Alex. part four

By Attila Zønn

 

Her name was Jennifer. She was a plump woman,  blonde haired, younger than Mama and Tata. She was tonight’s guest speaker. She was what everyone was calling an ab-duct-ee. They were saying she had experienced multiple encounters of the third kind. Alex didn’t know what this all meant, but it was part of Tata’s new beginning—his attempt for the family to shed abstract transparencies.

Alex had looked up those two words because he wanted to use them, and Tata had always told him if he didn’t know what a word meant he should not use it until he knew.

Tata said, “If you use the wrong word you end up looking like a fool.”

So Alex looked up abstract, but it had several definitions, which confused Alex more, and transparencies, which came from transparent and that meant see through. So Tata had said we should stop believing in the many things that we can see through? Maybe one day Alex would understand what this all meant.

Tonight was the second meeting Alex and Mama and Tata had been too. The first Saturday night nothing much happened. People were just standing around talking, getting to know some new faces. Little groups of three or four people formed about the room. There was a lot of nodding and drinking coffee and eating cookies and cakes that had been laid out on a table at the side of the room. The only other kid there was Jonah, and he kept looking over at Alex.

That first night Mama didn’t bring any food—she didn’t know—but tonight she brought her delicious meatballs, and everyone was eating them—poking toothpicks in them and going on like it was the greatest food they’d ever had, and they wanted the recipe. And this made Mama smile.

They called themselves the Starlight Society. Alex counted nineteen people—men and women. They met every Saturday night in the back room of a vacant store not far from the Busy Bee where Mama and Alex bought groceries. The store had a paper sign on its glass door—Unit 51, and it was in-between Farzhad’s Discount Shoe Emporium and a take out place called Hot Wings & Other Hot Things. The inside of Unit 51 smelled like roasted chicken.

Tonight  Jennifer was going to speak about her encounters.

The people sat down and Jennifer began:

“Ever since I was nine years old I’ve felt special. Now that may sound egotistical, even arrogant, but I realized later, in my twenties, why I had these feelings. I had been chosen. I don’t know why they picked me. That doesn’t matter. It’s beyond me to understand. In my twenties I suffered from severe migraines. It was so bad that I’d be immobilized for days. I just couldn’t function. I lost my job, lost all my friends. I lost my will to want to live. You could say I hit rock bottom in my life and it’s a cold hard place down there I’ll tell you. I found solace in food. That’s why I look the way I do today. But don’t pity me. I’m comfortable now. This is who I really am. I enjoy everything about my life and have no regrets.” She paused. “Back then I went to see a doctor who referred me to another doctor—a great man, who hypnotized me. There he is.” She pointed to the back of the room.  “Stand up Dad. Let them see you.” An old man wearing a gray hat stood up and waved.

“I don’t know where I’d be without him. He’s become my second dad. He saved me,” Jennifer said, her voice wavering. “I found out there was nothing wrong with me. I was perfectly, physically fine. They had made me this way.”

The lights went out and a slideshow began: The first shot was of the front of a house. “This is the house I grew up in,” Jennifer said. The house she still lived in, that had been left to her when her parents suddenly died many years ago while on vacation.

“You go away to relax and have fun,” she said. “And you end up dying. How useless is that?” She stood there silent for a few minutes, her silhouette black against the pictures of her house.

“Dad and I had an argument before they left. He wanted me to go with them. He said it would help me. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t snap out of what was troubling my life. He wanted me to get over it. He’d say to me many times you’re a big girl now, move on. He didn’t know how hard it was. He didn’t know what it was all about. I didn’t know what it was all about.”

She clicked to the next picture—a smiling man standing by a BBQ. “This was my father.” Another click—a woman standing by the side of a blue car.

“My mother.”

One more click and it was a picture of a young girl in pigtails, missing her front teeth, smiling big into the camera.

“That’s me,” she said. “Before it all began.”

Now there was a shot of the back of the house.

“The window on the left,” she said, “that’s my room. One night when I was nine years old, a green, but not unpleasant ray of light, came into my room through that window. And just as soon as I saw the light I was aware of three figures standing beside my bed. They weren’t very tall, and they were wearing these suits that sparkled different colors one after another, and that’s when I felt as if someone was sitting on my chest and I was losing my breath and I wanted to scream but only squeaks came out, and then I was floating out of my bed, going through the window and I was going up, up into a large disk of green light.”

Jennifer’s silhouette reached  towards the ceiling. People murmured. Alex looked over at Tata who was sitting on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide and looking straight ahead. Mama was sitting back in her chair, looking down at the floor.

“I suddenly found myself lying on a table in an operating theater. I was aware of movement around me but I couldn’t see anyone because a powerful overhead white light was blinding me. I was paralyzed but I could feel things being inserted in my ears, my mouth and other parts that I won’t mention because I notice there are children here tonight. And from one of these places that I can’t mention they took something from me. I know what they took because I can never have children.”

A collective gasp came from the people sitting in the dark.

“Then suddenly, like when your ears pop clear after an airplane ride, I could understand what they were saying, and it struck me with a terrible fear.  They were finished with me and I was of no use. They wanted to stop my heart.  A voice said, ‘That is the protocol. Proceed.'” Jennifer paused again. “I thought I was going to die. Have you ever felt like you were going to die?  I kept praying God please help me, God please help me. The overhead light dimmed and now I could see that the room was full of these figures in changing color suits. Then from my left hand side, the figures parted and a smaller figure appeared. His suit didn’t change colors. It was a solid, brilliant white. He came closer. Then he seemed to grow till his face was right in front of mine and I could see my reflection in his big shiny black eyes. I wasn’t afraid anymore. My mind was filled with the word peace. Then he deflated back to his previous size and came around behind me, put his hands gently at my temples, and that’s all I remember.”

The lights came on.

“Of course, as you can see, I’m still alive. That small creature in the bright white suit? He saved me.” Jennifer started to cry.  She had her head down and the old man came from the back of the room and put his hand on her shoulder.

“It’s okay. I’m all right,” she told him as he patted her back. Then he returned to his spot at the back of the room and the lights went out again. A picture came on the screen. There were lots of stars in this picture—two were very bright, and Jennifer moved towards the screen and pointed to the star on the right hand side.

“This is where my savior is from. There it is. See how it shines brighter than all the stars around it? Agena, but they don’t call it that. They have their own name for it. In their language.”

Alex wanted to hear that name.  The picture of the stars and space looked so peaceful. This woman had been visited by people from another world? Alex had never heard of such a thing. He thought those were just stories made up for Sunday afternoon movies. Once, he watched a movie called Forbidden Planet with Tata who fell asleep through it.

“My savior has been visiting me ever since that night, but I never knew it until I was hypnotized. We talk for hours. That night on the ship when they wanted to end my life, he sacrificed a piece of himself so that I could live. And he’s told me so many things—important things that can help all of us. They have the answer for everything.”

The lights came on and people were talking to each other.

Jennifer said, “When Lenny visits”—she laughed—“that’s what I call him. His real name is too complex for our minds and unpronounceable.  He tells me that they are always there, watching us but they’re hidden,  and when we make a wrong move they can make things better—if we want, otherwise they won’t interfere.” She smiled and took a deep breath and opened her arms. “You just have to believe and they will be there for you. I know I feel better knowing they’re out there.”

Mama leaned towards Tata who leaned towards Mama, and Alex leaned towards both of them.

She said, “I don’t know how much longer I can sit here and listen to this Milan.”

Tata whispered, “Why? What is wrong?”

Mama stared at him then sat back and folded her arms.

Alex was excited. He didn’t know that people lived in other worlds for real, and when Jennifer asked if there were any questions, Alex jumped up and said, “Do you have a picture of Lenny?”

Jennifer smiled and said, “No, they don’t want us to take their picture. It’s a secret that they exist. They’re afraid of our government who might take their knowledge and use it against people on the other side of the world.”

Alex sat down and thought, if it’s such a secret, then why is she telling everyone in this room, and if they knew everything and knew how to make everything better, why would they be afraid of the people on Earth? They were obviously more powerful than the people on Earth.

A man stood up and said, “Has Lenny told you anything about Roswell?” And the people sitting around him nodded their heads.

“Roswell never happened. It’s fake,” Jennifer said and laughed. “Imagine, with their advanced technology, they have safeguards for malfunctions. They would never crash. That’s just the government seizing on an opportunity they created and all the secrecy is them fanning  fake flames to hide their nefarious activities. Don’t trust the government. They’re liars.”

It was time for a break.

People stood and stretched their legs. Jennifer had gone out the back door. Alex wanted to know more about Lenny. He wanted to know what his voice sounded like. Was it a normal man voice or, like he’s seen in those movies, was it a buzzing voice or a robot voice? He pushed open the back door. Jennifer was leaning against the dumpster, smoking a cigarette. The old man was there too. They were facing each other and the old man had his hand on Jennifer’s bum and rubbing it. Alex stepped back and closed the door.

Afterwards, Ray, the organizer, thanked Jennifer and everyone clapped, then Ray said Jennifer was on a mission to spread the word but she needed help. The old man walked around holding open a wooden box and people put money in it.

 

©Attila Zønn 2017

 

 

Advertisements

Alex. part three

By Attila Zønn

 

During dinner Tata said, “I have never been more insulted in my life. Do you know what he said to me?”

“Who?” Mama asked.

“That fucking wop Angelo.”

Alex knew Angelo. He was Tata’s foreman at work. Sometimes after work Angelo would come over and he and Tata would drink some beers in the kitchen.

“He said what is going on with you Milan? You are too slow, you are not producing, and you better hurry up if you know what is good for you.”

“Angelo said that?”

“Well…those weren’t his exact words. If you want me to quote him literally he said, ‘How are you Milan?’—no one talks to me like that!  I know what he meant. I can read the body language. He gave me a pat on the back and walked away. No one does that to me! Yes, I know it is taking me longer to do the setup, but I haven’t been working. I’m rusty.”

Mama smiled and went back to eating.

After a few seconds Tata dropped his fork on the plate, and sat back in his chair.

“Oh…” He sighed and slumped in the chair.

“It waits for me,” he said. “A machine cannot have a mind, but this one must be cursed. I still can see the blood on the blade. I can hear the sound of my bone being crunched. It wants me to engage it so it can take all my fingers.”

Mama smiled. “You are exaggerating Milan, a machine cannot think.”

Alex wondered what Tata would look like without all his fingers. He wouldn’t be able to point at Alex anymore when he did something wrong.

“Is that what you want?” Tata said. “Do you want me to lose all my fingers, possibly to lose a hand? Do you know what that would feel like to you?”

Tata formed a fist and touched Mama’s arm with it. Then he touched her shoulder. Then he touched her arm again.

“That is my stump. How dose it feel? How would you like to be touched this way for the rest of you life?”

“Stop Milan, please. We are eating.”

“How is it that you cannot see my position? I cannot face my duties efficiently if I have a conflict with this machine.” He pounded the table. “I hate that machine! It has ruined me! And it wants more!—do you want me to end up like Miklos?”

Alex liked Uncle Miklos. He was Mama’s cousin. But he was strange because he always kept his right hand in his pocket. Even when he was sitting down his hand was always in his pocket. One time they went to Holiday Gardens as a family and Uncle Miklos wore black swim trunks with pockets and he swam with his right hand in his pocket. Alex  tried to imitate him but it wasn’t easy swimming with one arm. He had heard Tata talk about the “mystery of Miklos”. No one knew what kind of damage had been done to Uncle Miklos’s hand. No one wanted to ask. They assumed he was missing some fingers. Mama said that when she knew him as a boy he was fine, but then she didn’t see him for many years and when she saw him again he had his hand in his pocket.

Tata said, “I have spoken to Ray. Alexandru, you know his son, Jonah?”

Alex knew Jonah. He was the weird kid who always played by himself because no one liked him because he was a liar. He once told the class that a UFO had landed in his backyard and stolen his bicycle.

“Ray is with the school board. He says he can find me a position in maintenance.”

“Maintenance?” Mama said. “To repair machinery?”

“No, in housekeeping.”

Mama thought a moment, then slammed her fork on the table.

Alex jumped in his seat.

“A janitor? You are giving up your skills to become a janitor?”

Tata raised his hand, puffed his chest out and said in a proud voice, “My title will be Custodian.”

“You are being ridiculous Milan. Why? Why are you doing this? What about the money? What about our situation?”

“Nothing can change the situation,” Tata said. “We will have to budget ourselves. No more mindless spending, like hair cuts and skirts.”

Mama looked like she was going to cry.

“Are you accusing me of wasting money?” she said. “I have always kept within our budget.”

Tata turned his face and said, “There are changes beyond our control coming and from now on we must consider the future.”

“What are you doing to us Milan?” Mama said.

“Why is this complicated for you? People make changes every day. I have decided this is the best change for us.”

Mama wasn’t happy. Her eyes kept moving around. One second she was looking at Tata, then she was looking at Alex, then she was looking through the archway into the kitchen. She looked like someone who was lost and didn’t know which way to go. And Tata was looking at her without blinking, like he was expecting something. Finally Mama lowered her head and let out a big sigh.

“Where is this janitor’s position?” she asked.

Tata sat up and smiled and picked up his fork.

“It will be at the school. Someone is retiring soon and Ray will install me there, if I wish. I will work only days. Finally! There will be no more lonely nights for you.  And with our impending situation that will be better.” Tata turned to Alex.  “And I can be close to Alexandru.”

Alex’s heart sank. Tata was going to be the janitor at his school? How did things suddenly get so bad for him? Not only was he Booboo-cunt, but he was going to be the janitor’s son, and what situation were they talking about?

 

Sometimes when Tata was with people, talking like big people do sometimes, about things Alex didn’t understand, someone would ask Tata where he was from.  Tata didn’t like that question. He never answered it truthfully. He always used the same words as if he’d had them memorized for years, and Alex knew the story word for word.

Tata told people, “Where I come from is not a nice place. It is too painful for me to mention it.” Then he would go into the story. He’d say, “My father was not an intelligent man. He was not disciplined. He lived for the here and the now. His priorities were centered on him and only him regardless of his family—the wife and the six children.”

Tata never had brothers or sisters.

“He loved to play, but sometimes you play with the wrong people. Tough, uncompromising people who do not care about your hard luck story, the shack, the wife and the six kids, and these people, because they were cowards, unleashed other people upon him, and this is what I saw, my father kicked and beaten to the ground by ugly men with hairy faces and permanent scowls who could not have been born from a woman, much less been babies in a cradle or children that giggled and squealed in the bright sunshine. These were hard men that seemed to teeter between human and beast, and with every kick against my father, the balance shifted towards animal. I saw this. I cannot forget it.”

Alex also knew that Tata had never known his father. Tata’s father had been an electrician, and months before Tata was born his father had died from an electrocution. All growing up Tata had been told that his father was a hard worker, very fast in his duties because he never turned  off the power so only worked with live wires. He was  a man who liked to be challenged.

 

©Attila Zønn 2017

Alex. part two

By Attila Zønn

 

Tata came home very angry and when Mama asked him what was wrong he said, “You.”

Alex felt the air getting nervous and knew there was going to be a fight. He went upstairs because that was the  place to be when Mama and Tata fought. He knew that Mama would be safe from Tata because Tata only fought with words and Mama knew how to fight back sometimes.

From his room Alex heard their shouts. Mama was just as loud as Tata, then he heard thumping footsteps and felt the back door open. He looked out his window and saw Tata going to the shed in the backyard. He came out holding a hatchet and talking to himself. He came back into the house. Mama shouted louder. Alex’s heart was thumping so hard he could hear it in his ears. He heard hard sounds and breaking sounds. He ran downstairs because something bad was happening.

Tata was standing over Mama’s holy table. The candles and the glass crucifix and the pictures of Nagymama and Nagyapa were on the floor.  Tata had the hatchet and he was chopping  pieces off the holy table, saying, “No more kneeling, no more crossing, no more mumbling. No more kneeling, no more crossing, no more mumbling.”

Mama was sitting on the sofa clutching a pillow, crying her eyes out, calling Tata, “Murderer!”

Alex felt sick.  He didn’t want his mama to cry. Why was she calling Tata a murderer? Who did he kill? Finally Tata smashed the hatchet deep into the center of the holy table and turned to Mama.

“I am a murderer? It is you who is killing me. You have assassinated our new life.  Do you know what the word archaic means? It means something of the past. That is what you are. I have made an effort to grasp this new world, but you—you are still that pathetic little orphan from that village in the woods. This is no longer acceptable.” He went back to chopping Mama’s holy table.

Alex cried out, “Mama!”

“My son,” Tata said without turning to look at him. “This is not for you to understand. Go to your room now.”

Alex automatically obeyed, and as he climbed the stairs a great worry took hold of him, and he was getting that empty feeling in his stomach. Whenever Mama and Tata yelled at each other, he felt alone. But it had never been as bad as this. Tata had never chopped up a table before.

He sat on the edge of his bed wondering why Tata would kill anyone, and could Tata kill? And he started to worry even more when he remembered the incident with the mouse on the driveway.

One day coming home from the park Alex found some kids huddled at the bottom of his driveway. They were looking down at something. Some of the kids were laughing, and when Alex saw what they were laughing at he started to laugh too. A mouse was running in circles. There was obviously something wrong with the mouse. Why would it run in circles if it was alright?  Wouldn’t it run away? Alex decided that he was going to keep this mouse. It was on his driveway. It was his mouse. He’ll get a shoe box, and fill it with grass and put the mouse in it and he’ll feed it and make it feel better, and when the mouse was healed, he’ll set it free.

That’s what he was going to do but from above the children’s giggling and shouting, Alex heard Tata’s voice. “Watch out!” And saw a shovel come crashing down and squash the mouse. The children screamed and jumped back.

“There. One less mouse to shit in my cupboards,” Tata said and scooped up the smashed mouse, saying to Alex, “Come inside and wash your hands, my son, your mother has cooked us a nice dinner,” and off he went carrying the squashed mouse into the backyard.

The children looked at Alex, like it was his fault the mouse had been squashed. Alex looked down at the red splatter on the driveway and didn’t know what to say so he said nothing and followed Tata into the backyard where he watched him flick the dead mouse into the neighbor’s yard.

So Tata could kill, and now this made Alex think of the police, and how they were going to come and take Tata away. And then he thought that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the police took Tata away. Then maybe Mama wouldn’t cry anymore.

Tata was calling him from the stairwell.

“Alexandru, my son. Come down please, we must have a discussion.”

Alex jumped off his bed and hurried down the stairs. Mama wasn’t crying anymore. Tata was sitting beside her on the sofa. He had her hand between both his hands. The hatchet was stuck in the middle of the holy table.

“Come sit with us my son. Today is a new beginning.” Tata was saying that from this day on, the family must “embrace” new ideas. That they must live their lives with proof, not with “abstract transparencies.”

Alex didn’t know what that meant but he listened hard anyway.

They were going to meet new people. Become open minded, and change the way they looked at things. Tata had met some people—good people, with “fresh perspectives”, and Saturday evenings they were going to a place where they would get together with these people.

The next morning Mama took Alex to Mrs. Hunyadi’s house. She was an old lady who lived a few houses down. She spoke the same language as Mama did. Alex thought she didn’t like him because every time Mama left him there Mrs. Hunyadi never spoke to him. Mostly he sat in a chair while Mrs. Hunyadi sat on her sofa, knitting, with her fluffy brown cat Boosha lying beside her, and if sometimes Alex was thirsty he would ask her for a glass of water, and she would stop knitting and without looking at him point towards the kitchen.

She had a cross of Jesu hanging above the the archway to the living room, and she had another hanging in the kitchen, and when Alex had to go to the washroom, she had one hanging in there too.

Everything about Mrs. Hunyadi’s house was old—old striped yellow wallpaper behind old black and white pictures of old people—except one—of a young man in a soldier’s uniform. The only good thing about Mrs. Hunyadi’s house was that sometimes Boosha jumped off the sofa and came to lie on Alex’s feet, and his feet got very warm.

The woman who came in the front door and called Alex’s name was not his mama. This woman had short black hair cut at the shoulders. She was wearing lipstick, and her face was glowing, and her eyes had paint around them. She was wearing the clothes Mama had on when she dropped him off but that wasn’t Mama’s head, and it made Alex nervous, like something bad was going to happen.

“Do you like how I look, my Booboola?” the woman said. “Come and see me. Don’t you like my new face? Come,” she said, reaching out her hand. “Let’s go home. I brought you something.”

While they were walking home, Alex felt like he was walking with a stranger. He’d take little peeks at his new mama, and got that empty feeling in his stomach. Suddenly feeling alone, his eyes began watering and he started to cry.

Mama knelt in front of him. “Why are you crying Alexandru? Did something happen at Mrs. Hunyadi’s house?” Alex couldn’t look at her. He wiped his eyes and cried, “You’re different.” Mama smiled and hugged him. “I am still your mama. You don’t like my new look? I like it. I picked it from a book. You will get used to it. It will be good. I have something at home that will make you happy.”

Alex missed his mama. He wanted her back. He wanted to see her brushing her long hair at night, and he liked the scarf she sometimes wore around her head. How could he love this woman whose face looked like some of the teenage girls at the high-school? But he could see Mama was happy. She hadn’t stopped smiling since she picked him up, and she wasn’t walking looking down at the sidewalk like she used to and this made her look taller, and it looked like she was taking deep breaths, like she was breathing for the first time.

Mama had bought Alex a Corvette car. The same one he’d seen in the Savette catalogue. It was red, and connected to a long clear plastic tube that was connected to a pistol-like controller, and depending on how Alex squeezed the trigger, the car would move forwards, backwards, to the left, to the right, go fast, go slow. He followed the red car though the hallway, into the kitchen but when he tried going into the living room it kept stopping at the edge of the rug. The car was what Alex had wanted for a long time—the times he spent looking at it in the catalogue and wishing he had it, and here it was. He felt happy, and Mama was happy to see he was happy, and she said to him, “I love you my Booboola,” which sounded funny  because neither Mama nor Tata had ever said they loved him. And Alex thought, this new beginning Tata had talked about was fun, and he thought how lucky he was, chasing his little red car up and down the hallway.

 

Mama was going to the window, and then sitting on the sofa, and then a few minutes later she was going to the window again and sitting down again.

And then Tata came home.

When Tata walked in Mama was standing at the top of the landing. She had a big smile on her face, and was making little adjustments to her skirt.

Tata stood there and stared at her—his face had no expression, and then he said, “What have you done to yourself?” The smile fell from Mama’s face, and the air became nervous, and Alex was nervous. Mama’s voice trembled when she said, “I have made a change, like we talked about.”

“What have you done?” Tata said  and started walking slowly up the steps. Now Mama was backing away, and Alex could see her face was not glowing anymore. She looked frightened, and suddenly he felt frightened.

Mama explained, “But you said—”

“Now I understand,” Tata said, nodding his head. “It is so clear. How could I have been such a fool?—I do not satisfy you.”  Mama looked at Alex. She took his hand and lead him upstairs.

“Do you hear it?” Tata said.

Alex and Mama turned around to look at him.

Tata had a hand cupped behind one ear, and he was leaning towards the front door.

“The parade is coming,” he said. “Are you ready Eva? You are all painted. Are you ready to join the clowns? Are you ready to show the world that your husband does not please you? Where is your whore’s sign, declaring that you are ready for another cock.”

Mama yelled, like Alex had never heard her yell before, “Milan! Our son is here!”

“Is it because I have one less finger?” Tata said. “Does it disgust you? Am I less a man because I have only nine fingers?”

Mama turned to Alex and told him not to worry, to go to his room and close the door. And Alex did so, but before he closed the door he saw Mama leaning forward on the stairs, yelling at Tata, “You are being so ridiculous! I do not want to listen to you.” She ran up the stairs and into her room. Tata followed, calling her ungrateful, that he had sacrificed so much for his family and now she was stepping all over his manhood.

Mama was crying, saying, “I just made a change, like you said!”

“I did not tell you to mutilate yourself—to paint yourself like a woman who craves attention, who shows the world that her husband is no more useful than a broom handle. Is it not big enough for you Eva?” And then, all of the sudden it sounded like Tata was crying. In his crying voice he said, “Who is he? What can he give you that I do not have?” And then Alex heard Mama yelling, “Milan, stop acting like a child!”

“But I am not a child. Look!” And then everything went quiet. Alex waited behind his door, cracking it open just enough to catch his parent’s bedroom door slowly closing.

Quiet was good.

When it was quiet there was no fighting, but Alex was a little worried, because he knew Tata was a killer, so he crept out into the hall, approached his parent’s door and put his ear to it. He heard them whispering.

 

Mama was humming by the sink, making a salad for their dinner. Alex saw she was safe, even though Tata and her had the big fight. He didn’t understand what it was all about, but he was happy it was over. Seeing Mama happy made him think that nothing bad could ever happen.

“Are you enjoying your red car?” Mama asked. Alex had forgotten about the Corvette, and now thinking about it made him smile. He was a lucky boy.

“Thank you Mama, I really like it,” he said, and that sounded strange because he’d never thanked his mama before for anything. And then Tata came in. He had a big smile on his face, and he winked at Alex, then went over to Mama at the sink and gave her a little smack on the bum but his hand stayed there, like it was stuck, and he put his nose into Mama’s neck, and Mama giggled, and Tata started playing with Mama’s hair, flicking it, and Mama was looking at Alex, and Alex felt embarrassed,  suddenly feeling angry that Tata had his hand on Mama’s bum and he was playing with her like she was a toy.

Mama was a different woman now. She walked with her head up, smiled and laughed a lot, and looked much younger with her new head. She walked everywhere and it looked like she was getting skinnier, and Tata grabbed her more than he used to and he sucked on her earlobes and it made Mama giggle but embarrassed Alex so much that when Tata and Mama were in the same room Alex would leave because he didn’t want to see Tata’s hands all over his mama.

One day Mama came to the school while on one of her walks. The schoolyard had become part of her daily route. She walked with quick strides, and her skirt swayed.  From his first floor classroom window Alex had seen her walk by every day, but today the window was open and Mama saw him. She came to the window and said, “Hello, my Booboola. Are you having a wonderful day?”

Alex shrank in his seat as the kids in the class laughed.

He was barely out the door for afternoon recess when three boys barred his way and said in unison, “Hello, Booboo,” and ran off into the schoolyard laughing there heads off. As Alex stood there he thought he could see this disease Mama had brought spread across the yard and change his schooldays forever.

Alex was gone now. He was no longer Alex the brainer, no longer Alex the brown noser, which he didn’t know what that meant but it didn’t sound so bad, but now he was Booboo, and where was Yogi? And where was his pick-e-nic basket? Or he was little booboo boy, or mommy’s booboo, or the many other permutations spanning the next few weeks, until the older boys got into it and he finally became—Booboo-cunt.

How unfair had Mama been to call him her love name in front of people, outside the house?

Tata was right—Mama was weak, and stupid, and she ruined everything for him. What could he do to ruin the rest of her days? He’ll ignore her, like Tata did sometimes. She’ll ask him things and he’ll act like she wasn’t there, and she’ll keep asking until she got angry and then she’ll probably cry like when Tata did that to her. But Alex didn’t want his mama to cry. He loved his mama. She was always smiling at him and hugged him when he came home, and she made his favorite foods and she got him that car. Alex knew where that car had come from; that store was far away and Mama went all that way on a bus, just for him. He couldn’t hate his mama. She wasn’t trying to hurt him when she called him Booboola. She was just happy to see him.

He’ll have to live with what Mama had done and he decided every time they call him Booboo-cunt, he’ll laugh. If he got upset they would just keep calling him that. From now on he would laugh with them and maybe the fun they got from calling him that name would run out, and then Alex could come back.

It worked. When the boys laughed, Alex laughed even harder. Sometimes he referred to himself as Booboo-cunt. He didn’t like doing it, but he knew it would stop eventually, and it did.

But there was one kid—even when it had all died down, even when Jimmy Coles, who was older and was friends with everybody, had said in front of all the boys, “You’re alright, Alex.” This kid—Dean—kept insisting with Booboo-cunt, looking for a laugh from the other boys, but nobody laughed anymore because the name had worn itself out. Dean acted tough but he followed Jimmy Coles around like a little dog. Jimmy wasn’t tough. He didn’t have to be. Everybody was his friend.

Sometimes when Dean called Alex Booboo-cunt, Alex gave him a hate look and Dean would walk up to his face and say, “Wanna fight?” Then he’d look back at his friends and say, “Join the army.” He’d laugh a stupid squeaky  laugh, kind of like Muttley, but nobody laughed with him. One day Alex was so enraged, that as Dean looked away Alex swung at him and hit him in the jaw and in the next instant they were on the ground punching and kicking each other.

When Tata found out Alex was fighting at school, he had a discussion with him.

“So you are a fighter?” Tata said.

“I don’t like this boy. I want to punch his face so hard.”

“And what will that accomplish?”

“He’ll stop bothering me.”

“Will he?”

“I think so.”

“But you don’t know so.”

Alex shrugged.

Tata sighed.

“My son, the real reason you want to punch him is you want to satisfy yourself. You want to satisfy your ego. But my son, we must always consider the consequences of our actions. To you it is a punch and a healing of your bruised ego but consider: you punch this kid, and it is a good punch, right in the teeth, and his teeth fly from his mouth and there is much blood dripping from his face and he goes running to his mama. There he is with his dripping mouth—blood all over the kitchen floor. His mama panics, because women always panic at the sight of blood. She must rush him to the hospital so he can stop bleeding on the kitchen floor. They race in the car to the hospital. She keeps looking at him. He is getting blood on himself and the seat. She is wondering how will she ever get this blood off the seat?—because women  always concern themselves with the cleanliness of things—and on one of these moments of looking, she runs through a red light. At that same moment, an innocent father is taking his little girl to get an ice cream. He smashes into the car that has run a red light, the mother and the bleeding boy  fly from the car and are killed instantly. He and his daughter fly against the windshield. The little girl dies a few days later and the father will regret the rest of his life the urge he had to treat his child to an ice cream. When she hears the news, the bleeding boy’s grandmother has a stroke. She will not die but remain in a vegetative state for years, and her family will suffer the burden of watching over her bed. The wife of the ice cream father will blame him for the death of their child, and that marriage will dissolve. These are just the immediate results of your selfishness, my son, not to mention the other lives that these dead people may have touched in their lives to possibly make the world a better place, and you have caused all of this tragedy because of your little ego. Do you think that is right? Do you think your ego is more important than the lives of all these people? Do you? Is a punch all that important in the face of all this death?”

Alex didn’t want anyone to die because of his ego, whatever that is, so he’ll have to live with being called Booboo-cunt.

 

©Attila Zønn 2017

 

 

Alex. part one

 

By Attila Zønn

1968

On a  late September afternoon in the ninth year of his life, Alexander Fierbinteanu ran home from school with the wonderful news he wanted to share with his father. He found Tata sitting in a lawn chair on the back porch smoking one of those skinny handmade cigarettes that Tata often rolled on Friday nights. Sometimes Alex sat at the table and watched Tata pull pinch-full’s of green tobacco from a clear plastic bag and sprinkle it on very thin papers, then Tata would roll a little, hold out the papers for Alex to lick and then would finish rolling them.

Alex liked it when he could help his tata.

Tata greeted him with a smile and said, “My son.”

Without catching his breath Alex said, “Tata—I think— it’d be—a wonderful—thing—if I died—so—I can go to Heaven and—become an angel.”

The smile disappeared  from Tata’s face and the look of disappointment took its place. Alex was familiar with this look. It would soon be followed by Tata telling him what he had done wrong.

“And how is it you are discussing angels at your school?” Tata said.

“Well, Tommy—he’s in my class—he wasn’t at school today because he died. Miss Sharps told us. She said it was a sad thing what happened to Tommy but Tommy’s in Heaven now, and God will make him an angel. That’s what God does. She said when little boys and girls die, God turns them into angels and they live forever in Heaven, where nothing bad ever happens. That’s where I want to live—where nothing bad ever happens.”

Now Tata had a sad face. It looked like Tata was sorry about something. Then it looked like he was thinking. Tata was a thinker and when his eyes stared straight ahead, and they had that tired look, Tata was thinking, and that’s what Tata was doing, but then his eyes narrowed slightly, and they were looking back on Alex, who suddenly felt like he was going to get into trouble.

Tata said, “There is no God. Therefore, there are no angels. If you die you will not become an angel. Worms will eat your flesh and you will become dust.”

“But Miss Sharps told us there is, and she says she’s a Christian.”

Tata frowned. “I am telling you there is no God and I have never lied to you.”

Alex  knew he shouldn’t talk against Tata anymore because it sounded like Tata was getting angry. Then Tata smiled, and opened his arms, and Alex knew that now Tata was going to give him the hug of understanding, and after the hug Tata was going to tell him an important thing that he must remember the rest of his life.

Tata hugged him tight then held Alex out by the shoulders and said, “My son. God is for weak people.  You are my son—Alexandru Radu Iliescu Fierbinteanu. And you will not be weak.”

As Tata was saying these words, Alex thought about  Mama and her holy table, where she kept a big glass crucifix and pictures of Nagymama and Nagyapa, and how every morning the first thing Mama did was light a candle for each of them, and the candles burned until they burned out. Then Mama would light other ones.

Alex said, “But Mama—”

“Mama is weak,” Tata said. “You will see this as you grow to become a man. You will see—your mama is weak.”

Alex didn’t like it when Tata said bad things about Mama. He loved his mama.

“Go now,” Tata said. “Forget these angels. Angels are for people who want to live in a fairyland. Go inside and wash your hands.”

With that, Tata took a good suck from his cigarette and went back to thinking.

Alex found Mama washing lettuce at the kitchen sink. He hugged her tight around the waist and this surprised her and made her laugh.

“How was your day in school my Booboola?” she said.

“Okay,” he said, and as Mama gently hugged him and kissed him on the top of his head he wished that as he grew to become a man he would never see that Mama was weak.

“I’m going to go to my room now,” he said, releasing her, suddenly burdened with a great worry.

“Wash your hands,” Mama said.

Tata was always right. He knew everything, so why did Miss Sharps lie to him about angels? He played back in his mind the events of the afternoon, how Miss Sharps had talked so happily about Heaven and God, and angels. And Stacey had put her hand up and said, “Some angels can make people fall in love by shooting arrows at them.”

“Those are cherubs,” Miss Sharps said. “And they are just made up creatures for Valentine’s Day.” She shook her head. “You can’t make someone fall in love with you by shooting an arrow at them.”

Stacey didn’t look happy about that.

Miss Sharps  said that angels weren’t men or women, they just were.

Then Miss Sharps  passed around a book with lots of pictures of an olden time, and there were angels in this book, flying up in the sky, pointing fingers at people on the ground—old ancient people, with long beards, who lived in a time before pants were invented, and all these people had scared looks on their faces, and arms across their foreheads like they were blocking their eyes from a bright light.

He turned a page and there was a picture of a tall angel with dark hair and big wings and it was holding a baby, and it was walking away from a man and a woman who were kneeling at a crib,  crying. The baby was smiling at the angel, but the angel had no expression—it just was, Alex thought. And though he felt happy about the existence of angels, the picture scared him. He also noticed that the angel looked a little bit like Miss Sharps, because she was also very tall with short brown hair.

Alex raised his hand and asked, “If angels are good why do the people look scared of them?”

“The people look scared because they didn’t know angels are good,” Miss Sharps said. “Nobody  told them, and since angels only worked for God, to be a little afraid of them was a good thing, that way the people would always do what God wanted.”

She said, “If you’re scared for the right reason, that’s a good thing. It makes you stay on the right path”, and Alex had thought, what path was that? So he asked Miss Sharps but it looked like Miss Sharps didn’t feel like answering his question because next she was talking about how magical it was and Alex had looked back on the book and agreed that everything looked so magical and how happy he had felt, knowing that such a world existed, and thinking that it would be much more fun to live in a world with angels than in an ordinary world. Anything was possible in a world with angels. And Miss Sharps had said there was an angel for each one of them, and how it was probably standing right beside them. And Alex said, “Why can’t we see these angels, Miss Sharps? Why aren’t there any angels flying around now?”

Miss Sharps  said, “We live in a different time. We’re too smart for our own good.”

And Alex had thought what was so different?, and what does being smart have to do with it and he was about to ask her what was so different and why so smart but then the bell rang and it was time to go home.

Now, sitting on his bed, with a lot of thinking done, Alex realized that angels were a lot like Santa Claus.

Alex had never known there was a Santa Claus until he started going to school. When Christmas time came all the kids were talking about Santa Claus, but Mama had told Alex that Christmas was the birthday of Jesu (Yesoo) and on that day Mama cooked a big dinner and Uncle Laszlo and Aunt Magda came over, and Uncle Laszlo brought Alex a present. It was usually a car or a truck or an airplane. So Alex asked Tata one day, “Who is a Santa Claus?”

Tata chuckled and said, “He is a big fat waste of time.”

Alex was hoping that Tata would tell him this great secret that he had only learned when he started going to school, that, now because he believed, there would be many gifts for him on Christmas morning.

Tata looked at him. “I am sorry to disappoint you my son, but the truth sometimes disagrees with what we want and we must get used to it. Santa Claus is the first false hope a parent gives their child. I could have adopted this silliness—elves and flying reindeer, but one day, when you are able to think for  yourself, you will wonder and ask me, ‘Tata, is there really a Santa Claus?’ At that point, in good conscience, I will no longer be able to perpetrate this falsehood. I will tell you,  ‘No, Santa Claus is an adult creation that allows people to recreate there infancy through their children, that he is no more real than the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, that it is a way for the candy companies and retail stores to profit from the masses, and how will you ever be able to believe me again when I tell you these things? You will always wonder how I had fooled you for many years—that a big, fat, cookie eating, milk drinking thing is able to cover the whole world with presents in one night. What would that do to my credibility with you, my son? What would that do?”

Alex liked it when Tata talked to him like he was grown up, even though he didn’t understand what Tata’s words meant most of the time. One day though, he’ll know what Tata was talking about.

Usually in the evenings, after dinner, Alex sat with his notebook open at the dining room table with Tata and copied words from the big thick leather dictionary that Tata keeps saying he bought for fifty dollars many years ago.

“Words are power, my son,” Tata told him, but sometimes because Alex was tired or because he was thinking of playing outside with his friends he might copy a word wrong, and Tata would say, “This is incorrect.  You are not paying attention. Look at it. It is right in front of you. How can you not copy it correctly? It is right in front of you. Even so, you know that the i comes before the e except after c .”

“I know,” Alex said.

“Well?” Tata pointed to the word in the notebook. “If you know it, why didn’t you do it?”

Alex didn’t have an answer. There were lots of times when Tata asked him a question about his mistakes and Alex didn’t know the answer, and then Tata would give him a sideways look and shake his finger at him and say in an angry voice, “You must work like a Trojan! This is not acceptable! Fix it and remember it!” And Alex would quickly rub out the bad letters, all the while wondering what a Trojan was, why he had to be like one and why did they work so hard? And Tata would say, like he did sometimes  as if he was talking to himself, “You will not be lazy and average, my son. You will reach high. That is why I am here. To make certain it happens.”

Tata worked sometimes during the day and sometimes during the night. And he didn’t work far away. Alex could see Tata’s workplace from his bedroom window, beyond the back yard and the road that ran behind the house, in a great gray building where they made metal things with “strict tolerances”, Tata had said—things that fit together perfectly. It was a building where whistles blew and buzzers buzzed, that had a gigantic door that was always open, except in the winter when it was too cold. And sometimes Alex could see Tata walking home, carrying his grey plastic lunch box, and Alex could have anything that was left over from Tata’s lunch, and sometimes Tata would bring home a piece of steel he’d created and Alex would examine it, and Tata would say, “Look at how perfect I have made this.” Alex never knew what these pieces were used for, but they were heavy, shiny, and they did feel perfect in his hands.

Tata was going to take Alex to a carnival. The carnival had been set up on a plot of land where a great lumberyard had once been. Alex remembered going to this place once with Tata to buy a sheet of plywood and a 2×4, and Tata had argued with the stock boy that he did not need a full length of 2×4 but only four feet and why did they not have four foot 2×4 for sale? Why should he have to pay for what he did not need? It was wasteful. The stock boy had shrugged and walked away.

“Shrug, shrug,” Tata had said. “Everybody in this country just shrugs. No one wants responsibility. Like a joke. No one cares. They do the hours and then fuck you.”

Tata had looked down at Alex then.

“I am sorry my son, but you have heard this word?”

Alex nodded.

“It means many things to these people. On the mind and on the tongue. It is a way of life. To some it is a part of them like, an extra anus. It is why there is no respect for wisdom. It is why it is hard for them to grasp new ideas. It is their shackle to an ancient time. Some people think it, but don’t want to hear it. It is no different in sound than truck, duck, luck, but say it and people get excited or punch you in the teeth. Remember this, my son. Never be afraid of a word.”

As they headed home along the sidewalk, Tata carrying the sheet of plywood over his head, shading Alex who walked in front of him carrying the eight foot piece of 2×4, Alex heard Tata talking to himself, and once he heard a chuckle.

“Stop,” Tata said, setting the sheet of plywood down on its short side. “You are almost a man now, so we can discuss these things. That word I said before—Fuck. It is funny how it can change the mood of a simple sentence. For example, if I say to you, ‘What are you doing?’ There is no harm.  I am happy, you are happy, you tell me what you are doing and everything is fine. But, if I say to you, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Now it is a sentence with an attitude. It is antagonistic. You will feel insulted. You will become angry, and of course, you will tell me to ‘fuck off!’   So, we can deduce that one fuck is answered by another. On the mind and on the tongue.” And with that Tata hoisted the sheet of plywood over his head and on they went.

This great lumber yard had burned down last summer. Alex remembered hearing sirens and running home from the park, finding Mama standing at the bottom of the driveway looking up at the sky. He remembers how afraid she looked, and at how the sky was filled with flying bits of black paper, and when he reached her she hugged him and said, “A bad thing is happening.” And then a fire truck came down the street and some firemen got out and started walking up the street, looking  at the tops of the houses. Alex and Mama  went into the house where Mama poured him some milk and made him a ham sandwich, and then she went to kneel in front of the holy table, made the sign of the cross, and started talking in a low voice.

Now there was a carnival on this piece of land, and as they entered it was like a magical place, full of lights and loud music with powerful beats that hit Alex’s body and passed through him, and wonderful smells—sweet smells and cooking meat smells. And everything was moving so fast that it made Alex laugh. What a fun place! he thought as they walked through. He and Tata stopped at every stall and the carnival men invited Tata to win a toy for the boy and Alex looked up at Tata with hopeful eyes, but Tata moved on.

“Not this one,” he said.

Onto the next one but not that one either. They stopped at a stand and Tata bought Alex some cotton candy, then off they went in search of the perfect game, and while they walked Tata explained how some games were rigged, that no matter how good you are you will never win because you are not supposed to win.

“If it looks easy then it isn’t,” Tata said. “If everybody won these people would not make money and if they don’t make money they will do something else where they can make money. That is how it is. That is how the world works. Like any endeavor that appears easy there is always a catch because no one will give you anything easily. Don’t be caught by the catch, my son.”

Finally, after having gone through the entire carnival and close to where they had come in, they came upon a standing roulette wheel and Tata said, “This is good.” Tata plopped some money onto the counter and Alex jumped towards the wheel and pulled it with all his might. The wheel spun  and spun and spun and clicked and clicked and clicked—it stopped and the man said, “You’re a winner!”

The carnie handed him a statue of a sitting white poodle. It was the most beautiful thing Alex had ever seen, and he handed it proudly to Tata who weighed it in his hands.

“It is made of plaster,” Tata said, handed it back to Alex and walked away.

Alex didn’t care what it was made of. He had won something, never having won anything before. It was a great feeling, and he hugged the dog against his chest and thought, it wasn’t a real dog, but he could pretend it’s real, and he’ll give it a name, and he’ll get a blanket, and some little pillows, like the kind Mama has on the sofa in the living room, and make a bed for it, beside his bed, and he could pretend like when he pretended he lived on a farm, and how every night he made sure the gates to the back yard were closed so the animals wouldn’t get out.

“Now you have a place to save your allowance,” Tata said.

“What, Tata?”

“The thing you are holding. It is a piggy bank.”

And now Alex saw the slot cut into the dog’s back, and he searched the statue all over but couldn’t find another hole. “But how do I get the money out when I want it?” he asked.

Tata took the dog into his hands and examined it.

“I suppose that will be a great tragedy then. You will have to destroy this beautiful thing to get your money out.” He handed the dog back to Alex. “Like I told you, there is always a catch.”

Alex was never going to break his pet. He will never use this dog as a piggy bank. And so he had decided.

Alex had always wanted a dog, and once he asked Tata if they could get a puppy but Tata had said no because “they shit everywhere and when they get sick it cost a fortune to treat them.”

Now Alex had a dog—sort of—and when he got home he prepared a bed on the floor, and he took the lid from an empty peanut butter jar that Mama was going to throw out, washed it and filled it with water, and as he was puffing things up to make the bed more comfy he heard a clink, and turned around to see Mama holding the dog.

She said, smiling a big smile, “I start you with a quarter.” And now every time he picked up the dog, the quarter knocked around inside and it bothered Alex that his pet was now a piggy bank.

 

Alex came home from school one day and found Tata crying in the kitchen.  His left hand was wrapped in a huge bandage, and Mama stood behind him, her hands on Tata’s shoulders and she was crying too.

Once Tata saw him he cried out in a terrible voice, “Oh, my son. Today is a black day. A great tragedy has fallen upon us. Today you have lost your father. I am no longer the same. My soul has been ruptured.”

And that’s when Mama told Alex that an accident had happened at Tata’s work, and Tata’s finger had been cut off.

“Come see me my son,” Tata cried. “I want to hold you.”

But Alex stayed where he was. He couldn’t move. All he could think of was when Tata used to say how he had the cleanest hands in the machine shop and how all the other men had filthy hands, “like pigs,” he’d said, and how could they “touch their wives with those hands, like pigs.”

“Oh, it is so much pain,” Tata cried, and Mama left his shoulders and went to the sink to pour a glass of water, and when she came back to the table she opened a little pill bottle and took out a pill and put it in Tata’s good hand.

“Give me more,” Tata said.

Mama said, “It says only one every—”

“Give me more!” Tata shouted, and it made Mama jump. She put two more in his hand. Tata threw the pills in his mouth, then got up and went into the living room. Mama looked at Alex. “Go upstairs,” she said. “I will make you something to eat and call you.”

Alex didn’t know how long he’d been upstairs but the sun was going down. Alex loved watching the setting sun. It had a different color every time, but this time it was just something to focus on, while he heard Tata crying downstairs.

When Mama finally came up she was wiping her eyes. She hugged him and said, “Come down, Alexandru, your tata needs you.” But Alex was afraid. He had never seen Tata cry before. Walking down the stairs Alex took Mama’s hand and squeezed it tighter the closer they got to the bottom.

Tata was asleep on the couch.

As he ate dinner Alex kept looking at Tata through the archway and hoped he would never wake up.

Over the next few days Tata slept a lot. Some men came to see Tata, but Mama told them Tata was asleep. When Alex came home from school he went straight to his room and only came downstairs when Mama called him, and Tata would be asleep.

After a week Tata went to the hospital and came home with a smaller bandage on his hand, but he just sat in his chair and looked down at the table, then he went to bed.

One evening when Alex was playing softball in the park—while he was on deck and practicing his swing—he looked around him and saw Tata standing beside the diamond fence. Tata had never come to see him play before, and it made Alex nervous, and he made a lot of mistakes and his team was angry with him.

All that week whenever Alex played in the park, Tata was there too. If Alex was goofing around in the tennis court, there was Tata watching him. If Alex played soccer with his friends Barry and John and Frankie, and his new friend Peter, there was Tata sitting on the park bench.

And then a week later at the softball game someone came up to Tata while he was standing watching.  It was a man whose son was on Alex’s team, and as they were talking he saw Tata pointing over at Alex and it made the other man smile, and then the man was looking at Tata’s bandaged hand and said something and Tata smiled and made a gesture like he was biting the tip of his finger, and the other man’s face went sad, but Tata smiled and shrugged. And then the man gestured for Tata to follow him and he took Tata to where a bunch of parents were sitting on bleachers, and the man said something to the people, and pointed to Alex, and the people smiled and made room for Tata, and the next week Tata brought a lawn chair and sat with the other parents and he was making them laugh, and Alex could hear them calling Tata by his name—Milan, and Tata looked so happy. It looked like Tata had made some friends, but Tata had once said friends were not a good thing. That was why Mama had no friends.

After a month, Tata’s bandage was now a small hood that slipped over the finger. Alex saw that Tata had not cut off his entire finger, only half, between the first and second knuckle of his middle finger on his left hand. It wasn’t so bad to look at with its hood bandage, but when Tata was finally healed and skin had grown over the wound, it looked unnatural and Alex dreaded the sight of it though his eyes always looked for it.

One night while Alex was copying words from the dictionary, Tata said, “My son. How many people do you think there are in the world who are missing a part of their body?”

Alex stopped writing and put on his thinking face for Tata.

“Of course,” Tata said. “ it is impossible for us to effectively calculate this question, but we can safely say, in all probability, that there are more people in the world who are intact, than who are missing a member. Therefore, since I make part of this lesser group, because of my disfigurement you know. Because there are less of us, because we could be a rarity, we could say that I am a,” and Tata thought for a moment, “ …unique. I am unique. Of course.”

Unique.

Alex had heard this word before but he didn’t know its true definition, and as sometimes happened with new words, Alex had trouble remembering how to pronounce it. So he practiced hard to remember this word. He could look up its meaning in the dictionary but Alex liked it better when someone explained it to him. He was going to ask Miss Sharps tomorrow. So just before afternoon recess, having remembered this conversation with Tata, he tugged on Miss Sharps’ sweater and said, “Miss Sharps? My father said that because he’s missing a part of his body, that he is u—eunuch. What is that exactly and why are there so few of them?”

Alex felt a sharp tug on his collar, which  made him look up and he saw Miss Sharps’ face; all twisted and red and her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head.

“Why, you filthy mouthed little boy,” she said and started pulling him by the collar into the hall, but Alex didn’t know what he’d done wrong. He started to cry because Miss Sharps was telling him he was going to the Principal’s office where his father would be called because they were going to get to the bottom of this. But what was this? Why was he in trouble?

Tata arrived complaining—what was the emergency? What was so urgent that he had to be summoned? Alexandru is not hurt. There he is. What is the problem? That’s when Miss Sharps told Tata and the Principal what Alex had said, and Alex was looking at Tata—looking for a sign that it was all a mistake and he wasn’t going to get in trouble. After she stopped talking, Tata stared at Miss Sharps, who was one head taller than him, and smiled.

“That is so silly,” he said. “You cannot be serious.” And now the Principal was smiling.

“We were talking about being unique,” Tata said. “Unique! He is only a little boy. He does not know of such things. And let me assure you, in case you believed him, that I am well intact in that department.”

It seemed like a long time that Tata and Miss Sharps stared at each other, and Miss Sharps’s face was getting redder and redder, and then she said, “Alex, you can go home with your father. You can go home early.”

While they were walking home Tata said, “Alexandru, my son, it would be wise if you did not share our discussions with anyone no matter how friendly you think you are with them. This teacher? I know her kind. She cannot live outside of herself. She will hold this misunderstanding against you, mark my words. You have lost her as a friend.” And it happened as Tata had said because from the next day on Miss Sharps didn’t say good morning to him anymore and she never picked him again when he knew the answer.

©2017 Attila Zønn

Along The Shore

Greater_Sand_Plover

By Attila Zønn

 

We walked around all day looking for something to shoot. William wanted to try his new shotgun. There was no game. Years of unregulated hunting had depleted all the wildfowl and ground game. Like ghosts from the abundant past, two ducks settled on the marshy delta. William  shot at them, but they flew off untouched.

He handed me the gun and said, “Give it a try.”

I shot at a rock.

The jolt knocked me in the jaw.

I handed the gun back to him and we walked.

The sun was going down and William wasn’t happy.  He wanted to kill something. We went to the shoreline and watched sand plovers run along the water’s edge. William shot at one, but even with all his buckshot he only nicked it. The bird leaned into its broken wing and pivoted in a circle. William picked it up, held it and watched it’s blinking eyes and heaving chest while it tried to flap a wing.

He twisted it’s neck.

It’s legs spasmed and kicked,  then the bird went limp. William saw my disgust and said, “Leaving it alive would have been far worse for it.”

I said, “Not shooting it would have been better for it.”

©2017 Attila Zønn

Holes

DSC_0308By Attila Zønn

Ilyse:

If Tommy had not gotten piss drunk in the middle of the week at Luigi’s Irish Pub wing night he would have been able to go to work on Thursday morning and his boss Larry, of The Fine Furniture Folks, wouldn’t have yelled at his wife Ilyse when she refused to drive the delivery truck.

“Why can’t Terry and Les,”—the delivery boys—“ drive the truck?” she asked.

“ ‘Cause they’re low-life knuckleheads. You’re the only one I can trust. Jesus Christ! Can’t you just do this one thing without bustin’ my balls about it?”

Ilyse wanted to get Larry an I Love Jesus sticker for his bumper because Jesus Christ was always shooting out of his mouth.

Any other day she’d have no problem driving the truck, but she had made plans for today—she was going to meet Marty.

Ilyse used to drive the delivery van back when the company was small. It was her and Tommy and any kid Larry could hire off the street for eight bucks an hour. Back then the shop was in their garage—Larry had knocked the back wall out and added an extra twenty feet—and the cops used to show up because Larry worked into the night. It was always the same cops—Paul and Dan—and Ilyse made coffee for them while Larry showed them the finer points of joinery.

“Deep inside,” Larry told her after they’d left, “everybody wants to be a woodworker.”

Finally a deal was struck with their neighbours—Larry would insulate the garage to muffle the saws and planer, and also repair whatever wooden woes the neighbours might have.

The cops never came by again.

She’d learned to drive truck in her teens during summer break when she’d accompany her father on the long hauls, and sometimes she’d take the wheel so Dad could nap in the back. Dad always told her to stay within the speed limit and watch out for cops. She thought watching out for cops was pointless because as soon as you see them, they’ve already seen you.

That was a good time in her life. There she was, with Dad’s cap and sunglasses on, feeling so accomplished manoeuvring all that weight. What other seventeen-year-old girl could handle an eighteen-wheeler? And she felt safe clutching the wheel because her dad had told her, “In a wreck, unless you hit another transport, this rig comes out on top.”

Those were the good old days.

She and Larry had had good old days. Back then she called him ‘Honey’, back when she had respect for him, looked forward to being with him. Then—when carefree was a condition they took for granted. Now he was just Larry or when her ire was up—Fuckin’ Larry.

Larry has lost his enthusiasm for things over the years. He used to make her laugh—so hard sometimes she’d piss herself. The laughter died down as Larry plunged deep into his ambitions and became focused solely on his work, and his desire to succeed. They’d bumped into a lot of setbacks, and if it were up to her she’d have given up and found something else to do, something less stressful than being self-employed.

They’d met that morning when the school bus she was driving conked out on her and she was stranded on the gravel along Hwy 7. A rusty pickup truck coming the other way made a U-turn, pulled up in front of her and Larry jumped out. Other cars slowed down but Larry waved them away.

“What seems to be the trouble?” he said.

“It just died.”

He looked here and there under the hood as she watched him, hopeful he could flip a switch to get her going again. He wiggled some wires, pulled some belts, tapped on some square things.

“Hmm,” he said, stroking the stubble on his chin. “If this was made of wood, I could probably help you, but as it stands, I haven’t got a clue what’s wrong. I failed auto mechanics.”

She looked at him, wondering, then why did you pull over?

She used his cell phone and called the yard to send somebody.

Later in their relationship he told her he liked how she’d climbed on the bumper and hoisted down the hood—like a man. She wasn’t a damsel in distress—that was attractive. And the way her ass looked in those jeans was another deciding factor. And when he saw her face it was the icing on the cake.

Being his own boss was what Larry had always wanted.  She was swept up in his excitement as they ventured into the self-employed realm. They were naïve. Selling a few tables and chairs at a flea market was not indicative of a viable market. Giving up a bi-weekly paycheck because he didn’t want to be subjected to ‘some asshole’ looking over his shoulder was reckless.

The money was there for the taking he told her. “People want real wood not veneered particle board.”

At the flea market he had her dress as ravishing as she could to lure men to the booth. She didn’t like being the focal point. She didn’t like the hairy eyeball she got from the men’s wives as Larry explained the woods and techniques.

But it started off with a bang—six jobs. She finally got a dishwasher and Larry put money down on a new F-150, but then it petered out to just an order a month—if they were lucky. He had to diversify. How?

He got his eureka moment one Sunday afternoon drinking a beer in the kitchen. He was looking at the cupboards, then jumped up proclaiming, “Kitchens! Real wood kitchens! That’s what people want.”

Larry and his real wood. Sometimes at the shop Ilyse felt like grabbing a piece of real wood and clobbering him over the head with it.

He’d always told her, “If you’re going to run a business you’ve got to know more than the people working for you.”

Prophetic words.

Larry should have followed his own advice. What did Larry know about kitchens? He needed help.

Along came the partner—Orazio.

Larry never told her under what rock he had found this guy.  He was an ugly little man with bad teeth, bad breath and big hands. He was nothing to look at but he sure thought highly of himself.

When Larry wasn’t within ear shot Orazio would say, “My Darling, why you want to be with this guy? Orazio can give you much pleasure.”

She wanted to tell Larry. Larry would have knocked his rotten teeth out of his rotten mouth but that would have been the end of the business, which started doing well.

Orazio had connections. He knew how to get the jobs.

Machinery was bought.

Skilled people were employed.

A large truck was leased.

So she toughed it out.

Then one day Orazio skipped back to Portugal taking all the capital and left Larry with a debt so large the depths from which he could only surface through bankruptcy. The Fine Furniture Man became The Fine Furniture Folks.

Back inside the garage.

A trip to the bank.

Now everything had to be in her name and it would take two lifetimes to pay off the mortgage.

Larry tried to assure her that, “Starting from zero was better than starting in the minuses.”

Good years followed though, but then the recession came and the phone calls started—creditors calling at dinnertime.

To this day she dreads the sound of a ringing phone.

Larry keeps telling her to get a cell phone but she won’t have one. She doesn’t want to be that available. She loves her secret moments. Even from Marty.

Though life wasn’t bliss with Larry, she wasn’t looking to have an affair with Marty. She wondered sometimes why she wanted to throw eighteen years of marriage away? She’s lived longer with Larry than she’d lived with her parents.

After Daddy died. After he’d hit that other transport, her mother’s depression had been unbearable. Mum’s life became blurred by booze, and when she was in that state she’d target her anger at Ilyse.

Ilyse never knew what hell she’d find when she got home, as she nervously slipped the key in the lock, quietly pushed and peered around the door. She’d let out a sigh whenever she saw Mum passed out on the couch. Mum wasn’t the nicest woman even in the best of times but she was a monster when she got drunk.

She had to admit that Larry’s hard work and perseverance has paid off. They had money now.  The company had a reputation. Larry could take it easy but he still came home late, wolfed down his warmed dinner and fell asleep in front of the TV with a beer in his hand.

But the damage was done—she was bored of him.

 

 

It was hot in the cab. Les and Terry were sitting beside her and the B.O. coming off them after an afternoon of deliveries was suffocating. She didn’t blame them for stinking. They were men after all—proficient at grunts and sweat stink. She kept turning her head towards the open window and taking deep breaths.

The last delivery was in a new subdivision.

“Lots of money there,” Larry had said. “New houses. New furniture.” They were nice houses, large and ornamented. “One day we’ll have a house like that,” Larry told her.  But Ilyse didn’t want a house like that. She was happy with her bungalow and her neighbours.

She sighed. Why did she have to be here?

Fuckin’ Larry.

She was ready to leave him—soon. She was running away with Marty. It was just a matter of time. Marty had to straighten out a few things, then they’d be together forever, and she’ll have her happily ever after.

She had always been intent on keeping her vows—till death do us part, in sickness, in health, all that idealistic shit she believed before marriage kicked her in the teeth and knocked her to her knees. But now…

She had met Marty at the supermarket.

She was comparing weight to price when another shopping cart slammed into hers. There was plenty of room in the aisle for both carts so she couldn’t understand how two carts could collide like that.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the crasher said. “Are you alright?” Then stuck out his hand. “My name’s Martin.”

“No harm done,” she said, and continued down the aisle.

He came after her.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I don’t usually do this but I must say, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

She wasn’t falling for that but it made her blush.

When their carts crossed in the laundry aisle he said, “I’m sorry to keep bothering you,  but I’m new at this. What cleans better, Gain or Sunlight?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I use Tide.”

When they crossed again in the next aisle he had a large jug of Tide in his cart. This made her smile. And when she reached the checkout, he was right behind her. And for many weeks after she’d run into him.

She thought it was just coincidence in a neighbourhood with one shopping plaza.

He called it kismet.

One day she went around the corner and he came around the corner, threw up his hands and said, “Are you following me?”

She laughed.

They went for coffee.

She had so much in common with Marty. She loved movies and he had been in the movies. He was in The Bone Collector. Larry called it a stupid movie. He was getting impatient watching it. He said, “Jesus Christ! If that camera focuses on Angelina’s lips one more time…” And gestured as if he’d throw his can of beer at the TV.

Larry refuses to be insulted by bad movies and turns them off or walks out. He wanted to turn the movie off. “Give it a chance,” she told him. She wanted to wait for the scene with Marty, and there he was! He was standing behind the police tape and out of focus but she could see him as clear as day.

On her pros and cons checklist, which she keeps hidden beneath her things in the underwear drawer, Marty got more pros checks and Larry got most of the cons checks. Marty did have some cons though—he was married and had two kids.

She and Larry never had time for kids. Larry said it would drain them financially. It would distract them from building the business. She agreed at first, but now at thirty-seven, she feels an emptiness that maybe the love for a child could fill, and she wouldn’t be alone…but she had Marty.

She did have Marty.

But she also had doubts. Her perspective wasn’t as clear as it used to be.

Last Friday Larry had come home early, which was strange. He’d brought a bottle of wine, which was stranger. A nicely chilled bottle of Liebfraumilch—her favourite. That he had remembered something she liked made her wonder what the hell was going on. He poured them each a glass, tinked his glass to hers, then sat across from her with a big smile on his face.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Great,” he said.

She wondered if he’d found something out.

Then he jumped up, grabbed her and lifted her in his arms, carried her down the hall and dropped her on the bed. Before she could react he was all over her.

She didn’t resist.

It felt like a rape more than lovemaking but that’s how she had always liked it—spontaneous, rough, animal.  Being overpowered had always turned her on. The moment was reminiscent of the vigour Larry once had.

She had missed having her nipples twisted and ass slapped.

And for that moment her love for Larry flowed back in warm waves. Why couldn’t it always have been like this? Why did he have to focus on work more than he focused on her? Why couldn’t they have had a life together, instead of he always being on the other side of his dream and she alone with no one to talk too?

Afterwards, lying in bed, they talked.

Larry had gotten a new contract—it was big!

“Worth thousands—the race track, where the Queen sits to watch the horses—all has to be redone.” He’d put out a tender and they gave him the job. Cabinets, tables, chairs—everything. It was going to take five months.

She was excited by his excitement, and she’d snuggled against him and twirled the hair on his chest as he talked.

Then she heard the honk.

Whenever Marty drives by her house, he honks his horn.

She suddenly felt cold, pulled away from Larry and covered herself with a robe and told him she had to go to the bathroom. She sat on the toilette and wondered why she had let Larry make love to her. Her future was with Marty. It was all planned. She was just waiting on Marty. How could she slip up like that?

Now she felt guilty that she had just cheated on Marty with her husband.

What was going to happen now, when she went back to the bedroom? She couldn’t ignore Larry, after all that.

Larry wasn’t a bad guy, really. They had just grown apart. He was reliable. When he said something he meant it. Sure, he got uptight when his schedule was upended. Who wouldn’t?

He wasn’t very abusive. He yelled. She yelled back in his face too so she wasn’t innocent in that regard. She’d even told him to fuck off lots of times and that usually ended the argument. That was normal between husband and wife. She reasoned, if you can’t tell the one you love to fuck off then it isn’t a close relationship.

He’d never called her names.

Marty had once called her a ‘ninny’ but he said he was joking when he said it.

Marty—was cheating on his wife. His dishonesty had crossed her mind…but…that’s only because Marty wasn’t happy in his marriage…but…what if he cheated on her one day? She wasn’t a saint but even though she wasn’t happy with Larry she had never thought to look for love elsewhere—until Marty crashed into her.

She’s pictured herself as stepmother to Marty’s kids. How would that work out? Would they want her as a step-mom or would they blame her for tearing their family apart? But it wasn’t her fault. It was their dad’s doing.

Larry never listens.  She tries to tell him what’s bothering her but all he ever gives her is solutions. She doesn’t want solutions. She wants him to listen.

Marty is a good listener. He’s very attentive, though sometimes when she’s talking, his eyes poke elsewhere. There was that one time, when they met downtown, and were sitting outside on a patio. He kept looking past her shoulder. She finally looked back and there was a pretty young girl sitting at a table behind them. It was the only time she was really upset with him. She wanted to break it off right then.

Marty explained that he wasn’t looking at the girl but the fancy drink she was sucking on. He’d never seen anything like it before. She looked back then and didn’t see anything special about it—a tall green glass with a stupid paper umbrella stuck in it. What’s so unique about that?

Larry never looks at other women.

Marty was a pothead. He said he needed it to take off the edge.

Larry drank beer but he never got drunk.

She doesn’t like talking to Marty when he’s stoned. And that’s the only time she feels isolated from him—when he’s stoned. You can’t have a serious conversation with someone who’s stoned. They laugh at everything you say.

She thinks Marty’s successful—in something.  She doesn’t know what he does. She asked him once, but he changed the subject so she never asked again. He acts and looks like someone who is in command. She thinks sometimes that it’s funny, that she really doesn’t know much about the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with—but that’ll change once they start living together.

Larry is very readable. She knows what he thinks. He doesn’t hold back. He’ll tell her like he sees it.

She wondered how she was going to live with a pothead. At Marty’s age—she never asked him how old he was. Probably in his forties—smoking that stuff at forty, it’s probably going to be a lifelong thing.

Sometimes when they’re together, Marty can’t get an erection, and it upsets him so she has to reassure him that it happens to every man once in a while. Sometimes she feels like Marty’s mother.

Sometimes in the past Larry has had that problem, but he didn’t get frustrated, he’d kiss her and say, “Doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, babe.” Then he’d get up and go to the kitchen to grab a beer.

Her life lately has been confusion but also bouts of optimism, all blending together to give her the weirdest highs and lows she’s ever experienced, and she wonders why she had made her life so complicated.

Now, driving the truck, she approached an intersection. Suddenly there was a kid on a bike in front of the truck.

“Oh shit!—”

She swerved to miss the kid on the bike and drove straight into the man who was selling golf balls, sitting under an umbrella by the side of the road. Death was instantaneous for the man, and his golf balls flew into the air along with him, over the little knoll and down onto Albino, Manuel and Jose who were framing footings for a new house in that subdivision. The golf ball man managed to break Jose’s neck with his dead body while Albino and Manuel were pelted with dimpled projectiles as they ran for their lives screaming, “Fodas!”

Down one lot they had already started pouring concrete into the footings.

The spotter became distracted by the drama and forgot he was guiding a reversing cement truck, edging precariously to the edge of an eight-foot drop. It wasn’t the reverse beeps that finally brought the spotter to the present but the crashing groan of a fully laden cement truck sliding down the embankment on it’s side…

© Attila Zønn 2017

Eddie

chair-2229578_960_720By Attila Zønn

Eddie Nova, a resident of the Wyndcliffe trailer park, sits his chubby soul in his cubby kitchen on Sunday morning and picks through a supermarket tabloid.

The center spread is festooned with voyeur shots of bikini clad Hollywood starlets caught not in the peak of starlet condition.

He shakes his head and says, “Poor human race. Poor world.”

Eddie knows what’s wrong with the world—there are too many famous people and too many people obsessed with famous people. He flips the page and says, “The masses of men lead lives of self-induced unconsciousness,” and smiles.

Eddie has been aware for some time that he talks to himself. He’s aware of this thing he calls his lonely passage through life, and has accepted it without regrets. There are people who can’t be alone, who panic when they lose sight of another human being, who must be surrounded by breath and heartbeats and words.

Eddie isn’t one of these people.

Though on occasion he has felt bursts of excitement, has flung open the door and teetered on the threshold, eager to be part of the human race but those times are aberrations.

Mostly, his door stays shut.

When he first moved in here Frank told him he didn’t have to deal with anybody. “Just keep your door shut, if you want. No one will bother you.” That’s what Frank told him, but they started coming out of the woodwork the next Saturday when he was building the deck. He actually didn’t do any of the building, Frank did all of it. He did help a little; handing a board or two here and there and getting bottles of water for Frank, who worked very hard for him.

Eddie didn’t want a deck but Frank insisted, saying it was a good place for Eddie to sit in the evenings and enjoy the air, but Eddie knew he was never going to use it.

And on that day people came by as they do when they see a new face. They introduced themselves and Frank introduced himself and shook hands but Eddie stood still, mute, like a monolith, without even a nod or a twitch of acknowledgement towards his visitors.

Frank had to introduce him.

Eddie felt their awkwardness staring at a middle-aged man in late June wearing a jacket, droopy wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses; his armor. His neighbors probably have a name for him now like weirdo or hermit or some other name people come up with when they’re talking behind one’s back.

Eddie doesn’t want to know anyone because when you connect with another human being a thing called feelings surfaces and then Eddie has to decide whether to like, love, trust, need, be grateful, be thankful ….which brings him to Frank, the anomaly to his view on his fellow human beings.

Frank was an all right young man.

Frank’s always around doing things for him and Eddie’s grateful for that. There’s a cleaning lady too. She does his laundry and dusts his place and does his groceries. She brings her kids with her; two little girls, a year and a half apart but they could pass as twins. He watches them while she runs some errands. They bring their picture books, and sit on either side of him on the couch while he reads them  stories. He enjoys their giggles and laughter when he gives the characters funny voices. It’s the least he could do since she keeps his place tidy.

So apart from them, having no one else he’d like to converse with, he likes the sound of his own voice. As long as you know you’re talking to yourself, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

He likes his little TV—his ghost company. From the moment he wakes until the time he goes to bed, the TV is on. It’s tuned to a cooking channel and that’s enough for him. Today, a very attractive young woman is cooking low fat, organic, low cholesterol, and high fiber concoctions that Eddie would never consider eating but he likes her voice and the way she wields a knife. He wonders why anyone would go to such bland lengths to eat.

“Where’s the pleasure of good fat and real sugar?” he says to the TV. “The world is crumbling down around our ears and suddenly everybody wants to live forever.”

The sun streams in through windows adorned with  beige horizontal blinds and casts bars across the floor just short of the tip out. The trailer smells of bacon, fried eggs and burnt bagels. A smoky haze stretches and twirls against the sunlight, below the open smoke detector.

Eddie could eat fried eggs and bacon every morning but the girl who cleans his place only gives him enough for one meal a week. She’s one of those healthy eating people. She wants him to live forever. So he looks forward to his Sunday morning breakfasts, and the aroma of simple pleasure.

He sets aside the tabloid, sits back and gleans the compartment and the possessions of a life secured inside this shell on wheels.

There’s the guitar, hanging on a hook by the hinge side of the door; a Martin he bought thirty years ago and has been trying to learn to play ever since. He picks it up sometimes when he feels a jolt of musical fervour, plucks a few notes, strums a few chords, rides the musical moment happily, then suddenly he’s struck with melancholy and a feeling that something is missing, and he looks around him, searching for that indescribable thing. A memory at the tip of his memory, its almost as if he is on the verge of remembering something important  but then it fizzles, and sleeps till the next time he tries to play the guitar. So he hangs it up, sits on the couch and stares at it for a while.

Sometimes he sits on the couch for hours and stares at the door, and thinks. Then his eyes go back to the guitar. One day he’ll play it well. He’s getting there; he almost knows a full song now thanks to Frank’s kid.

Bit by bit it’ll all come together.

It’s a shame,though, that he has all this time yet fritters it away thinking.

Thinking goes hand in hand with doing.  They are like ham and cheese, bread and butter, bacon and eggs. But he has trouble with the doing part. For him, doing can be put off for another day. Thinking is easy. You don’t have to move.

Later on today Frank is coming to fix his air conditioner and he’ll probably bring his kid; the head banger, with his long black hair, jeans ornamented with dangling chains and wearing one of his many black T-shirts displaying skeletons, skulls and upside down crosses or something to do with the dead.

The kid’s Godless.

He told Eddie so.

Back in his day, if anybody questioned God they’d get a slap across the face. But that kid sure can play the guitar. Eddie wishes he could play one fraction as good as Frank’s kid.

The kid rides his bike over at least once a week and Eddie sits at the window waiting for him. There’s an unexplainable emotion Eddie feels in his throat and chest when he sees the kid pull up that causes him to rush to the door and open it.

The first thing the kid does when he comes in, after he says hi to Eddie, he asks, “Can I play your guitar?” Eddie nods, and stands back, sees the kid pull a pick out of his pocket and go for the guitar, and the kid always says, “It’s out of tune.”

But soon enough, after some tightening and loosening of strings, he’s off to the races; spider fingers running all over that fret board, tone as clear as the sound of water over rocks and Eddie  gets a lump in his throat and teary eyed at how beautiful his guitar sounds in someone else’s hands. He’s had thirty years to learn to play and this kid’s only been alive for fifteen.

The kid asked Eddie once, “Why don’t you have any books around here?”

It was true, Eddie didn’t have any books. When you’re with your thoughts all the time you don’t need anything to occupy your mind. Eddie answered, that he did have a book and it was the only book that mattered.

“Which one’s that?” the kid said.

Eddie went to get the book, inside the drawer beside his bed. A book that has always felt good in his hands; with its straight spine and tassel bookmark, still as pristine as when he bought it thirty years ago. He liked the feel of its black leather cover and embossed words: Holy Bible. He presented it to the kid who kept on strumming, saying, “Oh, that one.”

That one? Why, the little punk.

Eddie was about to straighten the boy out on the greatest book ever written, when the kid asked, “Have you read all of it?”

It was something Eddie was intending to do one day.

Eddie retorted, “No, just the parts that matter for now.” And then wondered why he would say that.

The kid, still strumming said, “It should all matter, if you believe it.”

Yes it did all matter. It did all matter and one day he was going to read the whole thing.

What did this kid know? He’s barely lived.

“I read it, last summer,” the kid said. “I wanted to know what the big deal was. It was a hard read. It had a lot of bumps in the narrative. My philosophy teacher told us that a good writer doesn’t make the reader stumble, but I bet there’s people tripping all over the place when they read the Bible. It repeats itself a lot, it contradicts itself a lot too and goes on and on about begetting and who was the son of who. How can people live to be six hundred years old? Nine hundred years old? And it’s full of terrible things people do to each other, especially to women. Women don’t rate in that book. I asked my philosophy teacher about it. He’s had a book published. He said, if the Bible was a novel being submitted to a publisher, the editor would demand a huge re-write. And people believe God wrote it. My teacher said the book’s got potential, it just needs a good editor.”

Eddie liked this kid very much. All in all, if one could look beyond the demonic clothing he was really a nice kid, misguided, but a good kid, but this time, confronted with that typical attitude; when the ignorance of youth disregards the past and can’t see beyond the things not relevant to their immediate lives, he lost it, and yelled at the kid, “Who does he think he is to make fun of the Bible? It’s the word of God!”

He startled the kid. The kid stopped strumming and the color drained from his face.

Eddie felt guilty about yelling at the kid. It wasn’t his kid. He had no right yelling at Frank’s kid. Why was he yelling? Did yelling ever solve anything? It bothered him for days afterwards, even though he thinks some people need a good yelling at to set them straight.

He often worries about Frank’s kid and the cleaning lady’s little girls, and how the future might be for them. He was glad he never had any kids.

“I’m sorry Grandpa,” the kid said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just talking. I didn’t know that book meant so much to you. Dad says what I choose to believe is my own business and I shouldn’t discuss it with people I don’t know, they might get upset. He says people will do crazy things in the name of God. So I should keep it to myself, but I thought I could talk to you about it.”

“You don’t question God. You can’t go against him,” Eddie said, feeling his body tremble as he eased himself onto the couch beside the kid.

“Why not? Grandpa, if people didn’t question stuff we’d still be living in the dark,  riding horses instead of cars.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“It would. It’s like being stuck in the past.”

“The past was better. It was simpler. Things are too complicated now.”

“Was it really that much better?” the kid said. “I’ve read a lot of history. The past was a very brutal time. It was bloody and unforgiving. This world isn’t perfect but its better than the past.”

“Well—”

“We live in the best time people have ever lived. We can speak our minds and be whatever we want if we try.”

“I know but—”

“Human beings are naturally curious, right? And if a god made us then he made us curious, so why should he punish us if we wanted to know about stuff? Think of all those diseases we’ve cured by being curious. If we weren’t curious we’d be dying from simple diseases. Grandpa, in the past you could die from just getting a scratch.”

“We can’t all live forever,” Eddie said. “We can’t be so selfish. Eventually we have to make room for someone else.”

“Have you ever seen God, Grandpa?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure,” Eddie said. “But I feel him. Right here.” He patted his chest.

“People feel all kinds of things,” the kid said. “ It doesn’t mean it’s real. If something is real then everybody should be able to see it and feel it.”

“Well, if there is no God, then who created all this?”

The kid shrugged. “It just happened. Why do we need to know that anyway? Here we are. Let’s just go with it. The meaning of life? Life just is. Why distract ourselves from living with questions like that?”

Eddie smiles and shakes his head when he hears it just happened. Random chance. A few chemicals getting together in a puddle of water, the right amount of sun, the right amount of air, and poof! Here we are thinking and reasoning. What garbage.

“There has to be a creator. All we have is this life? And then what?  What is there to look forward to? What do we worship?”

The kid looked disappointed. “Why does anything have to be worshipped? That’s like saying we don’t rate.” He slouched back on the couch, thinking, then sat up with a glint in his eye.

“How about worshiping a tree? There’s no doubt a tree exists. And if somebody ever came out of the forest telling people that a tree told him they should follow him, no one would listen to him. There’d be no doubt he was either crazy or putting people on, ‘cause everybody knows trees don’t talk.

“Think of what a tree can give you; this guitar came from a tree, as well as a lot of musical instruments, and I think of all the things we know, music is probably the thing that makes people the happiest. Don’t you think so? We get wood to build houses so we can stay safe, wood to burn so we can stay warm and you can climb a tree and see far distances, and it gives you shade where you can sit and, and read your Bible. And a tree’ll never tell you what you have to wear, what you can’t eat or what part of your body to cut off. And no one’s ever heard of somebody losing control of their car on a wet road and hitting a god. But they hit trees. They hit trees all the time, ‘cause trees are real.” And with a self-satisfied smile he went back to strumming the guitar.

Eddie asked Frank once where his kid got all his notions. Frank had said, “He reads a lot.”

Then the kid stopped playing, frowned and sat up.

He said, “You know what might happen though? The way people are, some people might think that their tree is better than someone else’s tree. Like some people might like the oak tree and someone might like the birch, or the weeping willow, and think the other guy’s tree is inferior, and they might go around chopping down the other guy’s tree, and that might lead to a tree war, where they’ll kill millions of people till one side wins and then there’ll be too many trees from that side and things will look out of balance, and the losers will resent the winners because they can’t grow their own tree, and they’ll stew on it for years and years till one day they start another war in the name of their tree. People are like that and it probably could happen.”

Eddie had suddenly felt exhausted listening to this kid.

“Can you play Stairway to Heaven?” he said.

The kid frowned. “I could, but why would I want to? It’s such a cliché piece. Listen to this.”

And off he went a hundred miles an hour—bending strings, flicking strings and vibrating all over the place. The kids technique was impressive, but there was no familiar tune Eddie could latch onto. All Eddie heard now was a bunch of notes, nicely played, but meaningless to him.

“Don’t you know any songs I might know?” Eddie said.

“Like?”

“ Simple Man?”

“Nope.”

“Heart of Gold?”

“Nope.”

“Dust in the Wind?”

“I know that one,” the kid said, and off he went. It sounded just like the record. It was better than the record because some guy wasn’t singing over the guitar part.

Suddenly filled with an immense euphoria Eddie said, “Can you—can you show me how to play that?”

“Sure, it’s easy. Here, this is the basic pattern.” As the kid played, Eddie was mesmerized by the easy, smooth way the kid’s fingers plucked the strings.

“Its really pretty simple once you know how it’s done,” the kid said. “The right hand does pretty much the same thing throughout. I did this as a lesson. My teacher says Metal is good, but that I shouldn’t limit myself, that I should be an all round player, that I’ll appreciate it later. I’ll write the chords down for you if you get me a pen and paper.”

Eddie quickly stood and put a step forward but stopped and turned when the kid said,“Always remember it’s not what you play, Grandpa, it’s how you play it. It doesn’t always have to be complex, it just has to feel good.”

“Okay,” Eddie said then hurried to get a pen and a yellow pad from the drawer beside his bed.

After the kid demonstrated the sequence of notes Eddie took the guitar and tried it. As he was writing the chords down on the pad, the kid said, “You know what’s always made me wonder about Jesus?”

“I can’t imagine,” Eddie said, positioning his fingers on the strings.

“If it was God’s plan to sacrifice his only son for the sins of the world, why have people hated the Jews?”

Eddie was half listening, half trying to get his fingers to pluck the right strings. He  had never considered the plight of the Jews. It wasn’t a thought utmost on his mind.  The only Jew he had ever met was a lawyer in the big city when he and Frank had gone there to get Eddie’s affairs in order. That Jew had done alright by him.

“The Jews gave Jesus up to the Romans who crucified him,” Eddie said. “They betrayed our Lord.”

The kid smiled.

“See, that’s what doesn’t make sense,” the kid said. “If that did happen, why hold a modern people responsible for what an ancient people did?”

Eddie shrugged.

The kid said, “And anyhow, if it was God’s plan to have his son born only to kill him years later, then the Jews were just following God’s plan, right? God knew it was going to happen that way. He’s God, right? So why should anybody blame the Jews? They did exactly what God wanted. You could even say that God made them do it. They had to or else God wouldn’t be able to show how much he loved the human race by having his son tortured and crucified. Even Judas. He wasn’t  a bad guy, he followed the plan, but he’s vilified. And think of how Christianity wouldn’t exist if Jesus hadn’t been crucified and then risen from the dead. See, if people would just look at it all logically and with a critical eye, so many lives could have been spared and the world would be a better place. That whole story is convoluted, you know. There’s a lot of holes in the plot.”

Eddie was thinking about what the kid was saying.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” he said. “ But if history had gone a different way, you wouldn’t be here.”

“But I wouldn’t know I wasn’t here, so that doesn’t matter.”

“But knowing that you’re here now, isn’t it better to be here?”

“If a bunch of innocent people who lived before me were still alive and that caused me not to be born, it wouldn’t bother me.”

Eddie didn’t know what to say to that so he went back to plucking strings.

“My philosophy teacher says part of the reason Jews got picked on was because of their unwillingness to assimilate. They always wanted to be different. He said people that don’t conform will always get picked on.”

This teacher the kid keeps referring to talks too much,  Eddie thought. This teacher was starting to annoy Eddie. A damned know it all. Its easy to point out what’s wrong with something, but they’ve got no solutions. Just complainers, complaining to hear themselves complain. Using their intellect to belittle everyone else.

“What’s wrong with wanting to be different?” he said. “People butting into your life trying to make you swim with them. They have all the answers, right? Living life to the fullest nonsense, but if you’re doing what you want and minding your own business—you know what I don’t like? Those people that come around and say that because you haven’t experienced what they’ve experienced, you’re missing out. That look down on you because you don’t want to sit around the campfire.”

“Yeah,”the kid said nodding, his eyes wide. “Like in school. They call me a freak.They call me an EMO. They call me a faggot too but they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m none of that. They’re just throwing out labels ‘cause all they know is labels.”

“Damn labels!”

“Yeah, my hair is long, I dress like I do, and the music I like isn’t mainstream. But that’s me. I’m an individual. I’d rather get good grades instead of wasting my time trying to be popular. You know, in a corner of the cafeteria there’s a place for the freaks and the nerds. I’d rather be there. We’re not very talkative. We mind our own business and don’t judge. You know, if it wasn’t for the nerds and the freaks, humanity would never progress. We’d still be living in the dark ages, praying to myths and bleeding the bad blood out of people when they’re sick.”

Eddie reached out and patted the kid on the shoulder. “Sorry,” he said.

“It’s alright, Grandpa, I can handle it.”

The kid went back to writing down the chords.

Eddie went back to plucking strings.

“You know, you’re too stiff when you play, Grandpa. You have to relax. Caress the strings. Treat the guitar like it’s a woman.”

Eddie laughed. He laughed so hard he started coughing.

He regained himself and said, “How would you know how a woman should be treated?”

The kid smiled. “I have a girlfriend now,” he said. “That’s what you should do Grandpa. You should find yourself a nice lady. Do stuff together, you know, go places, keep each other company. I know now that I have a girlfriend, my life feels happier.”

Eddie has no intention of finding himself a play mate. A woman would take up too much of his time. Interfere with his thoughts. He would have to be outgoing and sociable, and he’d have to compromise, which is the same as being owned. He’d have to remember birthdays and anniversaries, buy gifts. And feign that Valentine’s Day is a big deal. And he’d have to listen, to whatever problems these women might create for themselves. No, it’s not for him. Life’s too short for that.

The thought of women always causes Eddie to think of the picture hanging on the wall at the foot of his bed. It’s a picture of a young woman in jeans sitting on a blanket on the side of a grassy hill. Her mouth is open as if she’s talking to the photographer. He likes the curls in her brown hair. Her face is wholesome yet troubled. He has examined every inch of that picture; the way she’s sitting there he’s even counted the toes on her bare feet. She has ten toes.

There’s the slant of the sun as it hits her hair. He guesses the time of day is late afternoon. It has to be some festive gathering because there are people sitting at picnic tables in the background, some smoke, maybe from barbecues. It has to be summer. He feels the wind blowing through the curls in her hair and smells her skin.

Lying in bed sometimes he’ll hold her image up to his face. Who is she? Why does he have this picture and why does it feel sacred in his hands? There’s something about her face that comforts him.

But sometimes the feeling of comfort has no significance; it’s just a picture, and on one of his fits of spring cleaning, when he feels as if he can jettison an old life by filling a trash can full of junk, he has thrown this picture away. But then he thinks about the picture, digs it out, and hangs it back on the wall, where it looks down on him, and comforts him.

You can’t get too comfortable. No, it clouds your judgment; it stops you from looking over your shoulder and leaves you vulnerable. Eddie wishes he could remember the gaps in his life. He remembers he had a mother and father. He sees their bodies but can’t remember their faces. He remembers school, some teachers, he remembers moments in time; silly moments in time he thinks, like a summer evening when he was a kid, near dusk, sitting on his back porch and seeing a toad jumping in the grass. Why does he not remember the lives that have touched his life, yet remember that?

Some times when Frank talks Eddie doesn’t catch all the words. Sometimes when the kid talks he doesn’t catch all the words. It feels like they’re saying more than he wants to hear. Why is he like that? Why does he want to be alone? He prefers to sit by the window and watch life happen outside. Study people; try to figure out their motives. He has a good view of his neighbor across the lane; Arthur, always sitting outside, saying hello to everyone who walks by, inviting them to sit and have a beer. He sits there with a cooler full of beers like he’s baiting people to keep him company. How desperate can you be for companionship?

One morning he heard a knock on the door and found this pony-tailed, beanpole old man standing there.

“How you doin’?” the old man said. “Name’s Arthur. Live across the way here. Having a fire tonight. Just thought I’d ask you if you wanted to come over. You know, the more the merrier. Hope I’m not disturbing you. Just being neighborly.”

The too men stared at each other through Eddie’s screen door.

“You don’t have to bring anything. I’ve got everything. I’ve got all the drinks. Used to be a bartender. There ain’t a drink I don’t know. You want it, I can make it.” Eddie didn’t respond. Was this guy expecting to be invited in? “Like I said, just passin’ the invite. So take ‘er easy. And if she’s easy, take ‘er twice.” Was he expecting Eddie to laugh at that?

When Eddie just stood there stone faced, Arthur smiled an uncomfortable smile, exposing some misaligned but sparkling white teeth. Eddie finally nodded just to get rid of the guy. Arthur seemed happy to get some kind of response, waved a hand and went back to his seat and cooler full of beers.

Eddie hears the deck steps creak and a woman’s voice says, “Hola, Eduardo?”

A head bobs across the blinds. Eddie twists the blinds closed.

Her voice stabs his ears and bashes his heart into the pit of his stomach. She says, “Are you up?”

Eddie doesn’t answer.

“Eduardo? Look what I have done for you. I want you to know I have risen very early this morning to make you what will soon become your favorite cookies. We can have with some coffee. I even bring the coffee. Will you help me my sweet, my hands are full?”

Eddie doesn’t answer. He feels like a deer in the headlights. A groundhog cornered. A fox caught by the hounds. He’s frozen to his seat, wondering, is the door locked?

“Are you there?”

She knows he’s there. Where else would he be? He pries open the slats of the blinds with two fingers, and suddenly there’s a shadow on the other side of the blinds.

“Eduardo, I do not understand why you keep doing this. Why, why must you waste time and delay the inevitable?”

Eddie peeps through the gap in the blinds and says, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

“But Eduardo, it is pointless to resist. Why must I keep saying it? It is tiresome. I told you. You, are my soulmate. I read it in the cards. The cards have never lied, my sweet. Destiny is cast in stone.”

Will he ever be rid of this woman? He forgets about her but she keeps reminding him.

“Eduardo. Open the door for Dorina. Dorina is here for you. I promise you, you will not regret it.” She moved closer to the window. “If it encourages you Eduardo, I want you to know, that I am not shy to say that I want to put my lips on you.”

He’s been too nice about it. That’s the problem here. Its time to be extreme. Time to be an asshole.

He yells, “Get off my stoop you crazy witch before I call the cops! And don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”

She’s startled and is jolted back. He catches the hurt in her eyes. He didn’t want to say that. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Why can’t she take no for an answer? Whenever he tells Frank that they should get a restraining order on her, where she can’t come within a hundred miles of him, Frank just smiles and tells him she only wants to be friendly. Frank has talked to her, but it hasn’t stopped her from coming around.

She leans forward. Their eyes meet. She says, “I will unlock you Eduardo. Mark my words. You cannot run away from destiny.”

She’ll leave the cookies. She always leaves what she brings.

Eddie hears the plate clank down then the deck steps creak. He opens the blinds and watches her walk away. She looks back at him. He feels sorry for her. Why is she wasting her time with him?

After she’s out of view, he gets up, walks to the door, opens it, picks up the plate of cookies and stands there for a moment, breathing deep and admiring the shade and the good morning. It rained last night. He enjoys the quiet and how everything smells like it’s been pulled fresh from the ground. He tastes a cookie. They’re crunchy and chewy, but too much vanilla. He’s surprised. She’s always spot on with her baking.

She makes a wonderful cheesecake.

Many a night he has sat up in bed eating her cheesecake while wondering how he can stop her advances. Eddie never throws away what she leaves. He has a collection of her plates stacked on the counter.

She’ll be back. She always comes back.

He feels like taking a walk. He looks at the clock on the counter. It’s only eight o’clock, and Frank said he’d be by in the afternoon. He decides to go to the Falls. On the way back he’ll go to the Italian bakery and pick up a few of those cookies Frank’s kid devours whenever he comes over.

He chuckles when he thinks of Frank’s kid and his girlfriend. He’s brought her by a few times. She’s a little goth girl; her voice is barely audible when she says hi to Eddie. Black hair, skin as pale as a full moon, and purple lipstick; she has the face of a cadaver but pretty, and everything on her is black. She’s gotten over her fear of Eddie; at least  he thought she was afraid of him the first time they met, or it could have been shyness. He doesn’t really know.  When he brought out the milk and those Italian cookies, she waved him off. The kid said, “Go ahead. They’re really good.” She took a cookie, bit into it then looked at Eddie and smiled. She hasn’t opened up that much since then, just sits and nods as the kid plays, but she smiles more and looks less like a cadaver.

He stuffs his backpack full of water bottles and dons a floppy brimmed straw hat and sunglasses. He probably looks like a vagrant. He likes that. Nobody will bother him; people shy away from the homeless. It’s probably too warm for a jacket but he’ll wear one anyway. He picks up his walking stick. It’s an old broom handle, taped into a nice knob at the top end  like a hockey stick.

He opens the door and sets off.

He likes the crunch of stones under his shoes and the rhythmic tap of his walking stick every couple of paces. He likes the image of the travelling pilgrim, off to a non-existent pilgrimage.

It always amazes Eddie at how the entrance to the park is like some mystic portal that once crossed, transports him from a world of chirping serenity onto a planet that clangs and clatters, and slaps you with gusts from cars full of people in a hurry. Its hotter out here, and dirty. A dust devil spins in the middle of the road, picks up a flattened cigarette pack and twirls it into the sky. Eddie watches it disappear into the heavens.

He blames Arthur for this predicament with the witch woman; poor lonely Arthur and his camp fires. It’s Eddie’s fault too, for that moment of weakness, that  primordial attraction to heat and flame on a night he felt like taking a walk.

Around a campfire you can let  your guard down. It probably goes back to the primitives, who could relax around the fire knowing that whatever might want to eat them was afraid of the flames.

When he passed Arthur’s place on the way back, Arthur called out “Hey, Mr. Nova. Come join us. ”

Why Eddie didn’t keep walking is still a mystery to him.

There was a group of people there, all arranged in a circle around a monstrous snapping fire;  its embers scintillating into the air. The fire looked good and there was a chair waiting for him. He didn’t want to go. It’s easy to be rude and ignore an individual but Eddie found it hard to be rude to a group; all those eyes watching you; all those witnesses, who will probably talk about you as a group when you leave. So he sat, drawn into the fire with his eyes, the heat against the soles of his feet.

He felt comfortable.

Arthur introduced him to the group though Eddie took no notice of anyone, then Arthur continued telling tales about his years in the merchant marines and then his wild bar-tending days.

Arthur had been practically all over the world, seen almost everything. “But it’s the Orient that was the coolest place,” he said. “Young men coming off the ships and the whores waiting for you, barking, ‘Fucky, fucky, sucky, sucky, ten dolla’.'”  That got a laugh. Arthur sure wasn’t a shy fellow. His life had been full of so many things to do that he never found time for a wife.

Eddie thinks Arthur’s gay.

But he could tell a good yarn. He had everybody captivated.

Then, he told of the night he had to break up a fight between two brothers.

“The bouncers?” Arthur said, “were just a couple of big useless kids. Door ornaments really, who flexed their big muscles for each other, working a summer job before they went back to university. Who’d never seen a bar fight much less had ever pulled two angry drunks apart. You know, when the beer bottles started flyin’, and the spit and blood started flyin’, they froze. Pissin’ in their pants.”

Arthur had to step in and bring those brothers to their knees.

“Back then, you know, wasn’t like now. People weren’t afraid to get someone else’s blood on them. It was a cleaner world.” He was cut while trying to break them up. He raised his open palm and showed a large scar running across it. “It was a bottle of Blue. Never forget it.”

As he listened Eddie felt he was being watched. He turned to his right, and there she was, at three o’clock, the witch woman, looking at him. She looked away, but moments later he felt her watching again so he looked. She looked away. After one more turn at this peek-a-boo game he’d had enough, stood up, walked back to his trailer and locked himself in his home. Before he closed the blinds for the night he looked out the window and from the illumination of the fire, he saw her looking in his direction.

The next morning there was a knock on the door. There she was, holding a plate covered with a sheet of paper towel.

“Good morning,” she said. “I have  wonderful news! You no longer have to be alone. I am here now. May I come in? There is so much we need to discuss.”

Before he could react she had entered. At that moment Eddie thought of vampires; how if you let them in they’ll suck your blood and keep coming back. He could never have known that for the next year she would become the scourge on his solitude.

She surveyed the place then looked at him, assessed him from head to toe and smiled. She had that smell of people coming in from outside, mixed with some peachy, lemony perfume. She smelled very fresh. He liked her smell.

“Do you like muffins?” she said. “I brought some carrot muffins for us to enjoy together.”

Eddie had never had anyone force themselves into his private space. When there’s a door between you and someone, it’s easy to shut it. But what does he do when they’re already in? He had to admit that there was nothing unlikable about her. She was relatively slim. Her brown hair was in a bun. Big loopy earrings. She wore lilac lipstick, some eyeliner. Ample bosom showing a modest  cleavage above the neckline of a white tank top. White sandals peeked out from the bottom of a long purple flowy skirt. He liked her green eyes. She had a piercing gaze that seemed to see into him.

She put the plate on the table.

“I am Dorina,” she said stretching out a hand. “And you are Eduardo?”

“Ed,” he said, looking at her hand.

“Can I call you Eduardo? Eduardo suits you better. It has more pizzazz.”

She laughed. It was a nice laugh. It surprised him. He expected her to cackle.

“When I hear the name Ed,” she said. “It reminds me of the talking horse. Do you remember the talking horse? It was so silly.” Eddie didn’t remember any talking horses. What was she talking about? This woman was crazy. He knew that when you are having a conversation with a crazy person, you have to humour them.

“Was it a unicorn?” he said.

“No.” She frowned. “It was not a unicorn. It was a talking horse. A palomino.” Silence followed. Eddie stood stranded by the door while she looked at him with those piercing eyes.

“Perhaps you are thinking I am too forward,” she said. ” You are a decent man, and perhaps expect a woman to act traditional. But I know what I want and at our age to play little games is a waste of time. We are the same age no? I think we are the same age. I am sixty. I am not shy to say I am sixty.”

Eddie was surprised. She looked no older than her mid forties.

“You think I am much younger don’t you?” she said and smiled. “A common and very flattering misconception. I have always protected my skin. The sun is a killer. May I sit down?” She sat on the couch. The flowy skirt parted at the side and her leg stuck out. It was a nice leg. She smiled at him then patted the space next to her.

Eddie stayed where he was.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, but he didn’t want to do anything for her.

“Last night, when I saw you, I felt your loneliness. It is the same loneliness I have been feeling. I went home, laid my cards on the table, and they said, you are my perfect match. The cards have never been wrong for me. So here I am. You are a Latin? I also am a Latin. I am from Ecuador, but originally my family comes from Frosinone. Do you not want to sit here with me?”

Eddie sat down on the opposite end of the couch.

“We have death in common, you know,” she said. “I am a widow and I understand you are a widower. I have made some inquiries. It has been five years since my Javier left this world. You are wondering am I over the death of my husband? The truth is, he could have died sooner. He was a beautiful man, but he had an ugly soul. He had many lovers. With me he was a terrible lover. Very selfish. That is to be expected when you are beautiful, no? I do not fault him. He was born selfish. You are asking yourself, how could I be with such a man? I wanted to leave my little town in Ecuador, and he allowed me to escape. He was a virile man, but unable to give me children. It was his problem, but in hindsight, it was good that I did not have his children so here I am, all alone, with much life  still to live. To be alone alone is not good but not as bad as being with someone who does not love you. That is the worst kind of loneliness.” She sighed, looked away and said, “The devil is a tall and handsome man.”

“But,” she said and shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“You are wondering, why am I being so open?” she said, taking Eddie’s hand. “I am a firm believer in there being no secrets between two people who are meant for each other. This is why I am telling you all this. I want you to know everything about me today so we can continue with our life together. Javier left me a lot of money and property in Florida. I am telling you this because the cards have showed me that you will never want to steal my money. I will be very happy to share it with you. I will tell you that we will be very very comfortable together. I am looking forward to the best years of my life. And you are going to be a part of it.”

Eddie didn’t know why he was allowing this woman to touch him. He didn’t know why he was allowing her to be here so long. He should have booted her out the minute she said, “You have wonderful eyes. You have nice fingernails. Clean and short. That means you are generous and gentle. I like large men, who have settled into their age. I can see you are comfortable.” She turned his hand  up and studied the palm.

” You’re mount of Venus is very pronounced,” she said.  “You have a strong heart and a long lifeline.” She ran her fingernail along his lifeline then stopped at a point halfway.

“You see this? This point here?” she said. “You may think it is a tiny scar, but that is today.” She fixed her piercing eyes on him again, this time they felt more intense, and with her finger she rubbed figure eights on the center of his palm. It felt good. Eddie felt an erection coming on.

He pulled his hand away, stood and went to the door. He pushed it open, held it and said, “I don’t know if I’m a Latin, a widower or an Eduardo. I don’t know where you came from and its very rude of you to ingratiate yourself when no one invited you.”

She sighed.

“If you want me to leave all you have to say is, I would like you to leave. We do not need such drama. Drama is for the television. I know. This is too much to accept all at once. Ok.” She stood. When she passed him at the door she said, “I hope this is not going to be difficult. I am a very patient woman but time is a terrible thing to waste.”

Eddie stands at the corner of Lundy’s Lane and Montrose Road. He looks north, south, across the street, then back from where he came. For a moment his mind is blank. He sees cars drive by but they’re just colors and noise.

Why does he want to go to the Falls?

He’s suddenly afraid.

The psychiatrist has told him many times that there is nothing wrong with being afraid. “Feel the fear,” he said, “but don’t let it stop you. Fear is an obstacle to overcome but also a great motivator.”

It might be to some people but fear has never motivated Eddie.

He looks north again and sees the cemetery and decides to visit his old neighborhood.

He shrugs a few times to settle the backpack on his shoulders, tightens his grip on the walking stick and crosses the road.

He’s excited about going back to his bungalow.

Eddie is now two years removed from his little house. It was heartbreak to let it go, but Frank told him it was too expensive to keep, that if he sold it, along with the money he got from the government every month he could take it easy; he’d have money for the rest of his life. Back then he thought he’d let himself be talked out of a good home, but now he knows Frank was right.

Initially, Frank wanted Eddie to come live with them. He remembers sitting in Frank’s kitchen while Frank and the cleaning lady argued over him. Eddie wanted to make some pointers but all his “buts” went unheeded. Cheryl, the cleaning lady, wanted Eddie at her house; the kids were all going to school in the fall and she could look after Eddie. Eddie didn’t need looking after. He could still walk, new right from left and didn’t drool yet. Then Cheryl looked at him with pleading eyes. “You’ll come and live with me and Mike won’t you?”

He looked at Frank who looked away.

Eddie told them, thank you but no, he needed his privacy, he needed his space. So after more arguing, an apartment was suggested but Eddie didn’t want cockroaches running around his place when he was sleeping and didn’t want to smell what the neighbors were cooking, so they settled on a tin can on wheels in a place he could stay all year round. As they sat in Frank’s kitchen discussing it, Eddie imagined it would be a trailer all by itself in a field and he could see it, surrounded by wilderness, with smoke coming out of a smoke stack and the smell of burning wood permeating the fall air. Yes, that’s what he wanted. Frank would take care of everything. But what Eddie got was this place a stone’s throw from the highway. Though at times the smell of burning wood was rife, there were too many damned neighbors and no wilderness. When Eddie voiced his disappointment, Frank said the idea of being out in the middle of nowhere was an unrealistic expectation. It wasn’t safe. Now, two years later he knows Frank was right.

Frank was always right.

He’s walked by the old house a few times since he left and seen the metamorphosis from his home to someone else’s home. Now it’s just a house.

As soon as the new owners moved in they put on a new roof. He was meaning to do it but had never got around to it. The next time he went by it had new windows. Good choice. Sometimes when the wind hit the old panes they rattled. And this time, as he stands in front of it, it has new white soffit and eaves trough. And they painted the garage door white. For years it was dark brown, but now the house sparkles in front of him and Eddie thinks his house is finally happy.

He hears a door slam behind him and turns. A man walks out the front door of the house across the street.

That’s—what’s his name? Terry? Tommy? Teddy? It starts with a T.

T stands on his driveway and lights a cigarette. He throws Eddie a dirty look. That’s to be expected, Eddie thinks; a dirty look from a dirty guy. Guys like that bring down the neighborhood. The unkempt lawn—not really a lawn but a big ugly piss patch because of T’s big ugly dog.

Eddie wonders why dirty looking guys always have big ugly dogs.

Once, Eddie’s neighbors came knocking on his door wanting him to sign a petition. They declared that T’s place was an eyesore, blight against their nicely manicured properties. Torrance!—that’s his name. How could he forget a name like that?

Eddie wouldn’t sign the petition. As much as he didn’t like how the guy laid waste to his property, he felt he had no right forcing anyone to do anything.

Torrance still has that car on the driveway; some kind of sports car, green with primer patches, up on blocks, rusting away. It’s been sitting there for years. How pointless preserving a car on blocks is when you won’t even throw a tarp on it.

Today, with the sun shining and a sudden euphoria that grips his heart after seeing the positive change in his old house, Eddie doesn’t want to be the subject of someone’s perceived hard feelings, so he gives Torrance a nod, which transforms his dirty look into an expression of bewilderment followed by a faint smile.

Eddie turns away and moves across the sidewalk to where he can see the side of his house. He sees the shed he built, at the back of the slightly downhill backyard. He didn’t know what he was doing when he built it. It’s out of square and out of level. It isn’t anchored but just sits on the ground. He was learning as he went. And as he learned what not to do, redoing would have been costly and a fatigue  so he left it as it was. If it was a house it would be condemned, but he built it with his two hands, it served its purpose and he was proud of it. He signed and dated it on the day he finished; in marker, up in the corner on one of the rafters. He always wondered why he built the shed since he never put anything in it except a lawn chair, on which he sat and heard the rain on the roof and watched the rain outside the door, and smelled the wood.

After all the changes the new owners made it’s still standing so they must like it. That makes him smile. They’ve taken down the chain-link fence though and put up a high green fence made of wood. He doesn’t like the fence. It blocks the view of the cemetery.

In his foggy memory he has the impression that someone wasn’t happy when he bought a house backing onto a cemetery. He had spent some pleasant afternoons standing by that fence and reading the headstones.

Why be afraid of the dead? They’ll never bother you. The dead make good neighbors; they’re quiet, aren’t nosy and don’t ask to borrow anything.

He remembers once having a discussion about life after death with Frank’s godless kid who told him that Heaven was only for the living. This didn’t make sense to Eddie because if you’re alive, you’re obviously not in Heaven.

A little blonde girl appears at the front window of the house and waves to him.

Suddenly, Torrance is standing beside him.

“Miss the old place?” Torrance says.

Eddie looks at him. “Sometimes.”

He’s never spoken to Torrance before. For all the years he’s lived across the street from him he’s been a scowling face in the distance. He’d only heard his voice a few times when he was yelling at his kids to “get the fuck back in this house!” or “do what the fuck your mother tells you!” His wife was a diminutive woman but she looked tough. Actually, she looked like a bitch. And Eddie thinks maybe that was why Torrance was out every half hour smoking a cigarette.

Torrance points to the house. “This guy’s wife is a nosy so and so,” says Torrance. “Keeps looking over at our house and shaking her head, and won’t let my little one play with her kid. Of all these morons around here, you were the only one who didn’t give a shit about us. And I can respect that.”

Eddie very much gave a shit at how rundown a place Torrance had, only he wasn’t arrogant enough to display his disapproval in public.

Appearances are deceiving, Eddie thinks, because now, listening to Torrance, he sounds like a nice guy; maybe someone Eddie would have had a beer with back when Eddie used to drink. But he doesn’t want to spend the morning talking to Torrance so he taps his hat and says, “Good day,” waves at the little girl in the window then continues on his trek to the Falls.

“Hey!” yells Torrance. “Maybe next time you come by you’ll come over for a beer?”

Eddie looks back, nods and waves, but he knows he’ll never do that.

He wonders if anything has changed down by the Falls. He knows iconic places rarely change. That’s why the tourists come; to see the same old thing.

He feels the heat of the day coming on now and picks up the pace hoping to beat the tourists to the Falls. The tap, tap, tap of his walking stick resonates along the sidewalk. There’s a garden down there he wants to sit at. He hopes it hasn’t changed. He hopes peaceful gardens haven’t become outdated and replaced by superficial devices that can only amuse someone for five minutes.

First, though, he’ll have a look at the Falls and look across the gorge at that foreign country.

Eddie had been across the border once, with Frank when Frank’s kid was small. They had gone for the day to some amusement park over there. Frank and his wife sat in the front while Eddie sat in the back with the kid. The kid was firmly buckled in but it felt like he was loose in the compartment. There was so much frenetic curiosity in the kid that looking at him made Eddie extremely tired. He’d point at things out his window, then he’d point at things out Eddie’s window, with bursts of, “Look at that! How come…? What is…?” And all those why, why, why’s? For most of the questions Eddie didn’t have an answer and felt stupid answering the kid’s questions with, “I don’t know.” But he thought, better the truth of ignorance than some made up fantasy the kid will believe the rest of his life. He didn’t need to look smart in front of the kid, just honest.

There’s a rainbow over the Falls, and the Maid of the Mist is loading blue plastic covered people. The sun glares off the mist rising from the gorge and the froth at the bottom of the Falls looks like scum.

Nothing’s changed, Eddie observes, and across the gorge that foreign land is still there.

“It’s amazing isn’t it?”

Eddie hasn’t noticed the woman standing beside him.

“Pardon me?” he says.

She’s a plump older woman with long greying hair and cheerful cheeks.

“The Falls,” she says, “are amazing. To think that we have something like this in our part of the world. I’ve wanted to see this place ever since I saw Marilyn Monroe in that movie.”

The sun gleams off the sunglasses hooked on top of her head and she clutches a black bag hanging from her shoulder. She wears a white embroidered blouse and she’s all jeans and sandals. Eddie thinks she’s someone who never stopped being a hippie.

“Feel its awesome power, see its spectacle. We’re very lucky. I’ve been saving all my life to see this.”

“It’s okay,” he says.

“It’s okay? It’s more than okay! It’s a miracle of nature.”

Eddie would never call a natural thing a miracle. What is this? A cascade. A large one. There’s nothing miraculous about water falling over a cliff. Now if it flowed into the air, that would be a miracle.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think it’s all that special.”

“Why would you come here, from wherever you came, if you thought it wasn’t special? You look like a well-worn traveler.”

“I’m not from anywhere,” he says. “I live here.”

“You’ve had this at your doorstep all your life and never thought it was something special?” She looks at him in amazement. “If I lived here,” she says, “I’d be down every day.”

No you wouldn’t, he thinks. Eventually the shine wears off everything.

She sighs and says, “It’s true what they say, I suppose; they that live in the mountains yearn for the ocean and they at the ocean yearn for the mountains.”

Eddie looks at the Falls again. This time trying to observe as one who has never taken the sight for granted. It’s hard for him to see the exotic in something he has always considered commonplace but he can admit that there is a faint impression of awe.

“My name’s Valerie by the way,” she says offering her hand.

Eddie looks at her hand.

“Ed,” he says.

Valerie stands with hand extended. She says, “You know, you can shake my hand, it’s clean.”

Eddie hesitates.

“Take it,” she says. “It won’t hurt.” He smiles and shakes her hand.

“You probably think I’m odd,” she says, “but I’m from California.” She laughs. “I didn’t mean it that way. I’m not odd because I’m from California.” She laughs again. Eddie likes her laugh. It has that pleasant daffiness only women can get away with.

She examines him from head to toe. “Aren’t you a little overdressed for today?”

“The sun’s a killer,” he says. Valerie turns to the gorge and leans against the railing. “We can’t all live forever,” she says.

Eddie suddenly feels silly all covered up and holding his broom handle walking stick. He leans the walking stick against the railing and decides to abandon it there. He moves over and stands in front of it blocking it from Valerie’s view.

Still facing the falls, Valerie closes her eyes and smiles, then opens her eyes, looks at him and says, “Isn’t there some special place you’ve always wanted to visit?” Eddie can’t think of any special place, but he likes this woman and wants to keep the conversation going, so he says, still having California on his mind, “I’d like to see the Walk of Fame,” and regrets it as soon as he says it. It’s so unlike him to wish that. Sometimes he can say the stupidest things.

“Really?” Valerie frowns and turns back to the Falls. “That’s nothing special. It’s just a sidewalk. But this—she opens her arms wide and thrusts her chest forward—There’s nothing like this. This is something that borders on the cosmic.  And we don’t have to go to Africa or some dangerous part of the world to see such majesty. It’s here, on our very own little continent.”

“There’s also the Grand Canyon,” he says.

She nods. “Yes, there is the Grand Canyon, and some other places I suppose, but they just lie there. This is a living thing. Listen to it. It roars and you can hear it moving beneath your feet, and it touches your face with its watery fingers.”

Watery fingers? Eddie wouldn’t want anyone to touch him with watery fingers.

They stand silent; Valerie looking at the Falls and Eddie looking at Valerie. She turns to him and smiles. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I do get carried away sometimes. I didn’t mean to force my fascination on you. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my emotions that I want people to feel exactly what I’m feeling.” She turns back to the Falls and there’s that silence again, lasting a little longer, a silence Eddie feels might be permanent and the end of his time with this woman.

“Can I offer you a bottle of cold water?” he says.

The question seems to jolt her back from wherever her mind had gone. She looks at him intently, then gives him another once over. “Sure,” she says, then laughs. She looks across the street.

“Do you want to sit in that garden?” she says. “It’s shady and I like the flowers over there.” In the garden they find a bench under a tall tree.

Valerie sits down as Eddie removes his backpack, unbuckles the flap and reaches in. He pulls out two bottles of water and hands one to Valerie. She twists the cap off and takes a long drink, closes her eyes and looks as though she’s in ecstasy.

“That was good,” she says and licks her upper lip. “Thank you.”

He takes off his jacket.

Valerie watches him.

“That’s better,” she says. “Can I ask you to take your sunglasses off?” Eddie removes his sunglasses.

“And your hat?”

Eddie removes his hat.

“That’s better.” She pats the space beside her. Eddie sits. Valerie studies his face. “You know, you’re cute,” she says. “In a Billy Bob Thornton kind of way. I mean that as a compliment of course. I like rugged looking men and you’ve got the most amazing eyes.”

Eddie feels silly being complimented for his eyes but it’s a pleasant feeling coming from her. He says, “The better to see you with my dear.”

Valerie snorts a laugh and slaps his thigh. “You aren’t a wolf are you Ed? If you’re a wolf disguised as a mild mannered man…” she leans closer to him and lowers her voice, “I would have no problem being Red Riding Hood.” She blushes. “Oh my God, did I just say that? I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s coming over me. I think—I think I’m getting drunk on your lovability. You are adorable.”

They sit in silence for a while and sip their water.

Valerie looks up at the boughs of the tree, leans back and says, “I think that I shall never see—”

“A poem lovely as a tree.”

“Oh my God!” Valerie says, turning to him. “We’ve only just met and already we’re finishing each other’s sentences. My God, we’re kindred spirits.”

No we’re not, Eddie thinks, it’s just a popular poem most everybody has heard.

“That’s a poem I’ve always loved,” she says. “It’s so simple yet so beautiful.”

She hooks her arm with his and snuggles against him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “I like the whole poem but my most favorite lines are upon whose bosom snow has lain. Who lives intimately with rain. Can’t you see and feel the rain flowing down from leaf to leaf? It’s a simple but brilliant poem. That’s what poetry should be. So simple, so obvious, that it makes you rediscover and appreciate what you’ve always taken for granted. Lately, I’ve been appreciating many things.” She laughs.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I keep laughing like a ninny but I’m just so happy today.”

If someone had told Eddie this morning that down at the Falls he’d meet a woman from a foreign country, who’d sit next to him on a park bench and then recite poetry to him, he’d have told them they were out of their mind, and to get the hell off his porch.

They sit in silence.

After a while Valerie says, “One day, many years ago I went to visit my mother. Daddy had died the year before and because of that I saw mother more often. I felt she was lonely. But Mother and I had never been close. I’ve never had children so I can’t imagine what would ever cause a rift between a parent and a child. But as long as I can remember there was a wall between mother and me.

“It was afternoon and when I got to the house the front door was wide open. I walked in. I saw the back door was wide open. I called out for her. No answer. I looked all through the rooms of the house. Calling. Calling. My heart was racing. I expected the worst. I expected to see her lying unconscious on the floor.

“I checked the backyard. I went to the neighbor’s house. She wasn’t anywhere. So I called the police.

“The police came. They searched. We found her; crouched in her bedroom closet frightened out of her mind. I said, ‘Mom. Didn’t you hear me calling you?’ But she just stared at me like she didn’t know who I was. And that’s when it all began: mother’s slide into her fantasies. She’d see her reflection in the mirror and talk to it. When I caught her doing this she said she was talking to her sister. She never had a sister.

“She became fixated with visiting Spain. Why Spain? We weren’t Spanish. She had all her bags packed, she said. She was going to leave any day now. She said Spain was on the other side of the hedge in the backyard. I told her, ‘Mom, you have to cross the whole country then you have to cross a whole ocean to visit Spain.’”

Valerie sat up and looked at Eddie. “You know when you’re trying to reason with someone who can’t reason, sometimes you get caught up in their delusion. You want to convince them but you end up talking in circles.

“So, I found a way to work from home, sold my place and moved in with her. I looked after mother for years, but she passed on three months ago. I always wanted to come here but I couldn’t leave her. Who would have the patience to deal with her? Debra said now that I could I should go and do it; visit Niagara Falls, I mean. And Brian wanted to come with me. He’s always been the great protector. Even though I was visiting Canada he said, it was still a foreign country and he didn’t like the idea of a woman traveling alone. But I feel safer here than in my own neighborhood.”

Eddie nods and keeps nodding. Valerie looks at him and laughs.

“Sorry,” she says. “You wouldn’t know Brian and Debra from Adam and Eve. Sometimes I feel that everybody in the world knows each other.”

Valerie falls silent and stares off into the distance. Eddie wants her to rest her head back on his shoulder.

“You know, mother used to talk about me in front of me. She thought I was the hired girl. She’d say how she used to have a daughter, that I had been an ungrateful bitch from birth and just when she needed me I had abandoned her. Can you believe that? Right in front of me. Then she’d reach over, pat my hand, smile and say, ‘You won’t leave me though will you dear?’”

Valerie smiles but it’s a smile on the verge of tears.

Eddie tightens his grip on her hand. He doesn’t know what words of comfort he can offer.

Valerie says, “The night mother died, I heard a thump, and rushed down the hall to see if she was OK. She used to fall out of bed a lot so I had her sleeping on a mattress on the floor. That night as I was rushing to her room —”

Valerie embraces herself. She runs her hands up and down her arms as if she’s cold. “Something…brushed passed me in the hallway. I know that sounds creepy, but that’s what I felt. It was like someone was trying to get around me but brushed against me instead.

“I found mother half on the bed with her head touching the floor. I tried to rouse her but she was gone. You know what my first feeling was?” She stares at Eddie. Her eyes well up. “Relief.” She wipes her eyes. “No sadness, no tears. It felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. Isn’t that terrible? I think I’m terrible.” Eddie doesn’t think she’s terrible and is about to tell her he understands when she says, “Look at me. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out a crumpled bit of tissue. “I think I need to tell somebody and you just seem like such a sympathetic fellow,” she says wiping her eyes. “Has anyone ever told you that? And it feels as if I’ve known you for years.” She took his hand and sandwiched it between her hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you caught in my tragedy. I didn’t mean to burden you with my tormented thoughts. Here I am talking up a storm. How about you? Who are you Ed?”

“Nobody special,” he says. “Just a guy living a life.”

“Nobody special? Don’t short change yourself, lover. We all have something to offer. Is your family well?”

He says,” I don’t have any family.”

“No?”

Eddie shakes his head.

“How is that possible? Did they all die?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

“What do you mean you can’t remember? What’s stopping you?”

Eddie shrugs. “I just…don’t remember if I have any family. That’s all.”

Valerie scrutinizes him again. Eddie sees her looking at his jacket, his hat, his backpack. Then she looks over to where he abandoned his walking stick.

“Where do you live?” she says. There’s an uncertainty in her voice that Eddie doesn’t like.

“Up the road aways,” he says.

“Are there nurses where you live?”

Eddie laughs. “I’m not escaped from a mental hospital if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“You said you can’t remember any family. What does that mean?” Eddie doesn’t have an answer and feels he’s losing her.

Valerie reaches into her bag and pulls out a yellow sticky note pad. She takes a pen and draws a circle. She hands him the pen and pad.

“What’s this for?” he says.

“Draw the numbers of a clock around the circle.”

“Why?”

“Please.”

He draws the numbers of the clock then shows her.

“What’s the date today?” she says.

“August 16.”

“And the day of the week?”

“Sunday.”

She scrutinizes him again.

“Oh,” she says to herself. “Oh, it must be some kind of psychosis.”

“It must be some kind of psychosis,” she says, looking at him. “You must have experienced something that you have tried to forget, but in doing so — it’s a kind of amnesia you’ve got Ed, maybe brought on by some traumatic episode in your life that you keep denying. Something happened to you and you want to block it out, but it looks like you’ve blocked out everything, even your family.”

He doesn’t like how she’s looking at him; like he’s an oddity she has to figure out.

“Is there someone that’s always around you, that does things for you, that helps you?” she says.

Eddie thinks of Frank and the cleaning lady. “There is.”

Valerie squeezes his hand.

“That’s your family! Ed, that’s your family, and I bet—for sure, that they’re heartbroken because you don’t recognize that. Oh, it’s the worst feeling in the world, when your loved one treats you like a stranger.”

She takes his hand again and leans her head on his shoulder. “You’ll be alright Ed. I know it. You’ve got family. I don’t have anyone.”

Eddie wants to console her, tell her that not having anyone is a good thing. That you don’t have to worry about anyone if there’s no one to worry about, that you don’t have to rely on anyone, or feel happy when they’re happy or sad when they have problems in their life. How you can stand your own ground and not suffer vulnerability when you’re not responsible for someone else’s life. And that you don’t have to grieve. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

He is about to say so, when she says, “About a month ago, I was in the bathroom, fixing myself up for the day, you know, and I looked in the mirror and the image looking back at me wasn’t me.”

She looks at him with eyes wide.

“I don’t know who it was. It was a different woman, and at the same time I felt I wasn’t in my bathroom anymore, in my house and I wanted to hide, suddenly, this overpowering feeling came over me of wanting to hide from this woman in the mirror. I ran out of the house, into the sunlight and I didn’t know where I was going, I just needed to hide from that woman.”

“A hallucination. Maybe a bad reaction to some medication you’re taking. Sometimes—”

“No. I’m not on anything like that. Just some pills for my cholesterol. Days after, all I could think of was how  my mother hid in the closet. Is that what she had seen? Was I losing my mind?”

“But you’re alright now. It hasn’t happened since?”

“I’m all right, for now but…it made me think.” She looks back at the Falls, sighs and rests her head on Eddie’s shoulder.

Eddie looks at his watch.

“Am I keeping you from something,” she says.

“No, it’s just—I have somebody coming by to do a repair, and I should be there. But you can come with me. We’ll get a taxi. We can talk some more at my place and then Frank, he’ll drive you back to your hotel.”

She looks at him; her eyes soften. She shakes her head.

“This is my last day here,” she says. “And I’d like to absorb as much as I can of down here before I go.” She stands up. “It was nice to meet you Ed.”

He looks up at her. “There’s still time. I don’t have to leave right this minute,” he says.

She extends her hand. He stands.

“Well, if I make a phone call and tell him what’s happening he can do without me. You don’t have a phone I can borrow for two seconds?”

She shakes her head. “I have to go,” she says.

“May I call you when you get back home?”

She smiles. It’s an odd smile. She stands there looking at him, then says, “You can.” She pulls the yellow pad from her bag, writes down a number, folds the paper and hands it to him. As she hands it to him she won’t meet his eyes. Instead she looks away. In that moment it crosses Eddie’s mind that she might not be giving him her real number. But he brushes the thought away. He feels he’s made a great connection, and why wouldn’t she feel the same way after holding hands and snuggling against him? Women don’t do that unless they really like you.

“How about a good bye kiss?” she says.

He moved to kiss her cheek but she guides his face towards her lips and kisses him. After they unlock she looks at him. Her eyes sparkle. “How about another kiss?” she says. This time it’s a long kiss. It’s followed by a tremendous hug that almost lifts Eddie off his feet. She holds him, presses the side of her head against his shoulder and says, “Oh, Ed. Why couldn’t I have met you twenty years ago?”

Eddie walks towards Clifton Hill, turns back and looks for Valerie. He wants to see her face again but as she approaches the Falls she doesn’t look back.

He feels good. He feels a lift in his life and something to look forward to. He wants to hurry home and tell Frank what just happened. He takes the phone number out of his pocket and looks at it. He likes how gentle her handwriting looks.

He has to make plans. He has to get his passport in order, buy some new clothes. Buy new underwear. Yes, he definitely needs new underwear. There was so much he wanted to see now. With Valerie he could visit all these places that were just pictures in books. He’ll go to California. See the La Brea tar pits, the Hoover Dam, the Pacific. Would the Pacific look any different from the Atlantic? It was a warmer ocean wasn’t it and wider?

Suddenly from behind him he hears screams. He turns and sees a crowd at the edge of the Falls. There’s some commotion going on down there. He starts to walk towards it. Then from the blurry mass of people Valerie appears above them. Arms are grabbing at her, she’s fighting them off, her face is blank, and then—she leaps! And disappears. More screams follow. The crowd quickly disperses in a wave, leaving one man at the railing looking over the edge. Eddie walks towards the crowd as it approaches. He expects Valerie to emerge from that crowd and come to him. But as the crowd passes Valerie isn’t there. He must have missed her. He turns around and follows the crowd. He’s unsure of what he’s seen. Had he seen Valerie jump? No, his mind is playing tricks on him. He’ll find her on the Hill. He follows the crowd through the garden.

As the thrust of the crowd meets people coming from the opposite direction, someone asks, “What’s going on?” and someone responds, “Some crazy woman just jumped into the Falls.”

Eddie’s legs tremble. He reaches the sidewalk, walks to the side of a building, supports himself against the wall and throws up, and looking down at his vomit he sees a dark house, on a dark evening. It’s November.

She had a headache when he left for work in the morning. She’d been having frequent headaches but didn’t want to see a doctor. It was typical of them; they were indestructible, never taking anything seriously, winging it through life. No pain killers for her. She liked toughing it out. He went out for a drink after work, like he always did. Though he loved his family there was never an urgency to get home after work. He needed to take the edge off. But as he pulled up the driveway the darkness of his house terrified him. His heart in his throat and with his shaky hand he turned the key in the lock, pushed the door open and called out. The darkness and the silence. His heart thumping in his head. Switching lights on, calling. Switching lights on, calling. Down the hall to the bedroom, and there in the lamp light he found his two sleeping children snuggled against her dead body.

Now on the sidewalk, staring down at the vomit and supporting himself against the wall, he cries, “It’s not my fault!”

Did he really love her? If he loved her why didn’t he look after her? Could he have done anything? If he hadn’t gone for a drink. If he hadn’t wasted that hour. If he had been a man. The ambulance, the police, the crying children, it was too much. He started to run, run, run to the end of the world if he could then keep running, tears blurred his eyes, up the street and when he reached the end of the street he didn’t know whether to go right or left. He collapsed on the grass. This is where he wanted to be; dead to the world.

Sirens are coming down the road and there’s a helicopter overhead as Eddie crosses the train tracks and heads back home. He walks up the sidewalk looking down at his puke splattered running shoes. Had he really met a woman  down here? He’s unsure. He sees a face but can’t remember her name. Keep walking. No. He didn’t meet anyone. More sirens scream passed him. He wonders what all the commotion is about. He doesn’t care. He’s been sick. Too much heat. He shouldn’t have come down here. It’s too hot to be walking around. He stops and pulls off his back pack, grabs a bottle of water to rinse away the sourness in his mouth. He remembers he’s got to  get cookies for Frank’s kid. He takes off his jacket and stuffs it in the back pack. What was he thinking wearing a jacket on such a hot day? The water hasn’t washed away the sourness in his mouth.

He enters the bakery. He asks the girl to give him a small bag full of cookies. He doesn’t know what they’re called. He says, “The almond flavored ones,” then sees them behind the glass and points.

Outside there’s an octagonal bench wrapped around a tree. He sits in the shade, opens the bag and decides to have a cookie to get the sourness out of his mouth. One cookie becomes two, then three. He hears the crunching at his temples. He sighs and keeps pulling cookies from the bag. He chews and swallows. Chews and swallows. They’re so good he can’t stop. The sourness in his mouth is gone, replaced by the flavor of sweet almonds.

“Eduardo? How nice to see you.”

Eddie looks up from his munching. The witch woman is standing in front of him. She holds a paper bag from which the ends of two baguettes stick out.

“Listen Eduardo, I want you to know that I forgive you for the hurtful things you said to me this morning.” She sits down beside him. “I know I have been very forceful on you. I apologize.”

He hands her a cookie.

She smiles and takes it.

They sit and eat their cookie. For the first time, sitting here in silence, Eddie doesn’t mind her presence. For the first time he doesn’t feel trapped, pushed upon. The moment is slowed down and he can actually think.

He hands her another cookie.

“Eduardo,” she says. “I am preparing to make a delicious dinner tonight. It will be so delicious that I think it would be wasted on just one person.  I—”

“Okay,” Eddie says. “I’ll come to your place.”

She squints. “Pardon?”

“I’ll come to your place for dinner. I’ll bring the plates you’ve been leaving.”

They look at each other. Her expression is—what is it? Quizzical? Is she surprised? Suspicious? Eddie can’t tell.

“Oh,” she says, and stands up. “Wonderful!” She touches him on the shoulder. “Wonderful!” She walks to her car at the curb, gets in, then looks back at him.

Eddie realizes he’s been wrong about a lot of things. She isn’t a witch or a scourge on his solitude. She’s just a lonely woman. And he’s a lonely man, and looking into the bag he also realizes he’ll have to get more cookies for Frank’s kid.

©Attila Zønn 2016