Fiction

The Prospect of Rigby

By Tom Hardy

Her face was the first thing I remember seeing when I came to after the accident: ethereal in the glow of the red night lights, that of a nurse from a Battle of Britain movie, bedside with the RAF pilot who is bandaged head to toe and in traction. I was wrapped and trussed like that, but I was hardly a romantic hero, and though she looked relieved when I opened my eyes and spoke to her, there was none of the adoration that I so desperately needed. Maybe it was the painkillers, maybe it was turning thirty and wanting to be someone a woman like her couldn’t live without.

I didn’t remember the accident but what happened was clear enough. I had set out to ski Corbet’s Couloir, the 50-degree drop though a narrow chute just below the headwall at the top of the aerial tram. Later I would read the frontpage article in the Jackson Hole News & Review with the photograph of me: limbs and skis spread-eagled, taken from far above in the tram. I looked like a tick on a white duvet comforter. The tenor of the article was derogatory — “another thrill-seeker, this time a young natural gas attorney from Denver, fails his final exam on Corbet’s.” The guide service, to defend itself, had told the reporter that I was a competent skier and in great condition — that I had done Saudan at Whistler numerous times, and that I was a Marine combat veteran who had gone through Seal training.

I was fairly certain that the nurse thought that I was a frivolous egotist, for I felt so myself. Desperate to make a connection with her, I asked her what she thought of me. She said she had given me no thought, except that I should have to pay the county for the expense of my rescue. I asked if she’d feel different if I were local, and she said it didn’t make a bit of difference. So I said I had to agree with her on the matter of restitution, but coming from “away,” I probably sounded more cash-rich than contrite.

She was from central Montana, raised on a ranch up against the Dry Range, so I played Ian Tyson out loud on my iPod, but she’d never heard of him. I had read in some magazine that Ian was the genuine article: the cowboy troubadour, the sounds you’d hear in the bunkhouse. Oh well.

When the ambulance brought me in I’d had one of those wrist ID bracelets on, so they had some contact information. Still, only one of the three telephone numbers on it raised anyone: one was my firm, which was closed for the holidays; another was my father, who was at sea in the Sydney-Hobart race; the last was Gram, and she right away drove over from Idaho Falls in her pickup. She got a room at the Super 8, but spent most of her time by my bed. Sometime during my recovery, it occurred to me that I got the order wrong on that bracelet — Gram was the only one who cared and the only one who mattered.

As soon as she thought I was well enough, Gram started asking me questions on the matter of selling the farm in Rigby. She was living in town now and Simplot was farming it, but some ranch broker from Bozeman had someone who wanted the riverside sections, would buy it all if necessary. She had once gone to a meeting of The Henry’s Fork Foundation with Granddad where conservation easements were discussed. This was not my area of the law, but she climbed up on the bed and the two of us got on my laptop and got smart about it.

One night when Gram and I were on the bed like this, she whispered, “Reflection . . . in the window.” I looked up from the screen. In the window across from the foot of the bed was the reflection of our faces illuminated by the glow of the laptop, and behind us, in the doorway, was the nurse silhouetted against the hall lights. Her arms were crossed and she was leaning against the doorframe. I turned toward her, but she was gone.

Around the time I started physical therapy, Gram quit the Super 8 and went back home. But she’d still drive over to the hospital a couple times a week to share her deviled eggs with me. She laid out a plan for my future: as to the farm, I would buy out my mother’s sister for a price Gram would determine, and she would finance me. I would set up practice in Rigby and live in the house where Mom grew up, on the bluff where we’d spread hers and Granddad’s ashes. She saw that the idea had some appeal to me and pressed her case. “Maybe you could recruit a sure-handed young lady like that nurse to keep you company and out of harm’s way.”

“Her family runs cattle. What would she want with a spud farmer?”

“Rubbish. That sort of thinking went out long ago. Your ideas are right out of   the cowboy movies. If she, or any other girl, would have a problem with you, it’d be your city ways and you being a lawyer, but you could rid yourself of the bad parts of that if you put your mind to it. Then she’d have to trust that you’re not one of those easy-come, easy-go, officer-and-gentleman types.” She stood to leave, patted my hand. “Piece of advice for you, Ace: talk less — way less in your case — and say more.”

The nurse still had a major hold on me, so I tried dialing it back and it helped. In fact, we had some fine moments together. But as the time approached for me to leave the hospital she seemed to pull back. All she said when I left was, “Enjoyed your company . . . take care of yourself.” Just gave my arm a quick squeeze. It gave me a shiver — it was like “bless you on the rest of your journey” — like I wasn’t coming back, or if I did she wouldn’t be around.

***

It’s April now and I’m back up to fish before run-off. Right away I tracked her down, asking if we could get together. She was polite about it, but it was a bad week. “Maybe next time,” she said. I gave her my number, said I wasn’t going to stalk her, but that I’d be around for a while.

Two days later I was wading some private water south of Wilson when she called and left a message: I should meet her in the parking lot at Smith’s at 6:00 PM. She’d be driving a white F-150 pulling a drift boat. I should wear jeans and boots, or sturdy shoes, not flip-flops. No need to RSVP — she needed to stop at Smith’s anyway, for gas and to leave the boat trailer in the lot. I didn’t know she had a boat. My grandparents’ place is near the Menan takeout. She would have known Rigby when I mentioned it in the hospital. She never let on.

***

She drives and we make small talk. She admits she got to know Gram. “Nice lady,” she says, “probably the reason you’re sitting in that seat today.” That doesn’t surprise or offend me, but she turns on the radio, pretty loud and tuned to the wrong station and I give up talking and will myself to stay positive. Still, by the time we take the left at Hoback Junction, I’ve bled off the romantic head of steam I built up all afternoon. Maybe she is just too big a project. Oddly I feel better, having shrugged off the outcome, the silence now comfortable. I study the Hoback: no holding spots for fish in this straight chute. Postcard-pretty though.

Maybe ten minutes pass and she pulls in at a gravel turnout on the left, close to the river. There is a flatbed semi parked under the cottonwoods next to the bank, loaded high with baled hay covered with translucent tarps. We park off to the side and get out. She hands me an old-fashioned medical valise, lowers the tailgate and drops a pair of her sandals on the ground underneath.

The driver of the truck climbs down from his cab and nods at her. He is a tall, rangy young guy with a lantern jaw, not bad looking, dressed like a rodeo cowboy.

“Cade,” she says, not real friendly.

He looks at me, and she explains, “Here to help.”

“No need now. Made some improvements — put in a trap door.”

“Show us,” she says. “Then you can stay in the cab — looks better that way.” He doesn’t object.

We crawl under the truck. He bangs some toggles open with a crowbar and a hatch hinges down. He stands up in the opening, then squats in place pulling down a garbage bag, bits of straw falling on him. He pushes a jug of bottled water, a bucket of KFC, and the medical bag overhead through the opening. He stands again, his legs twisting in front of us like he’s moving things around up there, then he squats and moves aside. With a sweep of his palm he motions us to climb aboard, a gesture that strikes me as theatrical, mocking us. I wonder what their connection is.

She hoists herself up on her bottom and clears the opening. I arrow my arms through the hatch and stand. The smell of fried chicken is otherworldly. My eyes adjust: I am standing in the middle of a small crypt hollowed in the bales, narrow, about three feet wide and seven feet long. There is four feet of headroom — two bales high, the roof a sheet of plywood. Rip-sawed in the plywood is a skylight of sorts, for light and ventilation. It is comfortable, the temperature, but the space feels close, crowded. Behind me the nurse is attending to a small child under the skylight. Forward, practically in my face, a Hispanic couple huddle with their daughter. The girl is maybe six, more handsome than her parents, too pretty and formal in her yellow dress, like she’s dressed for mass. The man, my age I guess, looks bone-deep weary, his eyes sad. The mother and daughter hug their knees, staring at me without expression, their cheeks moist from tears.

I hoist my butt up next to the nurse. I will have to twist to help her; there isn’t space to pivot. The patient is a sloe-eyed boy, about four. He has a ripe boil the diameter of a beer can on his thigh, a roundel with a yellow shirt button of pus at its center, a plumb-colored circle around that, fading red-to-pink on the perimeter — like the national insignia on a vintage European warplane.

She cleans the boy’s leg, unsheathes the disposable scalpel and lances the center of the wound. I hold a spongy absorbent pad against the wound to soak up the pus, while she lays out materials for dressing the wound. I go through three of these blotters and begin to feel light-headed, afraid I might faint. Just then the boy squeezes my wrist and we make eye contact, and then I’m steady again.

She dresses the wound and wraps the tape clear around the thigh, using plenty of it. “How’s your Spanish?” she says. “Mine’s sketchy.”

“Better than that,” I say, and start translating her instructions, as one-by-one she puts dressings, ointment and sample antibiotic capsules in a shopping bag. She opens a packet of sterile wipes and demonstrates their use. I do the same and she has me emphasize the need to use them, that the infection is contagious. She takes over then: asks in Spanish where their people are, then tells them it will be after midnight when they get there, and that the boy will be okay. They beam then, noisily grateful, and she shushes them and exits without ceremony through the trap. I wish them a safe journey and the enjoyment of the pollo frito, then drop through the opening myself.

The two of us huddle underneath the truck bed and peer out through the banks of tires, scanning the area: the coast is clear. We crawl out from under and she rousts the driver. They talk and he tries to give her some cash, but she waves it away with an angry look. He just shrugs and crawls underneath. I hear him toggle the hatch.

***

We are at the river’s edge, scrubbing down, when I hear the rig pull out. We stand together, drying our hands and forearms. She studies my face intently, hers hard for me to read.

“What?” I say.

“You okay?”

I don’t know where to start. I want to tell her she just takes my breath away, more even than before; that I’m nearly there about Rigby. And there are questions about today — I am an attorney after all. But I swallow all this, and again, like on the trip down, it feels right and natural — elemental: talk less and say more.

I kiss her on the hair. She makes the sign of the cross with her thumb on my forehead, leans against my chest. I listen to the water. That water will be slipping right by the farm, in what, three or four days?

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

The Tunnel: 1987

By Sunnie Gaylord

Seven boys, ages nine to fourteen, loiter in a subway station in a prosaic afternoon throwing pieces of glass and rock across the track.  Out of earshot from their parents, each one cusses with intention, as if their tongues are trying to indulge in a rush of forbidden maturity. They swear like their fathers, the words tailoring in their mouths and becoming more natural with each use, like stones worn smooth by a river.

The boys work together trying to gimmick a way out of boredom. They dare one another to jump into the tunnel, to lie on the tracks and run back up. One by one they provoke an ethereal and delicate thread that keeps away ghosts that haunt entire lifetimes.

The last to jump is the smallest of the boys, who takes off from the platform with vigor and upon landing feels a hot potency of woe. Immediately his ankle responds with a brittle snap that echoes throughout his body and sets forth the momentum of shock. He hits the tracks hard. When he attempts to lift his leg, his foot is dead weight. His sock is warm and wet.

The call of the train runs along the sides of the tunnel and impels the boys, leaving their hearts to forever fear the sudden alarm.  They call out for the boy who lies on the tracks and each one commands the same order, their tones now more adult than they have ever been.

As his eyes open he sees the train surging towards him. The others reach forth, their small hands jut in a bouquet of palms, fingers, and peril. Each become prophetic as the train impends. The boy below screams at the others, pleading with them as if they were black angels. In the second before the train meets him, he is consumed with the foul realization of inculpable circumstance.

Before the train masticates his small body, before ribbons of meat and sinew grind against the asphalt and the boys above see the boy’s skin split and his fat and muscle bloom and breathe; before the walls of the tunnels run with what looks like ink, before this boy becomes a ghost story forever in concord with the subway station, he can smell his mother, a careful balance of floral notes, bleach, and garlic.

And each boy above would remember making direct eye contact with him, the very moment they were severed from their childhood.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Tight Loop

By Stephen Vletas

Chapter One

The sun hovered above the horizon, a wavering orange globe that tinted the ocean the color of cool steel. My bare feet, resting on the weathered red tile wall of the Whale Watcher’s bar, framed my view. The rock arches of Land’s End added perspective, an artist might say, to the spot where the Sea of Cortez melded with the swollen Pacific.

The breeze was warm and salty. I popped back my first shot of tequila, pleased with the thought it wouldn’t be my last. I sucked on a lime and attempted to listen to my client.

Murray Patterson’s voice buzzed like an irritating insect. “When I get back to the office, I’ll go through my schedule and pick out some dates. Two months, tops, and I’ll be back down here.”

“The man has caught a disease,” Phyllis Patterson said. “He won’t be able to work.”

Phyllis was a good-looking woman, mid-thirties or so I’d guess. She had the kind of face that was nice to look at, expressive, with lively hazel eyes and long sexy black hair. It focused me back in the moment.

“We still have a half day tomorrow,” I told Patterson.

“I’m gonna have nightmares about losing those two fish and about missing those others.”

“Happens to everybody,” I said.

“Oh?”

“I hooked up ten stripers on fly before I boated one. Took me two years to get a blue.”

“That sounds like the skipper trying to pump up the sport.”

“I’m not stuck on this fly business,” Phyllis said. “I just like catching fish. It’s fun.”

“She doesn’t get it,” Patterson said to me as if his wife didn’t exist.

“She gets it,” I said, “but in her own way.”

“Thank you.” Phyllis’s expression was like a dart in her husband’s eye. She pushed her hair off her shoulders, gave me a flirty little smile and she sipped her margarita.

Patterson said, “You know Dirk, I can’t make you add up. You got a nice setup down here, but this isn’t where you banked your green. You said you lived in L.A.”

I nodded, and at great risk to my retinas, I watched the sun drown itself in the ocean. The high cirrus clouds flared pink and the roiled surface of the water glowed violet, like a lit-up marlin hot after a teaser.

“What kind of business were you in up there?” Patterson asked.

“Imports,” I said, and my mind clicked on an image of the plush offices of Kaplan and Trude Imports. Herb Kaplan and Dirk Trude, masters of business, purveyors of fun, best friends for life.

“What made you get out?”

“Not enough time for fishing.”

Patterson laughed, a loud obnoxious sound that rumbled up from his substantial gut.

“I can understand that,” he said, though I was sure he couldn’t. “So you came down with a little nest egg and you’re making out OK.”

“No complaints.”

“You must’ve been married,” Phyllis said.

My female clients always addressed the marriage question so I was used to it, but this time I had to take a long pull on my Pacifico before answering.

“Once,” I said.

“Children?”

I shook my head, downed the rest of my beer and sucked on another lime.

“I think you’d make a good father. You have incredible patience.”

I knew I could scrounge up some people who would disagree with that. I said, “We’re going to work on your casting tomorrow, Phyllis. We’ll get some energy in your backcast so you can deliver that big popper on target.”

“What about my casting?” Patterson asked.

“Billfish fever’s your problem. You’ve got to keep your stuff together. It’s good to get excited, but it needs to be controlled excitement.”

“Who could help it, seeing that big old fin and that slashing bill. I start shaking like a bimbo after a greenback.” Patterson laughed again at his own lame humor.

Phyllis rolled her eyes. “I told you, he’s got the disease. And we’ve got to get a taxi.” She stood. “I need a swim and a shower before dinner.”

“Las Ventanas at eight-thirty.” Patterson stood next to his wife, his unruly mass of gray-splashed black hair making him almost as tall as her.

“I was thinking of bringing a friend,” I said.

“Sure, liven up the party.” Patterson tossed a wad of pesos on the table. “That should cover it, and have another one on me. Eight-thirty.”

I didn’t watch them leave. I spread my feet wider on the tile wall, studied the sky like a film director setting a scene in his mind. The pink color was fading. I turned to Patricio and signaled for another tequila.

* * *

The past has a conniving way of intruding without notice.

It’s just there. An old face, an unresolved situation, a lingering emotion that makes your skin burn and your mouth go dry. If you fight it, you’re a fool because it’ll only come back later, and the next time it’ll be worse.

I popped back another shot of Don Julio Anejo, closed my eyes, and imagined Herb Kaplan sitting across from me sipping a Chivas rocks. It was something we used to do several nights a week on the deck of my Malibu beach house; listening to the waves, inhaling the salt, and working out the grand schemes of life.

“So what’s the deal, Herb? We’re best friends for twenty years, and now we never talk? We pursued our dreams, enjoyed some laughs, made piles of cash, loved the same woman; I leave town, she divorces me, you marry her. Somebody should write the script. What do you think?”

“I think you’ve lost it, beauty,” I envision Herb saying. He’d be slouched back in his chair, hands folded on his Buddha belly covered by a baggy polo shirt, and he’d fix me with that trust me, I know what I’m talking about look. “You crazy or what? Down there with a gaggle of Mexicans chasing a bunch of dumb fish?”

“The fish aren’t dumb.”

“See! Crazy! Look, you move back up here to So Cal like a sane person. I give you back your half of the company for almost nothing.”

“Define almost nothing.”

“The hell difference does it make? Money’s what we’re talking about? I don’t think so. Get your tushy up here. We’ll eat in a real restaurant and have a face-to-face sit-down.”

“Do I get Marlene back, too?”

And that’s the end of the conversation. I can’t imagine what Herb would say. I can’t grasp how my life evolved in a way that would make that question possible. I only know that it was my doing.

“Looks like you need something more to drink, amigo.” Patricio wore the standard limp blue uniform of the Finisterra staff and he stood like a boxer ready for the first round.

I nodded. “If you just kept ’em coming I could sit here for the rest of my life.”

“If a lady didn’t distract you first.”

I laughed, thought of Gianna, an unexpected glimmer of unreasonable joy, perhaps a prospect for the future. A crazy thought, though I have to admit to being a sucker for hope—not in reality, just in concept.

Patricio returned with replenished supplies. He served me with his unique flair, the show punctuated by him spinning his tray on his index finger.

“Ever play basketball?” I asked.

“Futbol. The people, they like entertainment. I make more tips.”

Smart kid. I watched him prance to another table to ply his trade. The sunset crowd was typically animated, mostly people down from Southern Cal. Their faces were flushed with sun and booze and their smiles were genuine, nothing like the ones they’d put on when they went back home.

Cabo had that affect on people. If you wanted to become sincere, or become a vegetable, or try to decide what you wanted to become, this was the place. You could hang out, eat a lobster, get sloppy drunk, think about everything or nothing.

I made myself more comfortable, if that was possible, and watched the billowing white-crested lines of surf assault the Pacific beach. Perched up here six hundred feet above the sand, I could feel the concussion of the waves hammering the shore, hear the echoing rumble, smell the fishy spray.

I closed my eyes. Gianna Marie Taylor walked out of the surf, water beading on her slick, tanned skin, her long, wet hair pouring over her shoulders. Naked, she slinked toward me. I wondered if she practiced that, then realized it was as natural as the moon’s influence on the tide.

For a moment I was in a zone. The past vanished and I began to believe what only a fool can.

“You look comfortable and content,” Marlene said.

The fantasy of Gianna was swept away. The sound of a chair scraping the tile floor shattered the remnants of my trance. The scent of her perfume, Bal a Versailles, was more than familiar. It was the Pavlov thing. It invoked a reaction that was beyond my control, and gut-twisting.

“I stopped by Beto’s,” she said. “He told me you’d be up here with clients.”

“They just left. I’m meeting them for dinner in a couple of hours.”

“Would the Señora care for a cocktail?” Patricio asked.

I used the diversion to open my eyes and adjust my position for a better view. Marlene’s always-touchable blond hair was carelessly strewn over her bare shoulders. Her makeup blended with her tan as intended, to highlight her sea-green eyes.

“Stoli rocks with a lime,” Marlene said.

What the hell. I pulled my feet off the wall, rested my elbows on the table, allowed my eyes to roam. Marlene wore diamond stud earrings and a choker strand of pearls. Her strapless sundress cut low across the tops of her breasts. Something I hadn’t seen before was an emerald ring the size of a grape.

“How’s the fishing?” Marlene asked.

“Good.”

“I guess you must have a lot of clients.”

“Too many. I’m buying a new boat for Beto.”

“That’s what he told me. He and Elle tried everything to get me to stay for a drink and a chat. Anyway, they seem really happy.”

“Sure. They’re pursuing the American dream.”

“And you’ve run away from it.”

Patricio arrived in the nick of time, served Marlene’s drink formally before darting away to greet a boisterous group of new customers.

Marlene gulped a third of the clear liquor.

I said, “You only drink vodka when you’re upset.”

“That’s the trouble with ex-husbands, they know everything about you.”

“Why not just tell me why you’re here.”

“Sure.” Marlene downed another mouthful of vodka. “Herb’s dead. He was killed four nights ago at his office. I buried him this morning.”

I stared at her, not sure I believed her, except that I noticed a slight tremor in her hands, moistness in her eyes, and I felt instantly cold and choked.

“He had a fight with someone,” Marlene said. “The police don’t know who or why. They don’t think it was an accident.”

I sat forward and stared at her. She was telling the truth. My hands clenched into fists and I felt like I’d be slammed by a rogue wave.

“Why didn’t you call me right away?” I said.

“I wanted to, but . . . .” Marlene finished her drink.

I signaled Patricio for another.

“We’ve had a complicated relationship” Marlene said, “the three of us. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Herb was my best friend.”

Was being the key word.”

I gave up trying to hold her eyes. It hurt too much, and admitting that took a lot out of me. I slumped back in my chair, took a sip of tequila.

“What I felt about Herb,” I said, “my friendship with him, had nothing to do with you. Christ, he wouldn’t stop playing the guilt card, telling me I was deserting him. I just wanted him to wish me well, or at least not be mad or hurt or whatever. He’d work on it, he said. I guess we were both still working on it.”

“And now he’s dead.”

I picked up a piece of lime, sucked it viciously then threw it over the wall with all my strength.

“Tell me what happened,” I said.

“I had talked to him on the phone early in the evening. We were going to meet for dinner. When he was late, I called the office. Herb’s never late, at least not to meet me. The service picked up. They didn’t know where he was. Finally, I went over there.”

“You found him?”

Marlene nodded. I leaned toward her but Patricio arrived with her drink. She accepted it, took a greedy swallow, and Patricio disappeared.

“I don’t know anything more about the fight,” she said, “or about the investigation, than what I’ve already told you. I do know Herb had problems though. The accountants say some files are missing and maybe some money, too. There was an audit scheduled for two weeks from now, but they’re going ahead with it immediately.”

“Are they accusing Herb of tinkering with his books?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Marlene held me with her eyes, the way she’d done thousands of times before, and I knew it was a disastrous omen. “I thought maybe…maybe you could come back and help sort it out.”

I shifted around in my chair. “Marlene, I…I doubt I could sort out anything up there.”

“You could try.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“You know Herb. You know how he schemed, what he thought, everything. You two wrote secret little notes and e‑mails to each other every day. You could help if you wanted to.”

“Did the police say anything else? Think.”

She shook her head.

I had a million questions but what was the point. “This isn’t my problem.”

“You don’t care Herb is dead?”

“You know better.”

“I’m sorry, really, I just…I’m sorry.”

There was nothing else she could have said with more emotion or impact, nothing else that would have made me feel like more of a jerk. She turned her right hand palm up on the table, stretched it toward me. I took that hand the way I had done in the church more than a dozen years before, but I could think of nothing to say.

Thankfully, Marlene Collins, daytime television’s most popular star was always prepared with an appropriate line.

She said, “I felt the same way Herb did, like you deserted me. You can’t deny it.”

I let out a long slow breath. No, I couldn’t deny I had moved here, though that was hardly the issue.

“I wanted you to come with me,” I said. “Actually, I seem to remember begging.”

“You wanted me to make an impossible decision. You had no right to ask me to give up my career.”

“That’s not what I asked or what I wanted. I showed you how we could make it work.”

“Sure, work for you.”

That should’ve been it. I should’ve followed my instinct, jumped up and run for my boat. Instead, I sat there and stared at Marlene’s unusual beauty, at her crooked nose, enticing mouth, the uneven angles of her cheekbones.

She said, “I could never live here and pursue my career the way I need to. You know that.”

I took a deep breath. “There’s no point in discussing this. I’ve worked hard to make peace with it. I’m not all the way there, but I can feel the finish line out there somewhere.”

“How great for you.”

I let go of her hand, took a hit off the Pacifico, slumped back in my chair.

“I’m not going back to that place and dig up the past,” I said.

“Jesus. I must be a complete idiot.” She pushed her hair off her shoulders, let her head tilt back, then went on as she stared up at the stars. “Your voice sounds the same and your touch is still…. I don’t understand, Dirk. We were in love, real love. We had a life, and Herb was closer than a brother, and you just decided you didn’t want us anymore.”

Marlene picked up her glass with both hands and drank as if she’d just come out of the desert.

“That’s not how it was,” I said without conviction. “You had a choice, and you made it.”

“God, you can be a cold-hearted bastard. And you’re so smug, sitting here in Disneyland south.”

“What, L.A. is the real world? Malibu and Hollywood, all the sincere people in the business wishing everyone the best then ripping their hearts out the instant they’re out of earshot. You just didn’t want to see it, Marlene. I didn’t want more. I didn’t want better. I just wanted this, and I wanted you to share it with me.”

“Fine.” Marlene stood, shook her head so her hair fell across her shoulders. Her bare arms hung loose at her sides. Her fingers pinched at the fabric of her dress, and her eyes poured into my soul. “I’m afraid. I think Herb was involved in something stupid with Mac Remington.”

“Jesus. I told Herb if he ever did business with Remington I’d. . . .” There was no point finishing the sentence. What would I have done, killed him?

“When did Herb ever pay attention to a warning, especially if he smelled money?” Marlene stepped closer, rested a hand on my shoulder, her usual tactic. “I need you to come back and help me sort this out.”

“It’s a matter for the police and the accountants,” I said, staring at a crack in the floor.

“No it isn’t.”

Of course I knew what she meant, and the whole idea of it made me want to get on the next plane for New Zealand. They have big marlin down there. Big trout, too.

I forced myself to look up. “I can’t give you a yes.”

Marlene nodded, then made one of her famous soap opera exits where her blond hair catches the light and demands that you follow.

As I watched her start down the stairs, it hit me that a director should jump out from behind one of the rock pillars and yell, “Cut.” This was a bad time for cynicism, though, and the lingering sensation of Marlene’s touch was too real for make-believe.

* * *

Herb gone. Mac Remington involved. So here we go, bud. How many times did I tell you we’d never do business with that asshole? So I hit the road and you hop in the sack with him. What, to spite me?

How many millions do you need? I know, it wasn’t a matter of need. It was the game, the rush, the winning. And, yeah, we started out sharing the same vision in college, selling our first shipment of knock-off bean bag chairs and starting the company.

And sure, the money was a gas.. The hot pad in Brentwood where we dazzled the babes until we realized Malibu was the place. So we took our party to the beach and talked about getting married, having children, retiring by forty with ten million in tax-free paper.

What happened, bud? Dumb question, right? Life happened. Stuff changed. And now you’re dead?

“Hey, you OK there?” Gianna said. “You look like you’re on another planet.”

“What? Oh, hi.” I started to stand.

She pushed me down in my chair, kissed my half-open mouth. I tried to circle her waist with my arm but she pulled away and sat in the chair Marlene had vacated.

“That looked exactly like Marlene Collins,” Gianna said. “Was it her?”

“You a fan?”

“I love her soap. I used to watch University Hill every day and I still try to catch the show a couple of times a week.”

Sitting in front of me in the flesh, Gianna looked as good as she did in my vision of her walking naked out of the surf. I wondered how life could be this contrived, this compressed. You meet someone like Gianna and your ex-wife turns up to tell you your best friend is dead; all in three days, just like that.

“Have I told you how sensational you are?” I asked.

“Not in words.”

Patricio materialized, asked Gianna if she wanted her margarita the same, on the rocks without salt. She thanked him for remembering and ordered another round for me.

“So it seemed like, I mean, it looked like a serious chat,” Gianna said. “I thought I should let you finish it.”

“Thank you.” I reached over and took both her hands in mine.

“Everything cool?”

I glanced over the wall, toward the sound of the surf clawing at the sand. The last hint of dusk was dying with the wind and the silver-gray surface of the ocean melted into the sky.

“An old friend was just killed,” I said.

Gianna squeezed my hands, looked at me with dark chocolate eyes that were the essence of compassion, eyes that threatened to bring tears to my own.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That might sound lame, but I don’t know what else to say.”

“It’s not lame, and I have no idea how I feel. I’m not sure I feel anything, except paralyzed, and that bothers me. I was trying to remember the last time I talked to the guy. Probably six months ago. Ridiculous. We were inseparable for over twenty years.”

“Hey, you don’t have to tell me any of this stuff, unless you really want to.”

“They say confession is good for the soul, whoever They are.”

Gianna laughed, the sound a soft sincere melody. “Tell me about it. My family’s Catholic, like, really Catholic. My sisters and I wore prim uniforms to school, skirts no more than an inch above the knee. I was suspended in the ninth grade for a half-inch violation. I had to give this dramatic apology at confession. The next year I went to public school and our cheerleading outfits would have sent the nuns into a tizzy of prayers.”

“Marlene and I were married for twelve years. How’s that for a confession?”

Gianna stared at me, tapped her clear nails against the back of my hands. I realized this was her mode of contemplation, of turning over what to say before saying it. Definitely prudent for a young woman, or for anyone as far as that went.

“I’ve never been married,” she said. “I’ve never even been in love, at least not really.”

“Infatuation and lust?”

A half smile. “A few times.”

“You realize you’re putting me in a good mood without trying.”

“We don’t have to do anything, you know.” She let me go, reached up and combed her fingers through my hair, which I imagined was a wind-blown mess. “We could just hang and get drunk, or if you want to be alone I could see you tomorrow.”

“My clients invited us to dinner.”

“Us?”

“I said I wouldn’t go without you.”

Patricio arrived with more drinks, served them, and collected the empties. Gianna tasted her margarita, ran her tongue around her lips in a way that made me squirm.

I said, “What I’d most like to do is take you out to the house and work you over.”

“Would that help take your mind off your friend?”

Seized with honesty, I couldn’t avoid saying exactly what I felt. “You’re a lot more than a diversion.”

Gianna flashed her white teeth. “I could maul you right now, too, but it’s sweet to hold that feeling in, you know, let the desire swell and start to ache.” She laughed. “Are your clients’ fun?”

“They’re a comedy team.”

“What about your friend?”

“Good question. I’ll need some time to answer it.”

I raised my shot of tequila. Gianna touched my glass with hers and we drank. The liquor masked the cold fist in my gut. I focused on the muffled roar of the waves, and let the sound, along with Gianna’s company, erase all other thoughts from my mind.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Born on the Sabbath

By Patti Sherlock

Rich used to say he wished he knew how to impress me. I’d tell him, “Do something.” This spring he finally took action in a big way and gave me the second saddest day of my life.

Early in our marriage I’d get on Rich for being all talk. That was because I felt blameful of that very thing. I prattled on and on about having a baby but I couldn’t get pregnant. It wasn’t Rich’s fault, though a low sperm count figured in. I went to bed every month with periods that lasted ten days and gave me horrible cramps. The doctor said, “Dana, these hard periods make it tough to get a child underway.” If either of us had been married to somebody else it might have been different—or maybe not.

My mother didn’t help by pointing out that my sister got pregnant kissing through the fence. Lynne cranked out one after another until she got to three, then she made Nick get a vasectomy. Her ease in having babies and my mother’s willingness to mention it put a distance between me and them that lasted a long time.

The state wouldn’t let Rich and me adopt until we got to be 30. We had to prove we couldn’t make a kid on our own.

I worked at the flower shop in Blackfoot, 20 miles from our place in Gulch. Wendy, my boss, watched over my shoulder and rearranged my arrangements. Rich worked at the farm supply store and helped his dad, Lane, with the cows. Lane had given Rich and me half the herd but we ran them together for convenience. Lane kept the herd on his place in winter; in summer Rich took the cows to a government grazing allotment and checked on them every day.

We didn’t see each other much. I got home tired and all I wanted to do was get out on Maggie, my filly. She was two and green, but even then, the most dependable horse I’d ever had. A path beside the creek had almost no rodent holes. I’d let her all the way out there. Running beside the water with the willows flying past, I got the feeling there was something bigger than me.

The rest of the time, things didn’t have much flavor. Rich didn’t ask for much—I decided whether we’d have sex or supper. He didn’t contribute much, either, in ideas or conversation.

The first time Rich held our daughter I said to him, “Can you love her like your own?” He said, “Are they supposed to be this small?”

I named our baby Blithe because she’d been born on Sunday. The poem says “The child born on the Sabbath day is bonny and blithe and good and gay.” Bonnie was too common to suit me. If it had been 20 years earlier I might have named her Gay.

She had wide blue eyes like a Siamese.

I kept my job in Blackfoot, maneuvering the winding road from Gulch twice a day. From November on the road stayed slick and snowy. I took Blithe to a day care place I’d heard good things about, but a few months into it I arrived one day to pick her up and the attendant told me someone would get her from the back. When I said, “I’ll go get her myself,” the attendant reached over and pushed a buzzer. Even Rich didn’t like the sound of that. I might have taken Blithe back there until I found another place for her, but I got into it with the owner and she ordered me off the place.

I found a woman who watched kids in her home. I thought from the first she had too many. Blithe got a diaper rash and starting fussing at night.

About that time Rich and his dad got serious about keeping a purebred herd. That meant a lot more paperwork. Lane still held down a job in town and it was a lot of trouble for him to feed cows before and after work, especially during storms, so we moved the cows to our place and I took over feeding and keeping up the registrations.

“Mommy’s going to be home with you now,” I told Blithe. Her diaper rash cleared up.

I don’t suppose anyone would do this now—they have kids in helmets when they put them on horses—but I’d put Blithe in the backpack and we’d go off into the woods for hours. Maggie was a young horse, but I knew she offered no danger to my baby. Before I’d mount up Maggie would move her lips over Blithe’s thin hair and fat little arms. When Blithe was on her back, Maggie tiptoed. I think the mare thought Blithe belonged to both of us.

Rich said I hogged Blithe and didn’t give him much chance to know her.

“You waltz into her life a few times a week. How can you expect to have a bond with her?”          Now that it was summer he went in the truck every night to check cows. He wanted to take Blithe with him sometimes, but that would have thrown off her schedule. Besides, he didn’t know her signals.

Renee, my friend from high school, asked, “Don’t you feel isolated up there?” Renee and I used to meet for lunch on the spur of the moment. Now we had to plan ahead and I needed to get a sitter. If Blithe got a cold or Renee had to work through her lunch hour, we sometimes had to postpone three or four times. Besides, Renee had a new boyfriend who took a lot of her time.

I told Renee I didn’t mind the solitude because Maggie, Blithe, and I had such a good time when we went riding.

“What about when it turns cold?”

“We’ll be fine.”

But that first winter when Blithe and I had to look out on white, empty fields and the road blew shut, I got lonely. I liked my outside chores and I always took time to visit with Maggie, but even so I’d sometimes put Blithe in the car and drive to Blackfoot so we could walk around Wal-Mart and I could see people.

Wal-Mart, I discovered, had a good selection of wines. Used to be that stores around here didn’t stock wine. Mom always had to get hers at the liquor store and she hated that.

It was easy to pick up wine along with dish soap, hair clips for Blithe, and socks for Rich.

“I counted the number of wine bottles in the trash,” Rich said, “and there were a lot.”

“You always paw through the garbage?”

“Maybe you ought to think about going back to the flower shop.”

“Who would take care of things?”

“Blithe will be in kindergarten next year, and after that she’ll be gone all day for first grade.”

“How about getting her down to the bus stop and back? How about getting her to piano lessons? I want her to have activities.”

“She’s got two parents, Dana.” Then he insulted me. “Do you take Blithe in the car when you’ve been drinking?”

“You think I didn’t learn a hard lesson from my mother?” Mom died at 48 in a rollover.

After that, I counted bottles, put a small number in the trash, and hauled the rest to town and put them in the grocery store’s trash bin. `

Gulch had one of its worst winters the year Blithe went to first grade. The road blew shut a lot and I couldn’t get Blithe to the bus stop. Rich kept his truck down at the highway intersection and drove the snowmobile back and forth. He offered to take Blithe, but the bus was often late and I didn’t want Blithe shivering on a snowmobile, waiting.

Blithe and I played school at home. I taught her counting songs and worked with word cards and though I didn’t know kids to compare her to, she seemed ahead.

Rich worried about Blithe growing up without other kids around. The Richardsons who lived in the next mile had four kids, but the youngest was in junior high.

“An after-school program would give Blithe some playmates.”

“She plays at school.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it money? It that why you want me to go back to work?”

“Money would help.”

“But that’s not it.” I gave him a disgusted look and left the room.

They gave me a hysterectomy for the bad periods. The operation knocked me out for six months and even though I took replacement hormones I got hot flashes and couldn’t sleep. I didn’t ride Maggie the whole time I was recovering.

Though Rich was gone a lot and I was the one always available, Blithe would nearly jump out of her skin when Rich walked in the door. He suggested getting a pony for her so she could go riding with him—his horse was too excitable to ride double.

But it was Blithe who turned that down.

“I just like Maggie,” she said.

She rode in front or behind me, whichever suited her.

“Go faster, Mom,” she’d say.

“Hang on, Peanut.” She’d wrap her arms around my waist and I’d let Maggie out all the way. Then it’d be just me, Blithe, Maggie, and the wind. No utility bills, no registration papers for cattle, no hidden sacks of bottles, no silences in bed.

Always dainty, Blithe usually was the shortest in her class. But she outgrew riding with me. She still didn’t want her own horse; she wanted to ride Maggie. I let her, of course.

I picked up another horse, a bay gelding. He was a kitten when I rode him at the sale barn, but when I got him home he showed a habit of rearing. He spooked at the color blue, too, and when I wore my blue parka to feed he’d gallop to the end of the corral, eyes crazy with fear. We had blue tarps over our hay stacks and I could hardly get him out of the yard.

I put him through the sale and bought Blanca, a palomino mare. She and Maggie took a dislike to each other and Maggie sprang teeth marks and scars all over her. But Blanca rode okay. I couldn’t hope to find another horse like Maggie, but I considered it one of those selfless things a mother does, letting Blithe take over Maggie.

Blithe liked her jazz dance class, complained about practicing the piano, and made a couple of friends at school. We lived so far out it was hard for her to get together with them, but I was happy to drive her to their houses or pick them up and bring them to ours.

For her 12th birthday, I let Blithe have a sleepover. I rented an armload of videos and made a gorgeous cake. The girls took turns riding the horses and Rich let them drive the tractor.

Blithe acted withdrawn that Monday when she came home from school. “What’s going on, Sweetie?”

“Michaela’s mom said she can’t come here anymore.”

“Why?”

“When she picked up Michaela, she smelled liquor on you.”

“Is Michaela a Mormon?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s it. They think anyone who takes a drink is a horrible sinner, even if the drink is coffee.”

Blithe’s mouth twisted funny.

Blithe got to where she wanted to take Maggie out by herself and didn’t want Blanca and me to go. Rich wondered if we should worry about that. I said even though she was adopted, she seemed to have my solitary gene.

A couple of months after that the Gulch Store came up for sale and I had the idea to buy it. That would force Blithe and me to be more sociable.

The Gulch Store sat on a gravel road at the top of a rise, an ugly building with an outhouse in front. We knew the store had wiring problems, its pipes froze in winter, and one side of the building sat in the way of runoff in a hard snow year. Ranchers stopped there for coffee in the morning, fishermen came during fishing season, hunters dropped by in the fall. Tourists and hikers on their way camping were customers. Winter brought snowmobilers and cross country skiers wanting hot drinks.

You could get a prepackaged hamburger to microwave and chips, pop, and ice cream, and the place had a pool table. But what made people keep coming was the atmosphere. The place was 70 or 80 years old and all the livestock outfits that had ever operated in the area had burned their brands onto the ceiling. Everybody loved to look at those brands.

The store had been hardscrabble for every owner, but we didn’t need to make much; we had the cows and Rich’s job. Rich sat up late a couple of nights figuring and refiguring, but once he made up his mind he wanted to move ahead. He was excited because of the store’s history.

Blithe had the idea to serve warm brownies because everyone likes them. Maybe she figured that was a way for her to have a steady supply. We publicized there’d be free brownies on the day we reopened, and had 430 customers that day.

The brownies made the place smell wonderful and weren’t hard to make. I used a mix at first, but Rich and Blithe experimented with homemade recipes and found it was simple to make them from scratch.

I got busy in a good way. I fed the cows before I opened the store. Ranchers were used to getting coffee at 7:30, but I slipped that back to 8 and there wasn’t much bellyachin’. Now that Blithe was in junior high, she had to be on a 7 a.m. bus.

During stretches when no one came in, I stocked and cleaned and mixed up brownies. Blithe came there right after school. She liked to hear who’d been in that day and where they came from. You’d be surprised that people from Norway and Australia and Japan find their way to rural Idaho. When I chatted with visitors, I’d fix the details in my mind to tell Blithe.

She was too shy to talk to customers herself. I told her, “It’s not easy for me, either, Honey, but I force myself.” She said, “You’ve got beer to help you.”

Rich told me it wasn’t a good idea to drink with customers, but I didn’t look at it that way. I figured customers liked me joining them.

Blithe had always been a joy for us, but all of a sudden we found ourselves with a sullen teenager we hardly knew. It might have been time for Rich and me to pull together, but we had pisser fights over why Blithe was acting like she did. One day he’d be panicked over her behavior, another day I’d be the frantic one.

Other kids started coming around and we liked that at first, but we came to distrust them, especially the older ones with cars. When we tried to rein Blithe in, she defied us. One night I told her she couldn’t leave the house with friends and she flounced off to her room, screaming real ugly stuff. She slammed the door and we thought that was the end of it, but when we checked her room later she’d sneaked out a window. We drove all over the hills, shining the truck’s spotlight and calling her name.

We phoned the sheriff at 2 a.m. A deputy came up and helped us look. He knew one of the kids Blithe had been running with, an Avery boy, and offered to check at his place.

The deputy found Blithe and two other kids in a shed at the Avery farm, higher than jets on meth. He put them in handcuffs and took them to jail.

That put the fear of God in Blithe. We forbid her to see any of that crowd. Rich suggested we get some counseling for all of us.

We met with a therapist named Laverne. Blithe acted like a little saint—said she’d learned her lesson and didn’t touch drugs anymore. Rich and I wanted hard to believe her because the alternative frightened us so, but Blithe didn’t fool Laverne. She said, “She’s using.”

Blithe mostly stayed home in the evenings now or hung around the store, but that didn’t mean she lacked access to drugs. She got them at school, meth being the easiest because anyone could cook it.

It was May but still felt like February. Rich and I longed for school to be over because we’d located a rehab facility where we planned to send Blithe in June. It was one of those programs where a guy in a suit shows up at the house and captures the kid. Rich didn’t like that aspect of it, but Laverne pointed out an addicted kid doesn’t go willingly to rehab.

One afternoon Blithe didn’t show up at the store. I called the bus dispatch office and asked if she’d been on the bus. The driver said she’d dropped Blithe off on the corner.

I locked up the store and went home. I was relieved when I saw Blithe by the barn saddling Maggie, just like old times.

“There’s still some icy spots by the creek,” I hollered.

“I’ll be careful.”

“I wish Blanca and I could go with you. But I got to get back to the store.”

Blithe gave me a pretty smile, one I’ll never forget. “I’ll come over when I get back and you can tell me about who came in today.” She said it sweetly, like the old Blithe.

I walked toward the store, trying to remember if anybody interesting had been in that day. No, it had just been the locals. But Billy Prestwich had told me about coyotes moving in on their lambing barn and making off with four newborns.

I heard a scream. I didn’t know it came from Maggie because I’d never heard a sound like it; I thought it might be a cougar. I jerked my head in all directions, trying to locate the noise. Then I heard Blithe yelling.

I ran past the house, heading for the barn. I saw Maggie twisting and bucking like a rodeo bronc. Blithe came off and tumbled into the ditch. Maggie kept bawling and bucking, right above her.

I waved my arms to scare off Maggie. “Get, you devil!” I hollered. Maggie whinnied and ran off to the shed, still bucking.

Thank God I had my cell phone on me; I would have been scared to leave Blithe alone with that berserk animal. Blithe was moaning and had blood pouring from her nose.

The ambulance arrived coated in mud. I suppose the driver tore up the Gulch Road as fast as he could, but for Blithe, every minute counted and being so far from town made the difference.

She had tubes everywhere and they’d doped her for the pain. Rich got there in time. We both told her we loved her and I hope what we said got through. All we heard back was moaning.

Rich couldn’t believe Maggie had done what she did. A hospital nurse who raised horses asked if Blithe had been mixed up with drugs. She told us the scent of meth makes some horses go crazy.

We buried Blithe at the Gulch Cemetery. Hundreds of kids from school came. One girl read a poem she wrote. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, but it must have been good because it made the kids cry. The next day the principal called an assembly to talk about Blithe’s death.

After a couple of days, I went back to the store and Rich went off to work. People at both places did their best to offer comfort.

On Saturday, I closed the store early and got home by five. Rich had heated himself a can of soup. He slurped it real slow. When he finished, he went to the cabinet and took out his pistol. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster and watched him walk out the back door.

I hoped he’d do it quick and painless. That didn’t happen, because I heard three shots.

When he got back, he walked over to the counter and laid the pistol down. He came over and put his arms around me. “I got rid of her, Honey.”

A young couple from New York City stopped in the other day. I had a few beers with them and they ended up staying a while. The girl’s name was Beth and she reminded me of Blithe—small and bouncy. His people were local, but he’d been gone from here awhile.

“You serve fresh brownies, don’t you?” he asked.

“Used to. That was my daughter’s idea.” I told them about Blithe. Beth’s face got real sad; the guy kept any expression off of his.

I told them about Maggie, too, and what she’d meant to me. When I told them how she’d met her end, the guy said, “But it wasn’t the horse’s fault!”

I thought Beth being from New York might worry about the cruelty-to-animals thing, but she said, “Your husband had to do that.”

“You think?”

“You couldn’t look out the window every day and be reminded.”

“But I want to be reminded.”

The guy shook his head. “No.”

“Yeah I do. Reminded of the worst days. And reminded of the best days.” I paused. “And what it’s like to run fast.”

“What is it like?” Beth asked.

“Like nothing else.” I stopped right there. I didn’t say that when you’re going fast, you want to go faster and then faster, and you forget all about the gopher holes that are apt to take you down.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Good People’s Gossip

By Lisa Lorraine Carson

There are many different types of lace found at Runcot&Slayer Dressmakers, LLC. Mrs. Laurie Withers will personally show patrons to a room where she produces a large linen bound volume, two feet long by thirteen inches wide (per page) of samples. Mrs. Withers wears a pair of white gloves as she turns the pages for her clients, each sample of lace preserved between two sheets of white parchment paper. She flips the parchment apart to reveal an ivory sheet of flowers. It thin as spring lake ice and cool to the touch with preservation. Mrs. Withers says nothing when customers lightly finger the lace, though she worries they have grease on their fingers. There are Chantilly samples (“classic, classic aristocracy,”), duchesse linings (“perfect for trimming a veil,”), French bobbin lace (“I believe this was what Marie Antoinette wore to her beheading.”), guipure for bodices (“This is for a girl who likes to have fun!”), schiffli trains (“sooo romantic,”), Venetian over lays (“Erotic.” She says with an uncomfortable wink to her guests), and Spanish sleeves (“it’s really the same thing as Venetian,” Mrs. Withers says quickly. It’s almost her lunch hour and she is tired).

There are always a few debutants who wander in and out of the store for fittings in April, but the majority of Mrs. Wither’s appointments are brides. She takes her job seriously, guiding each exquisite (and even less so) bride to her perfect gown. Though she treats them all like the high paying clients they are, privately, Mrs. Withers wonders if the girls she helps are virgins. She wonders if a mother’s choice to pay with credit card instead of check is indicative of private financial ruin. The sister who came along with one bride was too stalky, and too old to be unmarried. Perhaps she is perverted. Yes, beneath her charming smile and teased bouffant, Mrs. Withers assumes the worst of every bride who comes to Runcot&Slayer. She wonders how many of the wedding gowns she sells will be loaded into the backs of moving vans after divorce. Mrs. Withers is at liberty to wonder these treacherous thoughts because she is an expert on marriage. She has had three.

People will ask her, years later, if she helped Layla X when she came to be fitted for her gown. Mrs. Withers will tell them yes, she had helped Layla X and she knew it all along. Of course everyone knew, Mrs. Withers will say. You don’t let a dress out that much before a wedding and not wonder. The choice of empire waist at all is suspicious. But there was no judgment, Mrs. Withers assures. They were good kids, and both with degrees. And Tommy was a nice boy. She still calls him a boy, though by now he is 29. Like the rest of Layla’s legacy, her age has been lost and no one can remember now if she would be 28 or 27. For the purposes of the story though, no one really cares.

Mrs. Withers always starts the story like this: of course we didn’t know it at the time, but as Layla X walked down the aisle Christopher Reeves was breaking his neck in Culper, falling off a horse. The date was May 27th. This detail is of particular importance to Mrs. Withers. She is a woman of faith and (she would never call it this) superstition. She doesn’t mention Christopher Reeves or his shattered second and third vertebra again. But who’s to say God wasn’t striking down a sinner and only missed by 60 miles? Layla rode horses, after all.

Mr. X had ordered nearly two hundred flower arrangements with a white orchid at every center. Mrs. Withers heard, as many people at the wedding did, that the orchids were flown in from Thailand that morning. There were so many young people, Mrs. Withers gushes, a detail both damning and traditionally inoffensive to the older generation. It reminded Mrs. Withers of times past when girls married up quickly and sometimes didn’t even finish their schooling first, or at all (Mrs. Withers is of the latter group). “When the right fish jumps in the boat, you don’t throw it back!” She laughs, though that particular fish did divorce her 14 years later. Regardless, Mrs. Withers feels the hairs on back of her neck stand at attention, a prickling sensation of superiority, when she reminds her audience that Layla was only 21. Mrs. Withers had the good sense to wait until 22 for her first.

Layla was the image of innocent beauty (this is said for irony) in a Venetian lace gown, the color cold milk. Tommy looked like the happiest boy in the world. After, they went on honeymoon to Greece for two weeks. This detail is difficult for Mrs. Withers to swallow. Her first husband took her to Key West for four days and her second flew her to Abaco. She was disappointed to find international travel so dingy and lacking glamour; she remembers a veil of gasoline that shimmered above water clear enough to see trash at the bottom. Her third took her nowhere at all. Mrs. Withers wonders, when she tells this bit of the story, if the newly wed couple suffered any dysentery while they were away.

When Layla and Tommy returned to Mt. Palle Tommy went back to work and Layla applied to grad school at Vanderbilt for her masters in English. Or maybe it was Engineering. It’s been a long time and Mrs. Withers can’t remember. They moved in the fall and by then Layla was no-denying-it showing. Even when people would remark how soon it was, Layla never seemed ashamed. The newlyweds came home at Christmas and stayed with the Xs, and after the holidays returned to Nashville. Mrs. Withers saw Mrs. X in town several times and each time she said that Layla was “heavy” and that the two of them were “very happy.” In an honest recollection of the conversation Mrs. Withers admits she can’t remember if Mrs. X said Layla was “heavy” or “healthy.” This, of course, is private.

Layla was due in the middle of February, which anyone with a calendar can deduce what they will (Oh! This comment makes Mrs. Withers feel so diplomatic). Everyone knew Layla came back to Mt. Palle to give birth but no one heard a word from the Xs about the baby until one week after it had been born and Tommy was already back in Nashville. Layla would stay, Mrs. X told her friends, because she and Tommy just needed “some time” (heavy air quotes).

This was scandal enough. And if you asked Mrs. Withers (which no one did) the Xs would have been better off putting a birth announcement in the paper and getting it over with. But instead the information trickled out, visitor by visitor. Layla’s friends hardly said a word when asked. Everyone knew what to expect: Downs Syndrome. Mrs. Withers had a friend in Monroe whose daughter had a Downs baby and she will assure her audience: it is heartbreaking.

Several weeks passed and people forgot. Plenty of babies are born all the time, Mrs. Withers reminds. It wasn’t until Layla was seen pushing a trolley with a colored baby in it that people began to talk again. Mrs. Withers is clear: the baby wasn’t black. She would never unfairly implicate Layla. But facts are facts and the baby was colored. No one could tell what the other half of it was. Some said Persian, others Mexican. But (and keep in mind Mrs. Withers is no fortune teller) because it was just a baby there was really no way to tell where it was from. But everyone agreed on this: it wasn’t from Tommy. This can be said with either drama or comedy. Mrs. Withers prefers comedy.

Tommy divorced her. It was heard that Layla asked for no marital assets. Again, it was heard that Mr. X had been giving Layla 1,000 dollars a month while she was married. Mrs. Withers has no comment on this part of the story. 1,000 dollars a month without earmark is a lot of money.

Money aside, the divorce was fast. Tommy became a resident of Tennessee while Layla lived at home. Mrs. Withers pauses, “there was a lot of talk then.” Some of which was true, and, Mrs. Withers will stress, some of which was not. Mrs. Withers cares not to speculate (this is always said directly), BUT some girls who had gone to Hellensway with Layla reported that in the sophomore year they went to the bathroom with her at a dance and all (some) noticed that Layla was not wearing underpants. Layla’s high school boyfriend confirmed that she picked him up in her father’s coupe (a stick shift!) at two am on a school night. Many Hellensway girls remembered seeing Layla chewing gum on campus, and a few even recalled her smoking cigarettes in the trees behind the art department. For some reason that it was done in trees seems exceptionally disrespectful to Mrs. Withers.

No one really knows what Mrs. X advised Layla to do. Mrs. Kennisworth, whose daughter had been in pre-school all the way up to Hellensway with Layla, was over heard telling Mrs. Invess that Mrs. X suggested sending the baby up for adoption. Mrs. Kennisworth was heard another time describing a catastrophic fight between Mrs. X and Layla in which she demanded Layla do it. And the fact (it is a fact) that Mrs. X was never seen in public with the child seems to support this theory.

One can only imagine the delivery room, Mrs. Withers thinks. She envisions the birthing scene: great maternal horror and then the surprise of poor Tommy (poor Tommy!) when the skin aerated and showed itself the color of milked coffee instead of reverently white. Ground cedar chips, the gelatin of pecan pie, the droppings of a dog that has eaten too much fat- BROWN!

It wasn’t until March that the real controversy began. The Spring Parade, a tradition in Mt. Palle since 1896 when the first Spring Queen was crowned, was soon to take place. Dazzling floats (Mrs. Withers only describes this for out-of-towners) blockade 4th Street on the first day of May. Decorated in dense, wet flowers that have only just sprung, the parade is a celebration of rebirth and forgiving the world of winter. Every year a newborn baby is selected to ride on the final float in the Spring Queen’s lap. “It is always the most enormous and lavish float of them all,” she explains.

Mrs. Withers lowers her voice and speaks faster now, with an air of panic. It’s easy to see she is incensed. “I know a lot of people that feel the same as me,” she says. “And I know a lot of people that have known (“and respected!” She sometimes says in a high trill) Mr. X for years, and even they agree that what he did…Was. Wrong.” Her lips, coated in lipstick that bleeds to the four corners of her mouth, purse tightly together.

The Spring Bean, as they call the baby selected to ride with the Spring Queen on that final, ethereal float, is said to be the choice of the community. Mrs. Withers can remember which children were the Spring Bean years after they’ve graduated high school, even married. It is an honor in Mt. Palle to be either Bean or come from the stock that produced it. Sure, it’s silly, Mrs. Withers admits, but Mt. Palle is one of the last nice towns in America. “Good people.” She said smugly, even if she is talking to a fellow Mt. Pallian.

Alright,” Mrs. Withers then says exasperatedly, throwing her hands up to issue surrender, “everyone knows the child is really selected based on donation to the city council office.” But this is neither here nor there, she will explain. The ones that belong on the Queen’s lap always make it there, as if fate wrote the check.

But as legend has it, Mr. X shot through the doors of the city council office one pleasant April morning and demanded to know why he’d over heard his neighbors talking about Louisa Kimball’s baby’s invitation to serve as Bean. With his fist clenched around tax records, records of deductibles and (Mrs. Withers hisses the word) charitable donations, he slammed it down on the desk of the receptionist Mrs. Deguise. Demanding to see Mayor Funkie that instant, he didn’t listen to Mrs. Deguise when she politely told him that if he scheduled an appointment he could see the Mayor then. Mr. X, instead, walked right past her to Mayor Funkie’s office, interrupting his snack. “Preposterous!” could be heard emanating from the open door of his office.

Mrs. Withers, to this day, believes that Mayor Funkie was acting in the best interest of the city when he calmly told Mr. X that the letter had been sent and the matter was closed. Mr. X then threatened to sue the entire county. Mrs. Deguise (who recounted the entire tale to Mrs. Withers) watched Mr. X storm from the office with Mayor Funkie following him muttering (in his raw, masculine voice that Mrs. Withers finds so attractive), “R—–, R—–, stop and think about this for a minute,” to which Mr. X roared, “I’m thinking for the first time since this entire thing began! I thought this town could come around, see the joy in something…imperfect…but…but…you’re all just BUFFOONS!”

(Mrs. Withers will always point out that Mt. Palle is an entirely civil place and that people do not throw around words like “buffoons” lightly.)

But, Mrs. Withers says knowingly, he was far from done. Poor Mayor Funkie, dedicated civil servant and chair of the Polio Club (actually, the Polo Club), leaned in and asked Mr. X, well, what did he expect? And Mr. X wound his fist back and knocked one of Mayor Funkie’s teeth out. Mrs. Deguise told Mrs. Withers that, cool as a pan undisturbed jello, Mr. X strode out of the office while Mayor Funkie was still on the ground. Can you imagine?! Mrs. Withers certainly does.

It was April 3rd, which turned out to be another auspicious date. Mayor Funkie and his tragically fated first upper left incisor were not, actually, the talk of the town that evening because this was same day Ted Kaczynski was found hiding in Montana. Two madmen exposed in one day, Mrs. Withers thinks. God spoke with his hands again.

But news did get around about the “meeting” (heavy air quotes again) between Mr. X and Mayor Funkie. In some renditions there is said to be a pool of blood beneath Mayor Funkie as Mr. X walked away. And in another telling Mr. X was seen getting into his Buick outside the courthouse with two red lines drawn under each eye. Mrs. Deguise, for the life of her, can’t remember if there was blood or not. Mr. X was spotted in town the next day buying groceries and stopped at the liquor store on his way home. Eyebrows are raised and Mrs. Withers takes a sip of her iced tea.

“We had no idea, but it turns out that the punch wasn’t the worst of it,” she says sadly. Mr. X was (with great emphasis on the past tense) a powerful man in Mt. Palle. The owner of the only gas and coal mines in all of Naven County, Mr. X was at the helm of immense financial power. It happened that the majority of his contracts were up for renewal that spring and Mr. X wrote up the new contracts himself. Explicitly stated in Paragraph 14, Clause 2, was that any company or resident receiving X Gas and Electric would be legally forbidden to donate funds or goods to the Spring Parade.

“This didn’t seem legal,” Mrs. Withers says bitterly. But it was. She had the good fortune of eavesdropping Mr. Savly explaining to Mrs. Savly the legality, which goes as follows: Mt. Palle was established in 1839 as a coal mining community. With the intention of creating an advantage, the top mining management drafted the county by-laws themselves. And though the by-laws have been updated since, the original laws often technically remain even if they go unobserved. But on a formality they can be enforced. And tragically, such an outdated law existed. As the sole head of all coal operation within Naven County Mr. X had the legal right to include “moral, legal, and fiscal stipulations” in his terms of service. “The fact is,” Mrs. Withers explains, “there just isn’t any other way to buy electricity in Naven County.”

The new contracts went out. Mayor Funkie called Mr. X back into his office. But Mrs. Withers heard Mr. X declined invitation and Mayor Funkie was forced to drive over to the X’s instead. Mayor Funkie had no choice; he offered the Spring Bean to Layla’s baby. “Oh, how Louisa Kimball cried!” Mrs. Withers mournfully recalls.

Interestingly enough, Mr. X did not readily accept. Years later Mayor Funkie was overheard telling several people that Mr. X told him to go to hell while it was Layla who cried at the foot of the stairs and begged him to reconsider. Did she want her baby to serve as Bean? Certainly she could see the problem (it’s difficult to find the right word) with it. Layla was rarely seen outside the house now. Mrs. X was already suspiciously absent. No one knew she’d left for her extended trip to Charleston already. She has yet to return.

Mrs. Withers straightens up, pulls her shoulders back, feeling moisture beneath her arms, and comes into her second wind. The story is nearly at its crescendo. “He did eventually accept.” She says coolly. No one can know what was said inside the walls of X’s mansion during this time. Layla had long since abandoned her friends and spoke to no one of the impending parade. The neighbors saw her once through the slats in the wood of their shared fence. She was sitting in the yard, cross-legged, bouncing a tan baby in her lap, softly singing Bruce Springsteen. It seemed (though they admit it was too far to be sure) she wasn’t wearing a bra. Mrs. Withers snickers as if such a thing is unimaginable to sane people.

“And then it was here!” She says dramatically. May 1, 1996. The Spring Parade. “So excited, everyone was. It was the centennial.” Paragraph 14, Clause 2 was abandoned and miles of silk were supplied with hundreds of carnations clipped, sewn, draped and donated. The MP Business Association Float rolled dreamily down the streets, cloaked in rich purple fabric, the color of commerce. The First Evangelical Awakening of Good Nature Church’s float drifted after, manned by the Sunday School. Everyone, everyone was there, Mrs. Withers beams. Cotton candy machines hummed with frail spools of pink thread and hot dogs were given away freely (Mrs. Withers remembers ingesting two (and-a-half)). Even the Mt. Palle Humane Society had set up a tent of puppies where “every year all of the puppies are adopted.” As if this is not satisfactory explanation, she elaborates: “We’re not the kind of town that turns away even one dog.”

And finally, after twenty minutes of jubilation- the colors! The silk! The flowers! The puffed pink cotton candy that hovered radiantly above white sticks! The Spring Queen float was hitched to Mr. Raagg’s red convertible and slowly wheeled down 4th Street with the Queen sovereignly at her throne. It was a windy day but not a single hair blew out of the Queen’s tiara. Mrs. Withers smiles affectionately. “There’s really something special to it.” She says. The Queen looked, in Mrs. Withers opinion, like a Senator’s wife.

But as the float made it’s way down 4th street the cheering slowly stopped. In the arms of the Queen, a girl so American her blood ran a color revolutionary red, sat a brown little baby. “The blackest hair you’ve ever seen,” remarks Mrs. Withers as if this too, is another sign from Him.

Mrs. Withers does not know where the first call of “booooo!” came from. She was standing near the end of the parade but even there she could hear the roar, one uniform syllable – BOOOOOOO!!!!- grow louder as the float processed. The Spring Queen wept openly. “Tragedy,” Mrs. Withers says, indignant. Despite the colossal noise (“it was deafening!”), not a single person moved from the sidewalk to the street. Mr. Raagg, without knowing what to do (“He always struck me as a dented can,”) drove the float forward.

Mrs. Withers saw the entire thing unfold. She saw Layla run from the crowd, her hair untethered and blowing behind her in the wind. Imprinted in her mind is the image of Layla’s long, spidery legs as she quickly scaled the float and took the baby from the Queen. Mr. Raagg, wouldn’tyoubelieveit, kept on driving.

Layla quickly descended the float with the child cradled in one arm. But instead of moving away from the parade she stopped in the street. Still, almost like art, Layla just stood there. Mrs. Withers can’t understand why she would do this. Some people remember her laughing; others said she screamed obscenities to the crowd. Only a few nearly expired old women remember her crying. The colossal baying of “boooo!!!” was now heard from every corner of the parade. Mrs. Withers even threw a few herself though like many people in Mt. Palle, she now defends she did not.

No one knows who threw the tomato juice. It was impossible not to watch the red viscid stream stretch across the bright spring air, rising in lustrous waves like a silk scarf caught in the wind before it splattered across Layla’s chest. She recoiled from the impact, crumpling backwards in an attempt to lessen the blow. Useless. The juice detonated across her body and it looked, in color and texture, as if she had been shot. “AB-so-lute silence.” Mrs. Withers says. Layla looked up from the blast covering her and the baby. Mrs. Withers was just close enough to see her face. She scanned the crowd, searching for someone, or something. Finding nothing she tipped her head heavenward, gazed up at the cloudless sky and said, “Yes, yes.” She turned then back down to the crowd, looking at no one face in particular, and screamed (so urgent Mrs. Withers remembers her voice nearly sexual), “YES!!”

“It was the strangest thing,” Mrs. Withers says. No one moved a muscle. Even the wind stopped. Those closest to the incident (as it is now called) remembered hearing Layla’s loose, ragged breathing and then the baby started to cry. Mr. X broke through the crowd, “Layla! Layla!” he cried, shouldering her beneath his arm. He cast the most hateful look at the crowd before he led her silently to its edge where it parted to let them through.

They were never seen again. The X’s elegant home on Baptist Avenue was sold to a young family. The lawn is now full of construction vehicles and Mrs. Withers wonders what the renovation will look like. Mrs. Withers heard from Mrs. Shuffler (whose husband acquired the majority of Mr. X’s holdings when he sold them) that Mr. X was living in Chapel Hill teaching chemistry. As for Layla, no one really knows. One of her high school friends claims she moved to a California commune. Another heard she was traveling Europe with a band of Israeli people. Someone else said Layla was living in New York, and this is what Mrs. Withers is inclined to believe. “Brooklyn, not Manhattan.” She says with an air of knowing though Mrs. Withers has been to neither. “I just worry about a girl from Mt. Palle in New York City.” Mrs. Withers says. “There are all kinds of cruel people in the world,” and she would hate for Layla to meet one of them.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Natasha

By James Holbrook

A hand shot toward my car door window as I backed out of a parking space at one of the American housing complexes in Moscow. It struck with a muffled thud in the din of heavy rain that was beating down on the car. The hand belonged to a woman. As we made eye contact, she drew back and shouted something. I looked around quickly to see if she was alone. I couldn’t be sure. It was already dark and the windows had steamed up. The woman’s shouts were completely inaudible. I cracked my window and spoke to her in English.

“What is it?”

She answered in Russian. “Are you going into town? I need a ride.”

I switched to Russian. “Are you by yourself?”

Da, da (Yes, yes). Please give me a ride.”

“Go around and get in.” Muscovites often hitched rides but I had never picked one up before.

As she passed in front of the headlights, I could see she was young—maybe in her twenties. She had no umbrella and her long dark hair was soaked and clung to her neck. As soon as she got into the car, I made another 360-degree inspection of the parking lot. No one else in sight.

Spasibo (Thank you),” she said. She pulled the door shut.

“Lock your door.”

“How do I do that?”

“Push down on the knob at the bottom of the window. There, by your shoulder.”

“Thank you so much. I didn’t expect this rain. It just came up a few minutes ago.”

“What were you doing here in an American housing area?”

“I was visiting in the neighboring apartment complex and was just passing through here on my way to the Yugo-zapadnaya Metro Station. Then I saw you get into your car. My name’s Natasha.”

Ochen priyatno (Pleased to meet you), Natasha. My name’s Yasha.”

“This is a nice car. Is it American?”

The license plate, D 04-25, marked it as a foreign diplomat’s car. “No, it’s German. A BMW.”

“Well, it’s still nice. But I like American things. I love American rhythm and blues. And jazz. I have a daughter Rita whom I named after Aretha Franklin.”  Then, in English she said, “I know small English.”

“You’re welcome to speak English with me.”

Nyet, nyet. You speak Russian too well. Why do you speak Russian like that?”

“My grandfather spoke Russian. I’m going to the embassy. Where do you want me to drop you off?”

“Will you be going near Kalinin Prospekt?”

“Yes, of course. It’s on my way to the embassy.”

“I’m sorry, I… Yes. Near Kalinin Prospekt, if you don’t mind.”

Then as quickly as she had begun chattering, she stopped talking altogether. As we rode north on Vernadsky Prospekt toward the center of Moscow, I wondered what was going on. Since arriving in Moscow nearly a year ago, I had come to believe it’s rarely a coincidence when a Soviet citizen unexpectedly meets an American diplomat. Although I had several Soviet acquaintances, I considered each of them to be either a full-fledged KGB operative or, at the very least, subject to making regular reports to the KGB. At first this had bothered me, but I soon grew accustomed to it. For Soviet citizens it was a way of life. For me it was either accept that all my Soviet acquaintances were reporting to the KGB or have no contacts. After all, wasn’t I also making reports on many of the Soviets I met?

I began to run down the checklist I had devised for each time I met a new Soviet citizen. Was Natasha the young woman in distress she appeared to be or was she an agent provocateur? Did she know about my love of jazz and my connections with the Soviet jazz community in Moscow? Was she an invalyutka—a prostitute who specialized in Western clientele? Not likely, out here in the outskirts of the city. How clever the Soviets were in devising acronyms. Invalyutka derived from two Russian words—’foreign’ and ‘hard currency’—and rhymed with prostitutka. Did Natasha know she had hitched a ride with a military attaché assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow? I wondered where this was headed.

I turned left onto Lomonosov Prospect, which would take me to Kutuzov where I would have a straight shot to Kalinin Prospect, a short distance from our embassy on Tchaikovsky. Although traffic was light at this hour, I had to keep my eyes on the road because the rain made for poor visibility. The last thing I wanted was to hit some Soviet pedestrian who had decided to run across the street rather than use a pedestrian underpass. We called them “dark darters.” They were a real hazard for drivers at night.

Moscow streetlights were always dim, but the rain made them almost useless. All I could discern about Natasha’s appearance was that she was well dressed for a Soviet girl—chic leather boots, a short skirt and what looked like a foreign-made jacket. She had unzipped the jacket and I found the combination of her boots, legs and short skirt quite tantalizing. From my brief glances at her face, I could see she had large sparkling eyes. Her mouth seemed to be formed in a smile, even when she wasn’t talking. I found her quite attractive.

I tried to get the young woman talking again.

“Natasha, aren’t you a little worried about being in a car with an American diplomat? I have to tell you I work in the military section at the American Embassy.”

“Why should I be? Soviet citizens are allowed to associate with whomever they wish. Besides, no one knows I’m hitching a ride with you.”

“I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing.”

“Thanks. Don’t worry about me. My mother works as a secretary at the General Staff, so I have some privileges. Marshal Malinovsky once visited our apartment.”

The General Staff, I thought. How interesting. Marshal Rodion Malinovsky was the Soviet Minister of Defense when I served in Berlin in the early 1960s.

If I could meet some Soviets who worked for the government, I might learn something about the war in Afghanistan. Or maybe meet some Soviet officers. Although I had had some casual encounters with officers when traveling—in restaurants or on trains—the Defense Ministry didn’t allow us to have military contacts in Moscow without special permission. With the war in Afghanistan and the crisis in Poland, however, surely there had to be somebody who would inadvertently drop tidbits. And who knows, maybe even something more substantial? I certainly wouldn’t mind insinuating myself into the company of someone who worked for the General Staff.

Just before I reached Kalininsky Bridge, Natasha interrupted my thoughts.

“I’ll get out here. Can you pull over?”

“Sure, but I thought you wanted to go to Kalinin Prospekt.”

“I’ll walk from here.”

I pulled over to the curb. Natasha fumbled with the door handle. I reached across with my right arm and opened the door. In doing so I caught a light, pleasant aroma. It didn’t seem to be perfume. Perhaps it was soap. Perhaps it was nothing but her natural smell. Natasha smiled. I straightened up quickly in my seat. Natasha didn’t move for a few seconds.  She looked at me.

“Thank you very much, Yasha. May I see you again?” she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here’s my telephone number.”

“Ah… Sure, I guess. I’ll… I’ll give you a call.”

Natasha jumped out without saying another word. She ran across the street in the direction of the Ukraina Hotel. I would have liked to see if she went into the hotel, but when she reached the sidewalk on the other side, she turned and stood waving, apparently waiting for me to drive off. As I proceeded to the embassy, I realized she already had had her phone number written on a piece of paper. I decided I was probably dealing with a provokatsiya, a set-up.

Still a little dazed by this strange encounter with an attractive Soviet girl, I pulled up and parked at the curb outside the embassy. I’d spent most of the workday walking around Sokolniki Park, then joined a crowd at one of the pavilions to watch a variety show. Now I had some reports to write.

I had trouble getting Natasha off my mind, so decided to go on back to my apartment and write the reports the next day. Who was Natasha? She seemed naïve in many ways, but when she dropped the tidbit about Malinovsky visiting her apartment and the fact that her mother worked at the General Staff, she got my attention. She offered that information knowing I was an American diplomat, but before I told her I worked in the military attaché office.

It was a general rule that we report our contacts with Soviet nationals. Of course, living in the middle of Moscow, it would have been ridiculous to report all contacts. “I had a long discussion about the weather with a man at the bus stop?”  “I met an outstanding soprano saxophone player last night?” On-going contacts, like the one I with Georgii and his family, were another thing. But even with him I didn’t account for every contact. Instead, I reported that I had a Soviet acquaintance with whom I shared an interest in jazz and often went with him to jazz concerts.

The encounter with Natasha was different. I believed and hoped she had the potential to lead to some meetings with people who might be of intelligence value. If I intended to pursue this, however, I needed approval from someone higher up in the embassy. I needed an official green light. In this case, it was the CIA Station Chief.

I recalled my orientation at Camp Peary (the “Farm,” as it was known to CIA officers), the CIA training center in the Virginia Tidewater area. Its location and very existence used to be a secret, but in my research for this book I found at least ten open sources that referred to it. David Baldacci, in his novel Simple Genius, even provides an addendum in his book with a historical overview of Camp Peary. Soviet KGB General Krasilnikov refers to it several times in his Prizraki s ulitsy Chajkovskogo (Ghosts from Tchaikovsky Street).

Tom Spencer and I, together with some attachés going to other countries, spent three weeks at Camp Peary where we learned some tradecraft and went on counter-surveillance exercises. The primary purpose of our orientation, however, was to gain a better understanding of how things worked and to impress upon us the importance of reporting to the CIA any potential recruitment targets. We needed to know how to handle special circumstances that might lead to CIA clandestine operations. I didn’t see Natasha herself as a potential recruitment, but contact with her might lead to some productive opportunities.

It’s important to point out that military attachés were not to be involved in agent operations in Moscow; that was solely a CIA bailiwick. Even though in the distant past some military attachés were involved in clandestine activity, in 1979 that was no longer the case.

The CIA Station Chief usually had breakfast in the embassy snack bar. I thought that would be a good place to get in touch with him. The next morning I went to the snack bar, but he wasn’t around. So I went to the CIA spaces in the embassy and told the receptionist I needed to talk to the Chief.

“He’s out of town, but I can call the Deputy.”

The Deputy came out and met me. “Let’s go into the Bubble,” he said.

The “Bubble” was a room in the embassy specially designed to thwart any Soviet listening devices, including the microwaves the KGB had been beaming at us from across the street for several years now.

I explained to him the encounter the night before.

“So? What made her so interesting?”

“First of all, she started out very talkative. I’ve never seen that in a Soviet stranger before. And then she quickly made the point that she was really a big American music fan.”

“In what way?”

“She said she likes rhythm and blues… and jazz. She claimed she even named her daughter after Aretha Franklin.”

“Hmm. And she wants to get in the car with the embassy’s biggest jazz nut. A little obvious, don’t you think? Sounds like a provokatsiya, a set-up, to me.”

“Yeah, of course. That’s what I thought too. It’s just that I remember from your agency’s instructions at the Farm that we were to be alert to possible Humint inroads and to let you folks know about them immediately. Besides, a chance to meet some people in the Ministry of Defense is worth a risk.”

“You’re right. And I appreciate your coming to us on this. There could be a situation where we might want you to help us out from time to time. But before we could do anything like that, we’d have to coordinate with certain people back in DC.”

“Well, I’m certainly not anxious to get involved,” I said. “What do you think? You think I should make contact with this Natasha?”

“Did she ask for anything? Western goods? Help getting a visa?”

“No. Not yet.”

I realized I didn’t want to let Natasha get away. I was wrestling with feelings about whether I was attracted to her because of the way she looked. And smelled. Or did I really think she might turn out to be a conduit into a lucrative intelligence collection situation?

“But the KGB sometimes outsmarts itself,” I said. “If we go into this with our eyes open, we might be able to get something of value before they try anything. If it is a set-up, how far will they let me go? Or let one of your people go. I’d prefer to introduce one of your officers to Natasha down the road.”

“No, I don’t think that would work. If it’s a set-up, it looks like you’re the target.”

The Deputy paused, as if he were trying to decide what to say.

“I’m tempted to tell you to go ahead and make contact with her again. It could be useful to see where this might lead. What would your wife think about your meeting a Russian woman?”

“I never tell my wife what I do here in Moscow. Oh, yeah, she travels with me sometimes when we go to other cities, but that’s about it. No, she wouldn’t know anything about this. How about my boss? Should I say anything to him?” My boss was one of those officers who try to stay out of trouble and count the days until retirement. I believed the colonel was a nervous Nellie about being on the front line of the Cold War.

“Absolutely not. Especially him. He would get all flustered. I’ll take responsibility for this. So go ahead and give her a call. If it turns into something, the fewer people in the net, the better.

“And Major…”

“Yes?”

“Be careful.”

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Niecie Was Boy Crazy

By Elaine Ramseyer

Niecie was sexually abused as a child, so of course she was boy crazy. Men had made her crazy. It started with Uncle Walter who played rough and held her down and tickled her until she cried. Once conquered, he could do what he wanted, surreptitiously, evilly. Fat greasy fingers poking into places they had no business. Rat bastard. Then came Joe Clanahan, Momma’s fourth husband, with an ex-con’s vibe, missing the last knuckle of his trigger finger. He shot it off himself to stay out of the Second World War. He tortured Niecie with the nickname “Minky.” Lord knows what that was referring to. Momma would send Niecie to the store to get milk with him. She didn’t want to get in the car.

By the time she was thirteen Niecie had breasts and a beehive hairdo with turd rolls on top. She was riding around in ’57 Chevys with boys with names like Tommy Brown and Tommy Wallace. Kids with rotten front teeth in souped up cars with souped up hormones. Reminds me of the Phyllis Diller joke. “I’m not saying my sister’s a slut. But it took the Driver’s Ed teacher two weeks to teach her to sit up in the front seat.”

Feeling like shit about herself was covered up with a tough thin veneer of acting like hot shit. Her shit didn’t stink. But it was still shit. The bad touches internalized, taken inside her body, held inside her mind, blackened inside her heart, were forced to come out in puberty’s inescapable growth spurt:  shot forward, outward, upward, uncontrolled, uncontained, uncensored.

Momma could say Niecie was boy crazy all she wanted. She’s the one who put her around the men who made her that way.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Spare Change

By Dylan Robinson

Histrionic tantrums with Borderline tendencies rippled through Loaf n’ Jug alongside an unearned sense of entitlement. She tosses malice casually across a warm December morning, echoed by scoffs tainted with store bought grape gum. It stains scorn such a brilliant purple. Snake skin boots barred only by a rubber sole find their rude metronome; one that bounces with rancor and delight. Its tempo is lovely, gorgeous even. It brings back memories of school-yard bullies, the ones whose kicks found exposed ribs.

“$3.15 please,” spawns a smirk and a shotgun blast of loose change, bouncing off a name tag that reads Bruce. Now here’s a personality disorder that really knows how to treat the service industry like the shit it is. The fall of nickel-plated rain ricochets a beautiful carom, interrupted only by the “bing-bong” of someone who must’ve remembered how passive they are.

The breeze holds the door open, and stirs this sociopath’s hair just like Reality TV. It’s only so often you get to smell real narcissism and I breathe it deep. Strawberry Suave and Coca Butter, cascade over her pleather jacket, past her faux fur hood.

“OK, you’re all set,” mutters Bruce, rising up through chain-store purgatory with a grunt that attests to both his grey handlebar mustache and the knowledge that this won’t be the only dirt dyed blonde he sees today.

“I want my change,” she smiles, barring her venom stained violet teeth, popping her hip so hard it approaches the threshold of dislocation.

After a suspenseful thirty seconds of counting, Bruce bequeaths $1.45 into a palm flanked on all sides by fake nails.

It’s too bad you can’t spit in someone’s cigars.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

First Born

By Ardy Sixkiller Clarke

The willows cried that day.

It was a cold, windless day.  No one heard the willows’ sigh.  No one that is, except me, and maybe Hank Hollowhorn.  But he would never tell.  They cried for him as I shoveled the frozen clumps of earth onto the crude homemade pine box which cradled his body in the red clay dirt.  They cried for me as I filled the gaping hole and patted the newborn mound with the back of my shovel.  They knew I was alone again.  Alone for the first time since Hank Hollowhorn entered my life twenty years ago.  I was somewhere around two at the time; Hank had just turned seventy-five.

The old-timers on the reservation referred to that year as the worst winter in memory.  Storm after storm sentenced the prairie to record temperatures falling way below zero.  It was on such a night that Hank Hollowhorn discovered a baby wrapped snugly in a worn star quilt on the backseat of an abandoned ’64 Pontiac on a two-lane reservation highway.   The car sat motionless, a mechanical victim of the cruel sub-zero night.  Hank carefully followed two sets of tracks which led across the road toward the light of a farmhouse barely visible in the distance.  The footsteps meandered aimlessly through drifting snow.  A few hundred yards from the Pontiac he discovered the frozen bodies of a young couple in their early twenties.

An investigation by the Cherry Creek tribal police turned up little information.  The car had no registration papers and sported a stolen South Dakota license plate.  Eventually, the license plate was traced to a junkyard in Belle Fourche, a small South Dakota town, near the Wyoming state line.  The owner convincingly denied any knowledge of the car or its inhabitants.  Fingerprints of the couple added no facts to the case.  Several missing persons’ reports provided only false leads for the authorities.   The personal effects found in the car rendered even less information.  Aside from a few dollars  and a black and white photograph of the trio in happier times; there was nothing to assist in determining the identity of the unfortunate pair or the baby.

 

A description of the car and the threesome was distributed to tribal police offices throughout Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota.   A reporter from the Rapid City Journal wrote a feature story on the couple and the baby, which was  picked up on the AP wire service and circulated in newspapers throughout the country; yet no one came forth and spoke for me.  No one, that is, except Hank Hollowhorn.

I lived with Hank Hollowhorn after that ill-fated night.  His right to me was questioned only by some ladies from the Southern Baptist Church in Hope, a small dusty farm town near the reservation border.  They showed up one day at Hank’s ranch, headed by Henrietta Henderson, the wife of a displaced Georgia preacher, intent on saving the souls of his red Lakota Sioux brothers.   Henrietta demanded that she and her friends be allowed to take me to a Baptist home for orphaned Indian children somewhere in Oklahoma.  When Hank refused, several non-pious words were exchanged with threats of returning with their husbands and the police.  Hank calmly picked up an old pump action 12 gauge shotgun and began cleaning it.  They apparently got his message.  They never returned.

When I grew older I learned of Hank’s distrust for  preachers in general.  “Always beware of a man who promises to save your soul, my boy.  Only you can save your soul.  A man, who speaks with such authority about hell, needs to be looking after himself and not you.”  It was later that I discovered that as a boy, Hank regularly attended the local Catholic Church.  He even served as an altar boy at the urging of his mother.  At the age of fifteen he joined his elders in the sacred Sun Dance ceremony of the Lakota, much to the chagrin of the local priest.  Afterward, he was ordered to confession to atone for his participation in what the priest called a “paganistic tribal ritual.”  Hank never set foot in a church again, except for funerals, and yet he was the most godly man I ever knew.

Hank called me Chaske meaning “first born” in the Lakota language.  “Seems right calling you Chaske.  You are my first born, so Chaske it is, until your Indian name comes to me.  An Indian name must not be chosen too hastily, my boy.”  He further explained, “A name can be both a gift and a burden.  When the time comes, I will know.”   I never questioned Hank’s wisdom.  Chaske was as good as any other name.

Under Hank’s guidance, growing up was both an adventure and a responsibility.  He taught me to respect the wild creatures, to survive on the plains as his father taught him, and to use medicine plants to heal both the body and spirit.  I learned to communicate with the spirit world and to follow the messages of the heart.  He taught me the virtue of both hard work and play.  He thoroughly schooled me in the language and traditions of the Lakota, yet, he insisted I get a good education in the white man’s school.  When I resisted he countered by asking me, “If you don’t learn to read in that school, who is going to teach me?  I don’t want to die not knowing how to read.”

And so, I became his teacher too.  Each evening after the supper dishes were sparkling in the blue plastic drainer, Hank and I practiced reading.  I will always credit Hank and Miss Jane Hopkins, my fourth grade teacher, for my love of books.  Hank, because he made me practice reading by teaching him, and Miss Hopkins, who shared her personal library of several hundred books with me.

“It is good that you have learned the white man’s way and the red man’s way,” Hank said to me one hot July evening.  We sat on the porch enjoying the magnificent colors of the closing day. “You will be called, Itazipco Hokshila.  It is the right name for you, ‘Boy Without Bow’.  You will grow to be a man, who will never need a bow…a weapon…to survive in the world.  You will live both in the white man’s world and the red man’s world with equal ease.  You will walk among people of all cultures and feel at home.  You will call many places home and many people your people.  It is a rare individual who is chosen for this path.  It is not an easy one.  It is much easier to be an angry man and to blame others for your misfortunes.”

Hank paused.  The dying sun streaked a glittering path across the western sky.  “It is easy to hate and accuse others for the conditions of our people.  The Lakota were a great people…are a great people.  We must never forget that.  In your small way you will help.  You will be a man who will demonstrate the greatness of our people through his work and his actions.”  I listened quietly as Hank explained the significance of my name.  I was in my twelfth year at the time.

Afterwards, Hank treated me as a man.  I was no longer a child to him, although he continued to be my teacher for the rest of his life.  Two years later, Hank guided me through my first hanblecha.  As we climbed the sacred Bear Butte he reverently spoke of the importance of my vision quest.  “The hanblecha has been used throughout time by our people for guidance.  It is a personal experience of great meaning to the future.  Open your heart, your spirit and your soul, my son.  You will see, as other Lakota who have gone before you, the path you must follow.”

For three days and nights, my body exposed to the cold of the night and the heat of the day, I fasted and prayed on Bear Butte.  On the third night, two gigantic eagles swooped down and perched in a lifeless tree nearby.  One was as black as the ebony night.  The other as white as virgin snow.  I saw the end of Hank Hollowhorn’s life and the beginning of mine.  I understood the significance of my name and the path I must follow.

Hank and I spoke for many hours about my vision.  “It is a powerful dream, my son,” he began, “and one that cannot be accomplished without hard work and sacrifice.  You must prepare yourself for many successes and failures along the way.  It is a good dream.  You will have many teachers who will guide you toward your destiny.  Take heed and make your choices with care and wisdom.”

A year later, Hank camped near the powwow grounds at Red Buttes as I sun danced.  He vicariously suffered with me as the eagle claws pierced my flesh, leaving trails of dark red blood upon my skin.  He nodded knowingly as I suffered the pain in silence.   I was fifteen, just as Hank had been fifteen, when he danced in sacrifice for his people.  I prayed for my people as the scorching sun baked my bare skin and the claws tortured my chest.  I prayed for guidance in a world without Hank Hollowhorn.

I patted the ground firmly on the mound just as a slight rain moved in from the north.  I drove the crude cross into the lifeless frozen ground.  I firmly tied the colors of the four directions onto the stakes marking the grave at each corner.  The red, black, yellow and white cloth hung silently in place.  I quietly reflected on the precious possessions Hank had instructed me to place with him.   Beside him I laid the pair of beaded moccasins I was wearing the night he found me, his sacred pipe, a braid of sweetgrass, a medicine bag, a faded, wrinkled photograph of a young woman who met an untimely death before she and Hank could marry and a lock of my hair.  To those special treasures, I added a number of school photographs depicting the face of a curious boy, his self-assured image in a high school graduation picture, my university degrees, and a crucifix tucked between the yellowed pages of a worn Bible.

As I stood lost in thoughts of the finality of my day’s effort, Hank’s horse, Red Willow, whinnied a low soulful moan, adding to the solemnity of the cold, misty afternoon.  I picked up the old pump action12 gauge and slowly walked toward him.  I carefully released his tether from among the willows and silently guided him to Hank’s grave.  My arms embraced his head gently as I smothered my face into his long, auburn mane.  Hot tears ran unyieldingly down my cheeks.  Red Willow nudged me approvingly.  There in the stillness of the cold day, I pulled the trigger and completed my mission.  Hank Hollowhorn now had Red Willow to ride in his next life.

As my final task, I dug a long narrow trench.  Into it I placed the 22 rifle.  I took great care to conceal its resting place.  As Hank had counseled, I had no need for a weapon.

After I said my prayers, I gathered my meager belongings, packed in a tattered, olive green duffel bag labeled, Property of Pfc. H. Hollowhorn.  Thus, began my journey from the reservation.  In some ways my life was almost as uncertain now as it had been twenty years ago when Hank Hollowhorn opened his heart to a homeless baby boy.  But this time I was not alone.

I would walk the red man’s path in the white man’s world and Hank Hollowhorn would walk it with me.

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

Tissue

By Angel Phillips

Elisabeth approached the second story bathroom with disdain. Using her hip to push the door open, she knew immediately that she was not alone. She could see two sets of feet in the handicapped stall- the one Elisabeth would have chosen for herself. Giggles and whispers emerged from the last stall, along with a distinct, smoky, skunky odor that Elisabeth remembered from her collage years. “Just great,” she grumbled to herself, “I will be complaining to security about this, again. I should have my own bathroom by now.” She debated for a moment and then chose the stall farthest from the one that was occupied.  Elisabeth reached into her pocket, pulled out a tissue, and used it to protect her hand as she pushed the stall door open.

She eked her way in, not allowing any part of her to touch the walls. Using the same tissue, she closed and locked the stall. Elisabeth threw the contaminated tissue into the toilet. Unzipping her bag, she quickly found the resealable package of antibacterial wipes.  Then she turned and cleaned the area on the stall door around the hook. Along with the scum a portion of the graffiti came away, leaving the words:

If you sp              n you tinkle

be                  tie

wi               eatie

Elisabeth rolled her eyes at the phrase, thinking how oddly appropriate it was, and disposed of the wipe. She carefully hung her bag, and turned toward the toilet. She pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves and,  armed with a new wipe, cleaned the toilet from top to bottom, reloading every few swipes and dropping the used wipes into the bowl. By now, the water was almost filled with paper products and was in dire need of being emptied. As in most public restrooms this seat did not have a lid. Elisabeth hated this type, knowing how every particle would be spewed into the air as soon as she flushed. She again reached into her purse and pulled out a zippered plastic bag of toilet paper. She began the tedious task of covering the seat, starting horizontally, and then crisscrossing both vertically and diagonally, ensuring that not one droplet of sewage would escape. Then, using a fresh wipe, she pushed down on the handle.

“Fuck! My lighter isn’t working!” the voice thundered through the restroom, shocking Elisabeth almost to the point of a scream.

The loud voice continued “Seriously, though! I mean, like, what a dick! He thinks he runs this place! Look at these texts! What the fuck? One minute he’s all, ‘oh you’re so young and sexy,’ then bam! ‘You still have to turn in your assignments.’ Then he fucking fails me! ”

“Wow, girl,” the voice’s quieter companion replied. “You should totally key his car!”

Elisabeth glared through the walls, as though she could silence the offenders with her eyes. Unfortunately this did not work, so Elisabeth did her best to ignore the toxic speech. She used a fresh wipe to push the tissue into the bowl and began adding a new layer to act as a fortification for her behind. She lowered herself carefully, so as not to disturb the shield, scrunching the legs of her pants upward as she pulled the top down. She didn’t want the hem of her pants to touch the soiled ground. When she came to a rest she took a deep breath in and out. She released a controlled stream, only allowing the slightest amount out so as to avoid any splash-back.

“Well I’m not gonna fuck him again, that’s for sure!” the interruption caused Elisabeth to clench up stopping her relief.

She grasped her pants and underwear as though this would protect her from the voice. As she adjusted to the voices, Elisabeth began to release again, this time so slowly that no sound came from fluid hitting water. “I shouldn’t have had that second extra-large latte,” she thought, as the slight odor of coffee reached her.

Elisabeth finally finished and dried herself. She again pushed tissue into the bowl. She stood back and looked at the toilet so filled with paper that it nearly spilled over. She abhorred people that left facilities unflushed, but knew that if she attempted it the plumbing might overflow, and that was something she absolutely couldn’t deal with. So, she pulled off her gloves tossed them in with everything else, grabbed her bag and yet another tissue, and let herself out.

As she walked to the sink she heard the lock from the handicapped stall turn. She quickened her pace to the sink and shoved her hands under the faucet.  Elisabeth tried to ignore the voices behind her as she pulled out a travel bottle of hand sanitizer and began scrubbing her hands.

“What professor was it again?” the voice approached. “I don’t wanna end up in his class.”

“Fucking Bill Whitely,” the other voice responded. “Computer Science, but you can’t avoid him.”

The two young women approached the sink, one an attractive blonde, the other a plain, mousy looking brunette.

The blonde peered into the mirror, and began to touch up her hair. Her eyes caught Elisabeth’s reflection.

“Hey, aren’t you one of…” the blonde began to ask when she was interrupted by an elbow from her friend.

“Shut up! That’s…” hissed the brunette and motioned with her eyes.

Elisabeth looked up and made eye contact via the mirror.

“Uh, so why are you in this bathroom?” the brunette asked while her friend stood with her mouth gaping.

“Our restroom is under construction,” Elisabeth replied curtly.

Elisabeth pulled her hands out of the water and turned toward the obtrusive women, who stood between her and the hand drier. “I need to get going; sorry, can I get past you, please?” Elisabeth squeaked out.

The girls, in unison, took a small step to the side. Elisabeth dried her hands quickly, while the two girls stood staring at her.

Elisabeth escaped from the bathroom, leaving the two young women gawking stupidly after her.  She rushed down the hall and to the elevator. She used a fresh tissue for the button indicating down. Elisabeth waited impatiently, tapping her feet, until the doors opened; she entered and pressed the light for the main floor. As Elisabeth stood in the elevator, the conversation she had tried to ignore in the bathroom, came bubbling up inside her. She swallowed, took a deep breath, and applied a layer of hand sanitizer.  When the elevator opened, she hurried to the open double doors of the large auditorium. She turned to kick the doorstop allowing the doors to close behind her. She rigidly walked out in front of the inattentive audience. Her eyes traveled over the group, identifying a few of the more obvious cases. A young man, glaring hungrily at another, more fashionably dressed man- a Latent Homosexual. A girl with a downward gaze, and weather inappropriate long sleeves- a Self Mutilator. Two young women, who snuck in late- Elisabeth could practically hear the STD’s crawling on them.

Elisabeth cleared her throat. “I apologize for my lateness,” she said loudly “Welcome to Abnormal Psychology. I am Dr. Elisabeth Whitely, and I will be your instructor.”

Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

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