This is a cautionary tale. Beware of Stick Men. You cannot hear their bones rattle when they walk. You cannot see their darkness when they talk. Coffee will not satisfy them. Where they feed is desolation.
The Stick Man rose from the orange plastic seat to refill his plastic coffee cup, his milky-blue eyes flicking over the other customers, the mothers with small children, the students, the shoppers. He looked no more sinister than his camouflage, than the other failed middle-aged men who congregate at Wendy's, McDonald's or Carl's Jr.'s to pontificate, drink coffee, and convince themselves, if no one else, of their innate superiority.
One of the small army of Ph.D. candidates who never made it, he stayed in orbit around the university, carefully switching majors to avoid finishing his degree, which would have jolted him into society's mainstream, blowing his cover completely. He justified his existence by maintaining, even to himself, that he was a writer. He tutored and taught part time, earning enough to live in his featureless apartment and buy his characterless clothing. Oddly for a man who purported to be a writer, he seemed to have a void where his sense of beauty should have been. In this void lay his menace.
He told himself and everyone else that he was a really nice guy. Maria, his young wife, would have disagreed. Volatile, eager for sex and fun, she had thought he was a knight in disguise come to carry her out of the barrio. She didn't sleep with him before they married, a terrible mistake on her part. At first, he tantalized her, pretending that she was so precious that he wanted to wait to possess her until they married. Then while his fingers probed and caressed, he entered her mind, feasting on the Mariachi bands and bright colors, black jaguars and green jungles, lust and bloody crucifixions, leaving little diseased trails in his wake. When it was time for consummation, he brought her to the edge of ecstasy, then abruptly back when he mounted her and she cried out in pain at the sharpness of his pelvic bones. His penis, she couldn't feel at all. When he withdrew, the bands had stopped playing, the colors faded to pastel, and the jaguars had disappeared with the jungles. Only the bloody crucifixion remained. She had bedded Death, Mr. Bones, the Stick Man. She was pregnant with Death's child. With both him and the child feeding on her, her pregnancy proved almost fatal. When the child was born, a pale-eyed, red-haired girl, she refused to touch it. Recognizing it as his own, the Stick Man cared for it, while Maria, a caged animal, watched and waited for him to leave so that she could range from male to male in the apartment complex, seeking among the firm penises and muscled stomachs the life that had been drained from her. Then one night, while Stick Man slept, she emptied his wallet and was never seen again.
Her leaving provided grist for the mill in which he was creating his image of put-upon nice guy. "My wife slept with everybody but me," he would nasal-whine. "I had to raise my kid." The kid got stoned as soon as she was old enough, and stayed that way until she could run away, a relief for both her and the Stick Man, who then became an authority on ungrateful children. "It's no wonder I have writer's block," he would moan over coffee.
He prowled constantly, looking for new sources of life. Each year's fresh crop of students provided at least one nubile snack, until the snack was warned by those wiser that Stick Man was not a misunderstood genius, but a weirdo, someone to watch out for. Over the years, a sparse, monastic-looking tonsure surrounding his scabrous bald spot replaced the once carroty curls, and a short, patriarchal beard, tufted with gray, covered the weak chin. His high whining voice remained unchanged.
This was the creature who spied Annette on her first trip into Mom's Donut Shop. Plump, blond and full of life, she was a librarian, newly divorced from her real estate salesman husband. Still uncertain in her new found freedom, she sat in the adjacent booth, lovingly contemplating the two chocolate doughnuts on her plate, which Jeff, her ex, would never have allowed her to have. She would devour every chocolaty crumb with no one to sneer about her weight; then, if she felt like it, she would have more. Life was good.
The Stick Man probed the edge of her mind. It was a delicious crispy cookie, fresh from the oven. "Hi, I haven't seen you here before. Welcome to the family." He leaned toward her, his voice soft, approving, very different from Jeff's.
She didn't think much of his looks, but his scrawniness might be a relief after Jeff's height and belly. Jeff had yelled at her about weight, but never seemed to worry about his own. "I don't know what you mean by family," she replied.
"All of us here at Mom's are a family. We look out for each other. Do you like movies?"
She decided that it wouldn't hurt to go to the movies with him. After all, she didn't have anyone to hang out with, and it wasn't as though she was in danger of falling in love with somebody who looked like a kid's drawing of a stick man with sharp, angular shoulders and a big, square, nutcracker head on top. The red beard with those gray patches was really ugly, but then he might be worse without it.
At the movies, he held her hand very gently, caressing her wrist with the tips of his bony fingers. Afterwards they spent most of the night in Mom's, drinking coffee, eating doughnuts and talking. He overwhelmed her with his knowledge, with his suffering, with his incredible loneliness. Like water seeking its level, she rushed in to fill the terrible void that sat next to her.
She went home with him, shuddering a bit when she entered his apartment. The living room was so ugly that it almost scared her. It wasn't just graduate-student shabby: - that she could relate to. It was almost inhuman. Aside from the typewriter, there was no sign that it was the home of a writer. Here were no posters, no books, nothing to speak of the substance of the man who inhabited the place. The furniture, a hideous brown and gold plaid, was anything but inviting. What kind of a person, especially a writer, could be so indifferent to his surroundings? Could the dingy surroundings reflect the spirit of their owner? She considered leaving, but decided, what the hell. Anybody this different from old Jeff had to be worth a go. There seemed to be no TV. She supposed it was in the bedroom.
He was fussing in the kitchen and returned with two mismatched jelly glasses filled with cheap, red wine. "Let's go watch TV." The set was in the bedroom. She kicked off her brand new, bright-red spike heels with the polka dot lining and followed him.
The bedroom was disorderly and dismal. He walked to the window, "Do you like it dark or light? Are you a shy person?" Suddenly self-conscious, she said, "dark please." The drapes slid shut, blacking out the street light, leaving only a small slit of predawn blue.
He sat beside her, rubbing her back and talking. As she relaxed, he pulled her sweater over her head, gasping in delight over her breasts. She sank back, blissful over a man who admired her body to this extent. To be sure in any era but this one, her body would have been considered a wonder. Small waisted with full hips and breasts, she was a Marilyn Monroe, born out of her time. Finally she lay under his hands and lips, completely undressed. Her mind was filled with cookies and crumb cakes, tulips and windmills, baking bread and warm kitchens, laughter and sensuality. Time and time again he brought her to orgasm with fingertips and lips. Being Annette, she wanted more and tugged him on the top of her.
Her cobalt-blue eyes opened wide with horror when those skeleton bones smashed into her pelvis. She put her arms up above her head to keep from touching death. The bone pounding was even more hideous, because she couldn't feel his penis; unsure that there was one, she was terrified that his spinal column would flap between his bones and touch her. His mind stalked the Dutch kitchen that was hers. It devoured the cookies and cakes, withered the tulips and stopped the windmills, stilled the laughter and froze the sensuality. She tried to draw completely inside herself to hide from the repulsive, red-bearded skeleton that sprawled between her legs and across her body. He was unutterably worse than Jeff, unutterably revolting.
She was in shock by the time he rose, turning his back to her to pull on a dingy pair of red boxer shorts. She never really saw his body. "Coffee?" he nasal whined.
Moving as though lobotomized, she pulled the sheet over her, "No."
The second he walked out of the room, she jumped from the bed, grabbed her panty hose, stuffed them in her purse along with her bra, threw on her sweater and jeans, and rushed barefoot out the door and down the clanging outside staircase that led to the seedy parking lot where her car sat waiting. She had to escape from this vampire of the soul. She hiccoughed great gasps of air. Getting into the car, she gagged, but nothing came up. "My red shoes," she whimpered, as she threw the car in gear and peeled out of the parking lot.
Part of the horror was that she didn't understand the nature of the violations that had taken place. He certainly hadn't raped her, and the preliminaries had been nice. He hadn't said anything awful or been mean to her in any of the usual ways. He'd even offered her coffee when it was over. Why was it so awful? He was a perfectly nice man, just ugly, and she was being an ass. Or was she?
The sun was sparkling through the prisms that hung from her front window when she arrived home. Sprawling on the bright yellow carpet in the sunlight, she tried to infuse herself with the purity of the color. "God, I feel filthy," she shuddered, then got up to draw a steaming, fragrance-filled tub bath. While the water was running, she went to the second bathroom for a shower, before the tub bath. When she was finally immersed in the tub, the warmth of the water and liveliness of the scent began to bring her back to life. On the radio, Shirley Verrit sang Salome's grief and revenge and things began to grow in Annette's mind like crystals from a kit. "Oh, Annette, what did you do?" she asked herself. "Shit!" She had only 18 minutes to get to work. God, what if she saw him? What if he called?
The Stick Man was replete. He avoided Mom's, thinking that Annette might be there. He'd feasted rather well last night and feared today's probes would be met with sour milk rather than cookies. Instead, he went to Carl's Jr.'s where he could sit near to the window, watch the gorgeous girls go by and contemplate his next victim.
By now, Annette had made some progress in refurbishing her mind after the night's encounter, but was still feeling weak. In addition, things were not growing back the way they had been. The cinnamon-scented kitchen was tweaked. The cookies, the tulips, and windmills didn't come back. In their place was Annette as Salome, dancing with Stick Man's head on a platter, shattered windshields and red rage, carpet tacks and dum dum bullets. How dare he? How double-damn dare he do this to her? She'd get him.
At noon, she walked out of the library and hit every fast-food joint in the area until she sat across from him in Arby's. One quick probe and he retreated, mottled beard jutting out over the bobbing Adam's apple.
"I want my red shoes."
"You want to come over and get them?"
"NO! You bring them tomorrow. I'll leave my car open, at Mom's. You can put them there."
"What's wrong?" this with pretended innocence.
"You're a slimy son of a bitch. That's what's wrong. What did you put in that lousy wine? What did you do to my mind?"
"Hey, you seemed to be having a good time. Then you ran away like a crazy woman. If I'd known you were a nut case, I wouldn't have asked you out."
"Just put my shoes in my car. I'll leave it at Mom's tomorrow." She was out the door without a glance.
Stick Man brooded, then went home to slash and gash her shoes with his butcher knife, before throwing their mutilated remains in his dumpster. The next morning, he went to Wendy's instead of Mom's. She parked at Mom's, went to work and then came back to the car to look for her shoes. They weren't there. She drove to Stick Man's apartment. He wasn't there. Something made her look in the dumpster. There were her pretty red shoes, bleeding their polka dot linings. This was too much. She rummaged among the tools that Rich had left in the trunk of the car, emerged with a heavy hammer, and advanced on her enemy's 1987 Chevy. The hammer did a very satisfactory job of shattering the Chevy's windshield and denting its doors. The neighborhood was such that no one thought of calling the police, although there were a few amused faces peering from behind sagging drapes. Pleased that she still had time to get back to work before her lunch break was over, she drove to the library and parked in the staff parking lot. It seemed a good idea to stay away from Mom's for a while. She felt somewhat cleansed. An anemone seemed to be trying to push its way up in the junk yard that her mind had become since the previous night.
After work, she picked up a bottle of cabernet and a pizza, deciding to spend the night alone. Perhaps, she would spend every night alone. She liked her own company and she certainly didn't intend to worry about weirdo, skeleton men doing nasty things to her mind. She shuddered at the memory and took another shower. Sweet scented and relaxed, wine and pizza in hand, she settled on the couch, her knitting close at hand, and Mahler's 7th playing in the background, while another flower, perhaps a daffodil, worked its way through the tacks. Even her old cat seemed extraordinarily peaceful.
Then the telephone rang. It was Stick Man, not content to let well enough alone, raging at what she had done to his car. She hung up. He called back - and back - and back. Then he called back again. The anemone and the daffodil retreated. She drank three glasses of the good wine in quick succession, dressed in jeans and walking shoes, got out her hammer and prepared to do battle. She drove to his apartment and beat on the door. He didn't answer, so she battered it with her hammer and went home, defiantly stopping at Mom's to pick up a half dozen of her chocolate frosted favorites. The junkyard, cum battlefield, of her mind, now seemed diffused with the soft green of tender new grass. Stick Man receded. Tomorrow was another day and all of that. Perhaps the tulips and windmills would be back. She went home and went to bed, sleeping the sleep of the just, until the knock at the door.
Stick Man had called the police. They were polite, almost apologetic, as they informed the sleep-rosy Annette that he had filed a complaint against her. Would she please come down to the station with them? There, she discovered that he had not only filed a harassment complaint, but was also attempting to find ways to have her committed. He would withdraw his complaints if she would leave town. Two days later, she was gone.
He was getting hungry more often now. With each feeding, the thing in him that fed on life and beauty demanded stronger fare. The sweet young snacks on which he'd perfected his act didn't satisfy, although, he scored often enough. Enter Emily -- not at all the sort of woman who frequents fast-food places. Unlike Stick Man's other victims, she was a professional, a highly respected astronomer, a sophisticate and a full-fledged member of the community on the fringes of which he existed. The Faculty Club was closed for repairs, so Emily wandered across the street from her office in search of coffee, not companionship. Wendy's was crowded and she stood uncomfortably trapped in the cattle shoot designed to herd customers into orderly lines. He spied her and rushed across the restaurant to offer her a place at his table when she emerged from the shoot. Off base, there was little she could do but accept.
He made an initial run at her mind and returned confounded. It was filled with the wonders of the universe - galaxies and rainbows, East Indian curries and cinnabar, mathematics and metaphors, snow leopards and mountain passes. He retreated, the feast perhaps too rich for him. She looked at him uncertainly, vaguely aware of his probe, unaware of the nature of the enemy, unaware that it is the enemy.
She saw no reason for defenses. This ugly man could never threaten her. She observed him objectively - - the big, square head going bald inside its circle of lank curls, the pinkish, grizzled beard, the wet slit that is the mouth, moving incessantly inside the beard, the pale blue eyes scanning her intensely, the scrawny neck, alive with its bobbing Adam's apple. She is unaware that she would run screaming if she could probe his mind as he has done hers.
His conversation surprisingly engaging, she stayed in Wendy's longer than she had intended, returning to her office rather pleased with the exchange.
Several days later, he called her for coffee. Not wanting to take him to the now repaired Faculty Club, she agreed to meet him anywhere but Wendy's. He suggested Mom's Donut Shop. She accepted, secure that she would run into no one that she knew, and feeling a bit of a snob, because she is rather ashamed to be seen with this man.
An elegant woman, she is admired by her students for her casual flair. Today her rangy frame is covered by a raw silk pants suit. A cream colored satin tee shirt peeks from under the khaki jacket, matching her slim pumps. She has been trying to think of Stick Man as an interesting nonconformist, but has been largely unsuccessful. Today, he seems to have taken some care with his appearance. He wears what seems to be a new shirt and looks quite decent. He is, for him, quite cheerful. Both are surprised when she looks at her watch to discover that three hours have gone by and she is late for her department meeting.
The moist slit inside the bearded thatch curved into a smile as he watched her leave. Her openness has left him free to roam her mind, a veritable supermarket from which he has yet to make a withdrawal. He contemplates a long-term relationship, thinking with pleasure of living with this cornucopia, feeding on it, but never totally depleting it. He is aware that she is more fragile than she knows. He has learned of her self-imposed celibacy, her joy in not depending on another human being for her happiness. He knows exactly how to play it.
Meanwhile the first of Emily's defenses seemed to be crumbling. After the department meeting, dismal as are all such meetings, she surprised herself by lifting the phone and calling the office that Stick Man and several youthful part-timers call theirs. After he agreed to meet her for dinner, she asked herself why she was doing this. Could she, she wondered, be ready to lift her self-imposed celibacy? Certainly not with this man.
They compromised on a moderately priced, out-of-the-way Vietnamese place where the food was tolerable and she was unlikely to be seen by anyone who knew her. It was beginning to seem that meeting at her apartment would make more sense in terms of privacy. They closed the place and Stick Man invited her to his apartment for coffee. She refused and dodged his calls for two days.
On the third, she was annoyed when he showed up at her office and hurriedly left with him, to get him out of there before her colleagues saw him. All she needed was to have her reputation ruined by this campus character, whom she was seeing for some completely unfathomable reason.
In the end, she invited him to her third floor apartment to watch a movie on the VCR. She made a Cajun shrimp dish; he brought a bottle of undrinkable wine, which she hurriedly refrigerated before bringing out the decent little red that she'd had the foresight to pick up. They sat next to each other on the couch in front of the television.
A self-styled authority on film, he proved impossible as a movie- watching companion. On the plus side, he rubbed her stiff neck and back. It had been years since she had accepted a kindly touch, and, like her cat, Orion, who watched from the other side of the room, she gave herself up to this pleasure. With the glow of the wine and pleasure of the back rub, she was almost sorry to send him on his way when she saw the time. Still, she knew that she did not want to pay the price for a relationship, and, certainly, she did not want a romance with this weirdo, although his probes of her mind had given him the ammunition to sound like the man of her dreams, clothed in an unlikely guise. The frog prince and all of that.
Greedy, he had been unable to resist grazing just a bit, and, when he left, she found herself vaguely discontented with her almost perfect life. He had taken only a nip here and there; still, wherever he nipped had left a small slimy sore. She drove to the lake and spent hours watching the waves lap the shore, trying to find what was wrong. Of course, she could not identify the nebula that was missing from her mind, nor the moonbeam; thus she made, a serious mistake. She decided that perhaps she was lonely, that perhaps the Stick Man was what she had waited for her entire life. Perhaps she had never before really known what she wanted, so she rushed home to telephone him.
"Can you come for dinner tonight?"
He could. She made an elegant ragout which he made small pretense of enjoying, as he'd have been happier with a burger and fries. He talked a lot about the previous women in his life and how they spoiled good food by adding too many ingredients. He drank a lot of her wine and obviously enjoyed the grocery store cake. Something inside tried to warn her, but she stilled the voice, telling herself that she had to learn not to be a yuppie snob.
He nibbled more than her ears that night. He stole a comet's tail, some of her metaphors, a mountain pass and a third of a rainbow. When he left, she was lonely and thought that it was for him, because she didn't know that what was missing was a comet's tail, three metaphors, a mountain pass and a third of a rainbow. In addition, her galaxies were shot through with tiny black holes.
He left, as gleeful as a negativity can be. Her missing him was a dividend. Perhaps like Genghis Khan's men, who cut steaks and drank blood from their living horses, he could continue to feed on her resources, saving him from looking for new victims. If he moved in with her, he could have her mind and her money both.
Instead of going home, he stopped at Mom's, where he hardly noticed the attractive young women who chattered and ate in the next booth, unaware of their narrow escape.
Emily was disconcerted. What was the matter with her? Why did she feel like this? Had she learned nothing? Could this be love? Searching her mind, she found rubbish where wonders should have been. Perhaps she really was nothing. Perhaps she should fear loneliness and old age. Perhaps she'd spent too long gazing outward. Perhaps without a lover, without this lover, she was truly nothing. Able to stand it no longer, she called Stick Man.
"Would you like to come for dinner on Saturday?" He would. He wrung his freckled fingers with delight. On Saturday, he would Feast.
When Saturday came, Emily made tuna fish casserole, with corn instead of peas, using a can of mushroom soup for sauce. She resisted adding the curry that would have lifted it a bit from the pedestrian. Before she had finished, he was at the door with another bottle of undrinkable wine wrapped in a paper bag. Although she had suggested what brand to buy, he had determined to impose his will in this as everything else. They would eat what he liked and drink what he liked. This time she opened his bad wine, setting it next to his glass. She also opened a bottle of decent wine, placing it next to her glass. Foiled, he considered making a remark about her rejection of his gift, but thought better of it.
Now that he had her where he wanted her, he would have some fun. Drawing on what he had stolen from her, he eroded her confidence, ground at her self-esteem and poured his cheap wine in her wounds.
Shaken, Emily poured herself another glass of cabernet, "Why are you saying these things?" Then rage building, "How dare you assume that I would listen to such bilge. How dare you!" He only smiled. She ordered him out.
Instantly, he fed. First he slurped the galaxies, then the rest of the rainbow, leaving swathes of fetid emptiness. Mount Meru disappeared into a void. She reeled. Her center was gone. This idiot, this geek was destroying her and she didn't even like him. How had he done this? Where had she gone wrong? The sunshine in her mind was gone. No weakling, she pulled herself together. "You don't have the option to return. Please don't call me."
Giving her a satisfied grin, he sucked what he thought was the last earthly delight from her mind, leaving only greenish swirls. Then he was gone.
What was she to do? Baffled, she wandered from room to room. The void was terrible. Where was she? For the first time she knew the meaning of desolation. There was no meaning to anything, not her work, not to the beauty of the ocean nor the glory of the skies. Even her cat looked alien. There was no reason to cry or laugh. Nada! Nada! Nihil! Nothing! Yet there was something, a small iridescent bubble he had missed. She reached for the telephone.
"David, do you want to go out for a drink?" She couldn't believe the plaintive note in her voice.
"No, but why don't you come over here?" Good old Dave, always the rock.
"Thanks, I'll be right there." After the standard search for the car keys, stepping in Orion's water dish, and dropping her purse twice, she headed for the car. A country music star twanged misery from the radio, while she drove wild eyed across town--"I am crazy--I am really crazy. How bizarre! Maybe going crazy is like getting a virus." Horns blared, but she arrived safely at Dave's house.
"I'm nuts!" she announced, almost weeping at the sight of the fire in Dave's fireplace and the peace of the room. "I'm wacko! Deranged! Demented! I've lost my center! I'm so scared."
Across town Stick Man licked his lips.
"You mean you're under psychic attack," Dave's voice was soft. She looked at her old friend's face, really seeing him for the first time. The smile lines in his desert tanned face deepened. "You're safe here."
Mount Meru and a quarter of a rainbow began to poke through the rubble. Emily sat on the floor in front of the fire. Dave handed her a glass of wine and sat in a chair behind her, gently massaging her neck while she berated herself. "How could I have been so incredibly stupid? Why don't I learn?"
"Hey, I've never seen you so human before. What happened anyway?"
"It was a real horror story...."
While Emily told the story, Stick Man shifted uneasily in his orange plastic booth. Although he had just fed, he was hungry again. A swirl of color and light, glittering full-spectrum refractions, suddenly escaped from the sucking morass that was his mind, like a dancing dust devil escaping to its rightful owner. Conscious only of the void that needed to be filled, he lurched out the door after Jennie, a crisp-curled, dark-eyed graduate student who'd stopped on the way home from the library to pick up some doughnuts for her breakfast.
His great need made the attempted penetration clumsy. Revolted, she felt the mind rapist, before she saw his figure pacing itself behind her. "Use your enemy's strength against him," the words of her Akido teacher strengthened her. Whirling, she faced him, her mind a mirror reflecting back on him the horror that he was. Then she made her way home, the little heels of her boots tapping lightly on the moonlit street.
Emily, suddenly drowsy, leaned against Dave's legs until he slipped to the floor beside her, and for the first time held her sleeping in his arms.
A happy ending you say? Because Emily escaped and found true love, because Jennie fought back and won? Oh, no. Remember poor Maria endlessly searching city streets for her lost jungles and jaguars. And Annette, Annette of the red shoes, the luscious Annette who fought so bravely, jobless, friendless, driven from her sparkling and aromatic kitchen. Watch carefully. These feeders on life and joy lurk everywhere.
Beware! Beware the Stick Men!
Felicia Florine Campbell writes from Blue Diamond, Nevada. Her short story Murder is Academic is featured in Akashic Books' Las Vegas Noir anthology.
from Education City
5 January 2006
Al Nihaya or The End
“. . . even under anesthesia the monkeys blinked . . .”
A Wired News article, scrolled halfway through, showed on the dimmed screen of a Dell XPS 3.030 laptop not currently plugged into a power source – but no soul was there to view it, for the quiet American who had been reading was now at the window.
STITCH. STITCH. STITCH.
“Christ – already I’ve got something on my jacket. My black Jiuche Diesel jacket. How long have I had it?” Gold light was breaking through the entry. “Seriously, shit—” Cell phone buttons clicked and the noise of downtown hummed dully from the outside, a haze, while thin webs of decorative craquelure in faux gold-leafed columns and moldings around the lobby stood out in his peripheral vision. “It’s that fucking hummus from Sunday night – how come I didn’t notice it sooner? Jesus, hummus. How long have I had this thing again?” Hushed voices and the occasional obtrusive male laugh emanated from a side room, where four professionally-dressed men were lounging, drinking, smoking. It was four in the afternoon. “Hello?”
“Summer, I think. It’s poly-coated anyway.”
“Munich, yeah. And it had better be, for the hundred twenty-five euros I paid for it.” He grabbed the hem up in his hand to better see it as they walked. “Mmf, no, it’s bled right into the stitching.” He scratched the stain with his fingernails; a few flakes fluttered to the floor to reveal a grease mark beneath. “I’d wash it but the whole damned thing will warp and it’ll never fit me right again. You know that’s how this shit goes, especially with Diesel. I mean, I might as well throw it out.”
“It’ll be fine, Arsen, shit.”
“No, I might as well throw it out now. Why I’m wearing this in eighty-five-degree weather anyway, I don’t know.”
“Well it is winter. But I imagine you’re wearing it because it looks good.”
“True. And yes” – he shrugged his shoulders into the jacket – “it does look good. Just remind me to take better care of my shit, please.”
“Done.” A greeting sounded from behind a counter to their left, followed by a question stifled early – “May I . . . ?” – because the counterperson had halfway through recognized them as frequent visitors despite the poor, fractured lighting typical of the West Bay Towers late in the afternoon, and returned his attention to a computer screen below.
“And we go somewhere else next time.”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch.” Behind them the counterperson was now complimenting a female visitor on her hair, which had recently been styled, and asking who she’d come to see.
STITCH. STITCH. STITCH. This is how they might have looked from the satellites, via Google Earth or some other virtual globe software, now Web 2.0, zagging across the sand at the southern border: installations, the pride of which were small arrays of the new U.S. Active Denial System, a non-lethal heat-ray weapon (“Its electromagnetic millimeter-waves only penetrate human skin to 1/64th an inch, rendering it harmless,” an unnamed military source was quoted as saying.), set a mile apart because the weapon’s range had recently been extended from five hundred yards to a half-mile. These were milecastles, really, carefully sewn into the border by decades of wealth-building alliances that sought to bring the West to the East, and vice versa as firms with names like Dubai Investment Group (DIG), Arabian Investcorp and Istithmar PJSC, led by the ruling families of Mideastern states, bought up harbors and transport companies all over Europe and the United States for the sake of monopoly. Gregoros saw these little brown-hued pearls strung across the desert neck of the peninsula, lit up from behind on his OLED laptop screen – or would have, had he been paying any attention. He would have noticed it was like Hadrian’s Wall barring off a scorched version of the North, this sandy flame curling out into the Gulf called Qatar (pronounced ['kɑ-tˁɑr]), but this time to protect the barbarians from the Kingdom instead of the other way around.
Under normal circumstances he’d have been looking at them this way, from space on his notebook, his face glowing white-green as if he were staring over a radar display in his father’s apartment in West Bay (officially the New District of Doha). Call it research. But lately he’d been curious about the view from a shorter distance off the ground and not so much entranced by Google’s magical satellite representations, whether you could click-and-drag, zoom, label and bookmark or otherwise. So his laptop blinked away at 100 Hz its images and a recent article from Wired without an audience, set facing the couch on a wide pine coffee table, a coffee cup (naturally) beside, newspaper nearby, as Gregoros stood before the window.
Active Denial. Millimeter waves: make you feel like you’re on fire – as if being in the desert amid bomb and stray missile blasts wasn’t enough.
“It really does feel like – ow, motherfucker. Christ, can we cut that? OK. This is David Martin, reporting for 60 Minutes. Son of a bitch that hurt,” Gregoros had heard on a leaked YouTube video twenty minutes before.
Other journalists were calling it the “pain ray,”
a “virtual flame-thrower,”
but Raytheon was referring to it as the “Silent Guardian.” In 10,007 human tests there had been only three cases of second-degree burns. Direct eye exposure, the principal concern regarding Active Denial’s microwave beam, had been tested extensively – injuries were found to be temporary in all laboratory animals. As quoted from Martin’s telecast, “a speculum was needed to hold the eyes open to produce injury, because even under anesthesia the monkeys blinked, protecting the cornea.”
Below, Gregoros could see waves of rebels inexplicably, stupidly shouting and throwing stones at tanks before they’re run over or stoned themselves by showers of concrete exploding from adjacent buildings – but this would change all that. Now they would just lay down in a row and bow to the heat, this screaming microwave voice of Allah washing over them and commanding them to kneel, harmlessly.
Allaahu Akhbar! as they go, hoping the heat will cease. Allaahu Akhbar! The icon’s sand-colored head would turn, bringing others into its burning, harmless influence. They wouldn’t be able to see anything with the machine so far away, the rebels: they really would be bowing to God, or maybe some resentful djinni with its unseen fire, clawing at their clothes and skin and laying out like animals.
Allaahu Akhbar! “God is great! God is great!” while running or writhing—
The “goodbye effect.”
No. They’ve gotten more sophisticated, surely, Gregoros thought – particularly since the war started. The tanks and rebels faded, leaving a crowd of civilians among whom a red purse was bouncing, weaving, slithering through on the shoulder of an Arab woman, not covered. A Syrian or Egyptian expatriate, he reasoned, for Qatari women had local reputations to protect. The wife of a wealthy oilman, perhaps? Or an international businessman. Up she hopped to cut across the stepped concrete base of a colossal sculpture of a della (‘pitcher’), ornately etched, from which a hidden pump system was fountaining water. Then down down down, heels striking, hair bouncing like an American’s. A teal, twenty-seven-foot sculpture of a shopping cart stood opposite not two blocks away, but before the woman reached it she ducked into the base of a glass high-rise, acute afternoon sunlight cutting after her through the doorway. No, too confident – maybe an Al Thani, a royal (no need for reputation). Gregoros considered this a lucky day, for Qataris comprise less than eleven percent of the city’s population. It wasn’t often you saw them out in the middle of the day. Away to the right some white children were playing at the art installation by the shore, the one with the international prints to show how diverse the nation had become: aerial photos of a green French Guianan rainforest, the barchans of the Rub’ al Khali, the great Saudi erg to the south, and the Rocky Mountains; one boy slipped on the steps, went into the water, and for a few minutes Gregoros J. Morchand observed the attempts to find and then save him by nearby concerned citizens (all Westerners), silenced as they were by three blocks, thirteen floors, and two layers of tempered window-glass.
Splash-splash, he imagined he heard. Their mouths were moving, too – shouting, but most passersby were as deaf to them as Gregoros in his upstairs apartment, for minutes later the thrashing stopped, water stopped being cast ashore to shale cobblestones where it had already stained them black, and one man – not the father, it appeared – lifted the boy from the water and set him higher on the steps, before leaning over him stilly. Preparing to blow? – hard to tell from this distance. Gregoros suspected the loud spatter of seawater draining from them both could be heard at the installation, where the other white children were just beginning to line up so they could watch the end.
Sad. There was now definite blowing, definite chest compression. The children – some were recoiling, some were curious and had edged closer. Gregoros could imagine the looks on their faces: it was that pretend-sadness, that appropriate adult facial expression for moments like this they had learned over the course of their short lives to mimic with precision, yet poorly masking a lack of understanding, a strange curiosity, and – paradoxically – extreme boredom. Their eyes always gave them away, because they would wander for the purpose of checking everyone else’s expressions.
OK? Is it OK to pick at the body yet?
Have all the proper rituals been performed?
No, that woman still looks horrified.
That one, she’s crying.
And they would continue staring at the ground, tapping their shoes together. But there was still this invisible barrier they obeyed, as if cautiously observing Francis Bacon’s figure study Man with Drowned Child – newly titled The End – from a distance of exactly two feet plus two inches, for fear of the watchful museum wardens nearby.
But it would not be the end. For children have long been known to survive for minutes, even an hour, submerged in water – inexplicably they are more resilient. This is especially true in cold water; and though the Persian Gulf is the warmest body of water in the world, it is a well-known fact that autumn conditions provide for a significant drop in surface temperature: a combination of southwesterly winds (which cause an upwelling of deep sea water) and seasonal weather change can cause a drop from 38˚ to 15˚C. This would not be widely considered cold, per se – but it probably contributed, as the boy at the installation had been underwater for more than three-and-a-half minutes and was just now returning to waking life.
Water that was expelled from the boy’s stomach was now flowing down over the stairs to return to the ocean, splash-splash as he choked it forth. He’ll be just fine, thankfully. The man kneeling over him helped him sit up. Gregoros could see the boy was no more than five, maybe six – but blinked his eyes wide, then squinted: beyond the steps there was movement, the whisk of a green object sliding out and back under the water. A fish, a serpent, a sea spirit, protecting the child. But perhaps the thing had choked him in the first place.
Anyway, now the boy would be fine. The man, this magician with the power to return life to children, would quickly locate his parents – and maybe the rebels would be waiting for him tomorrow.
More sophisticated . . .
5 January 2006
The Goodbye Effect
IRAQ WAS IN THE STREETS, even though he was in Qatar: Americans and insurgents and car bombs disturbing the foundations of old buildings, black starbursts on the market walks where they had torn everything apart, and female Sunni and Shia flesh spilling its attrite contents out of the dark of robes to commemorate Muharram, all projected. Oh, ho ho! – but no, this was not Baghdad. No, here all was glass and neon and not fractured concrete. A different kind of Middle East, Gregoros thought as he reflected on the red purse, now somewhere in the adjacent office building. Another sort of pilgrimage that was bringing the Westerners so far from home. The cold smell of American investment had been busy, busy with the expatriate Indians. From his location on the thirteenth floor he could view a mass of new high-rises, so tall they draped over cumulus humilis cloud-rims like the tails of hyaline serpents curled in rest above; and like the new ADS their reflections screamed radiation through his window – harmless, he was sure. But annoying, this light blazing from each of their windowpanes, which had been laid over like scales not weeks prior by cranes and (again) the expatriate Indians. Everything new, everything shiny. Yesterday they were mere rust-dusted steel webs rising into the sky, evidence that the harvestmen had come: those little long-legged non-spiders, webs not spun but built or stolen, issuing no venom but slowly invading en masse the last regions they’d yet to inhabit and throbbing in aggregates until all else is blotted out by the silhouette of a million automatous legs. The glass was only a sleek façade – the serpents, a myth – to disguise the migration.
The Arabs have been tantalized by light, all this light.
After the purse and boy disappeared Gregoros spent time considering whether there were other Westerners staring out from the many scale-windows across the way. He tried to stare into them by again squinting, as it is a well-known fact that this enhances human sight considerably. Their reflections killed but he stared anyway; it was a welcome distraction. For gunfighters, he believed he saw, stalked each other in urban warfare on the new roads below, providing a better challenge for the tanks. Their sounds were like pepper in the air.
It’s always crackling, somewhere, he thought. The signature static of fireworks, or the collapse of brittle glass. A worker stupidly dropping a pane from ten stories up.
But really no gunfighters were there. No insurgents, no tanks. Qatar was full of foreigners, but there were few Americans and no Iraqis. All Indian, Nepalese, Bengali, Filipino – all kilaab, the Arabs liked to say. Dogs. Not-brothers.
4:02 p.m., his cell phone ringing (a regular ring – every other Third Culture Kid’s phone was around this time playing Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc.).
This is when Gregoros was watching out his window. This is when his friends were striding through the doors of a false-spider’s-thread elevator of West Bay Residential Tower A to see him, and when far away in Bangalore a young software engineer was having his face cut for a particularly grave offense against a Muslim family of northern Karnataka. Half the engineer’s ear was sheared off, flaking to the ground like tree bark – it came to rest with a little bounce on the sidewalk. Rubber from a Halloween mask; a mystifying amount of blood spilling from the cartilage. As if to answer it the engineer fell to the ground with a like bounce, having been surprised on his way from the library.
“Hogi banni!” they spat at him as he fell.
“Illa dayavati! Nahi! No, please! Take, take!” he shouted. Notebook paper, college-ruled, spun around the scene in a whirlwind, revealing a zoetrope of pencil-written functions in FALSE, Joy, Subtext, brainfuck. The engineer recognized some Boo and then Groovy, v. 1.5, fluttering by on a last sheet before it set down in the gutter:
a = 0
“Nahi?” came their response. For they could barely comprehend his Malayalam and had trouble even with Hindi.
while true: arrogant bastard tomorrow @ 7 yes?
Take? He knew why they were really there; they were taking precisely what they wanted. The engineer turned his head to spare his face their blows – but long lines were then scored into his cheeks, showing like the legs of aggregate opilionids except in red. His wrists and ankles were held at the sidewalk so they could cut out three of his fingernails. His stink was getting on them, they complained. Nayi! Nayi! they shouted with each blow. He would not have understood them but for his time in Bangalore, where from the movies he had picked up more Kannada – he remembered seeing a film last year with Roshan titled Nayi Neralu, or “In the Shadow of the Dog.” It was the same everywhere, this label, burned into vellum and translated into many languages. Phaa patti in Malayalam. The men failed to provide him with the privacy of an alley, so everything was advertised (passers-by at the IISc crossed the street to avoid the scene, etc.). Allaahu Akhbar! howled not in their own language but the language of their religion. In their part of India they are secretly heroes for avenging a sister – they will probably kill her too – as a pair of American boys were mashing button thirteen in one of the West Bay elevators and realizing there might be a problem with its electronics.
It looks like it, they agreed. Red for stop at the appropriate time; all exited.
Try the other one: they can’t both be broken.
Yeah, this one’s fine.
Should we tell someone about the other?
Wide brass doors closed on them and up they went for five more floors, digital numbers ticking to thirteen in time, all other elevator electronics functioning properly – but the steel I-beam web that surrounded them in the tower walls moaned under the weight of the expatriate children. Low in the throat, glottis vibrating. It supported, guided everything unseen anyway; it shaped the boys, pushed them up, up...
Joshua D. Miner writes from Dallas, Texas.
I keep having the same dream about you Jimmy. The media frenzy is over, but some small market tabloid didn’t catch on fast enough—so they call me at my home. They never know anything about what happened—or they say they don’t—and I’m never smart enough to just hang up the damn phone. I just answer all the questions like I’m sitting in a Catholic confessional. Sometimes I think it’s you on the other end—pretending that you don’t know what happened—making me answer all those questions.
It always goes the same. Oh, this is one of those phone calls? Fine. If you want to know, yes, in 1978 I killed a man. Shot him in the chest. I was nineteen years old and he was nearly fifty. It wasn’t about having fun—it was just my job. I was a guard at a prison in the South. You’ll probably find out where, if you don’t know already, but I’m not going to help you out, because that’ll just make it easier for you to go and dig up some local paper and bring it to my house.
You’ll bring it to my door at 7 p.m. and ask me to sign it and ask me to tell you all about the time I put a bullet in James David Monroe. You’ll ask me in front of Becky, my wife of nearly thirty years—a woman who was against the death penalty when I met her and is sure against it now. You’ll ask me in front of her and she’ll look down at the table like you were some mistress walking in off the street. She’ll act like you just came on in during supper and said, “let’s talk about this,” and slapped that god damn headline down on the table. Oh, she knows about everything—but she’d like to forget it. She’d see you there, and she’d know it was you and not some reporter. Thirty years isn’t long enough to forget.
She’ll even look at you like you’re that fifty year old man wearing a blind fold, and maybe she’ll think you got a cigarette in your mouth, and maybe she’ll remember how you cried and begged and shat yourself and said over and over again how it wasn’t you, and why couldn’t we believe you, and you’d never do something like that. Maybe you’ll keep on saying that until the bullets argue out loud. Ignore your flesh and words and go straight for your heart—which was broken anyway, because you were telling the truth. The entire time, you were telling the truth.
Then she’ll look at me like I’m the murderer, which I am. And then she’ll look at our little girl Natalie, who’s sitting seven feet away in front of a plate of food, and she’ll tell her, “No baby, you don’t have to eat your peas. Go play with your dolls.”
My little girl won’t understand why tonight is the one night she doesn’t have to clean her plate. She won’t understand why tonight she gets to stay up forty minutes longer than usual and sit between Becky and me on the couch while we’re way too quiet during the Tonight Show.
She’ll be curious. Kids are always curious, but she won’t ask any questions because she’ll be afraid to break the spell. She won’t risk being sent to bed just to find out why she hasn’t been already.
I wonder why adults don’t have that same sense about them. I wonder what makes a man search through old microfilm in a backwater library to read about a thirty year old execution. I mean, the guy who decided to reopen the case—he read through all those microfilms—every arrest report, every court report and every local interest story—and decided that we were all wrong. He decided that it was time to dig Jimmy Monroe up and clear his dead fucking remains of his crimes. His name? I don’t remember his name. What does that matter? He wasn’t trying to clear his name.
How? Oh, DNA evidence. Can you believe that? They got DNA evidence from two dead bodies, and after all that evidence was presented we were left with two victims instead of one. Jimmy Monroe, not James David Monroe, not that three named notoriety the media saddled him with in 1978. Just Jimmy. Just like his mamma called him til the day he died, and just what she called him when she screamed at the boys on the firing squad—called us fucking killers. I can still hear her. I think I stopped hearing her after fifteen years, but then they proved her right and now I hear her again. I’ve never understood why they let the families watch executions.
The next day she came to see the body. We didn’t make them, it’s not like a homicide. Sometimes the families just need to see the body. I don’t get it, but it’s not my call.
I was the youngest on the crew so I got to stand guard over the remains. Bobby Milam said I would still be able to fuck that part up. He said if the body got fresh I ought to call out for backup. I’d like to say I didn’t laugh. I’d like to say I didn’t think that was the funniest shit I’d heard that day. If I could say that then maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a bastard about it. Maybe I wouldn’t mind you coming around here with a piece of paper reminding me of what I’ve done.
When Jimmie’s mamma came in the door that next day she’d calmed down. She just eased on in and signed all the paper work. Joe Burke still patted her down in case she’d decided to get some revenge. Sometimes people wanted to make us pay for the executions. They can’t get at jurors, or judges, or legislators. They don’t understand that guards are just the machinery that finishes the job. We’re the brooms that sweep up the mess. We’re no more responsible for the deaths than the guns we use to do it.
She didn’t put up a fight. She just kept her eyes down. Down on the paper, down on the pen, down on the ground watching her feet move. I think she might have looked up for a second when she got to where I was standing. My shoes would have been pretty hard to miss against the white tile. Two black polished dress shoes. They were both shining and reflective. They weren’t always so sharp, the boys told me that on a regular basis, but I’d polished them that morning. I had to. The day before, Jimmy’s blood splattered all over the left shoe. 20 feet away and the blood still arched across the green yard and splashed little flecks on our faces. Little rain drops of warmth on our pants and shirts and shoes. We took out our handkerchiefs and wiped our faces and our gun stocks—as if it were just that easy.
So yeah, she saw my shoes, and she flicked her eyes up at me and back down to the floor—but she didn’t look at my shoes again after that. She waited until I turned the key in the door, pushed the door inward on its hinge and listed to it slam against the side wall and recoil like the ghost of seven gunshots. She heard it too, and when she could, she walked into the nearly empty room. She stood at the shore of a thousand tiles, a square inch each in size. Her look followed the brown and white boxes that leaped one another—leading to the center of the room. In the center was a hollow table with four fog-silver legs peeking from under the bottom of a white cloth—a cloth that barely hid the drainage reservoir where we’d hosed down the floor and rinsed out her son’s blood and feces.
I couldn’t blame her for not looking up. I didn’t want to look at the top of that table either. I didn’t want to spend another second with that naked man with his torn open chest. The sheets we put over the bodies make me think of my wife’s veil. They had since a woman had come in the year before and lifted back a sheet just like the one James was under. She pulled it back and put her lips gently against her husband’s. She put her head on his chest like it was nothing more than the gentle aftermath of her honeymoon. Then she crawled up on the table, and stayed there and cried. We’d already patted her down—she wasn’t going to try anything crazy—but she still got her revenge on me that day.
Mrs. Monroe didn’t have the same reaction. She didn’t even pull the sheet back, she didn’t do anything but turn from the room and walk back out, and keep her head down on the brown tile and the white tile and then the even whiter tile. Then I called her back, “Don’t you want to see the body?”
That’s when she finally looked at me and that look would have left powder on your palms if you touched it, like the proof of a gunshot. I just know it.
“You think you got the wrong man on that table Mr. Hawkins?” There wasn’t a thing about her now that looked like a woman looking down. There wasn’t a thing about her that said she had a dead son. She looked more like my mamma used to when I stayed out too late on a Sunday. And she asked me that question the same way my mamma used to ask me every question she already knew the answer to. I don’t mind saying, at nineteen I still had a healthy fear of my mother and that fear shot up from my chest and out of my throat in the only answer I ever gave in moments like this: silence.
“If you kill a man, I guess you ought to at least make sure you kill the right one.” As she said it, she walked over to the table, pulled back the sheet like it was nothing more sinister than a lid on buffet platter. If the sight bothered her at all she managed to hide it. She looked the face over for a few seconds, covered it again and turned to me. “Sorry Mr. Hawkins, but it looks like you got the wrong man.”
That’s all she said, and then she left.
You’re wondering what’s got me thinking about all this. It happened so long ago, I ought to just let it go. Forgive myself. The problem is I didn’t know I needed to forgive myself for twenty-eight of those years, so I’m still coming to terms. When the story first broke I was glad to be a thousand miles away—but they still find you, the media I mean. They always find you. I guess you know all about that.
Doesn’t help that only two of us guards are still alive. Hank’s still in town, but he ended up with Alzheimer’s so he wasn’t much to interview. I feel bad for him, of course I do, but that doesn’t make him any better to talk to. Anyway, with me being the only one left who knew anything about it, I had people from every national publication on my front lawn.
I’d seen stuff like it before, on Court T.V., Fox News, C.N.N., but I didn’t appreciate what it’s like to be famous for something like that. You don’t know what it’s like to have people tearing up your lawn, your street. I spent years cultivating the grass in my yard. My wife spent years growing roses and these little weeds that looked like flowers, but really weren’t. Once, she tried to explain why it mattered, but if it didn’t come in a little 2x2 square of sod, I couldn’t grow it and I couldn’t understand it. Throw the sprinklers on, get rid of ant beds—that I could do—but I couldn’t prune and dig and landscape. That was up to the girls, and they loved it. They even pretended not to notice when I stole some of their flowers to give to them on their birthdays.
My daughter was five years old when those trucks and camera crews showed up on our street, but she was already smart enough know they shouldn’t be there. She was also smart enough to pretend that she wasn’t horrified every time some jackass cameraman in a backwards baseball cap stomped through a flower bed to ask me a question. She emulates her mother. She wants to be just like her, and swear to god I hope she ends up that way. I’m not a man who’s afraid to love—but I’ve spent a lot of years with permanent blisters under the second knuckle on every finger—the kind you get from gripping on, too long, to anything that pulls you. I’ve spent a lot of years with my skin looking too much like a sand trap that’s contrasted by the lush green surrounding our home. My wife has always been beautiful and my wife has always been kind. She’s got the kind of hands that stay gentle even when they’re covered in texture and potting soil. I’ve got my father’s hands.
Sometimes Natalie likes to come over to my recliner in the living room and scramble up into my lap with a book in one hand and in the other, her favorite pink brush—the one with Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” on the handle. “Daddy, you need to brush my hair so that I can read this book.” She always calls me Daddy when she wants something. She also smiles at me really big and her single dimple, the one on the left of her face, pops out like a little wink. Even if Natalie doesn’t know what she’s up to, even if it’s unconscious, her dimple is in on the scam. Some people might worry that the instinct for manipulation starts so early—but it’s never bothered me. Sometimes she calls me “Dad” when she needs to seem older, but she seems most grown up when she’s embarrassed by me, or when she says just the right thing to get her way. We all do it. I’m not making some commentary on women. My mother would come back from the grave and beat the tar out of me. I know how strong a woman can be. That’s why I want my daughter to keep on becoming one.
Still, that doesn’t mean that my little girl is wise just yet. She always forgets how “Daddy” always catches every tangle when he’s brushing her hair. That his boxy hands can barely hold that tiny brush. That he palms it like a kitchen sponge and tends to scrub her hair more than brush it. I always know what’s going to happen—but I guess I’m not that wise either. I always hope that this time I’ll get it right, and this time she won’t say, “Ouch Daddy, that’s not how you do it!”
But, I never get it right and inevitably she’ll turn to me and look up at me like I planned the entire thing. As if I said, “Honey, why don’t you go grab your brush so that Daddy can play with your hair,” and then betrayed her. Her brow furrows, and she scowls and even though she’s not even four feet tall, she finds a way to look down her nose at me and accuse me, “That’s not how Mommy does it.” Then she takes the brush, and the book, slides out of the chair and onto the floor, and I’m just Dad again.
That’s when she moves a few feet over to her mother. Becky always watches the entire thing, and I can feel her smiling while she pretends to do a crossword or balance our checkbooks. I wonder how we ever ended up with a daughter. I can’t believe my wife ever let me hold her with hands as rough as mine, but Becky always knows how to fix the spots that I treat too roughly. She takes over the brush duties, removing every tangle without a single complaint, and I sit in my chair and listen to my daughter read her book.
In the evening I’m remembering right now, it’s a book called Lon Po Po. Most of it’s just Little Red Riding Hood meets The Three Little Pigs. It’s cute, and the art is nice, but it’s just a children’s book. Still, I’ll never forget that dedication, “To all the wolves of the world, for lending their good name as a tangible symbol for our darkness.”
“What’s that mean Daddy?”
“Well, I think it means that we all need to be afraid of something, so why not wolves?”
“I’m afraid of the dark.”
“I know sweetie, but everyone’s afraid of the dark when they’re little.”
“But not wolves?”
“Not always. In some places a wolf is just like a dog.”
“Why are some people afraid of them then?”
There was no good answer for this. What could I say? People would rather be afraid of the wolves than feed them? They’d rather choose their fear than have it sneak up on them? Wolves can be shot, or captured or beaten or starved. You can’t do anything about the dark but shine a light on it and prove that it was never really there.
That kind of fear is nothing—or it’s hidden. Sometimes we just need to blame something for the fear we don’t understand. It’s been a part of humanity since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake—maybe before that. The wolf and the snake are just kindred spirits in a world that’s looking for bad guys. How would you explain that to your little girl?
“Who knows? Your aunt Jamie is afraid of dogs, but she isn’t afraid of the dark. You never know what someone’ll be afraid of.” Jamie was very afraid of the dark, but I had a point to make. Like I said, we all manipulate.
I wonder what Jimmy’s mother told him about wolves. I wonder what she told her little boy about the dark when he couldn’t sleep at night. Was she like me? Did she take him to the closet, open the door and crawl inside to prove there was nothing inside but clothes and shoveled in toys? Did she let him curl up in bed with her to feel safe? What could she have told him about that final darkness he had to face without her? When the blindfold was placed over his eyes how could he possibly remember that there was nothing to be afraid of in the dark? How did his mother feel when she couldn’t protect her little boy any longer. Did she think of me and those other boys as the big bad wolf, or just a tangible symbol of a shadow we couldn’t help but cast.
I wondered about all of this while the T.V. reporter talked about Jimmy’s strange request to be killed by firing squad. A female reporter turned to an expert and asked about the different types of capital punishment.
In the middle of a very graphic description of what happens during a hanging, I looked over to see my wife had dozed in her seat on the couch, but Natalie was focused on the screen. She made eye contact with me and said, “Daddy, I think it’s time for me to go to bed.”
I stood up, put a hand on my wife’s shoulder and woke her with a kiss on the forehead. She smiled at me, kissed me on the cheek and then stood up and started toward the bedroom. Natalie put her arms into the air, which meant I was supposed to pick her up. I did. Then I carried her past her bedroom door and into the room where Becky was already brushing her teeth with her eyes closed.
We’d all be sharing the room this evening. No one asked me any questions about why.
I kept myself from checking the closet before we all crawled into bed. They held back the urge to ask me if I’d go ahead and check.
The media gives up on these things after a while. It’s been a couple of years and even though the story was more resilient than Jimmy, it still died eventually. It’s hard to champion a cause when there’s no one left alive who was really responsible for the problem. It took a lot of convincing for anyone to believe I never meant anything by shooting that boy—that I really was just doing my job and doing what I’d been convinced was right. That I could never do it again seems beside the point. I’d done it, and I’d done it as close to proudly as anyone can do a thing like that and still be human. But, I couldn’t do it now and still be proud. You could show me a video of Jimmy doing exactly what they accused him of and Jimmy could admit to it, and I still wouldn’t pull the trigger. A man ought to be certain of some things.
My wife was glad to hear me confess this one night before we went to bed. I’d been considering it for over twenty years before I finally came to my conclusion.
“I knew you’d figure it out eventually.”
“What if I hadn’t? What if I always thought it was right?”
“Then I’d have kept waiting.”
“What if, though?” The room was dark and quiet. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I imagine she wasn’t looking at me, but at the ceiling. It was a rare time when the silence got the best of me. “Would you still love me?”
“Who says I ever loved you to begin with?”
This was her way of telling me I’d asked a stupid question. I smiled in the dark and I’m pretty sure she must have been smiling back at me. Of course she’d have kept loving me. She just might not trust me to love someone else the right way. I hadn’t appreciated much of what Jimmy’s mother went through for a long time. Then I had little nieces and nephews and I started thinking about how much I loved them even when they did the most awful things. I started imagining what I might do if they grew up to be killers, or rapists or just plain fuckups. I realized that even if I was ashamed every minute by them, I’d still love them, and I wouldn’t want them killed for anything they might have done.
That’s when I finally felt guilty about Jimmy. Not for shooting him, not for killing him, but for making his mother turn around and pull back that sheet and look at her boy. Maybe that’s why I didn’t stop her when she told me I had the wrong man. Maybe I figured that was just about right as far as she was concerned, and that if I didn’t want to look at him, I couldn’t ask her to look at him. Then again, maybe I just didn’t want her anywhere near me anymore.
Anyway, once I told my wife how I felt, she decided it was about time to have a family. I said it was getting a little late to be parents.
“Seems like the perfect time to me. We had to wait until you grew up enough to be a dad.”
“You mean we needed to wait until at least one of us stopped being so stubborn?”
She crinkled her nose at me. “I wonder how hard it’ll be for us to conceive if I don’t have sex with you for a few years.”
I kissed her on her crinkled nose and we got started making a family. I’ll spare you the details, but as you can see, it worked. We have a beautiful little girl, and now that the reporters are gone, we also have a pretty decent lawn again.
You’d think that’d be the end of my problems, right? Story’s over, beautiful family, picket fence—sort of. It’s a chain link because our dog kept chewing through the wood and we had to replace a lot of the old fence anyway. Still, it’s the American dream if there is one.
Except that eventually kids stop keeping all those questions they’re sitting on to themselves. They start asking why they don’t have to eat their vegetables, and they start asking why they get to stay up and one day they come in and ask you why their teacher makes them play hangman during their spelling class.
“I don’t understand,” was the complaint from my seven year old.
“Don’t understand what?” I didn’t ask this because I couldn’t imagine more elaborate questions, but only that I’d learned what all parents learn: Never answer questions before they’re actually asked. If you make too many assumptions, you end up answering new questions before you’re prepared. As if you’re ever prepared.
“Why do they kill him?”
“The hangman Dad! Are you even listening to me?”
“I’m listening sweetie. They don’t kill him unless you get the word wrong.”
“Yeah, but that’s silly.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not his fault that we don’t know how to spell.”
She was right of course—I had no answer. The reason I had no answer is that I’d never even realized how sick the game was. What kind of man gets this close to fifty and doesn’t even realize how disgusting it is to let his daughter play hangman? We don’t just kill a man, we make a child responsible for it. We punish someone else for knowledge that they don’t have yet. We stand at a blackboard with a piece of chalk and we draw a little circle for the head after one mistake, a long line for the body for another. Eventually we add arms and feet and the moment we’ve created a complete human being is the moment we’ve destroyed him. When I considered all of this, I knew what to tell my daughter to make her feel better.
“Natalie, it’s not his fault that you didn’t know the answer, but the important thing to remember is that it’s not your fault either. You shouldn’t feel guilty that the hangman dies just because you didn’t get it right. That’s your teacher’s fault and I’m going to have a talk with her.”
“Oh, no Daddy, I got my word right.”
“Then why are you so worried about it?”
“Because, I might not get it right every time.”
I looked at her for a long time, the way I used to look at my mother when she’d ask me those impossible questions, but today I was supposed to have the answers. When I thought about it, she probably never had them either.
“Natalie, go bring Daddy your brush.”
Steven Kilpatrick studies & writes from Denton, Texas.
Ted had invited Robert over for dinner Saturday night so Robert could fix Ted’s computer. Linda had just finished preparing the meal when Robert knocked on the front door. Ted knew Robert from work, but Robert had never met Linda. He came in and shook hands with both of them.
“Hope you like your steaks with a little pink in them, Robert,” Linda said, ushering everyone into the kitchen.
“Everything looks and smells great,” Robert said.
“Wait till you taste it,” Ted said.
“Why are you always doing that?” Linda said. “Always trying to undercut everything I do.”
“I was just joking,” Ted said Robert turned around, pretending he wasn’t listening.
“I just hate it when you do that,” she said. She pulled her chair away from the table and sat down. Robert and Ted sat down too, and Robert started cutting his steak.
“Would you like to offer the blessing?” Ted asked.
Robert looked up from grabbing the steak sauce from across the table. It took him a while to realize that Ted was asking him to pray. “Well,” Robert said. “I don’t really believe in God.”
“That’s okay,” Ted said. “We’ll bless the food all the same though.” Ted grabbed Linda’s hand, and they both grabbed Robert’s hands. Ted started praying, but through the entire prayer, Robert stared through the gape between buttons in Linda’s blouse. He could barely see her white lace bra with a hint of cleavage, and he kept tilting his head, almost praying, to see a little more. If Linda’s bowed head hadn’t jerked back up right after the Amen, Ted might have caught Robert staring at Linda’s chest. But Robert was lucky—only Linda caught him staring.
“So what do you think of that jackass boss of ours?” Ted asked.
“Oh, you know,” Robert said in between bites. “He’s just kind of a jerk.”
“Ted,” Linda said. “I left the tea up on the counter. Do you think you could get it for me?”
“Sure thing,” Ted said. He got up to get the pitcher. While his back was turned, Linda caught Robert’s eyes and winked. She nudged his shin with her foot and smiled, almost blushing. Ted came back with the tea, and after pouring some in Linda’s glass, sat down.
“This steak is perfect,” Robert said.
“Yeah, honey,” Ted said. “This steak really hits the spot.” Ted leaned back and stared at Robert. “We’re so glad you could come over for dinner, Robert.”
“I’m glad to,” Robert said, digging into his mashed potatoes. “It’s not every day that I get such a good home-cooked meal.”
“Well you’re certainly welcome anytime, Robert,” Linda said.
“You know,” Ted said, looking him in the eye. “I knew you were a good guy from the day I met you.” Linda grabbed everyone’s empty plate and took them up to the sink. Ted leaned over to talk to Robert, “She’s a pretty fine piece of ass, don’t you think?”
“That’s your wife,” Robert said, caught off guard. “She’s a very beautiful woman.”
“Do you want to sleep with her?” Ted asked.
“What?” Robert said. “Of course not, she’s your wife.”
Ted leaned closer to Robert’s ear. “Seriously,” he said. “It isn’t gonna hurt my feelings. Would you sleep with her? Yes or no?”
“She’s a very beautiful wo—”
“That’s not what I asked you,” Ted said. “Would you fuck her?”
Before Robert could answer, Linda came back to the table carrying bowls of vanilla ice cream. “I thought y’all might want some dessert,” she said. She spooned some ice cream in her mouth and licked her lips slowly. Robert couldn’t help but notice.
“You’re staring at my wife,” Ted said. “You’re staring at my wife like you wanna fuck her.”
“Ted,” Robert said, firm. “I do not want to fuck your wife.”
“Well then it’s settled,” Ted said.
“What?” Linda said. Ted reached across the table and grabbed her bowl of ice cream from her. Linda tried to get it back, but he jerked it out of her reach then upended the bowl, spilling ice cream across the kitchen floor.
“Robert doesn’t think you’re very attractive,” Ted said. “So no more sweets until you lose some goddamn weight.” Ted threw the bowl on the ground, shattering it. “I guess you can have some now, if you want. But you’ll have to lick it off the floor.” He laughed.
“Ted,” Robert interrupted. “What’s going on here?”
“You tell me, Robert,” Ted said. “Apparently my wife isn’t good enough for you.” Ted reached across the table and grabbed Linda’s hair. She started to scream, and Ted pulled her out of her chair. Her makeup smeared down her face.
“Look,” Robert said. “I think there’s some sort of misunderstanding.” Ted let go of Linda’s hair, but she stayed at the table. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have sex with her,” Robert explained. “It’s just that she’s your wife.”
“Well now that you put it that way,” Ted said. “I can see why you hesitated to answer my question.” Ted patted Robert on the shoulder. Robert backed away. “You want a cigar?”
“No thanks,” Robert said. “I really have to be going.” He started towards the door.
“Why don’t you stay and have a cigar with me?” Ted asked. “I don’t want to have one all by myself.”
Robert paused. “Okay,” he said. “But I really have to get going after the cigar.”
Ted headed towards the master bedroom. “I’ve got some in my humidor,” he said. Robert followed him through the house and into the bedroom. Ted headed towards his closet, and Robert saw a small box on the dresser that looked like a humidor and scooted towards it.
“Your humidor is right here. Is that the one you were talking about?” Robert said.
Ted stepped out of his closet with a twelve-gauge shotgun. He motioned towards the door and said, “Get back in the kitchen.” Ted leveled the shotgun at Robert. Robert didn’t pause. He headed straight for the kitchen. Linda was still there, cleaning up the broken bowl and ice cream off the floor.
“Stand up,” Ted told Linda. She did. Ted slapped her across the face, and she fell backwards and stepped into one of the dining room chairs, tumbled to the floor. Ted grabbed her blouse and ripped it slightly, snapping some buttons off. Robert saw Linda’s eyes right before she passed out. Ted screamed, “I can’t believe you would come into my house and disrespect my wife.” He pulled the gun towards Robert and jerked the trigger with his forefinger, splattering shot through Robert’s chest. Blood seeped through Robert’s light blue button down shirt. Robert gasped for air and Ted unloaded another blast into his chest. His lungs sucked the blood in.
Ted picked up the phone to call the police, but he changed his mind, better to not have the police involved at all. He knew of a pasture out by the church where he could dig a shallow grave.
Linda made chocolate chip pancakes the next morning with bacon and eggs. They sat around the table and she said, “We should just get a new computer.” Ted nodded and snapped the crisp bacon between his teeth. Linda used nearly half a bottle of syrup but only took three bites of pancake. They were too rich.
Taylor Collier is a recent graduate of Texas Tech University. His poetry has appeared in The Oklahoma Review, Big Tex[t], AntiMuse, and SNReview, while his fiction can be seen in Bewildering Stories, Cherry Bleeds, Zygote in My Coffee, and Main Street Rag. Born in Lubbock, Taylor now lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.