Never stop at rummage sales with Fischer-Price toys clogging the driveway. Bargain hunting wasn’t rocket science, but there were rules and this was Rule #1. The value so-called happy families placed on faded plastic crap depressed her – memories that were too precious to give away, but easy enough to part with for a twenty. Not that she was in the market for a tricycle or a tea set. People with babies were the least interesting people in the world. How could these people – parents, as sun-bleached and worn as their children’s discarded toys – have anything worth the bother of parallel parking?
She idled in front of 1723 Doty Street, slouched in the driver’s seat, covered in Classified Ads, as if hiding were the same as being invisible. As if she needed to bother at all – she’d gone unnoticed for all of her nineteen years without having to do a damn thing. Even now in the car she was alone, which was something she’d gotten used to. Mom begged off, again, calling yard sales “garbage picking,” among other things. She preferred to stay home and sip her strong, bitter tea, unsweetened. “I’d rather not spend my time thinking about what people leave behind,” she liked to say – about a lot of things.
1723 Doty Street. The address was never said aloud, never written down, never tucked away for safe-keeping, yet never forgotten. As she looked upon the house numbers – proudly displayed on glazed floral tiles – they lost all meaning, like a word repeated over and over. Her ballpoint bit through the cheap Penny Saver pulp, marking the steering column in blue ink as she crossed out this particular listing forever and all time. Mom was right. She shouldn’t have come.
She preferred those dark, detached garages so popular in older working class homes, anyway. Ones built in the suburbs of long ago – so long ago, in fact, that they now were considered part of the inner city. Untold stories hid in tiny one-car carriage houses that smelled of termite damage, spilled oil, and endless time. Sawhorse tables displaying the detritus of a generation as if in offering to a second-rate god. Where NPR droned on a transistor radio and heirlooms went two for a dollar.
How many Saturdays had she rummaged the streets of her hometown? Venturing down windy overgrown roads and potholed dead ends, finally escaping the city limits all together, only to find herself here, staring down this generic, vinyl-sided, three bedroom, two bath, ranch that provided no clues at all. There was nothing for her here. What did she expect?
Ostensibly, she went out looking for marbles. German swirls, onionskins, agates. She liked how they caught the light, how inclusions in the glass trapped the sweet air of long ago, a preserved instant in time when things were, presumably, better. Wholesome and whole, the way time gilds family values and families. Sometimes marbles contained mica flakes. Those were her favorites, the way she could hold them to her eye, the glittery specks and swirls becoming nebula, becoming entire galaxies, a macrocosm in microcosm, an entirely new universe, a fresh start, in the palm of her hand.
Nothing like that on Doty Street, Ground Zero of the advertised “multi-family sale-apalooza.” Just an unflavored sprawl of starter homes for starter families, or in some cases, second families. Young children, young wives. Typical, wide-eyed, entitled American dreams. The houses weren’t like the one she’d grown up in – the homes were too perfect, too new. Even still, they seemed like institutions of permanence and magnitude next to the ambitious, yet infant landscaping. Twiggy trees staked against the wet westerly winds. Scrubby shrubbery that would crisp the next time a Saskatchewan screamer blew in from the north. Nursery-grown turf that had been unrolled onto salvage soil and left to die.
She gave them eight, ten years, tops, before the families here outgrew their fledgling homes. Then one day, they’d realize they didn’t know each other anymore. They’d buy up, spread out. More room to breathe. More room for their hobbies, more room for their things. More room for them to ignore the distance between each other, the gulf widening until relative strangers drifted in no less than 3500 sq ft., sometimes staying together for the kids, sometimes not even that.
She went to put the engine in gear, to bust loose of this godforsaken warren of mediocrity, when a knock on the driver’s side window startled her.
“Hey, lady,” a boy of around ten said, in that over-loud “outside” voice all children have, “I’m selling lemonade. You want some?”
The kid was freckled and peeling from a week-old sunburn, his damp fingers touching the windowsill of her car like a gecko climbing a wall. He straddled his bike in the same easy way she guessed a cowboy might treat his favorite horse. She wondered where the rest of his posse could be.
She cracked her window. “You’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“You’re not a stranger, you’re a potential customer,” he said.
She watched an older couple walk down the drive carrying a bean pot lamp. “Speaking of customers, you’re letting those two marks get away.”
He glanced over his narrow shoulders. “They said they can’t have sugar because of their diabetes.”
“Too bad you’re not selling zucchini.”
“Would you buy zucchini?”
The couple popped their trunk and set about fitting the cumbersome, heavy yet breakable treasure inside. A moment later, they pulled away from the curb, heading her way.
“Okay. Maybe next time.” The boy pushed off on his bike, swerving into the street, directly in the path of the car.
“Jacob, watch out!” she called. Knowing his name, secretly, silently, was different than saying it, yelling it aloud. She felt the transgression, even if no one else did.
The car pulled up short with a cry of the brakes and a sulfur smell. Jacob zipped around the front end, oblivious to the danger he’d narrowly avoided. The neighbors milling around the sale table looked up. One pointed out into the street. What up until now had been an unobtrusive drive-by would become worthy of the Neighborhood Watch if she took off now.
She threw the car in park. She opened her door and climbed out, displacing air, as if to merely stand on the asphalt in the midst of this planned development of nuclear families she had to make room. The boy pedaled lazy, wobbly circles around her, like a satellite in an unstable orbit. From the growing shade cast by the house, she felt warm, curious eyes on her. She was a stranger too close to the young. She ignored the kid, trying to shake off the feeling as she made the slow and pensive amble up the drive, casting appreciative glances at the card tables of crap. Just get in and get out. Do not make eye contact. That was Rule #2.
The woman there – Barbara, the woman’s name was Barbara – wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d imagined a homewrecker, whatever that looked like. What she got was a homemaker, nothing special. Blonde hair over-run with gray, as if the dust of a decade had settled over her without her noticing. Gentle brown eyes and a large thin mouth that greeted her with the sort of smile tossed by “strangers are only friends you haven’t met yet” people.
Those kind of people. Ugh.
She smiled back, briefly, forced, and then looked away.
Up close, she could see there was far more for sale here than Jacob’s old toys. All around her in tidy, catalogued piles stood the stockpile of a decade. She ventured further into the garage, feeling like a trespasser, but drawn by the rack of used clothes. Would she recognize an old shirt? A long out of style windbreaker? A pair of dress shoes, leather cracking over the toes?
Nothing seemed familiar as she browsed, her fingers travelling over the unfamiliar fabrics. There was no sense of loss, no expectations found wanting. Granted, the luggage set that had walked out the door all those years ago had been on the small side, a relic from a much earlier, less complicated age. The suitcases only had room for necessities. Like so much else deemed unnecessary, she had been left behind.
Mercifully, she had few memories, though whether that was because clients and work functions were always more important or simply because there was nothing she wished to remember, she couldn’t say. There were no training wheels, no little league, no family vacations. Of that, she was sure.
The cars had been pulled out for the sale, parked elsewhere, leaving the garage looking expectant. The walls, still white, the concrete floor, devoid of stains. Along one side, a workbench, partitioned off, not part of the sale. Tools hanging on the pegboard had been outlined like bodies at crime scenes, at once efficient and vulgar. Everything here had a purpose. Trimmers for trimming. Hammers for hammering.
“Are you alright?” Barbara called over.
She nodded and turned her gaze to a high sliding window, a source of natural light, if not breeze. The narrow sill displayed a small bird’s nest, a muddy baseball, and an old mayonnaise jar full of marbles.
In her peripheral vision, she saw movement as Barbara came around from behind the card table, an arm outstretched. For one agonizing moment, she thought the woman meant to give her a hug.
“Here, you look like you need this.” She held a red plastic Solo cup. “It’s lemonade.”
She didn’t want anything from this woman, but took the drink anyway, thinking it less awkward to do so than to refuse. “Thank you. How much for those?”
“What, the marbles? Oh, I don’t think my husband intended to sell those. No, he wouldn’t want to part with those.” Barbara cast a glance around the driveway as if searching for her husband amid the offerings.
It was the same hopeful, despairing, knowing look she recognized in her own mother.
“Drink—you’ll feel better.”
She drank. Despite the garage’s neatness, despite the spaciousness, there was no air. Sweat broke out on her upper lip and palms. She tucked her purse tighter under her arm, steeling herself to run.
The woman was looking at her as if expecting a response of some kind. A social nicety, a –
“Sorry. How much do I owe you? For the lemonade?”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Barabara said, her eyes narrowing.
She finished the lemonade, letting a moment pass.
“Yes,” Barbara said.
“You’re wondering if I recognize you.”
There was a red Ribbon Lutz Swirl in the jar. A couple Clambroths. Was that pale pink one, like polished rose quartz, a handmade Moonie? Clearies, opals, slags …They were all there, a collection that must have taken a lifetime to assemble, just hanging out on a shelf in the garage. Forgotten. “Surely, for the right price?”
There was a Banded Indian Swirl, identical to the one in her own collection. It had been her very first. The one she got from –
“Sorry, dear. Those marbles are the only thing he has from his father. They used to collect them together.”
Nothing was worth a damn without knowing its origins, its beginnings. Knowing, at one time, whatever it was, it had been valued. Sometimes that was all that separated one man’s trash from another man’s treasure.
“You look just like your picture. You must take after your mother.”
She’d been given so little from him. Time. Affection. Love. She didn’t even get his smile. But there were the marbles. And that wasn’t nothing.
The difference always came down to a matter of provenance.
And that was Rule #3.
A shrill, clipped voice nudged at the fabric of Caroline’s uneasy dreams, pulling her towards wakefulness. She shifted, uncertain where she was, and who might be there with her.
“Thank you for attending on me at such an inconvenient time, my lord,” the voice said.
Caroline couldn’t make sense of who was speaking. She shifted beneath the blanket, feeling as if it was really wrapped around her brain. Her thoughts shied away from trying to comprehend her situation and she felt the pull of sleep tempting her back to oblivion. She was so tired, so comfortable even though slumped in a chair, and something told her the waking world was not a place she wanted to be.
A deeper, gruffer voice replied to the first, pulling Caroline’s attention further into the conversation.
“Majesty, I live to serve. How may I be of assistance to you?” this voice, that of a man, asked.
Caroline latched onto the fantasy scene that seemed to be playing out around her, adding imagined details to it, as an alternative to rejoining reality. The male voice brought the image of a stocky, middle-aged man into her thoughts. She pictured him struggling down to one knee before an elaborate throne. In her mind’s eye, he was dressed in an Elizabethan costume, the tight doublet restricting his movements. A woman who was obviously a queen, judging by her crown and finery, sat very upright, looking down her nose at him. The queen’s imperious tone suggested she did not fully appreciate the lengths he would go to in order to carry out her bidding.
A sharp, astringent smell wafted from somewhere nearby, jarring against the picture Caroline had built. It brought unpleasant associations with it, and Caroline fought against its influence.
The queen spoke again. There was something about her voice that nagged at Caroline’s memory. It was familiar, but distorted, as if someone was trying to sound like a queen and taking the character too far. Caroline still wasn’t completely awake, though, and her mind refused to focus. The queen’s squeaky words penetrated the fog of sleep still shrouding Caroline’s mind, allowing her back into the half-dreamed medieval scene playing out in her thoughts.
“It has been brought to my attention that I am not long for this world. To reward you for your faithful service in the latter part of my reign, I bequeath my estate and all my possessions to you.”
This was an unexpected turn of events, and prompted a surge of grief that swamped Caroline’s thoughts for a moment, before she pushed it resolutely away. She concentrated her attention firmly on the exchange of the two characters. Something told her the suppressed emotion was connected to the elusive familiarity of the queen’s voice, but she resisted following the path to comprehension.
“Majesty, I have no words for the honour you bestow upon me.” The courtier’s calm tone suggested the news of the queen’s impending death was not a surprise to him, but gave Caroline no indication of how he really felt about it.
Caroline also thought that perhaps she had misjudged the queen, since she obviously valued the courtier highly enough to set him up as ruler in her stead.
The queen continued, “You realise, of course, that this also includes all my responsibilities, as the crown will now fall to you.”
Something about this troubled Caroline, more so than just the double-edged nature of the gift. Surely the queen couldn’t just choose who the crown would pass to on her death. There were rules of succession and, even if she had no heirs, the decision of who would rule after her would not be hers alone. The whole thing was starting to feel very strange, as Caroline grew more and more awake. For one thing, why was she sleeping in the presence of royalty in the first place?
She fought to focus her thoughts on her immediate surroundings, and opened her eyes. Everything seemed suffused with white light for a moment, and then the scene resolved itself. Her daughter Millie sat up in bed, a wooden peg doll in each hand. One did indeed sport a rough approximation of a doublet, fashioned from blue felt and gold thread. It was prostrated before the other, which had an elaborate red felt dress and a paper crown, decorated with red sequins.
The real world collided with Caroline’s dreamy imaginings and shattered the illusion. Tears pricked her eyes as she watched her daughter playing, and the smell of disinfectant assaulted her nose once again.
The dolls had been lovingly made by Caroline’s fiance, Daniel. Millie wasn’t allowed many personal items, and had little space to store them, so Daniel had produced the dolls to be her companions, as they were small and versatile. Caroline had worried that Millie might reject them as too simple and old-fashioned, but she had in fact accepted them with delight. They had provided many hours of entertainment. Millie and Daniel had worked together on a range of outfits and accessories for them, and Millie amused herself endlessly by creating new characters and scenes for them to portray. The queen and courtier pairing was new, at least to Caroline, and she wondered when Millie and Daniel had had the opportunity to fashion their clothes.
The activity had brought Millie and Daniel closer together, which Caroline had rejoiced at, and she was glad they were continuing to find time for it. Everything about their lives was so uncertain and changing so fast, so it was lovely for the two people she loved most in the world to get along. Daniel was always coming home with scraps of material and mismatched beads from the primary school where he worked, eager to bring them when they next visited Millie.
Caroline decided not to interrupt Millie’s current theatrical by letting her know she was awake. Instead, she closed her eyes again and let the exchange of dialogue wash over her, amazed as always by her daughter’s imagination and command of language.
The courtier was responding to the queen’s announcement that he would become king, and Caroline thought he was taking it remarkably calmly.
“Majesty, your news brings heaviness to my heart, but I will do my best to serve both you and our great country in this new role.”
Caroline wondered if she would be able to accept such news with such equanimity. Taking on the duties of ruling a whole kingdom was a massive job, not to mention having to deal with the death of the queen as well. She thought about her own situation and knew it wasn’t so easy to deal with new responsibilities in the face of impending loss.
The queen sounded very level-headed, considering what she herself must be going through.
“I am glad to hear it, and I know I am leaving the country in safe hands.” Millie’s portrayal of the queen faltered for the first time, her voice slipping back toward its normal register. “She has been a wonderful mother to me and she will need a lot of care and love once I am gone.”
A sharp pain squeezed Caroline’s heart at this and her eyes flew open again. She took in the stark reality of the crisp, white sheets, the fluorescent strip lighting, and the incessant beeping of the machines at Millie’s bedside in the cancer care unit of the children’s hospital.
Millie moved the queen doll closer to the courtier and spoke in a softer version of the queen’s voice, as she finally looked up to meet her mother’s gaze.
“I entrust this most sacred of duties to you, my lord Daniel, in the knowledge that your strength and compassion will see the country through the difficult times ahead and in the hope that you will eventually lead her into a new era of happiness and prosperity.”
Caroline couldn’t speak. Her heart was too full of pain and love, and Millie’s oblique reference to their situation was almost more than she could bear. She looked down at the protrusion of her heavily pregnant belly, and then back up into the eyes of her beautiful daughter. Their time together was running out, and a whole new life beckoned to Caroline, full of joy and excitement. But how could she move forwards into that life, knowing that Millie wouldn’t be there to share it with her? And how could Millie be so strong and so generous in the face of her life being so unfairly cut short? She would leave them, all too soon, and life would necessarily go on without her, even though Caroline couldn’t yet conceive of that. They were supposed to be a family all together; Caroline and Daniel, Millie and the new baby. But the universe had conspired against them with Millie’s diagnosis, and now every joy was inextricably intertwined with sorrow.
Millie reached out to place one of her hands on her mother’s swollen belly in a gesture of benediction, as Caroline began to cry.
To retrieve my phone, I agree to go to Pete’s apartment. I could have insisted on a different meeting place; I know I should have, but I’m curious to see how he lives. I think his apartment will be utilitarian and sparse since he only moved to the Falston School District about a month ago.
It’s 3:40 when I park in the lot. I’ve driven past this apartment complex many times but never knew anyone who lived here – or at least not for long – so it’s a new experience to climb the stairs to the second floor, transverse the hallway’s burnt orange shag carpet, stand in front of a white door, and knock.
I jump back when Pete pulls open the door as if he were standing behind it, waiting for me.
He says, “Finally!”
“You said 3:40.” I glance at my rarely worn anymore watch. “It’s 3:42.”
“Which means you’re late.” He sweeps his arm through the air, ushering me in.
“By two minutes.” There is a scent coming from the kitchenette which reminds me of the apple tart with oatmeal crust my grandmother used to make. He didn’t bake for this, did he?
Pete shuts the door then walks past me into the living room area with plush chairs and a matching sofa. He says, “I write up students who are two minutes late to my class.”
“You do not.” I admire the artwork, the shelves with books and knickknacks, the hominess. I see him pat the cushion on the sofa beside him. I inhale, tempted. Oh, so very tempted. I say, “Can I get my phone?”
“I don’t know.” He crosses one long leg over the other and eases back against the corner of the beige sofa. “Can you?”
I put my hands on my hips, look over the spines of the books, smile when I see one of my favorites on his shelves. “How did you come across Alex Pruteanu?”
“How could I not?”
I pull out the copy of Gears to see if it’s signed. “Have you read Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World?”
“With the Jello heart?” Pete asks; I look; he smiles. “Yes, I’ve read Pat Pujolas.”
“What about Karen Stefano?”
“The Secret Games of Words is one of my favorites.”
I scan the shelves for the telltale light green spine. “I don’t see it.”
“My sister borrowed it.”
I look over my shoulder at him. I can’t remember meeting anyone as broadly read as myself. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“I refuse to rush into anything with you.”
I look at the shelves some more. “You should have gotten your sister her own copy.”
“You don’t know Lena,” Pete says. “I won’t get it back.”
“So that stealing thing runs in your family?”
“Yes, Tara.” He shifts. “Though I merely traded your phone for mine last night. Now come on, please sit.”
I put the book back, walk to the chair farthest away from him, and sit. He grins then slides down the couch and leans over, his whole focus on me.
“Have you been thinking?” he asks.
I wonder why he thinks I could have done anything else but think about last night. “Yes, I’ve been thinking that I can never trust you again.”
He chuckles. “That’s not true.”
“The hell it’s not.” I stand up. “Not after your little stunt.” I walk over to the other chair and turn around. “Dealing with Calista this morning wasn’t bad enough. My ex showed up on my doorstep on his lunch break to ream me about not calling him back like I said I was going to.” I sit, cross my arms, stare.
Pete scowls. “How did I prevent you from calling him back?”
I lower my eyes. I realize I could have, and if I had tried, I would have noticed that Pete switched my phone for his then. All of this could have been avoided. “I was too busy thinking about the ethical morass that this is.” I look up at him and see his features relax. “Administrators can’t date teachers.”
He nods once. “Haven’t you read John O’Donohue?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why?”
“He wrote a book about Anam Cara.” Pete moves to the chair I vacated.
I wait. He says nothing and it drives me crazy. I don’t want to ask what Anam Cara means. I want to leave. I stand up and walk toward the door. “Where is my phone?”
“You’ll get yours back when I get mine.” I turn my head knowing I sound juvenile, but remind myself that he started it, which is as infantile as it gets. From the corner of my eye, I see Pete walking toward me. I feel him lace his fingers through mine and there is a jolt.
“Anam Cara loosely translates as “friend of my soul”.” He tugs at my hand and I turn to melt under his gaze. “And when you meet that person, you know.” He puts his other hand on the small of my back. “Sometimes, when you lock eyes for the first time, there can be some doubt.”
I breathe. I breathe. I breathe.
“But when you touch, like this, you feel it.”
I stop breathing.
Pete leans in close, his lips nearly touching mine. “What do you feel, Tara?”
My knees falter. I answer with a kiss.
“Sandra, what’re you doing?” her husband called from the porch.
“Do you see that?” She pointed at the choppy waves on the lake. “More beer cans!”
The glass door slammed, and Aaron came plodding up. He held the hood of his jacket tight around his face. “Come inside.”
“I’m going over there!” Sandra bent to untie the boat.
“You’re not going out in this storm over a couple of cans. You always do this. You get overzealous—”
“Their damn garbage has been floating over here all day!”
“Come inside. I’ll call Mrs. Tillson again and tell her to talk to her renters.”
“No! I’m sick of this!” Sandra pushed the rowboat out into the water and hopped inside. Aaron called after her from the dock, but she didn’t look back.
The house by the lake was one of three her parents had left her. She and Aaron had moved there right after their wedding last year. In that time, Sandra had become quite an adept sailor, so cutting across the rocky water was easy enough. She collected as many cans as she could and was drenched by the time she docked at the island. Gathering the cans in her arms, she marched towards the two-story boat house.
The back door hung open. A young couple was seated at the kitchen table. The fish and corn on their plates looked like it had just come off the grill.
Sandra marched inside. Before either could speak, she went to the table and dropped wet garbage all over their food.
“Jesus!” cried the man, as he jumped up. “What the hell are you doing?”
Sandra put her hands on her hips. “Now you know how it feels!”
She turned on her heel and paraded out of the kitchen. As they shouted after her, she smiled. By the time she got back to her dock, she was laughing. And then she saw it—floating out in the middle of the lake. In her rage, she must’ve forgotten to tie up the boat.
What could she do? It was a good-sized island, but there was only one house. She couldn’t ask the people whose dinner she’d just assaulted for help. And trying to swim for the boat in this weather could prove fatal. She hoped vaguely that Aaron had been worried enough to follow her, but she knew he wouldn’t dare. She would’ve made his life a living hell.
Her pride allowed her no choice but to find a spot to wait out the storm. Now feeling significantly less victorious, she slunk into the woods.
The moss was soft under her feet, but cold. She searched for shelter from the blistering wind.
The crunch of an aluminum can, followed by the low murmur of male voices. Sandra crept nearer.
“It’s your turn,” one said. “I’ve been at this for six hours.”
“I told you, I gotta keep a lookout. Your eyes aren’t good enough.” The gasp of a beer can opening. Sandra bit her bottom lip, recognizing the label. She owed that young couple an apology.
“Nobody is coming, goddamn it. And it’s your turn.”
Through the crisscrossing leaves she saw a man sitting on a rock, gazing out over the water. He was bundled in a puffy coat, a baseball cap pulled over his long gray hair. A second man crawled out of a deep hole nearby. He was caked in mud, his skin and pants the same grimy brown. Sandra saw the glint of a pistol tucked into his belt.
A thrill of dread raced up her spine. She wanted to race back to the house to eat her fair share of crow, but something more primal held her in place. What on earth were they doing?
“Shows what you know,” snorted the clean one. “I just cut her boat loose.”
Sandra stopped dead. She couldn’t have heard him right. Holding a breath, she turned slowly, but her muscles were painfully rigid. A twig snapped underfoot.
“What was that?” asked the dirty man, drawing his gun.
Sandra shook off her freeze and sprinted for the house. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw the men in pursuit.
“Sandra!” a harsh whisper cut the wind. She turned and saw Aaron through the trees. She ran to him and collapsed against his chest.
“Aaron…,” she gasped through tears. “There are two men—they—”
He pet her hair. “Shh, now. It’s alright.”
“No, you have to listen. I—”
The unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Sandra looked up to see the two men from before standing at Aaron’s sides.
She shuddered away. “Aaron… What’s…”
“Now, Sandra. For once in your life, just be cooperative.”
“I don’t understand… What is this?”
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from coming over here,” he answered with a smile. “You really need to learn to not be so confrontational, but I guess it’s too late for that now.”
“You hired these men?” she stammered. “Why are you doing this? You’re going to kill me for my money?”
“Oh no,” he said, pursing his lips. “I married you for your money. I’m killing you for your personality.”
The blast from the gun was swallowed by a crack of thunder. When the police came the next day, the lonely rowboat explained everything. By then, Mrs. Tillson’s renters had gone.
Camped out on the beach, they watched the siege begin. They weren't good observers, you really wouldn't want to be sat near them in the theatre if the whole family decided to have a night out. The three heads of the youngest would just get in the way.
Like almost everyone, they were disappointed to learn that a siege isn't really all that exciting to watch. Mostly it involves just living a bit longer and ensuring that you have better eating and toilet facilities than the other side.
'What's happening now then?'
'Oh Cerby, do be quiet and just watch. You have to soak up the atmosphere! The silence is part of the whole event. Just enjoy yourself why don't you, or I won't take you here again.' Echidna said this at her child's right-most head. It was difficult raising a three-headed son; puberty had been an absolute nightmare.
'Yeah, shut up Cerb,' said Chimera.
'You can shut up Chimy!' Right-most head.
'Oh look! Is that the Greek camp over there? It's all lit up!' Cerberus' central head this time.
'Yes, and that's Hector over there, talking with Aeneas,' said Chimera dryly.
'Aeneas? I thought he was Roman. And that doesn't even exist yet.' Right-most head again.
'No, he turns up here too.'
'Are you sure?'
'And this is definitely the Greek 'verse?'
'Yes it is. Look, over there, what's been scratched on that rock?'
'Errr...' said the central head.
'"...Heracles...woz...'ere!"' said the right head, the one that could read.
'Exactly: Heracles. Not Hercules.'
'When woz 'ee 'ere then?'
'Oh way back when he sacked this place. Before it was cool.'
'Hey shut up,' said Cerberus' left-most head. 'The action's finally started.'
Echidna sighed at her irritating children.
'Is that Dolon?!' Euryale cried.
'Keep your voice down, I think he can hear you!'
'Don't tell me what to do, Meddy!'
'I'm going to go punch him,' declared Stheno, in a matter-of-fact tone. 'So you two can stop your bloody arguing.'
'I'm not arguing, she is,' said Medusa. 'And I'll come with you.'
'Haha, whoah there. I think you'd better stay next to mummy, oh MortalMeddyZar!' said Stheno, mockingly.
'Yeah, rub up next to mummy.'
'Piss off you two!'
The gorgons had wandered off from the rest of the family, to watch one of the side events.
'Why don't you just hang back, we'll send you someone to terrorise after we've made quite sure they won't be able to hurt you.'
'We don't want any business with mirrors now, do we?'
'Shut up!' Medusa roared.
Dolon stopped in his tracks. It was hard enough to walk in a wolf's skin on all fours, but with the racket those stupid creatures were making he'd be lucky to make it to the Greek camp at all.
What did I do to deserve this, he thought. I just want Achilles' horses, but, boy, is it not worth putting up with all of this crap. Something interesting had better happen around here soon.
Odysseus stepped out of the shadows behind him.
Something interesting happened.
'Where the hell have you been?' Hector roared.
'Look, I would have come earlier, but them Scythians were running all over my land!' Rhesus roared back. 'I'm here now aren't I? I'll help you win this damned thing. Now, it's time for this old king to go to bed!'
Medusa watched the exchange happen. She'd wandered away from her violent sisters. They were still arguing about Dolon and hadn't noticed Odysseus beating him to death. Diomedes had noticed them however, and was doing his best to sidle away, just like a true hero would. Real heroes needed to stick around until the end and moving away from two mad gorgons seemed to be the best course of action.
Odysseus, cleaning Dolon's blood and bits of insides off his club, looked up and ceased all movement.
Oh no, thought Medusa. He's doing that stupid stand-still-and-they-won't-see-me routine. It never worked.
The two gorgons were bearing down on him and still he didn't move.
'I'll regret this tomorrow,' said Medusa, picking up a rock and lobbing it at Euryale's head. It knocked her down, Stheno turned around and screamed a bloodcurdling shriek. Medusa moved deftly into the shadows and swiftly away from her sisters.
Odysseus took the hint and ran.
The funny thing about heroes is that their destiny will always bring them to the right place, regardless of which direction they actually move in.
Both Diomedes and Odysseus found themselves on the edge of the Trojan camp. Their expressions were confused as they saw each other. Right next to them, out from the shadows, came Medusa.
'Oh no, oh no!' Diomedes groaned.
'Look, don't worry about those two,' said Medusa. 'You want to find Hector, right?'
They nodded, mutely.
'He's in bed over there.'
She pointed into the camp at the correct tent. It was the tent meant for the newly-arrived Rhesus, but, being a king, he had demanded a posher tent, one with more of an atmosphere, he had said.
They walked off, not taking their eyes from Medusa until they were a safe distance away. Odysseus then did something strange: he vanished, with a small plop!
Diomedes actually jumped slightly at the sight. Ordinarily, upon witnessing a disappearing comrade, he would have run back to his own camp and its relative safety. He looked back the way he had come. Medusa was still visible on the crest of the hill, and her sisters probably still lurking somewhere behind her too. It was a powerful motivation for continuing his quest.
After all, he was a hero, probably the best one the Greeks had, now that Odysseus had left. It was damned important work he was doing. Someone should be really be noting down what he was doing. And he was so far from home, his journey back was also sure to be an epic one. The Diomedyssey. That had a nice ring to it.
The thoughts of being in all the tales from here on out helped him forget he was running in a toga soiled by fear.
'You haven't seen two stupid looking humans have you? One's called Odysseus, and the other's...um...damn I forgot.'
It was definitely a goddess in front of Medusa. The fact that she was floating above the ground was a dead giveaway. Not floating like a ghost, more like she had simply forgotten that the ground was a foot further below than she had originally thought.
'That's the one! I've got to stop them killing Hector, it's not their destiny, you see.'
'It is now,' Medusa murmured. Then, louder, 'They're just coming up behind you.' Medusa pointed to the indistinct silhouettes appearing over the hill some distance away.
'Oh, good, I thought I might be too late. Thanks very much!' said Athena.
'Don't mention it.'
'Gentlemen, gentlemen, I know you were intent upon killing--' Athena's eyes widened in horror. An angry Eurylae and Stheno descended upon the goddess. Medusa just laughed to see such sport.
'So the Trojans think Rhesus killed Hector?' Cerberus asked, yawning. Well, one of the heads yawned, while another did the asking. The third head was busy licking something.
'Well, they're only humans aren't they, bless 'em,' said Echidna fondly, though with smug and hungry eyes.
'Something doesn't feel right though. I thought it was meant to be the other way around,' said Cerberus' middle head.
'Nonsense, of course it's meant to be like this. Everyone knows Hector dies at this part, while Athena watched on from nearby.'
'And she provided a bushel of snakes for them to make into soup for breakfast...'
'Ah, they don't tell 'em like that anymore,' said Echidna, with sparkling eyes.
'But where did she get all the snakes from?'
'Hey, what's that light?' asked Medusa loudly, keen to change the subject.
'It doesn't mention that in the program,' said Chimera, holding up the book Troy: A Siege for the modern mythological family.
A glowing orb of light had appeared in front of the oversized creatures. It flickered with an otherworldly glow and hard lines coming out of it as if it contained a small storm. It was growing steadily in size, and Troy looked set to be engulfed in this tempest if it carried on.
The siege took a time out, with soldiers on both sides turning around just to have a good peer. Nothing resolves the differences between two irreconcilable factions like fear for the end of all things, Greek or Trojan.
'I can see a head!' cried Stheno.
'I can see an arm!' said Eurylae.
'I can see a torso!' said Medusa.
I'm able to see something without saying it out loud, thought Chimera.
Out fell, was it a man? It resembled one in basic shape – two arms, two legs, a head – but it was clad in the strangest garments, as dark in hue as the stormiest sky and of a very different style to the Greeks and Trojans behind. They were all eyeing the light and the newcomer suspiciously and had their weapons raised in readiness.
He stood up and dusted himself off. He raised his head and met the gazes of the various monsters on their family holiday. He met their gazes directly, looking each one of them in the eyes. Everything was still, everyone was watching what he did next.
They had never seen the likes of Salaryman Ryuji Yamakawa before!
I already thought it had been a long day – Morishita had been asking where that imbecile Yamakawa had got to, how it affected all of us, leaving us a man down, when quite frankly, I couldn't give a toss. I've had it with this job anyway.
But then we all heard a siren whizz past into the city centre. Following it were ten more sirens and the whirring, chopping sound of four helicopters flying above. We went down in curiosity and managed to scramble through the huge crowd that had amassed there to get a decent view of the Tomozawa plaza.
There was a shimmering of light in the air there, and it was growing more substantial. A huge pillar of light burst forth from the centre, and suddenly, with a crack, it was gone, leaving an assortment of terrifying creatures behind. Their skin all seemed to be made of metal and they all appeared to be trying to imitate Greek mythological creatures. There was a robot Chimera and Medusa, robo-Cerberus, and Echidna the android. And was that Yamakawa standing in between their legs? What was that bastard doing there?
Then the rampage began.
And he is on their side?! It looks to me like he's giving them the orders. I have no idea what's happening, only that we need some assistance, if you wouldn't mind. I'm under some rubble in the remains of Tomozawa plaza, there are some others here too, I think. I'm transmitting this with my temporal sensor, maybe through the passages of time, someone can help me...
...Preferably a hero, one who's used to epic tales, and used to fighting staples of Greek mythology.
'Of course, the problem with my version of Rhesus, is that you have all the normal difficulties of a live performance – timing, blocking, everyone remembering all their lines and so on – but you also have all the attached difficulties of time travel – irrevocably changing the past and/or future, paradoxes, everyone remembering all their timelines and so on.
'It's devilishly hard to control and keep on top of. It was definitely an ambitious project, and I think I've paved the way for future chronomatic performances to take place.'
'You don't then think that the massacre that took place in Tomozawa plaza might put off some prospective directors?'
'Well no, no I don't. It's a hard job reaching through time to hire people from history, whether they know they're being hired or not. Apparently it was very easy to accidentally recruit those monsters of mythology – no one saw that coming! Especially how travelling through time affected them all. Something to do with changing a timeline, I'm sure that's why they came back so, well, metallic. And angry.'
'And do you have anything to say to the survivors and families of those who died in the Tomozawa massacre? "Sorry" perhaps?'
'Well, no, not really. I mean, it was all in the name of art, so I think people should be grateful that they were able to be a part of it. A part of history too, as I think there's going to be a lot more of these time-period pieces. Really, they're the luckiest ones of all, the ones who died I mean. Without them, it would have probably only got half of the opening revenue.'
'You also wouldn't be in prison of course.'
'Hey, this is just my sacrifice for my art. They're not the only ones who can claim to have sacrificed something for me. Besides, now everyone's heard of me and my play, am I not right?'
Odysseus appeared in a ruined building unfamiliar to him, feeling more than a little groggy. Whizzing thousands of years forward through time and several dimensional shifts was not a pleasant travelling experience. He stood bent over, leaning against a shattered wall for support, heaving.
Cheers met his arrival; slightly hushed and strained cheers. They seemed to come from the rubble nearby. A small cry of, 'Odysseus has come to save us!' could be heard, before, 'Oh, oh dear.'
They would never write how his first action was to throw up. Luckily for them, heroes never got painted warts and all.
Not surprisingly, the trip to Louisiana began with an argument. The parties convened in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, at Aunt Abbey’s house, with the big front porch with the glider that swung by itself in the wind. Aunt Abbey lived by herself now. Her husband, Don, was dead, as was her mother-in-law, Rose.
Her children had fled the nest and forgot all about her. Who had the time to gab with an old lady?
Abbey had her own life, a secret life, no one except her late husband knew about. She’d whisper to him while watching the big screen television in the living room.
“How do you like them apples,” she’d say. “Me going blind at my age. Dr. Fingerman promised me the world would never go all black.”
That’s why she arranged for her great-niece, Darla, with the black braids cascading down her back to drive her to Louisiana to visit the Wetlands with their marvelous birds.
Darla drove over in her white truck. Her younger brother, Sammy, sat up front with her. He had stopped speaking when he was four.
Abbey walked slowly out her front door. She clutched a small paper bag, filled with pretzels, sugarless chewing gum and a plastic container of trail mix, all the while holding a white cane. She tapped her way down the front porch steps, commanding herself not to fall, and walked over to the truck. Her hearing was acute, even at her age, and she could hear the motor idling.
It was just like Darla not to help her. Soon, Abbey knew, she’d ask for money.
Sammy got out of the truck in slow motion. Everything he did was slow. Who knew what was going on in his mind. His late father had once said, “Who knows? He might murder all of us while we sleep.”
Sammy was gentle as the piano chords he played back at Mom’s house. She, too, was no spring chicken, but had few interests other than shining the kitchen floor and collecting coupons for the grocery store, which she always forgot.
“You’ll have to sit in the back, Aunt Abbey,” said Darla, who looked quite fetching in her dyed black braids.
Darla, who had stopped gambling to save enough money to make payments on her white truck, looked at her aunt, who walked like a hunchback, and said, “Look, Abbey, you can’t see a damn thing, why waste the front seat on you!”
Abbey kept her mouth shut, while Darla told Sammy to let down a small attached white ladder so their aunt could mount the truck.
Sammy belted her in and off they went.
“What smells so good?” asked Abbey.
“Mommy’s chicken,” said Darla, as she adjusted her sun visor. In fact, with her low impulse control she felt like eating a leg or thigh right now.
Soon music was pouring out of the radio and the speakers in the back seat.
“Jesus Christ,” said Abbey. “I’m gonna have a panic attack. I can’t stand it. Turn the damn thing down.”
If Darla did, Abbey couldn’t tell. To calm herself down, she chewed five pieces of Orbit gum, wint-o-green flavor. She lifted her ancient arm, replete with wrinkles that looked like layers of a silk blouse, into the front seat, holding several packs of gum. Sammy, who now assumed the position of sous-chef, distributed them to himself and his sister, who held her hand out the moment the gum arrived.
“Just curious, dear,” said Abbey. “You’re a good driver, aren’t you?”
“Do you mind if I tell you a driving story?”
Abbey explained that she was always afraid to drive. The driving age in Ohio was 18. Her mother, who couldn’t drive, urged her daughter to get a license. Headlines arrived in the Cleveland Press one morning proclaiming, “New driver kills family of four.”
Abbey shook when she put her foot on the accelerator and on the brake. She muddled through however, and said to herself. “If I can do this, I can do anything.”
Her husband Don was a photographer for the Cleveland Press. In his two-toned Chevrolet, he raced about town taking all sorts of photographs: the new director of The Cleveland Museum of Art; the birth of twin swans, called cygnets, at the huge man-made lake Wade Park; and a promo of Eugene Ormandy, head conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, conducting Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
Then something snapped inside her husband. With his photography awards lined up on the mantelpiece in the living room, he had great fears about driving. There was a name attached to his condition, which she could no longer remember, but he explained to her, “Abbey, something comes over me when I drive. I feel like I’m gonna pass out.” When he pulled over to the side of the road he knew he’d have a heck of a time getting back on the road, whether there was traffic or not.
He refused to seek help. She knew he was ashamed but never mentioned it to him. From then on, her beloved husband, Don, who had won a Purple Heart on the Western Front in World War II, simply lay around the house and took over the laundry, the cooking, and bringing in the paper that was thrown in the drive before dawn every morning.
They did enjoy snuggling with one another in bed every night. She wore her sexy black negligee, even as she grew old and wrinkled, while he slept in his striped boxers. They held hands until they fell asleep.
One morning, while transferring clothes in the basement washing machine into the dryer, he simply collapsed. And that was the end of Don.
Looking out the truck window was like looking in the mirror after a shower. Misty, foggy. You got the general shape of things, but no more. Perhaps this was like babies when they first began to see, thought Abbey.
Darla noticed that her great-aunt spent more and more time sleeping in the back seat. She worried her aunt would die on her.
“Sammy,” she’d order. “Reach back and tickle Aunt Abbey.”
He followed her orders.
The white truck got good mileage. Since Mommy helped pay for it, Mommy had insisted on good mileage.
“Louisiana bound!” Darla began to sing. She made up the song as they passed cars on the left, a Red Toyota, a white Honda Fit with a ski rack on top, a blue SUV with kids waving at them and one sticking out his tongue.
They stopped in two motels. One in Pee Dee, South Carolina, another in Savannah, Georgia. Sammy couldn’t speak, but he sure could sing. Slowly, of course, as he began, “Oh, Georgia’s on my mind.”
The motels all had adjoining rooms. Darla would get the ice and slug down Seven-Ups, while finishing the last juicy chicken thigh and licking her fingers. She saw Sammy looking in the full-length mirror as if trying to figure out, “Who is that person?”
Aunt Abbey would pass out as soon as they got to their rooms.
Driving through the northern tip of Florida they saw dense smoke. The radio announced there were patches of forest fires. They all opened their windows to inhale the smoke, then quickly closed them.
“Figures!” said Aunt Abbey. “The apocalypse has arrived.”
“What does that mean?” asked Darla.
“End of the world. Buy yourself a book and start reading.”
It was widely known that Abbey sat and listened to audio books, while eating her breakfast of an English muffin with butter and plum jelly, a cup of black coffee with saccharine, and a Hershey’s kiss.
The black smoke trailed them like a lost dog.
Finally, they passed a sign in the shape of Louisiana.
“Welcome to Sportsman’s Paradise,” it read.
The television programs Abbey had watched now came to life, rising before her like on a movie screen. “Birds of America” was a thick volume of painted realistic birds, that Audubon had shot dead with his rifle, so he could study them. He had to work quickly, though, especially in the heat, as the little fellows would quickly begin to rot.
Audubon’s own father, Abbey remembered from the television, would point out the elegant movement of the birds, their beauty and softness of their plumage, their perfect forms and splendid attire.
Abbey had never been so moved in her life. Why this affinity with birds? Sure, she loved her audio books by Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins, but something in her rapidly aging brain clung to these birds as if they could make her live forever.
She cupped her eyes and stared out the window. Thousands of passenger pigeons had once delivered important messages in the horse-and-buggy days. Dead, all of them.
“We’re closing in on the Wetlands Trail. Did you see the sign?”
Abbey had missed it since her vision was concentrated on the compelling but sad scenery on the side, floodlands. Huge cypress trees were mired in mud and water, tall green grasses that swayed in the wind, and what seemed to be swamp land, thick and viscous. It reminded her of watching horror movies as a child in the Cedar and Lee Theater, the Creature from the Black Lagoon or The Werewolf.
She automatically stuck a piece of chewing gum in her mouth and puffed up her dyed red hair, sinking her fingernails into her scalp, which she massaged.
“Darla, dear,” she said. “I am so excited. Really excited. You’ve helped me accomplish my dream of a lifetime. I can’t…”
“Hold on, Auntie! We ain’t there yet.”
The Wetlands Trail changed from being a road of asphalt to little more than a dirt road. They bumped along in the white truck. Sammy peered out the front window and began to sing again.
“Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten-thousand men.” Darla and Abbey joined in.
“He marched them up to the top of the hill, and marched them down again.”
A couple of older men stood sentry on the road. They wore uniforms. Park ranger uniforms. One smoked a pipe. Another wore suspenders. A third was a young man, who doffed his cap as the white truck came to a stop.
“Howdy!” said Officer LaRue. “Afraid the road’s closed. Your truck would drown the lot of youse.”
“Sir!” called Abbey.
“Oh, don’t pay attention to her,” said Darla. “She’s an old lady and has no idea what she’s talking about. Dementia, you know.”
Officer LaRue walked over to her window, which Abbey had opened.
“Your name again, sir?” she asked.
“Daniel LaRue, ma’am,” he said.
She explained they had driven all the way from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, her grand-niece Darla, her brother Sammy, and she, Aunt Abbey. “I’m practically blind, sir, getting there, anyway, and this is my last chance to see the Wetlands. Help us, please!”
LaRue looked over at the two other officers. Then walked toward them.
They summoned Aunt Abbey.
“Anyone else want to ride with us?” Darla and Sammy said nothing. They helped Abbey out of the white truck. She tried to straighten up but it did no good. She was curled over like a pretzel. Two officers helped her into their green Jeep.
“Now we’re gonna be bumping along like a roller coaster,” said Officer Bixby, puffing on his pipe. “But we know you’re a brave woman and we aim to help you achieve your dream.”
They put her in the front seat. Officer LaRue drove, while the other two sat in the back seat. In less than thirty seconds, a blue heron sailed over a lightly swaying pond and landed on the side. Oblivious to the Jeep, he bent over and disgorged a mouthful of fish. That’s all they could see.
“His nest is below the reeds. He’s one of the few males who’s charged with feeding the family.”
The boys laughed. Abbey joined in the laughter. “My late husband, Don, would make pancakes that were raw in the middle.”
“Now you might not be able to see this, Abb, but on the bank on the right, camouflaged and looking like a little see-gar, is…”
“Oh my Gawd!” she cried. “Now I’ve seen everything. A real crocodile!” He had bumps all over his back, like on a pickle, and his tail seemed to have a mind of its own, pulsating, like marking time to gulp up his next victim.
“What do they eat?” she asked.
“People!” they laughed. “They’re carnivores so they eat basically anything that moves. You know, rodents, small mammals, fish.”
Abbey listened intently.
“Teeth! How many teeth do they have?”
“Glad you mentioned that, Abb,” said Officer Jamison. “Get this. They have 80 teeth. They’re polyphyodonts.”
She repeated the word slowly. “Polyphyodonts. Wish my late husband Don were here.”
“Perhaps he is, ma’am.”
They both laughed.
“So, the crocs can replace each of their 80 teeth up to 50 goshdarn times in their 35 to 75-year lifespan. And, get this, next to each full grown tooth is a small replacement tooth.”
“I’m the oldest of three girls,” said Abbey. “Buck teeth ran in our family. As kids we were too poor to get braces. When I was 50 years old, in other words, just a year or two ago, Don said, ‘Sweetheart, you get yourself some braces so your teeth won’t jut out and kill someone walking by.”
They had a good laugh.
“Anything else we can do you for?” asked Officer Lami.
“I’m going to tell you all a secret,” she said in her lazy Midwestern drawl.
“She’s gonna tell us she loves us,” said Officer LaRue.
“Better than that. I’m gonna tell you my age, if you promise not to tell a single solitary soul.”
Was she imagining it or did their eyes light up?
“I was born on the very day of the armistice of World War One.”
“God bless you, ma’am! November 11, 1918.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’m older than God. If there is one.”
“Well,” said Officer LaRue. “There sure is a God and she’s looking down on us right now.”
As they drove back to the white truck, Officer LaRue reached into the glove compartment.
“Here, Abbey,” he said. “I want you to have this. My good luck charm.”
He pulled out several huge feathers. One was a beautiful royal blue of a newly extinct bird. The other was white as a snowflake. The blue heron.
Abbey began to cry.
“These are real tears,” she said. “Not crocodile tears.”
She said she’d keep them forever. And when she got home, she placed them on her bedside table, next to a tiny music box that played “The Last Rose of Summer.”
In her Last Will and Testament, she left the music box to Sammy.
"So, will you help him?"
Cliff sat up on the motel room bed and looked at her.
"I don't get to make that decision, Wendy."
"No, but you can prove that he's too valuable to lose."
"And I’ll try. But… Look, Wendy. Frank got those remote training assignments because Faulkes doesn’t like him. But out of sight, out of mind, easier to let go."
Wendy lay uncovered next to him. Cliff noticed two small beads of sweat glistening in the hollow of her neck. He bent down and kissed each drop and then her lips. He whispered while they were still mouth to mouth. "The last thing I want is for you to leave."
He leaned toward her and slid a leg across her hips. Wendy planted her palm on his ribs, holding him back. "Cliff, what we're already doing to Frank is rotten. Don't let him drown, you know how capable he is."
Wendy's tone sounded worried. He stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers. "All right, all right," he whispered. I'll try. And I'm an idiot for doing it."
Her eyes widened and softened. "All right, all right," she echoed sadly.
Cliff drove from the motel into rush hour stagnation, Frank creeping back into his exhaust-polluted thoughts.
I knew Frank was quirky when I recommended we hire him, but he's clever, probably the smartest guy in the company. If only he wasn't so alien—he can take a great idea and express it so peculiarly that no one buys into it. And a month later somebody steals the idea, no credit to Frank.
Cliff winced. Myself included. He's happy to do favors, but expects nothing back, so is taken for granted, or, worse, taken for a patsy. I don't think he's autistic, just, shit, I don't know, other-worldly. And Wendy married him. Maybe just a stray-dog syndrome. And Wendy and I are pissing down his throat. If we stop does it make it any better?
The traffic opened up and Cliff refocused onto driving to the office. The earlier sales call he'd arranged to camouflage his motel visit had turned into a sale, and he needed to arrange a contract. The drudge would take his mind off what to do about Frank. And Wendy.
The parking lot was beginning to empty out when Cliff pulled in. Friday afternoon desertion. Or maybe people reclaiming their lives. Once the new customer had been tended to, Cliff turned to voice mails. Faulkes wanted to see him for lunch on Wednesday. Damn. Lunches were the preferred venue for firings and promotions. He seemed to think that one drink and an overpriced meal legitimized even brutal blows. I'm not due for sacrifice, so it must be Frank.
Cliff replied yes to Faulkes' lunch invitation, then dialed Frank's voice mail. "Frank, Cliff. I think you're getting back this evening (I know damn well you are) I don't want to bother you this weekend, I'm sure you and Wendy have some catching up to do. But could you stop by and see me on Monday afternoon? Thanks."
Cliff cleaned out his voice and e mails and started winnowing through the stack of paperwork, tossing half the stack into the waste can. At a little after six he'd worked his way down to contract compliances and sales analyses, drudge paperwork that both he and his crew hated. He declared an official screw-it and leaned back in his chair.
Don't think about Frank and Wendy. Think about what an urbane, divorced, not-ugly guy can do with himself on a Friday night. Troll my health club?
After the divorce, Frank had used his club, Fitness Paradise, as a sexual convenience store. Exercising and drinking juice somehow promised that the members were less likely to be diseased. But since taking up with Wendy he'd been backhandedly faithful, sharing her but not himself. I need the exercise, but not the flirtation avoidance. How desperate is that?"
Cliff pulled a number up on his cell phone and called it. "Phil?... Yeah, Cliff Mintner… Yeah, it has been awhile. Listen, do you guys still play poker on Friday nights?... Great. Would it be all right if I sat in?... Yeah, that's what I usually play for. See you around eight thirty."
Hopefully won't be too bad. They're all married guys, so they won't talk about women except to tell dirty jokes. Maybe if I lose a couple hundred dollars the gods will treat it as a sin offering.
It was typical of Frank that he showed up at Cliff's office doorway early Monday morning. Cliff already had the customer service manager in his office asking for help on additional staffing.
"Oh. Frank, good to see you. Gisele and I will be finished in ten or fifteen minutes, and I can squeeze you in. Do you want me to call you?"
Frank's angular features were tightened with worry. He seemed oblivious to disrupting the meeting with Gisele. "Uh, no, I can just wait here if you won't be too long." His voice was an indistinct mumble, a trait coworkers said they hated.
Cliff and Gisele could see him through the glass walls of the office, standing awkwardly in the corridor. His presence cramped their discussion and they cut it short. As Gisele left the office she gave Frank an annoyed glance that he seemed not to notice.
"Come on in, Frank. Shut the door, would you?"
Frank sat on the edge of an upholstered chair and leaned toward Cliff. Jesus, he's perched like he's going to swoop down and peck at me.
"What did you want to talk to me about, Cliff?"
Cliff had to smile. It was so Frank-like to not use any lubricating small talk.
"The training is going well?"
"Adequately. But as I said, the plants need restructuring. I should go back out with different goals—"
"Frank, you know that's not going to happen. Faulkes declined extending your work. Your training sessions are finished next month. Have you thought about what you'll do once the training is over?"
"I'll be reassigned here."
"That's what we need to talk about. Right now there are no openings."
"But my old job—"
"Your accounts were reallocated."
Cliff wanted to walk around the desk and put his hands on Frank's shoulders, but kept the desk between them. "We've talked about this before. You need to prepare for the possibility that there's no slot for you."
"I have been looking, Cliff, but it never seems to get beyond the first interview."
Because they can't see beyond the awkwardness. "Have you thought about relocating?"
"I can't, Wendy's job is here."
Yeah, and so's our motel. "I'm going to push for you to be kept on, Frank, you know that, but with prices and volumes down the crapper, there's going to be cuts. You need to be poised to jump."
Frank, for all his analytical skill looked bewildered. "Cliff, you more than anybody know the contributions I've made, the advice I've been able to give."
"I do, and I wish we'd acted on more of it. But we didn't, and when the doom you predicted happened you somehow got blamed for it. I'm sorry. If you relocate with a new job, Wendy should be able to do likewise." And my personal life is gutted.
Frank's expression had cracked open, and wounded trust spilled out over his face. He wasn't crying, but may as well have been. He needed calmness to exercise his talents, and it had been torn away.
If Faulkes sees that expression, Frank is out the door. Faulkes likes stolid temple priests. Maybe it is time for Frank and Wendy to go away. Better for all three of us. Cleaner.
"Wendy's job is portable, Frank, nurses are in demand everywhere. I don't know what's going to happen, (you lying bastard) but worst case you've got seven years of salable experience with us, and the severance package would probably be enough to get you restarted."
Frank's face ossified into pale marble, which Cliff knew meant heavy thought. He said nothing for half a minute, another unpopular mannerism.
"No, Cliff." His tone was sad but neutral. "We would have real problems. The house, expenses, our life together. We need your support in this."
Cliff the true friend.
"I'll do whatever I can, Frank. You know that."
The call from Wendy came at a quarter to five, right after her shift at the hospital. "Cliff, can you talk?"
Cliff got up from his desk, walked over to his office door and shut it. "Now I can."
"What in hell did you say to Frank? He's telling me we may lose the house, may have to move…" Cliff could hear Wendy snuffling back tears, choking a little. Then her voice toughened. "You need to do everything you can—"
"Already am, Wendy. You have to know how much I want you to stay—"
"So we can keep banging each other."
"You don’t need to tear us down. I just don't want to lose you. Or Frank of course."
"Of course. What should I do? Get an ugly divorce like yours so we can live together and begin to hate each other?"
"Not fair, Wendy. Should we meet somewhere?"
"Like the motel? Not a chance." Her anger subsided. "Cliff, I'm sorry. I-We- oh damnation, what are we going to do?"
Cliff sighed. "The best we can. I see Faulkes on Wednesday. Maybe he keeps Frank on after all."
"Do you really think so?"
"I don't know, maybe not. Best not to get your hopes up."
Wednesday morning at a quarter to twelve, Cliff walked to Faulkes' office, the largest room on the floor, filled with massive mahogany furniture and trophies from corporate wars. If Faulkes was a biker he'd have pictures of the victims tattooed on his arms.
Faulkes was of the closed door school of management, and Cliff knocked softly and then cracked open the door. "John, I'm ready when you are."
"Give me a couple minutes."
Cliff shut the door and stood outside it, thinking he must look as awkward as Frank had on Monday. Faulkes liked to keep servants waiting. Cliff began talking to Faulkes’ secretary. Cultivating the gatekeeper was never a bad idea.
Five minutes later Faulkes emerged. "Let's go," he said, and started off toward the elevator without another word, assuming Cliff would fall in behind. Which he did.
Faulkes kept up a string of questions while they rode down the elevator and walked several blocks. Regional performance; expenses; competitive sales tactics. Cliff had prepped for the mobile interrogation and rattled back answers.
Once seated in the restaurant Faulkes ordered a glass of white wine and Cliff echoed the order. Cliff knew that the upscale midtown Manhattan restaurant would serve at most a third of a glass, as if the wine were too valuable for customers. At least I won't be getting drunk.
Faulkes started in before the wine-delivering waiter had completely turned back around. "So, Cliff. You recommended we hire Frank. I just wanted to let you know that I'm firing him."
Clff nodded. "He doesn't work for me, but I hear his evaluations have always been okay, and he has helped us avoid several pitfalls."
Faulkes waved his hands impatiently. "Yes, yes, but I don't retain adequate. Besides the plant managers have been calling me. Frank has been warning their staffs of all sorts of problems. He's supposed to be on a team building exercise, for Christ's sake. And he gives me an uneasy feeling, like he knows when I’ll die but isn’t saying anything. We save a hundred fifty thousand in salary and benefits. I'll be doing it next week."
Which way do you hop, Cliffie bug?
"You're right, of course, John. Frank has the personality of a vulture. But before we discard him, there's maybe a way for him to make money for us."
Faulkes blinked. He wouldn't shut Cliff down until he saw if there was money to be made. "Go ahead."
"Frank has some personality deficiencies, no question. But he's brilliant with analysis and detail, and sometimes a fortune teller in warning us of potential problems."
"And sometimes he’s wrong. Which is what people remember because he's so annoying."
Cliff pressed on. "Right now, contracts are drafted by each sales person, who's also responsible for policing his own sales, expenses and forecasting."
"Picture for a second that we make Frank the manager of all that."
"How does that save us anything?"
"The sales people sell rather than administer, which means increased sales. The contracts are uniform and more binding, and the sales people can't as easily fiddle with the sales estimates and expenses. They hate doing this paperwork anyway, so morale would improve. And we get to keep using Frank's early warnings."
"But people hate him."
"Frank would report to me, and I would be the interface with the regions, sending Frank out once or twice a month for on-site inspections. I'd also pass along any of his warnings that seemed credible."
Faulkes smiled, an unusual occurrence. "Aren't you the slippery little shit. That would make you the corporate enforcer. It's still too expensive."
"I think it's a money maker, and as a bonus you can lose a body in accounting. We could give it a try for a year. If it doesn't save us more than his salary I'll fire him myself."
Faulkes twirled his wine glass by the stem while he thought. "You know what you're doing to Frank, don't you? It's a boring, dead end job. He's your friend, shouldn't you let him go so he can find a place where he'll develop?"
"He wants to stay."
Faulkes set down the wine glass. "Write it up and let's see what the numbers look like."
Gotcha! "You'll have a draft by Friday."
Cliff spent the afternoon pulling data in for Faulkes' report. At 6:30 he shut down the lap top and stared sightlessly across the room. What kind of bondage am I putting you into, Frank? The most unpleasant chores in the company, with no hope of transfer or promotion. And road trips so Wendy and I can be together. You could always turn it down. But you won't. You're a seer afraid to look at his own alternatives. And I'm a manipulative prick.
Cliff picked up the desk phone and dialed Frank's home number. "Oh, hi Wendy, is Frank there?"
"No, he's out at the store. Tell me what happened at the meeting!"
"I need to tell Frank first, but I think he can stay on in a different role, at the same salary."
"Ask him to call me on my cell when he gets in?"
"I think Frank is leaving Sunday for the Montrose plant?"
"Would it be all right to get together for lunch on Monday?"
Wendy started to speak, paused, and started again. "Lunch and? No, it’s not all right. It’s never ‘all right.’ But I suppose I should, for services rendered. Oh, hell, Cliff, that was bitchy. I’m sorry. But I need to make a decision about us. And I’ll let you know on Monday.”
R.L. Ugolini has had short stories published in over three dozen literary journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Cicada, Demonic Visions Vol. 3-6, Red Rock Review and Crack the Spine. The Summerset Review nominated one of her short stories for the 2011 Million Writers’ Award. Her first novel was released by Samhain Publishing in 2015. She lives in Texas with her husband.