"By the Woods" by Christopher Woods; http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/
About this image: "This photograph has an expectant tone. What is in the woods? Humans have fables about journeys into the forest. Animals must also have some trepidation about the unknown. But then, like us, they venture forth. Or, perhaps the woods offers protection. It can go either way." —Christopher Woods
*PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS THE AUTUMN–WINTER EDITION OF THE FICTION PAGE. JOIN US ON 3/1 FOR THE WINTER–SPRING ISSUE THAT KICKS OFF THE 2018 CELEBRATION OF OUR PUBLICATION’S DECADE MILESTONE!
Welcome to Our Fiction Section!
"The Painting" by Mason Brunnick "Too Many Tongues" by Adam Luebke "Zachery’s Monster" by Joshua Shapiro "The Mentor" by Michael Tidemann
by Mason Brunnick "Goddamnit,” Melanie mumbled, thrusting her key into the lock again, but the door remained shut. The barrier that kept her safe, at least in her mind, was now preventing her from reaching the haven she desired. Melanie took a deep breath and slid the key back into the lock, but the handle still wouldn’t budge.
Is it me or is it the door? Melanie thought as she reexamined her grip on the rusted metal, careful not to blemish her freshly manicured nails, and tried again. Her final attempt was successful and the door gave way to her force.
Melanie entered the apartment.
The smell of home was immersive, but only her subconscious was aware of this pleasure; Melanie's mind was still racing after her abrupt departure from Matt’s apartment.
She burst through the hallway and into the living room, throwing her copy of Matt’s key into the trash. The clicking of her heels echoed off the hardwood—a grim reminder of the surprise gone awry. A surprise that had resulted in her own revelations: Matt was cheating on her and her precious time had been wasted. What more could he want from the petite blonde she found in his bed that she hadn’t given him?
Melanie took another step forward and the clicks halted—Matt’s face was glaring at her from the corner of the living room. Her stomach turned, yet she couldn’t look away. She grimaced and recalled the countless hours spent attempting to capture his glory. Regardless of her dedication and unwavering attention, she was never satisfied with the result. While she saw only perfection in Matt, she could see only the flaws in her art.
With her newfound knowledge, Melanie realized that she had not failed in her work after all—she was never meant to succeed at such an impossible task. The portrait could never be perfect because her subject was imperfect. His beautiful, loving smile now served as a reminder of the secrets he held—her personal Mona Lisa.
Melanie began taking short, erratic breaths as the haze of chaos diffused through her mind.
“I can’t believe this!” she exploded, pacing around the expansive, double-height space. Melanie opened her purse, unzipped the side pocket, and withdrew a prescription bottle. She dispensed two small white pills into her sweat covered palm. She had been instructed to only take one, but now she wanted to be—needed to be—numb.
Sitting down on the large beige sectional, she tried to regain focus. Reality set in and her world became clear: it was disastrous.
“Oh, my God!” Melanie screamed as she bent over, muffling her anguish. How dare he ruin their relationship, defiling her perfect life. The subsequent anger, sadness and confusion soon became overwhelming. Melanie could feel her control over her emotions slipping, but she couldn’t let herself go—not completely. God only knew what she was capable of in this dark, vulnerable state.
After several deep breaths, Melanie regained her composure and walked across the living room to the large window overlooking Sullivan Street. Melanie pulled back the white curtains as sunlight washed over her wet, tear-stained face. The rays felt soothing and she was momentarily transformed, transported to a place she couldn’t quite describe. She wanted to stay forever.
The warmth held her so tightly that she didn’t process the noise originating from her entryway. Moments later, the door buzzed again and Melanie was jerked from her trance. She turned to face the source of the sound but the light fought for her to stay. Once again, the noise came and the clicking resumed.
Melanie approached the door and pressed the buzzer. She knew it was him.
For the next hour, Melanie sat alone in her kitchen and tried to process the recent encounter. Her meeting with Matt had not progressed as she planned—it had only aggravated the situation.
The amplified pain was marginally dulled from her buzz, but it still wasn’t enough for her to cope. In the face of such betrayal, Melanie needed a distraction—she needed to work. But first, a trip to the hardware store.
The blue tarp popped and crackled as Melanie aired out her recent purchase. Spreading the tarp across the middle of her apartment would be an easier task for two, but Melanie would have to manage alone.
As she flattened out one corner of the tarp, a small cloud of dust billowed up around the rigid edges.
I’ve only been gone a week. Disgusting. Melanie’s thoughts were severed between the accumulation of filth in her apartment and the putrefaction of her relationship. A week—just one week away to visit her parents and everything had changed. The unforeseen chain reaction of events stemmed from Melanie’s own innocent secret from Matt: a meticulously planned surprise visit back a day earlier than he expected her to return with the prospect of cooking a romantic dinner together. The sounds from his bedroom still echoed in her mind. She felt nauseous and needed fresh air.
Melanie walked over to the window again and pushed the frame up. New York City erupted through the opening, bringing with it a cool breeze.
I miss the quiet, she thought, reflecting on the recent trip to her family’s home in the suburbs. I miss feeling like I matter. Melanie leaned against the wall and stuck her head out of the window. The transient tranquility of the light which had preserved her before was now gone. She felt remarkably alone.
I am invisible in this city, she thought, gazing at the pedestrians hurrying by below—following every step as they progressed through the endless maze of intersections. How can a stranger who creates my entire world be utterly unaware of my existence?
Melanie rested her elbows on the sill and continued to observe the foot traffic.
I wonder who is watching me, Melanie thought, scanning the buildings across the street, searching for a face—any sign of life. Melanie gave up after a few minutes, unsuccessful in her search, and returned to the center of the apartment to finish positioning the tarp. She didn’t mind the extra effort—taking the time now would allow her to savor the final product without interruption.
After a few more adjustments, the setup was complete. Adrenaline pumped through her veins and a small shiver traveled from her fingertips, through her body, and up her spine.
This is going to be my finest work yet, she thought.
As she began mentally planning the process, it became apparent that precision would be key. She would not be given the chance to correct the mistakes another medium could offer.
Melanie’s art table was situated in the corner of her living room. Facing the wall, Melanie placed her utensils across the flat surface, evenly spaced, arranged smallest to largest. She picked up the smallest tool to begin. The object felt at home in her hand as she turned around and approached her soon-to-be masterpiece.
She stood in front of her medium and initiated the process with a long, smooth stroke. The bright red color popped and Melanie felt an erotic sensation tingle throughout her body. Very few events in life had given her a comparable feeling and she couldn’t stop after one taste. She needed more, so she continued.
Melanie was pleased with how much control the utensil granted her. She worried that her use would be limited based on prior misconceptions, but after a few more strokes, she was in complete control.
An hour passed and Melanie began to sweat profusely from the intensity of the process and the anticipation of the final product. The open window initially helped cool down the apartment, but her elevated body temperature was countering its effects. Still, Melanie continued to work.
Another hour passed with significant progress as she pushed through her discomfort until the muscles in her arms became fatigued after she advanced to a larger utensil. Willpower doesn’t always beat physicality, she thought. She put the tool down and took a break.
Melanie walked into the bathroom to wash her hands. She laughed at her naivety for how messy the process had been. She had seen reenactments on TV and in movies, but never knew it could be like this.
Leaving the bathroom, cleansed, she passed by her travel bag, still packed, full of memories from her recent trip. Reflecting a moment, she smiled. Melanie’s gaze then drifted from the bag to the smashed vase on the floor and her negative feelings flooded back.
“I finish this now," Melanie said aloud. She walked back into her living room, grabbed the largest utensil from the art table and extended her arm. With a quick flick of her wrist, it was complete.
The late afternoon sunlight ate away at the lingering darkness in the room, penetrating through in a thousand rays, slowly crawling towards Melanie.
Taking a step back, away from the light, she admired her work. The older wounds had caked over while the newer ones continued to drip warmth down his face. His imperfect beauty was now unrecognizable and a faint gurgling escaped as his jaw relaxed around the cloth in his mouth, never to betray her again. Fresh, bright blood flowed across his chest from his exposed throat, covering his naked body. Melanie wasn’t sure if it would ever stop. She hoped it wouldn’t.
Melanie beamed. In her mind, it was her greatest triumph—finally, she had achieved a true rendering of him.
Bio: Mason Brunnick is a real estate developer by day and a writer by night. Originally from Asheville, NC, he attended Harvard College, competed for the swimming and diving team, and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
Too Many Tongues
by Adam Luebke
Gregor was called into the kitchen. Afreeda was as frazzled as she gets. Tufts of hair floated away from her temples. She’d thrown off her hijab. The kitchen was dreadfully warm. He cranked open a window. The cinnamon sticks he’d thrown into the pot were bobbing atop the boiling water. “How can I help?”
“Is it getting better out there?”
“Not really. I just hope they get used to it.” He could smell the cinnamon in the kitchen, but it wasn’t wafting out there fast enough.
Afreeda let out a tiny growl from her throat. Gregor liked it when she did that, but lately the sound had lost its warmth and he worried they were drifting apart.
“We don’t have enough dessert for all of them, either. If they even have an appetite after the smell.” She opened cupboards, and then the refrigerator trying to find something she forgot was there. But she turned up nothing, except a plate with one piece of dried out chocolate cake wrapped in foil. “This is how they’ll think Palestinian ladies serve their guests. They’ll think this is Palestinian hospitality,” she said, and put the plate in his hands. “Next time when you invite over a houseful of guests, give me a few hours’ notice.”
“They won’t,” Gregor said. “They understand it was spur of the moment.” Maybe we could cut up a couple of apples, he thought, but didn’t say it.
“Help me make coffee at least,” she said. “I’ll make it Arabic style, and we’ll use the finajeen.”
Gregor opened the cupboard and reached to the highest shelf. He lowered a tray tinkling with a set of twelve small cups, each with its own saucer. They were a gift from her mother for their marriage. He wondered if he should go entertain their guests. He couldn’t stand on his head, but he’d get laughs if he tried. He could hear the silence, and then one daring voice try to break ground, only to meet more silence. They needed that device the United Nations used to facilitate conversation between the many nations. Rather, their living room hadn’t quite developed that far, and he was afraid they were stuck milling around the Tower of Babel in scattered confusion, after God’s visit and displeasure.
Afreeda arranged the little saucers. She already had another pot of water boiling. She washed out each finjan and set it back on the tray. “Cut the cake,” she said. “Be useful for a change.”
He did not remember that tone when they’d first married. That voice beneath her real voice. It was the sharp pricking of a weed’s spiky leaves beneath the feet while stepping across the warm, summer lawn. Each step after was more cautious, less relaxed, less pleasing. That tone left him feeling disconnected from everyone in his life, from her and certainly from the people in the living room, and even his parents, who lived on the West Coast and had their own business to attend to—his mother running a nail salon and his father blundering in real estate investment. As if he’d let down everyone he’d ever known. He wasn’t sure she was conscious of it, or to what depth she despised him. And then he wondered if everybody felt the same way about him. What didn’t help was the part of him that despised her.
Gregor took the foil off the piece of cake and took a knife to it. The best he could do was cut five slivers. “If I go thinner,” he said, “I’ll have to get the ends down to a couple of molecules only.” She didn’t seem to understand. There were five guests, not including Gregor and Afreeda. They didn’t need cake, of course, but to divide that piece beyond two was going to be difficult. And Red the repairman wouldn’t even recognize anything less than a slice as thick and tall as his fist. He allocated the shavings to five plates and left them lined in a row for Afreeda to serve.
Back in the living room, Gregor saw the Turkish couple was standing. “No, wait, we haven’t even served coffee yet,” he told them.
“Coffee?” Turnam said. He seemed to know that word.
Gregor patted the couch and they sat beside the Persians. He knew Afreeda would be devastated if anybody left without her serving something. “So, how’s everybody?” he asked.
"Alhamdullilah," all but Red said, not in perfect harmony, but close enough. Praise be to God.
“Alhamdullilah,” Gregor said, taking pleasure that they’d finally found a common code.
Red the repairman was looking at the walls and glancing down the hallway. “I forgot,” he said, “that you guys don’t have a TV.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure how you do it.” Behind the couch, on the other side of the bare white wall, a small dog whined.
Gregor often reflected on that evening, when they’d ended up having half of a United Nations assembly in their living room, and how fuzzy his perspective was in contrast with the chilling clarity brought by the very next day.
It so happened that after prayers got done at the mosque that evening, Gregor’s Turkish acquaintance insisted he and Afreeda come to their home for coffee. It was nearly midnight, but that was not unaccustomed for Ramadan, when many Muslims stay up through the night because they’d fasted all day. The Turk had been inviting them for some time, and Gregor had been putting him off gently for some time. Because Gregor had converted to Islam before marrying Afreeda, and was the only guy of European descent in the mosque, it seemed like special attention was focused on him after every prayer. He’d mostly stopped going to Friday prayer because he didn’t like the barrage of invites every week. Invites for lunch, coffee, and dinner. He didn’t have the heart to keep turning down everyone. Every week he dreaded digging up fake excuses about why he was busy morning to night, seven days a week.
He was an IT guy at the university, and nearly everyone who attended the mosque was from overseas, and was a student at some level. Keeping a professional distance between himself and the students was important. Besides, they’d all be going back to their own countries eventually, taking with them their education. Why strike up a meaningful relationship? Every week became more stressful until he decided not to go. He’d pray at home, he told Afreeda—most times he forgot.
Afreeda become fraught at his straying from the prayer, and she’d even had her old man call him once from Jordan. Of course, Gregor couldn’t understand two words of Arabic, and the father couldn’t understand two words of English. To combat the issue, her old man shouted. Their voices rose simultaneously, with Afreeda popping in to translate, until finally her father’s verdict flung like sounds of TV gunfire and static through the phone: Gregor must pray more often. Gregor must go to the mosque twice a week.
What rule book her old man was reading, Gregor didn’t know. But, Afreeda agreed with it. “I thought I married a man with strong faith in his heart,” she said, “so how could I have foreseen this?” Then she answered herself in Arabic, leaving Gregor fuming. Also, the words had crushed him. All the things he did to make her happy, like bringing home a paycheck, supporting her education, and helping cook meals. Yet, all she could think about was that he didn’t get to the mosque as much as she (and her old man) would like.
He hardly responded to her anymore unless they were in a playful mood; then they joked around just fine for a few unfamiliar minutes. He’d always known marriage would be a lot of ups and downs, but he didn’t think it would be tensely lived out in separate rooms.
It wasn’t that he had kicked the faith. Not totally, anyway. He wasn’t that religious when he met her. He’d played it up because he loved her innocence and purity behind the instant beauty of her puffy lips and wide eyes. There was no way Gregor would have married a non-religious woman after all of the girlfriends he’d had in the past. They were untrustworthy, even sneaky at times, eager to show their independence from a previous male figure. He’d never been good at picking them. He’d found no such characteristics like that in Afreeda. She seemed to have no real hang-ups until it came to the prayer and the mosque. On some level, he knew he deserved her anger, but he didn’t think he could change who he was.
He wouldn’t say he’d deceived her, but having a strong religious personality wasn’t for him. For a few weeks after they’d married, he prayed in the mosque every week. At that time, a part of him thought he could swing that lifestyle. But he couldn’t keep up that show, and after a year of marriage, they’d almost come to terms with his not praying, but the issue smoldered and suddenly there was a flash of annoyance, and then they were tussling back and forth, wounding each other with cruel tones.
He’d kept up the grueling pace for Ramadan by escorting Afreeda to prayer every night, around ten-thirty, when the horizon finally blotted out the unending summer sun. He liked visiting in the mosque after the prayers, for a few minutes, but then he wanted to get back home to work on the software programs he was creating; the ones he hoped would earn him a fortune. When the Turk finally strong-armed Gregor to take him up on his invitation, Gregor was weak. It was the Holy Month, after all. The jovial mood had infected him. For one moment, something about midnight coffee with Turkish folks seemed stirring. Mark it in the things-you-don’t-do-every-day file, he thought.
“You must come,” the Turk said. Groups of men milled about, chatting, and the general sense of ease filled the prayer area after a long day of fasting, and a night of prayers. “You said you will come, you must come.”
Afreeda was downstairs in the women’s section, and he knew she wouldn’t want to go over to their home so late. They didn’t like to visit people’s homes very often. They didn’t like to eat other people’s food. They were picky. And after the prayer, they both liked to stay up into the early morning hours before the fasting would begin again. But he knew he couldn’t keep putting off the Turk, so the only option he could think of on the spot like that was to invite him over to their place instead. Then Afreeda could control the food and coffee and feel more at ease.
Gregor put one hand on the Turk’s tight shoulder. The Turk was in the engineering department, and like the buildings and bridges he hoped to someday build, he too seemed solidly built. “Come to our place first. It’s closer,” Gregor said.
“We come to?” he asked. He knew select English words—enough to maybe order a meal. “We come?”
“To my house,” Gregor said, and patted his chest. “You.” He poked the Turkish guy’s chest. “Your wife.” He pointed downstairs.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “my wife. Me.”
“You come to our place now.”
“But we,” he said, and couldn’t think of the word.
“Invite you,” he said.
Gregor repeated the offer, and the Turk didn’t have the vocabulary to dispute him. When they stepped outside, he told Afreeda, who put on a big smile that didn’t quite brighten her eyes, and all four of them drove back to their place together.
The apartment smelled strange. It hit Gregor as soon as he opened the door. He panicked with the Turks behind him, and no time to crack a window. The smell was a little sour and prickly, just crinkling the edges of each breath. A smell between body odor and rotting vegetables. The only thing he could think of was the cauliflower they’d cooked in oil. It had a mutinous scent after being locked up in the house a few hours. Gregor immediately jogged to the kitchen and dropped two sticks of cinnamon in a pan of water and put it on high heat. He couldn’t recall their home smelling like that before. Back in the living room, he cracked open the large window.
The Turks were a younger couple like Gregor and Afreeda. Neither of them had kids. When Gregor returned from the kitchen, Afreeda was seating them on the couch. The smell was unfair, and had come at the worst time. Gregor joined them. They were polite and seemed not to notice anything. Everybody tried to chat. They didn’t get too far. The Turk’s wife spoke even less English than her husband. Afreeda spoke great English and excellent Arabic, but no Turkish. Gregor spoke English and his Arabic was limited to the prayer and phrases like “Praise be to God.”
Afreeda asked their names. Turnam and Ayesha.
“What does your name mean?” Gregor asked. He tried to motion to himself, but then realized he didn’t know what his own name meant.
Turnam grasped the concept somehow and began explaining. A light headache developed behind Gregor’s forehead just trying to discern what in his speech was English, and what wasn’t. Turnam saw they didn’t understand, so he acted it out with his fingers on his arm. Ayesha laughed. Her eyes followed his marching fingers. A bunch of men on the battlefield, and then they suddenly turned left. At least that’s what Gregor got from it.
“Very proud name,” Gregor said, making his voice rise under the high apartment ceiling. He wanted to liven things up, but he hoped they would leave quickly.
“Not so proud,” Turnam said. They laughed. “Old, old battle. Not good to jets and missiles.”
Gregor asked Ayesha the same question. She turned her eyes to her lap and shrugged. So modest. Her face was red.
“And you, yours?” Turnam asked. He motioned to them.
Gregor said he didn’t know. “Of course, you can make up anything you like for any name and put it online.”
“What is mine, Greg?” Afreeda asked.
From beyond the wall they shared with the neighbor, two dogs started barking. Small dogs with shrill yips. It sounded like they were tearing down the wall with their nails.
“Created,” Afreeda said, looking at him. “I told you when we got married. It means to be created.”
Afreeda went into the kitchen to prepare some light refreshments. They’d all been fasting, after all, from around four in the morning until after nine at night. They’d need water, coffee, and desserts. Afreeda, or the Created, as Gregor thought of her, popped out of the kitchen with glasses of water. The Turks drank and refused refills. When Afreeda brought water to him, he made a great deal of sipping it so he could avoid patching together conversation.
He’d grown up in the upper Midwest, and hadn’t been exposed to many cultures and languages until he’d lived in Los Angeles for a few years while getting his Master’s degree. But even there, he didn’t converse with people who didn’t speak English. He really didn’t have to, unless he stumbled around Koreatown, and when there, he just smiled. It was back in the Midwest where he’d met Afreeda, who was chipping away at her doctorate in health administration and always wondering if she’d made the right decision leaving the Middle East.
Ayesha shifted on the couch. Turnam put his arm around her. “Water, good,” he said, and nodded at the empty glasses on the coffee table.
Gregor sipped again. “Very good.”
They sat, quiet, with a few mumbled words about the prayer. A light touch of cinnamon floated out of the kitchen. Gregor breathed easier, hoping the smell would be concealed. The damage, though, was already done. The Turkish couple would always associate that creeping smell with Gregor and Afreeda.
There was a knock at the door. An uneasiness stole through Gregor’s stomach. Who could be at the door after midnight? The dogs erupted again. He’d never heard them like that before. They were upset about something. The older gal next door, Dolores or Dorothy, didn’t seem to be home, unless she could sleep through such a racket.
The Turks watched him go to the door. Through the peephole he saw a distorted face. It was Saied and his wife. They were in their sixties and retired, visiting from Iran. Their son went to the university in Tidesville, and they’d been living with him all winter.
“What a surprise,” Gregor said, relieved he’d have help with the conversation. For some reason he felt that Iranians and Turks might easily chat back and forth, being more multicultural than the average American. After all, they all lived over there, in that general direction of the world. Maybe it was like Gregor trying to talk to someone from Alabama. It could be done, even if it wasn’t pretty.
“We listen party,” Saied said. He wore a long, heavy jacket despite the warm summer weather. They lived across the street. He hugged Gregor. “We crushed party.”
Gregor motioned for them to join the Turks on the couch. Afreeda popped her head out of the kitchen. “My goodness,” she said, “we’ve got a houseful.”
Saied and his wife had come to love Gregor and Afreeda, despite them not knowing any Farsi. They’d met them at a barbeque thrown by the Language Center, for which Gregor had helped develop an online class. Saied kept telling Afreeda she needed to meet his wife. “You’ll be a good influence on her,” he said. When the two wives finally met that day at the park, Afreeda could only make out a few words she’d learned of Farsi. The most they could share were a few religious phrases in Arabic. They’d repeated their common expressions and nodded along, Gregor too, from time to time, as he held a cup of lemonade and waited for the burgers to finish up on the grill. They’d hardly spent more than five minutes thrashing against the language barrier before politely parting ways.
Every time they ran into Saied, he expressed his sincerest wishes and shook their hands.
With Afreeda in the kitchen, Gregor thought he’d let their four guests entertain themselves and he’d facilitate. He even joked about Turnam’s name meaning an ancient battle move by making the same movements Turnam did on his arm. Saied didn’t understand. Turnam explained.
“I do not,” Saied said to Gregor, and shook his head. “Not know what this man says.”
Everybody laughed. Gregor smiled. His head ached just above his eyebrows.
Saied kept grabbing his nose. He’d not had that tic the last time they’d met. Maybe it was the lingering smell that seemed to ebb and flow in whiffs. Just as Gregor thought he would attempt to bring up the strange smell to his guests, to tell them he didn’t know where it was coming from, and that maybe it was because they’d cooked cauliflower for dinner before going to prayer that evening, or maybe it was drifting in from the garage, where they kept a mouse box to catch the rodents before they could settle under the hood of the car, the doorbell rang again to announce the fifth guest.
Red stood outside, under the white glow of the porch light. Gregor never thought he’d be so happy to see the maintenance man. The dogs next door took up their barking. Their yelps penetrated the wall as if it weren’t there.
“How’s your toilet been?” Red asked, and reached out to shake hands.
“It’s been perfection since the best maintenance man in the Midwest cured it.” He’d never been so chatty with Red before. “You’re here at midnight wondering about the toilet?”
Red brushed his beard with his fingers and looked behind him. “Not exactly. I switched the lamps out here with new solar lights last week. Your neighbor called saying the one above her door didn’t work. During the day I couldn’t figure out if it would flip on at night or not. I was going to come back at ten and see, but I fell asleep watching a show.”
“Anyway, it’s on. It works. It’s too late to knock on her door and tell her. I heard some commotion over here, though, saw your lights on and remembered your wife does Ramadan.”
“Come on in. Afreeda’s making coffee.”
Red raised a hand. “Oh no, I couldn’t be a burden.”
“You’re not,” Gregor said. “You’ll be more life to this party.”
“In that case, I couldn’t turn down a cultural event,” he said. “There are precious few around here.”
That’s when Afreeda called him into the kitchen—sweltering hot, and worried she wouldn’t represent Palestine properly as it was her big turn to host for the first time since they’d been married. Gregor sucked in a long breath, testing the air. He was surer that it was the lingering smell of the cauliflower, but he wasn’t sure why it was so stubborn that it wouldn’t float out the windows and be masked by the cinnamon.
When the coffee was served in the finajeen, Gregor helped pass out the slivers of cake. “A whole piece just for me?” Red asked. He leaned back on the couch and set the plate on his belly. “I’m just teasing you. I’m watching my weight anyway.”
Somehow Saied understood what Red was saying, and said, “It’s just enough, alhamdullilah.”
“Ham?” Red asked. “You’re doing a ham?” He’d already finished his cake and was sliding his fork over the crumbs to stick them to the tines. “I like your guys’ style. Serving the dessert first.” He slid the fork in between his lips, polishing it. “I thought I smelled something.”
“What is the, uh, ham?” Saied asked.
The Turks watched them with a similar smile on their faces. Afreeda was trying to make small talk with Ayesha and Saied’s wife.
Red set the plate on the coffee table and used his thumb to push his nose flat upward. “Ham? It’s from the pig,” he said. “You guys must have them over where you live.”
Saied understood. He hung his head and said, “Not nice animal.”
“It’s pretty nice on my plate,” Red said, jolly as ever. He even elbowed Saied’s arm. Turnam watched them, his eyes flipping from one man to the other.
“Pig is not a good,” Saied said. “Unclean. Too much like the man.”
Gregor stood in front of everyone, watching them sip their coffee and decide how to enjoy a slice of cake so thin it melted in the mouth.
“Is he calling me a pig?” Red asked, and glanced at Gregor.
“Muslims don’t eat pigs,” Gregor said.
Red raised his hands. “I’m sorry. Everybody doesn’t have to get as serious as a heart attack, though. Personally, I’ve never had a more succulent dish than pork roast. Stuff falls apart in your mouth.”
Gregor gathered some of the plates and empty finajeen and excused himself to the kitchen. He could hear Saied trying to explain why the pig was not nice. From the kitchen, Gregor slipped out into the garage. He couldn’t detect any weird smells out there. Beside the garage door was the mouse box. The worst part was checking it from time to time. He slipped on his right shoe and tapped the box. No squeaks or rustling from inside. He lifted it toward the bare bulb, careful to keep his fingers from the air holes. The dim light made it difficult to see through. He held the box an arm’s length away and opened the metal lid. A spider web crinkled as it pulled apart. He dropped the box and it clattered on the cement. A second later Red was out there. “You need help, buddy?”
“Just checking the mouse boxes,” Gregor said. “Something smells funny in the house.”
“I noticed that. Didn’t want to say nothing about it.” He pointed at the metal box splayed out on the cement like a dead grey bird. “Had one in there? Scared you, didn’t it.”
“Nothing,” Gregor said. “I just dropped it.”
“Probably a rat in the wall died. They’ll do that. You got any poison around?”
Gregor shook his head.
“Well, still, they’ll burrow in somewhere’s you can’t get at them and you’ll have to either rip up the wall or let them rot.” Red shrugged. “Least it’s summer. You can crack the windows for the next few months.”
They went inside. The Turks were putting on their shoes and thanking Afreeda. “Gregor sprung it on me,” she said, “otherwise I’d have ran to the store and picked up ingredients to bake qatayif. I’m sorry we couldn’t offer much.”
The Turks nodded, smiled, said “God bless you” in Arabic, and left. Saied and his wife followed them. Saied kissed Gregor on each cheek and said, “Good man. Your faith bring me to, uh, how do I say…” and he put his hands together.
“Prayer,” Afreeda guessed.
“Prayer.” Saied clapped Gregor’s shoulder. “You are good man.”
Red was the last to leave. “Need me to look at anything while I’m here? Otherwise you’ll have to schedule me and we’re a little backed up now that the students gone home. We’re stripping floors and they had me polishing that statue of the university president from 1898. Got his ass nice and shiny for the fall.”
Gregor and Afreeda thanked him and he stumbled down the sidewalk. He gave a cursory glance toward the neighbor’s door, and even halted for a second like he was going to knock. He looked back at them. “I forgot, Mrs. Denton don’t celebrate Ramadan. She’s long past counting sheep at this hour.” He turned the corner and was gone. A truck engine started up and drifted off in the night.
They slept until sometime after noon. The sun blazed overhead. They’d left the windows open all night, and the smell had mostly dissipated. Someone kept bumping the living room wall. On the other side there were clunks and voices. The dogs, as they did last night, barked on and off. Gregor stepped outside and let the sun burn through his light hair. Saied came from around the corner with a grimace.
“Kept you up too late last night,” Gregor said.
“Inside,” he said, and glanced at their neighbor’s door, “is not a good.”
Gregor nodded. “Outside much better. Outside warmer. Big, beautiful sun.” He pointed to the sky.
Saied’s hands shook. His wife stood across the street and watched them from their balcony. She stared at the neighbor’s place.
“Not nice,” he said and paused, “thing.”
“Alhamdullilah,” Gregor said, as that was usually a virtuous response, good or bad.
The dogs yipped louder than ever. The widow’s door was open. He could just see past Saied. “I’ll tell her about the new solar light,” he said. “That Red installed.” Gregor stepped past his Iranian friend when one of the little dogs scooted out the door and over the lawn. It ran circles around Gregor and Saied, and then jumped on their pant legs, barking up their shins like it was shouting up a tree.
“She is uh,” Saied was saying. He pointed at the doorway. “Son of her, not get a call. He worried.”
“She? My neighbor?” he asked.
A police officer stepped out of her door, along with a paramedic in a blue outfit. They lowered their dusk masks from over their faces. Gregor stepped back. He caught a trace of the smell from the night before. Then more of it as the breeze died down.
“Is hungry?” Saied asked, pointing at the dog.
The officer shook his head and gave a sorrowful frown. “They found a little something in the meantime,” he said. “Can’t blame them, being locked in the house for that long, when they’ve got nothing else.” The simple white dust mask hung around his neck on a strip of blue rubber. He lifted it over his nose, bent down and picked up the dog.
Another officer stepped outside.
“Happened to dog?” Saied asked.
I shook my head like I didn’t know.
Later that afternoon, after the police had asked them a few questions about if they’d heard anything the past couple of days—any signs of a struggle—the city hauled the widow’s body out of the townhouse. Gregor and Afreeda stayed inside. Just beyond the window they could see the shoulders of the men in blue outfits. They heard the gurney fold open. Its metal wheels clacked on the pavement. Afreeda offered prayers on behalf of the neighbor, she felt so terrible. Then she sprayed cleaner in the air that smelled like lemon.
Across the street Saied and his wife watched from their balcony. Said removed his baseball cap and placed it over his heart. Both of their heads turned to follow the medical workers.
“I don’t even know her name for sure,” Afreeda said. “And there we were, simply worried about a smell, cursing it without knowing.”
He thought she was going to cry. Her eyes watered and shimmered in the bright afternoon as if she’d lost her own grandmother. They didn't speak for a time. Finally, she broke the silence with a laugh to cover a sob. “You had to check the mouse box,” she said. She covered her mouth, clamping the laughter that was a kind of coping behind her hand and closed her eyes until she couldn’t hold it. “You hate doing that.” Gregor hugged her, crying, and laughed into her hair, thinking about how he’d put on one shoe to nudge the mouse trap. How he’d lifted it up to the ugly light to see through the holes. How he’d dropped the whole thing out of fear.
When Afreeda let go of him he wiped his eyes and went to the garage to set the mouse box back in the corner. It was important to have set up. A mouse under the hood of a car could do terrible damage. The worst he’d seen was on a friend’s sports car he kept in the garage all winter. The mice chewed through bundles of wires, leaving some half intact. You’d never even know it until the radio didn’t turn on, or the dash lights flickered over a bump and then stopped working.
As he placed the box, he knew there was no guarantee it would work, but it was best being prepared.
He thought of the neighbor lady and her smiling face when she’d offered them cookies the day after they’d moved in. They’d always meant to return the favor.
Bio: Adam Luebke is an online English instructor at South Dakota State University and Ashford University, and holds an MFA in Writing from Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, California. He is currently working on a collection of short stories. His work has previously appeared in international publications.
Editor's Note: This piece, painful as it is poignant, is, as explained by its author, "ultimately a meditation on the various dark places humans can find themselves, and the strange ways that light can find its way back in." It is a story of how a father loses his way, and it is his son who helps him find answers, teaching him right from wrong, daylight from darkness, and courage. The young boy becomes "the savior of the troubled father." The story takes a good, hard look at the monsters under the bed concerning emotions and fears seldom acknowledged, but in doing so, allows for illumination and warmth to reach them, piercing the shadows. This short story is in no way a commentary on the child's condition nor intended to portray perspectives concerning it, but rather a fictional framework to explore a fictive father's descent and resurfacing. The protagonist recognizes his own vulnerability and beyond his professional role of helping others or helping others to get help they require, sees his need for help. There is redemption in his finding connection through mysterious responses to "the existential questions that are torturing him." Though there are certain passages that disturb by implication, there is an aim to convey hope in the final lines.
Any character views or any other elements of content within the story do not comment upon the views of the publication. We chose this story for the way the young son, faced with adversity of his own, leads his father with love, trust, and innate knowing. Particularly as we have contributors who are parents of children on the spectrum who have shared their stories, and in a past issue were able to raise awareness through a special feature including Q&As and content which showed the profundity of a child affected by the condition, we wish to stress that this is a fictional story with the author's focus being a reclamation of self and relationship after a fall, through the innocent, lifting guidance of a child.
by Joshua Shapiro
The light and air were in a heightened state. Or possibly he was, thought Armstead with a runner’s clarity. The new sneakers might have had something to do with it. There was some sort of high tech gel in the heel. He loped along easily, feeling the advantage. In the second mile the sun rose. In the fourth, the glancing light illuminated the leaves from underneath, as if the trees were burning.
Armstead thought about work. Never a dull day in Human Resources, but today would be about hiring and not firing, which made him anticipate pleasantly. The loop was five and a half miles of narrow country road, the lake appearing and disappearing as the trees allowed; in a week, he would see water continuously. Soon Jesse would rise, to make the breakfast she made every morning, not for herself but for their son Zachery. How goes the breakfast, Jesse liked to say, goes the day. The boy required a banana with no spots, one egg fried but not runny, and a frozen waffle of a particular brand. Once Jesse had brought home a different brand and Zachery was in a rage for a week. The right waffles now filled a spare freezer.
In the final mile the dream came back. Not much to remember, something following him as he ran in magical shoes. In the dream, the question of the pursuer had been as urgent as the need to get away, but he never saw what was chasing him and he never got away. He escaped by waking up, and in the new sneakers he tiptoed downstairs.
What Armstead recalled now wasn’t the nature of the pursuer but a feeling. Dread or helplessness—he couldn’t tell which, actually running. He had little direct experience in his adult life of either, even as he had daily experience, through his work, of both.
Hearing something behind him, he ran faster. The gel propelled him. The sound was familiar yet ominous. It made him feel again the horrors of the night. He looked over his shoulder and saw it, a big beast of a thing, and as usual did not recognize the driver behind the tinted glass. He knew few of his neighbors, none well. They lived secluded in large houses and travelled high up in the privacy of their SUVs.
The vehicle’s dark mass went past with an odorless plume and a swirl of dry leaves. Armstead sprinted as if he were the pursuer.
* * *
That winter he decided he needed something to occupy his free time. Not that he had much. Sixty hours for the office, what seemed like twenty for Zachery, an hour a day running the loop. But he had begun to feel hollow in a way he hoped a hobby could fill. He didn’t speak of it—the feeling or the hobby—to Jesse or anyone else. He tried to act like his old self, but the hollowness asserted itself as a new kind of nervous energy. At his desk he finished a piece of business and was immediately restless. He sought more, filled his plate with others' projects, became even more appreciated and well-liked.
Armstead was fit and lean, with a head of premature silver hair and a face that had always made people want to talk. In the halls he moved quickly—colleagues he walked with asked him to slow down. “Who’s chasing you, Dean?” the personnel manager Joe Wallace asked. Wallace was calm and unhurried, as Armstead used to be. And when unaccompanied he did in fact often find himself running.
* * *
His commute took him past a shop that sold hunting and fishing equipment. One snowy evening he stopped on impulse. In the warmth of the shop he saw rods and reels, tackle, a woodstove topped with a vibrating kettle.
“Driving bad?” the man at the counter said.
“You could say that.”
“Something particular you looking for?” The man had a shining face, inky black hair, and thick glasses that reflected the light.
“Fishing gear.” Armstead said. “I’m looking for a new hobby.”
“Planning on ice fishing?”
Armstead smiled. He realized it was the wrong time of year and the man was being diplomatic.
“What’s this?” Armstead asked. A nickel-colored rifle with a scope and an odd piece of electronics below the barrel had caught his attention.
“It’s a Barrett M82 close combat rifle. Not exactly a beginner’s gun.”
The brushed metal changed hue subtly along the barrel. The scope was huge. The tag said seventy-two hundred dollars. Armstead took satisfaction in knowing he could afford it easily. “Tell me about it,” he said.
“This gun has a titanium muzzle brake, which lightens the front end. Targets quicker that way. That’s a laser sight. Just getting your feet wet?”
“I am.” Armstead surprised himself by saying this.
“I can get you started, but not with this.” The man had come to within inches of Armstead. His black-framed glasses were opaque with luminescence. “My new customers usually say they’re going fishing. Then they come over here. Then they go over there.”
The proprietor pointed to a glass case. It contained pistols. “That’s where you go for personal protection. It’s why you came in here, isn’t it?”
* * *
Not long afterward he was putting Zachery to bed. The boy was already filling out—when in a temper he could be as strong as a man. Tonight was relatively peaceful, hopefully no more than an hour’s work. Jesse was at choir rehearsal.
“Do you want a bath or a shower?” Armstead asked.
“Twilly wants to go to school.”
“You know Twilly can’t go to school. Mrs. Lanno doesn’t let the kids bring friends in fifth grade.”
“Twilly’s not a FRIEND. Twilly’s a DOG.”
“I know Twilly’s a dog, but he’s still your friend. Bath or shower, kiddo?”
“He’s not real! Friends have to be REAL!”
Had he gone against Jesse’s advice? He had. Never give Zach a choice, just make him think he has one, Jesse said. He’d given Zach a choice. But that was his business—Jesse wasn’t here. Yet in a sense she was. Once he gets antagonized it’s difficult for him to control himself. It’s not his fault, it’s just the way his brain works. First, calm him down. Calm him how? He had to resist the urge to raise his own voice.
“Okay, Zach. Twilly’s not real. But Mrs. Lanno doesn’t allow stuffed animals and you don’t want to disappoint Mrs. Lanno, do you?”
“I want Twilly to take a bath,” the boy said with sudden calmness. He rocked on his bed hugging the threadbare toy.
“We can ask Twilly if he wants to get wet. I don’t think Twilly likes getting wet.”
“You ask him, Da.”
“Twilly,” Armstead said into one of the ragged ears. “You don’t want to get all wet, do you?” He could smell his son. The boy’s bathroom hygiene wasn’t good. Not bathing tonight was out of the question. “Did Twilly give you an answer, Zach? You’re the only one who can hear him.”
“He said yes.”
“Meaning yes he doesn’t want to get all wet?”
“YES HE WANTS TO TAKE A BATH!”
Armstead looked at the clock. An hour was too hopeful an estimate by half. Jesse was due back at nine and it was seven-fifteen. He both resented her absence and was glad she wasn’t here to see this. What would she say? Turn it into a game. But what if nine o’clock came and there was Zachery, rocking on the bed and smelling like shit? It had been known to happen. A few years ago, even a few months, it had been easier. The boy was growing up. For the first time Armstead felt truly afraid of the prospect.
Maybe that was the problem: he was showing fear. Showing it because he was feeling it, but if he could hide the fear he might win the battle.
“You’re getting into the bath. Give me the toy.”
“Twilly’s not a toy.”
“Give it to me.”
This went on for a while; and then at a certain point, he could not say what point, or by what trigger, Zachery screamed. Not once, but a feral howl that went on and on, interrupted only by the child’s need to breath.
Not caring what Jesse would say or do, he shouted, “Give it to me or I’ll take him away for a week!” This quieted Zachery—he had slept with the stuffed dog since birth. He rocked more frantically. Armstead grabbed the arm that held the filthy object and pried it loose. It took most of his strength, and energized him. The boy was prostrate on the bed now, sobbing. “You stink, kiddo. You’re getting in the tub.” It felt good to say this. Anger and truth, his new watchwords. And then, before he had time to pick the child up, Zachery slid off the bed and ran. It was seven-forty.
Armstead followed him into the hall. He wasn’t in the hall. The bathroom, then. He wasn’t in the bathroom. The father reflected. For years now, at least since their child’s condition had been diagnosed, he’d been a good sport about the whole business. To most he was the family hero: calm, resourceful, patient, loving. And yet love for his son was something he’d never quite felt, except when Zachery was a newborn, despite appearing to love, saying he loved, convincing others he loved. He empathized, is what he did. He was the Human Resources manager.
Tonight there was a curious charge in the air, a cavalier feeling to go along with Zachery’s funk. Armstead’s anger had been momentary, contrived for effect; and yet, it felt wonderful. In his thoughts, the oddities of the child had turned into something grotesque. The quiet house held the exciting possibilities of the carefree, in spirit if not in practice. He would have to find the boy, bathe him, dress him, get him to sleep. Then he could visit the online site the man at the hunting shop suggested.
“Zach!” he called. “Zach! Kiddo! There’s something I want to show you!” Exactly what, he would figure out later. Turn it into a game. He was ready to do this, but it would be his game. He roamed the rooms, looking in the old hiding places. The stealth fit his mood. “There’s something outside. I want you to find it for me, Zach. You’re good at finding things.”
“What is it?” The still-small voice came from inside the wall unit that held the television. A new hiding place.
Armstead talked to the cabinet door. “I’m not sure what it is. You have to look.”
The door opened and Zachery, with the ragged animal, crawled out. They went to the wall of glass in back.
“There, where the snow is deepest,” Armstead said. “Behind the biggest tree. Can you see it?”
A fragment of moon lit the woods and the ridges of ice on the lake. “What is it, Da?”
“What do you think, Zach?”
“I think it is,” Armstead said approvingly. “Two yellow eyes. And claws that can tear you to shreds. It’s the lake monster.”
“I’m scared,” the boy whispered, and held his father’s leg with his free hand. But he looked. “Will it hurt us?”
“Not if we do the things we’re supposed to do. Now what are you supposed to do before you go to bed, son?”
“Good. How do you feel now?”
Armstead too felt it. The charged air he had experienced upstairs was powerfully present. The sensation was not of peace but of motion, as if there really was a monster stalking them.
* * *
At work Wallace asked if everything was alright.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“That’s why. That tone. You seem testy lately. I just thought I’d ask how things were going at home. As a friend.”
Armstead decided the personnel manager was not a friend, had never been. A few lunches didn’t qualify. Wallace was solicitous once or twice more but detected his colleague’s desire to be left alone, and did so. The tone around the place had turned dour, with more firing—layoffs, everyone said, though no one was ever recalled—than hiring. He found the work less disagreeable than in the past.
In the evenings, kept inside by an especially cold winter, Jesse offered to do more with Zachery.
“Not necessary,” he said.
“You seem short with him.”
“Efficient. He’s getting older. He needs to take more responsibility. Maybe we’ve been indulging his—his peculiarities too long.” He chose the word carefully, but still read the hurt in his wife’s face.
“What all the books say—” she began.
“I know what they say. You’ve made me read most of them. To tell you the truth they all have this indulgent tone. The psych types who write those things don’t live it like we do. This isn’t some study, it’s a twenty-four hour a day job. A little more authority is what the kid needs.”
“Please don’t raise your voice, Dean.” Jesse’s own voice was small, unchallenging. Always her protective mechanism when faced with hostility.
“Am I raising my voice?” he yelled.
“He’s sleeping right next door.”
“Someday he’ll be out there,” Armstead gestured toward the glass wall, “where he’ll have to follow the rules. If being afraid of consequences makes him do that, then he should learn how to be afraid.”
“Then I suppose it’s true.”
“Please lower your voice. He’s a light sleeper. He’s says you’ve been scaring him, telling him about monsters who live in the lake.”
“He said that?”
“Yes. That you’ve been telling him stories. That you even took him out in the snow in his pajamas to show him, to scare him.”
“We play a game. Just like you told me.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“It’s working. I’ve never had such an easy time with the kid.” In the pool of light on the other side of the bed Jesse had her head in her hands: wheat-colored hair with gray strands, skin bunching beneath the lowered chin. They were silent a minute, no noise at all outside but also none on the other side of the wall. Armstead said, “See, he sleeps through anything.”
“Or he’s already awake reading. Or listening. Worrying whether his Mommy and Daddy love him.”
“He reads?” said Armstead.
“Don’t be cynical, Dean. He’s been making a lot of progress and they tell me at the school it’s not unusual for delayed readers like Zach to become proficient given time.”
“And support at home.”
“Which is another thing I’m not giving him.”
“You’re changing the subject,” said his wife with irritation, the first she’d shown. “And that’s not at all what I said.”
“But you believe it.”
Her chin drooped another inch. “You know Dean, lately it’s as if you want to be hurt.”
* * *
He ran through the tiny clouds he made himself. He passed the house of a family he did not know and then the Robertson home—he had met the woman once at the grocery store, both of them agreeing that the four of them would get together when things were less busy but of course things were never less busy—and after that a large contemporary with glass sliders that seemed to invite you inside except the glass was frosted over. He rarely thought of all this familiar anonymity. Only recently had it begun to bother him, as so much had begun to bother him.
He ran at first away from something, the way he ran around the house: wherever he happened to be became acutely uncomfortable and he hurried to another room, another activity. Jesse had pointed out his restlessness with increasing concern. In the second mile he ran from some vague trouble he could not name. Then in the third the need for escape became a need to arrive. Armstead was doing the chasing, the way he did at work, bumping people who moved too slowly, excusing himself. Wallace no longer seemed to care but several who worked for him made light of his darting and caroming. His own boss suggested he take a vacation.
“I’ve got too much to do,” Armstead told him.
“No one’s indispensable. Isn’t that one of your mottos, Dean?”
“You think I need a rest?”
The VP looked at him with amused disbelief.
“I know my performance has been suffering a bit,” Armstead admitted.
“Let me put it this way. There used to be a joke around here: The second most valuable asset in this company after the product itself is Dean Armstead’s way of handling people. I believe Joe Wallace called you the Dean of Empathy.”
“Wallace said that?”
“Not recently. Now people come to him with their problems. Your door used to be open. Not anymore. I think people feel they’ve lost a friend. How many times did that young woman in Sales cry on your shoulder before she got her bearings? Didn’t you get her some kind of help?”
“You know that’s confidential, Tom. But yeah, something like that.”
“Then why don’t you get some yourself. Look in the contact list.”
He did not look in the contact list. Help in the conventional sense was not for him. It was for the people he helped. Over years he had been witness to troubled personalities, heard whispered confessions, admissions of this or that treatment. He listened. He had a way of safely inhabiting someone else’s predicament, and up to a point, someone else’s pain. It had never occurred to him before, but this talent depended on his own normalcy. If he was troubled by something (and he knew he was) it had to be outside, down the hall or around the next bend.
Armstead looked for what he needed in the fourth mile, and when it failed to materialize in the fifth. He puffed along the frozen lake, the frosted windows of his own house just coming into view.
* * *
One night in April the lake kept them awake with a series of cracks that sounded like an artillery range. Zachery came screaming into their room and had to be comforted in their bed. Every so often a report shook the room and sent the boy diving beneath the covers.
“It’s the monster,” he cried.
Into the covers Armstead said, “It’s just the ice breaking up, Zach.”
Despite all the pediatric drugs the news from school was not encouraging. There were new rules and checklists. Jesse networked and researched. Armstead’s time alone with his son was artfully curtailed by his wife but there remained some. Jesse went to her support group regularly—not so much for the support, he suspected, as for the break. One night she came home upset—the teenage daughter of a member of her group had become psychotic. The girl had a new diagnosis, new and more powerful drugs, the likelihood of institutionalization. Sometimes kids on the spectrum, Jesse explained through tears, develop schizophrenia.
Armstead knew he should worry about their child’s future, appreciate the relatively sane days they had. He didn’t. This was unsurprising: where the famous empathy used to be was a hole like a deep well, and he felt it filling up. He ran an additional mile, which seemed to slow the influx. Then he ran an additional three. Spring had always renewed him, but not this time. He smelled the earth and watched the animals get busy, and the most striking thing was his own indifference.
One force in all that nature he was powerfully aware of. He thought of it as Zachery’s monster. For surely they were the same thing, what his son and he experienced. He saw one face, when he glimpsed it at all, and the child saw another. It was what they shared. He tried to outrun it, but it was always around the corner, behind a tree, over the next rise. Some never see it—the better for them. The ones who see it, and Armstead knew now he was one, must live a life of avoidance and distraction. In fables and fairy tales the very young see the truth, while the elders walk around blind to it.
Armstead knew it was the other way around. The fortunate young are protected from the terrible sight, even from the knowledge of it. The parents who know say nothing. Both are adaptations—the not knowing, and the knowing silence—for surely if the young saw the hideous face of the thing, or were initiated into seeing it, how would they be able to grow, learn, build, reproduce? But sometimes, by a failure of health or circumstance—or the unusual constitution of a personality—the innocence falls away and the boy sees what the father does.
“Tell the monster to go away!” Zachery screamed.
Armstead promised, “I’ll talk to it.”
“How do you know where he is?”
“He finds us, kiddo, remember?”
He was good to his word. Before his run Armstead wrote on a Post-it, What are you? He stuck it to a birch tree. He was surprised to see it there the next time he ran the loop. Armstead realized the question would never be fully answered, but there was satisfaction in the asking. He wrote, Why do you have no eyes or other senses but can find us no matter where we are? This message he pierced with the branch of a juniper, where it dangled like a new leaf. On an especially painful morning he wrote, Why do you have no fangs or claws but can still hurt us? Seeing it where he left it, on a stone wall, with a pinecone for a paperweight, brought him not relief but desolation as he ran past, because he knew the question to be futile.
When Zachery asked if he’d talked to the monster he said he had, but the monster didn’t answer.
* * *
On a Saturday in May he packed a duffle bag and walked with his son to a part of the lake far from the road or any dwelling. The boy’s strange mind seemed to focus as Armstead unzipped the bag and removed what he had bought at the hunting shop: a Glock nine millimeter automatic. Armstead had been practicing after work in an isolated field, now that the days were longer. The iron heft, the way the pistol jumped, the heat and the cordite smell were new and vital diversions. Here he could not fire but he could teach his son to clean the weapon, to load an empty clip, to aim with the safety on.
“Don’t forget,” he said solemnly, “this has to be our secret if we’re going to scare the monster away.”
Zachery held the heavy pistol with both hands and looked at it oddly.
“You can’t tell Mommy, kiddo.”
Zachery said nothing.
“Do you understand, Zach?”
Armstead knew his son heard and understood many things even when he didn’t seem to. But this time Zachery did one of his unpredictable things and threw the gun in the direction of the water. It fell short.
“You don’t need the bad gun!” Zachery cried.
His father held him tight, because he had to make sure the kid wouldn’t run for the expensive weapon and dispose of it permanently, and because somewhere inside he did love him—and because it felt good to squeeze a little of his life away.
* * *
When the next list of layoffs was circulated it was Wallace who broke the news behind the closed door, out of which came the occasional shout or sob. Armstead was not terribly surprised to find himself on the list, and when his turn came behind the door Wallace said: “You know better than anyone that this is just bottom line stuff. Bad planning high up that’s unfortunately hitting middle management. An old story, you’ve told it yourself. Don’t take it personally, Dean.” Wallace’s tone—the language behind the language, the sympathetic set of the mouth and the slightly moist eyes—was the very delivery Armstead had affected so many times. Understandable because Wallace was said to be assuming the HR duties. The interesting thing was how real and almost comforting it seemed, although comfort for Armstead was a relative term these days.
The severance package was generous enough to get them through a year: a recognition of past service, since what he had done recently for the company was exactly nothing. The layoff decision by his boss and his boss’s boss would have been an easy one. He told Wallace this.
Wallace said, “No Dean, it was a corporate level decision. It’s true you’ve been a little off your game, we all can see that. But we’re all rooting for you. In fact I wanted to ask”—he dropped his voice even lower—“if you’ve gotten any help for your…your condition.”
“What condition is that, Joe?” Armstead asked.
Wallace looked at him sympathetically.
* * *
Jesse was sympathetic too, also practical and philosophical. She touched him affectionately in ways she had not in months. Her solid steady performance had the odd effect of making him feel more damaged. In the smaller crises of the past he had been the solid center that his wife held onto, and the reversal only further fouled the well inside him. She too asked him about his state of mind, with the directness of someone who spends her days ministering to a chronic condition.
“I’m not depressed, hon. If anything I’m better than ever, now that I’m out of there. Ten years is too long to do one thing. I’m looking forward to a change. I’ve already sent out the resume and made a few calls.”
Which mollified her for the moment, but not at all him. He had sent out no resume and made no calls. He knew an essential part of him was slipping away, and because it was essential he could not allow any outside interference. He must hold onto it, or lose it, on his own.
The trick was to keep busy. In the very early morning, before dawn, when for some reason he reliably awoke, he wrote notes for later distribution. He thought of the questions during the long nights. How do you choose whom to hurt? he wrote. Then, Why is it that you have no mercy yet leave some of us alone? He speared the papers with branches just coming into bud. He had on his running clothes but seldom ran as he used to, instead walking around the shore noticing signs of renewal everywhere but in himself.
He had time to read on topics like caliber and lethality. He cleaned the weapon fanatically, to be sure it would work when needed. When assembled, he looked at it with gratitude, not as an enthusiast might but from the end, into the barrel, bluish at the outer rim and blackening quickly, drawing in the eye and perhaps the soul.
Several ideas needed to be worked out. One was the universality of human suffering, and while he did not expect to answer this ancient question in a general way he looked for a local answer, having to do with suffering in this place, his own and his son’s. For they were both victims of the monster. He wrote, Do you cause us pain because you are in pain yourself? He hoped to understand suffering through compassion—the compassion that had once been their meal ticket, but had fallen into the well along with love and joy and sociability and the appreciation of springtime. He took a little solace putting the missive up somewhere along the road, but by afternoon he was again looking into the black barrel.
* * *
In the end there was no moment of decision, only a conviction that became something irresistible. It grew deep in the poisoned well that was all Armstead was now. He had one more note to write and he made it brief: I did it for him as well as for me. Try and understand. This Post-it he took not to the woods but to the kitchen, sticking it carefully on the granite.
He walked with one hand in Zachery’s and the other around the handle of the duffle bag. They headed for their usual spot, the son not needing to be led but pulling the father along. Zachery had come to enjoy these outings—he had kept the secret. Occasionally he reached down to pick something up.
Armstead now knew he loved his son without reservation. Which was why he could not let him enter cruel adulthood, where an older Zachery, a Zachery without skills, even a crazy Zachery would be at the mercy of people who were not paid to care. And loving him, and being at last in a position to understand what it is like to be daily in thrall of monster, he was the only person to make and carry out such a judgment.
The boy was foraging in the carpet of old leaves. They were still in sight of a house or two, families he had never met and never would. The water was just beyond the clearing.
The boy said, “Da! I found something.”
He put down the duffle bag. “Not now, kiddo.”
“Look at it. LOOK!”
He took out the Glock, the clip loaded with two hollow points.
His son came to him, waving a faded yellow leaf. Only it wasn’t a leaf. It was too regular and uniform, and still the unnatural yellow of the Post-it he had left behind at home. The writing was visible despite snow and rain, and Zachery was attempting to read it. Armstead held the heavy gun. It would be necessary to work fast, not because the target presented any special problems but because the interval during which he would be in this world and Zachery would not would be the most excruciating minute of his life.
Zachery read, “‘Why do you have no eyes or other sen-sen-senses but can find us no ma-ma-matter where we are?’”
“That’s good, son.” Armstead cheerleading, trying to keep him engaged as he pointed the weapon. “I didn’t know you could read so well.”
He heard in the child’s voice a little confidence, a new tone, and heard it again as Zachery said—read—“‘I find you to teach you but the knowl-knowl—”
“Knowledge,” said Armstead, not close enough to look at the paper but guessing from context. Looking was difficult in any event because something was clouding his vision.
“—knowledge is painful.’ There’s more. Look. LOOK!”
He looked, coming close, through bleary eyes seeing not one but two notes, and then Zachery producing a third, all with Armstead’s own handwriting on them and below that a different handwriting.
Zachery read, “‘Who are you?’” in his new confident voice. And then the answer, “‘I am older than all life and part of every life.’ This is your writing, Da.”
“Some of it is.”
“I know what you wrote too. Questions for the monster.”
“That’s right, kiddo.” He had lowered the gun. He tried to see through the new growth to the nearby house, wondering if his anonymous correspondent lived there. “And the questions came back with answers.”
“The monster seems nice, Da.”
“Not so bad.”
Armstead felt unable to stand but able to kneel and did so. He could see little beyond the blurred outline of his son’s face and realized that he had not cried once through the whole ordeal. The phenomenon seemed to fascinate his son. The answer was the contact list after all. He felt for the catch that held the clip and dropped the clip and turned the Glock’s grip forward and said, “I guess we don’t need this anymore. The water’s deep here.” He felt the small hands take the weight from him and a moment later heard the distant plop and said, “You’re getting to be pretty good at throwing, too, kiddo.”
Bio: Joshua Shapiro has published short fiction in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Phoebe, The GW Review, The Write Place at the Write Time, and Fungi. He is an alumni of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. His recently completed novel Beautiful Before the Fall is a story of two families caught up in the 21st century culture wars.
The Mentor by Michael Tidemann
Harrison Griggs studied the invitation as he and his wife had afternoon cocktails. He was still deciding if he even wanted to go.
“What’s that, honey?” asked Glenna from the other side of the patio table. Her yellow slacks and matching tank did nothing to hide her figure—still vivacious at fifty-eight. It was one of the many things he loved about her, finding her just as intoxicating as she had been when they were in their teens. She noticed the way his glance was taking in the view of her. She decided to use the opportunity in that distraction to probe the matter of the letter with a sly, prying smile.
“Oh nothing.” He dropped the envelope on the table along with circulars for drugstores, vitamin supplements, and hearing aid companies. Neither of them needed drugs or vitamins or hearing aids, though. They both ran a 5K every morning and played doubles every Saturday, not to mention golf every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. They were as fit as near-retirees could be, poised to live the sort of retirement of which most people only dreamed.
“It has to be something.” Glenna’s fingers walked across the table toward the envelope. She opened it and smiled. “Well it’s your fortieth high school graduation.”
“Forty years,” said Harrison, pronouncing each syllable like a death sentence.
“Don’t tell me you’re already feeling your age.” Glenna set down the invitation. “You certainly don’t look it.”
“Thanks. I guess I should take that as a compliment—even though it’s from my wife.”
“Oh Harry.” Glenna clasped his wrist. “Don’t be so dour. I’ll bet you make ten times what most of your classmates do.”
And he did. Griggs Custom Machining, with over three-hundred employees, commanded a good percentage of the AG and classic car replacement parts market. At the persistence of their son Tommy, next year they were going global with plants in Indonesia, China, and Mexico. Harrison had fought taking manufacturing overseas, preferring American labor. Buy American, hire American, had always been his mantra. But when overseas sales grew—they had surpassed domestic—it only made sense to base plants where their orders were.
“Don’t you want to go, honey?” Glenna persisted. “Maybe to show them how well you’ve done—even just a little?” She giggled into her drink and touched the invitation once more. “I can’t wait to see their sorry, sad, little faces.”
“Nor I.” Harrison chuckled, giving in as he knew his wife had already made his mind up for him.
* * *
School had started badly that first day. He had just stepped off the bus and headed for his first grade classes—they didn’t have kindergarten back then—when his cousin Freddie, then a second-grader, came up to him and pasted him in the mouth and wrestled him to the ground. He may have only been a year older, but a year meant a lot when you were in first grade and not used to fighting.
Freddie was getting the better of him when Harrison’s father Maynard drove by in his gray Korean War-era Navy surplus truck. “Whatcha doin’? Fightin’?” His father said it as though it were Harrison’s fault, even though his cousin had started it and was now pounding his face in. Harrison hoped his father would come pull Freddie off him, scold him, tell him never to do it again. But his dad just sat there in his truck, watching with a smirk, as Freddie rearranged his face and muddied his clothes and called him names he’d never heard.
His teacher—Mrs. Beerdahl—scolded him as he entered the classroom with shoes and clothes caked with mud so the other kids laughed at him. “Who are you and why are you such a mess?”
“I’m Har...ry,” he said and started to cry. That only made the kids laugh even harder.
“You’re also dir...ty,” his teacher mocked. “Now go to the washroom and clean yourself up and sit down at your desk. Har...ri...son.” The kids roared even louder.
Harry headed for the washroom.
Then, deciding he hated his cousin Freddie and his teacher Mrs. Beerdahl and his classmates, he walked right on past the washroom and all the other classrooms. He pushed open the north emergency door, setting off the fire alarm, and kept walking. He walked off the school grounds and across the street and past Mrs. Johnson’s barking German shepherd that he petted to quiet down then went down the hill to the creek where he crossed the footbridge and kept walking. Past the tree nursery he walked, then Mr. Knudsen’s cattle yard where he climbed the wooden fence and wandered among the huge, 1,400-pound steers to the other fence that he climbed until he came to the river where he saw the old dam that his parents had told him to never, never, ever cross alone, and he crossed it as he had a number of times, feet chilling in the ankle-deep water as the surging river tried to push him over the edge into the churning, frothy water.
Several times he thought of turning back, but that would have meant returning to his cousin Freddie and his teacher Mrs. Beerdahl and his classmates so he kept walking, crossing the dam to the other side of the river where his feet squished in his shoes, shooting water out like a squirt gun. He walked through the park to the field and crawled under the barbed wire fence, ripping his new shirt, and kept walking until he came to a dark, wooded grove where Old Man Bates lived in a log cabin his great-grandfather had built in 1866, now the oldest structure in the county. He knocked on the door.
Old Man Bates cracked open the door and the aroma of kerosene and a woodstove and beer and whiskey and cigarettes roiled outside in one rank, heavenly Old Man Bates aroma. Old Man Bates’ quizzical eye hovered like a caterpillar as he studied the young truant before him. “What’re you? A salesman?”
“No, Mr. Bates. It’s me—Harry Griggs. I had my first day of school today and decided I didn’t like it.” Several times Harry and his folks had driven past the Bates house, muttering things under their breath about how he was a hermit, always staying to himself. Harry felt that way about himself too, though, going to his room whenever his mother scolded him. He often wanted to be like Mr. Bates. Now was his chance.
Old Man Bates grinned. Of course he’d recognized the Griggs boy—he knew the family, though he didn’t associate with them, nor any of the other townsfolk for that matter. Couldn’t see the point. They’d already made up their minds and their myths about him. He avoided them and they avoided him. But Harry seemed like a decent enough kid whenever he crossed paths with him on rare supply runs into town or when the youth wandered over to play in the woods nearby. Bates spat a stream of tobacco juice into the Butternut can beside the door like a grasshopper. “Well, boy, ah didn’t like school none too well neither. Why doncha come on in an’ dry them duds off an’ we’ll go fishin’.”
* * *
After Harry sat by the crackling woodstove for an hour, Old Man Bates pulled out a couple fishing roads, and sizing Harry up, handed him the shorter one. A lifetime of walking and hunting and fishing had hardened his body like a steel wire, so he was amazingly spry for a man pushing sixty. “Ya ever fish before?”
Harry looked at the complicated fishing rig and shrugged. “Maybe a little. I tried it once. The fish broke my pole though.”
“Hmm...” Old Man Bates fingered the reel. “No fish’ll break this. Catch a whale ‘n you’ll reel him in, if ya kin hold on to ‘em.”
Harry eyed the rod and reel as though it were a religious relic. “That would be great, to catch a whale.”
Old Man Bates chuckled and led Harry out to his recently harvested vegetable patch where he showed him how to dig for worms, turning the black, silty loan with a spade until night crawlers squirmed like snakes. Harry jumped back as the old man pulled one out and held it in front of his face. “This here crawler is gonna catch us a walleye.”
Harry watched as Old Man Bates set the night crawler in the can with several others and a goodly mixture of dirt then they headed down a path through weeds as high as Harry’s head to the reedy riverbank where Old Man Bates showed him how to bait his hook and click off the reel drag as he cast. The big night crawler flew squirming through the air and hadn’t plopped into the water but a second when something huge tugged at the hook.
“Whip yer rod ‘n reel ‘em in.”
Harry did as Old Man Bates said, and a minute later he had a sixteen-inch walleye flopping on the riverbank.
“Now ah’ll show ya how to clean ‘em.” Old Man Bates whipped out his filet knife and slid it back along the spine then cut behind the head and pulled it off then slit open the crop and cleaned the walleye in a couple minutes then rinsed it off in a bucket of water. “A few turnips ‘n carrots ‘n taters ‘n this here’ll be a meal fer a king.”
After they caught a few more fish—a couple catfish for Harry and a couple walleye for Old Man Bates—they headed back to the cabin where he showed Harry how to cut the walleye into filets then dip it in egg and roll it in cornmeal. By noon they were dining on some of the most succulent walleye ever prepared by human hand. That afternoon they hunted rabbits and squirrels—the old man showed Harry how to hold his .22 and let Harry shoot a squirrel. Then at a little before three Old Man Bates pulled out his pocket watch as they walked back toward the cabin. “Well, I s'pose we’d best head ya back to school so’s ya kin catch the bus home.”
Harry looked forlornly at the rod and reel and rifle hanging on the wall. “Can I come here to hunt and fish again?”
“Course ya kin. Anytime ya wants.”
Harry nodded and followed Old Man Bates out to his old pickup and climbed up into the musty cab as the engine started. He couldn’t wait to tell his classmates the things he’d seen and done.
* * *
The other kids were heading toward the buses when Old Man Bates let Harry off at the school. Harry looked for a bus with a number 2 on it and climbed up the stairs and sat behind the bus driver, Mr. Floren, who turned in his seat and looked at him as though he were a ghost. “Where you been all day. They even got the police lookin’ for ya.”
Harry shrugged. “Fishin’ ‘n huntin’.”
“Fishin’ ‘n huntin’, huh?” Mr. Floren pulled out his tin of Copenhagen and thumbed a pinch under his lip. “Well take me ‘long next time, will ya?”
“Sure. Long as it’s okay with Mr. Bates.”
“Bates, huh? Well, folks say he’s a strange old codger, but he’ll learn ya huntin’ ‘n fishin’ if anybody kin.”
* * *
Harry’s parents’ short-lived relief gave way to a surge of verbal scolding for the worry he’d caused over his reckless rule-breaking and departure from school grounds. They asked countless questions without pausing to let him answer. When he saw them finally tiring from the joint tirade, he told a long and involved tale of how he had dug worms and caught a walleye as high as his knee then shot a squirrel, then... They exchanged looks before each grabbing an arm to drag him inside so they could wash his mouth out with soap and spank him for lying on top of his other crimes. He didn’t bother to tell them to check the details with Old Man Bates—partly out of pride, partly out of a fear that they would keep him from going there again or give Bates trouble. Silently, he took his punishment as a man in miniature.
* * *
“And the fish was how big?” asked Mrs. Beerdahl, the rest of the class roaring.
“This big.” Harry held his hand at his knee. If he had been a foot taller, holding his hand at his knee would have been a little more accurate.
Mrs. Beerdahl’s smile dropped as she crossed her arms. “In show and tell we tell the truth, Harrison. We don’t lie.”
“But it’s true. And you should have seen the squirrel I shot.”
The class laughed even harder as Mrs. Beerdahl marched Harry to the corner and faced him to the wall. “Now you stand there until you’re ready to tell the truth—and not until then.”
Harry faced the wall, tears streaming down his cheeks. Throughout his young life, he had never told a lie, not even a fib. But now his teacher had taught him that if he wanted to stay out of trouble, he had to lie, or at least conceal the truth.
Whenever his parents asked him if he’d visited with that eccentric Bates again, he lied about that too. But Harry went there whenever he got in trouble in school or with one of the other kids. Mr. Bates was his refuge.
* * *
One day when he was in seventh grade Harry was walking out the west door of the school when Steven Coster stopped him. Steven was three years older but had been held back twice so he was an eighth-grader. Rippled muscles bulged from Steven’s T-shirt and a knowing smirk etched his face. “Pussy.”
“I said you’re a pussy.” Steven stepped closer, just inches away. He was about three inches taller, breath rank with cigarettes. “I said you’re a pussy. Whatcha gonna do ‘bout it.”
Harry stood there. He knew what was coming. A fist to the face. It would hurt—it would hurt like hell—but there was nothing he could do about it. It came a lot faster than he had expected, faster than the blink of an eye, cracking his lip so his head bounced back against the glass front door, gashing the back of his head so blood trickled down his back.
Steven hit him as he tried to leave earlier through the west door the next day and the day after that. Harry avoided him by going through the east door the following day but the day after that Steven met him there too, jeering in his face as the other kids looked on as Steven pasted him in the face yet again. Harry regretted having ever gone to school. He even regretted being born.
* * *
If there was one class Harry liked, it was mechanical drawing. He loved the rough wood feel of the drawing board and how the T-square slid along it and how he could use the triangles to make different shapes. He even loved how he could use the French curve to make arcs. He hated the new math, but without realizing it, he was learning the essence of algebra and geometry and trigonometry from the ground up. As he did the arcs and loops the algebra formulas he had so long disdained drifted into the back of his head and came together with the pencil in his hand.
* * *
Old Man Bates didn’t answer when he knocked. Harry followed a high-pitched whine to the shop behind his cabin. Harry stood in the doorway, watching the old man expertly, sparks and metal filings flying, peering through his goggles like a scientist peering through a microscope. As he finished his cut, Bates shut off his saw and lifted his goggles and smiled. “Howdy, stranger.”
It had been a couple of years since Harry had visited the old man, and he felt bad about that. And yet Old Man Bates seemed content in his ways, hunting, fishing, trapping, and working in his machine shop, sometimes all through the night, the high-pitched whine of saws and drills drifting even across the river where kids went to surreptitiously smoke cigarettes and kiss and feel up girls. “Whatcha makin’?”
The old man smiled, kindly blue eyes drifting through the dust motes of the hazy, late-afternoon light. His eyes said a lot. They said they welcomed his visit and that, while he may have regarded a visit by anyone else as an interruption, Harry was always welcome. “Ah’m makin’ a receiver fer mah rifle.”
“Come hear an’ ah’ll show ya.”
Harry went to the workbench where Bates held up the metal tube. The grooved swirls inside looked like something he had been doing in mechanical drawing class. “Ah’m makin’ a .308.”
“Making?” Harry said, half-believing.
“From the stock up. Here. Ah’ll show ya.” Bates went to the corner and came back with a rifle with a finely polished stock and gleaming blue barrel. “This here’s an ought-six ah made. One-in-ten twist. It’ll drop anythin’ you aim it at from four-hundert yards. Open sight even.”
The rifle was beautiful. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. Harry thought back to when he had come to visit Bates that first day of school and shot his .22. He wondered if he had made that gun too. He probably had. “Where did you learn to do this?”
Bates smiled up a chuckle. “Was a machinist mate in the Navy. When everyone complained how they wished their rifles was more accurate, I decided to make my own barrels. Then ah went a step further an’ started makin’ mah own guns.”
Harry delicately touched the stock. The depth of the swirled grain seemed to go on forever. “What kind of wood is this? It’s beautiful.”
“Burled walnut,” said Bates, taking the gun back from Harry to run his finger along the pattern of the grain. “This here tree got taken in a lightnin’ storm. Since it had a mind to work all them years to make a grain, ah decided to do it the honor of makin’ a gun stock outa it.” Bates set the rifle butt on the table. “This here gun’ll be ‘round fer a good five-hundert years—prob’ly shoot fer two or three hundred of that. After that, it’ll prob’ly rest on some rich man’s wall ‘longside paintin’s an’ such.”
Harry knew what the old man said was true. He had never seen anything so beautiful—not even Glenna Olson who had just started school the previous fall. “Can you show me how to do this?”
Bates looked at him steadily, deciding. “How much time ya got?”
“As much time as it takes.”
“Then I got time to show ya.” Bates kept looking at him, then touched his cheek. “What happened here?”
“Nothin’.” Bates’ keen, blue eyes pierced through his fib. “Looks to me like some bastard’s been usin’ your face fer a punchin’ bag.”
Harry looked at Bates, unable to pull his eyes away. More than his father, more than his mother, more than his teacher or minister, Bates had a way of piercing to the bottom of his soul, and sometimes it scared him. Maybe that was why he hadn’t been around for a couple years. “It’s this kid at school.”
“Only one?” Bates looked long and hard at him. “Here. Afore we starts machinin’, we’re gonna learn how to box.”
Bates showed him how to hold his hands, how to feint and duck and weave. How to side step and jab then follow with an upper cut that seemed to come out of nowhere. For six hours they practiced, and by the time Harry went home that night, he knew of twenty ways to knock Steven Coster right on his ass.
* * *
Steven wasn’t at school the next day. Harry even went to the east door to wait for him, then the west door. The next day Harry heard that Steven had been suspended from school for three days for smoking. When Harry still stood at the east door of the school waiting for Steven three days later, he learned that Steven had decided to drop out of school. Harry was surprised at how sorry he was that Steven decided not to come back. He’d been looking forward to the opportunity for retribution.
* * *
“How’s this?” Harry handed the barrel to Bates who eyed it keenly, imagining how the bullet would spin through the grooves. As he set it on the workbench, he offered his pronouncement. "It’s perfect."
* * *
Harry started engineering school on an ROTC scholarship. He had taken every math course he could in high school, and in college everything came together for him. He had been dating Glenna Olson ever since his junior year in high school, and when he proposed to her the day after he graduated with his mechanical engineering degree, she accepted. Shortly thereafter, Harry was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and went on to teach marksmanship at Fort Benning. He was promoted to captain, and led a rifle company in the Gulf War. After receiving the Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and started Griggs Custom Machining.
He’d written Bates time to time. The replies were short and sparse, but kindly. As life intervened, Harry’s end of the correspondence fell away and Bates wasn’t the sort to continue it himself.
Harry and Glenna had Tommy in 1992. During that time, Harry tried to bestow the best traits he could on his son. Whenever he searched for those traits, the image of Mr. Bates came into his mind. He was the one who had taught him self-reliance and thrift, courage and compassion. It was Mr. Bates, the same Mr. Bates his parents and the town ostracized as a hermit and recluse, that Harry looked up to more than anyone. So he both imparted and emulated the traits he admired the most.
* * *
Forty years had passed since he had driven this road, past the gently sloping hills into the river valley. By some age-old instinct, Harry was drawn to the ancient dirt road meandering along the river.
Glenna raised her sunglasses to her forehead. “Why are we pulling off here?”
Harry shrugged. “Someone I used to know lived here once. I just thought I’d drive by and see if there’s anything left of the place.”
Glenna shrugged and lowered her sunglasses. “Whatever you need to do, Harry,” she said, trying to understand this sudden strange request.
Harry pulled the a8 up in front of the ancient cabin, the roof caved in like the backbone of a dead whale. Waist-high weeds had seized the property, parted by teenage paths leading toward scenes of smoking, drinking, and long, illicit summer nights in the tall grass. Harry got out of the car.
“Harry? Harry, what are you doing?” Glenna got out the other door. “Harry, this is trespassing.”
Harry looked around. “Probably. Let’s go have a look inside.”
“Harry. Oh…” Glenna groaned and followed him through buffalo grass, Russian thistle, and milkweeds.
Harry knocked, though he knew no one was home, and opened the door barely on its hinges and stepped inside. Yellowed light beams traced through the rotten roof, criss-crossing through dust motes. The sharp, rank pungency of wood smoke was still there, along with an empty whiskey bottle on the table. Two fishing rods still hung on the wall, the same ones he and Old Man Bates had used fifty-two years ago, for some reason overlooked by vandals and looters who had considered them of no value.
“Har…ry. What are we doing here?” Glenna asked impatiently. She shuddered as she studied the old wreck of a cabin and shop. “This place always gave me the creeps—still does.”
“Let’s go check out back.”
“Oh, for cripes sake.”
He led the way to the shop where the door was askew. All the machinery was gone, no doubt lost to looters ages ago. The workbench was still there, though, with a receiver and barrel and block of fine, burled walnut. He turned to Glenna, her face blurring through his tears. “Remember when I told you about someone who helped me through my earlier school years?”
Harry hadn’t visited Bates much after his second year of high school and when he started dating Glenna in his third, he wasn’t sure of how she’d react given the town’s perceptions of Bates. All he could think of were the reactions of his parents, his former teacher, and fellow classmates. In the initial stages of their courtship, he’d wanted her to see him as who he’d become and telling the full story of his younger years and the man who’d helped him survive those years, opened up a vulnerable place he hadn’t wanted to revisit. As the years wore on, in regard to that particular period of his life, that elementary-school taught habit of staying out of trouble by keeping things hidden, stuck. Thinking of it all now, he felt guilty for not doing justice to the memory of Bates in front of the woman he loved.
“Well, this is where he lived.”
“Bates? He was the one who was there for you?” Her tone held no judgment, just genuine curiosity about a figure who had helped to shape her husband. She would ask more later, honoring Harry’s need for quiet reflection, but something about this discovery made her smile. She might not have guessed this, but she knew it hadn’t been his father who had instilled such moral fiber, character, and kindness in him. Was it that Bates, like her beloved Harry, had been misunderstood?
Harry’s eyes were drawn to the receiver and barrel and wood. “I want to buy this place. I don’t care how much they want for it, I’m going to buy it.”
“Okay, Harry. Okay,” she said, knowing that the real significance of this visit to the past wasn’t to laud success in the faces of the unimportant majority who didn’t appreciate who he was, but to pay homage to the important soul who did.
Bio: Michael Tidemann lives between Estherville, Iowa and Elk City, Oregon, the latter the setting for much of his work. His fiction has appeared in Black Hills Monthly Magazine, The Longneck, Struggle, and The Write Place at the Write Time. His column, Writers and Writing, now appears in 80 newspapers in the Upper Midwest. He is currently working on a novel set in Elk City and the South, spanning more than four centuries.
His author page is amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann