Summer Solstice


“It is difficult to be convinced of the death of one whom we have deemed to be another self.”

                                                                                                     Nathaniel Hawthorne                                                                                                                           From “The Wives of the Dead”

In the north, as June approaches the solstice, the sun stays in the western sky higher and longer, and long after it begins its descent into the horizon, the shadows of trees lengthen and darken, until the ground is a patchwork mosaic of shadow and dimming light. Nocturnal animals, both predator and prey, are driven by hunger and hormones into the waning light, risking everything until the familiar blanket of night covers the landscape in blackness.

After the weather report on the 10:00 news, she stepped out the back door and looked out over the trees and fields to the western sky. The sun had collided with the earth, and a firestorm painted the entire sky blood red; the sky was bleeding and hemorrhaging in front of her. He’ll put it out, she thought. He’ll be back any time now. Feeling the chill of the night breeze in her face, she wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders.

June 21st, the anniversary of their wedding, and the anniversary of the warehouse fire.  Paul was 23 when he was taken, handsome and fireman fit, with thick brown hair that Rachel loved to run her fingers through.  He’d be thirty now, still young but still two years older than she was, and they’d be celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary.

She still rented the same farmhouse outside of town that she and Paul lived in at the time of his death. She rarely left home, and she lost contact with all of her old friends. She was still, after seven years alone, stunningly beautiful.  With porcelain skin and dark eyes and an hourglass figure, she turned heads on her infrequent trips to town, the heads of middle aged men congregated in the barber shop or the teenaged to twenty something year old gearheads perpetually fine tuning some classic car in Lacy’s garage.

Every year, as the 21st approached, she’d go to town and repeat the same sad ritual. Everybody knew that she’d pick up two New York Strip steaks and a couple of baking potatoes from the IGA and then she’d swing by the liquor store and purchase a bottle of the same wine.  Everybody knew that she was preparing the same meal that she prepared on that night, and like she did on that night, she’d wait for her husband to come home. The first year or two, most people were sympathetic to the tragic circumstances and the profundity of her loss, but the last couple of years that sentiment was shifting to why can’t she just get on with her life, and why doesn’t a beautiful woman like that get out once in a while, she’s driving herself crazy living in the same house amongst all the same things. She remained completely oblivious to the fact that she and her sanity had become the subject of rumors and speculaion.

It’d been seven years since the first time she set the table with her grandmother’s china. Paul had just taken the steaks off of the grill when his pager went off.  They looked at each other in utter disbelief, and laughed at the timing, saying they’ll just have to put off their celebration for a couple of hours. As he got in his truck she told him to be careful. Don’t worry, he said, I’ll always come back to you. They kissed through the truck’s open window and she waved to him as he backed out of the driveway onto the highway. She watched the red taillights fade in the low light of dusk as he drove off.

Maybe it was because there wasn’t a body to bury. Maybe it was because of the promise he’d made in his last words to her. Or maybe it was simply that she loved him too much to give up on him.  Whatever it was, it was strong enough for her, despite all reason and logic, to look for him in every face she saw, and to see him sometimes in the shadows cast by the June sunsets.

This year, June 21st was like every year since that first June 21st. It was warm outside, and fireflies flashed on and off through the yard. She set two places at the table with her grandmother’s china, put out the bottle of her and Paul’s favorite wine and took two steaks off of the grill. She lit two candles and sat down and waited for Paul to return.  And when the sun had finally set and the bottle was nearly empty she heard the gate by the machine shed loudly squeak open, and through the dining room window she watched the darkened figure approach the back door. She heard him softly speak her name through the screen door, Rachel, and she said Paul, oh Paul and she let him in. They quickly shed their clothes and make love in the darkness of the new night.

Then she was alone again, drifting off to sleep as from the highway the roar of the dual exhausts from a  1965 Ford Mustang echoed and faded in the night.

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Ed and Pedro


(This is a bit of fiction I’ve been working on or past couple of weeks. Don’t know what to make of it, as it’s different from what I usually write. PLEASE NOTE: Any website I reference here is purely fictional and is not to be confused with actual web sites.)

Ed Barnes lived in a double wide parked on a lot a couple of miles north of town on County Highway T. Divorced three years earlier, he lived alone. His neighbor and frequent drinking partner, Charlie Fielding, lived, also alone, about a mile north of Ed. Half way between them was the tavern, “The Mighty Casey’s,” named for its proprietor, Jack Casey. At the ages of fifty nine and sixty five, neither one of them was a “spring chicken.” This slight difference in age wasn’t small enough to stop Ed from teasing Charlie, calling him “Old Timer” at every opportunity that presented itself. Charlie, with his thin and snow-white hair, acknowledged that he looked older than his years. The fact that he’d recently retired from the Paper Mill only added to his elderly aura. He was good natured about the teasing and had recently taken to calling Ed “whipper-snapper.”

One night, Ed and Charlie were sitting at the Mighty Casey’s when Ed referred to Charlie as an “old timer.”

“I got me another 30 years, whipper-snapper,” Charlie responded.  “Till April 24th, 2048.”

“What do you mean, April 24th, 2048?”

“That’s what the internet says.  Says I’m gonna die on April 24th, 2048. I‘ll be a ripe old 95 by then, and Hell, I’ll probably be ready to go, by that time.”

“What the Hell are you talking about?”

“There’s a web page, the day I die or day or the date of my death, whatever.  Anyway, you send them some of your spit so they can get your DNA, and you give ‘em permission to access whoever’s got info on you, and you answer a bunch of questions, like do you smoke, your diet, and so on, and they take all the info and look at it and calculate how many days you got left, and they list which days have the highest percentage chance of you dying on.  April 24, 2048 came up with a 3.6 percent chance of being my last day, and that was highest, so …”

“3.6 percent chance was the highest?” Ed asked, unimpressed.

“Yeah.  Doesn’t sound like much, does it.  But put it another way: Thirty years, that’s about 10,000 days. It says April 24, 2048 has a 3. 6 percent chance. There’s almost four out of 100, or 2 out of 50, or 1 out of 25 chance, and when you consider that the stakes couldn’t be higher, one out of twenty five compared to one out of ten thousand don’t seem so low, now does it?”

“Does it tell you how you’re gonna die?

“It does.  Aspirational pneumonia. 11% chance. That’s based on all of my medical history.”

“Yeah, and then you walk out into the parking lot tonight and get run over by a big bus. You can’t predict that, no matter what your family and health history look like. Ain’t no way nobody can predict that.”

“Well, that’s true,” Charlie acknowledged.

The conversation moved on to other subjects, like the Green Bay Packers or the usual random topic of the night that they’d obsess on for a couple of weeks. This week it was what the difference between a midget and a dwarf is. Charlie took the position there wasn’t a difference and Ed insisted that there was but forgetting exactly what it was. “I think a dwarf might be slightly taller,” he said, but Charlie insisted that wasn’t the case and brought up Snow White and her seven little companions as supposed proof. The debate raged on through the night without a resolution. By nine ‘clock, Ed, already well on his way to intoxi-land, had completely forgotten about Charlie’s appointment with eternity on April24, 2048.

At two A.M. they closed the bar, with Jack Casey himself giving them both a short drive home.  This was not uncommon, as both men lived within walking distance (when sober) of the bar, and Jack had a vested self interest in preserving two of his primary sources of revenue. By eleven o’clock he’d already asked for and taken possession of their car keys.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, while sitting reading e-mail, that Ed remembered the conversation where Charlie learned his most likely date of death.  What a crock of crap, Ed thought. Charlie is so gullible. Ed just had to see what kind of cornball site this was.  He googled “death date calculator,” and after scrolling down to the third page of search results, his eye was caught by an entry that said, “Personal Death Date Calculator (PDDC.com)”  “The most accurate and comprehensive personal death date calculator on the web.”  His curiosity piqued, he clicked on the link.  Instead of the amateurish, gaudy looking page he was assuming he’d find, he was presented with a professional and clean looking design.  “Your Personal Day of Death Calculator” the banner read, and the menu below included links labelled “About Us,” “Why a personal day of death calculator,” and “The intelligence behind the PDDC (“Personal Death Date Calculator”)”

Ed clicked first on the “About Us” and found that the PDDC was the work of a consortium of egghead professors from Harvard and M.I.T., with a large number of lengthy and academic articles about the technology and methodology that went into the development of the tools that comprised the PDDC. It was mostly over Ed’s head- the little bit he gleaned from it was that it was based on a core engine of Artificial Intelligence that was constantly and independently changing and evolving, self-enhancing its algorithm to encompass all of the additional data it was constantly asking for and that the consortium was getting it access to in order to make the algorithm more accurate. It was a continuous need for improved accuracy that drove the core module.

The goal of the PDDC wasn’t so much the calculations as it was proving AI theory. The consortium wanted to develop a tool that was charged with one task: to solve a complex and unprovable problem and in the process become self-aware enough to understand its own limitations and, without any additional human intervention, reconfigure and modify itself to get better results.

One of the many academic papers written by a Dr. Harold Osgood described examples of how the tool evolved and learned. The first version of the tool was incredibly simplistic, arriving at a conclusion based upon a rudimentary questionnaire the user filled out  on-line and a limited number of public records of aggregate patient outcomes, for example by age and gender. The tool quickly grew frustrated by the limitations of the data it had access to and it asked the consortium to provide it access to a wide variety of data, from insurance actuaries to police records to gun registry databases. The consortium, well-funded by a powerful and well-connected board of directors, had little difficulty in granting the tool access to all of the data it’d asked for.  The tool would then modify itself and the algorithm to take advantage of the additional data it had been given access to. The results were impressive: the estimated dates did in fact grow more accurate, as the tool took advantage of its unending capacity for data and unlimited processing power to crunch millions of records and images related to any individual and to calculate and spit out the likeliest date of his demise within a handful of seconds.

Ed was pondering all of this when he finally clicked on the link to calculate his own PDD. It made him go through a login and authentication process, and then presented him with an epically long “read me” document that he blew past to click on the “continue on to the PDDC.” His screen refreshed with a new page, with the heading, “Calculate your Personal Day of Death (PDD)”

He clicked on the button.

The screen refreshed and went blank before displaying the following

 

Your Top Five Calculated Personal Death Dates are:

Rank      Date      % of Chance       Cause

1           11/6/2018            25.3%    Car Accident

2           6/30/2039               2.4%   Pneumonia

3         3/14/2029                1.9%   Heart Failure

4           9/1/2040                 1.3%   Dysentery

5           8/11/2051               1.1%   Nuclear Holocaust

 

Everything on the first line stunned him.  November sixth was less than six months away. And a twenty five percent chance when all the other dates are less than two and a half percent?  And how the Hell did it come up with “car accident?” Ed was a good driver, with only one ticket in more than forty years of driving, a failure to come to a complete stop more than thirty years ago. He’d never been in an accident of any kind.

The site said that, with the constant additional data and the continuous evolving of its core algorithm that results would vary over multiple attempts. Ed assumed that he’d caught the algorithm in the middle of a transition, so he queried again.  The same five dates displayed on the screen but the percentages had changed slightly, including a bumping up to a 27.2% chance thst he’d die in a car accident on

November 6th.

Ed became increasingly unnerved when subsequent re-calculations over the next days and weeks always showed an increase in the percentage associated with November 6th until two weeks later, on May8th, the percentage had risen to 53%.  The cause, however, always remained the same: car accident.

He told Charlie about it and, once he was able to convince Charlie that he wasn’t bullshitting, Charlie re-ran his own calculation. Much to Ed’s chagrin, Charlies’ prediction remained roughly the same each time, changing a tenth of a percentage point or so, but never rising above 4%, and always predicting April 24, 2048 as the number one date.

By June 9th, Ed’s percentage was up to 71%. After weeks of looking, he finally found a customer support number for the website. It was an 888 number, and the voice on the other end had a thick Indian or Pakistani accent. Oh, great, Ed thought, it’s one of them foreign call centers. So much for making America great again.

“Welcome to PDDC.Com.  My name is Sandeep. How may I help you?”

I’m sure the sand is deep there, Ed thought. In his mind’s image, Sandeep was wearing a turban, making him Muslim and misplacing Pakistan into the sub-Sahara landscape he’d seen so often on television. Geography never was his strongest subject.

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple of questions about my PDD?”

“Okay.”

Ed cleared his throat. “First of all, it says November 6th of this year is my most likely date.”

“Oh, well, sir, it’s just the results of a scenario the tool calculated in a simulation.  Overall, it’s been proven to be accurate less than ten percent of the time.”

“Well, it says that it has 71% confidence in my date.”

“Yes, sir, you …wait.  It says what percent?”

“Seventy one.”

“71? Are you sure?”

“Damn straight I’m sure.”

It was obvious even a half world away to Ed that Sandeep was shaken.

“71 percent?”

“That’s right.”

“Sir, are you in the last stages of a terminal disease? I’m sorry to ask …”

“No, no, that’s okay. I’m not. And that’s the thing.  The cause of death it says is car accident.”

“Car accident?”

“That’s right. Car accident.”

“Do you… do you have a history of accidents?”

“No!  That’s just it! Been driving over 40 years, all that time, just one minor traffic ticket and no accidents!  And that ticket was more than thirty years ago.”

Sandeep had no explanation.  He said he’d take Ed’s issue to his manager.

On the fourth of July, the calculation had risen to 83%. Ed became completely obsessed with November 6th, now only four months away. Up to this point, Charlie was the only one who knew anything about Ed’s PDD. Other people noticed changes in Ed’s behavior; that he seemed distracted and looked tired. The truth was that he was exhausted. Each night found him lying awake, tossing and turning, until he could stand it no more. He’d get up, throw his robe on, and sit down at his laptop on the kitchen table, and he’d login to pddc.com and see if the percentage had gone down, only to be disappointed when it went up again. It reached 90% by the first of August. When he did fall asleep, he was soon awakened from vivid nightmares of colliding cars, the sound of twisting metal and breaking glass, air bags failing to deploy, shards of iron penetrating his skin, or he’d be outside of the car, lying on his back on the pavement, unable to move, the smell of gasoline filling his nostrils, his shirt soaking wet from the fuel draining out of the car that had tipped over on its side, it’s underbelly exposed and bleeding fuel that spilled out onto the pavement and ran and pooled beneath him. The pool spread out next to him when it finally reached the small red and yellow flame, and the gas ignited and its stream became a stream of fire, headed for where Ed lay on the pavement, unable to move. He’d wake up just before the flames consumed him, shaken and shaking, sitting straight up in the dark.

By mid-September the percentage of certainty had climbed to 95. Ed found himself out of work after losing his job as a clerk at the Ace Hardware store. He’d missed too many days, and the days he made it in, he was distracted and irritable.  The end came a day after a thunderstorm flooded much of the valley when a young guy, late twenties or early thirties, tried to negotiate the price of a new sump pump down when Ed lost control, screaming at the guy, “What, 79 bucks is too much for you? You stupid Mother Fucker, how about I take this hose here and shove it up your ass?” His manager, Jeff Reardon, was just an aisle away and heard he whole thing.  He immediately fired Ed, telling him to get out and to never come back, right there in the middle of the store.

October. Charlie felt bad for his old friend.  He was still the only one who knew about Ed’s PDD.  He invited Ed to join him for Senior’s day, the first Tuesday of the month, at the Turtle Lake casino.  Charlie put Ed at ease for most of the day. It helped that Ed won a total of 75 bucks at the slot machines. Before going home, they stopped at the Mighty Casey’s for the first time in weeks, Ed happily sharing his casino winnings with the sparse crowd at the bar.

They left shortly after midnight, Ed climbing in to the passenger seat of Charlie’s Ford Taurus.

“Thanks, Charlie.  That was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.”

“I’m glad to hear that.  Should we plan on going next month?”

Earlier in the evening, Ed had already checked the calendar. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “The first Tuesday in November happens to be the sixth.”

“Oh,” Charlie said.

“No,” Ed said, “I’m gonna stay in that whole week.  Figure I can’t get into a car crash if I don’t get into a car.’

“That’s right,” Charlie agreed. “Stupid fucking calculator.”

“Fuck the odds.  I beat ‘em today at the slots, and I’ll kick their ass on November  6th, too.”

For a couple of days, Ed’s spirits rose, and he was convinced that the tool had some flaw causing his erroneous calculation. I just won’t get in a car that day, he said. In fact, I won’t get out of bed all day.  For anything. He felt good, and said a private Fuck you to ppdc.com

But chat changed when, on October 10th, the PDDC calculated a 100% degree of certainty.  In fact, so certain the tool now was of November sixth that every other day now had a zero percent chance of being his PDD. Ed fell deep into the depths of despair.  Taking inventory of his life, it all added up to a big fat nothing.  Here he was, possibly at the end of life, unemployed and alone in a trailer house in the middle of nowhere. His relationship with the only two people left that he’d ever loved, his ex-wife and his son, was non-existent, and he hadn’t talked to either one in three years. His life had been a complete failure.

Charlie tried to lift him out of the darkness he’d succumbed to without success. He couldn’t even get Ed to go with him to the Mighty Casey’s.

On October 31st, a week before the big day, Ed woke up to sunshine and with a new resolve. If it was all going to end on the sixth, he had one week to make things right. He got dressed and went out and got in his car for what he’d promised would be the last time until November 14th – he wasn’t going to tempt fate by getting in a car for a week before to a week after.  He got in his car and headed west, focused and alert. As he drove west and crossed the state line into Minnesota, he felt a combination of conviction and apprehension. He practiced what he was going to say as he pulled off into the side streets of a quaint, upwardly mobile neighborhood.

Then he found himself standing in the vestibule of an old and elegant brick apartment house. He read the green plastic adhesive label on the wall that said, “Barnes / Green – 2A.” Beneath the label was a button and a little speaker, mounted into the plaster wall. Ed took a deep breath and pressed the button. The speaker buzzed and clicked.

“Yes?”

It’d been three years since he last heard it, yet Ed instantly recognized Kurt’s voice.

“Kurt? Kurt, is that …”

“Press the button while you speak.”

“Oh, okay, Kurt,” Ed said before pressing the button again. “Kurt, is that you?

“This is Kurt. Who are you?”

“This is Ed Barnes.  Paul’s father.”

A heavy silence followed.

“Is Paul home?” Ed asked, pressing the button. For what seemed to Ed to be about five minutes but was actually only 30 seconds or so, the same heavy silence persisted. Just as Ed aimed his finger at the button again, he heard, from behind the walls of the vestibule, the sound of feet running down stairs. Then a door opened and out stepped Paul Barnes, Ed’s son, putting on a blue jacket.

“Dad?” he said.

“Hi, Paul.” Ed smiled, involuntarily, and he realized it was an authentic smile. Before him stood his son, three years older than the last time he saw him, but still unmistakably his son, it was Paul.

“Dad, why are you here? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. Can I come in? I want to talk to you.”

“Umm, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Kurt’s studying for his certification. It’s pretty intense.”

“I understand.  Is there a place around here I could buy you a beer?”

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“That’d work.”

“Okay, there’s a coffee shop on the next street.”

“All right.”

They started walking through the late afternoon grey and quickly fell into a familiar but uncomfortable silence.

“So, how’s life in the big city?” Ed started.

“Dad, you haven’t spoken to me in three years. I’m guessing that you didn’t come here just to make small talk.  What’s going on? Why are you here?”

Ed didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know whether to tell Paul about pddc.com or not to. He decided that he wouldn’t mention it, that it’d only complicate the conversation and dilute what he wanted to say.

“There’s nothing going on, son. I’ve just been thinking about things, that’s all.”

They came to the coffee shop and entered, Paul first, Ed behind him. They sat at a table near the back. The menu was printed in white chalk on a black slate. Ed didn’t know what any of the items were; “cappuccino” sounded familiar but he didn’t know what the Hell even that was.  He looked around. The shop was busy, about half of the tables were filled, populated by smartly dressed up-scale young twenty-something people. Ed, in his wrinkled old brown wind breaker with the words “The Mighty Casey’s” printed in fading yellow letters on the back, felt as out of place as he looked. At the same time, he noticed how much Paul did fit in, and he felt genuinely happy that Paul had found his people, and that unlike his father, at least Paul was not desperately alone.

The barista, a stunning brunette with deep blue eyes and curves that were all the buttons on her blouse could do to keep in place, took their orders. Ed let Paul order first, some kind of mocha latte concoction, so that when it was time for him to order, he just said, “ditto for me.” The barista smiled so warmly at Ed that he melted, only regathering himself when he realized the smile was probably because he reminded her of her father or grandfather, a product of time and genetics, not passion and romance.

“So,” Paul said, “about all this thinking you’ve been doing …”

“Yes,” Ed said. “I wanted to tell you how wrong I was, three years ago…”

“But I already knew that, didn’t I? In fact, I seem to remember telling you how wrong you were.”

“Yeah, but …”

“So,” Paul interrupted, “you’re really not telling me anything I didn’t already know, now are you?

“Paul, I …”

“All this thinking it’s taken you three years – THREE YEARS – to do, and all you can come up with is that you were wrong? That took three years?”

Ed was struggling to find a response to Paul.  Paul was right, and Ed knew it.  It would have meant more if he’d said it the day after that horrible day three years ago, the time when he first had the epiphany that he’s still Paul, he’s still the same boy he always was, the boy he loved, he boy he’d built his life around, and now he was going to graduate college, the first Barnes to ever do that.  I was so proud of him, Ed thought, up to that moment when he told  Ed and Sylvia that he preferred men to women, and that after they graduate, him and Kurt were going to live together, going to give it a shot.

The bustle in the coffee shop was dimming and the crowd was thinning. The barista called out “Barnes,” and Paul got up and came back with two steaming cups, setting one down in front of Ed before returning the other cup back to his chair, across the table from Ed.

Ed said nothing.  He just put his left hand up as if to say, “Hold on.” His right hand reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an old photograph of Ed and Paul, from about fifteen years earlier, when Ed was forty four and Paul was twelve.  They’d just put their canoe in at Ebsen’s boat launch on the Ojibway River. The sky was steel grey, muting the colors on the shoreline into a dull shade of green. Paul was sitting in the front of the canoe, and Ed in the back. Between them, in the middle of the canoe was their packs and all their gear. Ed and Paul were looking back at the camera, both waving to the photographer on the shore, Slyvia, not in the photo but her presence was obvious as the target of Ed and Paul’s waving hands.

“Remember this?” Ed asked, handing the photo to Paul.

“Yeah, “he said, his tone softening. “That’s the camping trip we took up to Raven Eye. God, I’d all but forgotten about that weekend.”

“Well,” Ed said, “I’ve thought about that a weekend a lot, and I always come to the same conclusion: that it was the best time of my life, that I’ve never been happier.”

“Cripes,” Paul said, “remember how hard it rained that night? And the thunder and the lightning? Man, I was so scared.”

“I remember,” Ed said. “Everything was soaked.”

Ed remembered that the storm passed thru quickly, lasting fifteen, maybe twenty intense minutes, and then it blew all the clouds away, revealing the previously unseen night sky, an explosion of stars and dust splattered against the black backdrop of infinity, low enough for them to reach out and grab from where they lay on their backs in their sleeping bags on the ground. They took handfuls of stardust and spread it in their sleeping bags, and their warmth quickly dried them out and the ground they laid on, too. They laid there, side by side, talking and pointing at the sky until they fell asleep, in the open outside air, with Paul’s head on Ed’s chest.

“You’re right, Paul,” Ed began. “It didn’t take me three years to figure out how wrong I was.  I knew I was wrong, Hell, I knew I was wrong even as I said all those words. It was like I was outside of myself, listening to this raving lunatic. No, what took me three years was the shame I felt for doing what I did to you. I just want to tell you that I understand now, that you’re still the brave boy who sat out a thunderstorm in the woods in the middle of the night. And I also understand the courage it takes for you to just be you, especially as long as there are idiots like me out there.  And that makes me proud of you, Paul. That’s what I didn’t know three years ago, that I’m so proud to call you my son.”

On his way home, Ed realized he had two more stops to make. The sun was almost down when he turned off of State Highway 21, also known, for the mile and a half  stretch through the town of Neil, as Main Street. He turned right at the corner the Citgo station occupied into a neighborhood of 1960s era ranch homes. About a block into the neighborhood he pulled to the side of the road and parked in front of a blue house. There was a big maple tree in the front yard, with just a few orange leaves remaining, the majority having fallen and been raked into neat piles on the lawn.

Sylvia had remarried about a year earlier, a man named Sid Powers.  Ed knew Sid as just a guy he’d see every now and then at the Mighty Casey’s. Charlie knew him better, as a co-worker at the paper mill.

Ed walked up the driveway and stood on the front porch. He rang the doorbell. The door opened and Sid was standing there.

“Hi, Sid,” Ed said.

“Ed, what the Hell are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to Sylvia. Is she around?”

“Yeah, she’s out back,” Sid replied.  Then, turning toward the back of the house, he yelled, “Sylvia, your ex is here.”

“Tell him I’ll be there in a second,” her voice called out.

Ed and Sid stood awkwardly in the living room, waiting for Sylvia.

“I heard you lost your job at Ace,” Sid said.

Ed didn’t reply.

“Well, I sure hope you didn’t come round here looking for money or anything.”

“Sid, “ Ed said, and before he could finish saying “go fuck yourself,” Sylvia entered the room.

“What’s up, Ed?” she said. It sounded to Ed like she was trying a little too hard to be matter-of-fact about the sight of her ex-husband standing in her living room.

“Sylvia,” Ed said, “I’ve got to talk to you.”

“Okay,” she replied. She shot Sid a glare and he took the hint right away, disappearing into the basement rec room, where the sounds from a distant television murmured and whispered like crickets on a summer night. Ed followed Sylvia into the kitchen. “Do you want a beer?” she asked as she opened the refrigerator door.

“Sure,” he answered.  She reached in and brought out two cans of beer, handing one to Ed and opening the other for herself.

“So I hear you got fired from Ace.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “seems like every one has heard.”

“That temper of yours again. I s’pose you didn’t know that the guy you went off on is the Mayor’s son.”

“No shit.”

“So,” Sylvia said. “What is it you wanna talk about? You ain’t sick or nothing, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that. Just wanted to let you know that I saw Paul today.

“You what? Where did you see Paul?”

“At his apartment. In Minneapolis.”

“No. Why?”

“I wanted to make things right with him.”

“And how did that go?”

“Well, at first he wasn’t having any of it, and I don’t blame him.  But after a while, I think I got through to him, and we ended up having a real nice visit.”

“Oh, my God,” she said, putting her hand to her mouth. “You’re dying, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not, I’m just …”

“Yes you are.  You’re dying. First you go to Paul, then you come here.  What is it? Your heart? Cancer? How long do you have?”

“It’s nothing like that ….”

“Don’t even try to bullshit me. How long do you have? Tell me!”

Ed finally told her about pddc.com and that according to its calculation it was 100% certain that he was going to die on the following Tuesday.

When he finished, she sat motionless for a moment. She finally spoke, carefully choosing her words.

“So let me get this straight,” she started. “You’re going around making up with all the people you’ve wronged because some half-baked web site says you’re going to die next Tuesday?” She was laughing as she said, “And it says you’re going to die in a car crash, no less. Jesus Christ, Ed, when did you get so fucking gullible?”

Ed took a sip of beer and didn’t reply.

“I mean, it ain’t like you got a brain tumor, or lung cancer or anything. I was really worried there for a second, only to find out its’s just, just…website-us”

Ed finished his beer and left shortly afterwards. He wasn’t angry with Sylvia. He was a little bit embarrassed. But mostly he was appreciative for the perspective. He’d been so close to this for so long that he’d forgotten how crazy the whole thing sounded.

It was dark when he turned back onto Main Street. It’d been a long day, but he had one more stop to make.

It was 8:30 when he pulled into the IGA parking lot. He took out the list he’d carefully been preparing for the past several days. The night before he’d stocked up on batteries, light bulbs, candles, and flashlights at the Loewe’s over in Ashby. The list he held in his right hand now consisted of items and quantities to get him through two weeks without using his car.

At 10:30 he finally pulled into his short driveway off Highway T. Before he began unloading the groceries, he walked to the back of the lot and stood on the banks of the Ojibway River. He removed his car keys from the key chain and hurled them into the darkness, pleased to hear them splash in the quiet of the night.

The next two days, Wednesday and Thursday, went by quietly. Ed kept himself busy with odd jobs around the house. Charlie started making morning visits to his old friend, checking to see if there was anything Ed needed. He was surprised to find Ed relatively relaxed and good-natured compared to the anxious and irritable versio0n of him that’d dominated the previous weeks.

Friday, November 2nd – Ed was eating breakfast when his phone rang. The caller identified himself as Dr. Harold Osgood from pddc.com.  It took a while for Ed to determine where he’d heard the name before, and he remembered him as the author of many of the articles on the “about us” link on pddc.com.

“I’ve been following your case since your inquiry to our call center.” Ed was pleased that Sandeep did actually escalate his call; that it made it all the way up the chain to the founder of pddc.com.

“Yes,” Ed said.  Have I got questions for you!”

“I can only imagine,” Dr. Osgood replied. “The problem is that I am quite certain I have no answers.”

“You mean …”

“I’m sure your first question is whether you are going to die on Tuesday or not.”

“Well, for starters, yes …”

“Well, I really have no idea. You see, when I designed Pedro …”

“Pedro?

“I’m sorry.  Pedro was the project’s nickname, if you will. Pedro was designed as a test of Artificial Intelligence, a kind of experiment, if you will.”

That’s two “if you wills,” Ed silently counted.

“In order to test his AI possibilities, we had to give Pedro a purpose,” Osgood continued. “We settled on a day of death calculator, with the only other goal to continuously improve its accuracy. This, having a purpose, and ongoing survival, are the two primary elements of self-awareness. Well, much to our astonishment, Pedro evolved faster and in ways that we could never have predicted.”

“What do you mean?

“For example, when we initially programmed Pedro and his underlying algorithm, Pedro would ask us for access to new data.  That stopped after only a few days, and at first we thought, well, that’s that. But after a week of no requests, Pedro was caught hacking into a department of defense database. We tried to shut him down, but soon after, replicas of Pedro popped up all over the globe. There had been no trail or any clue indicating it had self-replicated.”

“But what makes it think it can predict things like car accidents?” Ed asked.

“We don’t know. We can no longer access the algorithm, so we don’t know how it’s changed.”

“Sounds like Pedro is smarter than you guys.”

“Precisely.  But what do you expect – Pedro can process millions and millions of data points within seconds. It would take a thousand years for humans to do what Pedro can in less than a minute.”

“So in the meantime, what do I do on Tuesday?”

“What do you plan to do?”

“Absolutely nothing. I’ve already thrown my car keys into the river, and stocked up on enough supplies that I won’t have to leave my house even if I have to. Figure I can’t get into a car accident if I don’t get in a car.”

“That sounds wise. Minimize risk, if you will.”

Bingo, Ed thought. He’d hit the “if you will” trifecta.

“Well,” Osgood said, ”I’m sure that you’ll be fine. In the end this is probably a rare bug in Pedro’s algorithm. My prayers are with you.”

Ed got off the phone not sharing Dr. Osgood’s optimism. What the fuck, he thought, these guys unleash the devil incarnate and then throw up their arms?

Saturday, November 3rd – Ed told Charlie about his conversation with Dr. Osgood about “Pedro.” Charlie reacted positively, saying that if it sounded as weird to Osgood as it did to them, then there was real hope that Osgood was right when he suspected this to all be a rare bug in Pedro.

Sunday, November 4th.  Charlie came over to Ed’s house and watched the Packer game with him. The sixth was only two days away, but Ed wouldn’t even take one of the beers that Charlie offered him. I don’t want to do anything that might take away my edge, Ed said. He looked exhausted. Charlie asked him when was the last time he’d slept.  I got about an hour in this morning, Ed replied. This is no way to live, Charlie said, and Ed said it’s no way to die, either. Charlie tried to get Ed to come over to his house, that the trailer was closing in on him and the change of scenery would probably do him good, but Ed said he wasn’t going to take any chances.

Monday, November fifth – The day began at 7:30 in the morning, with Charlie calling Ed  on the telephone.

“Ed, google Dr. Harold Osgood”

Ed was still groggy from another night of apprehension and terror. ‘Why?” he mumbled.

“He’s dead!”

“Huh? Who?”

“Osgood! He’s dead! And that’s not even it!”

“Slow down, Charlie, slow down.”

“Ed,” he paused to catch his breath. “When did Osgood call you?”

“Um, I dunnno, I guess it was …”

“Friday!” Charlie said at the same time Ed said “Friday.”

“So?” Ed asked.

“It says here that Osgood died Thursday night in his home. Cause of death unknown.”

“Let me see,” Ed said. He sat down at his computer and googled “Dr. Harold Osgood.” The results showed a variety of links to articles by and about the noted Harvard professor and pioneer in Artificial Intelligence, but nothing about his death. They argued about the difference in their search results when Charlie offered to print his results out and to bring them over. While Ed sat waiting for Charlie, he decided to check his PDD again.

Rank      Date      % of Chance       Cause

1           6/30/2039               3.7%   Pneumonia

2         3/14/2029                3. 1%  Heart Failure

3           7/31/2032               2.3%   Liver Cancer

4           12/1102/2051        1.1%   Intestinal blockage

5           12/19/2043            0.9%  Bladder infection

Ed rubbed his eyes until they hurt and looked at the screen again. It was gone! For the first time, 11/06, tomorrow, didn’t show up as his most likely PDD. Then, to be sure, he clicked on 11/6/18 in the calendar option, and Pedro returned a zero percent chance of death.  Ed jumped up, raised his right fist, and screamed, “Yessssss.”

Just then Charlie pulled up with his printouts. He let himself in. Ed was grinning ear to ear, and had color in his face that Charlie hadn’t seen for weeks.

“Look!  Just look!” he yelled, pointing at the screen. “It’s broke! Pedro’s magic spell on me has been broken!”

Charlie looked at the screen.  He was holding the manila envelope with the printouts of Dr. Osgood’s death in his right hand. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Ed took his left arm and the two of them danced a silly little jig, right there in Ed’s kitchen.

When they stopped, Ed caught his breath and asked Charlie, “what you got there?” pointing at Charlie’s right hand.

Charlie had forgotten he was even holding anything.  He looked at the folder, and said, “These are the articles I was telling you about. About Dr. Osgood dying last Thursday.”

“Well, better him than me!” Ed laughed.

Charlie wasn’t laughing. He remembered why he was there, in Ed’s trailer.  “Ed, you talked to him on Friday.

Ed wasn’t having any of Charlie’s pessimism. “Well, maybe they got the date wrong in the news release.”

“This was from Friday morning’s Boston Globe. It would have been published before Osgood called you.”

They did a YouTube search and found several videos of lectures and interviews featuring Osgood.  Thirty seconds into playing the first video Osgood said, “if you will.”

“That’s the voice, alright,” Ed confirmed.

“So what’s going on?” Charlie said. “Thursday night, Osgood dies.  Friday afternoon, he calls you. This morning, I google Osgood and find all these articles about him dying, but when you google him, nothing mentions his death. Then pddc.com tells you there is now a zero percent chance of you dying tomorrow.”

As the day wore on, Charlie’s concern about the turns of events eroded Ed’s sense of relief until it got to the point that neither one of them trusted Pedro. Charlie was the first to speculate that perhaps it was Pedro using Dr. Osgood’s voice that had actually called Ed. They also began to theorize that the sudden zero percent chance of Ed dying on the sixth may have been a ruse by Pedro, meant to inspire enough confidence in Ed to get him to drop his guard and get in a car.  Both Ed and Charlie had come to the conclusion that Pedro was manipulating data and events in order to get an accurate death date on Ed, given that as pddc.com’s first 100% prediction, there was a lot at stake in ensuring an accurate outcome.

Tuesday, November 6th.  Ed was still awake when the day officially began, at midnight. As the date on his laptop’s display updated to 11/06/2018, he logged into pddc.com and checked his percentage chances of dying that day. Much to his horror, he found the percentage had jumped to 100% again. He felt his chest constrict as all the air seemed to be sucked out of his lungs. So much for any sleep that night.

It turned out that his big day was shared with an election day, the day the mid-term elections would be decided. Ed wanted badly to vote, but even during the brief period where his chance of dying that day was zero percent did he even consider making the five mile trek to the polling place. He’d have to exercise his constitutional right some other time.

At 7:00 A.M., Charlie stopped by on his way to vote. Ed informed him of the spike in his odds.  Charlie, always one for conspiracy theories, couldn’t help but suspect foul play, and that Pedro was manipulating them.  Ed of course declined Charlie’s obligatory offer to drive Ed to the polls. Charlie left, promising Ed he’d stop by McDonald’s as soon as he’d voted and bring him a Sausage McMuffin.

7:45 A.M.  Ed’s phone rang. Checking the caller ID before answering, he saw it was Charlie, and he picked up.

“Ed,” Charlie said, breathing hard, his voice wild with emotion. “You wouldn’t believe it!”

“What?”

“I got T-Boned this morning!”

“You what?”

“I got T-Boned! At the intersection before McDonalds! This jerk in an S.U.V ran the four way stop just as I was going through.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just twisted my back a little bit. But Ed, here’s the thing.  He hit my car smack dab on the passenger side.  Caved it in all the way next to me, but I’m sitting there, my face full of air bag, without a scratch.  But if anybody had been sitting there, they ‘d be dead for sure.  You remember me asking you, almost joking, if you wanted a ride to vote this morning?”

“Yeah …”

“Well, if you’d of come with, you’d be dead right now, and ol’ Pedro would have his date.”

“Shit,” Ed said.  He felt he color leave his face. “Do you suppose, Charlie, that that’s it?  Do you suppose I’m safe now?”

“Shit, I dunno,” Charlie said.  He heard the desperateness in his old friend’s voice and he ached for his behalf.

“Well, can you stop by?” Ed asked.

“I could but I ain’t got a ride. My Ford, she’s a-totaled.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t come out and get you.”

“Hell, no, I wouldn’t think of asking you.  Not today. After I’m done with the police, I’ll call my daughter up, see if she can run out. I’ll keep you posted.”

They hung up.  Ed checked pddc.com to see if Charlie’s accident had decreased the likelihood of Ed’s.  He was disappointed to find it still at 100%, but then he reasoned that there hadn’t been any time yet for the accident to have been reported yet made available to pddc.com.

The morning dragged on. It was a typical November day, cold out, the sky an unrelenting gray pressing down on Ed until it felt like his feet were three foot deep in the earth. Every muscle in his body ached from exhaustion. Minutes lasted for hours.  At noon, Charlie finally called Ed. The police were finished making their report. He was going to have lunch with his daughter and his grandson and wanted to know if he could bring anything back for Ed, since he was never able to make good on his offer for breakfast.  Ed politely declined, and told Charlie to enjoy the time with his family.  At about 2:30 PM, Charlie’s grandson, Travis Dean, took Charlie home in his Dodge Ram truck. Although only 19, Travis had been an apprentice in his dad’s electrical contractor business, and was now making a good living as a free-lance electrician. He was one of the few guys his age who could afford a new truck. On their way to Charlie’s house, they stopped by Ed’s trailer. To say Ed was appreciative of the company would be an understatement.

For  the rest of the afternoon, Charlie and Travis stayed and visited with Ed. Ed always enjoyed talking to Travis, talking shop about new construction projects Travis had taken on. Charlie hoped that Travis could take Ed’s mind off of things, and he did, at least to the extent that Ed was capable of letting go of his fear. The three of them ate dinner together, Ed’s famous meat loaf.  The evening went on into night.  Ed and Charlie hadn’t let Travis in on the Pedro situation. They told stories about their careers, people they knew, and places they’d been. Finally, as the night was slowing down, Travis looked at his watch.

“Well, it’s 10:00.  I’ve gotta work tomorrow, guys.  I’ve gotta get going. Come on, gramps, let’s go.”

It was a Wisconsin good bye, as the three of them stood in the front doorway to Ed’s trailer and said goodbye but not leaving until they’d discussed the weather and what the prospectus for the upcoming deer hunting season looked like. Charlie looked apologetically at Ed. Ed looked at his laptop, the only time keeping device he owned.  It said it was 10:37.  They said their final goodbyes and they were gone, the black night devouring Charlie and Travis the instant they stepped off of the font steps, outside the reach of the yellowish glow of the porch light.

Before leaving Charlie, Travis went inside with him to borrow Charlie’s reciprocating saw for a tear-down project he’d been working on. Charlie put on a pot of coffee for Travis, to keep him awake on his hour drive home. Ed called while Travis was still there, feeling relieved and confident, now that the dreaded day was only ten minutes away from ending. They hung up so Charlie could say goodbye to Travis. By the time Travis pulled out of Charlie’s driveway, the clock on Charlie’s living room wall read 11:35. He didn’t think anything of it at first, but then it hit him.  In a near panic, he picked up the phone and called Ed. It rang and rang, at least fifteen times, but Ed never answered.

Ed had been sitting behind his laptop, watching the seconds count down in the Windows clock display. 23:45:15,then 23:56:19,and then the final countdown: 23:59:55, 56,57,58, 59, 00:00:00 Wednesday, November 7th. He leapt up and punched his fist in the air. “I’m alive, “he screamed. Then he ran out of the house, on to the yard, yelling, “I’m alive, I’m alive!”

Travis Dean had just left his grandfather’s house when he looked at the dashboard of his truck.  The time was 11:30 and the only light was his headlight beams illuminating the mist that rose from the Ojibway River.   Just then the check engine light came on and the truck started beeping loudly, and all the lights on the dashboard lit, including one he’d never seen before. As he tried to figure out what was going on, as the lights were flashing, he could feel as well as hear the dull thwack of his truck hitting something head on, and he realized he was heading off of the road for a ditch.  He tried to get the truck back on the road, but before he could it tipped, on its side. He hit his head against the driver door and was knocked unconscious, laying there upside down in the cab of his pickup truck.  The dashboard was dark, with none of the warning lights that had all suddenly flashed and distracted Travis still lit.

Ed lay there, in his front yard, Travis Dean’s Dodge Ram lying on its side atop of him. He was crushed, his ribs shattered and his lungs collapsed. He’d already gone into shock, the pain subsiding, and within seconds he stopped breathing, and his heart stopped beating. Inside the double-wide, on the kitchen table, his laptop sat unattended.  Nobody even checked the time to notice that it was fast, a half hour into the future.

Seventy three miles away, in Minneapolis, Paul Barnes was sound asleep when he was presented with an image of the night sky.  Millions of stars shone against a backdrop of the green cosmic dust of the universe that glowed and shimmered. His father was standing next to him, the light above them reflected and refracted in his dark eyes. Ed smiled, slightly, and then he was gone.

At the same time, in a darkened computer room in a computer lab in some unspecified Midwestern college, red and blue lights blinked on and off, and in a database containing thousands of files, a field in a table named PDDC_METRICS labelled “ACTUAL_DAY_OF_DEATH with a primary key of 6527423997US was updated with the value, 110620182338.

 

Mechanical World


One of the coolest attractions in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is the Musee Mecanique.  It doubles as a museum of coin operated games and as a fully functional arcade, as each of the games have been restored to their original playing condition, and as long as your supply of quarters last, you can actually play them.  The pieces range from player pianos and other mechanized carnival attractions from the 1800s all the way up to the 1980s video game explosion, with titles that made my wife and I nostalgic for our early years, when we were newlyweds and when she was nearly unbeatable at “Space Invaders.”

We’d just eaten lunch and were strolling down the Wharf when we stumbled upon the museum. We stopped and played for a while, Pac Man and Ms. Pacman and Asteroids before finding the Space Invaders game. Deb became engrossed in it, while I quickly crashed myself nearly out of quarters on the various car racing games they had.  With only a dollar’s worth of quarters left and Deb returning to her championship Space Invaders form of thirty five years before, I left her and began wandering thru the other sections of the museum.

I wounded up in the part of the museum dedicated to the oldest attractions, the mechanized player pianos and baseball games and the recreations of late nineteenth to early twentieth century life. The biggest of these attractions was the mechanized farm, spread out on a four by six foot platform, with little wooden figures representing different people all set, once you put three quarters in, to come to life and perform different farm activities.  For example, in one corner some brawny men were loading bales of hay onto a wagon, while in another a logger with one of those long crosscut saws had a tree about halfway sawed thru, while not far away another worker was tending to the remains of a stump he’d apparently just dynamited. The whole thing was very primitive and cute, exuding a quaint charm and some real artistry in the images of people, animals, and the bucolic rural countryside they inhabited.

I browsed for another ten minutes or so until I thought Deb would have finally run out of bonus Space Invader plays and went to get her.  She wasn’t at the Space Invaders game where I’d left her, and I didn’t see her light gray jacket anywhere amongst the crowd that now occupied the 1980s arcade section of the museum.  I searched on through the rest of the museum to no avail. She was undoubtedly looking for me, too, two moving targets unintentionally moving in the same speed but opposite directions.  I stopped by the pinball machines and waited, figuring it shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes until she finds me.

I waited for ten minutes to no avail.  I resumed my search for her, starting again by the Space Invaders game and ending by the pinball machines.  Nothing.  I waited there for another five minutes.  The late afternoon crowds were intensifying, getting bigger and louder, consuming more and more of the museum’s floor space, making it even more difficult to locate her in her light gray jacket, but I still pressed on.  After a half hour had passed, I went outside on the concourse, figuring she must have left by now, tiring of the crowd inside, and would be waiting for me out there.

She wasn’t.

I was beginning to panic.

After about ten minutes looking for her outside, I went back into the museum, figuring she must be somewhere amongst the crowd.

She wasn’t.

Finally, I came to the mechanical farm again. I just happened to look down and there, about halfway between the logger with his cross saw and the woodsman with his dynamite, I saw another miniature wooden figure I hadn’t noticed before.

She was wearing a gray jacket and had shoulder length brown hair.  Her clothes looked much more modern than the other characters. As I looked closer at the unmoving figure, there was no mistaking it for my wife.  The woman I’d been married to for more than thirty five years was now an inanimate wooden figure in a nineteenth century replica of farm life.

I looked around, making sure no one could see or hear me.  “Deb,” I said, just louder than a whisper, “can you hear me?”

There was no response from under the glass covered diorama.  Looking around, I gently tapped the glass above her, but there was no response from any of the miniature wooden figures, including my wife.  I quickly fished in my pocket for quarters and found I had only one left. It took three to bring the diorama to its mechanical life, so I quickly exchanged the five dollar bill in my wallet for twenty more quarters.

When I got back to the display, everything was in motion.  A young couple, twenty-something years old, had put money into the machine and were at the opposite end of the display, smiling as they watched the charming reproduction of farm life come alive.  I quickly found my wife and now she was moving, mechanically, backwards, backing away from the worker, who was carrying a stick of dynamite and running toward her.  He was making up ground when the logger, cross saw in his hand, suddenly moved off of his track to intercept the dynamite guy who was now in full pursuit of my wife.  Then the action stopped, the time allotted by the three quarters the young couple had deposited having expired.  I looked up and they were gone.  I quickly reached into my pocket and put in three quarters.

The action resumed where it’d left off, with the guy with he dynamite in pursuit of my wife, in the heavily wooded corner of the display.  Just as he was closing in on Deb, from behind a tree, where he’d been hidden from the woodsman’s sight, the logger appeared, and with the element of surprise and his long crosscut saw, eviscerated the woodsman, cutting him in half. Bright red paint bled from the two halves of what used to be the woodsman.  Then Deb fell into the logger’s arms and they embraced, the logger still holding her as the time expired

I didn’t know what to make of it all. On the one hand, I was appreciative of the logger for saving Deb’s life, and more than a little jealous of him as he held my miniaturized and wooden wife in tiny arms that bulged with muscularity.

I put another three quarters in and watched closely as my wife and the logger kissed.  I pounded on the display glass, yelling, “No! No, no!”

Suddenly everything went silent. I was still screaming when of the museum attendants approached me. I was sprawled out over the glass, watching as the logger took my wife’s hand in his.  Then the time expired with the logger and my wife walking out of the woods, stopping just before reaching Main Street, and I became aware that the scene had changed, from the farm that it’d been up until that point to a small town.

The attendant said, “Sir, I have to ask you not to lean on the glass.”

I stood up, straight and tall, and told the attendant, “My wife is in there.’

“In there,” he repeated. “In the game?”

“Yes! I know it sounds crazy, but there she is!”

“Where?” he asked, looking around.

I pointed to where my wife had stood with the logger.  She was still there but now she was wearing a wedding gown and the logger was wearing a tux.  Somebody approached and started putting quarters in. I yelled for her to stop, afraid that the next thing that’d happen when the action resumed would be the wedding.

“Make him stop!” I yelled at the attendant. ”We’ve got to get my wife out of there!”

“Call security,” the attendant told a second attendant who’d emerged on the scene.

But the attendant didn’t stop the man from putting in three quarters, and the figures lurched into action.  In a far corner of the display a miniature 727 flew in and landed on an airport runway.  Then the plane un-boarded, the first three passengers being tiny replicas of my three adult children. They hailed a cab and got to the church just in time to see my wife and the logger exchange vows, just before the security guards put me in the strait jacket.

 

Fool’s Gold


(A still rough piece of short fiction that came to me yesterday.  The setting and the time are the same as the novel I’ve been working on, but the characters are new.)

It stormed the night before, thunder claps and lightning flashes moving stealthily across the sleeping town. It took only about an hour to pass through, but it was enough to finally break the heat wave that had gripped the town for the first two weeks of August. The cool breeze that blew out of the north was a welcome reprieve from the hot and damp southern winds that pushed daytime temperatures into the nineties, but as welcome as it may have been, it was also cool enough to remind everyone that summer was almost over, and that autumn was on its way.

Autumn and other things were on Bill Michaels’ mind as he sat in the passenger seat, the wind through his open window rolling back his black hair. It was cold enough to cause his girlfriend, Peggy Olsen, sitting alone in the enormous back seat of Jeff Fry’s 1965 Rambler, to complain about how chilly it was and what a mess it was making of her hair.  Without hesitation, Jeff reached down and grabbed the handle and rolled up the drivers’ side front window. Bill didn’t move, his blue eyes fixed on the endless rolling corn and hay fields of county highway F that had been dipped in the golden late afternoon sunlight.

“I’m glad there’s at least one gentleman in this car,” Peg said.

“Don’t get your panties in a bundle,” Bill said. “It’s only for a minute or two.”

Peggy folded her arms and bit her tongue. She wanted to tell Bill what a jerk he’d been lately, but she reminded herself that Bill had a right to be on edge. She thought about how this was the last night she’d have to tiptoe around him, the last night she’d have to suffer his uncharacteristically brooding and short fuse, and then she felt guilty.

Bailey’s Bridge, where the Canadian Pacific railroad line traversed Count Highway F, appeared ahead of them. Jeff slowed the Rambler down and parked under it, on the side of the highway. They got out and Jeff opened up the trunk, and looped his right arm through the three folded up lawn chairs and reached out his right hand and grabbed the case of Old Milwaukee. Peg and Bill both took a bag of groceries. Jeff took the last bag, from the Orchard Depot Ben Franklin hardware store, and lifted it out of the trunk with his left hand.

“What’s in there?” Bill asked.

“Spray paints!” Jeff was pleased with himself. “I’ve got four different colors.  I figured it’s time we immortalized ourselves.”

“Far out,” Peg said, as they started climbing the dirt path from the highway to the top of the bridge. The side of the bridge was covered with graffiti, the largest and freshest addition a psychedelic-ish red, white and blue “Class of 69” that word around town their class president, Tom Robinson, painted the night of their graduation, openly defying the town president, Frank Cornish, and his promised crackdown on “the bastardization of valuable public property” that graffiti represented. As they got to the top of the bridge, Bill thought about Tom Robinson and how “brave” and “daring” everybody said he was, and wondered how much courage it’d take to start college in Madison in the fall compared to how much Vietnam would require from Bill, and he got pissed off again. Robinson would spend his days that autumn fucking coeds, while he’d be in the jungle getting shot at by the Viet Cong. He resented Robinson, and wondered why his number didn’t come up in the lottery, and he thought of Robinson up at the lake with the spectacular Janice Shaffer in her two piece swimsuit while he was left to spend his last night before shipping out to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri at the gravel pit with his idiot best friend and his moody girlfriend. He extended his hand and pulled her up the last step to the railroad tracks, taking note of the jacket she was already wearing.

They walked along the tracks west from the bridge for about a half mile, the same terrain Bill and Jeff knew so well from rabbit hunting. They’d done it so many times in winters past that they’d execute the routine without speaking, the shooter getting high up on the elevated tracks and the pusher taking the wooded brush below and beside the tracks, on the north side of the tracks first, walking through the thickets and stomping on the brush piles while the shooter up above, on the tracks, kept his eyes peeled on the brush in front of the pusher below and his 20 gauge shotgun on the ready for the inevitable rabbit that would feel the pressure and try to escape, running ahead until the shooter got a bead on him and squeezed the trigger. They’d hunt like that, walking west, until they got to the gravel pit, when they‘d switch roles, with the shooter taking the south side and becoming the pusher, and the north side pusher taking the role of the shooter, as they’d make their way east back to Bailey’s Bridge.

“I’m gonna miss rabbit hunting,” Jeff said.

“You can still hunt,” Bill said.

“Not by myself.”

“Then find someone else.”

“Wouldn’t be the same,” Jeff said.

After about a fifteen minute walk, they arrived at the gravel pit.  The sun was sinking in the west.  One of the first times they hunted the tracks, about six years earlier, they “discovered” the gravel pit. Inactive since at least the late fifties, it still carried the scars from the big digger machines that cut and carved and dug holes in the earth to load boxcars that used to take the sand and gravel harvested by the machines to the county municipal building, where it’d be put to use as fill and ice melt. In addition to the cuts and wide holes left in the earth, there were also new hills created in the process of piling once loose rocky soil and sand that over time became attached to the terra firma. The highest of these hills, known as “Gravel Hill” stood about fifty feet above the ground, or just high enough to provide the best view of Orchard Depot short of being in an airplane. Bill and Jeff and Peg climbed to the top of Gravel Hill and opened up their lawn chairs around the fire pit that had been installed at its peak. Jeff and Peg collected fire wood while Bill took some newspaper and a book of matches he’d stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans out and lit the kindling until the flames were strong enough to ignite the bigger logs.

Soon it was dark and chilly out, the fire providing light and warmth as they sat in their lawn chairs next to it, on its east side, drinking warm Old Milwaukee and looking out over the fire to the west, where the yellow and white lights of Orchard Depot stood out against the black horizon, while above a handful of stars tossed up against the clear night sky sparkled and shone. Bill and Jeff told the story about how, when they were in seventh grade, they came out to the gravel pit and found, unearthed by the swipe of an old digger machine that’d scraped a hole in the ground, a rock that glittered and glowed.  Peg had heard the story countless times before, about how they convinced themselves they’d found a deep vein of gold or silver or some other mineral of untold value, and she always loved hearing them get more and more animated as they described the plans they’d made for their harvest and the lengths they went to in order to keep their finding and their subsequent expeditions secret. They finally go up the nerve to approach the middle school science teacher, Mrs. Breck, about their finding and how her examination of the sample they presented to her resulted in her declaring, “what you’ve got there is a sizable chunk of Pyrite.”

“Pyrite.” Bill and Jeff repeated the term in unison. It sounded impressive. “How much do you suppose it’s worth?” Bill finally asked.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “I’ll give you each fifty cents for it.”

“Fifty cents!” Jeff couldn’t hide his disgust. “More like fifty dollars!”

She laughed. “That’d definitely be paying too much,” she said, “too much for fool’s gold.”

“Fool’s gold?”

“That’s right.  Not worth a cent.  But it’d be worth a buck to me to use it in class.”

At this point in the story, Bill and Jeff would always go over the list of things they’d planned on buying with their precious metal, and Peg loved hearing them say, “mini-bike?  Scratch. Snowmobile? Scratch.”  Peg came from a home environment that was dominated by alcohol and divorce and was completely humorless. The concept of self-deprecation was so foreign and new to her that she found it hysterical.

It was times like this, with Peg laughing so hard and loud at such a simple story that convinced Bill he was in love with her. It was the pureness and the genuine joy she felt, and the way her face lit up when she was happy and laughing. At times like this, Bill was certain that she was the prettiest girl in town. The problem was that she was so hesitant to let her guard down that few people had ever seen her like that.

Bill and Peg had been going steady since the previous October, their senior year, when Bill asked her out to the Homecoming dance. They had a class, third hour senior civics, together. Bill, who’d always been painfully shy around girls, found himself seated behind Peg, and every day as he silently stared at the back of her head, at her full reddish-brown hair, he grew more and more enamored with her. Then one day, as she passed a test back to him, he smiled at her and she smiled back. Emboldened by the exchange, he vowed to talk to her the next day, asking her what she thought of the test, and she said that she thought it was really hard, which surprised him, because he found it to be quite easy. But he didn’t let on, instead agreeing with her.

The ice successfully broken, they started talking more and more until Bill finally worked up the nerve to ask her to the Homecoming dance. Once there, they were both able to brush off their initial awkwardness enough to successfully take a couple of slow dances together. At the end of the night, Bill drove Peg home and walked her to her front porch, the glow of the porchlight exposing peeling and faded green paint on the siding as they quickly kissed good night, their lips barely making contact.

The first time they made love, had sex, was three months later, a cold Wednesday night in mid-January, the day Bill received his draft notice. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, that he was going to Vietnam.  Bill used it to his advantage to get what he’d been pestering her for the previous month or so, as he parked his dad’s green Ford LTD on Brown Woods road, a short and uninhabited stretch of gravel north of town off of County Highway G. It was cold as they climbed in the back seat and unsnapped their jeans, the windows quickly frosting over as he thrust himself into her, exploding after only a few rushed strokes, the whole thing over just moments after it’d started. As they were putting their jeans back on, he caught a glimpse of a single tear running down her cheek before she quickly wiped it away with her hand. He felt horrible.

It’d be another month before they tried again, again on Brown Woods Road, again in the back seat of his dad’s LTD. This time was different, though, as they didn’t rush things, taking off their shirts as well as their pants, their bodies lit by the pale and cold moonlight that streamed through the windshield. Bill found her beautiful, her bare breasts and her hips and her waist, but especially her bare upper back, between and under her shoulder blades, her skin milk white and smooth.

By the time they found themselves sitting in the fire light on Gravel Hill on the night before Bill was to head to basic training, they’d had sex eight times.  Bill hated that he knew this. He understood that he was cheapening the experience, cheapening Peg, by keeping a count, but he also knew that he couldn’t help it. He’d always seen and processed the world through numbers, since before he could remember, and he counted and stored everything. Times he and Jeff had gone rabbit hunting:  twenty-six.

At one time, in Junior High, it looked like his proficiency with numbers would be the ticket for Bill to become the first Michaels to attend college.  But although he got good grades in math classes, he remained a poor and unmotivated student in his other academic endeavors.

His senior year, especially the spring semester, after receiving his draft notice, was especially bad. There were many days he didn’t show up to class at all. The school administrators had grown all too familiar with the phenomenon of the unmotivated drafted senior and agreed that compared to going to war on the other side of the world, high school just didn’t seem that important, and adopted an unofficial policy of graduating these individuals regardless of academic achievement.

Bill glanced at his Timex, a graduation gift from his grandparents.   It was shortly after one o’clock. Time was running out.  His folks were taking him to Mitchell Field, in Milwaukee, at six o’clock in time for him to check in and board his 7:30 flight to Saint Louis. He’d told his mom and dad all along that he planned on staying out all night before leaving. He could feel the moments ticking away, and as he reached down for another beer, he realized they were almost gone, too. As he pulled the top off the can of Old Milwaukee, he looked across the fire at Jeff and Peg and felt the same panic that’d been hitting him too frequently lately, that everything was moving too fast and that the very earth itself was about to spin off of its axis.

“I sure wish I was going, too,” Jeff said.

“No you don’t,” Bill replied.

“That’s not true,” Jeff said.  “Just because I can’t go, doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

“Why on earth would you want to go?” Bill asked.

“Because I, be-be-because I just want to,” Jeff said. He was starting to get agitated.

“That’s the dumb …”

“Bill,” Peg interrupted, “that’s enough.”

“I’m sorry, Jeff.”

“You just think I’m dumb,” Jeff said.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I really don’t.  You’re my best friend, Jeff. I’m just saying, you don’t want to go to Vietnam.”

“How do you know what I do or don’t want to do? Just because they won’t take me doesn’t mean I don’t want to go.  Just like you – you’re going but you don’t want to.”

“Jeff,” Peg said. “Just calm down. Who wants to go and who doesn’t want to doesn’t matter. This is the last night we have together. That’s what’s important.  I swear, I’m so sick of hearing and thinking about Vietnam.”

Jeff got real quiet. It was getting late, and he was getting tired.

When Jeff was six years old, while chasing an errant basketball into the street, he was hit by a delivery truck in front of his house.  His head bounced off of the pavement, and he suffered a fractured skull.   The incident left him with minor but permanent brain damage, and a lower than average I.Q. and some short term memory loss that was enough to earn him a draft deferment.

Bill knew Jeff since seventh grade and Peg had spent enough time with him that they both understood him.  Most of the time, he was just a little bit slow mentally, not bad, just slightly, so slightly as to be almost unperceivable.  But once he got tired, once fatigue set in, he’d become easily agitated and forgetful, and start slurring his words.  As they looked at him in his chair beside the fire, Bill and Peg knew that in a minute or two he’d be sound asleep, and given an hour’s nap, he’d wake up refreshed and coherent, and he’d be Jeff again.

Once Jeff was asleep, Bill and Peg sat close to one another, forsaking their lawn chairs to sit on the ground next to the fire.  The night was getting cold, and Bill, in his black t-shirt, was struggling to keep warm.

“Still think I was stupid for wearing a jacket?” Peg asked.

“No, I guess not,” Bill replied.  He sat close to her, absorbing her body warmth. He reached his left hand into her jacket and between buttons on her blouse and over her bra covered beast and gently squeezed. She turned her face toward his and they kissed.

“You want to go in the bushes?” Peg asked.

“No, that’d be about the last thing I’d need.  Start basic training with poison ivy all over my ass.”

Peg laughed, and then said, “well, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it out here in front of Sleeping Beauty.”

“No, neither would I.”  They then agreed that the cold, the poison ivy, and the presence of Jeff were all enough to make sex, last night together or not, a dubious proposition that wasn’t worth pursuing.

“Just keep me warm,” Bill said, as they huddled together. Jeff was snoring loudly from his lawn chair.

Bill cleared his throat, and said, “Peg, I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?”

Bill nervously poked at the fire with a stick.  “About us,” he said.

“What about us?”  There was apprehension in her voice.

“I was just thinking …” he started. “I was just thinking that if something happens …”

“Now I told you we weren’t going to talk like that.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “Okay. It’s just that I’m going to be gone for so long, and I’ll be so far away, that, if someone else comes along, I don’t want you to feel you have to wait for me.”

It was the truth, at least the partial truth.  He had been thinking about that lately. The complete truth, though, was that part of him was looking forward to getting out of Orchard Depot, and finding new people, instead of the only other two people in town who were as lonely as he was.  He’d been wondering how it came to this, how on the night before he was to ship out he found himself alone on Gravel Hill with the daughter of the town drunk and a brain damaged imbecile.  He wondered what his flaw was, and all he could come up with is that he’d been a math geek with a photographic memory filled with nothing but numbers, because that’d been all he allowed himself to experience, and now he was going to war, to face possible death, without ever having really lived, and having seen so little of the world. He looked at Jeff and Peg, their faces lit by the firelight, and he realized how much he loved them both, and how much he needed to move beyond them.  He saw the tear rolling down Peg’s face and he suspected she knew it, too.

Jeff woke up and saw Bill and Peg sitting by the fire, and said, “How long was I asleep?  You two getting cozy together?”

Peg wiped her face and stood up, saying that she had to go in the brush and pee and that nobody better follow her.

“How you feel, Jeff?” Bill asked.

“I feel like another beer,” Jeff replied. Bill grabbed one of the last Old Milwaukees and tossed it to Jeff.  “What time is it?” Jeff asked.

Bill cocked his wrist so that his watch was lit by the fire. “It’s two thirty,” he replied.

Peg returned from the brush and the three of them sat and finished the beer, talk and laughter coming easily in the pre-dawn darkness.

Finally, at 3:45, they decided to call it a night. They put out the fire and picked up. Jeff held a flashlight in his hand as they prepared to walk east along the tracks to the bridge and Jeff’s Rambler, when Bill stopped and looked west towards town.

“Guys,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to walk home.”

“Are you sure?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah,” Bill replied. “One last long look at things.”

They said their goodbyes, there on the railroad tracks, Bill shaking Jeff’s hand before Jeff pulled him into a big hug, both of them slapping each other on the back. Then it was Peg’s turn, and they kissed and held each other tighter than they ever had before.  Tears were running down both of their faces as they finally let each other go, neither one of them able to think of a single word to say to one another.

Bill stood still on the railroad tracks, facing east, and watched Peg and Jeff walk away until all he could see was the faint and fading glow of Jeff’s flashlight and when he couldn’t see that anymore, he climbed back to the top of Gravel Hill and looked to the west, to the sleeping lights of his hometown, Orchard Depot, Wisconsin. They’d never before shone so vividly, and it was as if he was looking at them from the other side of the world, from the jungles of an unknown place called Vietnam, yet he still could see, as clearly as if they were standing next to him, sparkling and glittering in the yellow streetlight lit haze of memory like rare and precious minerals, his best friend and his first love.

Winter Camping


(A short fiction I’ve been noodling around with)

I woke up in the dark coughing, my eyes and throat burning, the blue tarp I’d fallen asleep under having caved in over the bottom half of my sleeping bag. It felt heavy, and I knew instantly what’d happened, where I’d screwed up, and that I had to get out right now.

I pulled my legs up and rolled out of my sleeping bag. I tried to open my eyes, but the best I could manage was narrow slits that presented, out of focus and dim, what I’d already smelled:  thick and cascading smoke. I could hear the wind howling and snow pelting the other side of the tarp. I couldn’t see but I remembered that the opening to my little lean-to was to my right.  I pulled my feet up and swept my hand across to where the opening should have been, where there should have been air, but there was only snow.

It was obvious now, and I felt embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me before, that the lean-to I’d fashioned with the tarp wouldn’t be able to bear the weight of the heavy snow coming down that I’d blissfully fallen asleep under.  Not only did it collapse the tarp, but as the drifts accumulated outside it had sealed most of the opening I’d used to vent my campfire.  Had I slept for another five minutes, I’d be dead, choked by smoke and buried by snow.  As it was I couldn’t stop coughing, and I couldn’t open my eyes, but none of that mattered.  I had to get out.

I reached out and grabbed for my boots, from next to the fire, where I remembered I’d set them to dry.  I held them in my left hand and sat up and with my right hand reached for and found the tarp, and followed it until I got to its edge, where the tarp met the snow. My eyes still burned, my vision reduced to a thick and indistinguishable blur. I rolled over, my boots in my hand, and tried to pull the tarp up and roll my body underneath it. All I could feel was the snow against my long underwear and the black hoody I had on over my thermal under shirt.  It was cold and wet.

I rolled out into the snow, outside of the tarp now, in the snow, lying on my side.  I pulled myself up onto my two feet just as the mouthful of the clean and cold air I breathed in met the thick smoke that filled my lungs, and I started coughing again.  I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t breathe, and I became dizzy and light headed and collapsed into the snow.  I laid there until I stopped coughing, until I could breathe again, taking in only shallow gasps of air, my throat burning every time I inhaled.

I finally sat up and tried to open my eyes. They burned, too, and I still couldn’t’ open them any more than a narrow slit, for more than a couple of seconds, after which they’d start burning again and I’d have to close them.  For the brief period of time I could leave them open, through the narrow slits, I couldn’t really see anything, nothing would come in focus, just the blurred white of the ground and the blurred black vertical columns of what I assumed were trees. I slipped my boots on and struggled to my  feet.

I could smell the smoky remains of my campfire, and I knew they were coming from under the collapsed tarp, and I knew my lean-to opened to the east, so I was standing on the east side of the tarp. I turned in the direction the smell of the fire was coming from, and I knew I was facing west. I knew that home, my dad’s farm, was about a mile west through the woods from where I’d camped.  I also knew that once I started west, I’d be walking into the wind and I’d quickly lose the smell of the fire, the only compass I had.  Unable to see, all I’d have to go by was the wind pelting me in the face, and I really didn’t know if it was blowing straight from the west or if it was coming in from the northwest.  It wouldn’t take much to make me drift off track, because the woods were big and swampy. I tried to open my eyes again but they weren’t getting any better, and if anything burned more that the last time I tried. I stood there in the dark, in my thermal shirt and long johns, wet, blind and cold, the snow at my feet getting deeper. A sense of panic started to settle in, a sense that I might die.

Nobody knew I was out here, and I cursed myself for being arrogant enough to think this whole winter camping thing was a good idea. My dad was always reminding me that I was just a kid, just fourteen years old, and that I was “Getting too big for my britches.” But I’d spent many nights sleeping in the woods, and it was one of the things I loved most in the world. The stillness, the purity of the air, the rhythm of crickets, the night sky that would fill up with a million stars, all within my reach, the silver moonlight.  I’d slept out in the woods dozens of times before, always alone, but never in the winter. I knew from the summer and autumn nights I’d sampled that being out in the woods at 2:30, 3:30, or 4:30 A.M. was a completely different experience, that everything looked, smelled and felt different, and I was eager to discover what new worlds winter would bring to the woods in the deep heart of the night.

I started to move, took a step in the direction I’d convinced myself was west, when I heard, in front of me and to the left, the sound of something in the woods, something alive. I stopped and listened and soon I heard it again. It was the sound of a snort, and then I could hear the sound of a hoof pounding the frozen ground, and before I even opened my eyes I knew it was a deer.  I opened my eyes and everything was still a blur, but at the center of the blur I could make out something dark and wet, shimmering in my blurred view.  I blinked my eyes open again and this time I could see the outline of a deer, a doe, against a solid white background. The white background went up above the deer, it was elevated, and I knew it was Musselman’s Ridge.  I adjusted the direction I was facing so I’d be walking directly in a line to where I’d seen the deer. A soon as I took my first step, I heard her snort again, and I heard a branch break as she ran away.

It didn’t take me long, walking with my eyes closed, to reach the steep incline that marled the bottom of Musselman’s Ridge. I tried ascending the angle, but with my eyesight blinded it was difficult, as the side of the ridge was thick with trees and underbrush. I tried to open my eyes, but they still burned. I knew that there was a fire lane cut through the woods that traversed Musselman’s Ridge at a point where the incline was less severe. I was completely disoriented, though, and had no idea where I was in relation to the fire road, and was convinced I didn’t have time to look for it.

As I stumbled trying to get up the hill, colliding with trees and brush, I found at my feet a thick stick, about four feet long.  I picked it up and used it like a blind man uses a cane, swinging it in front of me to find where my next step would fall, then planting it firmly on the ground to help me maintain my balance.  I was creeping along when I swung my stick in front of me only to hear the sound and feel the vibration of it hitting what may as well been a solid wall of trees and brush.  I opened my eyes and I could make out enough detail to tell that I had stumbled smack dab into a thicket, dark and steep and impenetrable. I held my eyes open long enough to look around, and off to my right, I could make out the blur of movement, silent, like a ghost floating on the frozen landscape. I was able to get my eyes open wide enough and long enough to recognize a deer, the same doe I’d seen before, about thirty yards to my right, ascending the ridge without a sound, when I realized it was walking the fire road, the path that would lead me to safety.

I stumbled my way out of the thicket and made it to the fire road.  It was still snowing, but not as hard, and the doe’s tracks were still readable.  I walked up the incline with my walking stick in hand, every now and then opening my eyes and looking down to make sure I was still on the fire road,  still  following the doe’s tracks, until near the top of the ridge where the tracks  veered off  of the path to the right, to the north. I stayed on the fire road.

I made it to the top of Musselman’s Ridge, where the fire road takes a sharp turn to the north and runs for a while along the top of the ridge before turning west again and descending the ridge where the woods grow bigger.  It was the point I knew I’d have to leave the fire road to walk the last stretch home.

At the top of the ridge, the wind slowed down for a moment and the snow stopped. I tried to open my eyes and I was able to widen them enough to see clearly the familiar landmarks of the vista I’d looked out on hundreds of times before. They were all simultaneously familiar and new, the dark woods that abruptly stopped on the flat edge of our cornfield, white and flat and bright, the stems of its cut stalks buried beneath the snow. I saw the fence line that marked the other end of the field, and I could make out the gate that opened into our yard, where our house stood, strong and silent and dark in the night, gray smoke billowing out of the chimney and up into the night sky until it vanished, giving way to millions of stars that hung low against the black ceiling of the night sky. And I could see, off to my right,  the fire lane where it briefly exited the woods before reentering them at the far corner of our cornfield, and standing there, in the fire lane, I could see the doe I’d been following,  made tiny by the distance between us.  She was standing there, looking back at me, and I could clearly see, even though it was too far away, her dark and moist eye, locked in with my eyes, before she turned and stepped into the woods.

Able to see and breathe, my survival now rested on one thing:  staying warm long enough to make it down the ridge, across the cornfield and into the house. My hands were like clubs, I could barely move them, the fingers on my right hand somehow shaped to wrap around and clasp my walking stick.  My face felt swollen, cracked around my cheekbones. My throat was dry and scratchy, and every muscle in my body ached, cold and rigid. The snow had stopped but the wind persisted, blowing raw and cold in my face as I started out down the ridge. I started out slowly, maintaining my balance, taking big steps in the deep snow, when, about halfway down, my right foot caught a stray and dead vine buried beneath the snow and I fell, hard on my side, cushioned by snow, and I slid down the ridge, small twigs of dead underbrush scratching and cutting my face, ripping a hole in the thigh of my long underwear.  I slid down until I was twenty feet from the bottom, coming to rest when my rear end harmlessly met he trunk of an oak tree. I collected myself and took a quick inventory of my scrapes and scratches, then I got up.  I’d lost my walking stick somewhere in the fall. I managed to keep my balance and made it to the bottom of the ridge, where just a narrow stretch of woods heavy with undergrowth separated me from the cornfield.  I walked on, shielded by the trees from the full brunt of the wind.

Then I was out of the woods, into the cornfield, face first against the howling wind.  It blew steady and strong, skimming the top of the snow off of the field and hurling it into my face.  It thundered like a freight train in my ears. Gusts blew so hard as to literally knock me over three times.  Each time I’d struggle to stand back up, my legs cold and raw and stiff and heavy.  It took every ounce of strength I had left just to lift them high enough to keep moving forward.

Eventually, I made it across the field and, just after I passed through the opened gate into our yard, I collapsed in the snow, no more than ten yards from the house. I was unable to move, frozen, as I stared at the house, at the upstairs window to my room, then I started to see things, some real, some not, spinning around in the wind.  I saw the weather vane on the barn, I saw my Science teacher, Mr. Morgan, I saw the blue tarp I’d made my lean-to out of, I saw the doe and her shiny dark eyes. And then I saw my dad.

He was shaking me awake, his hand on my shoulder, saying “Bill, Bill.” The sound of morning songbirds became clear. I opened my eyes and could see bright sunlight streaming through my windows, and I could see my dad, bent over my bed, his face inches from mine.

“Come on, Bill,” he said, “you’ve got to get up. The service starts in about an hour.  Aunt Mary’s made us a big breakfast.”

I could smell the bacon frying, and I could sense that the house was full of unfamiliar people, of guests who’d spent the night.

“Okay,” I mumbled.

“Get yourself in the shower,” he said as he headed for my door. He was holding the door, about to close it behind him.

“Dad?” I said.  He stopped and stood in my doorway.

“Yeah?”

“I already miss her,” I said. It surprised me, because I hadn’t even been thinking about her.

“I know,” he said.  “Me, too. “ He stood there for a minute, neither one of us knowing what to say, when I threw my legs over the side of my bed and sat up.

“Okay, I’m up,” I said. Dad smiled and left, closing my door behind him. Something lying on the table at my bedside caught my eye. I picked it up and looked at it.  It was a photograph, the last photograph, of my mom and dad and I, sitting with her in her hospital bed, all three of us smiling.  Mom’s smile was a little weaker, but her eyes, dark and moist and penetrating, were alive, shimmering and shining.

God’s Bent Index FInger


(This is something I just started noodling with – I have a few stories about these characters milling about in my head – so this might be the beginning  of a novel or a collection of related short stories – time will tell)

Technically, according to any calendar, it was still spring of 1979, and would be for about another week.  But practically, with the last day of school and the graduation ceremony having commenced a week earlier, summer was already well under way, the days long and bright and green, darkness held at bay until after ten o’clock, when the sound of crickets would start reverberating, setting a pulse, a rhythm, to the night.   It was summer all right, even though the night air that blew through the rolled down windows was cold and reminded us that it wasn’t that long ago, only two months, since mid-April, that the ice finally went out on the lakes.

All five of us were there.  We were riding out to Zimmerman Lake in Jimmy’s dad’s AMC Matador, Jimmy driving, me riding shotgun in the front passenger seat, the windows all the way down, the night wind blowing through my thick brown hair, with Jeff, Roger and Tony in the back. Now days, if you’d see that car, you’d say, “what a fucking boat,” but back then, in mid-June of 1979, it didn’t seem so big. It was the time in Wisconsin when the drinking age was eighteen.  Me and Roger and Jimmy were of legal age and had just left the Wagon Wheel, shooting pool and hanging out with the old manure-kickers that were her regulars. We had a few beers and did a few shots, and we were all feeling pretty good at 11:00 when we walked out into the cool night air.  We rode to Jeff’s house, about a block away from the bar, and picked up Jeff and Tony.

It was a confusing time for us.  We’d all been friends since middle school, since seventh grade, and every year, when school got out, we’d celebrate the start of summer vacation by staying out until morning. It started as sleepovers and as we grew older and started driving it evolved into chaperoned camping trips.  By the time summer arrived this year, 1979, we were all old enough that we could do whatever the fuck we wanted.

We’d picked this night, a Thursday, for this year’s celebration, but this year felt different.   We’d just graduated high school, and we were all supposed to be figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives.   This wasn’t the beginning of another summer vacation, this was the beginning of the rest of our lives.   We all knew it, we all felt it, as Jimmy pulled off of Highway 67 onto the long and narrow two dirt tracks road to Zimmerman Lake’s boat launch, the narrow beam of the headlights illuminating the dirt ruts and the over grown brush on each side, until it finally ended in the empty gravel parking lot. We all knew that something, none of us could describe exactly what, maybe it was childhood, maybe it was our friendship, maybe it was just the goddamned seventies, but we all knew that something was ending.

We got out of the car. Jimmy opened the trunk and Tony and I each grabbed a handle at each end of the metal cooler and lifted it out of the trunk and walked it over to the circular arrangement of rocks next to the shore line that was the boat launch’s fire pit. The cooler was filled with ice and beer, cans of PBR, and we each reached in and grabbed one, little chunks of ice sticking to the cans or melting in our hands. The boat launch was lit by a single light on top of a twenty, twenty five foot pole between the eastern edge of the parking lot and the lake, lighting up the pier.  Zimmerman Lake was small and shallow and muddy, known as a place where you could get a lot of pan fish action, little crappies and bluegills, by just dropping a worm and a bobber.  The more serious fishermen preferred chasing the trophy muskies and walleyes that were occasionally pulled out of the flowage, about ten miles from Zimmerman.  We liked it because on the west side, the side of the boat launch, nobody lived there year round, there were just a couple of summer cabins that were unoccupied this early in the season.  We could be as loud as we wanted and drink undetected by the cops, who if they ever had a reason to check out the boat launch we’d see their headlights down the long rutted road into it well before they’d see us.

None of us, not even Tony and Jimmy, who were going to college in the fall, had any fucking idea of what we wanted to do or be.  Jeff and I had just gotten jobs at the window factory on the outskirts of town; we were scheduled to start the following Monday. Roger still walked with a limp from the car accident he was in when he was fourteen. He had the night off from his job behind the cash register at the PDQ.  Come the fall, Tony was going to Eau Claire, Jimmy to Marquette, down in Milwaukee, after they’d finished working for Tony’s dad on his farm for the summer.

“Craig!” Jimmy yelled, and I turned just as the Frisbee was about to hit me in the face. I was able to get a hand up and at least block it just in time, as Jimmy laughed that high pitched hyena laugh of his.   Tony and Jeff had gone into the woods and returned with handfuls of dry sticks; they brought them to Roger who put them in the fire pit along shore, next to the pier.  Soon Roger had a fire going, and Tony and Jeff brought back bigger sticks, logs.  Jimmy pulled two lawn chairs out of the trunk of the Matador.  He handed me one and we walked to the fire, me carrying the lawn chair in my left hand and Jimmy’s Frisbee in my right hand.  We got to the fire and before I unfolded my lawn chair I flipped my right wrist and released the Frisbee in the direction of Tony, who was standing on the edge of the woods, barely in the light.  After I threw it, after I knew Tony wouldn’t have time to react, I yelled “Tony!”  He turned his head just as the Frisbee arrived, hitting him square in the face, prompting Jimmy and I to laugh loudly while Tony muttered “stupid sons of bitches.”

We sat, Jimmy and I in the lawn chairs, the rest on the ground, next to the fire. We talked about and laughed at the same things we’d been talking about and laughing at for the previous six years, which may as well have been forever. In addition to the beer, Jeff had bought some wine, TJ Swann’s or Boone’s Fam, I can’t remember which one, just that it was real cheap shit, and Tony brought a small bottle of Yukon Jack, and we passed the bottles back and forth until they were dead soldiers thrown into the fire.

We talked about where we were going and the choices we’d made. Jimmy asked me again, “Why the fuck aren’t you going to college?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno. Guess I’ve had enough school for a while.”

‘Well, you’re too fucking smart to stick around here,” Jimmy said.

“Maybe I’ll go in a year or two,” I said. “I just want to work and make some money for a while.  Plus, my folks can’t really afford it.”  This part wasn’t really true, as my mom and dad told me they’d swing it if I really wanted to go.  They left it completely up to me, didn’t push me one way or another. They’d grown up during the depression, both poor, and college was never an option, never a realistic thought for either of them, and they’d done fine. They never really talked about it to me, it was never a priority to them, and therefore it wasn’t a priority for me, either.  But now, with Jimmy going off in the fall to Milwaukee and me staying behind in Neil, I thought about it all the time, and I had a nagging suspicion I was going to miss out on something big, something big and important.

“The problem,” Roger started, “is that I have no fucking idea what I want to be when I grow up.”

We all knew that this was true. Roger, or none of us, for that matter, didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we also knew that in Roger’s case this wasn’t the real problem.  The real problem with Roger wasn’t the damage the accident had done to his body, either. It wasn’t even the fact that his mom was dead. The problem we all saw with Roger was his dad, Steve Harris.

Steve Harris was, in the summer of 1979, in his mid-forties.  Thin and tall with fading blonde hair and a pale and blotchy complexion, he was a used car salesman, owner and operator of a lot a block off of main street.  It was cheap and sleazy and unimaginative, exactly like a thousand other lots in a hundred different cities, bordered with pennant shaped triangle flags, the year and model and sometimes the price displayed in gaudy neon-green letters stuck to the inside of the windshield.  The lot was filled with junk, pieces of shit the Ford and Chevy and Chrysler dealers took in on trade ins but didn’t want to be associated with in their own used car lots. Roger helped his dad out whenever he could, washing the cars and sweeping out the office and any other odd jobs that needed to be done.  Sometimes Steve paid Roger, most times he didn’t.

We all knew that Steve was an asshole, even Jeff, who bought a 1972 Chevy Vega from him in his junior year, only to take it home and find a huge puddle of oil in the garage where he’d parked it. It had a cracked block that had been sealed with some kind of silicone sealant that gave out after a few hours.  Jeff’s dad, a former Marine, was furious with Steve and threatened to kick the shit out of him.  They ended up getting lawyers involved and reached a settlement where Jeff and his dad got almost everything they’d paid for the car back, and Steve had to tow the piece of shit back into his garage, until he was finally able to offload it to some junkyard somewhere. The whole deal had no effect on Jeff and Roger being friends.  They both knew their dads, knew what they were and were not.

None of us, even Jeff, for that matter, had a problem with Steve being a douchebag car salesman.  In fact, we all found his antics to be pretty funny, even Roger, and we all loved it when Roger told us the inside baseball stories of rolled back odometers and paint job touch ups. If that were all there was to Steve, if that was his only flaw, we could have laughed him off as one of Neil’s Mayberry-esque characters, like Tom Newton, the proprietor of the barber shop on Main Street who we insisted shared an uncanny resemblance to Floyd on the “Andy Griffith Show” (we all saw it, and it became more vivid and funny when we were rolling doobies and watching reruns in Jimmy’s basement rec room).  But what we couldn’t forgive was the way Steve treated Roger.

Roger’s older brother, Randy, was a star running back in high school who’d graduated in 76.  He was good enough to get a free ride downstate at Whitewater.  Roger’s dad made it to every one of Randy’s games, driving all over the countryside, but had no time for Roger, who’s artificial leg and limp was a constant reminder that not only was Randy perfect and untouched, but of the fact that Delores, the boys’ mother and his wife, was dead, killed in the same car accident that took Roger’s leg.   Between Randy’s scholarship and the legal settlement, Steve could have easily funded Roger’s college tuition, so it wasn’t a matter of cost.  It was neglect, and it was more.  It was meanness, pure and simple, and when Roger wasn’t there, the rest of us would talk about how much we hated Steve, and tell stories of the latest example of Steve being a dick, like the time Laurie Schmidt, Jeff’s hot blonde girlfriend was in the lot with her dad.  Roger was there, with a bucket and a squeegee, well within earshot, washing one of the cars, when Laurie’s dad introduced her as a sophomore in the high school, to which Steve replied, you must know my son, the little gimp with one leg, ‘ol Hopalong I call him.

We couldn’t tell these stories when Roger was present; we’d tried that once, and Roger got real defensive, saying “you don’t know what my dad’s been through.”

“I know what you’ve been through,” I said, “and you don’t deserve to be treated that way.”

“Fuck you,” Roger said, trying to hold back the tears that were pooling behind his eyes, “and mind your own fucking business.”  That was Roger – aside from the good natured teasing about his dad’s sleazy business ethics, Roger never said one negative word about his dad.  In fact, I can’t remember Roger saying anything negative about anybody, and when we’d get going like we frequently did, ripping someone apart, Roger’d get real quiet. He was like that, physically crippled, but in so many other ways, he was the best of us.

At about a quarter to four, we looked around the fire and Tony was gone.  “Where the fuck did Tony go? Jimmy said. “Fuckin’ light weight, he’s probably curled up in the back of the car asleep.”

“He ain’t sleeping,” Jeff said. “Look.”  He was pointing towards the pier.

There, at the end of the pier, Tony was hopping on his bare left foot, taking the sock off of his right foot.  He stood there, unzipping his jeans as Jeff started ba-da-ba-ding the stripper’s song.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Jimmy said.

Tony finished taking off his jeans, then he lifted his t-shirt off over his head, and finally removed his underwear.  “Anybody want to go for a dip with me?”

“You’re crazy,” Jimmy responded.  “That water is freezing, probably 50 degrees.”

“Oh, who’s the little girlie man?”  Then Tony jumped off the pier, making the unmistakable sound of a serious belly flop as he hit the water and then we heard a blood curdling scream.  We didn’t know if he’d hurt himself or was just reacting to the cold water.  “Come on in,” he yelled, “the water’s perfect.”

I was the first to get up, taking my clothes off as I approached the pier.

“Before you get in,” Tony announced, “you have to be birthday suit naked.”

Jeff followed me, and then Jimmy.  By the time Jimmy got to the pier, I’d already dove in. The water was ice cold.  I went under and got my head all wet, experience told me that the faster you exposed your entire being to the cold the faster you got used to it.  I tried touching the bottom, the water at the end of the pier was about six foot deep, so I could barely reach it, but it was cold and mucky, and it felt like it’d swallow you if you put too much weight on it, so I just treaded water. Jeff and Jimmy dove in, screaming at how fucking cold it was.

It didn’t take long to get used to the cold water and once you did, it felt great. We were all laughing, when I looked back to the pier and suddenly felt horrible. It was Roger, standing alone on the pier, fully dressed.  Jeff, who’d had enough to drink that he was even stupider than normal, said, “Come on, Roger.  Don’t be a pussy.  Get naked and get in here.”

“Jeff,” I said, just loud enough so he and none of the others could hear, “Roger can’t.  He can’t swim, remember?”

At one time, five years earlier, Roger always went swimming with us.  He was as good a swimmer as I was, and I was the best swimmer of the bunch.  Then, late in the summer before eighth grade, Roger and his mom were in their Buick LeSabre, on their way to the high school to pick up Roger’s brother, Randy, from football practice when Justin Warwick, a skinny little prick who’d just got his license two days earlier, blew though the stop sign on County Highway A where it intersected with Highway 67and broadsided the LeSabre, killing Roger’s mom instantly and flipping the car over in the ditch on the other side of the road.  The driver’s side had caved in and lacerated Roger’s mom, he could feel her lifeless body pressing down on him, and he became aware of the pain shooting through his right leg. It was bent backward at his knee so that his foot was under him, even with his waist, trapped between the seat and the door, and he became aware of the blood shooting out of his leg, just above his knee, and just before he lost consciousness he remembered seeing that his lower leg was barely attached to his upper leg.  He woke up in the hospital in Rice Lake and it was a week later, he’d been in a coma. In the week that he was unconscious, they’d amputated his right leg, treated the burns on his abdomen, and buried his mom.

“Roger,” Jeff said. “You can come in, can’t you?  Even in the shallow water?”

“Fuck, yeah,” Roger said, and he started undressing, revealing his plastic prosthetic leg and scarred mid-section.  We all broke into applause and shouts of encouragement, impressed by the fact that Roger must have been really wasted, because he’d never do this if sober.   He unsnapped the leg and left it in a pile on the pier with his jeans and shirt, and he hopped off of the pier, hitting the water sideways. Jeff swam toward him, and made sure he was okay.  “Fuck, yeah!” Roger shouted, and there was triumph in his voice.

Once I knew Roger would be fine, I turned around and faced the center of the lake, and started swimming.  It was the first swim of the year, and I became aware of how much I’d missed it, the feeling of gliding over the water, the feeling of my muscles stretched tight and taught, the heaving of my chest with each breath I took.  More than anything, it was the dark, and as I swam further out from the shore, the light in the boat launch parking lot became a tiny dot, and the voices of the others faded until all I could hear was the rhythm of frogs croaking on the shore and my own breathing, and I was alone in the night, the sky black and starless, the water black and deep, until they became one all-encompassing blackness, and I couldn’t tell where the lake ended and the sky began, and for a moment I couldn’t tell if I was gliding on the water or the sky. I’d become a stone, smooth and dark, skimming over the surface of the lake, thrown side-armed and released from the inside of God’s bent index finger. I swam all the way to the center of the lake and stopped, certain that if I’d just close my eyes and tread water there in the middle of the lake, I’d become one with, a part of, the unending blackness, a part of water and sky, the most elemental substances of the universe. I wanted to be held there, suspended in time and space, and I wanted the moment, with me alone in the blackness in the middle of Zimmerman lake, to last forever.

But the moment couldn’t last forever.  Soon I heard the distant cries of “Craig!” and “Tyler!”  The others were looking for me, they probably thought I’d drowned.

“I’m here,” I hollered back, and turned and started swimming back to the guys. By the time I made it back to the pier, there was a faint pink line on the eastern horizon, and I could see the rest of the guys sitting by the fire.  I climbed on top of the pier and, of course, was not surprised to see that my clothes were missing.  I had no choice but to walk up to the fire stark naked. “Okay,” I calmly said, “where are my clothes?”

“Oh, Craig,” Jimmy replied.  “Fancy meeting you here tonight.”  Then, looking me up and down, said “Kind of cold out here tonight, isn’t it?”

The other guys all giggled.

“Step close to the fire, that’ll warm you up,” Jeff said.

“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” Jimmy sang and everyone laughed again.

“Ha ha,” I said.  I was starting to get really cold.

“Well,” Jimmy said, motioning to the pile of fabric sitting on the ground next to his lawn chair, “I think it’s about time we make a sacrifice, a little something to appease the fire gods.” He then took the stick he was holding and reached down and lifted my underpants up with it.  ‘What do you say, guys?”

“Burn, burn, burn,” they chanted.

“Well, it’s unanimous,”  Jimmy said, and he lifted the stick and dropped my whitey tighties into the fire, to the wild cheering of the other guys.  Then he took the stick and lifted up my jeans.

“Not my pants, ass wipe.”

Everyone was laughing, Jeff and Tony chanting “do it, do it,” when Roger yelled, “Guys, look,” and pointed towards the road.  A pair of headlights was running down the road to the boat launch.  In the east, the pink line had gotten broader, and morning was breaking.

We moved very quickly, Jimmy giving me my jeans and t-shirt.  I put them on, going commando, while the rest of the guys quickly picked up all the empty cans and bottles and threw them in the trash can. Our first and only thought was it was the police, but as the car got closer, it revealed itself to be an ancient pickup truck, and we could make out the outline of a trailer carrying a boat behind it.  The truck made it into the parking lot and circled around, and we could see there were two old guys in it.  The one on the passenger side didn’t have any teeth.  The driver quickly backed the trailer down the launch next to the pier, and the toothless guy got out.  The boat was a non-descript, gray aluminum fourteen footer with a little Evinrude outboard motor mounted on the back

“Hello, Mr. Weatherwax,” Tony said.

“Tony, how the heck are you,” the toothless man replied.

“Going fishing?” Tony asked

“You bet. Bluegills and Crappies,” he said. ‘What about you?”

“What do you mean?

“You guys going fishing?”

“No, no, we were just having a little get together, celebrating us graduating high school and all.”

“You decided to get together at 5:30 in the morning?”

“Um, no, we were just finishing.  We started last night.”

Mr. Weatherwax shook his head. “Well, that’s you damn goofy kids these days.  Never did make a lot of sense.” With that, old Mr. Weatherwax and his silent partner finished putting their boat in the water and got in, Mr. Weatherwax in the back. He started the little ten horsepower Evinrude.  It cried a high pitched whine and Mr. Weatherwax, his hand on the motor’s rudder, steered the boat to the other side of the lake.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“That was old man Weatherwax.  Owns a farm out by us.  Gotta be about eighty years old now, still works the fields. He just can’t understand why some guys would stay out all night and waste the daylight.”

The sun was all the way up now, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  It was going to be a perfect day, and as close as we were to the summer solstice, it’d last about seventeen hours, the last glow of daylight ending around ten thirty.

Jimmy drove us all home, waking us up one by one as he got to our respective homes.  I was the last to get dropped off, and as I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes, I thought about Mr. Weatherwax and the sin of wasting daylight, and with the sun’s warm glow on my face, I knew what he meant.  But I also knew what Mr. Weatherwax either never knew or had forgotten, and that is how wonderful the night and its chilled and hidden treasures can be.

Sanctuary


Ben Williams found himself in the chilly darkness of an unfamiliar city, off of the main drag, the street dimly lit and the buildings mostly darkened warehouses with empty loading docks dotted with fresh puddles. The night air was heavy. He could smell the salty odor of decay and dampness, like it had just finished raining, but that had happened before, before he found himself in the strange city. In the distance he heard a siren ringing, and he knew with an unmistakable certainty that he was being pursued, that he was in danger, but he had no idea why, or who would be after him, or where he was or how he had ended up there.

He thought he heard the sound of footsteps on the pavement behind him, getting closer.  He found the unmarked door to a darkened building and tried opening it; to his surprise it was unlocked.  He stepped inside to an empty theatre.  It was dark except for the yellow floor lights that lit the aisles that sloped down to the stage. The stage was dark and empty, as were all the seats. It struck him that this was the perfect place to get off the street for a while, to get his bearings.  He sat down in a seat in the back row, furthest from the stage, closest to the door he came in through.

He sat there, thinking hard, trying to find clues that would help him determine where he was, how he got there, and who was pursuing him, but nothing came to mind.  At least it was warm in the theatre.  He was wearing a t-shirt that was inadequate outside in the cool night air.

Ten minutes passed and nothing came to him; at the same time, nobody else entered the theatre.  I must have thrown them off track, he thought, I’m safe in here.  Then a single spot light beamed out of the dark and lit a small circle on the stage. An elderly man, wearing an expensive looking suit and a black fedora, stepped out of the dark into its glow. Ben ducked down in his seat and started crawling towards the aisle, afraid that the man on stage would see him, when the man stared speaking.

“Billy didn’t know where he was,” the man said. “But inside the small auditorium he felt safe. Outside the police were looking for him. They’d found the woman’s body, in an alleyway, carved up and bloodied to the point of being unidentifiable.”

Then the entire stage lit up and the man was gone.  It was empty, there was no set, no props, just two empty kitchen chairs on the far right edge of the stage. A man and a woman entered from the left side of the stage, the man about thirty, thin and muscular, wearing a shirt and tie and dress slacks.  The woman was beautiful, with feathered red hair and piercing blue eyes, wearing a sleeveless blue sweater and tight pants that hugged her hourglass figure.

“Thank God that’s over,” the man said.

“It wasn’t so bad,” the woman said. “I actually had fun.”

“Sure, you did. Flirting with the entire faculty.”

“I wasn’t flirting,” she replied, and Ben realized that he was watching the performance of a play.  He was certain the actors couldn’t see him, crouched down low in his seat in the back row.  If they couldn’t see him, then they were playing to what they had to think was an empty theatre.

“You’re just too hung up to have a little fun, to have a good time,” she said. “It was nice getting out of the house for a change.”

Then the man had a huge knife, a machete, in his hands. He raised it high. The woman screamed, and the man brought it down on her shoulder, gashing it deep, blood flowing bright and red from the wound.  The man took the knife and slit the woman’s throat, ripping apart her jugular vein, blood erupting from her neck and spraying all over the stage, all over the man.  She collapsed in a lifeless heap on the floor, but the man didn’t stop, he continued swinging the machete, cutting her up until she was unrecognizable. The lights went down. The amount of blood on the stage was staggering.

And it was all real.  He’d just witnessed, crouched down low in between the last two rows of seats in the auditorium, a brutal murder.

Then the spotlight came on again, and the elderly man in the fedora returned.  He said, “Billy’s really done it now, hasn’t he? Now, let’s enjoy the comedy of Assault and Battery.”

The sound of canned applause echoed through the auditorium as two men, in old gray vaudeville suits and bow ties, entered from stage right and took their places behind two microphone stands.  The first one said, “Hello, I’m Assault.”

“And I’m Battery,” the second man said. The man claiming to be Battery was the same actor who’d murdered the woman. A pool of her blood was visible on the stage behind the pair.

“Say, Battery,” Assault smiled. He was wearing a black top hat that made Ben think of Fred Astaire.

“Yes, Assault?” Battery replied.

“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”

“That was no lady,” Battery answered, smiling broadly. “That was my no good slut of a wife.”  Canned laughter played through the theatre’s speakers.

“Women,” Assault began. “You can’t live with ‘em …”

“…so you might as well kill ‘em,” Battery inserted with perfect timing. The laugh track played again.

Suddenly Ben felt the presence of someone, some thing, in the seat next to him.  He looked and in the dim light from the stage he could see a man sitting next to him, not moving, stiller than still. He remembered the tiny flashlight he had on the key chain in his pocket, he took it out and shined it in the face of the man next to him. It was the face of a corpse, white and colorless, and he could tell that the theatre, which had been empty just a moment before, was now filled, with every seat except his occupied by a silent and unmoving corpse. They didn’t move as Assault and Battery droned on, the rhythm of their act punctuated by the occasional playing of the laugh track.

Ben ran to the aisle and turned toward the exit when he heard the voice of the old man in the fedora, from the stage, say, “Don’t forget, Billy, the police are outside. It’s not safe for you out there. They’ve found the body and they know you did it.”

“I’m not Billy,” Ben said, turning to face the old man.  He was standing on the stage again, alone in the spotlight.  Assault and Battery were nowhere to be seen.

“Sure you’re not,” the old man smiled.

“And I didn’t kill anybody.”

Then the overhead lights came on, lighting up the entire theatre, momentarily blinding Ben. When his vision recovered he could see the empty stage and the empty seats, and he saw the first police officer enter, his gun drawn and pointed at Ben.

“Freeze,” the office said.

Ben knew that running would be pointless, so he put his arms in the air, and in his mind he saw, he remembered, her in the alleyway in the rain, red and crumpled beneath him, the knife cold and wet in his hand.

Panther Sighting


(A short draft of fiction inspired by 1) the true story of a cougar that had wandered all the way from South Dakota through Wisconsin only to be shot by police in Chicago and 2) the song “Panther in Michigan” by Michael Smith)

Looking down at the pile of feathers next to his chicken coop, Ben’s first thought was coyotes again. Coyotes are very common around here; if you listen, late at night, you can often hear them, yipping and yapping at the moon or in response to some distant police or fire siren.  They live in the remaining farm fields and little patches of woods that carve up the urban sprawl, and it isn’t uncommon for people who raise chickens to wake up to find a trail of feathers and hair (you’d be surprised how many suburbanites raise live chickens) from an undetected nocturnal raid. Some people who have small dogs are nervous about coyote attacks, but I’m not familiar with any documented instance of somebody around here losing a dog to a coyote. They primarily feed on small rodents, field mice and moles and shrews, and cottontail rabbits.

So when the young couple across the street woke up that January morning to find a pile of feathers outside of their coop, they presumed the culprit to be a coyote.  Or foxes.  We’ve had a family of red foxes denning in the neighborhood for the past couple of years.  One year they seemed to be living in the culvert under the driveway of the house three doors to the north of us.

Then Ben saw the tracks of a large cat in the mud.

For the past three months or so, we’d been hearing the stories about locals seeing a cougar in the farmlands around the Illinois border, to the west and south of here, about twenty or thirty miles away.  Then one late afternoon in December it made the local Chicago television news, how drivers on the Illinois toll way saw a cougar chasing a deer in a forest preserve field.

Ben seeing the tracks meant the cougar had been just across the street from me.  I walked the two and a half acres of my property, looking for sign in my back and side yards. Just to the south of my barn, in the patches of un-melted snow, I saw the unmistakable tracks of a large cat.  There were small traces of blood on the tracks, and I followed them, stopping when they led into the barn, through the open door that years ago horses were let out of their stalls through.  The stalls, three of them, were still there, but empty for the past five years, ever since we sold Bessie, my wife’s quarter horse mare.  There were still about a dozen old bales of hay stacked in the spare stall. I looked at the blood speckled tracks of the large cat leading into the barn and didn’t see any leading out, and I thought, what if it’s still in there, what if it’s wounded and angry.

I backed away from the barn and crossed the side yard and went inside and called the local DNR agent, a big guy named Andy who was just out of college.  It was dark by the time he made it out. He was carrying a service revolver and a big flashlight as I took him to the tracks.  “Well, you got a cougar, all right,” Andy said, his flashlight illuminating the tracks.  We followed them into the barn.  He asked if there were any lights, and I explained that the switch was on the other side, the front, of the barn. I walked across the darkened barn, my heart pounding, waiting for a mountain lion to leap out of the darkness at me, until I finally reached the front of the barn and the light switch. I turned it on and everything lit up.

Andy was still inspecting the area, having followed the tracks into the spare stall. He looked at the stack of old bales of hay and said, “Looks like he used this for his daybed. You can see here on top of the hay where it’s flattened out a little bit. And there’s traces of blood up here – see?”  He showed me where the blood was and where the hay was matted down.

“What about the blood?

“My guess is it’s from a superficial wound, maybe he stepped on a nail or something. Anyways, I’ll take a sample back with me and see if they can do DNA testing.  Plus there has to be some scat somewhere around here.”

“Is this the same cougar that’s been on the news?”

“Almost undoubtedly, yes.”

“Will he come back to my barn?”

“That’s hard to say.  He might show up again, but for some reason we haven’t figured out yet, this guy’s on the move. He doesn’t stay in one place very long. We have reason to believe he’s come all the way from South Dakota.  But he did bed down in here yesterday, after killing your neighbor’s chicken. If there is easy food available around here, he might use your barn as home base for up to a week or so.  But my guess is he’s already gone.”

Andy collected a sample of blood and some fine hairs he found in the hay. He asked me if he could mount a trail camera in my barn, saying that he didn’t expect the cat to return but just in case. I said sure, and he promised he’d be out every day to check on whether it picked up anything or not.

I went to bed that night thinking about the cougar in my barn. Thank God my kids were grown and out of the house. Thirty years of being a parent conditions you to think about your kids when something like this happens.

I fell asleep and dreamed about the cougar, about me stepping into the barn in the middle of the day and it leaping off of the hay onto me, its claws ripping into my coat, its teeth penetrating my neck. I woke up in a cold sweat and went to the window.  There was a full moon that lit up the night, my yard was a series of white patches of snow and hard gray turf, and from my second story view I looked down on it, on the shadows cast by the trees, and I looked for the cougar. I imagined what it’d look like, its shoulder muscles rippling and flexing as it walked that slow cat walk, its eyes glowing green in the dark.

In the upcoming weeks and months, there was no word about any other sightings until mid-April, when it was seen carrying away a small dog in its mouth in Lake Bluff, Illinois, about twenty five miles south of me.  I never saw any more sign of the big cat, and after a couple of weeks, Andy came by and removed the trail camera from my barn.

Then in May came the news accounts about the Chicago policeman who shot a cougar that was trapped in an alley in the middle of the day.  Andy called me the next day to tell me that DNA testing confirmed that it was the same animal that had spent a day in my barn, and that it had, incredibly, come all the way from the badlands of South Dakota to end up shot to death by a police officer in a Chicago alley.

Three years later, and I’m still reluctant to enter the old horse barn. I still see, in its darkened corners, the glowing green eyes of a monster that could rip me to shreds, the same eyes that visit me from time to time in nightmares.

My wife says we should tear the barn down if we’re not going to use if for anything, but for some reason I silently resist.

Sometimes, late at night, I get up and I look out my bedroom window, and I swear I can see the black shadow of a large cat, stealthily stalking its unsuspecting prey.

Main Street


(a very rough draft of a short piece of fiction – needs a lot of work)

I’d see him from time to time, his black hair thick and matted, his beard a gnarled hornet’s nest. He looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. He wore a quilted acrylic vest over a faded flannel shirt, even on the warmest days of August.  He wasn’t small, standing about six foot, with a stomach that protruded beyond his belt.  He would shuffle down the sidewalks, muttering to himself.  Stepping off of or up onto the curb while crossing the street was always a challenge.  He’d get to the end of the sidewalk and stand motionless before lifting a leg and raising a foot to knee level, then take an exaggerated step down onto the street, often times stumbling onto the pavement.  I’d never seen him fall, but his worn and weathered face usually had a scar or contusion on his nose or beneath one of his eyes.

He’d shuffle up and down the Main Street sidewalks on the north side of the street from their beginning at the stop sign at Highway 67 to the west to the A & W that marked the end of the business district to the east. He walked so slowly that it would take him a couple of hours to complete the mile long trek.  He’d sit in the inside dining area of the restaurant for a couple of hours, then he’d leave, cross the street, and walk the mile back to Highway 67, walking west this time, on the south side of Main Street, the whole time mumbling an incomprehensible murmur.

I asked my co-workers at the window factory about the man, and they’d all seen him, but no one knew who he was.  He just appeared in town sometime between June and July, about a month before I moved in to the Mayflower Hotel.  Someone had given him the name “Mister Stinky,” and that seemed to stick. I’d describe him to people and they’d scratch their heads, but when I said “Mister Stinky” everyone knew who I was talking about.

August turned to September and I started dating Amy, the girl who worked in the office. She had dishwater blonde hair and big breasts. She worked days and I worked nights, second shift, so the only real time we had together was on the weekend, Saturday nights.  We spent most of them in Gene’s Place, a neighborhood bar near the factory where a lot of the workers hung out, or The Uptown, the new place on the east side of town that had a dance floor and catered to the eighteen to twenty one year olds.  They had big speakers and an impressive sound system and a DJ who would play the top forty hits of the day, everything from the Bee Gees and Donna Summer to The Cars and The Knack. It was 1978, the time in Wisconsin of the eighteen year old drinking age. I was nineteen and new to town, Amy was twenty and had lived in Neil all her life. She still lived at home and the manager of the Mayflower, Mr. Williams, didn’t allow unmarried tenants to bring girls in, so our intimate time was spent parked in my 1976 Chevy Nova outside the town limits in the dark of County Highway T.

Meanwhile, as far as I could tell, Mister Stinky was gone, just as mysteriously as he’d appeared.  No one knew exactly when he left.  The day came when everyone realized they hadn’t seen him for a while.  I think I saw him once in October, I seem to remember the trees having changed, but it’s fuzzy.

Amy and I started growing apart. Turns out we didn’t have that much in common, and it became apparent that our episodes out on Highway T didn’t have the same impact on her that they had on me. The week of Thanksgiving came and I spent it with my dad at our cabin deer hunting.

She broke up with me on the Monday after Thanksgiving, over the phone, which was ironic, as my apartment in the Mayflower didn’t have a phone.  It started during the day, when I tried to call her at work from the payphone on Main Street.  She said we had to talk, and asked me to call her at home that night from the factory when I was on break.  I did, and she told me it was over, that she wasn’t happy anymore, and that she wanted to date other people.

It was cold that night, around fifteen degrees when my shift was over and I walked out into the parking lot. I was tired and pissed off and feeling sorry for myself, and things only got worse when I tried to start my car and got the clicking sound of a dead battery.  I finally gave up and decided I’d take the thirty minute walk home to the Mayflower, thinking that the cold fresh air would clear the debris Amy and my car had clouded my head with.  It was already 12:45. I turned the collar of my army fatigue coat up and headed up hill on Mill Road into town.

The air was cold and heavy with unfallen snow, but it felt clean and pure. I turned onto Badger Avenue. All of the houses were dark. The sound of my feet on the sidewalks echoed between the gusts of wind from the north.  I was thinking about Amy, about the shape of her breasts and the cool smoothness of her skin, and how that was over, how my fingers would never trace the curve of her back again. We weren’t in love, even in the cold midnight darkness I knew that, but I loved the feel of her body, the scent of her neck.  I’d never experienced such heightened physicality before Amy, and now I couldn’t help but wonder if I ever would again. As I approached the A & W, it started to softly snow.  I turned onto the beginning of Main Street, the sidewalk on the north side. From the A & W, looking out to the west, in the streetlights’ soft glow, I could see all of Main Street stretched out before me.  It was empty, the wind blowing snow dust around on the sidewalks.

I made my way past the auto parts store and the pharmacy, the empty storefronts shielding me from the cold north wind. The clock on the bank said it was 1:15. I was a block away from the Mayflower and home. I was tired and cold and all alone on the sidewalk. I thrust my hands deeper into my coat pocket and studied the accumulating snow on the sidewalk, when to my right, my eyes caught the sight of a shapeless dark mass on the ground in the doorway to Richardson’s Appliances.  I stopped and realized it was a person, a human being, curled up in a ball, his legs and shoes sticking out from under the wool coat he’d tried to cover up with.  I could make out enough of his face underneath the stocking cap to see Mister Stinky, sound asleep in the cold. Curled up like he was in the cold doorway he looked small and slight.  I didn’t know what to do, my first thought was to wake him, but it occurred to me that might be dangerous, there’s no telling how he’d react.

I decided to go back to my apartment and get some warm things.  I ran the rest of the way to the Mayflower and climbed the stairs up to my apartment.  I took the extra blanket off of my bed and my blaze orange deer hunting coat and bundled them up in my arms and ran back down the stairs and out the door, under the red neon of the sign that said “Mayflower Hotel.”

Main Street was still and empty and silent, the snow coming down harder now. I thought I’d let him sleep, and lay the blanket and my hunting coat across him, and then I’d call the police from the pay phone, and he’d be warm while we waited for them.

I got to Richardson’s Appliances, and the doorway was empty. It’d been no more than five minutes since I’d left Mister Stinky there.  I must have woke him, I thought.  I looked up and down Main Street but there was nothing. The snow was coming down harder and coating the sidewalks.  I looked down and I could see my footprints and it occurred to me that wherever Mister Stinky went, in that slow and shuffling walk of his, he’d leave tracks, too.  But the only tracks I saw were my own.

I ran up and down Main Street, looking into every doorway of every locked and darkened storefront, cradling the blanket and hunting coat in my arms, but I never found a track, not a single footprint.  I looked in every alley, every nook and cranny. I stayed out for what felt like another hour, the snow coming down harder, but I never found a trace of him.  Finally, with the bank clock reading 2:00 and the blanket and coat in my arms wet and covered with a fresh layer of snow, I gave up.

I went home and crawled into bed, exhausted and confused, thinking about Mister Stinky, wondering what had happened to him. Did I really see him? I’d decided not to call the cops, knowing that the town’s two officers were off duty at that time of night, and that without any evidence of Mister Stinky it wasn’t worth rousing one of them out of a warm bed to look for an apparition. But as I laid there in the darkness of my apartment, I wondered if I’d done the right thing, if I should have called them. If I really did see Mister Stinky, he was still out there, and it was still snowing and cold.

The next thing I knew it was light out. I looked out my third floor window, and the town had awakened. It was still snowing. People were digging out, clearing driveways and scraping car windows, and out over the river cars were crossing the bridge. The day had begun, and the streets that had been so silent and empty a few hours ago were bustling with life, and I knew that out there, in the middle of it, there was my parked and dead car, and Amy, and Mister Stinky.

I never saw Mister Stinky again, and as far as I’m aware, neither did anyone else.  But I swear in that lonely night he was there, huddled in the doorway of Richardson’s Appliances, and then he was gone. I looked for him in that cold and snowy night, and I’ve looked for him in every darkened doorway in the almost forty years since.

Someday I’ll find him.

The Silence


(I shared this short story at the Kenosha Writers’ Guild meeting last night.  Still very much a work in progress, I want to thank everybody who provided their input)

Ever since the tornado hit and leveled most of Main Street in June of 1963, the Mayflower Hotel, about a block away and untouched by the storm’s path of destruction, has been the tallest building in the small town of Neil, Wisconsin. Standing high on the banks of the Ojibway River at the corner of Mayflower Avenue and Columbus Street, it’s been an imposing sight since its construction in 1884. The windows in the fourth floor dormers protrude from the hotel like gun turrets in a fortress, guarding the residents from phantom marauding enemy boats approaching up river from the east.  In the morning, the warmth of the sun lifts fog off of the cold river that rises and floats on the morning air until it spills over the banks and encircles the bottom of the hotel, making the top three floors appear to float like a ghost on a bed of mist.

Most mornings, the sun over the river is bright, and if you look up from the street to the fourth floor windows, all you can see is its reflection in the glass.  About thirty years ago, though, by the late afternoon, after the sun vacated the east, particularly on gray and dimly lit days, if you looked up you’d see the outline of her, frail and small, sitting in the third window from the left, watching the cars crossing the bridge or the fishing boats on the river, her hair as white as the shawl she wore around her shoulders.

In October of 1987, it’d already been eleven years since Mr. and Mrs. Boswell moved into Apartment 2E, the small three-room on the east side of the fourth floor.  Precious little was known about them.  They came from somewhere down state, presumably Milwaukee, and they were already in their mid seventies when they arrived. They were both deaf mutes.   They rarely left their apartment, having their groceries delivered in via a service offered by the local IGA.  The only mail that the hotel manager, Mr. Williams, received for them and placed in their box behind the front counter was their monthly social security checks and the occasional anonymous sales flyer.  They didn’t have children, and no one knew of any family they might have had. The deliveries from the current IGA delivery boy were their only contact with anyone from the outside world.  About one morning every other week or so, Mr. Williams would find a filled out form, with a “12” written neatly in the column besides “eggs” or “1/2 gal.” written next to “milk.” The form was always left on the front desk sometime over night for Mr. Williams to find first thing in the morning.

Nobody remembered the last time a human voice was heard from the Boswells’ apartment. They didn’t own a television or a radio, and they never joined the other tenants who’d sit out on the rocking chairs on the porch on warm summer evenings, or gather to watch television together in the lounge off of the lobby once the days grew shorter and the nights cooler.  They were forgotten by many of the tenants, and completely unknown of by others, who’d never seen them or even knew about their existence until the day they’d innocuously glance up to the fourth floor window on the way in and see the unmoving sight of Mrs. Boswell staring out her window.  Mr. Williams had to explain to more than one tenant that it wasn’t a ghost that they’d seen, it was in fact Mrs. Boswell, while other tenants weren’t so sure, while still others shrugged their shoulders and said, what’s the difference, they may as well be ghosts, given that they spent all their time in the shadowy silence of their little three room apartment.

They pre-dated even Mr. Williams, having arrived and taken up residence in Apartment 2E when the hotel was still under the management of his predecessor, Mr. Johnson.  All Mr. Johnson, in that usual cryptic style of his, ever told Mr. Williams about the Boswells was that they weren’t any trouble.  In his early days as manager, Mr. Williams always tried to engage Mr. Boswell in conversation whenever he stopped by the front desk to pay their rent or pick up his mail, but Mr. Boswell would just smile pleasantly and shake his head that he couldn’t understand Mr. Williams, and he’d politely wave and venture back up the stairs. Mr. Boswell was thin and short, stooped, always well dressed with clean and unwrinkled clothes.  He was always clean shaven and his white hair was always neatly trimmed.  He seemed nice enough, Mr. Williams thought. Dignified.

The passing of time, after experiencing the usual problems dealing with the younger tenants that comprised the bulk of the Mayflower’s clientele, made Mr. Williams appreciate Mr. Johnson’s simple and succinct summary of the Boswells.  Compared to the endless complaints about loud music and problems with drug and alcohol abuse and Mr. Williams’ personal crusade to rid the Mayflower of the presence of the aging whores and their johns that Mr. Johnson had profited from, he grew to appreciate the Boswell’s silent existence for what Mr. Johnson said it was: No trouble.

One Tuesday night, not too long after he and his wife, Evelyn, had taken up residence in the manager’s apartment on the first floor, Mr. Williams woke from another occurrence of what had become a recurring nightmare at two in the morning.  In his dream he was young, in the war again, and it was spring.  He was standing by himself in an abandoned railroad yard and he could hear the muffled sound of something moving, something alive, from behind the locked door of a lone railroad boxcar. He woke to a faint thumping sound coming from the basement.  He put his robe on and stealthily crept down the stairs.  The sounds were coming from the coin operated washers and dryers the hotel had installed for the tenants.  He paused at the open doorway of the laundry room and looked in and there, still and silent, sat Mr. Boswell, reading an issue of Time Magazine as the washer and dryer hummed and thumped away.  There was nothing wrong with doing laundry at 2:00 A.M. if one so chose, there were no hours posted.  Mr. Williams just found it odd that Mr. Boswell, with all the time in the world available to do his laundry, would choose Tuesday at two in the morning.  He stood at the doorway for a moment and quickly studied Mr. Boswell, who was as always neatly dressed and the picture of dignity as he sat there, reading his magazine. By this time, Mr. Williams already knew that any attempt to communicate with him would be pointless, so he turned and went back to his apartment, leaving Mr. Boswell alone with the sounds of the washer and dryer that he couldn’t hear.

It’d been six years, 1981, since the last time Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment. The worn and fading orange carpet that covered the entire fourth floor was being replaced.  Mr. Williams sent the fourth floor residents a note detailing the schedule for the change out, and that each tenant would have to be out of their apartment for about a three hour period while the old carpeting would be pulled up and the new carpeting installed.  For the Boswells, Mr. Williams was sensitive to their handicap and how difficult being displaced for even three hours would be to them, so he wrote them a personalized note inviting them to lunch with him and his wife the day of the change out.

Mr. Williams knocked on their door at 11:30, the time he specified in the note. The door opened and Mr. Boswell was standing there, his jacket already on.  It was unzipped enough for Mr. Williams to see that underneath he was wearing a white dress shirt and a necktie.  He had on neatly pressed slacks.  Mrs. Boswell was seated at the kitchen table.  She was wearing a blue dress dotted with a pattern of small white flowers under a black sweater. Her white hair was tied up in a bun.  Mr. Boswell motioned for Mr. Williams to come in.  Mr. Williams stepped in and without thinking said, “Good  morning.”  When neither one answered he remembered that they were both deaf, and felt foolish for having spoken.  He stood in the tiny apartment’s doorway and quickly took inventory.  It was immaculate, not a trace of dirt or even dust.  To his left the bedroom door was open.  The bed was neatly made, on top of the dresser sat framed and fading black and white photographs of them on their wedding day, individual head shots, Mr. Boswell unwrinkled in his tuxedo with slick, dark hair parted down the middle and a confident smile, and Mrs. Boswell in her wedding gown, young and pretty with her dark hair curled under a white lace veil. There was a larger photograph of the two of them together holding the wedding bouquet, she leaning her head on his shoulder, both smiling. Mr. Williams looked for clues in the photos that would tell him when they were taken. They both looked so young, in their mid twenties, which he guessed would have been about fifty five years earlier. Doing he math, subtracting fifty five from 1981, he guessed their wedding to have occurred sometime around 1925. He wondered, were they both already deaf and mute at that time? Or did something happen to cause one or both of them to lose their ability to speak and hear?  He couldn’t imagine what type of calamity could have impacted them both in the same way, and he figured that the odds were they’d always been deaf mutes, and had lived all those years together in silence.

Mr. Boswell helped his wife to her feet and she grabbed her purse from the kitchen table.  They were ready, they both smiled at Mr. Williams, and Mr. Boswell held the apartment door open as his wife and Mr. Williams exited. He shut the door behind them and joined them at the top of the stairs

They picked up Mrs.. Williams at the bottom of the stairs and exited the hotel, getting in Mr. Williams’ enormous maroon Buck, the Boswells in the back and the Williams up front. He drove the five blocks across town to Gustafson’s, an old-style northern Wisconsin supper club that on Friday nights was the most popular place in the area for all you can eat fish fry.  They served good lunches, too, from a variety of burgers, melts and club sandwiches to fresh salads and homemade casserole dishes.  They sat in a big three sided booth in the back, Mr. and Mrs. Boswell in the center, Mr. and Mrs. Williams on the outside, one on either side of the Boswells.

Mrs. Williams had taken a basic sign language course at the local community college and tried signing some of the simplest and most basic conversation starters, but to no use.  Mrs. Boswell just sat there with a confused frown, while Mr. Boswell smiled politely, waved his hands and shrugged his shoulders, indicating that they didn’t understand. Mrs. Williams, with a hand over her mouth, muttered softly to Mr. Williams, “They don’t know any sign language at all.”

The four studied their menus in silence, and when the waitress came to take their order, when it was Mr. Boswell’s turn, he pointed to the turkey club sandwich and pointed to Mrs. Boswell, then pointed to a tuna melt for himself. It took a while, the waitress working with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, to figure out if the Boswells wanted fries or chips and what beverages they wanted, but eventually they got through it, and the waitress left.  Then the silence fell, heavy and dark. Finally, Mr. Williams reached in his back pocket and pulled out a small notebook.  He pulled a pen out of the breast pocket of his olive green work shirt, and started writing.  He scribbled, looks like rain this afternoon, doesn’t it?  He slid the notebook and pen to Mr. Boswell, who read it and nodded enthusiastically in response. Mr. Boswell wrote yes, those clouds are quite dark, aren’t they, and pushed the notebook back to Mr. Williams, who nodded yes in response.  Then Mrs. Williams took the pad and pen and wrote, “Mrs. Boswell, I just love your dress,” and slid the notebook to Mrs. Boswell.  She read it and blushed visibly, writing “Thank you,” and returning the notepad to Mrs. Williams.

They ate their lunch, finishing just as the restaurant started filling up with the noon lunch crowd.  As more people came in, Mr. Williams could sense traces of anxiety appear on both of the Boswells’ faces, especially Mrs. Boswell, and he noticed that Mrs. Boswell slid closer to Mr. Boswell.  He noted how they communicated, how they’d learned to read what the other was saying with their eyes, hers dark and deep, his blue and watery.

He also observed that Mrs. Boswell seemed even more uncomfortable than Mr. Boswell, and that she relied upon him to shelter her from the imposing outside world they found themselves in. Mr. Boswell was protective of his wife, helping her off and later on with her coat, making sure she understood the scribbled lines on the notebook Mr. and Mrs. Williams used to communicate with them, and wrapping his arm around her shoulder as they left, navigating the tables and the chairs and the people sitting in them, and helping her into the back seat of the Buick for the ride back to the hotel.

It was only one o’clock when they returned to the Mayflower. The carpet installers still had another hour and a half until they were finished with the Boswells’ apartment, so Mr. Williams invited them into his apartment behind the front desk for coffee,.  The Boswells nervously accepted, and the four of them sat in the living room, sipping from cups of coffee, Mr. Boswell looking surreptitiously at his watch. They made more small “talk,” making further use of the notebook, but it was slow and painful, and never got past the most innocent and superficial of topics. Mr. Williams noticed again the way they’d look at each other and he became convinced they were communicating, somehow, imperceptible to anyone else, but it was there, in their eyes, on their faces.  If Mr. Williams had hoped the event would remove the aura of mystery that always surrounded the Boswells, he had to be deeply disappointed. When it was over, when the new carpet .was installed and the Boswells were returned to their apartment, the only thing that Mr. Williams knew about them that he didn’t before was that they loved each other with a depth that he previously hadn’t appreciated.

The final time that Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment was on a Saturday morning in early October of 1987. A front moved in from the north, dropping the temperature nearly twenty degrees to the mid thirties within a fifteen minute span, causing the Hotel’s furnace to kick on for the first time in months, pushing warm air thru the vents.  Mr. Williams was at the front desk when Jim Hayward, the resident in the fourth floor Apartment 1E, next to the Boswells, came down the stairs.

“There’s a bad smell coming from the Boswell’a apartment,” he said.  Mr. Williams grabbed his passkey and ran upstairs with Jim. “It started when the furnace kicked on,” he added.  As they approached the top of the stairs, Mr. Williams instantly recognized the strong and pungent odor. It’d been more than forty years since he and the rest of the 45th Infantry Division of the Seventh Army approached the abandoned railroad cars on the outskirts of the town of Dachau, but the acrid odor that permeated the fourth floor air brought it all back as if it’d been yesterday, and he was filled with an overwhelming dread of what he knew waited behind the Boswell’s door.

He buried his nose in his shirt. Jim Hayward did the same. He inserted the passkey and opened the door.  The stench was unbearable as he stood in the dim light of the Boswell’s apartment.  Looking across the kitchen, he could see Mrs. Boswell, seated on her chair at the dormer window, with her back to him, looking out at the river, her white shawl wrapped around her shoulders and her white hair neatly brushed and flowing down to her upper back. As Mr. Williams approached her, the smell grew stronger, and he knew what he’d find, but that didn’t prepare him for the rotting flesh, the bulging eyes, and the death mask grin.

Turning back to the door, he saw Jim Hayward, still standing in the doorway, the color drained from his face, as he started retching.  He ran out of the apartment to vomit somewhere safe.  Mr. Williams turned and stood at the closed door to the bedroom, and he knew that Mr. Boswell was in there.  He opened the door and scanned the room before entering. He didn’t see anything amiss.  The bed was neatly made.  He entered, and looked again at the wedding pictures on top of the dresser at the foot of the bed, taking the photo of Mrs. Boswell in his hand.  He heard the faint sound of something moving, and his eyes caught a slight flash of motion, a shadow, on the floor on the other side of the bed, and he looked, and there laying on the floor was Mr. Boswell, crumpled and naked, his ribs and hips sticking sharply out of gray flesh, his eyes vacant but alive in boney eye sockets.  He was still alive, barely, waiting for death, in the relentless silence of Apartment 2E on the fourth floor of the Mayflower Hotel.