black kid in the neighborhood. And he hung from that tree, right in the front of the house all night long. Till his parents woke up the following morning to that view of him, limp, still in his pajamas, dangling in their front window.

I walked to the neighbor’s house, and selected a slender limb from the tree. I had wished it would have cracked off, shattering the Christmas Eve silence but it didn’t. I had to keep bending it back and forth like it was made of rubber. I finally tugged it free.

Keeping my feet firmly on the road, I reached over to the tree and slowly and carefully, I traced the Y shape into the snow. I traced a line of the famous footprints from the trees edge into the neighbor’s lawn and out towards the woods. I started it again.

I brought the Birdman home.