Drama, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014 Cast of Characters ERIC DELUCA, high school teacher by profession, is in his mid-to-late twenties. Ideally, he should be on the lanky side; his pale skin contrasts with his dark hair. His clothes are neat but casual, perhaps a button-down, […]
Month: September 2014
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014 So early in a warm motel hallway. The drone of hidden coffee machines coming to life. Waffle fumes steaming up the elevator. A thin vapor of existence rising here: the third floor. And the cleaning cart, with its donkey load […]
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Once again Fritz had been arrested, this time at Pinsplitters, the bowling alley.
He had given June, his neighbor at the Linger Longer Over 55 Mobile Home Park and RV Storage, a key to unlock his trailer in case of an emergency, and she knew where he kept the bail money—in a battered slipper at the bottom of Whitey’s cage. This was a giant floor-to-ceiling cage housing a beautiful, mean, loud cockatoo. June pulled on her garden gloves, opened the door, and fought Whitey off to dig through the droppings and husks of bird seed and peanut shells. The bird clawed and shrieked and bit down on Maeve’s shoulder, and she shrieked and clawed the bird off. She slammed the door of the cage, but not before she grasped the filthy slipper.
This had all begun even before Fritz’s wife died a few years ago. An extremely quiet woman, Allie’d had a stroke, and then she was unable to speak at all. Fritz cared for her with love, but everyone knew his house was relentlessly silent, even more than it had been over the course of his long marriage.
Then, one Sunday morning Fritz had stood outside of Five Holy Wounds Roman Catholic Church with an old clipboard and a pencil after 12 o’clock Mass. As the parishioners left the church, they shook Father Raus’s hand. Fritz met them in the parking lot. He told them he’d been hired by a research company to take a survey about chicken noodle soup. After a few Sundays, however, Father Raus told him gently he would have to move on, that he made some of the members of Five Holy Wounds uneasy. Confused, they thought he was trying to sell soup, and they had complained to Father Raus that it seemed an inappropriate use of church grounds.
Fritz took his clipboard to the Palmetto Mall. There he could question folks all day. He even talked to the children, and one of the things Fritz discovered is that children love to talk about chicken noodle soup.
For a while, he was fine. Every morning he woke up and put on his funeral suit, picked up his clipboard and went to the mall. Ultimately, though, a mother complained to a security guard that a suspicious old man was asking children personal information. The security guard ran over to him and actually blew his whistle, which hardly ever happens. He told Fritz sternly he would have to leave. Fritz nodded politely and left, but he returned a couple of days later wearing his fishing hat as a disguise. He had a different clipboard—clear blue plastic—and he asked shoppers to describe their favorite kind of pen.
Just as children love talking about chicken noodle soup, a surprising number of adults love talking about pens—brands and types and colors—they rambled on deliciously. He discovered that many adults are nostalgic about fountain pens. They like the feel of a fat writing instrument with a bit of heft to it, and they loved blotting the ink dry. So many stories! One woman said that it was an epiphany when she had to buy blue-black ink for Sister Therese’s sixth grade class, that a thing could be both blue and black. It was the discovery of ambiguity—that a thing could be both this and that at the same time. She said she felt Shaeffer’s Blue-Black ink opened the doors of reality for her. As she spoke, her grandson, about eleven, shouted, “Rollerball! Rollerball!” The security guard who had asked Fritz to leave before was alarmed by the disturbance. This time he called the police.
One of the young patrolmen called to the scene, Sam Zewinski, watched a great deal of TV. He was certain he had a predator. Clearly, this was the behavior of a predator. What kind of predator, he wasn’t sure, but on the basis of this, Officer Zewinski and his partner brought Fritz into the station and asked him many questions. When they discovered there was no survey company, they became even more suspicious and ran a background check, but the background check came up clean.
Fritz tried to convince them that he was doing the survey because he was writing a book about pens. Yes, favorite pens. When Patrolman Zewinski said he found this unlikely, Fritz said, “I know, I know. I was going to write about chicken noodle soup, but I didn’t think I would have enough for a whole book. People like chicken noodle soup, but they’re much more passionate about pens. I suppose I could combine them. I mean I could do a chapter about people writing while eating chicken noodle soup but—” Zewinski wanted to do a lie detector test, but his captain rolled his eyes, so he let Fritz go with a warning to stay out of the mall.
Fritz just couldn’t stay out of the mall—any of the malls. So many people with so much to say—they just needed a prompt to get started, and then they talked happily about which was better, Office Depot or Staples, which was the worst airline, what was the best candy bar. The elderly favor Baby Ruth. Again and again, Fritz was arrested for trespassing or loitering. They tried to get him for public intoxication, but he passed the breathalyzer test, and you can’t charge someone with walking while sober.
Of course, he went other places too. Fritz liked to work outside of Red Lobster or Carrabba’s on Friday nights while people were standing around or sitting on benches waiting for a table. They didn’t have anything to do anyway, and they would talk and talk. People under forty generally prefer Twix to Snickers, he learned.
At election time, he volunteered for both political parties. That way, he could talk to people about the candidates at a wide variety of different festivals and events. The problem came when someone—Tampa is a small town, after all—realized he had been having people sign petitions for and against the same proposed and controversial law. It infuriated people. You can’t be for and against restricted lawn watering at the same time.
It wasn’t like blue-black ink.
At any rate, Zewinski was sick of him. The other officers made fun of Zewinski whenever Fritz was arrested. “Your stalker is here,” they would say. Or, “Here comes Mr. Molester with his clipboard. Are you getting the grand jury ready?”
And now it had come to this. At Fritz’s place, June opened the crusty slipper with two forks as the cockatoo shrieked and flew at the now-closed latch of the cage. Inside the slipper was a paper bag. Inside the paper bag was a plastic Ziploc, and inside that was a great deal of money. June sighed. Surely, there must be a better way for Fritz to find people to talk to.
Money in hand, June went to get Fritz out of the slammer, as she called it. In the back seat of the car, Fritz muttered his gratefulness over and over. She waved him off. “Tell me about that bird,” she demanded.
“Oh well, Whitey has been with us—or me now—since Allie’s parents died. At least, Allie’s mother. Her father tried to take care of it when he was alive, but it was too much for him, and the shrieking bothered the neighbors. So Allie said she would be Whitey’s forever-bird-parent.”
“What about her father? Didn’t the shrieking bother him?”
“He was used to it, and he was pretty deaf by then. And quiet, like Allie. He just stopped talking after a while, like Allie. That’s why the bird got louder and louder. It didn’t want to be ignored. Then the neighbors came in an angry group—a mob, I guess you could call it. And now, well—he sighed. “Anyway, I promised Allie I would take care of Whitey. I promised.”
“How old do they get to be?” said June. “What’s the expiration date?”
“Oh, they get to be forty or fifty. That’s the problem—Whitey was four when I got him.
June gasped. “First of all, Fritz,” she said, “we have to find something for you to do.”
“I’m OK,” said Fritz. “Really.”
“Of course, but we need you OK-er,” said June. “And we have to figure out something about the damned bird.” As she walked him to his front door, she handed him the bag with the remainder of the money. He opened the door, and they could hear the terrible bird piercing the silence. Fritz gave a little wave, and as she left, June said, “I left you some hamburger soup in the fridge.” He waved back and went in.
For a long time after that, there were no calls from Fritz. Some of the neighbors thought he was in jail again. There seemed to be no one home at all. His bougainvillea went wild and curls of jasmine hung down morosely waiting to be poked into the trellis. Fritz was usually good about these things. June tried to keep things tidy around his trailer, pulling weeds and tending his flowers.
“Do you suppose he went too far?” a man shouted to June from his golf cart one afternoon.
“What do you mean ‘too far’?” said June, picking up the unclaimed newspapers from Fritz’s driveway.
“Well,” said the man, unidentifiable behind his I-just-had-a-cataract-removed wraparound sunglasses. He got out of the golf cart, so it was impossible for June to avoid talking to him. He wore blue shorts and a blue polo shirt tucked in. His white belt was up around his nipples. “Well, maybe he was talking to the wrong people. Asking too many questions?”
“Oh well, I don’t know about that,” said June. “He just has his own ways—”
“Like what if he was accidentally asking someone in the Mafia questions. Like what kind of guns they liked best. That would be dangerous.”
“Well, I don’t think he would do that,” said June, irritated.
“Yeah, but if he did, you know—or if he started asking people about their, you know, personal lives.”
“Fritz would never do that. He would not ask people about their, you know, personal lives,” said June, not entirely sure that was true. The man wandered back to his golf cart and drove off, but not before he pinched June on her bottom. She jumped. “Oh honestly,” she said.
After he’d gone, June tended to the jasmine and swept the driveway. The side door slowly opened. “June,” came a gruff voice. She jumped again. “Come inside,” Fritz whispered. Whitey shrieked.
“Where have you been?” June said. “All of us are worried sick. We knocked and knocked. I was about to have the police break in.”
“Shush,” he said. “Just come in.” Whitey shrieked behind him.
Jerry Springer was on, and there was a rusty TV table next to his scruffy recliner. On the table was a mostly empty bottle of Popov vodka. “Oh, Fritz,” she said. “Popov?”
“Yes. Popov. I don’t deserve good vodka. I don’t even deserve Popov. I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. Vodka is the drink of people who have someone to talk to. It just makes me sad.” Two tears dripped slow as honey, one right off the tip of his nose. “It’s these,” he said pointing to the table and the floor. “I found these.”
“These” were what used to be called composition books. Over the years, Allie had carefully covered each one with a different print fabric. She’d glued lace or rickrack around the edges. Pastel ribbon had been glued in for bookmarks. There were droplets of dried glue all over them, as if Fritz’s tears had dropped and solidified there. “There are thirty-seven,” he said.
“Her journals?” said June. “Well, of course you’re going to be sad. How could you not be sad?”
Fritz nodded. “This,” he said waving toward the vodka, “is the first I’ve had to drink in thirteen and a half years. Even when Allie died—”
“What are you doing to yourself?” said June. She poured herself an inch of vodka and sat down on the worn ottoman.
“Thirty-seven,” said Fritz, tapping the notebook. “The first one is for the year we got engaged, and then one for every year we were married after that. It’s her whole life with me. I didn’t even know she could write after the stroke. Who knew? She—”
“There must be many happy memories there,” said June, her heart sinking again. She thought about Fritz reading Allie’s daily reminiscences—gifts, meals, sex—she really shouldn’t be thinking this way. But she was. “It must be very sweet.” Her voice trailed off.
“Not so much,” whispered Fritz.
“It’s not so sweet at all.” He wept openly as Whitey screeched and howled as the park’s lawn care crew roared by with mowers and chain saws.
“What do you mean?” Was it just too painful to look at their great love over the years? Or maybe Allie had used the flowered journals to vent about toilet seats or trash sitting in the kitchen bin or about Fritz’s passing gas, which he made little effort to hide. Most likely, it was a mixture. June remembered her own diaries over the years—love and jealousy, passion and boredom along with the daily problems of the tree that needed to come down, the cracked manifold, other people’s rude children, all written with the same absorption and silly sense of importance.
She poured herself another inch of vodka. Popov really was as terrible as she remembered, but then it was a pretty terrible afternoon. Fritz would never get over Allie. And June would never, never get over Fritz.
The pile of worn notebooks, covered with cotton fabric with designs fashionable for the year they were written, lay strewn beneath their feet, as if at some point he had flung them to the floor in what—grief, exasperation, anger? There were the perky cherries of kitchen curtains of the 1940’s, the pink and charcoal gray angles of the late fifties, the myriad vines of dusky avocados, the Mickeys and Minnies ubiquitous in Florida. There were stripes and checks and flamingoes—“Oh Fritz,” she found herself saying, “Don’t take it all so personally. Avocados don’t even grow on vines. She loved you—that’s all you need to remember. Put them away, Fritz.”
“She didn’t love me, I found out—”
“Don’t be ridiculous—”
“Actually, she didn’t like me at all. She stopped liking me July 4, l976. The fourth of July. The Bicentennial.”
“What are you—?”
“It says so in the journal over there with the cauliflowers.” June picked up the Harvest Yellow notebook, smudged with coffee stains. It felt wrong to open it, a thing so private. She’d never really liked Allie, but she had never wanted to admit it to herself. It felt wrong not to like stroke victims.
Fritz quoted with his eyes closed. “’I am done liking Fritz. He is obnoxious in his red, white and blue tie, cheering for Nixon, burning hot dogs…’”
“Maybe she was just irritated that day. Maybe there was beer involved. You can’t take that—”
Fritz picked up the notebook and began to read. “’I probably didn’t like him just as much yesterday, if ever. He’s nice enough. He showers. I just don’t like him. I’m not writing about him anymore. Because I don’t like him.’ And she didn’t. I only get mentioned twice more, once more in l997.” He picked up a diary like the others, royal blue with little spirals and stars. Where had June seen them before? Starbucks? A dress she once had? “‘July 4, l997. Stopped talking with Fritz today. Greatly relieved. I don’t like him.’ And then in 2010. ‘Still don’t like Fritz. Had a stroke. Can’t talk to anyone. Oh well.’” Fritz sniffled. “‘Oh well,’ she says. And I thought she was quiet, lost in her own thoughts until the stroke, and then she had the stroke, and I thought she couldn’t communicate at all and then she died.” He took a deep breath and a long, terrible wail quavered above Whitey’s high-pitched scream. Then there was silence.
There was more silence. There was no right thing for June to say. Should she try to convince him that his wife had been joking? Should she try to convince him he had been married to a terrible shrew and deserved better than this? Should she try to shrug it off and say, ‘Well, now, Fritz, you know sometimes people don’t like other people…’ And there were terrible questions she didn’t want to ask but really wanted to know. Had the two of them made love during those years? Was it silent? Did they play music to cover the quiet? Did he write her notes? What happened when he called on the phone, say, from work, wanting to know if he should bring home a quart of milk? And there was the huge question: Why? What had he done or failed to do?
As if he could read her mind, Fritz moaned, “What did I do?” He began to sort and stack the notebooks. “You can read about every sale at the A & P from 1971 till we moved in 1980. You can read about the death of Diana and Mother Teresa, on the same day, and about every goddamned run in her stockings, but not me. Just not me. Help me, June.”
Did this mean Fritz was free to love her now? Or did it mean that after several years, Allie had found out Fritz was not lovable, not even in any sense particularly likable? Perhaps Allie had seen his essence. Poor Fritz. What could June say to him? What could June say to herself? Who were these people, and what was she doing here, tipsy, in a room with a deafening bird, still holding the trowel of Fritz’s neglected garden? On the television, Jerry Springer grinned and the audience booed a weeping woman as her husband/boyfriend pumped the air in victory. And here Fritz was, looking to her for comfort. “Say something, June. Please.” He reached for her arm.
June picked up her empty glass, stood and walked to the door. As Fritz watched, she let herself out. She absentmindedly reached for a tendril of jasmine that had poked its head out of the trellis, then pulled her hand back, as if burned. Fritz called her again from the door. “June? June?” Behind him, she could hear the bird, furious at being ignored, screeching for attention. On her way home, she considered jasmine, and the training of jasmine. Why in the world, she thought, are we always trying to shape a thing that has a perfectly good mind of its own?
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014 Leon told Fritz about Match.com at the Labor Day picnic at the Linger Longer Over 55 Mobile Home Park and RV Storage Clubhouse and Pool. Fritz had been sitting alone at one of the picnic tables outside, with his sectioned […]
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014 That summer, Weldon Springs, Missouri, was so hot that John Barry’s three oldest children spent almost every waking hour in the trailer court swimming pool. Their northern skin baked under that hot sun, and John’s oldest daughter, Joyce, had skin […]
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Some time ago, I had my nose broken by a gang of Japanese teenagers. It was the same summer I worked as a copy editor at the English-language magazine, City Land, in Tokyo. I had been at the job a few weeks. I had, by then, traveled to the publisher’s offices in Yokohama and Sapporo, but was settling into the daily groove in Tokyo. The pay was good and the office was nestled within a lively patch of after-hours izakayas.
My wife, Megan, was pregnant that summer with our little boy. Megan could not have been cheerier about the situation, despite occasional bouts of nausea and frustrations dealing with an OB-GYN who spoke limited English. I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was twenty-eight years old and had never considered fatherhood as a reality. I had nothing but a stack of Japanese-American dictionaries, a few suitcases of clothes, and a life back in America; the notion of having to care for a precious child made my head spin and dragged me into a siege of fright and piercing self-doubt.
I was thousands of miles from my home in New York. Once, while waiting for a cab in Shibuya, I bought a vial of hashish oil from a student to temper my anxiety and ease my depression. I never opened it, and when Megan asked about it one morning in our little laundry room, I lied and told her it was a vile of old tea.
I grew increasingly disturbed by the thought of fatherhood. When the agony became too much, I worked more—long hours at City Land, overtime, double-overtime, copy editing additional translations on the side. I translated things whose context I couldn’t even comprehend: brochures for startup businesses, and mergers and acquisition excerpts. I could edit quickly, English and a little Japanese. And I felt that if that was my sole gift in life, a sharp aptitude for agglutinative languages, then some secret force would counter-balance that talent by making me a deplorable father, a type of rotten, existential equipoise.
I ate most of my meals at work—small bowls of beef and rice that I microwaved and nibbled at my cubicle while the other translators went out for Asahi and sushi. I also filled the office refrigerator with cans of iced coffee so I could spend all night at the office if I had to. In a sense, I justified, there was no need to go home.
One night, Megan confronted me. Why are you spending so much time away from me and away from our home? she asked.
I responded, I don’t like you being pregnant. I hadn’t intended to say something so menacing, but the words just surged forth. I don’t like you like this—it scares me, I said, rambling, bumbling, and Megan began to cry.
Megan and I lived in a little house on the outskirts of Fuchū, a curl west from the bustle of Tokyo, on a homey avenue within walking distance of a barber shop and a seafood cafe and a grocery store. There was another American couple living down the street who had assimilated long ago after a stint in the Peace Corps. Mostly though, it was just the two of us, Megan and I, reminding ourselves of our past lives back in New York. When we wanted nightlife, we’d take the train to Roppongi Hills and strike up conversations with backpacking expats. Megan would say that she wanted to backpack through Asia too, but I detected insincerity.
The routine of my job helped whenever a rift developed between us. At home in New York, I used to chastise my friends who worked at ad firms for their overblown sense of corporate worth and mindless devotion to their companies. But when Megan and I argued—about small things, like the best fruit for a pregnant woman (blueberries, which were hard to find in Japan), then about things like where to raise the baby—I found surprising solace in the monotony of my office. The ordered sequence of my day: train to sidewalk to desk to bar, repeat the next day.
Late at night, the only other people at the office were the janitors, who arrived at 9 p.m. to empty the cubicle trash bins and clean the restrooms. Each floor of the building had an order in the sequence of cleaning, and since the editorial side of City Land was the busiest and dirtiest department, my floor was often cleaned last. After a week of late nights, the janitors all knew my name, but simply called me gaijen.
One of the janitors was named Yushi. He was young—nineteen years old, pale-skinned with a fascination for pornography. He had a thin frame and acne-pocked cheeks. He blasted loud music on his headphones as he worked, kneeling to trash bins and nodding along to his songs. Gaijen! he’d say to me and smile. I worked diligently as he mulled around the cubicles. He liked punk rock. The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. I could hear the blare of guitars, the thump of the drums in his headphones.
When I needed a break from the fact-checking, I took long walks through the corridors and the offices of the other editors. I sat at desks, looked at little framed family photos—anything to avoid going home and dwelling on my impending parenthood, the true end to any bachelor dreams that I still cherished.
It wasn’t just my reservations about fatherhood that ate at me—it was Megan too. Her focus had changed. It felt strange to witness her donning a new motherly aura. She seemed severed from our past ambitions. I would mention our favorite restaurant in Brooklyn, or remind her of the time we won twenty-five dollars from the New York lottery, and she would laugh like I was making a joke. I didn’t know what to make of it.
Yushi and I became friends. As a result, I was less productive during my nocturnal hours at the office, but regardless, I was able to keep my parental trepidation at bay with our frequent conversations about music and CBGB and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We traded addresses and talked about going to Cigarette Man and Guitar Wolf concerts in Ginza. Yushi had an interest in aspects of punk rock that I had never given much thought to. What kind of shoes are best for skanking? he asked in stunted English. And of the music: How loud is best for punk rock?
I learned of Yushi’s pornography fascination around midnight one evening, after he had finished emptying the trash near my section. He had slipped into one of the conference rooms in the corner of my floor. There were televisions in the conference rooms, which were generally reserved for executive meetings. Wandering the corridor on one of my coffee breaks from editing, I heard light female squeals and moans coming from behind a conference room door.
I didn’t say anything, just approached and stared through the conference room blinds and saw Yushi hunched in his chair, eyes glued to the glossy flashes of skin on the TV screen. His eyes darted to me then, and I could see a wave of fear envelope his face. Kuso! he cursed. Sorry, sorry.
I stared at the acne scars trotting from his nose. One of his eyelids trembled. He stood in shame, gripped by embarrassment. What are you watching? I asked.
He shook his head. Sorry, he said. Free! It’s Free! The TV threw another series of guttural moans into the room.
Yushi went to great lengths to explain, with demonstration, how the TV showed grainy porn channels if you clicked past the regular 20 channels, then clicked past a few dozen more stations of static with the other remote. I was impressed by the precision of his discovery. How did he know this? I told him I didn’t care what he had been watching. He continued to apologize though, not realizing that I had no friends to gossip with even, if I had wanted to.
Just fun, he said, still ashamed. I laughed at the absurd image in my peripheral vision, a man straddling a leggy woman on a boat deck, clothes askew.
When I got bored some nights, I ducked into the same conference room for the hell of it and found Yushi sitting in the dark, squinting at the gravelly porn on the screen. I took a seat and kicked back too, laughing at the preposterous boy-meets-girl scenarios and trying to catch recognizable Japanese words in the dialogue. Soon, Yushi and I would both be laughing at the ridiculousness, and it was easy to think that we were the only ones who had ever stumbled upon these low-budget Japanese gems.
I wondered about Megan too, what she was doing at these wee hours of the morning. I began to look at the bodies of the women on the screen and compared them to Megan’s swelled figure. I thought about the slender hips and palm-sized breasts of the porn stars, the wild sex, and then my mind would swing to Megan’s bulging, unwieldy chest, her nausea and vomiting. I felt I was witnessing every glorious, passionate molecule leaving my future. It all seemed elicit and unfair.
One morning, I was called into a meeting with the group publishers. Someone had arrived early at the office, clicked on the conference room TV, and found porn playing on the screen. I knew right away: Yushi had forgotten to change the channel before turning off the TV the previous evening.
The magazine was putting together a Back to School issue at the time. All of the staff members stood around a square table, holding partially edited manuscripts, trying to stomach the glares from the executives. Everyone struggled to wrap their heads around the situation. I could read their confusion. Porn. Conference Room. Middle of the night. It must have all sounded so outlandish.
This is deplorably unacceptable, the publisher said. She was a sharp-featured woman I had talked to once before, when I was first hired. Her name was Momo. She had spotless, translucent skin and graying hair, and spoke flawless English.
When people began to trickle out of the office for lunch, she approached my desk and shot me a knowing nod. She tilted her head and adjusted her wire-rimmed reading glasses from the tip of your nose. You, she said to me. I understand you work here late at night.
I do. Sometimes, I said.
Then you’re the main person of interest, she said.
I glanced around at the other cubicles. In the desks near mine, two girls were scribbling in manuscript margins with red pens. They were aloof.
I needed to find Yushi, confront him about his pinheaded oversight. I was hit with a galling sensation then, the realization that I would be fired. Momo glared at me. I watched her chest rise and lower in a steady cadence of angry breathing. I wanted to find Yushi and, whatever the outcome, separate my name from his stupidity.
I felt enraged, but not particularly at Yushi or Momo or the sensation that things were crashing around me. It was rampage against all of it, against the collective design. I felt an entire foreign world, internally and externally, bending viciously against me.
I took a train out to Yushi’s neighborhood that evening. He lived in Shinjuku. It was dark by the time I arrived. The lights of Kabukicho shimmered around the train station, a glowing smear of bright reds and yellows and greens. I walked from the station down the main drag. People were swarming in the streets. Cars inched and shuddered through the groups. Alleys teemed with loud drunks and nightlife. I had come so far on an impulse, but suddenly, I felt my energy ebbing in the throngs. I clamored through more bustle, more lights. I passed a Mr. Donut and a Rice Burger and felt tired in the false glow of the evening.
I considered what I would say to Yushi. I would use simple phrases, and make him understand that I didn’t want an apology; I wanted him to explain the situation to the executives at City Land. That was all.
I showed Yushi’s address to a group of boys and followed their directions, ducking down a walkway and into the grid of side streets. More than anything, I thought, I wanted to tell Yushi he was an idiot to leave the TV on the porn channel like that, and that he should be smarter about that shit.
I remember I lost track of my direction and sequence of the street signs sometime then, and soon my perception of my route was twisted.
I showed Yushi’s address to more people but just got blank stares and furrowed brows. Eego? I asked, but couldn’t find a soul who spoke English.
I cut through an alleyway and jogged when I saw the sign for Rice Burger, but it was a different restaurant; Mr. Donut was nowhere in sight. There were fewer bright lights. The passageways between buildings grew wider and dimmer. After a minute of indecision, I crumpled the paper with Yushi’s address.
At first, I didn’t notice the group of teenagers—four of them—approaching me from my angled left. But I saw their shadows, and then they lunged for me like an explosion, pummeling my cheeks and neck with fists. I yelled for help, and felt a galaxy of pain in my testicles, a kick that shot up to my stomach. The figures hovered above me then, vague shapes in the night. They shouted in Japanese. I dropped to my hands and knees. I felt the weight of a fist sinking into my kidneys, then my wallet being taken from my pocket. Please, I shouted. I covered my neck from more fists, but couldn’t isolate where I was hurting. More punches and kicks. My muscles throbbed. I struggled to lift my head at one point, one final plea for the beating to stop, and then there was the heft of a fist against my nose. I felt the cartilage crunch. My throat tightened and I tasted blood. My head spun for a moment.
Then suddenly, I was alone on the quiet ground, the chaos seemingly finished.
I took a small breath and rolled over onto my back. Silence. I stared at the sky. Everything stung. I spit blood and rolled my tongue across my teeth. I had no thoughts initially, just a space, my mind at an unavoidable end. Cautiously, I took deeper breaths—more stinging—and thought of Megan. I saw her face and her image gained more detail. I imagined her standing and walking. She was in this city, somewhere, and that was comforting.
I knew I looked horrible. The skin on my face felt swollen. There was blood on my jacket and hands. I pulled myself to my knees, then stood. My thoughts never turned to the teenagers. How much money they had taken? I didn’t care. My limbs were heavy. My palms were scraped from the concrete.
I tried to think sensibly, and reason told me I should feel bitter, or thankful that I hadn’t been slain. I rubbed my fingers together, feeling my pulse throbbing at my fingertips. I felt no animosity or gratefulness though. I was so exhausted, even my mind felt too bruised and fatigued to reason in the alleyway.
I hobbled out to a busier street. The izakaya signs and the neon restaurant symbols glowed. People stared at me. I took off my blood-slicked jacket and scrunched it into a sewage drain.
I continued walking, more busy streets. Where was Yushi? I no longer cared. Eventually some professor and his wife, God bless them, asked if I was sick. Their English was halting, but they gave me a ride to the train station, paid for my ride, and the whole time I was wincing from my crushed nose and thinking about Megan. Megan’s skin. Megan’s rounded hips. Megan’s scent.
When I arrived home, Megan was asleep in the bed, curled like a ballerina. The room was dark. I climbed in beside her and when she stirred, she turned on the light and saw my nose. Oh Jesus, she said. Her voice trembled. She clicked on the light.
I think I’ll be OK, I said.
Megan took a wet handkerchief to the bridge of my nose, gently patted the symmetry, and got some ice.
We sat on the bed together. She folded her arms around me and I told her about the teenagers. About Yushi. My face grew numb. I felt the bulge of Megan’s pregnant skin against me—the strange and wonderful phenomenon of her swelled midsection.
I’m sorry I woke you, I said to her. So sorry. I had to form the words deep in my throat. I wanted to tell her more, but she told me not to talk.
It’s OK, she said. It’s OK. She placed a warm hand on my cheek, cupped my face and bent her magnificent, glowing body against mine.
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Most of the bank was spotted with bulrush, while the shallows were covered with thick mats of lily pads, making these sections inaccessible from the shore. Some stretches, though, were flat and open—a well-kept green lawn where picnickers would enjoy the day, and a lake where children could fish with bobbers and night crawlers. On the far, easternmost shore, a creek branched off and wound through a rich forest before emptying into a large cove fed by a natural spring. Now, some of the best fishing was along this creek. In the spring, the spawning bass would find their way from the deep water into the nestled and shallow banks, among lily pads and watercress, the males leading the females, urging them to drop their eggs. And some instinct would force them to this. Even in the face of imminent danger, the females would spawn and lay over their nest, watching like some silent guardians of life.
Mike fished the lake often, it being the closest to his home. Through the long winter he had waited, and though it was still early spring and cold, he was bundled and ready, standing on the boathouse dock overlooking the cove. His eyes worked their way down. The sky was a steel gray, the tree line jagged and bare. Picnic tables and grills sat empty on the opposite bank. The only sound was from the spring, which fell into a granite bed of rock then trickled down into the cove. The steady drumming was monotonous and strange, out place amidst the cold and starkness of the day. Mike set his pack on the ground, pulled out a tackle box, and selected a jig. He tied it onto his line with an improved clinch knot, pulling the end to check its strength. Satisfied, he left the dock and walked toward the back end of the cove to cast near the granite rocks, where the eddies formed along the bank. He cast a good dozen times and retrieved very slowly, twitching the rod’s tip so the blue grub would flutter up then back down to the bottom. But nothing came.
Occasionally looking about, he noticed he was the only one on the water. It felt like even the fish had gone somewhere else. The water looked flat, dark, and dull. He blew into his hands and backtracked to the dock, casting out into the middle of the water. He reeled and jigged his line and recast and mixed up his retrieve, but still he had no bites. He brought the lure back in, catching it as it swung in the air. Kneeling down, he took out a pair of nail clippers and cut the line. He opened his tackle box and took a chartreuse crank bait and tied it on, but as he stood to cast again, suddenly, a sharp and oppressive feeling swept over him.
Standing there, rod in hand, staring off, he looked like a man deep in contemplation. The still water, the lake quiet and cold, his actions felt futile. Other thoughts began to come to him, thoughts that had borne down on him all winter, mourning and death like a refrain. He pushed them back and gathered himself.
He left the dock and walked in the opposite direction as before, following the tree-lined path that ran beside the creek. The path twisted through a forest that seemed empty and lifeless without its leaves. Most parts of the bank were choked with dead brush and trees, but narrow cedar chip foot-paths cut down to the water, where there was space for one to fish. He decided on the third path, as good a place as any, and trotted to the creek bank to set his pack down.
The water level was low and the opposite bank was exposed. Roots protruded, stones, the craggy and uneven earth. The bank curved out into a large half-circle. The branches of trees hung over the water, their tips just touching the water’s surface in hesitant intimacy. Mike selected a new lure and cast toward them, twitching his rod tip on the retrieve. He repeated the same motion targeting spots, structure and cover, but nothing came.
He grew impatient and moved on, the creek slowly growing wider and deeper, and soon he came to where it emptied into the main lake. The lake seemed immense; the water rippling and somber. On the far bank the few trees were long and arterial. A wind blew in bursts, cold, as it kicked up off the water, flipping the brim of his fisherman’s hat. He stood in a popular spot; the ground was worn from the footsteps of the many fisherman that had come before. Setting his pack down, he changed lures and cast far out into the lake, slowing his retrieve almost to the point of standstill, knowing that the bass would be sluggish at this water temperature and laying in the deep water. Cast and reel, lock and cast, plunk, a concentric ripple…reel. For a time, no thought was on his mind. Still, he caught nothing.
He walked on and came to where a large fallen tree lay in the water. Its knotted branches projected out of the surface, bits of mono-filament tangled up in them. This was the perfect spot. He walked to the very edge of the bank. Flicking his lure toward the end of the tree, he began to reel very slowly, passing the lure through the zone where he thought the bass might be waiting. But still nothing came. He frowned and made to finish bringing the lure in. But as he was about to pull it from the water, he felt a slight tug and he yanked, thinking he was hung up. Abruptly, the line zigzagged and his rod bent over sharply.
So close to the shore, there was not much fight, and the bass was lethargic from the frigid water temperature. Yet he felt such joy as he pulled it close to the bank and scrambled to the edge. Heart racing, he tossed his rod to the side and knelt down and pulled the bass out by the lip and stood and thrust it upward as if all his preparation and struggle were triumphed in this one small, sleepy bass. He turned it back and forth in admiration, then removed the hook. Laying it in the cold water, he let its tail slide through his hands as it slowly slunk off, leaving a slight ripple on the water’s surface. Then, it was gone as if it had never been. Still smiling, he wiped his hands on his back pockets and picked his rod back up and recast in the same spot, but nothing came. Nothing good would come again that day.
Mike could feel the imminence and the cold of night. He walked back the way he had come. The lake now was like a flat, featureless void under the gray of twilight. As he passed back through the creek, the happiness he had felt began to fade. Slow and ominous, his thoughts coalesced like a brewing storm. He felt very alone. His hands were cold, the trees around him twisted sentinels awaiting him. It was dark and windy. That sharp feeling of futility returned, as if he were sliding backward and then was overcome. He dropped his pole, rushed to the bank, and crouched down. Memories rushed through his mind like a picture book: She was on every page.
With no other sound in the forest, his cries carried far and loud across the open water, resounding off the far bank like an eerie and singular plea unanswered. Alone, there was no comfort for him. In time, he gathered himself. He wiped his eyes, feeling ashamed. He stood and walked back toward the path, and as he rounded a bend, an older gentlemen appeared out of the gray, carrying two fishing poles and a tackle box. He wore dirty blue jeans, a black sweatshirt, and a camouflage hat. Approaching, he waved and asked, “Any luck?”
“I just caught one over on the main lake.”
“I got me a couple, but it’s slow yet, too cold.”
“I just wanted to get out. I haven’t fished in months.”
“Me and some of the boys caught a couple in the dead of winter over near the boathouse.” He gave him a broken-toothed smile. “Let me show you.”
The fishermen reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He pulled up a picture of a three-pound bass. “That’s a good one.”
“Yep, caught that one on a night crawler. You catch the big ones on the night crawlers.”
He put the phone back in his pocket. “What you got there, a bait-caster?”
“I had a buddy try it out. Damn near tore his lip off and tied up his line real good.”
Mike forced a smile. “You got to be careful.”
“Yep, give it ’bout a month and it’s gonna be a feeding frenzy. Out over where them barbeque pits is really good.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The kitchen table was laid out like a banquet dinner. Stephanie had put a lot of work into the meal. To have the family sit down at the same time was good, but rare. She was happy to have them all before her. The kitchen felt alive and warm, filled with a dozen different rich aromas and sounds: the clatter of metal on ceramic, brother arguing with sister, her husband eating as if it were his last meal.
His mouth still full, her husband looked up and said, “I love the way you do these potatoes.”
Stephanie smiled. “It’s au gratin.”
Richard stuck his head back into his plate and continued shoveling food. She shook her head in amusement and asked, “Was work okay?”
Richard paused, gave her a look. “A pain. We had the new district manager visit the store today. Some young go-getter from Topeka with a fancy degree.”
“What was he like?”
“You know that British chef?”
“The TV show, Mom!”
“Yeah, he was like that guy. I could hardly stand it. John told me he went into one store and wiped the computer screen and came up with dust and had the whole staff scrubbing the floors within minutes.”
“Well, it would do you good to impress him, honey, with the promotion coming up and all.”
Stephanie stared into the empty space, thinking. Her wrinkles were deepened by her fake tan. The blonde highlights in her hair spilled down to her shoulders. Richard thought she looked like an older version of their daughter, as if she wasn’t quite sure who she was aging into. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head and let out a deep breath.
“I think I’m going to go out back and get ready for tomorrow.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Later babe, I want to get the stuff packed up.”
She frowned and he said, “Look I haven’t heard any news. You’ll be the first to know if I hear anything.”
“You know how important this is for us.”
“Well, all right. But please don’t be out there all night.”
“You going to pack some sandwiches for us?”
“In the morning.”
Richard walked around the table and kissed the top of her head. “You’re a good woman.”
He left. Stephanie now sat alone at the kitchen table. At once so full, suddenly, so gone. The only remnants: the empty chairs and dirty plates with their bits of meatloaf, a swirl of ketchup. The sound of the television from the living room.
The shed had lawn equipment hanging from pegs on the wall, an old riding mower tucked in the corner, and cardboard boxes that sat on the utility shelf, still filled with items never unpacked from the move. A lone incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling. Against the wall was a carpenter’s table, where Richard sat on an old bar stool, greasing the bearings of his spin reel. In front of him, a row of small shelves held a variety of tackle: saltwater, spinners, grubs, poppers, and flies. He liked to come to the shed. The warm air of spring cheating through the window, memories, a ballgame playing on the old rabbit-eared television.
After he finished greasing the reel, he put it back together, often glancing up to check the score. A wind-up, the pitch…a strike. The man saying, “Look at the cut on that slider, vicious… So now we go two-and-two with a man on first and one out.”
Richard took a spool of monofilament and placed it on a nail clenched between the teeth of a vise. He made a simple slip knot around the base of the reel and began to slowly turn the spool. Once the line was on, he set the reel aside and repeated the same process on a heavier model, pausing to get a beer from the mini-fridge. When he finished, he placed the reels into the rod saddles, and set them in the corner next to his tackle box. He wiped his hands on a blue mechanic’s towel with satisfaction. He took a slug of his beer and began to watch the final inning. The door opened, and his wife stuck her head in.
“Packing up, huh?”
“You gonna come to bed anytime soon?”
He took to watching the game again, but his wife did not move from the doorway, her hand still clasped on the doorknob, her face a glare.
“I’m going to bed.”
“I’m coming, just give me a sec.”
She pulled the door shut. Richard, frowning, swirled the last contents of his beer and finished it. He got off the stool, looking once more at his rods in the corner, then switched off the television and followed after his wife.
Sunlight pierced the shallow, muddy water like amber. Mike could see stumps, an old tin can. They were dressed in long pants and waterproof jackets. And they each wore a hat and a pair of polarized sunglasses. Richard patted Mike on the back and said, “Looks like a good day for fishing.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I was out here last week and came up pretty dry.”
“Well, the water’s getting warmer, that’s for sure.”
The day was warm, warmer than any other in the last months, one of the first fleeting signs of spring, before leaves have grown or flowers bud. They stood on the bank of Turtle Lake, looking outward at the gentle roll of the water’s surface. Before them, a small island jutted from the shore, a dense thicket that was bare like a wigwam.
“You figure we start here and work our way down towards the creek?”
“There might be some action up along the edge of the island. See where them trees are coming out?”
Although it was warm, the wind was gusting. Along the edge of the island, they cast deep spinner baits with a slow retrieve, Mike using a bait caster, Richard using his open-faced Penn.
“I got something!”
Richard jerked his rod back to set the hook and it bent sharply, the line hooked into something that would not move.
“Damn, I’m hung up.”
He tried jerking the rod back and forth, but the line would not free. In frustration, he backed straight up, holding the rod point parallel to the ground until the line snapped. He shook his head.
“Not a way to start.”
“Don’t worry. Here, put this little guy on.”
Mike handed him a worm jig. “With a hook like that, you won’t get hung up.”
“Thanks, that’s a Carolina rig right?”
Both men were quiet, enjoying the sheer pleasure of casting and reeling. The knowledge that they had caught fish the same way before, and that they should catch them again, lingered and pushing them onward.
After a time Richard asked, swinging his lure up to re-cast, “How are things?”
“As good as they can be.”
“You know I haven’t seen you since…”
Richard saw the way Mike was looking at him. “I’m sorry.”
“You wanna try and head down towards the creek? This wind is driving me crazy.”
“Yeah, let’s do that.”
They packed up and began to walk. Ahead of them on the edge of the bank, were large granite rocks stacked atop each other, and the ground was covered in straw. A chain link fence enclosed the construction, running for a good fifty yards. They walked around the fence and entered the trail that ran along the creek, still quiet.
“Well, Stephanie wanted me to tell you that if you ever needed anything, all you have to do is ask,” Richard said.
“They said you haven’t gone back to work yet?”
“I just need some time.”
“I hear you, buddy. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I lost Stephanie. I know you don’t want to talk about it, but sometimes it can be good, you know.”
“I don’t need pity.”
“I’m here for you, and remember that Alice would have wanted you to move on and be happy. It’s been almost a year—”
Mike stopped in his tracks.
“You think you know what she would want?”
Richard turned around.
“I don’t mean anything by it, but it’s the truth.”
Suddenly, Mike’s calm demeanor changed as if the words had struck him as forcefully as a blow. “If I was in her shoes, I wouldn’t want her to forget about me. I wouldn’t want her to be happy or move on. I would want her to be miserable. Moving on would be an insult to what we had. People always say that they would want you to be happy, just trying to make you feel better. If she’s up in heaven and looking down, you think she would be happy seeing me with another gal? Or me, if I was in her shoes? Love don’t work that way. You get it once and that’s it, or it wasn’t for nothin’ in the first place!”
“But if she was with someone else and was happy, then shouldn’t you be happy too?”
“No! True love is just that—where you can’t live without the other, dammit!”
Mike was flush and breathing heavily, and he paused, taking deep breaths. Richard looked at him with concern, surprised that he could even summon such words.
“That’s just an idea, though. It sounds nice, but you have to be practical and move on at some point. Life ain’t an idea. It’s real.”
“It ain’t real, none of it!”
Mike didn’t answer for a while and then shook his head. “It’s still too soon. My mind don’t think right anymore.”
“You ain’t going to do anything silly, now are ya?”
“Of course not.”
Richard patted him on the back. “Life ain’t easy. You think me and Steph have it all good? Well, we don’t. She wants more and more, and sometimes I don’t think she can stand the sight of me. Like I ain’t the man she thought she had married, or it didn’t turn out the way she expected.”
“At least she’s alive.”
The men were quiet. Slivers of lake were visible through the trees, the sun glittering like glass. Finally, Richard said, “Let’s just forget about it and fish, alright? I’m sorry I brought it up. We ain’t supposed to be talking like that anyways. We’re supposed to be fishing.”
Mike, still staring off through the woods, nodded.
Mike stopped before they got to the boathouse.
“Why’d you stop?”
“I talked to a guy last week, and he said down where the barbeque pits are is a good spot. Want to check it out?”
They crossed the bridge and walked around the other side of the creek. After they passed the cove, the water widened into the main lake. The cold water had grown choppy, and a school of ducks was taking shelter along the shoreline. On the bank was a gazebo with a plain wood railing and a cast iron grill, bits of old charcoal scattered beneath it. A trash barrel was anchored by a four-by-four, and next to it, a green sign listed the fishing regulations.
The shoreline was empty of any tree or brush. Further down, long stalks of reeds grew outward from the shore, waving gently in the wind as if caressing the cloudless sky.
“This wind doesn’t look good.”
“Let’s try a jig.”
They cast straight out from the shore and reeled. Up and down, the jig fluttered along beneath the water’s surface. Mike brought his jig close to the shore and felt a tug; he jerked his rod back and set the hook.
“I got one!”
He turned the pole sideways and reeled, guiding the fish toward the shore. He bent down and took it from the water, holding it up for Richard to inspect.
“Look at that, now.”
“Yes sir, that’s nice.”
It was a fat crappie, the skin a glossy silver speckled with black symmetric dots. The mouth was large for its body, its gills gasping for what they could not find. The fish gave a spasmodic flick of its tail as Mike took out the hook.
He laid the fish back in the water. At first it lay motionless, then shot off with a burst of speed. Mike stood back up, his face suddenly bright and alive.
“That was a fat one.”
“Oh, shoot look at that.”
Richard’s line had grown taut. He began to reel madly, and before he could get the fish halfway to the shore, Mike had another. Their lines zigzagged madly across the water, almost tangling, and Mike took his rod and swept it over Richard’s head. Their eyes sparkled with amusement.
“Whooooeeeee, look at that boy.”
They took the fish out of the water and unhooked them, holding them up side by side for comparison.
“Bigger than yours.”
“Not as big as that first one, though.”
“…aha…you fat sucker.”
“They’re schooling right in that spot.”
“The depth must break there, they must be feeding on some shad.”
They moved a bit away from each other and cast again, and within moments they were both on again. And they caught another, and then another, all on the same jig. There was a period of time where all that mattered was the casting, reeling, hooking, fighting, catching. They reveled in the excitement and anticipation, such a break from the routine of their lives. The glorious splash of the water as they hauled up the fish, the flick of the tail as they released them. Laughter, a word, and then another cast…
After an hour they began to come up empty. Richard turned his head toward Mike. “Looks like they’re gone.”
“Man, oh man. How many did we catch?”
“Must have been a dozen or so.”
They brought in their jigs and hooked them to their pole guides and walked over to the gazebo and sat down.
“What do you figure, we got about an hour left?”
Mike looked toward the sun. “Looks that way.”
They did not catch any more fish that day. When the sun set, they made their way back to their cars, parked near the boat house. They walked on the path along the creek, the dark woods surrounding them on either side. A wash of orange like will-o’-the-wisps lay far head of them, the lights from the boathouse passing through the trees.
“You remember when Alice used to fry up sunfish with that panko?”
Richard smiled. “Yeah, that was good stuff.”
“Back then we wouldn’t have put them fish back.”
Mike laughed, then quieted. They came to a stop in the parking lot, the night fully fallen. Richard loaded his equipment into the back of his truck and they shook hands.
“Better than we expected huh?”
“We’ll have to try that spot again sometime.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I figure I’ll head home and grab a bite. That house now is so big. I’ve been thinking of selling it.”
“You’d best wait with the way the market is.”
“That’s about the only thing that’s keeping me from it. It’s tough, though. I still got all of her stuff in there. It’s a constant reminder. Sometimes when I go home, I know she ain’t there, but my body half expects her to be and it’s like I relive it all over.”
“Like I said buddy, I’m here.”
“I didn’t mean to yell at you earlier.”
“Forget about it. When you want to go fishing again?”
They shook hands again and Mike turned toward his truck to leave.
“Hey now,” Richard said, “if you want, you can follow me home and join us for dinner. We might not have kept them fish, but I’m sure Steph has something good for us. What do you say?”
Mike looked at his truck and back at Richard, his face serious, seconds ticking away. “No, I’m good. I figure I’ll head home. I’m tired.”
“All right buddy, see you soon.”
They got into their trucks. The engines came alive with a rumble, breaking the stillness of the early night. They slowly rolled backwards out of the parking lot, then shot off down the road in opposite directions. Soon, the night again was quiet. And the lake—dark and cold, all that fragile life within it, slumbering, waiting. Holding on.
Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014 Paul was flying, weightless and limp like a ragdoll or maybe just a rag, a limbless and ragged piece of debris, suspended for a moment—though it felt so much longer—above the murky Schuylkill, and yet somehow he felt free like, […]