Before becoming a writer, David Colodney was a fetus and, prior to that, an embryo. David realized at an early age that he had no athletic ability whatsoever, so he turned his attention to writing about sports instead of playing them, covering everything from high school flag football to major league baseball for The Tampa Tribune and The Miami Herald. David holds an MA from Nova Southeastern University and an MFA from Converse College, where he served as poetry editor of the South 85 literary magazine. He was recently nominated for Best New Poets and was a finalist for the 2017 DISQUIET International Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared or will appear in St. Petersburg Review, South Carolina Review, California Quarterly, Shot Glass Journal, and Gyroscope Review, among others. David lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his wife, three sons, and golden retriever.
The man’s eyes fluttered. Even in the subdued light, he had striking, golden-hazel irises.
“No,” she said. “I am Dr. Shi.”
“Ella…” He looked too rangy for the adjustable bed’s standard-sized frame. “I…” He lifted his large hands and stared at them, astonished. “My God…” He shuddered. “You brought me back. You … you actually did it.”
He had a full head of dark, curly hair, albeit speckled with gray, and a warm glow had returned to his light brown skin.
“Welcome back, Mr. Crain,” she said. “Your vitals are strong but it will take time for you to…”
“God!” He turned, coughing sharply.
“Halitosis is a temporary side effect of the restorative chemicals.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked around, taking in the cylindrical spaciousness of the antiseptically chrome- and white-polished lab and its encompassing, blue-tinted glass. Dr. Shi wondered if he’d comment on the absence of door handles, as more than a few before him had done.
“Ella, where’s my Ella?”
“I am sorry, Mr. Crain, I do not understand what you mean.”
“No…” He shook his head. “No, no, no. That was the arrangement. We were supposed to come back together. That was the deal.”
“Mr. Crain, there is always some fear and uncertainty associated with…”
“Where the hell is my wife?”
It was more plea than demand. Dr. Shi was startled by the immediacy of his yearning, especially after such prolonged isolation. He spoke as if he’d been separated from his spouse for a few hours rather than two centuries.
“I understand your concern, Mr. Crain, and I will do my best to answer all of your questions.”
He looked at her. “Your eyes … what…?”
She turned her head from side to side. “The color of the irises vary depending on light intensity.”
“They have been augmented, greatly enhancing my limited inborn vision.”
“Augmented?” His settled against the pillow. “That a big deal … now?”
“Yes. Most people employ some form of augmentation.”
“Have my ruined lungs … been augmented?”
“No. Nanite technology repaired them, as well as your extrathoracic and mediastinal lymph nodes, using organic rather than artificial tissue.”
He looked puzzled. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“As a rule we try to avoid utilizing augmentation on new arrivals. It is better to allow patients to decide, depending on cost-effectiveness and the condition of their bodies after restoration.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess.”
“We endeavor to bring you back in the most optimal condition.”
“By the looks of this place, it appears it took quite a while for me to achieve optimal anything.”
“I am still running diagnostics. Please, try to rest.” She turned to go, revealing a withered left arm.
He gestured with his left index finger. “What happened to your arm?”
“Rest,” she said, showing him her right shoulder. “Soon, there will be answers.”
Mr. Crain appeared more amused than bewildered by the quintet of holographic heads that floated over his bed. Respectively, encircling from his left to right, were Doctors Cao, Yao, Tang, Banerjee and Jha. Dr. Shi, the lone female, stood a few paces from the foot of the bed.
“Congratulations, Mr. Crain,” said Doctor Cao, “you are free of cancer and, overall, in excellent health for a man of your age.”
“It is a most remarkable recovery,” said Dr. Yao. “You have surpassed all of the predicted metrics.”
“We are pleased to have you back in the world of the living,” said Dr. Tang.
“Shortly,” said Dr. Banerjee, “you will be on your feet and commence the reorientation process.”
“It is the final step with us but the first in what we hope shall be a long and rewarding new life,” said Dr. Jha.
“Wonderful.” Crain shifted his weight. “Now, tell me about my wife.”
Dr. Cao’s brow creased. “Yes, well, once you complete your recovery with Dr. Shi and transition into the reorientation program…”
“Where is she?”
Dr. Cao paused. “Excuse me?”
“My wife,” he said. “Where is she?”
“The important thing, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Yao, “is for you to successfully transition into the reorientation program.”
“Will Ella be waiting for me when I get there?”
Dr. Shi focused on the great, curved windowpanes. Rain struck the armored glass and steamed. Bruise-colored flashes rippled in the distance.
“All of these questions and many more will be answered by the temporal therapist assigned—”
“No,” Crain said, cutting off Dr. Tang. “I want them answered, now.” He wriggled against his bedding. “Look, are you people even associated with the outfit that put me on ice in the first damn place?”
Dr. Cao looked in Dr. Banerjee’s direction.
“Yes, well, you must understand, given the span of time…”
“Just get to it.”
He smiled conciliatorily. “The organization that performed your initial procedure ultimately sold its assets to another corporation, which in turn resold them. This process of asset management and transfer repeated, quite a few times. And now you are under our dependable custodianship and care.”
Crain grimaced and repositioned his pillow.
Dr. Jha’s head drifted closer. “Yes, Mr. Crain, and despite the transfer of your assets, let me assure you that all of your rights and privileges are still valid and binding, as per your original agreement with…”
“My wife…” he said, visibly flagging. “My wife and I had our own valid and binding agreement that we would be revived together. To-geth-er.” He sighed. “Look, I’m not budging until I know where Ella is … or at least find out what happened to her.” He scanned the heads. “Get me, fellas?”
“Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Tang, “it is essential that you finish your recuperation and graduate to reorientation.”
“Not without my Ella.”
Dr. Yao cleared his throat. “Sir, whatever interpersonal agreement you and your spouse may have had, surely you realize that everyone who undergoes cryopreservation, be it whole-body or neuro, does so singly.”
Crain nodded. “Right, right, I understand. Now, tell me, is my money still good?”
Dr. Banerjee’s head bobbled. “Absolutely. The trust set up to pay for your storage and restoration is most healthy. The investment portion alone has placed you in quite a strong position, going forward.”
Crain laughed, raw and throaty. “God bless compound interest.”
“Indeed,” said Dr. Banerjee.
“Come now, Mr. Crain, all of these matters, both financial and personal can be addressed once you begin the reorientation—”
“No,” he said, looking at Dr. Cao. “No, I don’t think so. Not right now.”
“Mr. Crain, please, there are protocols.”
“To hell with your protocols. I’m still your customer and my account is in good standing. And since the customer is always right—at least he was back in my day—I’m staying right here. You work out whatever arrangement you want. But until I see my wife, or find out where she is, I refuse reorientation. I don’t want to know when I am or…” He looked around, wincing as he craned his neck. “God, am I even in the same hemisphere?”
The heads, save for Dr. Cao’s, disappeared.
“Same planet, for that matter…”
“We shall confer, Mr. Crain, and return momentarily,” Dr. Cao said, and then vanished.
Crain stared down the length of the bed, at Dr. Shi. “Sorry to be a pain but … my wife, Ella.”
She smiled. “Everything will be fine, Mr. Crain. You are acting within your rights.”
“First comforting thought…” He grunted and touched the nape of his neck. “What in the hell—?”
Dr. Shi approached on his left side. She pulled her shoulder-length, black hair aside and revealed three small, metallic contacts embedded just above the base of her neck.
Goosebumps decorated Crain’s forearms.
“I am sorry if I have alarmed you,” she said, straightening. “These connections comprise the current standard interface.”
“Meaning I had no choice?”
“It is essential to the revivify procedure.”
“So much for that no-augmentation policy.”
“A mandatory exception.”
He scratched around the connectors. “Right…”
The heads reappeared, causing Dr. Shi to step back and out of Dr. Cao’s holographic space.
Crain crossed his arms. “Gentlemen.”
“Mr. Crain, since you have not left the storage lab, you are, technically, still considered to be in a cryo-state.”
“Meaning,” said Dr. Jha, “that you may remain where you are, for now. Your meals, and other personal expenses, will be charged to your account. Of course, these costs are nominal. Ideally, you will soon come to the most reasonable conclusion that reorientation is the best outcome and move to the next stage.”
“And my wife?”
“Reorientation first,” said Dr. Tang, “and proceed from there.”
He snorted. “We’ll see about that.”
“Be well, Mr. Crain,” said Dr. Cao. “Future messages may be relayed through Dr. Shi. If you need anything, simply request it of her.”
The heads disappeared.
He looked at Dr. Shi. “Say I go through this reorientation process and then find out Ella’s still iced and might remain iced longer than I can realistically wait … can I be refrozen?”
“Once you begin reorientation you are no longer considered under the institute’s primary care. To be readmitted can prove challenging. There is a waiting list and priority is given to those who are younger or have a medical condition that cannot be addressed with current technology. You would have to justify the need and await a ruling, which takes time, and may or may not go in your favor.”
“Meaning there’s no guarantee?”
“Not once you leave this lab, no. There are other institutes and organizations, of course. We are among the very best, however, and I would not recommend—”
“No, I understand,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Just a lot to consider.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, Doc, how is our particular arrangement supposed to work?”
“You have a bed. You will have access to clothing, sheets and toiletries.” She indicated a nearby rolling nightstand. “There is a bathroom and a shower. An artificial assistant will explain how everything works.” She paused. “Meals are twice daily, eight hours apart. Snacks are available. The kitchen area is modest but functional. You must understand, though, this is not a hotel.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, that part I gathered. I’m just glad everyone still speaks English.”
She tapped her connectors. “Communication is no longer a great obstacle.”
He smiled. “Chalk one up for the future.”
She nodded. “If you need anything, please let me know.”
“And who do I contact, when you’re not around?”
“I am always here, Mr. Crain.” She gestured toward a faintly illuminated doorway, accessible via magnetic lift, located on the lab’s uppermost tier.
“Ah.” He nodded. “Well, since we’re going to be roommates, you can call me Edgar.”
“All right, Edgar,” she said, smiling. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my duties.”
“And what should I call you?”
“Dr. Shi,” she said, and walked away.
Dr. Shi sat in her office, her neck nestled in a padded headrest that linked her with the institute’s systems. The mundane tasks of process reporting, system diagnostics, and scheduled maintenance of storage dewars required minimal active concentration. It was literally something that she could perform in her sleep. Her primary interest had become the behavior of her recently thawed patient.
She scanned his file for the umpteenth time, as if convinced some heretofore unrevealed insight might be gleaned. Charles Edgar Crain, Professor of Economics, aged sixty-one years, four months, sixteen days. American. Primarily of West African (70.2%) and Northwestern European (23.4%) descent. Non-smoker who received a diagnosis of lung adenocarcinoma in his fifty-sixth year. Lived in an onsite hospice care facility his final six months.
No known living relations.
Her request to inform him of that fact had been emphatically denied. Reorientation or nothing. Legally, he remained frozen. He was not the first to resist reentering the world, nor would he be the last. He was, however, the most outwardly stubborn in his resolve.
Ella cannot help you now, Edgar, she thought. But I can. I am here and I am real and I absolutely understand what you are feeling.
I am not some faded ghost.
In fact, I am the exact opposite of that.
She sighed and closed the mentally-projected file.
Edgar was tidying his bed. She had arranged for rolling privacy screens and furniture to provide some semblance of a personal space. The unicolor, one-size-fits-all shirts and elastic-banded pants sufficed, and he had a choice of green or white slippers. He had easily mastered the AI commands and was neat to the point of being fastidious. Over the past few days she’d consistently reminded him that he didn’t have to clean up around the lab. He ignored her.
A (mostly) model guest.
He approached the glass-enclosed office. She sent a thought-command. The door parted.
“So, Doc,” he said, grinning, “when’s the next defrosting?”
“You know I cannot tell you that.”
He crossed to the transparent wall opposing her desk. “Is my Ella down there?” he asked, scanning the orderly assemblage of vacuum flasks. “Has there been no cure for whatever killed her? Is she still younger than me? Older? Ageless?”
“It may not be legally right to tell me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”
“That is not my decision to make.”
He lowered his head and sighed. “Little victories, then.” He pivoted. “I’m not leaving this office until I know something I didn’t know before entering.”
He moved closer. “How old are you?”
She reflexively moved her right hand to her crippled arm’s wrist. Why would he ask such a thing? She frowned. What was the point?
“I am twenty-nine.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Coincidence.”
“Ella was the same age when I … when I unwittingly became a transferrable asset.”
Her posture relaxed. “Coincidence is a statistical inevitability.”
He waggled an index finger. “Spoken like a true scientist.”
“And chance is merely an unexplained outcome.”
“Uh-huh.” He went to the doorway and then halted, his back to her. “What about death?”
He half-turned. “Have we conquered death?”
She shook her head. “Information-theoretic death is the great threshold. That is why protecting the brain is so vital. The rest of our bodies can be augmented, reinforced, replaced. Personality and presence, however, the distinctive spark of self that springs from consciousness defies faithful replication.”
“Shorthand: death is still inevitable.”
She rotated her chair, facing him. “Death can be delayed but not denied.”
“Well, now I know,” he said.
“I am sorry to disappoint,” she said.
He touched the back of his neck. “How secure is this thing?”
They were sitting near the small kitchen, on a translucent, backless plastic bench.
“It depends on what you are connected to,” she said, stirring her red rooibos tea. “Remote connections tend to be more vulnerable than direct ones.”
He dipped a semi-sweet biscuit into his black coffee. “Have you ever been hacked?”
She took a sip from her cup. “I am sensibly cautious.”
“Right, of course, but with the proliferation of augmentations, doesn’t that make people more vulnerable to attacks?”
“This building is very secure, essentially a closed system. Once you reenter the world, however, it will be important to educate yourself about current encryption protocols, public versus private connections, and which interfaces you can and cannot trust.”
He pointed to a recliner next to his bed. “I gotta admit, it’s pretty neat to be able to just sit back and call up replays of any baseball game ever recorded.”
“And I am encouraged by the fact that the Grand Old Game has mostly stayed the same, however long it’s been since…” He chuckled. “Cute how you scrub the dates from what little media I can access. Downright cagey of you.”
“It is true,” she said. “We tempt with modern but familiar content.”
“Not gonna work, Doc.”
“You are like a fish that we eagerly want to bait but, sadly, cannot coax from the frozen depths of its obstinate ignorance.”
Edgar blew air over his lower lip. “Poetic, if harsh.”
“To remain here is no life.”
“True, but I’m not the worst roommate, right? I mean, it must get terribly lonely,” he said, looking around, “inhabiting this icy fortress of solitude.”
“I have grown accustomed to it.”
“You’re definitely not the stir crazy type, Doc.”
“This is not a job for those incapable of being alone.”
He deposited his cup in the stainless steel sink. “Tell me your name.” He looked at her. “Come on, Doc, what’s your Christian…” He massaged the back of his neck. “Tell me your given name.”
She sipped her tea.
“Okay, then. What do you do for fun?”
She paused, and then returned to the pleasures of her tea.
“What’s with the big boxes?” He appeared in her office doorway, shortly after waking up.
Three portable containers were staged near a small couch and table, not far from his sleeping area.
“I received permission to allow you access to your personal effects and other articles,” she said. “Everything should be as it was before you entered biostasis. Copies of vulnerable items have been uploaded to a digital archive.”
He looked over his shoulder and then back at her. “You messing with me, Doc?”
She shook her head. “I am not messing with you, Edgar.”
“Wow…” He walked over to the containers and sat on the edge of the couch. “Even tastier bait.” He hesitated, as if assessing a particularly crucial chess move, and then reached out and depressed a latch-trigger on the nearest box. The unit sighed and the lid silently rose.
“Almost like Christmas,” he said, gingerly lifting the lid and placing it nearby. He moved the box closer and began digging through its contents. He pulled out a set of video discs and placed them on the table. His face brightened as he produced a bulky album filled with photographs.
“Oh … oh…” Tears welled in his eyes as he shakily turned the laminate-covered pages.
Dr. Shi exited her office. “Are you okay, Edgar?”
“It’s just … just so real, you know? Something connected to…”
She approached. “Is that Ella?”
“Yeah,” he said, sniffling. “She looked so good in that blouse. Man, what a smile…”
Lustrous blonde hair, shimmery turquoise top, long and trim. “She was quite pretty.”
He nodded. “Despite the age gap, we had a lot in common. Certainly a lot more than me and my first wife. Ella and I were both homebodies, loved to just sit on the couch, watch a show, maybe have friends over for charades or a board game. Just nice, uncomplicated stuff. Our wonderfully dull, happy place.”
He opened the other containers and began pulling things out: shirts, pants, cufflinks and deodorant. A framed doctoral diploma. Several board games. Two pocket combs. A pair of white gold rings.
“There we go,” he said, slipping the larger of the twin bands on his ring finger. “After I got the bad news and the treatments failed to yield positive results, we discussed our options. Cryopreservation was, by a wide margin, the most extreme choice. Regardless, we made a pact to be together in a future age. Seriously romantic stuff.”
Dr. Shi absently touched her wilted arm.
He met her gaze. “Surely you can understand the impossibility of going it alone? I mean, why do anything if it’s just for yourself? If you can’t share the experience with someone … someone meaningful, what’s the point?”
“The institute’s great hope is that you undergo reorientation and begin a new life.”
“Not without Ella. Not a chance.”
Dr. Shi moved past the couch and peered out the colored glass. “There was a woman, this was almost a year ago. We successfully revived her but, sadly, not her cat.” She drummed her nails against the pane. “She was similarly reluctant to leave. However, after a while, she understood that life must go on, regardless of circumstance. Delaying the inevitable is merely another kind of death.”
“Ella is far more significant than some damn cat.”
She nodded. “I am sorry, I did not mean to imply…”
“Are you trying to tell me that Ella didn’t make it, that she’s…?”
Dr. Shi focused on intermittent currents of lightning, admiring their dynamic patterns.
“Well, maybe there’s something bigger than your tidy, clinical definition of death. Maybe our consciousness is liberated when the body fails. You’ve got no data to disprove that. Love will always transcend death. Absolutely.”
She looked at him. “I meant no offense, Edgar.”
He squeezed his left hand into a fist. “If I can guess your name, will you tell me?”
She shook her head.
“Well, then,” he said, nostrils flaring, “it must be Bitch.”
She sat in bed, carefully applying vermilion polish to the nails on her lifeless left hand. The door was secured and her personal shock shield enabled. She could hear him, moving around the lab. Since he’d received the stored goods, he’d slept little. Contents of the audio and video discs had been retrieved from the network. He played them incessantly. His passionate devotion to the woman’s memory was formidable. Admirable. Not sustainable, however. No, not anything close to that.
She heard his wife’s voice, the engaging sound of her laugh. Again.
It was just an echo, though, an ancient, empty echo. And you cannot wrap your arms around an echo.
He must know that.
It was so painfully obvious.
Dr. Shi exhaled and called up a self-curated collection of long, tonally nonconcrete, mentally soothing sounds.
“Ah!” Edgar lashed out, scattering backgammon checkers across the floor.
Unfazed, Dr. Shi said, “It was closer that time.”
“Yeah, well, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” he said, grumbling as he collected strewn pieces.
She laughed. “I am unfamiliar with the expression.”
“Trite but true, Doc.” He slapped the checkers down and stared at the board. “You know, I was quite the player, way back when. I mean, I was competitive. Fairly dominant. What’s your secret?”
She separated the red and black pieces. “It is just patterns. Like most things, once the underlying design has been decoded the surface variations are easily manipulated.”
“Well, seventh time’s the charm,” he said.
She yawned. “Last game.”
“So, uh, you ever been married, Doc?”
She leaned over, retrieving a piece he’d missed.
“Okay,” he said. “This the sort of work you imagined yourself doing when you were younger?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
“Sure, but what about your life outside this place?”
She inspected a chipped red checker. “My current rotation ends in eight days.”
He blinked several times, as if perplexed. “Eight days?”
“My God, who’s going to replace you?”
She rattled her dice cup. “I do not know.”
“Doc, tell me whatever you can about my wife. Please.”
Dice tumbled across the right-hand side of the board.
Edgar remained in bed the majority of the following day. He pored over keepsakes and looped the sound of his wife’s voice.
As Dr. Shi was preparing for bed, he said: “I don’t know if God exists the same way for people now as He did in my time, but my God has a heavenly space reserved for true believers, a beautiful patch where all of your loved ones congregate in peace and harmony. Like a great big park with perfect weather forever. Just barbeques and togetherness. The rational part of me knows it’s fanciful, something to give comfort in the deep dark of the night. But my heart yearns for it. When Ella came into my life I caught a glimpse of what that special afterlife might be like. Truth is, passing with her still so young, I was selfish. Whatever awaited beyond this world, I didn’t want to spend one second of it without her. Stopping time was my way of not having to confront that. But, now, look at me. I’m stuck. If I leave here, surrender myself to the mercy of the unknown … and find out she’s not there … well, that … that I know would be a living Hell.”
The holographic heads of the other doctors hovered around Edgar. This time, however, Dr. Shi spoke for the institute.
“Though we have mastered the revivify process, it is important to understand that each patient is different, meaning we cannot confidently predict the outcome of undergoing a subsequent procedure.”
“Meaning my revival a second go-around is not guaranteed.”
“That is correct…” she said. “However, Mr. Crain, given the current pace of cryonic advances, I would say your odds of returning are most excellent.”
“And since there’s no disease to cure this time, I suppose I need to tell you when to bring me back.”
“Your input would be greatly appreciated. However, if you do not commit to a fixed date, we would determine an optimal time to revive you.”
“And what if my assets get transferred again?”
“In that case, you would be revived before transfer.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Look, tell me about Ella and I’ll begin reorientation immediately.”
“What’s to gain by stonewalling me, dammit?”
“Are you positive you do not have a preferred time to be awakened?”
“Yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “Bring me back when you can cure what I’m feeling inside.”
It was the second to last day, for both of them. They shared a final meal and then went over the impending procedure.
“Take care of my stuff, Doc,” he said, gesturing toward the containers.
“I will,” she said.
“Shouldn’t be nervous, but God knows I am.”
“You can still change your mind. It is not too late.”
He shook his head. “Old mule stubborn.”
“Of course.” She produced a small, glossy white cube. “Once connected, this cryoinducer will put you into a restful state and gradually lower your body’s temperature. Final prep will occur, your heart will be stopped, and you will be placed into storage.”
“Yeah, I’m mostly familiar.”
“We begin first thing tomorrow morning.”
He chuckled. “By dawn’s early light.”
“Yes.” She paused. “I want to have time to make sure you are perfectly situated before…”
“Your replacement arrives.”
“Have you ever undergone the procedure?”
She nodded. “When I was young, I was very sick.” He glanced at her arm. “My parents were part of the institute. They helped found the cryonics division. I grew up around labs such as this one and lived in corporate-sponsored housing.”
“When you were first brought back, did your parents look like grandparents?”
“Yes.” She brushed a wisp of hair from her face. “A cure took longer than expected. Despite my late revival, neither chose to delay the inevitable. The following year, they passed within hours of one another. I was determined to help the technology evolve … to ensure that it far exceed known limits.”
“Determined to reach some post-death finish line?”
She smiled, her mutable irises transitioning from blue to green.
He stared at her. “God, how many times have you been brought back?”
“It can become an addiction,” she said. “I give my life to the institute and they grant me opportunities to test, discover, and document what comes next. I very much like being a pioneer of progress.”
“Still,” he said, “pretty risky behavior.”
“I came to peace with that, long ago.”
“So why not … fix the arm?”
She shook her head. “You described your ideal heaven. Well, my ideal heaven is called xīn shēnghuó, or ‘new life.’ It is a world where everyone has an opportunity to hibernate-on-demand and ultimately settle on a future of their choosing. Being born in a less advanced age seems arbitrarily cruel and wasteful.”
“One-way trip, though. Shame if you abandon a better past for a worse future.”
“I have not been disappointed, yet.”
He leaned forward. “Doc, please, what happened to my Ella?”
She tapped the center of his forehead with her index finger. “Like you said, Edgar: one-way trip.”
Dawn. The cryoinducer had been attached. He was fading.
“Doc … what … sound?”
“That was a test tone,” she said, checking a digital readout. “I made a recording for you.”
“Re-recording? … Ella’s?”
“No,” she said.
He licked his lips. His voice was ragged. “Yours?”
“Yes, Edgar. Mine. It will play once per calendar year, on the anniversary of your return to biostasis.”
She placed her hand on his chest. “To better understand.”
Two assistants appeared and waited nearby. Dr. Shi initiated the final shutdown sequence.
Edgar’s fingers twitched. His eyes rolled white. “Tell…” He licked his lips. “Tell me… puh-please…”
She did not remove her hand until his heart had stopped beating.
Dr. Shi tidied the lab, checked the systems, and began repacking Edgar’s things. Ella’s wedding band was the last object remaining. She held the white gold halo aloft and examined it. Written on the underside was the inscription: Love without end.
Her replacement was due to arrive within the hour. For her, it was back to the research department and unappealing interactions with choleric colleagues and smug superiors. Reorientation to the mundane determinacies of daily life.
She carefully maneuvered the ring onto her left hand.
But not quite yet.
“A pair of ice fishermen unknowingly left a fish behind. The tiny creature tumbled from one of their buckets and bobbed in the slushy ice that filled the hole they had cut. Paralyzed with shock, the fish was unable to dive. Overnight, the ice thickened. When the fishermen returned to their hole they discovered the orphaned fish. It was trapped between worlds. One of the fishermen claimed the creature’s mouth was moving, as if desperately trying to tell them something. The other fisherman said his friend was imagining things and that he should lay off of the late night drinking. If capable, the tiny fish would have laughed itself to death.”
A calm exhalation.
“Edgar, I plan to be here when you are brought back. Regardless, you will do so alone. You have been alone for a very long time. That does not mean, however, that you are incapable of enjoying a rich and fulfilling new life.
“When you do reawaken, even if I am not present, I hope the first name that you speak is mine.
Monday morning and you are not here.
Another “F” joins the parade
of “F’s” across Miss Nichols’ notebook.
You are off catching pollywogs
in the stream behind the school,
sneaking into matinees, sitting
next to men with bourbon breath.
Our hands touched by chance
in the dark theater of Audrey
Hepburn and Gary Cooper.
Sparks shot up my arm.
I didn’t wash for weeks,
savoring the scent of your skin.
Monday morning and you are not here
in Charles River Church.
I circled the notice in the newspaper,
learned your heart was weak.
Strangers are speaking of you:
good Father, loving husband,
I drift away.
My hand touches yours
and we are twelve again,
skipping school, watching
Love in the Afternoon.
Winner of the Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Contest
There’s no cutesy way of saying this: yesterday, just as our daily walk in the hills was nearing its bucolic climax, Hazel murdered a deer. As luck would have it, the bloody harvest happened across the street. What would the neighbors think?
I was about to throw her best ball into a cherished grove of live oaks when she spotted him. We were standing on the dilapidated tennis court where my kid learned how to ride a bike. The land was acquired by a developer. In a year or so, there will be a cluster of three-story houses glaring down at us. But for now, the abandoned tennis court is still a pitted, slumping stretch of macadam surrounded by trees. Lots of trees. A genuine wildlife corridor, as I preached to the City Council, using my most impassioned vibrato.
“Time’s up, Thoreau,” the head of the Zoning Board wisecracked.
It’s my fault. I tolerated these little games, which seemed so harmless. Keep dreaming Hazel. But Hazel is no visionary. She’s calculating, and predatory. “A perfect machine,” a rocket scientist remarked the other day, as we hurled tennis balls for our respective pooches near Lawrence Livermore Lab, where Oppenheimer built the first cyclotron. Her yellow lab was left in the dust. But I never imagined that Hazel could outgun a mule deer. They’re big, agile—designed for scampering up and down the Sierras. Fawns may fall to bobcats and eagles, but the bucks? They’re armed and dangerous. Their only predator, until the wolves recolonize, is the mountain lion. Five years ago, a stag gored a neighbor’s Irish deerhound. The hound’s owner, the head of the History Department, made a big stink out of it because it happened right in his backyard, and he figured the ungulate for a kind of Mongol invader, an avant-garde for sharp-horned legions ready to take over our elevated redoubt, chomping contentedly on “deer-resistant” hydrangeas and eviscerating our pets.
But Hazel is something else. An OBD, or Oakland Brown Dog. She’s all bizness, dawg. I’ve coined another term for our hybrid, because OBD doesn’t quite capture her bushwhacker’s soul: ridgebull. In Rhodesia, ridgebacks were used to battle lions, and they climb trees. Pits have a bite-force that beats most carnivores in their weight class, and those infamous locking jaws. As the Raiders were to the rest of the NFL, circa 1984, so ridgebulls are to the rest of the canine realm: stronger, faster, badder. When Hazel was still an adorable, pudgy puppy, she was found roped to a tree in West Oakland. The Post Office worker who untied her asked my partner for directions to the pound. Gaby didn’t lose any time texting me a close-up of Hazel. I responded “No Way. Really.” We already had Banshee, a.k.a. The Great White Dope. We had cats. Rabbits—all of them rescues from a neighbor’s cottage breeding facility, but it was beginning to look like Watership Down. What would I do with Hazel, besides, when I went back to France to enjoy my mother’s rural recipes? I had always taken Banshee along with me (he was practically an Air France mascot, and they allowed him to travel on the plane despite his large size), but pitbulls, or anything pit-like, or pitish, are banned. The anti-pitbull hysteria reached a paroxysm around the turn of the century. Today, following a nation-wide eradication program, the only thing that can elicit more Jacobin indignation than a woman wearing a hijab in public is a pit. Modernité be damned. That evening, the Post Office worker delivered Hazel to our doorstep. Resistance was futile.
The thing is, Hazel isn’t some vicious beast—she’s the ultimate nanny dog. She’ll frolic with the kids for hours, and more than tolerates the repeated attempts to ride her like a carnival pony. She cleans Baby Elwynn’s ears, which makes the little one shriek with delight. Zoe will dress her up as a princess, and stage elaborate wedding rituals with our cat, whom Hazel worships. She defers to Banshee, who’s getting on in years and behaves like a perfect curmudgeon whenever she strikes a playful pose. Hazel will stalk the rabbits, but once they are cornered she will lie down and whimper, lamenting her fate but ever-conscious of the constraints and responsibilities of her station.
Of course, there’s another side to her. In the three years since Hazel graduated from puppydom, the spate of car burglaries that plagued our street has ceased. Any suspect noise at night sends her careening to the front door, where she releases a thunderous rumble (“the death growl,” as Gaby calls it) that evokes a lioness making the case for her newborn cub. The nocturnal marauders have grown scarce. If anything, we are rather in awe of her Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine. It only makes her more endearing.
I should have known better. Squirrels send her bolting over the high fence at the dog run. I’ve witnessed a few other dogs give it a shot, but those other pooches invariably flounder and fall back down in an ungainly heap. Hazel is the only regular who can take flight. On the Cal campus, tempted by a sashaying tail a few dozen feet up a redwood, she tried channeling a mountain lion, and propelled herself a respectable distance up the hulking trunk. She ended up hanging off a low branch as the squirrel admonished her from the safety of an upper limb, and I had to break her fall as best I could—an act of interspecies empathy that has cost me the ability to raise my left arm above my shoulder. She captured a field mouse up at Tilden Park, dispatching it before I could extricate it from those heavyset jaws.
In what wildlife biologists call the urban interface, there is a case to be made for dogs of a certain caliber. Not long after our new neighbors moved in, their tomcat picked a fight with an industrious raccoon cub who was pilfering the kibble. It was a reckless gamble on the cat’s part, though not as reckless as putting the cat chow out on the deck in the first place. Within moments, Ace, a big bruiser who liked nothing more than to torture our own wimpy feline, was being swarmed by the entire banded brigade. I heard Gaby’s screams from the driveway, where she’d been putting out the trash. As the neighbor watched his cat being savaged from behind the safety of a screen door, I stomped up to the raccoons, bellowing and shaking my arms. Perfectly oblivious to my clownish antics, they continued their assault, a fanatical mass of surgical claws and gnashing teeth. “They’re killing him. Get Hazel!” Gaby wailed. The plaintive caterwauls coming from our neighbor’s hapless tomcat were agonizing, but I was torn about sending Hazel into the fray. The raccoons are a brazen bunch. In addition to cantankerous housecats, they will not hesitate to face off with canines that don’t adhere to their Fourierist belief system. Gaby could tell I was conflicted, so she took matters into her own hands, dashing nimbly to the front door, dreadlocks slapping down on whipcord shoulders like a sassy cat o’ nine tails. Hazel surged, her spring-loaded frame gathering momentum as she catapulted across our yard. Dispensing with formalities, she bounded over the half-open craftsman gate rather than squander an extra second navigating the narrow breach. As she neared the scrimmage line, my heart lodged in my neckline. Something terrible was about to go down, no doubt—bloody carnage and five-figure vet bills. But the raccoons must have sensed there was something different about Hazel. An undercurrent of savannah, of dusty rangeland and bushmeat. They scampered the moment they heard her distinctive roar, clambering up the tall wooden fence against which Ace lay, gasping. All but one. The kingpin himself, in his striped zoot suit, paraded atop the high boundary for a moment, growling (the sound resembled a pair of electric shears having a meltdown). Hazel, as was her wont, blasted off, landing squarely on the railing. The scowling kingpin scurried off to a nearby redwood, where the rest of his posse had retreated. They peered down at Hazel from a high bough. The wooden fence swayed under her bulk. On that promontory she maintained her balance, leopard-like. Hazel had treed the raccoons, and she spent the rest of the night patrolling the garden. Ace vanished in the confusion, and was never seen again. Cats prefer to die alone, when they can.
A set of sharp, slender antlers flared out from the top of the buck’s bony brow, narrowing near their extremity. Not an impressive trophy spread, but trident-like and deadly, if it came to that. Hazel did not balk. I called out to her, using my most commanding voice, but I was no match for her primal bloodlust. The buck bumped up against a tall chain-link fence on a grassy knoll north of the tennis court. He turned, springing back down the hillside, displaying his full girth. He was a force of nature, a coiled mass of muscles and bony protuberances. Hazel intercepted him. She grabbed a shank, but the buck gave a kick and she let go. Good boy, I thought. But in his panic, he collided with one of the oaks and lost his footing on the muddy slope. Hazel was on him in a flash of auburn, hackles raised high. She latched onto the nape, just behind that fairy-tale crown. Having achieved a good anchorage, she shook herself back and forth, trying to generate lethal leverage. By then I was running toward the scene and baying hysterically. “LEAVE-IT, DAMNIT, LEAVE-IT!” Within seconds, she dropped the fallen buck and came strutting toward me, satisfied that she had accomplished what she had set out to do. The stag attempt to stand, but there was something awry about the way he carried himself. His head seemed far too heavy. Listing like a sailboat that has hit a shoal and sprung a bad leak, he finally keeled over. One of his hind legs twitched feebly. He just needs to shake it off, I told myself. He will get up, he must get up.
I brought Hazel and my ancient husky back home. Banshee hadn’t even noticed the chase. It happened too fast, in less time than it had taken him to position his hindquarters favorably and drench the manzanita bush.
A few minutes later I walked out of the garage, sliding along the carriage doors and casting stealthy glances left and right before crossing the street. I jogged up the steep, curving access road that led to the decaying tennis court. Halfway up, I cut to the left, through the grove of live oaks. Beyond the oaks lay the remains of a large acacia grove, which the developer hadn’t wasted any time cutting down (there was a city ordinance protecting the native oaks, at least). Where the ground had been cleared of trees the sodden earth was already beginning to slump ominously. I thought about geotechnical questions not to dwell on the deer, and by the time I reached the area where Hazel had felled the buck, I was almost buoyant. Obviously, she could not have dispatched such a behemoth. This was no field mouse, and even a lion can’t kill a zebra with a single bite. Don’t the wildlife docs always showcase the desperate struggle between prey and predator? The buck would be long gone, how could I have doubted it?
He wasn’t. There was blood trickling from his wide muzzle, which had colored the damp leaves an autumnal red. I grazed one of the long, donkey ears. It was already cold. I cupped that cartoonish ear and gave it a little tug, just to make sure he wasn’t about to resurrect, Lazarus-like. Something inside his neck made a muffled sound. A vertebra letting go of its tenuous hold on the spinal column. Great. Now what?
A few months earlier, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I had stumbled upon an abandoned cabin in the redwood forest. In it I found a worn green fascicule entitled Feral Forager: a Guide to Living off Nature’s Bounty in Urban, Rural and Wilderness Areas. “Our future vision,” it stated, “is one of a horticultural, village-scale, community located near a wild area, but as we are still landless, our current dietary habits combine backyard-scale gardening and bulk organic staples, along with wild edibles and scavenged roadkill.”
A “scavenger-forager lifestyle” (to avoid contributing to the military-industrial complex) constituted the practical and philosophical underpinning of this intriguing, primitivist society. “The highly sought-after roadkill deer” was a prime target, but the authors (it was an collective work) didn’t hesitate to harvest dead raccoons, foxes, opossums, birds, and just about anything that could provide “untainted meat.” They called themselves roadkill vegans. “Although some die-hards may want to leave civilization behind, set out for the wilderness and practice primitive hunting and gathering techniques, we are more interested in bringing wild food gathering and roadkill scavenging into our daily lifestyle.”
I found this neo-Neolithic perspective persuasive. I had become a pescatarian because I was sickened by the plight of stockyard animals, from industrial feedlots to mechanized slaughter. Yet, despite years of deprivation, I wasn’t quite cured. I wasn’t using, but the craving for a juicy flank steak, properly aged and lightly seared over a bed of mesquite coals, had never dissipated.
Abandoning so much prime meat to rot on the hillside felt like an insult to this magnificent stag. Daunting as I found the prospect of cutting into the fresh carcass at my feet, I resolved to harvest the meat. I was no stranger to dead deer, mangled deer even. Most of the mountain lion studies I had joined up with use roadkill obtained from National Parks or Forest Service personnel to lure the big cats into cage traps so they can be sedated and outfitted with GPS collars. I did my share of dirty work, lugging bloody deer carcasses up remote mountain ranges. But this was different. The line between life and death feels so extreme, so unyielding, and yet nothing had really prepared me for the precarious nature of that divide. Just minutes ago, the buck had been prancing blissfully, browsing on the abundant fresh grass and sedges the rain had brought up. Spring was finally here, and apple blossoms were alight in the neighbor’s manicured orchard, beyond the tall chain-link fence that had created a death-trap for the luckless ungulate, courtesy of our devoted dog. Maybe we should finally re-baptize our ridgebull, I reflected. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, would be more fitting.
I selected the sharpest knife I could find in our kitchen, but it wasn’t quite sharp enough to slice through the thick mule deer hide. Not easily that is, and it was getting dark. Working quickly, which isn’t a good idea when you are field-dressing your first deer, I reached inside the body cavity to cut the windpipe, which allows the guts and organs to spill out of the carcass if you do it the right way, on a slope with the head facing uphill. But in my haste I grabbed hold of something else, not the trachea, and cut through that instead. Immediately, I smelled the stench of decomposing vegetable matter. At least, when I pulled out the guts, everything came, the way it ought. There was a cupful of brown fluid inside the empty body cavity, not enough to taint the meat if I flushed it out. I moved the organs off to the side—the scavengers would make quick work of them. I saved the liver, for Hazel and Banshee. Then I skinned the deer, which took a long time in the deepening dusk with my dull blade, and finally managed to hack out the haunches and the ribcage.
I grew faint at one point, and I must have swooned because I opened my eyes with a start and saw that my knife had fallen inside the bloody, gaping cavity. It was an ordeal, cutting into another sentient being, but I was hopeful that even Gaby (who hasn’t tasted any meat since she was Zoe’s age) might try some haunch of venison. The argument for veganism is societal and ethical (as they’ll tell you at Farm Sanctuary benefits), not gastronomical. This musky flesh would represent the sum total of my carnivorous passion for this season and in all likelihood for many seasons to come. My flash syncope was merely a symptom of my own depleted nature. Harvesting the slain deer wasn’t just the proper thing to do, in theory, it also felt right—far less dislocating than buying a slab of meat whose existential framework, from birth to the processing plant, was a study in degradation. I felt more human afterward, not less.
I left a bit more than the innards for the hardcore cleaning crew, those masked banditos and the over-communicative crows that woke me up at the brink of dawn most days of the week. All the scavengers deserved their fair share after all, not just me. Before Hazel entered our life, I’d spotted a bobcat sitting calmly on his haunches on the game trail that winds along the edge of our neighbor’s house. He was unfazed, and we locked gazes. All of a sudden, the mystery of our fish basin’s dwindling koi population was resolved. The remains of the dead buck would serve to sustain more than the local carrion-feeders, it would nourish the entire carnivore guild. Our friendly neighborhood apex predator, otherwise known as Hazel, was providing for the entire food chain.
A Wartime Guide to Confession
“May the most holy, most sacred, most adorable,
most incomprehensible and ineffable Name of God
be forever praised, blessed, loved, adored
The Golden Arrow Prayer
The girls call in their father like an air strike. Their voices are girly, ear-bleedingly high-pitched, but the word rolls like thunder through the fortress of brick and trees behind them, and we scatter before the lightning hits. I trail Bertie across the street, losing ground even at my wildest sprint, hurrying to the safety of our backyard.
We live under constant threat of him, the monster next door, but we wage our war against the girls anyway.
Bertie says it’s the rule, basically, growing up: your neighbors are either your best friends or your worst enemies. I believe him. For one, Bertie is always right. I mean, he lies, who ate the last pop tart and stuff, but he’s never wrong when it matters. Also, it just kind of makes sense to me.
Not that I want enemies, but I won’t call evil good, either.
He means the kids only, with the friends/enemies rule. He says most grown-ups pretend to like each other, even if they don’t.
Bertie’s my older brother. Alberto really, but since he shares that name with my dad, the nickname stuck. They didn’t name me after anyone; my parents wanted an American name.
Bertie likes to point out that he was born in an entirely different decade than me, which is technically true, even if he’s less than two years older. He often points out that, unlike him, I’ve never lived anywhere but this house on Seventy-third Terrace, which is also true. Bertie says he’s lived in two houses, and three decades, and Mom and Dad have lived in two countries, plus probably more houses and decades than we can count. I’m uniquely sheltered, he says, taking his time with the ten-dollar words.
He’s somewhat annoying with the whole wise man act, but like I said, he’s also always right.
Mom describes the girls across the street as roughly the same ages as us. Very roughly, if you ask me. Alyssa just turned eleven, and I’m firmly twelve. She acts nine. Vicky and Bertie are both fourteen. We’ve hated them as far back as I remember, which is probably when I was three or four years old, so maybe farther than that, from birth or something.
Alyssa has a crush on me, although it’s not as sweet as it sounds. She wields it like poo on a stick. I try to keep my distance, but she’s relentless, she taints me with her presence. At this point, I suspect the cooties to be a fictionalized plague, but if they ever found one rare case of the disease, I would not be surprised to learn it was Alyssa. At school she’s made it like a thing, Alyssa and Mikey, and even though I hate her, think she’s foul, somehow I’m guilty by association. Like I said, tainted. The worst thing is, when I deny it, I’m the mean one.
Vicky’s kind of hot, but I’d never admit that out loud. She looks almost like a grown woman, except I’ve never met a grownup who wears all black all the time, including nails and lipstick. Bertie doesn’t agree she’s hot, but then again Vicky doesn’t crush on him the way Alyssa does on me. Funny how that works.
I hate her, even if she’s hot, even if I can’t help picturing her black lips sometimes in the shower. On Christmas morning, she steals the controller to my RC car, practically from under our tree, and drives it up and down the street, taunting me. Alyssa taints and Vicky taunts; they’re quite a pair. Vicky’s a bitch, even if she’s a hot bitch. I try not to talk like that, but as Bertie puts it: war is war.
“Have I been indifferent to God? “Have I considered Him and His plan for me in my daily life?”
In CCD class, we receive a guide of sorts, a series of questions to ask ourselves before taking the sacrament of confession. Our teacher says it’s a guide for teens, but we should read it, anyway, to be prepared. The neighbors come up in most of my answers; they provoke my sins – hatred, anger, impure thoughts, foul language…
I try to explain this to Father Mark, to justify my profanity, even as I cop to it in the booth, but he’s not buying it. Father Mark says Vicky was made in God’s image, and when I call her a bitch, to think about who I’m actually insulting. He says it just like that, uses the word “bitch” and everything, and then I feel really bad, because I just made a priest curse. I only tell him the bitch part, not about thinking she’s a hot bitch or anything about the shower. I’m not ready to talk to anyone about that, including God.
Father Mark assigns me fifteen Hail Mary’s and tells me to try and remember what Jesus said about loving our neighbors. I wonder if Jesus could have ever imagined having neighbors like this. Vicky and Alyssa’s dad Mariano is a contractor, a construction guy. It’s obvious because when you look across the street they always have a bunch of dusty pickup trucks and work vans parked out in front. The other thing is their house isn’t normal. It’s a perpetual construction site. Mariano is always adding on. My dad says he’s like an artist who doesn’t know when to put down the brush.
Like I said, Mariano’s house is not a normal house. During the few short truces in our lifelong war with the girls, they’ve given us guided tours of their place, presumably to freak us out. I’ve tried to describe it to friends who’ve never seen it, and always worry they can’t quite picture it from my words.
Basically, it is a normal house, yellow three bedroom type of thing, but no one would ever know, because he surrounded it on all four sides with a brick fort, and further entrenched that behind a dense and unruly forest of tropical trees. He built it all using materials left over, or scavenged, from his other construction projects, and every few feet the bricks vary in size and color, with the largest section towards the back made of limestone. In the front, the fortress extends all the way down the driveway, ending in a large wrought-iron gate, about the size of a garage door. Welded on the center of the gate was Mariano’s symbol, a weird circular M made from swords.
All of this on a regular suburban street, the houses aren’t all the same like some neighborhoods I’ve seen, but they aren’t so different either. Mariano’s castle sticks out, like the one petri dish in our class experiment that exploded with bacteria. Dad says he probably moved to the area because the zoning laws are famously lax. He says in Italy, where Mariano’s from, you’re probably allowed to build whatever you want.
Mariano sometimes sends Dad invitations to political meetings he holds in the castle; he started something called a libertarian militia. Dad says libertarians think there should be a government, but only a very small one, and no laws except to arrest thieves and murderers. He says libertarians aren’t the worst, but that we do need some rules to keep people from doing whatever they want, like drugs for instance.
Zoning laws or not, people notice, and complain, although maybe not to Mariano’s face. He’s a scary dude. He looks like a construction guy, short but strong, with forearms thick as thighs, and a scruffy beard patched on his face to match the paint all over his clothes.
I wonder if the girl’s mom, Mariano’s wife Carla, worries as much as my mom does. She’d really have something to worry about, but I can’t tell, because she barely exists. Carla shrinks around the fortress, as tiny as Mariano looms large. When we do see her, occasionally venturing into the street or the yard to address the girls, she barely makes eye contact, staring down at the ground and speaking Italian so softly it looks like she’s praying the rosary.
Before going to sleep, I commit to finish reciting all fifteen of my Hail Mary’s, but I keep getting distracted after nine or ten, and force myself to start again. To stay focused, I concentrate on each of the words, on the prayer’s meaning, but inevitably, my mind wanders, and sometimes the places it goes feel as unholy as it gets. When I was little, and my grandmother Chichi taught me these prayers, I’d misheard the word sinner, thinking she said stinger. Chichi had an accent. Pray for us stingers, from now until the hour of our death. Even now, when I pray the right words, the old meaning lingers, and I can’t help but imagine people running around stinging each other like honey bees, dying after they sin.
“Have I been violent or abusive either in action or in speech?”
Bertie hides the bomb manual like it was a dirty magazine, not under his mattress, but smarter, tucked away into the pages of a faded philosophy book no one ever reads. I think it belonged to my grandad or something; the author must be a Cuban guy, with a name like Descartes. Bertie says his friend photocopied the bomb pages out of something called The Anarchist Cookbook. I tell him I don’t think a cookbook is a very good guide to war, but he says I’m too dumb to know what anarchist means. It means chaos, he says.
I ask my dad what anarchist means, just to double check Bertie’s definition. He says anarchy is a political system, one where there isn’t any government, and people just do whatever they want. I ask him what’s worse, communism or anarchy, and dad says anarchy is dumber than communism, but not worse. He says nothing is worse than communism, not even abortions. Not even tattoos.
War is war, Bertie says, and war is hell. It feels like hell, in the August heat. In the summer ours is a kind of trench warfare, attack and retreat, quickly getting back to the safety of the air-conditioning. Summers in Miami are like winters for people up north, the air is something you can feel, it hits you in the eyes like a blow-dryer when you walk out the front door. Dad says we live two feet below sea level, and that’s why it’s so humid, because we’re technically underwater. I don’t get it. I can ride my bike to the canals, and we’re definitely above the water.
The sea level thing seems to be a major component of why everyone is freaking out over Mariano’s latest project. He’s digging himself a basement. Dad says it’s impossible; people just don’t have them here, but Bertie points out that Mariano has many things that people around here don’t have, like a rabbit pen, a gun cellar, and a weird rooftop deck with some kind of altar thing on it. With all the workers around, and most speaking languages other than English, Dad says Mariano’s new project is like the Tower of Babel, only headed in the opposite direction.
Dad’s pretty funny, but he never acts like he’s telling a joke, which is different from Bertie, who thinks everything coming out of his mouth should be followed with a rim shot. Like I said about Mom, she mostly just worries all the time, which is occasionally funny, like when her worries aren’t quite rational. A couple years ago, she wouldn’t let Dad go to a business conference in Memphis, because that’s where Martin Luther King got shot. As if Dad was a civil rights hero, instead of just a Cuban guy who co-owns a furniture store, as if there wasn’t already a bunch of crime in Miami.
When Mom’s not home, we go back behind the patio where we keep all the tools and stuff and experiment with the bomb manual. Bertie wants to make something we can plant under Vicky and Alyssa’s toilet, to cover them in their own pee and poo, but so far, everything we blow up has a pretty short fuse. When Bertie’s off with friends sometimes I go back there and experiment by myself, pouring out paint thinner in the grooves between the patio tiles, then lighting one end, and watching the flame catch down the line. Later I can smell the singe and fumes on my fingertips, no matter how many times I wash my hands, and it smells good but I feel a little guilty, too.
“Have I stood up for those unjustly accused, or am I merely a channel through which rumors pass, whether or not they are true?”
Since he’s started digging the basement, there is even more construction mess around Mariano’s fortress, more trucks, more piles of brick, more mounds of dirt, and more workers, too. At least some of the workers he imports, I guess from Italy. A new one shows up, skinny with tiny eyes and huge ears, who seems to be lurking around the house all the time. Vicky and Alyssa nickname him Nerdo. Or, maybe that’s his real name, Bertie says, maybe it doesn’t mean the same thing in Italy.
Vicky and Alyssa take a break from their war with us to torment Nerdo. They always lure us outside to watch the show the same way: a phone call, three rings, and then hang up. Occasionally, they stay on the line long enough to hear us answer and say look outside fags or something like that. I keep waiting for them to mess up and call Dad a fag or curse when Mom answers the phone, but they never do. We don’t call over there; neither Bertie nor I take chances with Mariano.
The first time we meet Nerdo, he’s sitting under a palm tree taking a break, from what I don’t know. Alyssa comes out the gate holding a plate in her hands, and tells him she’s made him an American sandwich. From our yard, we can’t tell for sure what’s in there, probably a bunch of ketchup and mustard, maybe hot sauce. I think he must be dumb, or really hungry, because I’d never eat anything Alyssa touched, let alone cooked. Nerdo takes a bite, and smiles widely, he’s eyes growing even tinnier, like two ink smudges on a blank paper. We look at the girls, and they look back at us, and then all four of us start to crack up, which at first gets Nerdo laughing, too, although after he few seconds he looks confused.
Later, we find out Nerdo is retarded. Vicky tells us about Mariano complaining on the phone, yelling at someone in Italy for sending him a retarded worker. Nerdo never really does any construction work, just hangs around the yard and smiles his confused smiles while the girls torment him. Bertie and I never do anything mean to him, only laugh when the girls put ketchup packets under his toilet seat, or change all the clocks in the house, or douse him with fart spray. While Nerdo’s around, we fight less with the girls, although Bertie and I still secretly work on the bomb.
With so many workers, almost every night is a party at Mariano’s. Sometimes we can spot them on the roof, or on the fortress’s back patio, drinking late and speaking loudly in Italian. The voices are all male, and I’m not sure where Vicky, Alyssa, or their mom go; I guess they stay inside. Vicky says Nerdo can’t drink because he’s already retarded, and she overheard her dad say it would be like giving liquor to a child. She and Alyssa work on a plan to trick Nerdo into getting drunk. Bertie and I have some experience with this, when we gave our Weimeraner Cleo vodka and watched her stumble around the yard. Vicky wants to sneak the booze into Nerdo’s thermos so he drinks it without noticing. Bertie tells her try mixing it with Cheetos; it worked for Cleo.
Bertie tells me they’ll never succeed though, even if Cleo is smarter than Nerdo. He says no way Nerdo doesn’t notice the booze in his drink, even if they mix it in with some juice or soda. He says Cleo probably did notice the vodka in her bowl, but decided to plow away at the Cheetos, anyway, on account of them being so irresistibly delicious.
A few nights later, the partying sounds rowdier than usual. It’s a weekend, and with Mom and Dad out to dinner, Bertie and I sit on the edge of their bed, trying to watch Mariano’s fortress from the big window in their room looking out into the street. We can’t see much. They’ve built a fire, the smoke rises up past the palm fronds, and we can see orange flicker through the limestone, or at least Bertie says we can. The same stones muffle the parties’ noise, and we don’t speak Italian, anyway, but towards ten or eleven at night, the voices starts to sound different from regular weekend nights at the fortress. They go from one big party noise to separate voices, chopped up, quick bouts of screaming like machine gun bursts.
Mom and Dad come home to chase us out of their room. I try and explain why we were in there but Bertie just looks at me with eyes shaped like stop signs and I drop it. Later we put socks on and plod slowly up to their closed bedroom door, where we think we can hear them still awake and Bertie says they’re probably watching out the window, whispering and spying on Mariano while we whisper and spy on them.
No one sees Nerdo again. The girls don’t come outside for almost a week, make no attempt to crank call or prank us. I think I overhear Mom say something to Nancy Castille about someone trying something with one of the girls, about them not being totally right in the head, drinking a lot. I wonder how they know how much Nerdo drank, if even Nerdo knew. Bertie spends most afternoons at the high school because he’s decided to go out for football this year; he either has practice or he hits the weights on his own, making up for lost time.
“Have I been uncharitable in my thoughts of others?”
I spend the last days of summer mostly on my own, burning things on the patio, trying to keep the bomb project alive. The cookbook is only so helpful; it must be missing pages. I rescue toilet and paper towel rolls from the trash, stuffing them with rags soaked in various flammable smelling liquids. My experiments smoke and flame like a space shuttle launch, but never really explode. When I see Vicky and Alyssa again, I don’t have the guts to ask about Nerdo.
On the weekend before school starts back up, Vicky throws a party and invites everyone in their grade except for Bertie. Kids float a rumor around that Vicky’s mom is out of town and her dad doesn’t care; he’ll let her have whatever kind of party she wants. I think these kids don’t know Mariano, but maybe her mom really is out of town. I don’t know where she would go, Italy, I guess.
Bertie claims he isn’t too shredded about the lack of an invite because not that many cool kids are going to the party. Mom invites the Castille’s to dinner, and Ricky comes to our house instead of the party, so at least Bertie has a friend. I want to talk to Bertie about the bomb, my new plan, but they go in Bertie’s room and close the door to have a push up contest or something. I sneak into Mom and Dad’s room and watch the cars drive by from the window, mostly parents dropping off, or older siblings, but a couple kids are old enough to have a license and drive themselves. Peter Conrack parks his mom’s purple egg van on our grass. I don’t think he realizes it’s our house.
Ricky Castille’s dad, Big Ed, is one of those experts on everything you didn’t know it was possible to be an expert in. He spends half the night giving Dad a lecture on the proper way to cook on a barbeque, and by the time the chicken is ready to eat it’s almost ten. Nancy Castille finishes the bottle of wine she brought as a gift to my mom, plus half of the one she brought the last time she came over. It’s understandable she’s thirsty, the overcooked chicken dries our mouths out, leaves my tongue feeling like a charcoal briquette. I’m nervous because I can tell my mom’s getting nervous, wanting to everyone to go home so she can put on her nightgown and clean the kitchen. She keeps making comments about the dinner in past tense, like we ate it a month ago, saying oh how delicious Nancy’s salad was, when most of us still have a heap of it on our plates.
While we’re still eating, we hear the doorbell, and the first of the party’s migrants arrive, two girls in jeans and t-shirts cut off at the waist. I’ve never seen them before but they say hi to Bertie and Ricky like they know them. The girls speak quietly and look stunned, only asking if they can use our phone to call their parents. Mom takes them to the phone in the kitchen, looking really nervous now. Within five or ten minutes, more groups of kids arrive at our door, including several that I definitely recognize, from school or even ones that have been to our house before. These new waves of refugees don’t bother with the first two girls’ quiet politeness; a few are so excited they’re practically flapping their arms.
They line up in the kitchen to use the phone, and while they wait, the story emerges, pops excitedly out their mouths in scattered details, loose beads for us to string together. The roof deck, Mariano, a friend, a threat, drunkenness, crazy house, stuck, lost, a gun, maybe multiple guns. No one is hurt, they think. They all seem more excited than scared to me, like a big bad thing happened, but emphasis on the big.
Vicky walks in just as we’re beginning to piece it all together. She doesn’t ring the bell; between the people flowing in and out, the door is more or less permanently open. She sees Bertie and me, plus a bunch of the kids who escaped her party, but doesn’t look at or talk to us, instead travelling almost instinctively through the living room and into the kitchen to find my mom. When she finally opens her mouth, we can all hear her, but she only talks to Mom. I can’t remember the two of them being together before, but they seem familiar, close.
It was just a flurry, Vicky says, not a big deal. She says it’s ok for everyone to go back to the party now; Mariano was only kidding, would never shoot anyone. My mom looks at her and I think she must be so nervous right now, all these people in her house, ruining her dinner party, and this emergency next door, but in the midst of it mom is looking at Vicky calmly, like a doctor examining a patient. Nancy Castille starts to say something about the police, but mom swivels her head and says just a moment, Nancy in a voice I’ve never heard. She says to Vicky that of course it’s not a big deal, and not to worry, but it’s late now anyway, and better for everyone to go home. Mom touches Vicky on the shoulder and for a second I think Vicky’s gonna cry or hug her, but instead she turns and runs out of the house like she was shot by a pinball plunger.
Have I appreciated my own good qualities, or do I constantly compare myself with others and become resentful or bitter? Have I been satisfied with what God has given me?
School starts two days later, and the story never really grows legs, at least not in my class, with everyone so breathless and jittery about middle school. We have an assembly the first day, and along with teacher introductions and announcements about lockers and stuff, the school police officer stands up to give a speech about drugs. Office Manley is shaped like a snowman, hairless and round: round head, round belly, round butt, bowlegged. I imagine if he ever came across a drug, he’d just open his mouth wide and eat it like a Pac-man, end of story.
Officer Manley says now that we’ve reached the seventh grade we need to be alert, we’ve officially become targets for the pushers. He teaches us a bunch of different ways to say no, and reminds us to be on the lookout, to watch out for each other. He says the whole city’s in the midst of a drug frenzy, and to be aware, some of the junkies could toss their dirty drug needle syringes into the bushes or the soccer field, and if we touch them we could get drugged, or AIDS. He says remember not to touch them but to tell an adult right away.
A new commercial comes on TV almost every night now. It’s not even trying to sell anything. There’s a family watching TV, either in an apartment or townhouse type situation, and they can hear their neighbors through the wall, a man and woman fighting. They hear a loud bang and then the woman crying. The mom and dad from the family look at each other, and you think they’re going to say something, but instead the dad just walks over to the TV and turns the volume up. Sometimes I see mom looking over at dad whenever it comes on, but he just stares ahead and sips from his tiny little drink. I think if he tried to the turn the volume up, it would only make the commercial louder.
Everyone in my class is going crazy trying to get a girlfriend. One, the girls show up back from summer break wearing bras. We spot the twin outlines of the straps through their shirts, running down their backs like suspension cables on the Biscayne Bridge. The girls confuse and intimidate the hell out of me; they seem important now, older, but I can’t quite put together why. I wait excruciatingly for a glimpse through the rolled up opening of a t-shirt sleeve, their white skin beige against the bright circuitry of fabric and plastic. Through the first two weeks, I’m so distracted I forget to write down my assignment and get a missing homework note for the first time in my life. I figure dad’s gonna freak and mom’s gonna cry, but they barely say anything to me, waiting until they’re alone in their bedroom to fight about it.
It’s not just bras; suddenly, all the seventh grade boys obsess about panties, too. Although surely they’ve been wearing bottoms the whole time we’ve known them, now we’re greedy to see them, on high alert for anyone wearing a skirt. Joner Schmidt fits a hand mirror through the laces of his Nike Airs, and slides a foot under Abby Denunzio’s yellow sundress while pretending to mess with his locker. He advises everyone to buy the same one from the five and dime and he’ll show us how to attach them to our shoes. I tell Bertie but he’s firmly opposed. Bertie says think about how clearly can you really see through a set of shoelaces, and also to consider how nervous I’ll be, how hard it will be to concentrate on the mirror for the few seconds it’s under her skirt. He says, big picture no girl is ever going to want to hook up with a guy who does something skeevy like that, anyway.
In science class I sit right next to Abby, on account of the seats are alphabetical order. She’s nice and talks to me every day at the beginning of class, right up until Mr. G gets up from behind his desk, raises his fist like black power and tells everyone the hand goes up the mouth goes shut. On the very day he announces we need to pick lab partners, we’re sitting face to face in our chairs, and Abby is laughing like crazy because I’m talking like Apu from the Simpsons. I hear Mr. G say take your time and choose wisely, this is for the whole semester, and think I’m in, perfect timing. Before Abby even stops laughing long enough for me to ask her, Michelle Ruiz yells clear across the room, hey, Abby, it’s Mikey and Alyssa, remember? Abby goes redder than a bell pepper, then walks over to Michelle and agrees to be her partner. I end up partners with Joner.
I twist myself knotted thinking about it. Almost everyone in class couples up, after a few weeks they break up, enjoy a half-day or so in the spotlight in the hallway gossip circles, then recouple with someone new. Through the first few months of the semester I burn through a heartbreaking series of crushes, Abby D, but also Mary, Caro Sanchez, Chloe. I worry something must be broken about me, all those girls smile and talk to me, Mary even writes my name across my binder in bubble letters, but none take the final plunge into coupledom. Like Dad says, they come in to look but never buy the couch.
There are girls at church, too, other girls, girls who go to different schools. They yank me out of my usual mass coma. Except for Father Mark, all of our priests come from other countries, and when they warble through the Liturgy it’s impossible to follow word for word, they drone me into a sleepy trance. Now I sit alert, waiting for the offering of peace, scanning to see which girls are in range, stressing over whether to offer a hand or kiss on the cheek. I watch them intently as they take careful steps down the aisle towards communion, newly in heels, in makeup, in grown up looking dresses. I wonder at how suddenly their lives have diverged from mine; I still spend Sunday mornings lazily watching cartoons over a bowl of cereal or digging in the yard, not dressing for church until five or ten minutes before we load into the car, when mom’s worried reminders become unbearable.
I watch the girls so intently I almost don’t notice when Dad stops taking communion. He stands up when the usher releases our pew, but only to let the rest of us out before sitting back down, I guess to pray. I ask Bertie why but he seems uninterested in the question, says the Pope probably said something nice about Castro and Dad’s mad about it. I ask Mom if the Pope said anything about Cuba recently but she says no, not that I know of, but she doesn’t seem too interested in my questions either.
“Have I intentionally dwelled on and taken pleasure in impure, sexually-arousing thoughts? Have I tried to resist such thoughts when they have come to me involuntarily?”
Father Mark teaches our confirmation class, and I feel so guilty about spending the entire mass thinking about girls that I force myself to pay attention to every word, dig my nails hard into palms whenever I start to drift. He takes a break from quizzing us on the sacraments to discuss that morning’s first reading: the passage from Genesis when God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac, only to call it off at the very last minute. Father Mark says the story is something called an allegory, referring to when God will later actually sacrifice his own son Jesus. I can’t stop thinking about how messed up it is, how God tested Abraham to see who he loved more, God or his son.
I try to bring it up with Dad, to start a conversation about church stuff that maybe will give some clues about him skipping communion. I ask Dad who he loves more, God or me, but he just says not to be ridiculous. I’m not sure which answer is the ridiculous one. I bring that conversation up with Bertie, who says not to worry, because blood sacrifices are like sending telegrams or something, people just don’t do them anymore. Except for maybe Mariano, he says, pointing towards that weird altar on the roof deck.
Bertie is wrong. Abby Denunzio decides to date Joner, even after she finds out about the mirror in his shoes. I find out before the seventh grade dance, when I ask Abby if she’ll save a dance for me, and she tells me about Joner. Instead of dancing, I hang with a couple other rejects near the punch table, playing volleyball with balloons. One of them said his strategy for the next dance is to go ugly early. Alyssa and Vicky don’t come to dances, I think they’re not allowed.
Bertie quits football, and, at first, I’m happy about it, thinking he’ll be home in the afternoons again, but instead he just hangs out with other kids who quit the football team, too. The worst is that sometimes these kids come over to our house after school, and instead of joining us in the war, they convince Bertie to go next door and hang out with Vicky. I work tirelessly on the bomb, building something big enough to impress Bertie, who now says making bombs is for kids, but I notice he still takes matches from Dad’s desk when he heads over to see Vicky with his new friends. I see thin waves of smoke rise up past the fortress walls, so they must be burning things, too, the hypocrites.
Have I caused others to sin?
I take advantage when they’re over at Mariano’s and I have the house to myself, getting the shower water running hot, and taking as long as I’d like, undisturbed. The bathroom door doesn’t lock, and when I hear the knob turn, I assume Bertie came in to pee or something. The shower’s window faces the patio, and, although it’s fogged, I can make out the shapes of people standing outside, and catch them snickering.
It’s me, Lyssa, I hear through the shower curtain, her voice high-pitched and froggy, nervous. She says she needs a shower and is going to get undressed and hop in with me. I freeze, standing silently under the running water, wondering how to escape without her seeing me naked, whether I can use the curtain as a makeshift robe. Alyssa names each article of clothing she removes, and I think I can almost make out her outline through the curtain, even though it’s a solid yellow plastic. Shoes, socks, sweater, jeans, shirt, bra… I remember Bertie saying something about Vicky giving Alyssa her hand me down bras, and knowing that pushes me from grossed out to sort of excited, although mostly I feel panicked.
Alyssa counts down to total nudity, and I stay behind the curtain, imagining all the clothes piling up at her feet, waiting. It’s easier to imagine the clothes pile than her actual naked body. I still hear the laughing outside, and I hate them for laughing, for being out there, for leaving me feeling trapped in every way, all while trying to brace myself for the reality that an actual naked girl is about to be in the shower with me, also completely naked. The water starts to lose pressure, cool down to lukewarm, and just as I think Alyssa is about to pull back the curtain, instead she opens the door, and runs out into the house.
Have I entertained impure thoughts or desires?
Bertie thinks it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened. I never find out if she actually took her clothes off. Bertie says they watched her dart across the street in her undies, clutching a ball of clothes, but from his tone, I think he’s messing with me. I can’t tell. Outwardly, I say I’m furious about it, and vow revenge, but by myself, I can’t stop thinking about Alyssa. It’s so confusing. She isn’t pretty like the girls at school, or grown-up and fancy like the girls at church, but she is a girl, I think, scientifically and everything, and something more, too. Whatever is shiny and secret and wanted in these other girls must be true about Alyssa, too. Maybe. I go back and forth.
I spend time reading the print on the bottles and cans of stuff in the patio shed, finding more and more labelled contents under pressure. On The Simpsons, Otto, the hippie bus driver, says he learned the hard way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. I think if I incorporate some these spray cans into the bomb, it really could explode. Too bad they don’t fit in the paper towel rolls.
If Mom is home and I can’t work in the patio, I sometimes ride my bike down to the park, and go hunting under the trees and bushes, looking for dirty needles, so I can turn them into the police and be recognized on the morning announcements. Joner gets a special citizenship award for finding and returning a twenty-dollar bill from the cafeteria floor, but Bertie suspects it was his money all along, that he just did it for the glory.
First semester grades come back and Bertie practically fails everything. I see his report card on the kitchen counter and gasp at the F in Biology. I’ve seen the grade handwritten on tests and assignments before but never in print, it rises off the page like a swear word. Like with my homework, and I expect Mom and Dad to go ballistic, but they say little, saving their discussions for behind closed doors or speaking in Spanish, which I can understand but not great. When they speak Spanish I get about eighty percent of it, but it’s always the important parts that evade me.
For Christmas, I ask for, and receive, a high-tech telescope. It comes packed in long cardboard cylinders, like how architects transport their blueprints on TV. I spend almost three days just trying to set it up, with no help from Bertie, who’s been more or less AWOL since Ricky Castille got a driver’s license. Once it’s working, I make a big show of locating Jupiter and Orion, invite my parents to come out to the patio after dinner and take a peak. The next afternoon, I rest the optical tube on the v of the wooden fence, and pull a patio chair under the tripod. I try a dozen different positions before I find anything beyond a blurry eyeful of brick and leaves, but eventually the lens lands on the girls’ bedroom window. They’re not home, but I mark my spot on the fence with a pencil.
Have I been envious of what other people have? Have I cheated?
Like every New Year’s Eve, we drive the few blocks along the canal to the Castille’s house. They’ve got a pool. When I was little, this was my favorite night of the year, better than Christmas Eve or even my birthday. I still like it, look forward to it, but I wonder if that isn’t because I can’t help thinking about how it was before, like when Cleo gets excited to roll over even though she hasn’t gotten a treat for it in five years. At the Castille’s, the adults all drink champagne instead of regular wine, and something about the bubbles makes everyone crazy. I’ve seen Big Ed put a lampshade on his head like in cartoons, and almost every year someone starts a Conga line around the pool. I know the bubbles make the difference, because the kids get sparkling cider, and we get wild, too. Bertie had his first kiss on New Year’s at the Castille’s party three years ago, with Ricky’s cousin Georgette, right after we counted down to midnight.
Nancy Castille thinks it’s cute to have me be the bartender, since I’m the youngest, even though we’re about five years past it being funny. I don’t really bartend per se, but every time Nancy catches me, she sticks an open bottle in my hand and says go see who looks thirsty. Dad is thirstier than Mom, who puts her hand, palm down, over her wine glass whenever I pass by and says why don’t I go find the other kids and play. A couple times, I fill my glass with the champagne instead of the cider, and they taste similar, sweet and fizzy, except the champagne leaves you feeling thirsty after every sip. When the conga line starts, Dad pulls Mom out her chair by her elbow, and forces her to dance. After a few laps, Ricky starts in with this crazy spin dance, trying to weave through the line. He doesn’t mean to, but he isn’t being very careful, and when he weaves between Mom and Big Ed. He accidentally steps on her foot, and she loses her balance and falls in the pool.
Dad laughs, then apologizes, then runs inside to get a towel and ask Nancy for a change of clothes. Mom tells him she’s leaving, and Dad walks her to the car, but I can tell they’re fighting the whole time, even if they wait until they’re past the Castille’s fence gate before they really raise their voices. Bertie and Ricky leave early, to go to a high school party, and Big Ed lends Dad his golf cart for us to drive home, since Mom took the Explorer. I think I want to stay until midnight, but there’s no one to kiss, and most of the adults are talking inside the kitchen, instead of dancing or doing anything funny. Dad lets me drive the golf cart home, since you don’t really need a license or anything. It takes four times as long to get home, and we don’t talk much, but I don’t mind. I pull the cart up to our lawn, and we can see into the window from outside, the bedroom light’s on, and Mom’s sitting in the bed reading, even though it’s late.
Dad glances towards the window, then puts his arm around me and says come on, let’s go to Mariano’s, he invited me to his party and it isn’t even midnight yet. It’s true a few more cars than usual scatter the street around his yard, and I can smell the fire, but I don’t hear much noise coming from Mariano’s house, especially for New Year’s Eve. I ask Dad what time it is and he says quarter til midnight, come on let’s go say hi and do the count down next door, then we’ll come home.
I can’t remember Dad doing anything spontaneous before, but I like him like this, think it must be the bubbles. I think about Alyssa and try to summon my own bubbles for a midnight kiss. She’s not so bad, I tell myself, thinking of her face, like Vicky’s but softer, her skin pale as paste under thick black hair, red lips not yet painted black, baby fat. I think about her wearing Vicky’s bra. Dad opens the gate without knocking, and we walk up the outside steps towards the back. I decide to be brave. Bertie’s all but abandoned me, and nothing else seems to be happening in my life. It’s now or never, I tell myself, now or nothing.
Have I been reckless in the pursuit of my desires?
We walk around the side of the house to the deck, and when the party comes into view it’s clear to me we’ve missed the best of it. A fire burns in a pit built into the stone floor, but mostly embers. An obese man snores loudly while he sleeps on the ground, his head less than a foot from the fire pit. The few guest remaining, all men, maybe five or six of them, sit around the coals, barely speaking, taking turns pulling a metal grate from the fire and rotating some brown balls. Dad sees me looking and pulls my sleeve. Roasting chestnuts on an open fire, he says, just like the song.
I wonder how this crowd would even know when to count down to midnight, if any of them wear a watch.
Mariano sees us approach and stands up. He’s let his beard grow, I guess for the winter, even though it rarely dips below seventy degrees. Covered in charcoal and soot from the fire, his beard looks dark grey even though I think it’s normally white. He smiles between puffs of a cigar stub, his teeth purple from the wine, speckled with bits of brown, chestnuts maybe, or tobacco. I notice his eyes for the first time, blue like the Gulf Stream, and empty; I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to him before. Probably I think of this because Dad mentioned the Christmas song, but he looks like a mean Santa.
I start to ask if Vicky and Alyssa are still up, but before the question escapes my lips, Mariano leans down and pulls me into a bear hug. He smells like fire, like the way my fingers smell when I burn things on the patio, but times a thousand, permanently baked in, a lifetime of burning things he shouldn’t. When he finally lets me go, he looks at Dad and says you’re so lucky you have a son, all I have is two bitches. He says one of those bitches, Victoria, told me tonight to go fuck myself. Mariano tells us God punished him with two daughters, then looks up at the sky, laughs, and says at least he gets a chance to dole out some punishment himself, says he’s God between these walls.
Dad doesn’t say anything; he just lets the comments hang in the air until they’re gone and it’s quiet and Mariano feels like he needs to say something else. I don’t bother asking about the girls again. I figure wherever they are is safer than sitting by the fire next to their dad. One of the still awake guys makes a big show of teaching me to eat roast chestnuts, but they’re covered in ash and taste like it. Dad takes a cup of wine poured from some weird jug Mariano has, and I sit silently while they spend ten or fifteen minutes talking, mostly Mariano rambling about so and so regulator or auditor who’s an asshole, who stood in his way, who didn’t believe he could build a basement.
Before we go to bed, I bring up what Mariano said with Dad. I’m upset and I think he can tell, but also think he’s tired and has dealt with enough upset people for one night. I ask if we’re going to do anything about it, and he asks like what, and I say I don’t know but maybe tell a teacher, or the police, or Father Mark or someone. Dad’s face turns from tired to hard, and he says telling on your neighbors isn’t something that we do. He says that people do it in Cuba; it’s why he had to leave. I know enough to drop it, but I don’t feel better.
Have I held grudges or tried to get even with others? Have I hated or failed to forgive someone?
Everyone sleeps in the next morning. I wake up like normal with the house to myself, the streets to myself, the world. I think I’ve figured out the bomb, everything except the fuse, but it can’t wait. Knowing Mariano and his workers sleep, too, I sneak my supplies piece by piece under the cover of Mariano’s jungle, the cylinders packed with flammables and contents under pressure. He’s built his basement, against all odds, and the only thing missing is a gate to the outside. He wants to weld it himself, so he can add one of his symbols. Like I said, I figured everything out but the fuse, but I can’t wait any longer. I lay my bomb gently across the basement floor, close to the entrance, and pray for some divine intervention, a cigarette butt, a stray spark from the welding gun.
Bertie wakes up. He doesn’t ask, and I don’t bother telling him about any of it. I’m hungry from being awake for the last few hours, and he’s hungry from sleeping I guess, so we toast a couple pop tarts and turn on the TV. We watch highlights from Dick Clark’s Rockin New Years Eve, and just when that band Kiss is getting started, the old guys with the makeup, the phone rings twice and then hangs up.
I follow Bertie into the front yard. He says let’s be careful and walk behind the Explorer, in case they throw eggs or something. It feels like old times, Bertie and me against the neighbors, before everything started to change. We hide behind the car and wait for an ambush, but instead Vicky walks across the street smiling, with nothing in her hands, and Bertie comes out from behind the car to talk to her.
Vicky says, look up on top of that work van and see Alyssa. She’s standing on the roof, by herself, a crazy look on her face. Bertie says, what the hell is she doing up there and Vicky says just keep looking, she’s going to perform a strip show. I come out from behind the car, and Bertie and I sit on the lawn, while Vicky goes back across the street and leans against the brick wall behind the van.
There isn’t any music or anything, but Alyssa starts to dance like there was, like Madonna was playing. She pulls her sweater off over her head, holds a sleeve in each hand, and then sort of runs the sweater back and forth between her legs, as if she was cleaning her butt. It’s goofy as anything, and we all laugh, except Alyssa, who still has that weird look, a forced smile and eyes like the end of my telescope. I notice she’s barefoot, and before we even finish laughing, she drops the sweater and pulls her sweatpants down. I remember what Bertie said about the mirror, and realize he’s at least right about one thing. I’m feeling so nervous while I watch her that I can’t really concentrate on what I’m seeing.
Still, I think, I’m seeing a naked girl. Alyssa starts to pull her t-shirt up, pulls it up almost to her armpits, and then changes her mind and lets it drop back down over her underwear. For a second, I think I spot the white of her bra, of Vicky’s bra. Then she rips the shirt off, quicker than the sweatpants, and right as I’m really seeing her just standing on the top of work van in her underwear, the look on her face completely changes, the smile drops and her eyes focus in on us. Alyssa throws her t-shirt down off the van, and it settles onto the street, forgotten, while she begins to scream deafeningly, her voice like a police siren, a plaintive loop, the same word over and over, as if possessed.
Have I received Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin?
I freeze, feeling confused, but then I look down and see my feet moving and I’m somehow running, my body’s taken over. I run towards our fence, towards our gate, towards the safety of our backyard, and in front of me, Bertie’s running too. He’s running, and I’m running, but I’m not following him really, not any more, just headed in the same direction at the same time, moving instinctively towards home.
We’re happy to announce “Schrodinger’s cat is purring” by Richard Weiser as an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Poetry Contest! A special thank you to our poetry staff for their diligent work!
Schrödinger’s cat is purring
All cats love boxes,
hop in when they can,
peeking out mischievously,
paddling their paws against
Maybe they know,
as we strive toward goals,
balance is quantum perfection,
a golden meanwhile
inhabitable to those
who poise on fences,
and stare, luminous-eyed,
into the now.
Richard Weiser is a musician and playwright. His work has been produced at The Toronto Fringe Festival. He’s written ads for almost 20 years and recently won a Cannes Lion (advertising’s version of the Oscar). Richard studied creative writing at York University with Don Coles and Robert Casto. He’s written a biography of the Canadian painter Tom Thomson (unpublished) and is working on a novel set during the First Crusade.
We’re pleased to announce “Orinthology Lessons” as an Honorable Mention in our 2017 Poetry Contest! A very special thank you to our poetry staff for their hard work!
Because she loves a good rock slide,
a little geologic fanfare,
the blue jay taps at boulders with her beak,
quick chisels to get things rolling.
She turns her Screek! into a thunderclap
and lets the echo start the show: a cliff face
sheared away, a river
a headache given to a mountain goat, and more—
the whole sky made to take notice. . . .
What do we learn from this story?
Who thinks, “The color of the bird”?
You’re right. And she looks fantastic with the sunlight
fitted around her like a dress.
The trees below rustle leaves in admiration.
Even their acorns are impressed.
Rob Carney is the author of four previous books of poems, most recently 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2015), which was named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, as well as the forthcoming collection The Book of Sharks (Black Lawrence Press). In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Award for Poetry. His work has appeared widely in journals such as Cave Wall, Cascadia Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Poecology, and others, and he writes a regularly featured series called ‘Old Roads, New Stories’ for Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments.