Fire scars from mucus haze and dusk is a near blur that seeps in windows. I hold hands with her fire skin and fire face amidst elevator smells of melted neon mush; our mucus flesh entwines in these our final hours. A charred letter in tatters, the phlegm congealing in waves of dry skin: lit on fire from these melting hands. She fingers the sink while I rub cold gel, inhale fumes within this crackling city of burnt trees and smoldering highways. Your fire scars glow, too, she says. We swerve back into the city at night aflame with streaks that smear and strip our skin to bone, beyond the mucus and following our fire hole promise until decay or transcendence, scarred in fire, scars reborn.
Jamie Grefe lives and works in Beijing, China. His work appears most recently in Mud Luscious, Hogglepot, and Pure Francis with works forthcoming in A Twist of Noir and Short, Fast, and Deadly.
When she woke, most of her family was still dead.
When she woke a second time, sleep itself was exhausted, unsustainable, and nothing she remembered was a dream.
She woke hard, jolted into awareness of the endless and arcing blue sky overhead and the rock and sway of the ship. Her stomach rebelled. Her mouth filled with the taste of brine and she made it to the edge of the ship by simple will.
Luck certainly wasn’t in the picture for her lately.
Mae wiped the back of her hand over her mouth and turned back to the ship. A handful of girls crouched on the wet wood plants, their faces thick with the expression of idiocy terror produced.
“Where are we?” Mae asked.
That was a stupid question. They were all at sea. With no landmarks in sight, there was no specific where to be had. But she needed to beat back the terror. She wanted facts. She needed to know if they could understand each other or if they all spoke different dialects.
No one answered at first. Seven girls simply crouched, eyes wide, and stared at Mae as if she were the dangerous one.
Mae looked around. Ship. Decks. Overhead, sails stabbed into the deep blue. A seabird spread enormous wings and hovered above them, decided they weren’t a fishing ship and called down in disgust as it winged away across the sun.
The sun which was so directly overhead there was no direction to be determined. North, south, east, west – they could be heading in any direction. The sails against the sky were a tattered crimson.
She looked back at the girls. A small, fairy-like girl stopped shaking and met Mae’s eyes.
“Taken,” she whispered, and a hard flap of the sails drowned out anything else she might have said.
Another girl stirred, and stood. She had sallow skin and a slab-like face. “They’re waegu,” she said and glared down at the others. A knot of frightened fingers covered mouths. A couple of them shushed her. “What, you don’t think they know what they are? They are waegu. They are pirates. You can shout it, it doesn’t matter. They have taken us, and we are lost.”
“Oh, but – ” Mae began. She stopped when the thick-faced girl turned away. The others stared at her with a mixture of desperation and despair.
Mae turned away also. Back to the rails, fighting the memories that crowded her. Images of her mother and father, twin brothers, her sisters. Her hands tightened to claws on the ship’s wood. Tendons on her neck stood out. She stared at the waves and the waves became flames, lashing up, the way they climbed the walls of her family home.
She saw again her mother’s face, heard her screaming in mingled rage and shame. Her father’s head, a bright spray of crimson. She remembered his shocked gaze and open mouth. The twins fell before they even woke – the raiders had come at dawn, screaming like the cheo-nyeo gui-shin, wailing ghosts, into the stillness of her home in Namp’o. Her sisters. She hadn’t seen what had happened to her sisters.
They could be alive.
She moved for a better view because there was land on the other side of the ship. A glimmer of blue and white mountains, rocky hillsides, the green of agriculture toward the coast. Her sisters weren’t here, trapped with her, so Mae traveled with the tiny fey girl, the slab-faced girl and the other five. Her sisters could still be alive. Mae’s arms tightened, muscles standing out the way her father always warned her would make her unattractive to any man. And then he’d laugh and call her beautiful.
Just for an instant Mae’s throat tightened too much to speak or swallow.
Up and over, into the water. She could swim. She could get away. There was a collective gasp from behind her and then a shout, a curse, rough hands that caught her hair, her arm. More hands on her clothing and curses, rough Korean, bastardized: If you want to do it, wait until we get our price.
Dead girls are useless.
Mae was thrown back to the planks of the ship and lay, dazed. Above her another seabird broke off and spun away from them.
Five long, silent days and nights came and went. Guards came and went, demanding the girls be silent or ignoring them utterly. The girls themselves alternately huddled for comfort and spat at each other. And on the second day, left alone, one of the girls stiffened and raised her head and into the silence between them, said, “Listen.”
There was only the sound of the ship hitting the water, the far off cry of a seagull, the rasping snores of one pirate and the shouts and complaints of others. Two of the girls shook their heads – I don’t hear anything – when the sound came again, low but unmistakable, the rumble of their own language from below decks.
Mae, Soon and Ha-Neul ran to the cabin, pressed their ears against the wood, but there was no sound now, no rumble of male voices, only the harsh speech of the raiders. Their eyes met, startled, disappointed, and then Soon pointed down, dropped to lay flat against the deck.
“They’re in the hold,” a voice said from above them, and Mae turned to see the sullen Jin staring down at them, unmoved. “They’ve been there. Did you think the waegu took only women?”
Mae’s breathing came faster. “Where’s the door?” If there were Chosun men onboard, from their land, even their villages, if they could band together –
She was caught unaware by the blow. The angry lash of the guard drove her back. He didn’t dare get caught neglecting the women. Even if all the guards left them alone sometimes, the women were profit and profit was not left unprotected.
None of the girls understood Japanese. None of them doubted what they were told as the guard drove them back against the rails.
They shared their lives at night, freezing under the stars. They talked about the raiders coming. The men in the villages were merchants, farmers, brewers and councilmen. They were not soldiers. Soldiers guarded the capital or fought in Japan; there were no soldiers left to defend the villages along the Taedong River. There had been peace for so many years since the waegu were beaten back. No one expected them to come again, pillaging, foraging, stealing and killing.
That night they talked about shattered lives. Mae told them about her family, her flute, her schooling. She talked about working in the forge beside her father, a forbidden woman in the foundry and no one could keep her away.
She did not tell them she had fought with Li and he had left her father’s house and returned to his village in the hills. How could he ask her to marry a poor farmer? Daughter of a renowned sword smith, she wanted to live in P’yŏngyang or Namp’o. She wanted a graceful life. She had seen Li’s mother, worn out and brittle, bent as the cherry trees. It was not the life she wanted. She wanted to be strong as the tide, subtle as the willow.
Now she was stone, no more giving than rock. Her father would laugh and tell her –
Nothing. Ever again.
When the land grew near, they came together to pray. Chants rocked skyward on the ocean wind, headed for the ears of the god of the sky. They asked to be kept from harm, to be given gentle masters. They asked for freedom, or to be sent to work as servants and not as whores.
Mae asked for Li.
As the sails dropped and the ship slowed, she heard the men, prisoners below decks. One voice stood alone, a screechy, confusing voice set to annoy the gods. Her heart leapt. There could not be two men of Chosun who sang so poorly.
Fear and sorrow fought with another emotion: Hope. Maybe there was still something to live for. She’d find out when they got where they were going. When she could see the men from below decks.
The words dragged Mae from her thoughts. Dawn smeared ash across the sky. The headland stood stark and dismal in the smudged orange sunrise that did nothing but remind her of what she’d lost.
The land the ship approached – the blues of mountains, the green of forests, the rocky land that lead to the villages – was familiar. They’d sailed south, then east, most of the time with no land in sight. Now Mae thought maybe they’d followed the coast of home.
As the land grew nearer, she became convinced. She hadn’t seen her homeland from shipboard but this land of mountains and sea had to be Chosun. The waegu had sailed first from Sunch’ŏn and then village by village to Namp’o. Messengers ran from village to village, but always the warnings came too late, arriving even as the pirates raided the villages.
“Does anyone know –”
“It is Chosun – isn’t it?”
Their excited voices hurt Mae’s heart. She felt as old as any of their mothers, older, wiser. There was no cause for excitement. The pirates hadn’t taken them only to return them. The pirates simply hadn’t finished with Chosun yet.
But a small pulse began to beat harder in Mae’s chest. Her blood ran faster. The muscles her father teased her about tensed and flexed. If she could get hold of a sword, on home ground, where she could find help – if she could get to land, run, hide, and find help – there might be a chance. Small. Very small.
But Shin and Kum-ja might be alive. She hadn’t seen them during the attack. The silly ones, her father said, oldest and youngest. Her sisters loved to sneak out at night for no other reason than to do it. To watch the stars. To run their tongues, their mother said, weaving a tapestry of words so vast it would blot out those very stars.
And Mae will cut through it with her sword, her father would add, and Mae would ask at once: What sword? My sword? Are you making me a sword? Can I make my own? And her father would laugh.
She made herself stop thinking of home. Instead, she thought of escape. And revenge. She thought of finding anyone who might only be lost, and not dead.
She thought of the voice that had sung to the gods from below the decks. She had been too afraid to call his name, too filled with hope to let it slip away so soon. Now she’d wait for the chance to slip away herself.
The waegu crew was limited. They quarreled often, like as not to reduce their own numbers and best kept out of each other’s way. Each had his own job and as land grew closer there was no one to stand guard so the women were tied to the ship. They were nuisances but they were an investment.
“What are you doing?” Jin hadn’t spoken to Mae in days. She hadn’t spoken at all, hadn’t shared her sorrow.
“We’re close enough. Can you swim?” If anyone would go with her, it would be Jin.
“You’re crazy!” Soon hissed. “They’ll catch you.”
Maybe. Maybe not. She could swim and she doubted the Japanese could, or would. The price on two girls seemed too little to risk leaving the men in the hold and the other girls unattended just because one or two ran.
“Shut up,” Ha-Neul told them. “And help her get the ropes free.”
Raiders brushed by them, watching the land, calling to each other in harsh, sibilant voices, a fast, angry-sounding language full of orders and demands. They grumbled at the women for being in the way and pulled the sails down as the wind grew stronger closer to shore. Out of sight, something shattered on the deck. Several rough male voices shouted. Mae smelled smoke, unexpected and acrid, and it sped her determination.
The ropes fell away. Spray from the waves burned Mae’s wrists. She glanced at the trapdoor to the hold, wanting to try it more than to try for shore. Li had to be there. She had to be right. There’d been almost no sound from the men since the night they’d all prayed and she hadn’t dared to throw open the hold. She’d only have found unarmed men, probably bound, and she’d have lost any advantage of surprise.
She needed free men of Chosun. She needed a sword.
Jin took her hand, yanked her to the side of the ship as the pirates moved away from them and the remaining sails briefly blocked Mae and Jin from view.
She didn’t look back. Two steps to the side of the ship and she launched herself, plunged down into shocking cold, ice and salt and shouting as she broke the surface and swam for shore. Behind her there was a confusion of sound, a shot, but only one, and the sound of bodies hitting the water. Jin’s voice rose, a high thin cry, nothing Mae expected from her.
She didn’t look back. She swam, hard, and when the shore finally came closer, she swam until she could wade and waded until she could run and ran until she felt the trees around her.
The land smelled like home. Mae ran until she could no longer hear footfalls or curses behind her. Just touching her land sent strength and speed coursing through her. When she stopped running her heart hammered in her ears so loud she’d never have known if the entire crew was about to descend on her.
She stood with her hands on her knees and watched the tiny black flies jump in her vision until she could breathe again.
Now she was here she had no idea what had drawn her. The goal had been the village, not the woods. She wanted people, soldiers, noise. She wanted to kill the pirates, stop them at the village and go back to the ship for Li and the others before it burned, before it was – all of it, all of them – too late.
Instead she’d run into the woods. She bruised her arms on trees, cut her feet on stones, cursed and prayed equally and without pause.
As if there’d been a destination.
As if she’d been drawn here.
“I never played in the woods.” And this was clear across Chosun, far from her home. “But I’ve been here.” With Li? But she knew that wasn’t it. She’d been a child, the world towering over her, comprised of too big items that didn’t fit. She remembered clinging to her father’s hand, and almost lost herself to grief. He’d brought her on a special trip to Kosŏng to trade his swords and collect a price. He’d brought her because she loved the swords, and because he’d thought she’d want to see –
The shrine. Her head came up and she came out of her stance. Her breathing returned to normal. Headache pounded in her temples but she felt awake for the first time since the waegu came.
Sword. Shrine. How young had she been? A child. In the woods with her father. She had brought her own sword that day, the one her father teased her to make, a mangled mess of metal, still hammered into something that would never hold an edge or strike a blow. The way she’d felt then. Unformed. Untried. A molten mass cooled before it had ever been properly forged. Her mother had given birth to Mae in Mae’s father’s forge, and never forgave herself. It had to be why Mae sparred with her brothers and trained with their sword masters and worked alongside her father. Already her mother was after her, act like a girl, girls don’t run or scream or play with swords or forge metal. Being a girl sounded dreadful.
“Girls are protected and treasured,” Mae said aloud into the stillness of the woods. “Girls fill homes and keep them and have children and raise them and find men and love them and if they’re lucky – ” she said, her voice fast now, breathless, and she paced through the trees, memory coming sharper, a shrine of swords and metal and gleaming steel, a shrine of flowers and coins and – “If they’re lucky they don’t ever find out that girls are so much goods, just things people own. Girls are taken, kidnaped, sold. They bring a price and then they are whores and then there is no going beyond, not even if they were still alive, there is only going forward, and Li, and perhaps Shin and Kum-ja –”
Her mind filled with the terrifying images of the ship she’d left behind. The ship burned and the pirates would soon move on, whether or not one or two missing captives had escaped. She thought they’d caught Jin. But they’d missed her, a girl with ungainly muscles that girls weren’t supposed to have. A girl who had once slipped from her father’s grasp and run into the woods before he could guide her, to find the shrine and lay her sword on the resting place of General Yi Seong-gye, once emperor, once general. He had, in centuries past, driven the waegu from Chosun’s shores. General Yi, whose six-foot sword had cut a swath through the invading Japanese waegu.
The shrine lay flat against the hillside, tiny peaked roof falling to pieces under the years of weather. When she knelt and touched it gently it was nothing but old and weathered, wood and dust. Out here, on trails no one took anymore, it had been largely forgotten. The scroll celebrating the general had long since crumbled to ash and left tales of honor sunk into the rich earth. Stories of General Yi, once considered a hero, and since considered a traitor for overthrowing one rule and making his own. But Mae’s father had told her stories of gods and heroes. Her father had told her stories of General Yi, who killed sea serpents and giants, who was a giant himself and who used his own sword to hoe the earth around an entire village just in time to plant before a drought ended and rain came. His own sword, the one General Yi had crafted for himself when he was considered the finest sword smith in the land.
“You’re the finest sword smith in the land,” Mae would tell her father, looking up, and he would smile and ruffle her hair.
Her own injured sword-like attempt lay on the ground before the shrine. Still there, still hopeless and inept, now muddy and rusted and ancient as General Yi’s own sword would be.
Her father had told her stories of the general, stories of his supernatural abilities. Her father’s stories told her how much Yi Seong-gye, who was to become emperor, loved this land. “And when the land has need – ” her father had said.
– there is a need –
“General Yi will return,” her father would say, stroking her hair, telling her to go to sleep, sleep easy, the general would watch over her. When there is a need, he will return.
“Or even just his sword,” Mae whispered, and placed her ill-made weapon on the shrine.
Light flared. The world reeked of flame and scorch. Under her hands the steel of the sword – her sword, her first sword – flared, nearly white hot but she didn’t feel the heat in her hands. She felt it in her stomach, a thrill of fear, a heat that coiled and spread. Red hot metal twisted and turned, stretched out and folded, went flat like a forge, went hot like a flame.
She took a two-handed grip an instant before the sword shot out like fireworks in a black night sky. The world burst into starlight, sunlight, the blazing forge fires where she’d drawn her first breaths.
Molten sword. Six feet long, twelve pounds. There was a pale ashy pattern of leaves running across it as she had known there would be. A sword so huge it pulled her down with its weight. Mae planted her feet, strained and hefted the sword. The first smell of smoke reached her. Without thinking, she ran, the sword clutched in front of her. She was not off balance, not lost, and not confused. The sword was not awkward or heavy. It felt like an extension of her body. She ran, to the ships, to the village. To Li. And whatever future they might find in Chosun. She ran with the blade of the general held before her, until the docks swam into view and there was the ocean and the battle, the burning buildings, people running, the swords of the waegu flashing.
She was almost to the docks before anyone saw her. The waegu and their slave hands were distracted by the fires they’d set, the ships they’d burned, the fires raging on their own ships. The girls screamed from the decks. Merchants, bankers and council members kept throwing themselves at the marauders. Old women hurled stones at the pirates and dogs bit and tore at their legs.
The raiders loaded their ship with stolen wine and rice and men. Mae saw several harrying a group of sobbing girls, no older than she had been when first they forced her onto their ship.
She was ancient now. Each step measured, precise. She felt the whole of Chosun under her feet with every step, the warm, wet earth at this coastal village, the stones, the briars, it was all a part of this land. As she was. As the sword, forged here, had been, and was again.
She held it two-handed, in a wide grip. The blade gleamed molten as something freshly forged and not yet cooled. The tip glowed with white ash. The sword flared red hot. Her steps were deliberate and angry. She could see the men spilled from the hold of the ship, some alive, wounded, coughing the thick gray smoke. Others were dead, gone beyond where she could reach. She wanted to hear his voice again, to tell him she would live in his village but she wanted him in hers. She had not come to this place only to find him tied with coarse bonds to other men, buried beneath them and starved for air. She had not come to find him dead.
She waded into the thick of the pirates and someone shouted, an angry bearded foreign face, filthy with soot and other men’s blood. He shouted, brought up his sword and met hers in a harsh rend of steel. Mae’s resolve tightened, her muscles flexed, all her memories returned, and she fought.
The General rose within her. She could feel him, strange, ill-fitting inside her skin. As if he were a dream from which she couldn’t wake. Mae fought against him, and all the while the sword moved, bringing her to bear against the waegu, moving her into complex stances. Her feet tangled over themselves in a complicated dance and retreat.
A red slash, resistance and then nothing. The waegu fell away from her. She ran, and another of the raiders bore down on her. His face grinned with savage joy at the fight. His sword flashed in the sunlight. She backed down, raised the sword as if it were nothing more than a block for his weapon. Frantic, she glanced around for anywhere to run or hide and in that empty instant when only Mae inhabited her shell, she knew the general did not possess the sword and did not possess her.
The sword was of Chosun. The sword had claimed her. The sword needed her to move into the dance.
Mae breathed into her pain and fear. She lunged aside, allowed the waegu’s slashing blow to move past her, followed the sword up behind him and slit him shoulder to waist. She moved to the next before the last had fallen, following as the sword of Chosun led her.
Her vision turned the crimson of the waegu sails. She could not drive them back alone.
She didn’t have to. The villagers still raved. The old women threw stones. On the burning decks, the other six girls dropped the last of the ropes and ran to the edge of the ship. On the docks, the men lifted their heads, shook off the smoke and surged to their feet against the invaders.
The pirate in front of her demanded her attention. Mae swung almost wildly and separated his head from his body. She moved on without stopping to watch the body fall. On the deck, several of the men lunged toward the pirates. The shouts and screams and blows continued and Mae squinted, through the smoke, the sword ready but no one near her, and she sent up her prayers – to the gods of the sky, to the general of Chosun.
On the docks, she saw and knew a rigid set of shoulders, a familiar curve of neck. Her breath came ragged. The sword struggled to pull her in that direction anyway. Mae let the sword suggest their path and followed after it into the sudden promise of future.
Jennifer Rachel Baumer lives, writes, runs and procrastinates in Reno, NV, where she lives with a household full of felines and her husband and best friend, Rick. Her work has been published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and On Spec, among other ezines and anthologies.
Même si je t’ai perdue
De ces miroirs-là
C’est encore toi qui seras
Devant mes yeux…
Je ne pourrai peut-être pas
Tenir tes mains
Je ne pourrai peut-être pas
Couvrir ta nudité
Avec des tulles blancs…
Tu seras dénoncée par ces soirs-là
Là où tu verras
Un arrêt semblable à celui-là
S’en va du devant des vitrines
Lis mon nom dans les reflets de lumière
Tu seras dénoncée par ces soirs-là
Auch wenn ich dich verloren habe
bei diesen Spiegeln da
du wirst immer noch da sein
vor meinen Augen…
Ich werde vielleicht nicht
deine Hände halten können
ich werde vielleicht nicht
deine Nacktheit verhüllen können
mit weissem Tüll.
Du wirst verraten werden durch diese Spiegel da
Was du sehen wirst
gleicht einem Halt
der vor dem Fenster vorbei geht
lese meinen Namen im Widerschein des Lichts
Du wirst verraten werden durch diese Abende
Smudgy duds of thought,
Alternating with a trillion hits of
Little, fluttery, bitsy bits.
Recollection rattled, throttled, started from
A frothing styrofoam mug.
Thick, sheaf-doms encamped camel-up,
Deserts stars resuscitated to
Spill, trickle, and echo. echo.
Seams of sand collapsing, dug deep by
Broken wood and lead.
Paper armies stationary, artilleries reactivated,
Standards rectified with firework thunder.
Destination parapets fortified while
Long, linear, intellectual things refortify with
Gnawed pencils and dank coffee.
POISONING VIA TOOTHBRUSH
Across the plenty of Illinois, supernumerary measures safeguarded
My tank, my trunk, your overstuffed suitcase, my sort-of new laptop.
You named each crop, the parameters of their growth seasons, their pests.
Such credentialing in orchards, alongside this attention-starved mortal,
Necessarily pointed toward the fuzzy features we felled party night,
When I was shepherded athwart merry straits to your doyenne-like center.
Even now, I’m baffled that childish habits remain the basis of young bonding
Whether one’s got sufficient resources to translate alphabets or simply vomits up
Precocious fantasies, recited slowly, verbatim, while cataloging toxins.
Since decreased cosmic energy reduces temperature, rainfall, nutrients,
Local avifauna and boys still find themselves driven to savagery;
Ordinary balustrades long ago yielded to our related, egregious posturing.
Recall, after one crooked baseball cap, approximately at sunrise, your beauty,
Bought for hoonage, also happy ego, plus another queen bee’s mean rictus,
Strobed my mental alluvium long enough for you to hitch a ride.
Thus, some professor’s only child, your basset, and your bass music,
Accompanied me toward bungalows mooring parking lots, lifted away
My flehmen response, caring neither that it was cued or hidden.
Surely amusement parks offer no comparatives to the sepulchral site I visited.
As always, my ordinary obeisance necessarily bent toward shiny things
When my talus stuck out far enough to kick at emotional schist, rococo talk.
Your tanzanite-colored sheath roofed no ablutions, offered little shelter
For eyes wide, hands splayed ‘til rigid. Ohio’s littoral on one side,
Walled in elsewise; no daddy-wrought capex could have hoped to cover you.
In sum, amontillado’s great, but on the interstate, academic heiresses
Can’t demand more than footnotes. You became wearing.
So, I chose the salivating hound even as I applied borax to your toothbrush.
GRAPHIC, ANIMATED FEATURES
He made no mention,
Intending, not at all,
To sell such singular
Yet, in movie houses’ back rows,
He’d sworn more furry fiends
Than were displayed by the celluloid’s
Graphic, animated features.
Apartment building basements, too,
Amiable to focused professing of
Assorted stray hairs and lipstick stains.
Those sorry choices,
Among piles of whites, cottons, delicates
Scooped, rose, flailed against
Her common sensibilities.
Such troubling mundanities,
When practiced in parked cars,
By him with others,
Resulted in births of absentee lovers.
DM Stalwart KJ Hannah Greenberg and her hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs fly the galaxy in search of gelatinous monsters and assistant bank managers. Sometimes they even catch a few.
Buy her newest collection, A BANK ROBBER’S BAD LUCK WITH HIS EX-GIRLFRIEND
J. C. Frampton
An ominous leaden sky was rolling in from the ocean and Immaculata Cemetery had few visitors. With its required ground-flush stones it seemed more like a vast serene lawn, its flat acres broken only by an occasional tree, flower displays, or a religious statue. Several women could be seen tending private graveside plantings and two caretakers were filling in a grave in the wake of a mid-day service, the masses of floral tributes banked behind the still open excavation. Nearby in a recently inaugurated burial area an impressively gray-haired man in a business suit and tie stood alone at the foot of a grave, marked only by its sunken stone. He stood erectly, his hands clasped below his waist, his longish hair loose in the damp marine breeze. While he appeared to be maintaining an air of formal mourning, without overly emotional display, his lips fluttered in inward speech or prayer and he was weeping silently.
The man was of medium height and solidly built. He was deeply suntanned, to a degree that takes considerable effort, even in a southern California beach town – the color of lightly brewed orange pekoe. His most prominent feature was a broad, Indian-nickel nose, large-pored and bulbous at its tip, thrust dauntingly under heavy-lidded, deep-set eyes and a high, corrugated brow. He wore a thick, almost-white regimental mustache, meticulously trimmed, and his coarse cheeks bore the scars of a long-gone but severe acne.
The wind was picking up, bearing salt-tinged moisture and the sour aroma of recently cut grass. The man’s eyes were fixed on the polished gray stone and the six feet of earth between it and his feet.
The inscription said, “Agnes Clybourn, Beloved Wife and Mother, 1949-2011,” and displayed a simple Roman cross. The mourner was her widower, Bernard Clybourn, who had followed her remains three weeks ago to this site adjacent to a statue of the Virgin Mary and a small globe-shaped fig tree. It was either his eighth or ninth visit since then; he had lost track. Now he looked at the figure of Mary, her palms forward as if ready to accept a burden, a California mourning dove and two sparrows perched discordantly on either shoulder. The Blessed Mother, chief intercessor to the Lord, so beloved of Aggie. So useless in his plight.
“Aggie, you promised,” he said softly. “That you’d always be here. What am I to do, girl? I’m helpless as a goddam baby. I haven’t eaten anything but canned goods. You saw the mess I made when I tried to do laundry. My shirts look like hell. I couldn’t find the recipe for my favorite drink . . . put in too much Triple Sec and I got queasy. Last night I had palpitations, the bad ones where I have to sit still for an hour and not move. You knew what to do to make them go away.”
Suddenly conscious of his tears, he took out a large monogrammed handkerchief and wiped his eyes, glancing to see if anyone had observed his behavior. “And, oh, babe, I am so sorry. I was cleaning your dove’s cage and I left the door open – for only a second, God as my judge. It flew into the whatchamacallit tree out back. I kept talking to it real nice and getting closer and closer with the net but suddenly I tripped on the hose and it flew away, over the wall. I looked and looked in all the yards around. And oh Lord a hawk musta got it. They’re in the neighborhood again, the red-tailed ones. And I wanted to keep it so, cause you loved it. And now it’s gone . . . And I think I overwatered your gardenia bush and it’s dying, almost all the leaves brown and limp. Good Lord, I can’t even find things like the mineral oil or those heavy toenail clippers you used to use for me and after I went to Thrifty and bought another pair I had the goddamdest time trying to cut that heavy brown big-toenail of mine you used to work so hard on – I cut too deep and it bled and the sucker hurts like hell every step I take.
“Oh, Aggie, dammit to hell, what right had you to die at only 62 and leave me, older and sicker, here alone?” He gasped and rolled his eyes. “That’s awful to say – I’m sorry. But you go into the hospital with some little tumor they just discovered, you have this operation wasn’t supposed to amount to much, and then next minute I’m standing there with the boy and the girl and your feet and your hands are getting cold and all that horrible gurgling you were doing and the crazy muttering and looking straight at me with those eyes still so beautiful and blue and they seemed to be smiling ’cause you knew God was waiting for you and you had no trepidation about it even though you knew you were leaving ol’ Bern down here to shift for himself when you knew damn well he didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance of doing anything right, even cutting his goddam nails or fixing a busted toilet. And Aggie you’d promised from the time we got married all alone back in the Cathedral and I’d even gotten baptized myself to make you happy. Lord, Aggie, I need you so. How could you do such a thing to me?”
And his heavy chin wedged against his chest as a few drops of rain slanting eastward from the coast fell onto his bare head and his shaking shoulders. He sobbed and sneezed and and mopped his eyes and nose again. Tendrils of Bermuda grass were beginning to creep over the marker. He would come Saturday with Aggie’s trimming shears. And, God, he must cut the front lawn at home or hire one of those Vietnamese to do it. And the Lord knew how much they charged. He could handle his job at the office but there was so much more, millions of piddling things Aggie had handled, but mostly making sure his dinner was on the table the minute he got home from work. Was he expected to go to a restaurant? Always sat next to someone with a bad cough or one of those loudmouth yackers. And $16.95 for a goddam chicken entree! He’d eat Chef Boy-ar-dee spaghetti instead.
Driving home to Playa Del Mar he realized he needed a new wife. No question. The boy, his 40-year-old son, divorced and adrift, had offered to share his Escondido condo with Bernie. The kid was sincere but Bernie knew Paul would have ideas on every aspect of his life, from his diet to his every-weekend trips to the beach, to little things like “unsuppressed flatulence,” as he prissily referred to one of Bernie’s little amusements, to his country-boy vulgarities, his flights of deep-felt romanticism, from relished four-letter words to “ethnic sobriquets.” No, Paul was too big a pain in the ass. His daughter Dodie was just as bad, and all them goddam kids! Grandpop this, Grandpop that. He needed another broad. But who the hell wants an old lady? First of all they smell bad. They cackle. Necks like turkeys. Aggie’d always gotten on his nerves with her religious enthusiasms, her motormouth. Menopause was bad enough but she really began bugging him after she hit fifty or so. It was arthritis, constipation, lethargy, constant silent longsuffering over his need to go the beach alone every weekend all day, and on vacation, too. He liked the sun, the sights, so what? Aggie always nagging him about too much sun but his burnt-sienna tan (over a natural light-olive complexion) was his pride and joy and, unlike others, he didn’t seem to suffer for it. He worked his ass off during the week . . . and the drive all the way to East L.A.! The beach, the crashing waves, the salt air, the chicky babes who visited his familiar blanket were really his sole source of recreation, outside of library books, borrowed by the grocery-bagful, almost indiscriminately, on every nonfiction subject under the sun. How can you expect an old broad who just hangs around the house reading detective novels to understand his need to get away?
Needed a young wife. Really, anything much over thirty wouldn’t interest him. He was a man of strong sentiment, a still erotic nature (with definitely a bit of Viagra enhancement). As a young man, love letters were a high and often winning suit. That book of nineteenth century English poetry Pop had given him on his seventeenth birthday that he’d read and read and read, back in the days in the cracker factory in Baltimore . . . Swinburne, Byron and the rest . . . it had sunk in, like brandy into one of his mom’s fruit cakes. He knew he was still capable of a new love, even a rapturous love, and youth and beauty were, of course, absolute essentials for that. He could tell by the way he reacted to the chicks who came by his blanket at the beach to talk and tell their problems. He’d just looked, never kicked over the traces . . . in forty years of marriage . . . but he knew he could still handle one of them. Not much practice for what, twenty years? But he’d been married, more or less happily, to an old gal. A chick, a real chick, that was a horse of a different color.
How was he going to get a chick? They’ll come by and cry their heart out over their boyfriend. But he’d need a million or more to nail one down. A million minimum in Orange County. He was tanned and all – brown as an old football, as he had once exulted to a sister still living in Maryland. One ankle bothered him a lot but he still cut a pretty good figure. And always been hung well, like a mountain man. Worth, what, seven, eight hundred grand including the house, not a bad little place even if it was southern California tract. But, no escaping, the flesh sagging a bit here and there. Maybe smoked too much and a bit on the eccentric side for a white chick, unless she was eccentric too and he didn’t want any dopers or punkers. With their dipshit tattoos. Druggies can always use money but he didn’t have enough for that crap. He wanted a chick’d love him, not bread for the next score.
The Asian dollies that came more and more to the beach at Playa Del Mar had always caught his eye. He liked gals dainty and small and they fit that bill, in many cases their complexions surprisingly pale, their eyes “blazing black coals” in Bernie’s lyric lexicon, their figures hard and lean, though “not much to write home about upstairs” unless it was an uptown type who’d latched onto silicone. Still.
On another cloudy day – a putrid day in Bernie’s book – when the surf was quiescent, he found a chance to talk to Playa’s taciturn lifeguard captain, who’d brought a Japanese bride back from a Navy tour on Okinawa.
Bernie deftly lit an English Oval with his Zippo and drew in deep. “This widowerhood is shit,” he said with his exhale.
“Specially for a helpless schmuck can’t do nothin’ but crunch numbers.”
“I practically need help wiping my you-know-what.”
“Don’t expect a woman to do that. At-home nursing, maybe.”
Curly, always image-conscious, gave a turn with his binoculars. “Goddam long-boarders muscling kids from Newport again. Screw ‘em. I ain’t no social worker. Here, gimme one drag. I quit; urge won’t.”
Bernie handed him the unfiltered cigarette.
“You and . . . er . . . Kazumi make a terrific pair, Curl.”
“Sure. Why not get yourself an Asian broad. They’re mostly all dying to come here – “
“And they can’t say no to the all-conquering Yanks, right?” Bernie winked.
“It ain’t Cupid . . . it’s the economy, stupid. But they know the meaning of arigato. Maybe even for guys who spend twenty minutes a day perfecting their mustache.” And he gave Bernie a hard elbow and hung onto the cigarette.
“But I’m an old man, Curl.” Intended as modesty, it was anxiety that spoke.
“They ain’t looking for no porn-film star, Bern.”
Bernie gave a look of mock affront. Seeing a faint shaft of sunlight break through the overcast, he pulled off his Gold’s Gym sweatshirt, a loaner from a blanket visitor. (Bernie thought body-building narcissistic but, hey, a sweatshirt’s a different matter.)
“You think I should start cruising Chinatown in L.A.?” Bernie asked, his spirits rising as the sun extended its beachhead.
“Get real. They’re Valley Girls already. You gotta get one don’t have a clue yet, ‘cept what she wants.”
“I’d only join the Navy if they gave me my own boat.” Bernie lit another Oval and took a long, contemplative inhale through mouth and nostrils. It was important to look cool with what he thought of as blue-collar types.
“Take a trip, man.”
“I’d get lost trying to find my way around China or Japan.”
“There’s these half-ass tour things. My brother took one, loved it. You know, seven marvelous cities in six days, follow the man with the flag. Couple weeks’ll set you back maybe seven-ten thou. Worth it if you can hit paydirt.”
“Paydirt . . . ‘sa thought.”
It was a thought that didn’t go away.
Bernie was a night-school-trained accountant nearing retirement from a large corporation he’d been with forever. He earned scads of vacation annually, generally more than he needed. It was now or never.
Bernie left three weeks later on the Jewels of the Orient airline tour: Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila. The whirlwind tour.
He started working right away. On the first leg of the Japan Air Lines flight out of San Francisco – of course he had reserved an aisle seat – he began making what would become
“The Pitch” to the Japanese flight attendant, preceded by ordering a drink and asking if she could change a hundred.
“My name’s Bernie; I see by your nametag you’re Yumiko.”
She smiled weakly as she struggled to assemble cash and asked what took him to Japan.
“Business – and fun, I suppose. Widower, recently retired. Keep my hand in a few deals. Heading again for the lands of the inscrutable East.” He tossed a wry smile. He had, naturally, never been west of the Golden Gate. “I try to keep myself occupied but you can imagine how lonely it is for a man who desperately needs a woman in his life. What an irony! You work all your life to amass a small fortune and then when you are just getting ready to enjoy it your lifemate takes ill and dies. And me alone in a big empty house beside the Pacific. Oh my,” – deep breath – “we just carry on.”
By now The Pitch would be starting to work at the most fundamental level, eliciting sympathy. He apologized but said he’d best take a little walk to regain his composure, breathing deeply and pushing past transPacific pros chatting in the aisles. He was hoping he’d get asked to sit in the rear with the stews where he could lay it on a little thicker, not figuring yet that stews get some of the best hustles in the world and very quickly earn their merit badge in Diplomatic Brush-Off.
Now he was sitting on a pull-down seat in the rear of the cabin. A word or two of small talk and then: “The minute I caught you out of the corner of my eye when I entered the cabin – well, I’ll be frank – my knees turned to Jell-o. And I’m a guy who plays a set of tennis almost every day. I’ll bet all the mysteries of the Orient are hidden behind those long black lashes. No, I mean it. For a man of position such as myself, a woman of your beauty and sensitivity would be a dream come true. I’ll be honest, Yumiko. I only have a few more years to live. Not one person close to me remaining.” Not counting his son and daughter and six grandchildren in San Diego. “For a person such as you to join me on the last leg of my journey of life, it would be – and I’ll be frank – enormously rewarding.” Here he put his hand on Yumiko’s wrist. “You would make this old man the happiest person on earth.”
Yumiko would stare at this deeply bronzed oldster, well-dressed in slacks and sportcoat. He had tender brown eyes under heavy, gray-matted eyebrows; a large and lugubrious nose; cheeks a moonscape from ancient eruptions, a feature strangely more touching than repellent; and wavy gray hair combed partly over his thick-lobed ears. Seemed like a nice guy. But legit?
“You must be talking marriage, or a serious shackup, Bernie. Like, cut to the chase in the first reel, huh?”
“When an old man knows what he wants he knows it immediately.”
“For all you know these could be sponge rubber,” and she gave her high, modest bust a pat. “Look, I got to take more drink orders. Why don’t you calm down and think this over and I be back here in a little while. And, by the way, captain have seat-belt sign on. Here, let me help you.”
“Your hands are like a pair of snowy swans, Yumiko.”
“You want some peanuts while you waiting, Bernie?”
“Your aura alone will be enough to sustain me, my dearest.”
“Shhh, not so loud. Other girls have big ears.”
Then Yumiko, Kimie, Fei Wen would tell him that, no, they had plans on arrival at Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong but they’d be happy to exchange letters with him and perhaps on their next layover in L.A. maybe they could give him a call. Bernie still leapt at that and began composing the first letter the minute he gave up and accepted the brush. Ardent letters in a florid script and a style purple as a ripe eggplant.
“Your heritage lies somewhere in the mist of the sensuous East – on a wild barrier reef, in a vast and trackless desert, atop a pine-crested mountain shrouded in fog – or perhaps a palm-lined shore where the sun lies like a scattered silence on the sand with white birds flying without surcease. There on lazy afternoons the waves call and hush and call again – to say there is no peace. I see you there with an orchid in your ebony hair and your exquisite face so like a new flower facing dawn – threading your beauty through a day that pales before your tremulous loveliness. In your large deep eyes there is a glitter like mica in sand and a message written in hieroglyphics for all to see and none to read. With painstaking effort I deciphered: ‘Seek me with your love.’ And I responded as a man such as I must.
“I know your face of the purest white and most delicate rose and your light-stealing smile and the silken midnight of your flowing hair. I know the numbing spell of your sweet fragrance, the lure of your dulcet voice. The rest of you, alas, I do not know – and dare not contemplate. I do know there is something here for both of us . . . although your life is filled with the promise of many golden tomorrows while mine holds mostly dead yesterdays. Yet old men must be explorers, and you are an undiscovered continent.” This last sentence gave him a frisson of pleasure. He tilted his head against the rest, closed his eyes and smiled. Bernie loved his stuff. T.S. Eliot got no credit.
“There is an unwritten law in philosophy known as the unity of opposites. We are from different worlds and different generations – yet we do, I am sure, laugh and cry and, yes, sigh in the same language. Love could be the linchpin.
“Romance that is embalmed in the amber of an old man’s pride does not ask for much.” He nodded in satisfaction, lighted an Oval, then checked his ticket. “Here on JAL Flight 2736 between Frisco and Honolulu, you came by my seat and told me to put my bag in the overhead compartment. Destiny had spoken.
“Every line, curve and nuance of your body says fragility – where, however, I am sure, from your ancient heritage, there is nothing fragile. I see you as a woman desirous to be bent but not broken – designed to drive a man to desperation and to, perhaps even, destroy him. Your essence is as elusive to capture as my first memory of life itself. You float, my darling Yumiko, on a dark sea of fire.” He immediately realized this was hardly a happy image for airline personnel and struck it, stoically starting the page over.
“Nothing in the world is single,” the letter resumed loftily, with a little help from Shelley. “All things by a divine law in one spirit meet and mingle.
“Though we remain but strangers – and the sweet ambrosia of your nearness has yet to vanish into the heartless night – I so deeply remember and miss you, oh Yumiko-san, who could turn a ravaged old rock of a man into a pillar of sunwashed radiance, ecstatic in your blissful nearness.” Disdainful of smut, he crossed out “pillar” and overwrote “monolith,” as neatly as possible.
“Life is a great bargain – we get it for nothing. And there is much of life and love I could offer you – for next to nothing. If this sounds interesting, let us meet – if not in my three days in Tokyo – you have my hotel – then, God be praised – the next time three weeks from now you are in LAX. I will be at the gate awaiting you, with my brand new Buick parked just outside and my world ready to unfold in subservience to you. Please write. I promise at least two letters for each of yours – you see the levels to which you inspire me. Time, that aged nurse, has rocked me to patience. My thoughts and my dreams wing out to you, more numerous than the peanuts you serve with such patrician elegance.
Eagerly anticipating your response, I remain
your most humble, heart-smitten servant,
Bernard J. Clybourn, BSA”
He added his address, phone, fax and e-mail, as well as every hotel he was booked into. Bernie would never fake credentials but having been a semi-serious Boy Scout he decided no one could fault him for the BSA. Curl would say it stood for Bullshit Artist, he thought with a smile. That was more or less the basic letter, though each was written afresh, with renewed emotive force. Now and then it was he, not she, who walked “on the palm-lined shore where the sun lies like a scattered silence on the sand” and so forth, in which case this beneficence of nature inspired thoughts of his correspondent. To stewardesses, airport attendants, gift-shop clerks, and waitresses the steaming letter was placed with commendable discretion into a hand as he departed the venue.
So Bernie hit Tokyo. No night clubs, no bathhouses, no shrines. To hell with all the planned tours and fact-filled presentations. And definitely no pros for Bernie. He was looking for a date, an opportunity to really talk with, well, an ordinary girl. Waitresses were a special prey. It took a lot to make them walk away, as department store clerks did depressingly, once he got on the ebony eyes and hair like shimmering midnight and flesh like the inside of tropical fruit. Waitresses stood there with their pads and tried to point out things on the menu, although one did spill some pretty hot noodle soup on his sleeve. “Ah, the fire of your love must tear as wantonly at man’s flesh!” he exclaimed without missing a beat, this a man who had run audits and punched calculators for nearly four decades to a chunky, pallid Japanese teenager with maybe ten years of education. He drew a little interest and occasional solicitude when he said his death was virtually imminent; he got an address scribbled in virtually indecipherable printing on the back of his receipt from a girl shining his shoes (while he composed his love entreaty); but nobody wanted to see him after their shift. He did wait at the employees entrance of a large Ginza cafeteria when a table clearer had been indiscreet enough to tell him what time she got off, before he had pressed his two-page letter into her hands at a clattering bussing station. When he accosted her with a bouquet of chrysanthemums on her exit with two other girls, she ran away, yelling back, “I call police, I call police,” sending Bernie scurrying down a subway entrance in fear and dismay, with a tremble it took two cigarettes to dispel.
Tokyo was jaded. Politely attentive for a few minutes; nobody really bit. Must be warned by mama-san from earliest nymphethood. Bernie was undaunted. He needed more selectivity, he decided. A more sensitive girl, wistfulness in her eye, worldly and literate enough to respond to the liquid gold he was pouring out from his untempered heart.
Hong Kong! Crossroads of the Orient, where white birds fly without surcease. Morning after a rainswept 11 p.m. arrival he was dressed in suit and tie and at the Hong Kong Marriott coffee shop for breakfast. There at the podium behind the sign saying “Please Wait to be Seated” – the ebony hair, the mysterious eyes of limitless profundity, the egret-white arms and a nameplate proclaiming: YOUR HOSTESS Ting Chow (Millicent).
Bernie’s heart took a little leap. His eyes were hungry for her every attribute and none disappointed. And didn’t she seem possessed of a special gentleness or innate warmth?
He gave his best aging-matinee-idol faint smile with a little toss of the head. He tried to put soulfulness into his glance. (He believed his unclouded deep browns to be his most winning feature.)
“This is a day reckoned by the stars, little one, a day the angels this very moment herald before the celestial throne.”
“You have resavation, suh?”
“Reservations I toss into the inky bay in the presence of your milky pulchritude.”
She was studying the seating chart intently. A couple speaking German were close behind Bernie and beginning to show some interest.
“The only smoke is that rising from my feverish heart.”
“See she walks in beauty like the night,” he was chattering softly near her ear, “her hidden limbs more enticing than the nectar of the Olympian deities – people like Apollo and Clytemnestra and the others. And all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
She took him to a far table in a non-windowed corner, slapped the menu on the table and started to walk away.
“A glass of water. Yes, I need a glass of water, please, dear one.”
She frowned darkly and hurried off, wasp-waisted, swaying in her tight red silk dress on golden high heels. Bernie was getting really wrought up now over this one. Prettier and, if looks don’t lie, more uptown than anything he’s talked to yet, with the exception of the first JAL attendant.
She was back with the water, even splashing a few drops on the table when she plunked it down.
“Ting, I’m an old widower who’s about to die,” he blurted out.
“What? My name please call Millicent. Ting my Chinese name only. What you say?”
“My wife died not too long ago and left me alone in the world. And now my doctor gives me maybe a year to live – eighteen months if I’m lucky. I live in this huge estate in California, on the sunwashed shores of the Pacific where white birds fly, and I have amassed, to be frank, a fairly sizable fortune from my years in industry. But I have no one to share these last treasured moments of my life. A girl such as you . . .”
“Suh, please. Don’t spik like that. I solly you sick and evathing but I not the puhson you want talk to. I got job to do heah . . .”
“Let me take you to dinner tonight, little one.”
“Suh, I got job to do. Got to go – now!”
“Dinner tonight, then?”
“No, get away from me. No. No. Goo-bye.”
That was episode one. (He remembered to pay his check to his waitress with his last U.S. hundred-dollar bill and made a note to get more when he cashed his next travelers checks.)
Episode two, a half hour later, he stopped by the podium on his way out and repeated the dinner offer. She tossed a sharp No over her shoulder and walked away.
He went to the men’s room in the entry area, checked the mirror and was back in the lobby in five minutes. She was frowning fiercely as she looked at her seating chart. He bought a newspaper and sat down on a bench facing her. She continued working, stealing a glance at him every few minutes. He smiled back, more the triumphant matinee idol this time, shooting a cuff to check his bottom-of-the-line Rolex. I can handle this situation, babe. She left, apparently on a break, and was replaced by a frail-looking young Chinese man. Twenty minutes later she wa still gone.
Bernie decided to take a walk along the unpalm-lined harborfront, where, however, more or less white seagulls were everywhere and quite noisy; where sailors of many nations strolled, laughed, and window-shopped; where middle-aged and older women worked in storefronts with shiny hanging ducks, red-and-white sausages, and tanked live seafood on display; past tailor shops with decrepit mannequins, bookstores with glorious window posters of China and its people, and ancient pharmacies with grimy jars of roots, herbs, broken antlers, and pickled reptiles. The salt-water pungency was blended fitfully with the smell of frying fish, floating incense, jackhammer dust, and double-decker bus exhaust. The gritty Wanchai district’s storied sailor dives and whatever-it-takes pleasure palaces were gone but the frantic money-grubbing commerce survived.
Bernie’s only candidate at this early hour was a heavily made-up girl in a high-slitted cheongsam who was walking a leash-tugging terrier. He caught up with her at a stoplight.
“Ah, the sinuous line of your sweet flesh in that incomparable gown has propelled my untempered heart into raptures of delight.” He felt a slight swoon with a whiff of her fruity scent.
“Go ‘way, you dutty ode man,” she snapped. “My boyflen cut you float soon as he look at you. Fuck off, busta.” And even the dog turned and snarled. Bernie, his eyes wide, spurted, “I beg your pardon, madam,” and darted down a side street past more hanging ducks, through heavy, pushing crowds, his head swimming a little in the multicolored, multiscented, multiclamored pandemonium. Where is my Ting? Sore-footed and sweating, he trudged back up the narrow, rising streets to the hotel.
Lunch. She was gone! Desolation. Nobody in Ting’s league (or age group) in the coffee shop’s noon-hour crew. Ditto dinner, if you discounted a girl in her teens dining with her parents, her dad looking like he might have been one of Capone’s Far East associates. So Ting-smitten was Bernie he lacked the energy to resume the heat of the chase at another site. That night in his room overlooking a truck-loading ramp in a rear court of the hotel he yearned for morning. He composed on hotel stationery a paean in Ting’s honor to calm his tremulous (not quite palpitating) heart, his growing anxiety that tomorrow would prove to be her day off. (“Her very touch would be a balm to turn my Hades into Heaven,” it ended and then, uncharacteristically, he crumpled it and tossed it into his dragon-emblazoned trash receptacle.) Only four days in Hong Kong and off to Bangkok. If he left the tour to stay here, he would probably never get a refund. These tours screwed people that way. And he’d be dangerously putting his remaining eggs in one basket, albeit a most beauteous one.
Then he got busy and began his daily meticulously printed letters to what totaled five young women who’d given their addresses so far (from only one of whom he would get a return letter, sounding more like feeling out a business deal than swapping tormented desire). It was after midnight, with his brain starting those familiar late-night spins that made him fear he was doddering, that he sealed the last letter. He sighed audibly and took out his cracked and bulging wallet. A picture of Aggie, laughing at their 25th anniversary, filled the first credit-card slot. His eyes squeezed shut and he ground his teeth, feeling that stab from the one bicuspid that must be getting abscessed. His thoughts reeled. “Oh, my sweet dove, what have I turned into without you? You said you’d always be with me. You promised. Your skin always so white and silky, your voice so soft and caressing. How do you expect me . . .?” and he collapsed onto the bed and sobbed till he fell asleep.
Next morning. Ice-blue silk dress, frigid eyes to match. Same pitch, marginally reworked. Answer: “No.” But, Bernie asked the Seat of Judgment, was it not a scintilla softer, with less black rancor and a pre-dawn glow of faintest rose? No. This was a starving man fantasizing a crust in the gutter. A day of near-despair, spent mostly in his hotel room, drapes drawn, reading canned hotel-room tourist literature and penning his feverish daily allotment of love letters, straining memory for the salient characteristic of the beloved and word bank for the mot juste. (He thought of borrowing a hotel computer to save time but decided for his type of prose only the pen, especially with his fine calligraphic touches, was adequate.) Recourse to his picture of Aggie, complete with recriminations. Hitting the minibar more than once. Two packs of cigs, plus.
Following morning. Slightly softer sell, even a self-deprecating jest or two in his favorite Bob Hope vein (“All this chink food, highlights I’ll remember most from this trip are Bromo-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol and Mylanta.”) and no plays for pity, the hardest part for Bernie to edit. Answer: ta-dah! (praise all gods known to mortal man): “MAYBE.” Praise and hosanna in the highest and on earth peace, joy, fulfillment and unbridled prosperity to all men – women too! She still would speak no more and hurried off immediately. No way was he going to rock the boat. He took off immediately after paying his bill, with only an unnoticed enigmatic smile in her direction as he hurried past the podium, avoided a Chinese party of six and received a faceful of potted-palm frond, which sent his cigarette flying and burning ashes flickering over his blazer, requiring him to utter an oath and stop to stamp out tiny red coals while receiving scornful mutters from several waiting guests. But Ting was heading into the dining area with menus and probably hadn’t even noticed.
Brimmingly sanguine, he joined his hitherto disdained tour group for a trip to the horrors of Tiger Balm Gardens, with a brief stop to watch two teams of Asian men playing cricket at Causeway Bay. Sic transit gloria mundi, departed fellow Anglos, Bernie thought. With vague and bracing identification he kept repeating the Latin phrase, a celebrated fragment of classic tongue he understood, during the long sunny afternoon. The once-pompous Brits were now gone but here was our Bernie scrounging for love in the byways of ruthless old Hong Kong, “born,” as current tourist literature reminded us, “in the viciousness of the British opium trade.” A man of deepest feeling reduced to a leprous scavenger for pecuniarily induced affection. But wasn’t that demeaning his search for lasting love? Amor omnia vincit – that was it. Better that than dying in a hellish nursing home while my heartless son and daughter go laughing along in some Disneyfied world of suburban materialism with their uncontrollable proliferating progeny, thoughtless toward he who hath wrought them from the ooze of his loins.
Then it was the last, the very last morning in this heaven/hell of Bernie Clybourn’s soul. They were to leave at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow morning for the new airport across the bay. Flight includes breakfast, he realized (which meant no sane man would pay for it at the hotel.) Then Bangkok. This was crossroads time for ol’ Bern. He wore his best blue suit and put special effort into his mustache with its Dean Acheson uptilt and the thinning gray hair he’d gotten shampooed and cut after amor had conquered all on the group tour.
At the table she pursed her dark eyes and looked deeply into his. “You ackshly gone to die, suh, or you jus’ BS me?”
Bernie gave it the closed eyes and deep breath. His dark face seemed the serene yet imperious mask of an aged mahatma.
“All men die, Ting,” he began, looking down at her. “I sooner than most. I’m an old rock of a man, ravaged by wind and weather, whose life is without love.” He pursed his eyes and shook his tormented brow. “Your tomorrows are ahead of you.” And here he lightly touched her thin, lustrous arm and smiled wanly. “Mine are only sad yesterdays. ‘BS’ is a strange term for a lovely young thing like you but, I must confess, I understand its vulgar, back-street meaning. To use your lexicon, I do not BS you. Eighteen months – perhaps – my physician, one of the finest in the whole United States and a good personal friend, – this is his conclusion. Too many of these,” and he waved his unfiltered cigarette, “among other things. And, I confess, too many tears.”
“I s’pose I believe you. ‘Specially if doctuh is you flen. You a stlange man, though, Mistuh –”
“Clybourn, Bernard Clybourn of the famous western Maryland Clybourns. Now a resident of Playa Del Mar, California, sadly a watering hole of the filthy rich.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mistuh Clybone.”
“My intemperate old heart would soar with joy, Ting, if you would join me for dinner tonight at Victoria Peak.”
Crossroads time, cap C, in neon. Ting, aka Millicent, softly closed those exquisitely lashed ebony eyes and lowered her head. A Chinese crooner was singing an upbeat number on the restaurant’s tape, the umpteenth time Bernie had heard it. Dishes crashed at a nearby bussing bar. The frail Chinese man hurried by with a couple and cast a sharp glance at Millicent.
Bernie took one more deep, air-sucking drag, a specialty, and stumped out his inch-long butt. Millicent was still as Hong Kong Barbie, although Bernie noticed her tiny hands were clenched, her jaw muscles flexed. She raised her eyes. “Yes.”
“Oh, blessed Lord,” Bernie exclaimed loudly. A few heads turned.
“I meet you at Star Felly Landing, Hong Kong side, by big clock towuh,” she whispered. “Six o’clock shop. Now I go.”
Newly fledged angels with trumpets of burnished gold merry-go-rounded above the formica-topped coffee-shop table, producing harmonies only deities had yet heard, while petals of lotus and lilac drifted down on Bernie’s untrammeled, white-crested, vaguely leonine head. Zeus, Zarathustra and Lord of the Celestial Host, look down upon Thy servant Bernie and grant this his last and most heart-felt wish. Give this girl Ting Chow to me and your devoted lackey I remain till Kingdom come.
Time passed at geological pace. Bernie tried to nap but started up every few minutes to write down phrases and arguments he hoped to use that evening. For the first time in perhaps thirty years, he uttered an honest-to-goodness sincere prayer – there was nothing to lose. He had room service for lunch, not wanting to run into Millicent again and have something break the divine contract. He thought of going out to the hotel pool to cop some rays but even sacrificed that in the interests of romantic prudence. Tingling with unharnessed energy, he started a letter to the first JAL stew but, lacking inspiration, soon gave that up. He had a bird in the hand, after all. He decided to work on his mustache and shave his heavy beard for a second time that day, the latter, akin to mowing a rock pile, never a favorite pastime.
It was a prayerful Bernie Clybourn who sat across from his midnight-haired catch that evening at the Peak. The lights of the Central District, Victoria Bay and Kowloon glittered and blinked behind a soft, billowing mist as the auditioning lovebirds cooed at a white-linen corner table at the Peak’s tourist-trap Four Star.
“You like Hong Kong, Banod?” Millicent asked demurely, with eyes darting between the napkin in her lap and his fidgeting, cigarette-manipulating hands. (Must remember to pronounce it that way, he thought quickly.)
“Hong Kong will ever be the anchor in the harbor of my dreams,” he exclaimed, using, somewhat inappositely, an oft-quoted trope from Whitcomb Riley. “And Ting will ever fly with the white birds heaven-lofted over its sunwashed towers, its fetid hovels.”
“What you mean, Banod? No maw have hovels in Hong Kong.”
Bernie loved to have one come right over the plate. “The hovels of the spirit, my love. Places where those whose lives have been truncated by misfortune, by the daily banausic grind
. . . where with uplifted hands they reach for the light . . . in the glorious future of the, uh, People’s Republic,” Bernie stammered, a rarity, fouling it down the left-field line.
“You use such fancy wuds, Banod.” She wore a bright-green, spaghetti-strapped cocktail dress, revealing deep hollows about her collar bone and narrow, shimmering shoulders.
“Banal words fail to cope with loveliness such as that of Hong Kong and its most enthralling daughter, Ting Chow. One must reach humbly for celestial verbiage to ascend impiously to such a rarefied plain, a beggar before the transcendent.”
“I okay but not t’rific with English.” Her eyes widened and her hands became animated. “I go see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ once and don’ know nothin’ they say, they spik so fast and aw fancy and aw. You spik like Romeo. I wonda if he not maw in’trested in how he think than in what Juliet is up to.”
“How magnificently apt,” Bernie gushed, failing to catch her spin, “that you should cite the great and much revered Shakespeare, prince of our intemperate tongue. Your poetic depth, Ting, is truly stunning; it soars over the quotidian. May I take your hand, dear lass?”
Millicent pulled back her pale golden, scarlet-nailed left hand, which had been reaching for the plate of pot-stickers.
“Not yet, Banod. I am just wukking gull – though high-school graduate. Many things young gull must know. I have boyflen once but fatha say he not good for me. Three dates we neva hode hands.”
“This was, I’m sure, a young bravo reaching light years beyond his worth, should he deign ever to touch a golden-skinned goddess.”
Millicent giggled behind her hand, its jade bangles jiggling. “Jimmy dlive a motacycle and play guitar wif band. He have, what you say, expelience. He tly to take my hand many times but I not let him unto I suah he the pufect boy for Millicent.”
“No doubt from this ruffian you obtained the repugnant term BS.”
“That from Cath’lic gulls school Kowloonside. We say when nuns talk about staying puah unto time God caw you to mawidge.”
Bernie tried but the shock showed on his face. He reached for his cigarette.
“Don’ worry, Banod.” She grinned behind her hand and cast a frank glance eye-to-eye. “I stay puah, f’suah. But still BS, don’t you think?”
“My dear,” Bernie began, who hadn’t been to church since the first year of his marriage, after converting to Catholicism to ingratiate himself with his fiancee. “These are rules made by God and not by man. We break them at our own peril. I have known the back streets as well as the broad sunlit thoroughfares. I could tell you stories . . .”
“Nuns aw-ways have a lot of stawies. But it theah job. Sclewing no big thing. Not no maw. What you think?”
“My dear. When I was young and unfettered by worldly cares . . .”
“What we have for dinna, Banod?” Millicent was eating the last pot-sticker, not quite succeeding in being dainty. “I don’ eat lunch today save loom for tonight.”
“What does your secret little heart desire? Don’t even look at the right side of the menu,” with a smug Reggie Van Gleason smile and head toss.
“Neva have lobsta befaw.”
“By all means. I recommend the Thermador if you’re really hungry. Quite rich.” He looked at the menu ($49.95 U.S.) and swallowed. “And perhaps a little wine. I’d recommend the white type if you’re having seafood.”
“Jus’ tea for me. Woman not dlink keep her head betta.” And she giggled again behind one hand. Pure, okay, but no angel. Like to have a look at that sonofabitch Jimmy. Hands callused from pulling rickshas no doubt, with eyes as vacuous as the Chinamen in “Terry and the Pirates.” “But you have wine please, Banod.”
“I’m ordering Mongolian beef – a favorite of Sun-Yat-sen – so I think I’ll have a red wine.”
“Jimmy likes Scotch. His fatha own cigalette factoly and concessions at the hawse laces. He majuh economics at Stanfud U’vusity.”
A chink’s a chink, Bernie assured himself. Poor little rich boy with limp wrists and buckteeth, no doubt. Of course they drink Scotch to pretend they’re British.
A band was playing Lawrence Welk hits. “Lisbon Antigua” brought tears to his eyes; he remembered dancing to it with Aggie, how she could make him tingle so easily with her skirts swirling, that enchanted look in her vivid blue eyes. The first groove is the deepest. Bernie watched tourists from around the world, in attire from ball gowns to shorts, gaily circle the dance floor. He thought of asking Ting, but not having danced in something like forty years . . .
“Now’days, Banod, should say dish fav’lit of Mao Zedung.”
“Ah, yes, the Great Pilot. An older man who preferred youth in a woman.”
“My mouf stay closed on that subjeck.”
Millicent picked uncertainly at the steaming, buttery Thermador. “Don’t think this Chinese food.”
“French. From the Cordon Bleu School, I believe.”
“Taste like, y’know, like that stuff we use in school – libay paste. Lotsa Thumadaw, not much lobsta.”
Bernie squirmed, the $49.95 as much an influence as his gourmand’s eyes. Having done more smoking and coffee-drinking than eating since arriving in Hong Kong, he’s already gulped down Sun Yat-sen’s favorite, along with sweet-and-sour pork and fried rice.
“In America we find it pleasant to share our food with those we care for. I’ve been dying to try your Thermador, especially since you’re not eating it.”
Millicent made a wry face and handed her plate to Bernie, just as a waiter came by and almost grabbed it.
“I’m simply going to sample it.” Bernie winked.
“You want ‘nother plate?”
“Oh, no, my good man. Another glass of the Chianti, please.”
Raised by Depression-era parents, Bernie loathed waste. He began forking in Thermador till he felt queasy. He suppressed a belch and felt a painful bubble at about belt-level.
“The ride up the funicular was unsettling a little, don’t you think, Ting?”
Her glance said “Get on with it.”
“Ting. There is something more important I want to discuss tonight.”
“Oh, yeah? I thinking so.”
“Like I have told you, I am a storm-tossed old rock of a man . . .”
“And you gone to die soon. That ackshly true, Banod?”
“Sooner rather than later.”
“You look fine to me, Banod. For a man ode as you.”
“I stand unbowed before the elements, if that’s what you mean,” unconsciously thrusting out his chest.
“You don’t use no cane.”
“I stumble on a stair now and then. Last year when I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back – that’s one of the great marvels of the world we have in the United States – I was one of the oldest men on record to make it. I’ll admit I was hardly winded and this is a trail where even the mules break down. But I have been known to stumble.”
“You been dlinking then?”
“No, no, no. One’s balance is affected at times by the assaults of Father Time, ankles grow sore, knees quirky. But the Clybourns come from the uplands of western Maryland, the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachians. One keeps ascending till one reaches the point where the air is clear, the vistas endless. I felt such a moment when I stepped out on the Peak here in the rapturous company of Ting Chow of Kowloon City.”
“But you stomach a little upset, no?”
“To be frank . . .”
“S’awright. I plitty gawgeous gull, no?” And she gave him a broad smile, for once without the screening virginal hand.
“Gorgeous hardly says it, Ting.”
“Most time I known as Millicent.”
“But ‘Ting’ is so beautiful, so evocative of the inscrutable timelessness of this vast nation, where chartless rivers run unhindered . . .”
“Chinese peoples say my name ‘Ting.’ Is okay. English say Millicent. My sista, too. Fit me good.”
“I shall try, Millicent. I shall try. But do not hold me, I beg.”
The lights grew dim and a clanging fanfare announced the evening’s entertainment on a stage in the middle of the vast dining room. The act, heavily advertised on the Tram and at the restaurant’s entrance, was The Birdman of Szechuan, a small, white-haired Chinese man wearing heavy gauntlets and a flowing black cape, backed by inscrutable flute-and-woodwind airs. He had birds trained so well they seemed virtually human. There were swallows who flew in echelon around and around the interior of the restaurant, alighting on tables where patrons, encouraged by the Birdman, had placed folded currency, no matter what variety. The birds snatched up the bills in their beaks and returned to the Birdman, who chuckled slyly and placed all the money in his pocket. When worried laughter had subsided he threw the bills on his equipment table and each bird retrieved the bill it had taken and returned it to the proper table, to relieved applause. “Birds tink Chinese income tax too high,” was his punchline. There were Asian hawks and eagles (“Our eagles not bald like those elderly ones in America.”), a scruffy and professionally stupid emu who always got his orders confused, talking mynahs and parrots with a penchant for one-liners in English, Japanese and Chinese; beautiful Chinese girls who went into prop closets which when reopened revealed pheasants, macaws and other exotic species. One youngish Caucasian woman in a soft white gown, a woman who from his position in a far corner looked strangely familiar to Bernie, was placed in a black chest and sawed in half. Instead of reappearing whole when the walls collapsed, she was replaced, somewhat to the maestro’s feigned consternation, by a white dove. However, to what seemed the Birdman’s genuine distress, the bird left the stage, circled the room once, actually flying barely a foot over Bernie’s head, and flew out the opened french doors on one side of the room into the darkened night.
A couple of waiters went out onto a terrace after the dove, then returned and lifted their hands in dismay as if saying, “It got away.”
“Fogot to give her vacation this yeah,” the Birdman recovered. “Serve me light.”
The act went on but the Birdman continued to glance at the still opened doors, as if hoping for the bird’s return. On the other hand, how much was a poorly trained dove worth?
But soft-hearted Bernie remembered seeing a pair of large buzzard hawks atop the restaurant when they approached up a garden path and he feared for the fugitive bird.
“Doves have a lousy track record in this part of the world.”
“What you say?” Millicent responded with a blank expression.
“Oh, never mind.”
Bernie also glanced from time to time toward the distant french doors. He thought he saw the young woman from the act, the one sawed in half, looking back toward his table through windows beside the doors. Now who does that girl look like? Brunette hair bouffant like a style from the Fifties; was that a white rose or a gardenia in her hair? Too far to tell.
Bernie realized he was getting full. He called to the waiter and asked for an Alka Seltzer.
He remembered his mission for the night. “A man such as I has so much to give. Today as I strolled by the sea on the far side of the island, I watched the slanting waves roll in, each to its collapsing annihilation. They have been rolling in for ages and will be rolling in through all eternity. And so will I go through all eternity, adoring the exquisite Chinese beauty I met here on the southern slopes of the mother of all continents. You are a sphinx-eyed enchantress, with the raven-hued hair of a Cleopatra, the cryptic smile of the Mona Lisa, the serenity of a Renaissance Madonna.”
“No-o-o, Banod, I no way look like Madonna. For stot, have little boobs. But they vely plitty, I gahantee.”
“Not that Madonna, Ting. She is a meretricious tart compared with you. I mean the Madonnas of, well, Rubens and Rembrandt and those great painters of a distant but glorious age.”
“I fogit theah was ‘nother Madonna.”
“Like the wondrous loss of virginity, some opportunities come but once,” Bernie pushed forward, breasting all diversions. He kept trying to hold eye contact but Millicent for the moment was more interested in her bangles.
He plopped his Alka Seltzer into his huge water chalice and glanced again toward the french doors, but a waiter was in the way.
“Don’t you love the bubbles?” Millicent asked gleefully, putting one hand over his glass.
Bernie looked across the table sternly. “We have a saying on our side of the great Pacific, Ting. Opportunity knocks but once.”
Millicent started paying attention, knowing the peroration was imminent. Seeing his age-blotched hand, dark as Cordovan leather, heading near hers she did not move it.
“A man knows when his destiny is nearly reached, when the road runs off soon into the chartless unknown. I am at such a point. And yet the thought of my wealth being destroyed by the never-slaked appetite of the U.S. inheritance tax system . . . I ask myself: Why could not such a wondrous and deserving woman as Ting Chow join me in the few remaining days I have on this weary orb, comforting me in the last roseate glow of sunlight? Then to bask in the bounty of my lifetime of ceaseless toil and enterprise.”
He placed his broad hand on her tiny one.
“My question, oh earthbound angel, is simply this: Will you come to America, solely at my expense, and stay at my home as my honored and respected guest for thirty days? We will have a chance to discover each other, to look deeply into our future needs and well-being. The purpose is to see if you will after this period decide to be my lawful wedded wife. If yes, I will immediately rewrite my will to leave all my possessions, every penny, to you.”
She looked at him with wide eyes. “You got no chillen’?”
Bernie swallowed. Lies in the interests of romantic effect were one thing; the bald-faced variety came harder. Besides, sooner or later, she’d have to meet Paul, Dodie and the brats; he couldn’t obliterate them.
“My two children are already well taken care of,” he said offhandedly, mentally crossing his fingers with the thought of Dodie’s out-of-work husband and Paul staggering under a burden of alimony and child support .
Millicent lowered her head. Silence as only the most distant reaches of space can contemplate. Yet dishes banged. The Birdman’s accompanists were playing the song sailors call “I Ain’t Got No Yo-Yo,” while he recounted the tale of a poignant love, lost and regained, with pantomime by a pair of pigeons. Three tables away a group of East Indians was getting the full crepes-suzette showbiz with wild exclamations. A two-block-long love boat with lights ablaze was being piloted into the cruise-ship terminal, its cargo of big spenders lining the lifelines. A jet liner was taking off from the airport over the mainland, a liner such a Bernie would be on tomorrow when the dawn came up like thunder over China ‘crost the Bay. But all was silence and contemplation at the corner table by the window Bernie had tipped big to get.
Bernie sipped his Alka-Seltzer. He was dying to add more to The Pitch. He’d forgotten about the huge home – well, it was comfortable for two people, even if the Ratliffs’ kitchen door was only six feet from his and that goddam dog in the house behind invariably let go at six in the morning and that sonofabitch of a trash-recycling operator told all his neighbors to sue him if they didn’t like it. He could have mentioned his new freezer chest – that would impress an Oriental – and his collection of stamps worth maybe ten grand alone. But got to rest your case sometime even if you go crazy while the jury’s out.
Bernie was feeling better and softly ordered two spumoni, mostly to play for time. Then he sat eating his, with muffled belches and one ever-so-slight passage of wind, while Millicent’s melted untouched. Her hands clasped, she stared into her lap, allowing Bernie to study the jagged white part in the middle of her scalp. For the first time he noticed her perfume, faint and jasmine-sweet. He longed to take her into his arms and fervently bring his lips to hers, delicate, demure, yet quickening to his blood. Would the Ratliffs fall out of their Adirondack chairs when Bernie’s Buick tooled into the driveway with this blushing beauty alongside? And those horny lifeguards would fall prostrate, friggin’ prostrate, on the sand in awe. Bernie’d been looking, to be frank, for anything in a skirt, or pajamas or whatever. This here was a living dish! But, face it, a child. What could he talk about? Catholic girlhood? Children’s books? Aggie was sharp, at home with ideas, better-read than he, if the truth were told.
He was tempted to take her spumoni but fought the urge. Uncool, old man, uncool. His eyes were drawn again across the smoky room toward the french doors. The young woman in shimmering white still stood on the otherwise empty terrace looking back into the restaurant. Probably taking a fresh-air break while the Birdman went on regaling the diners with a pair of bickering ravens. Two-dozen heads were in the field of vision between Bernie and the window but he thought he saw her smile. What would she be smiling for? ‘Cause I’m too full to eat the spumoni. Now that would make her smile. Love ice cream but I’m leaving a full plateful cost something like $5.85.
He looked at Ting, who had just removed her hand from his grasp. Was her expression growing strained? Now she folded her arms on her chest protectively and continued to study the white tablecloth.
“You won’t have to decide until you’re there, Ting. The decision will be yours alone.”
Two well-dressed young Chinese men were being seated at an adjoining table. One cast an appreciative look in Millicent’s direction as he sat down. His hair was jet-black and thick and slicked back. He had square shoulders and a thick neck under jutting jaws, evidence of the body building growingly popular with middle-class urban males. Millicent gave a quick sidelong glance. Was that a faint smile, Bernie asked himself. No – probably just being gracious.
“There’s really nothing to lose, Ting,” he said. “It’s, well, like the TV hucksters say, a no-obligation offer, ha-ha. No need for a money-back guarantee ’cause you won’t be spending a cent of all that tip money you must accumulate from the heart-smitten.”
But she wasn’t listening. She fluffed her hair with one hand and looked toward the next table, where the young bravo pointedly checked an expensive wristwatch and then took out what looked like a gold cigarette case and did a theatrical lighting up.
“Ting,” Bernie importuned.
She clenched her teeth, breathed deeply and turned her head in the opposite direction.
“Ting, for Christ’s sake, pay attention to what I’m discussing. This is no garden party! You have any goddam idea what my investment in this evening comes to already?”
Millicent threw her heavy linen napkin on the table and glared with boiling eyes. “I not your suhvant, Banod. Don’ talk me like that.” Several tables, including the one newly occupied, showed interest.
Never quick on the uptake, Bernie was caught off guard. “Okay, okay, babe, quiet down. I’m just a little wrought up . . . ” with a downward motion from his extended hands, baseball’s signal for a slide. Were the Chinese slickers smiling and would Bernie have to put his 10½ C’s down one of their throats?
Millicent’s eyes narrowed to black slits. “I think all long you come as my fate . . . like in English love novel . . . man who take me away from life of hod wuk and make me happy evuh aftuh. Then you make fun my ode boyflen, who have bettuh mannuhs that you. You BS me about Sun Yat Sen. What you know about Sun Yat Sen I wanna know? I ask you call me Millicent you call me Ting. You tleat me like you think I a dummie, dumb little Chink gull pick up in a lestaulant thlowing around hundled-dollah bills. Now you pissed off ’cause I look at ‘nother puhson.”
It was less than a shout but the silence around the table was such that every word could be heard and, for most, understood, regardless of linguistic capacity. Bernie knew there must be raised eyebrows, even smiles, and he drew his shoulders tighter. The slightest embarrassment was a horror for him and outright mortification was a wholly unfamiliar phenomenon. He spoke with pursed lips and a full-body tremble toward his blotched clasped hands.
“If you will get control of yourself, Millicent. If you will try to get control of yourself, I would like to explain myself . . . Now just listen to me.”
“You lissen to me. I don’ know what I doing this hoity-toity lestaulant having dinnuh with some old faht. I lather be eating cheap place Kowloonside with Jimmy – anybody else but you. I don’ think you my fate anymaw, ode man. I think you pain in the ass.”
She was gone in a flash of green polyester, hurtling amidst gaping tables and newly arriving patrons on her teetering heels.
Hint of palpitations. Just a hint. Trembling like, like a leaf. Too old for this stuff. Just be calm. Have a drink. A child. A child. That’s it. Just relax. Enjoy the wine. Relaxing thoughts. Seashore. Pale blue skies. White birds. What can you expect from a child? Little child. Wet behind … behind the ears. Not able to handle the surroundings, the adulation. No reflection on me. None at all. Drink. Yeah, a cigarette. Yeah. That’s, that’s better. Let ‘em stare. Bunch of fucking slopes. Screw ‘em . . . Little better. Easy does it, old boy. Easy on. Aggie knew how. A hand on my neck. A soft word. Old Ag. Bless her heart. Love that gal. All I want’s my Aggie back, dear God.
Eyes turned back to respective tables reluctantly, yet Millicent’s words seemed still to bounce off the broad plate-glass windows and imitation-marble columns, her rage to ionize the air. Bernie continued slowly braking his highballing semi. Nothing like a little scene to liven a hundred-dollar-plus evening, he assured himself, the irony soothing. Serves me right for slumming. Goddam peasant all she is, one generation from the rice paddy. Coming back to earth, old fop. Easy does it.
He raised his eyes and noticed Millicent’s liquefied spumoni and reached for it. Jesus, what did this cost? $5.85 or something? Goddam gold-digging broad. Frigging lobster Thermador! Then making eyes at the Chinks next table, just off work from the laundry. The syrupy confection was rich and sweet, the way he liked ice cream. Those little hunks of candied cherry and melon were good, too. Macadamia nuts, weren’t they? No, pistachio, that’s it. Delicious.
He glanced toward the terrace. The young woman from the act was at the window again. Was she looking his way? No. It’s a crowded room. But as he looked her way he was sure she was giving him a soft smile. Her eyes were light. Were they blue, blue like hers? She looked something like she had when they met, with that Jackie Kennedy hairstyle, the faint lipstick or maybe none. But then she looked away, as if recoiling slightly from his too frank glance. What was a young Caucasian woman doing in a Chinese nightclub act, though her role of trepidatiously stepping into the casket-like box to be sawed didn’t take much talent? Does the Chink hire girls on the spot?
He rose and started across the crowded dining room, dodging waiters and busboys, mindless that he was now competition for the Birdman. He caught a glimpse of the young woman again but she quickly turned away. He reached the french doors and a gust of cold air brushed his face. The broad stone terrace’s grim aspect indicated it wasn’t part of the public area. Soiled and unswept, it opened onto a deep, dim declivity or ravine, heavily foliated with aerial-rooted banyans, eucalyptus and house-high birds of paradise.
Where was the woman? Gone, though there was a steep, heavily railed stairway at the far end of the terrace leading into the dark chasm tumbling down from the mountaintop. What’s she running off for? But there in the dimness stood the Birdman’s white dove perched on the far-side railing by the broad concrete-and-stone stairway. Voices and sounds of dishware came from the restaurant but the green-black beyond was silent. Aggie loved all animals but especially doves, even the pestiferous and omnipresent dun-colored mourning doves of southern California. She spoke of their meekness, their tender cooing, their deeply bonded monogamy. With pure white doves the feeling intensified – their immaculate whiteness a connection to the Virgin, the obvious Biblical and early Christian symbolism, and then the Vietnam War had given them such cachet and, of course, another reason for her to identify.
Bernie went toward the bird, which remained motionless save for a slight bobbing of its head. That spinning-in-the-brain feeling was starting. Hong Kong was putting a test to his nervous system, no question. Thank God, no palpitations. Never had hallucinations, even when I was drinking heavy in my twenties. What was she doing in Hong Kong? No! Stop it. For Chrissake. She’s under the earth in the Immaculata, beside the Holy Mother’s statue. Dead and gone. He was two strides from the dove, his hands outstretched, when it gave a hard flap of its wings and a loud wobbly coo and flew down the damp, moss-dappled staircase. With a decisive lunge he might have grasped it but he had been too cautious. He started down the stairs after the dove, first using the heavy concrete balustrade but flinching back his hand from its frigid dankness. He continued briskly after the bird, taking two steps at a time. The staircase presented an immemorial massiveness, an ancient remnant from an age long before the Peak restaurant. A chill light mist was floating up from the depths below. He could now hear nightbirds and cicadas and were those the sound of monkeys in the darkness? He could make out very little on either side but there were voices, muffled, and small irregular groups of shadowy figures engaged in uncertain occupations on ledges of the slope. To the far, left, side of the stairway at one point an elderly Chinese man, apparently wholly enervated, sat on a step and lounged back against a baluster. He lifted a hand in greeting as Bernie strode past, his gait already slowing to one step at a time. “Good evening,” Bernie, with typical nonchalance, tossed to him as he went by. He thought of asking about the young woman but now he could barely make out the dove farther below on the railing, its white feathers fortunately iridescent, perhaps picking up light from an occasional lantern on staves planted in earth beside the antique stair passage. Bernie quickened his step, the downward course pushing his toes achingly against the front of his heavy wingtips. As if in sympathy, the stabbing pain in his bicuspid was resuming. The foliage beside the staircase grew thicker and heavy vines now insinuated themselves about the balusters and rails and even crept a way across the steps themselves. The moist earth and rank vegetation brought a sour pungency to his nostrils. He swatted hard at a mosquito on his cheek.
Bernie could now and then glimpse jagged outcroppings of rock jutting from the canyon walls on either side. The stairs seemed to be descending into a vast yet narrow cleft in the face of the mountain, perhaps a route to the mountaintop in days long before the Tram arrived. The mist was thicker now, almost a drizzle. The smell of spiced cookery mingled with the heavy forest scent, rising perhaps from all the way below, yet he occasionally could make out what seemed crude shacks clinging to the precipitous walls, seemingly reachable only by the rope ladders dropping from rude porch platforms. He could hear faint running water, perhaps a brook tumbling down the chasm off to the left.
His bad left ankle was also beginning to bother him now but he knew, if he could get close to the dove once more, he could capture it to return to the Birdman or even, yes, keep it himself. He could take a birdcage on a plane, of course he could. But if the young woman had gone down the stairs, where in God’s name was she? She was, it must be admitted, obviously much younger than Bernie and, being in show business, perhaps in excellent shape. She looked like Aggie, that same gentle way of smiling, her hair the color of Aggie’s before it went gray and the gardenia in the hair – just like Aggie wore that vacation in Cabo San Lucas! A young Aggie? Getting a kick outta seeing ol’ Bern stuff his face with a little Chinee girl. Knew what’d happen to me left on my own. Hey, made it to China, didn’t I? Made you come lookin’ for me . . .
Cut out that crap! But why shouldn’t Aggie look after him? No difference between Hong Kong and Playa Del Mar to one such as she. If ever a person had made her way into heaven it would be Aggie. A saint if ever there was one . . . Ahh, Catholic crap. Sick Papist fantasies he had seen through from the start. See a face across a dim, bustling restaurant and flip out. Some circus-act broad having a cigarette on the sly. Hey, I could use one now, really use one.
But there was the dove, coming out of the drippy, shrouded darkness on a globe-topped newel post where the stairs took a slight turn to the right only three or four steps away! Bernie tried looking the other way, cloud-walking. Then he whipped out his hand and actually felt tail feathers as the dove spurted off, off and downward. Oh, my God! The ankle was getting bad and he was beyond tired, even beginning to shiver in his now damp suit in the continuing faint rainfall. Almost got the little bugger.
Dank or not, he leaned against the balustrade and breathed deeply. There was a roiling unease in his stomach. He lighted a cigarette and took several deep, grateful puffs. Beyond the turn, a decrepit old Chinese woman, her head in a bloody bandage, was standing in the middle of the stairs, mumbling, swaying in the rain. She saw Bernie and expostulated toward him in Chinese. Then she took a harder look. “Cig’rette, cig’rette, Limey,” she shouted. Bernie could see her face was deeply rutted, with spatters of blood from her head wound. Her lips disappeared in a collapsed, whiskery mouth, atop a thrusting chin and a wattled neck. “Cig’rette for a good ol’ broad, Limey.”
Bernie took out his cardboard pack of English Ovals and approached the woman, from whose filthy rags rose a powerful stink. He extended the pack. The woman reached and took one. She managed a coquettish smile at Bernie. “Lotsa limeys smoke Ovals.” She winked. “They buy me all the cig’rettes I want. All the drinks – Cointreau, Napoleon brandy. Ol’ days in Wanchai. You know Wanchai gulls, sailor?”
“My girl friend is from the Central District.”
“No good gulls in Central … too ‘spensive for sailuh boy like you.” And she burst out laughing , exposing her black, toothless gums. “Wanchai gull takee good care of sailuh boy, do it you way.” And she swatted a hand against Bernie’s crotch, making him flinch backward with his Zippo. “Long as don’ hurt her. Like this,” and she banged a fist against her head, making Bernie cringe. “Don’ worry. Gettin’ betta. Chinee bastud.”
Bernie extended a light.
“A young woman, an Anglo woman, came running down this staircase ten minutes or so ago,” Bernie said. “Did you see her?”
“White woman no come down this stayuh evva, I, whatchusay, gahantee. You first white man since English police sail off bye-bye. Plitty nasty down heah. Peoples live got no place else. You nice to man and get head bloken. No white woman get this fah. You no limey; talkee like what is it?” She laughed out loud, “Yank, that’s what it is – yank. All fulla bullshit. You Yank, light? Jus’ kiddin’. Beat fuckin’ Japs. By God, beat fuckin’ Japs! Bless you goddam hots, Yank.”
“I gotta keep going. Thanks so much for your help.”
“Five bucks, Yank. How ’bout five bucks for a good ol’ broad?”
Bernie took out his wallet and began to reach in. The woman snatched it and stumbled quickly away, a comedy thief. Bernie limped toward her, grabbed at her rags and tore away a handful but she was under the rail and through the balusters and into the darkness, cackling loudly.
“Filthy old hag!” he yelled after her. He leaned against the baluster and resisted the urge to start sobbing. He realized he hadn’t yelled since childhood, probably early childhood. “My street-smarts lesson for this week,” he said in a breaking voice to no one in particular. “Life’s a learning process.” Trembling, he lighted another cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“Screw you,” he shouted at his loudest into the cold drizzle. “Screw all Chinese broads!”
Letting go was a virtual non-occurrence in Bernie Clybourn’s life. He felt greatly relieved, despite wracked vocal cords. “Screw all slant-eyed broads in the world,” now more rasp than shout. There were Chinese murmurings in the darkness and here and there an inquisitive head appeared beyond the rail. “Screw all slant-eyed, tight-ass broads in the world. I want my Aggie!” And now his large head dropped on his chest and he began sobbing. In a moment he dropped his cigarette and started downward again. He was taking two steps to a stair now, yet staring intently ahead with determination. The woman or the dove, he was bound to reach one or the other, though his vision now extended barely three or four steps ahead and leaves on low vines and branches wiped across his face.
Spectral forms from the world of reality appeared at intervals, a stunted evergreen, a frond-roofed hut, smoke lazily winding from a roof aperture, a jutting rock overarching half the staircase like a great ax blade. The heavy, saturated air made him fight to take each breath and, with his growing weariness and confusion, sexagenarian heart and tobacco-ravaged lungs, oxygen was becoming increasingly important.
Was someone calling him from above? Or did he imagine it? He had just bent to move under a low-hanging pine limb, obscuring his view behind. He turned and placed one foot on a higher step. There was a dim figure a half-dozen steps above. Green cocktail dress?
“Clazy man you walk down heah. You get killed – thieves and cutfloats down heah.”
Was that Millicent here now close to him in the blackness? She was as tiny and delicate as one of his grandchildren. Did she say she wanted to marry him? To come and live in California? Or was that something different she was saying?
Marry him? Why did this child want to marry him? Was this a dream? His vision and his thoughts swam drunkenly. His hands were on her shoulders, touching body warmth – the thin sleeve of her gown fell and in the next instant a wasted, beanbag breast was in his hand, its teat thick as a finger. His eyes opened wide and a mote of moonlight revealed the filthy crone he had cursed aloud a moment earlier. Now she was smiling satanically.
“Heah’s a little thank-you, Yank,” and her skilled knee went hard into his crotch, folding his frame limply in astonishing pain. “You have nasty tongue.” In a flash her hands were about his wrist and his watch was off. “Who’s screwed now, Yank?” And she was off with another laughing screech into the darkness.
He sank backwards onto the moist, moss-carpeted steps and gave vent again to his craving to sob. For once they were sobs without thought, without mental control, tortured, despondent, uncontrolled sobs, sobs without hope of remission, sobs that touched bottom although, strange to Bernie Clybourn, without conscious recognition.
Through his ache and anguish the sorrowful four-note coo came to his ears – through the cold, through the wet, through the agony of loss, humiliation and despair. Farther down, farther below. The dove was cooing. He listened. It was his dove. Farther down below. Awkwardly, with one almost collapsing stumble, he regained his feet. The dove was calling.
Was that she, darting amidst the branches and outcroppings ahead? He was sure he had seen the white gown, the brunette tresses wild in the wind-driven drizzle. Did he hear another tantalizing coo? He stepped off sharply, striding briskly downward on the dripping, increasingly crumbled stairs, his ankle pain now replacing that in his testes, his heart stormily beating, his body a-quiver with unprecedented emotive overload. Downward in velvety dripping wetness.
But, hey, Bernie, what is going on?! What is this thing happening to me – Bernard J. Clybourn, family man, accountant, of Playa Del Mar, California? What the living fuck? . . . Are you trying to kill yourself, old buddy? Don’t wanna die, old man. A profound urging arose, mental and physical, shouting, demanding he yield to monstrous fatigue, runaway nerves and the virtual absence of sensory guidance. Give this shit up, give it up.
No – fuck it, cowardly talk, chicken-shit talk. With pride he felt his will arise and assert itself to his straggling heart. Job to do, got a goddam job to do, and Bernie never shirks a little job. Tough stuff, mountains of western Maryland. Forward, old asshole. Nothingness, pitch-black and perfidious, lay ahead, yet sounds of animal and human companions continued to percolate upward from the phantasmic surroundings; heavy falling droplets, flopping leaves and crackly winged insects smacked against his body and face, and a goulash of odors, culinary, fungal and botanical, floated into his nostrils. Black or not, he must keep peering intently to reach his goal, and reach his goal he would.
The staircase was not infinite. It suddenly ended in soft, giving earth he could hardly see. There was the sound of an invisible stream, moving over rocks it seemed, with soft splashings. Was that a nightingale he heard? No, they were European, weren’t they? The distant barking of a dog. Always a goddam dog barking. Large drippy leaves in his face, banana leaves or such. Feet seemed to be sloshing in mud. Hard to tell if there was a path or any particular direction to follow. The rain happily had relented for a spell. Then the dove flitted before his eyes, startling him, but whitely iridescent enough to be seen up close. And then flapping cooingly ahead into what seemed more and more a rainforest environment, with fernlike plants brushing against Bernie’s legs and vines underfoot. He was able to discern the bird striding with bobbing head along the elephantine raised roots of a great fig tree, faintly illuminated by a lantern outside a habitation well off to the right. His foot caught a rock or stump and he stumbled to his knees. Before him was the stream, glistening silver in the torchlight. He lowered his head and brought the cool fresh water to his mouth and drank. His eyes closed and he breathed deeply. He could hear soft distant Chinese voices, arguments, laughter. Should he return to the restaurant? Could he? The descent and its mishaps had been his greatest exertions in years. He didn’t know what, if any, reserves he retained. He might find a settlement and call for a taxi to take him back. Could he, without a wallet? Of course. He was a gentleman. A gentleman, that’s what he was. Ting would be worried by now, wouldn’t she, back in the restaurant finishing her dinner. Who cares! This is where I want to be. This is Bernie’s place. This is Bernie following it all to the logical extreme, not turning back. This is where Bernie is and where he wants to be.
A red-eyed snake, black and glistening, was watching him. Big sucker. Two, three feet to his right. Gaping, Bernie picked up a thick stick and struck at it, missing. The snake stared, eyes wide with loathing, hissing, opening its jaws a little. “Bastard, you’re in my way!” Bernie yelled. The snake edged closer. Bernie struck it hard beside the head and it shot out at him, just missing his hand and locking its jaws on the stick, its hideous, rubbery body writhing and flailing. Bernie lifted the stick and brought the jaws down hard on a rock, again and again. Then with disgust he tossed stick and snake, all five feet of him, into the stream. The snake disengaged and swam in the opposite direction. Bernie sat back on his heels in the soft earth and bellowed with laughter, his arms barely strong enough to raise now. “Bernie Clybourn, survivalist extraordinaire, deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia,” he told the darkness about him.
The dove! What the fuck am I chasing the dove for? Fatuous old ass, I am. But it’s pure and white, yeah. Aggie loved doves. Aggie loved doves, ergo Bernie gets doves. Simple’s that. Got to get up. Deep breath, strength to get up. Too weak. Worn-out old geezer. A buck well-spent. Ha. On my knees in the black of night – like a whimpering kid preparing for beddie-bye. Yeah. Always needled Aggie when caught her with her beads in bed. Feeling your pain now, old girl, big time. Horse’s ass with oakleaf clusters. Knew you’d always be there so why not shoot my mouth off? Leave you alone in an empty house Monday through Friday, then weekends, and, oh shit, even vacations while I worked on my tan and my beach cool. Raise hell over anything not done just the way I wanted it though everything you did for me was better’n anybody else ever did. Oh, so much better, babe. I know now. Yeah, I know.
Mottled moonlight now filtered wanly through the jungly canopy. From his knees through burning eyes he could see the dove still perched on the root along the stream bank. He took another deep breath and found himself struggling to his feet. “Nice dovey,” he intoned. “Be Bernie’s nice dovey. Bernie love doveys. Want take dovey back to my home and give her everything a dovey could want. She be world’s most loved dovey. She have my big back yard all to herself and mountains of birdseed.”
He was climbing on knees and hands over the elevated roots, large as dinosaur limbs. The tree was on the edge of another sharp drop in the ravine, its roots reaching meticulously into soil between jagged rock projections, its primary trunk at an angle like a lurching sailor. One tortuous root, thick as a telephone pole, snaked out and then turned at a right angle downward along the cliff face over which the stream apparently dropped in a long freefall to rocky benches lost in darkness far below but audible with splashings from the plummeting water. The bird hopped out to the venturesome root.
Gotta be careful, careful, old man, Bernie told himself. He took off his suit coat, hung it on a broken branch and wiped his eyes and nose with his big pocket handkerchief, amazingly still dry. Gotta be careful. He cautiously straddled the root that held the dove maybe twelve feet away, pushing ahead with his feet until there no longer was earth below his shoes. Tough on the old cajones, whew! Then he managed with one hand forward and another behind to slide his buttocks, with great discomfort, along the hard, wet root, which narrowed as it twisted further from its source. “Nice dovey. Nice little dovey.” The bird watched him, immobile, its dark eyes shining with flickers of gold, irretrievably bound to this one old man so relentless in pursuit. From within the almost transparent eyes came a soft caressing light, a glowing familiar warmth Bernie felt within with gratefulness, with satisfaction for his unshirked quest. The dove did not stir. Bernie reached out with assurance and took the bird in his two hands. He brought it up to his face and the light from its gold-flecked eyes pierced to his core with a sustaining gentleness, while the root began to sag and creak under Bernie’s two-hundred pounds, lowering slowly as Bernie brought the bird to his lips and felt himself sliding forward along the slick, sloping surface, sliding and then plunging in blackness, the bird soft and pulsating against his lips, falling with the spray, the plash of the waterfall, the warmth of the bird’s body, a sense of calm, even of anticipation.
Ernest Siegel took out the chamois cloth Costco gave him to clean his glasses and used it to carefully polish the Smith & Wesson .38 Special he’d bought at a gun show the week before. The barrel reflected the dim light in his bedroom, where he sat at his desk contemplating his future, which was already behind him. He chambered a single round and gave the cylinder a spin. Then he placed the gun on the desk. A ladybug was crawling across its top, making slow progress. He waited until it climbed onto his finger, took it to the open window, and set it free.
“Fly,” he said. “Mr. Ladybug’s probably waiting for you at home with all the little babybugs. Fly,” he intoned.
That done, he sat down at his desk and resumed his contemplation. He was a 52-year-old accounting instructor at the local community college. He had thin blond hair, sad blue eyes, and was carrying 40 pounds of extra weight, mostly around his stomach and ass. He hated his job and his life. He’d never married or had kids. He had no siblings, few friends, and no girlfriend. He lived in a small studio apartment in the good part of a bad city, and jacked off every night to pictures from his thick collection of pornographic magazines and books. Filled with self-pity, he put the gun barrel in his mouth.
Brring, Brring, Brring…Brring, Brring, Brring…Brring, Brring, Brring.
“Call from J Siegel,” the phone said in its machine voice.
“Call from J Siegel.”
J Siegel popped up on the phone’s little screen. He picked it up.
“Hi Ma,” he said, and put off suicide for the night.
Judy Block, who lived across the hall, was round and unsightly, with thick glasses, hairy legs, and an olive tinge to her skin. She loved to bake. She made inside-out cakes and pumpkin pies, macadamia nut cookies and chocolate fudgie-fudge balls. She made apple crispies and jelly belly beans, banana-nana raisin bread and custard pudding, rugelach and nugelach, kugel and knishes, and homemade kishkes. She made bagels and lox, cream cheese and latkes. She even made her own gefilte fish from a secret recipe handed down from her late great grandfather, the famous Lubavicher Rabbi, Shlomo von Gizzard, otherwise known as Lizardman due to his greenish complexion, which he passed on to his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Once or twice a week Judy would knock on Ernest’s door. He felt like ignoring her or telling her to go away, but he never did.
He’d open the door and say, “Hi Judy, c’mon in.”
She always brought food. He always made tea and put out plates and silverware.
“What are you doing?” she’d ask, like she knew he was up to no good.
“Grading papers,” he’d say. “Getting ready for class.”
“How about you?”
“Same thing,” she’d say. She taught third grade at a nearby elementary school. Sometimes she’d tell him stories about the kids. More often, she’d ask him questions: what movies he’d seen lately; what his favorite TV shows were; what kind of dog he’d get if the place they lived in let them have dogs; if he ever took piano lessons. Sometimes she’d ask if he wanted to have lunch one day, but he always said he was too busy. After 20 minutes or so of gabbing, he’d stretch his arms over his head and start yawning loudly.
“Past my bedtime,” he’d say, and open the door. “Goodnight Judy,” he’d say.
“Sleep tight, Ernest,” she’d reply.
It started with contact lenses and Invisalign braces, then advanced to salads, yogurt, no-fat cottage cheese, smoothies, and expensive haircuts. Judy joined a gym and took up yoga and Pilates.
“I’ve had it with being fat and unsightly,” she said to Ernest one night. “No one will go out with me, and I’m sick and tired of living like a hermit.”
“But you’re fine just the way are,” Ernest lied.
“No I’m not,” she said. “You won’t even have lunch with me, and my mother said she’d disown me if I put on any more weight.”
As the months went by, Ernest started to see the changes in Judy. She lost 30 lbs and wore nice clothes. She shaved her legs and put on makeup that turned her greenish tinge into an exotic look. One guy even told her she had nice skin.
Now when she came to visit she brought recipes for Multi-Bran Chex Cereal breakfasts and smoothies. She showed him the new clothes she’d bought and talked about guys she was going out with. She even brought him a complimentary ticket to her gym and a pair of weights; said they’d firm up his arms and pecs.
After she left, he’d go into his bedroom, think about Judy, and wack off. He decided to take her up on those offers to have lunch together, but Judy didn’t show up at Ernest’s door as frequently as she used to, and eventually, she stopped coming altogether.
One afternoon Ernest saw her in the elevator and asked if she wanted to go to a nice restaurant.
“You look great,” he said. “How about we go to L’Auberge Ooh LaLa on Friday night.”
“I’d love to Ernest,” she said, “but I’ve already made other plans.”
“How about lunch on Tuesday?”
“I’m sorry Ernest, but I have to fill in for another teacher,” she said. She took his hand and held it lightly. “Maybe some other time,” she said.
Ernest had no cause to feel a new sense of hope, but he did. He went upstairs and played with himself. Maybe he’d change his life too. He joined the gym, but stopped going after two weeks. He felt embarrassed by his fat. He started using the recipes Judy brought and lost 15 lbs., but eventually regained all that weight and more.
He took out the chamois cloth Costco gave him to clean his glasses and used it to carefully polish the Smith & Wesson .38 Special. The barrel reflected the dim light in his bedroom. He sat at his desk contemplating his future, which was already behind him. He chambered a single round and gave the cylinder a spin. He put the muzzle between his lips and decided that he liked the taste of gunmetal.
“Brrring, Brring, Brring…Brring, Brring, Brring.
He didn’t even look at the phone’s little screen; just picked up the handset.
“What,” he said impatiently.
“How about Saturday night? L’Auberge Ooh LaLa. Stop by at 8:00, okay?”
“Perfect,” Ernest said. He pumped his fist in the air with so much enthusiasm the gun slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. The noise of the discharge was deafening. Ernest held his hands over his ears then slumped down in his chair. He felt himself all over, looking for bloody holes. He stared into the mirror, saw his startled reflection and assumed he was still among the living. Then he began to worry about the bullet, where it might’ve gone. He heard sirens, and imagined himself in prison as Fat Boy, part of a ménage a trois. He felt a chill go down his spine. When the police kicked in the door, he was sitting at his desk crying.
Ernest got a $500 fine, a 6 month suspended sentence for discharging a firearm within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling, and 220 hours of community service. He joined Habitat for Humanity and learned how to construct houses. He worked hard for a year—hauling, hammering, cutting, climbing, and sweating. His body firmed up and he had to buy new clothes. He felt strong and good. He’d leave early and come home late, with no energy left to even think about sex.
Judy brought salads and smoothies. They were pink, red, orange and green. She brought him a big jug of whey powder and a blender. He was 40 lbs. lighter, with a sparkle in his eyes and a deep tan.
One night Judy told Ernest, who was too tired to do anything, that she was horny.
“Ernest,” she said, “I’m horny.”
“I’m too tired,” he replied, hardly believing his own ears.
He went into his bedroom, grabbed a stack of pornographic magazines and books and handed them to her.
“Here,” he said. “You start without me. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Judy went back to her apartment and started flipping through the first book. It had a perfectly round hole in every page. In fact, every book and magazine had the same hole from front to back. When she checked out the Kama Sutra, a nugget of metal fell onto the floor. She picked up the bullet and held in her hand.
“Wow,” she said, and put it on the nightstand.
She read another story about a tall blond cowboy with two women. She reached down and felt her wetness, spread her legs and touched her nipples. A tall blond man with a gun, she thought, just what I’ve always wanted. She imagined Ernest in bed beside her, dropped the book on the floor and shuddered as she came.
Buckley is an award-winning freelance medical writer. Her work has appeared online and in print in Versal, Paradigm, Danse Macabre, and other journals.
THE NU ADVENTURES OF TOM SWIFT, BOY INVENTOR: PART 1
A Nu Prose arrangement based on the series “The Adventures of Tom Swift” by Victor Appleton, Grosset & Dunlap, 1911 – 1924
Tom Swift and the Secret Plan
“That will give us something to go by,” Tom said. Boulders were heaped up on boulders, and rocks upon rocks were piled up in heaps. There were enough of them, they thought, to cope with one man, even if he was armed. One of the government agents located some of the smuggled goods in a small town whose name was being kept secret for the moment. He walked around with a big club, looking fierce. It was highly likely that they would repeat the trick that night.
He sent the craft around in a long, sweeping motion. This might be a big thing! He was going to keep his eyes open. They went fishing in a nearby lake and had some luck. But he could not use his hands very well. The whizz of the propellers carried some distance. A great silence seemed to follow the terrific report. Gentle as a bird, he made a landing not far from the gun. He was rather anxious as to the outcome of the storm. They changed the whole matter. He had never thought of that. Perhaps it could be done.
Inventing a number of small things, including useful articles for the house, was a sort of recreation for him. Some of the men were as interested in it as he was. Who knew how “freaky” the high explosive was, how likely to be set off by the least concussion? “It was only an ordinary faint, caused by some slight electrical shocks,” he said. They tried to make additional openings. Before them was an awe-inspiring sight. High into the air the great masses of stone were thrown. He looked behind him somewhat apprehensively.
Nearly every day was misty, with gradations from mere drizzles to downpours. He wished he could get rid of the rascally German. (It was the verdict of all who witnessed the performance.) He was now able to devote all his attention to the “frills.” “I’ll always blame myself if Ned goes blind,” he said. He was foolish enough to tell them about his formula. He was wise enough to realize this. He couldn’t help overhearing what they said in the hall. One voice was low and rumbling, the other high-pitched and querulous.
The house was so cozy and quaint that it really gave him an appetite. They deployed to different places of advantage. It was now a roaring furnace of flames. “We won’t decide right away,” he replied as cheerfully as he could. He didn’t heed the cries of wonder that arose from below.
He had always been within easy reach. He squelched him so hard, he guessed he’d never annoy her again. At first he had been his usual bright and voluble self, but even his good spirits died away. Every waking hour was crowded. There might have been a dozen reasons for either of these things, he thought. Beneath them sprawling in the heat of the Texas sun, a pioneer town sprang up like magic. In the living room, the elder Swift fumed, as was his habit. The hissing sound grew louder. He danced around, wild with excitement. He felt the old urge coming on, and he was hankering to get at it.
I might explain that near the spot where it was expected to fall had been computed as nearly as possible. Everything was ready now. “It would take considerable digging to open a way though that side of the mountain,” the man said. It would be a big flood when it did come. He held out a piece of wire rope. On top of that came a steel block. It looked like a bunch of excelsior, only yellow instead of white.
They were deep in the discussion of terms when Mary saw an automobile coming up the road. Everything was on a miniature scale to save expense. It proved to be a more serious case than at first he thought it would be.
She flew upstairs and in a moment returned with the photograph. Their clothes were so saturated and heavy they could hardly move. He was now as cool and self-possessed as ever. He had placed his reliance on steel as the material best suited to stand the strain. He scrutinized it carefully and gave a sigh of relief. “What do you mean by that?” asked Tom. They never had so much bother with a contract. It was the simple truth, and he knew it.
The questions came tumbling out of him. He took advantage of a lull in the thundering reverberations. The field sloped down to the beach of the lake. Tom realized this. His father shook his head. Then he opened the window and looked out. Flames were spouting higher and higher, licking up the remainder of the pile. The day before he was to carry out his plans, he had received a letter. The door was open and what was inside was burned to ashes. He was sufficiently agile to escape from the automobile while it was still making good speed.
It was a pretty poor specimen of a modern building, out of all proportion to its size. With keen eyes he began to set the automatic gauges. He turned on a little more power. The gang of unscrupulous and cowardly men was in a veritable panic of fear. The earth trembled and there was a big sheet of flame, seen even in bright sunlight. Into the transverse valley it tumbled and tossed. His wildest hopes had been confirmed. He did not seem to know the meaning of fear.
Tom winked at Ned. He was not injured beyond some bruises. A rider came nearer and nearer, wildly waving a flag. He was more than repaid by the satisfaction of helping his country. Tom, hastily clad, leaped on deck, followed by his chum. He had to begin all over again, and he had many new problems to figure out. The pieces flew in straight lines, so they were safe enough there.
Peter Ramon: I am an old guy, been writing poetry and plays many years, recently started writing experimental (advanced) prose based on techniques of expropriation and collage in which the principle of composition is a balance of choice and chance. Was born in Brooklyn, NY, which is where I get my wise guy attitude, but have lived many years in sunny Austin, TX, where I get my southern charm.
The final fight was televised, at the end of a rainy pier in New Jersey. And even though it was a moment most people had been waiting for, many didn’t watch.
The son certainly understood.
Only a million or so had vanished at the appointed hour. Which sounded like a lot, until you factored in that the world population was climbing towards seven billion.
Which is to say that nearly seven billion people were not worthy enough.
The churches were full before “The Rapture.” The mosques, the temples. There were an over abundance of the faithful, and yet they remained after the big lift off.
It was, the son assured them, part of His sense of humor.
People were still waiting for the punch line.
Some remarked that only the most ardent atheists had been chosen.
The son saw the irony. The poetic injustice of it.
But he was heaven’s PR. He couldn’t very well go around badmouthing the institution.
Folks were disillusioned. The son could understand that. Hell, he was disillusioned. When he’d been sent down in a fiery ball of white light people had expected more.
He’d expected more.
It was the kind of role he thought he’d live up to when the moment arose; but he hadn’t. The angels had told him he was a late bloomer, but now he wasn’t so sure.
In Jerusalem his father had been speaking through him most of the time, as though he were a marionette. People listened because they recognized wisdom when they heard it, but it wasn’t the son’s; he hadn’t actually contributed anything.
Besides getting an ancient Aramaic strain of herpes from that Magdalene girl. That had been his decision. That whole dying on the cross business had been nothing more than bells and whistles. No one had died for anyone’s sins. There was no such thing as sin.
His father could put on a show when he wanted.
So there they were. He and the Evil One.
CNN. MSNBC. Even C-SPAN. (Fox News had fallen apart after it was discovered Rupert Murdoch was a closet atheist).
At the end of that pier on that stormy night. The faithful few piled in behind the son as multitudes of the Evil One’s quickly growing army crept in tow.
And then he saw the Evil One’s beautiful black cloak. It was a shade of midnight most pleasing to the eye and looked as soft to the touch as a baby robin’s down.
The son wanted badly to feel it with his own two fingers.
The Evil One’s face was grotesque, to be sure. But in a worldly kind of way. It gave you the sense he’d gone places, done things. At least, a lot more than the son had done.
“You still don’t want to do this, do you?” the Evil One sighed.
And the son hung his head in embarrassment.
Two of the son’s followers lashed out with swords, trying to cut off the Evil One’s head. The Evil One turned them into gigantic caterpillars with bristly hairs and defensive spikes that would ensure they had forever irritated skin.
As the two giant caterpillars squirmed away in disgrace, the last of the son’s faithful followers held crosses in front of the Evil One’s face, chanting things they’d read in the new age section of used book stores.
The Evil One snapped his fingers and the remaining would-be assailants found themselves transformed into giant leaves with faces, hands and feet. The caterpillars couldn’t help themselves, and started chasing the leaves, as they were very hungry.
“We don’t have to do this,” the Evil One said.
“I’ve never wanted to do this,” the son agreed.
“I’m really not all that bad once you get to know me.”
“I never really thought you were…can I touch your cloak?”
The Evil One gave it to him.
“Thanks,” the son said. It felt nice and warm.
“We could be partners,” the Evil One suggested.
“You mean in a business venture?” the son said excitedly. “I’ve always wanted to own my own chain of restaurants.”
“It’s a start,” the Evil One laughed. “It’s a start.”
And the two of them shook hands.
The son’s father watched on from Mount Olympus in shock.
“They’re both fucking dead,” He stammered, transfixed with the television screen. “Done for!”
“Careful,” Zeus warned. “You come down too hard, you never know what can happen.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” Zeus smiled a winning smile, “I killed my own father for that kind of behavior.”
“Really?” He sat back in surprise. “How did I not know that?”
“Disinformation campaigns,” Zeus clucked. “Really good disinformation campaigns.”
“What did he do that was so bad?”
“He tried to eat me!” Zeus laughed at the thought of it.
“Hmm,” He sat back in thought. “So if he’d left you alone, you think you would have killed him?”
“Hell no,” Zeus assured him. “He was going to eat me, you have to understand.”
“Well I’d never thinking of doing anything that drastic,” He made a face.
“In any case,” Zeus nodded. “All kids really want is independence.”
“Fuck it,” He said. “They can have that universe. I’ll build another.”
“That’s the spirit!” Zeus agreed. “No use crying over spilled milk.”
They turned the channel and He tried to think about something else as he relaxed. If he was going to create another universe, he was going to need some serious R & R.
“Letterman’s on,” Shiva called out. “Everyone quiet, please!”
It had been a good run, He thought. A damned good run.