“This is the list you carry in your pocket, of the things you plan to say to Kay, when you find him, if you find him:
I’m sorry that I forgot to water your ferns while you were away that time.
When you said that I reminded you of your mother, was that a good thing?
I never really liked your friends all that much.
None of my friends ever really liked you.
Do you remember when the cat ran away, and I cried and cried and made you put up posters, and she never came back? I wasn’t crying because she didn’t come back. I was crying because I’d taken her to the woods, and I was scared she’d come back and tell you what I’d done, but I guess a wolf got her, or something. She never liked me anyway.
I never liked your mother.
After you left, I didn’t water your plants on purpose. They’re all dead.
Were you ever really in love with me?
Was I good in bed, or just average?
What exactly did you mean, when you said that it was fine that I had put on a little weight, that you thought I was even more beautiful, that I should go ahead and eat as much as I wanted, but when I weighed myself on the bathroom scale, I was exactly the same weight as before, I hadn’t gained a single pound?
So all those times, I’m being honest here, every single time, and anyway I don’t care if you don’t believe me, I faked every orgasm you ever thought I had. Women can do that, you know. You never made me come, not even once.
So maybe I’m an idiot, but I used to be in love with you.
I slept with some guy, I didn’t mean to, it just kind of happened. Is that how it was with you? Not that I’m making any apologies, or that I’d accept yours, I just want to know.
My feet hurt, and it’s all your fault.
I mean it this time, goodbye.” ― Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Friday, October 09, 1998
The best food ends in “O”
At lunch today I was off to buy groceries at the Hyperbolic Market (Shopping From Hell!!) before it became overcrowded. As I pulled out of the parking lot my pager went off, belt bee notifying me of incoming voicemail. I was pretty sure it was not business and considered going back to get the call, but I decided that I’d better get my errand run, I’d call back a little later.
We’re having guests this weekend. I bought tomatillos, cilantro, jalepenos (the recipe calls for habaneros, but they were three dollars for a few orange lumps in a little plastic tray and covered with red warning labels saying stuff like “Danger, these are the hottest things in the universe, do NOT EAT, wear thick rubber gloves when handling, wash hands thoroughly before taking a leak, For God’s Sake!”, so I chickened out and bought jalepenos instead) and mangos.
Fresh food, tropical food, food ending in “O.”
I’ve been trying to spend some time in the middle of the day, every work day, with my office door closed. I’ll sit there and daydream, listen to a little Mozart, maybe talk on the phone, anything to take my mind away for awhile.
The Others are starting to put this down. One guy knocked, asking me paperwork questions when I opened my door. Immediately others lined up behind him, needing favors or answers or only to unload. It was actually kind of funny, my thoughts were elsewhere and I was no good at all to anybody.
And now, a piece of flash fiction for today:
I have been a fan of Kelly Link for years – ever since her amazing and very odd book of stories – modern day adult fairy tales – Stranger Things Happen was listed as a Times magazine best book of the year. I was happy to find this story from her follow-up collection Magic for Beginners.
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
R had been hiding out at Fred and Ethyl’s house, in their basement. Fred and Ethyl weren’t their real names, of course, it wasn’t safe to know anybody’s real name – and they had this old-fashioned sense of humor. R felt safe in the basement but Fred and Ethyl said they had seen this non-descript car, so non-descript that it had to be ordinary on purpose, driving slowly around the neighborhood. Fred and Ethyl were worried and they kicked him out – left him in the woods.
The woods were mostly Cedar, Fred called it a Cedar Brake. There were a whole series of them along the lake, with thicker woods full of bigger trees and heavy brush, in between. R spent a lot of time looking at the Cedar trees nothing better to do. They were dark and twisted their trunks looking like misshapen limbs – bodies curled together. There was fresh new wood growing from roots up to the dark green fuzzy needles and a lot of old dead stuff mixed and twisted in.
R wasn’t much of an outdoorsman and it was getting hard on him, living in the breaks. He had plenty of food so far. On the way out from the basement they had stopped at this warehouse store and Ethyl went in and bought cases of canned food – chili, beans, some kind of ham. R knew he’d get sick of eating this stuff fast, especially eating it all cold, but what’s to do?
Fred had given R and old sleeping bag and a big sheet of plastic, in case it rains, but it hadn’t yet. The package said something about a painter’s drop cloth. He didn’t relish the thought of huddling under the sheet in a storm.
R had found a flat spot along the top of a little ridge above the lake. The trees here were thicker than down in the Cedar Breaks, and that’s where he set up with his sleeping bag, piece of plastic, and the suitcase he had brought. R tried to keep up appearances as much as he could, washing his socks and underwear out every morning down at the lake. His suitcase held his extra suit – wool, Italian, very expensive. Each day here, though, he wore some tan trousers and a dress shirt. He had two extra shirts but he cold tell they were going to get terribly worn pretty soon. He wished he had some more appropriate clothes – more suitable for living in the breaks. His suitcase also contained four fat green cylinders of money, big bills, wrapped in a rubber band. He had given two others (the smaller of the ones he carried) to Fred and Ethyl saying, “Here, take all I’ve got on me,” while keeping the rest hidden away tucked up inside the suitcase.
There used to be some sort of park along the lake. It must have been a big deal years ago – there were a handful of old run-down cabins lining a stretch of leaf-covered asphalt. R thought about breaking into one and sleeping there, but he was worried that he’d be found out – the first place to look – and the one cabin that he had stuck his head into through a torn screen had such an awful smell of old death he couldn’t bear to pry open the door. There were still people on the other side of the lake; he could hear the chugging diesel motors at night as they pulled giant camping trailers in and out. When the light was right he could spot old retired folks sitting in colorful folding chairs along the water. By their posture he guessed they had poles and lines in the water. R wondered if they ever caught anything.
It hadn’t taken very many days for R to fall into a rough uncomfortable routine. Without anyone to talk to, the days were already starting to smear. It was late afternoon and R was sitting at an old picnic table in a large Cedar Brake above the old cabins. There was only one seat board left – the other side was bare rusty pipe with flecks of corroded bolts that used to hold the wood. The top was missing the middle board too – but it was the least rotted of all the picnic tables left.
R bent over to flick a spot of dried mud off his leather loafer when the bullet whizzed by. It passed so close to the back of his neck he thought he could feel the heat radiating off the slug as it flew by passing through the back part of his shirt collar but missing his flesh altogether. Then there was the echoing report of the shot and the smack-crack as the bullet careened through some cedar limbs.
R threw himself to the ground and was up in a flash dashing through the thick maze of cedars as fast as he could. Another shot threw chunks of wood through the air. R caught a sudden smell of fresh shattered cedar; it brought back an involuntary memory of hiding in his uncles’ suit closet as a kid, smelling the fresh cedar and old wool.
R had seen his share of gunfire but it wasn’t anything like this. He was used to handguns in crowded city streets – the survivor was always the first to shoot, the whole thing over in seconds, the most ruthless and quick would be the one that survived. Everything was so close. R was always the first to fire.
This was different. R was being hunted with a high-powered rifle and as he ran he’d glace back with every twist and turn. He could see nothing. His mind raced with thoughts of camouflage and ex-military snipers, trained and paid – specialists in this kind of work.
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”
― Anais Nin
(Twenty Minute Writing Exercise)
A thousand little streams screamed down the steep jungle mountainside and joined together into a quickflowing rocky river before leaving the coastal valley and dumping into a gravel delta formed since the last eruption. Here the river broke up again into rivulets dumping their sediment and spreading out until they reached the sea. The short stretch where the water all took the same course was called Zahouetek – a corruption of the native’s ancient language – a combined phrase that meant “Many Waters.” At least that is what Marvin had been told.
“I wrote in to the Guinness Book of Records People and told them to list the Zahoutek as the shortest river on earth,” Marvin said.
“Is that so,” replied Cynthia. She answered it as a disinterested statement, not as a question. Marvin answered anyway.
“Yes, it’s true. But there are these two rivers… the D River in Oregon and the Roe River in Montana. They were fighting it out for the shortest river until Guinness gave up and didn’t list the shortest anymore.”
“So, this isn’t the shortest? “
“No, I guess not. Still, it’s pretty short, isn’t it?”
Cynthia didn’t answer. She dipped a toe and then turned to walk back up to the house. For a second, she was silhouetted against the mist that rose from the cold river into the warm air above. Marvin thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. As she turned toward the house, she caught Marvin looking at her and her face clouded with anger as she spun away from his eager gaze.
She had not walked more than ten feet when the thumping sound of a helicopter started echoing down the valley.
“Oh! Oh! He’s coming back,” squealed Cynthia, her languid laziness suddenly dispelled by the sound. She started hopping and walking fast towards the little flat landing pad next to the house on.
“Shit! He’s coming back,” Marvin muttered as he followed, with a little less speed and a lot less enthusiasm. “I wish the damn thing would crash.”
“What? Marvin? What?” Cynthia asked without turning her head. “I can’t understand you when you talk and you’re behind me like that.”
“Sorry dear, nothing, nothing at all.”
The chopper was descending quickly down the center of the valley. It would land at the house before they could reach it. It was a small two-man craft piloted by Ralph McKenzie – a geologist that was on the island studying the volcano. At first, Marvin had welcomed Ralph’s presence. It was nice to have some new company on the island. Marvin had bought the property for its isolation and its natural beauty. He and Cynthia were the only people on the island – everything had to be brought by launch from Port du Monde. Even the servants commuted across the straight. Marvin thought that being alone with Cynthia would bring them together… but it seemed to get on her nerves.
When Ralph first showed and talked about the work he wanted to do Marvin gladly had the landing pad constructed. The trouble started right from the start, though. He didn’t like the way that Cynthia, his wife, stared at the work crew as they graded and finished the oval patch of gravel that the chopper would use. She seemed impatient, chewing her nails as the men slaved and sweated in the heat.
As the days went by and Ralph spent more and more time at the house, Cynthia’s interest in the geologist and the work he was doing up on the mountain grew. The little helicopter was the only way to reach the upper reaches of the volcano and, of course it could only carry Cynthia and Ralph alone.
One time Marvin insisted on taking a ride and visiting Ralph’s observation station, but he wasn’t impressed. The smell of sulfur and the roar of the gas down in the crater made for an uncomfortable atmosphere. Marvin couldn’t understand the attraction and never went back. Marvin was considering forbidding his wife from making the trip, feigning concern for her health, when, a month ago, Ralph banned it himself.
“The volcano is gathering power. I’m afraid it may erupt any day now. I don’t want to put you at risk, Cynthia.”
Marvin’s wife fluttered her eyes. “If it isn’t safe for me… how can it be safe for you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Ralph said. “I’ve been doing this all my life. I know when the getting is good.”
By the time Marvin had reached the house, Ralph had already landed and entered the building. Cynthia went in after him and when Marvin strode up to the door, they both came out, pushing past him.
“Ralph says we have to go, have to go now!” Cynthia shouted at him.
“Yes, I’m afraid so, old boy,” Ralph said calmly. “The volcano is going to go any minute. The lava dome has cracked, I’m afraid it’s going to happen.”
Marvin was suspicious, but there wasn’t much he could do. “Well, I guess we better radio for a launch.” The servants had taken the day off, at Cynthia’s request, and had crossed the straight in the boat. “There’s no way off the island right now.”
“Well, that’s what I just now checked on, chap,” said Ralph in that awful cloying tone he used sometimes. “The radio is out, just came from there.”
“Out?” asked Marvin.
“Completely out,” nodded Cynthia.
“So you see, old chap, I’ll take the chopper and Cynthia across the straight and we’ll send a boat back for you. Simple as that.”
“Simple as that,” repeated Marvin. He didn’t like it at all. There had been plenty of time for Ralph to sabotage the radio.
So this is they would do it. Abandon him there, waiting for an eruption, no radio. He knew that launch would never come. And then Cynthia would be rid of him, and she would be with Ralph, her beautiful geologist. And they would have his money.
But what could he do? Marvin thought and thought. He couldn’t suggest that Cynthia stay behind, that wouldn’t look right. Ralph had to pilot and there was only room for one more.
“Simple as that,” was all he could say.
Cynthia looked way too happy and eager as she climbed into the chopper. Ralph didn’t even look at him as he spun up the rotors and took off. The tiny craft dipped through a bit of mist and then sped off over the sea.
“Simple as that,” Marvin muttered as it disappeared. “So that’s it,” he added. As an answer, the mountain grumbled and the earth shook. A large piece of the slope tumbled off and crashed into the river, throwing up a wall of water and foam.
“Well, I guess ol’ Ralph wasn’t kidding, was he?” Marvin said to nobody in particular. “Well, he thinks he knows everything, but he doesn’t know it all.”
Marvin walked quickly down to the edge of the water, where there was a little shed. He dialed the combination and pried open the door. Inside, hidden under a dark tarp, was a small, plastic kayak, with a paddle bungied to the seat. Working quickly because the mountain was shuddering again, this time more violently , Marvin hauled the craft down to the river. He slid it in from the shallow bank, undid the paddle, and set off as quickly as he could.
“They think they know everything, but they don’t know it all!” Marvin sang as the little boat shot through the shallow gravel bar at the end of the river and coursed out into the sea. He had kept his little kayak a secret – it had come over on the launch and he had stuck it in the shed while Ralph had Cynthia up on the mountain in his little helicopter. Marvin grinned as he paddled. The straight would be a long trip, paddling by hand, but he knew he could make it. The two of them, they would have their story already, how Marvin couldn’t make it, how he had sacrificed himself so they could live. But he would fool them, he would show up, very much alive, and asking why they hadn’t sent the launch when there was still time.
At first, the little craft skimmed across the waves, but Marvin noticed it getting slower and slower. At first he thought it was only fatigue, but he realized the boat was suddenly riding a lot lower in the water. He twisted around and saw a quickly flowing leak filling the inner floatation cell of the kayak with water. Running his had back he found a hole, a big hole. It had been plugged with some red putty or something, and it had dissolved in the water. He was sinking. He was going to drown.
“I guess they did know it all, in the end,” he said, as the red plastic boat slipped beneath the waves. The mountain behind him let out a roar of agreement.
“Mario, what do you get when you cross an insomniac, an unwilling agnostic and a dyslexic?”
“You get someone who stays up all night torturing himself mentally over the question of whether or not there’s a dog.” ― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Tuesday, January 2, 2001Twenty years and one day ago. It’s odd to read about respiratory illness from the days (decades) before COVID
There seems to exist, in this best of all possible worlds, a cruel virus, one that swirls around specifically at holiday time. When I’m home, with time on my hands, a chance to do some things I actually want to do for once… and the virus strikes. A world of headache, sinus drainage, ache, and worst of all, uncontrollable coughing.
The tough decision is whether or not to take cold medicine. It helps the symptoms, but really messes me up. A gulp of Nyquil and I sleep like the dead, but it stuffs my head with what feels like warm wet cotton for days afterward.
One night I tried it alone and was rewarded with an awful hacking cough every time I tried to lie down. I would bounce up and down – sneezing and heaving all night, watching the relentless movement of the clock, the red digits advancing, entropy irrevocably increasing.
That night really messed my sleep schedule up. I began sleeping later and later and staying up ’til the wee hours. I’m not a morning person anyway and am susceptible to this weakness of lassitude.
I knew it would be a struggle to get up early to make it back to work today so I tried going to bed early last night. No dice… couldn’t sleep. The alarm went off anyway.
I remember reading in the Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn saying that the worst torture was when they would simply keep him awake for days and days. Sleep deprivation. I hate it too.
Today I was a zombie at work. Dizzy, sleepy, needing REM rest. After being off for so long it was hard enough to remember my passwords and what the hell I was supposed to be doing at the place – in my deprived condition I was a mess. All I could do was dream of getting home and to sleep and watching the clock slowly tick around.
“Spider venom comes in many forms. It can often take a long while to discover the full effects of the bite. Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”
― Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys
The Ubiquity of Spiders
Sam Monaghan’s father had moved his family – Sam and his baby sister Brenda – out to the tiny town of Gilmer right after his wife had been attacked. They had lived in a brownstone in the old meat-packing district – they felt like urban pioneers. Until the one afternoon when Sam’s mother, Paula, came home from work to find the two tweakers that Sam’s father had hired to paint Brenda’s nursery waiting.
In the city, Sam had been an elite baseball player – the offensive star of a select team, The Bombers. In Gilmer, however, he had to suddenly give up the sport, which left a frustrating gap in his life, like a missing tooth in his jaw. The attackers had used his bat on his mother and he couldn’t bear to hold one in his hands again.
“Sam, I wish you would make some friends in the school here,” his mother said to him as he pushed her chair out onto the porch so she could watch the sun set.
“I know mom, I’ll try. I just don’t have anything in common with these kids.”
“What about Duane, dear? He lives on the next farm over, you can walk there whenever you want. He’s only a grade below you.”
“I’ll see mom. I’ll see.”
She was talking about Duane Clankman, who was a year older than Sam, even though he was a grade below.
The walk to the Clankman farm wound down through the creek bottoms, on an old abandoned road, not much more than a couple worn wheel ruts and a rusting iron bridge missing most of its roadway. The riot of weedy creekbottom swamp forest grew in from the sides and over the top until the way was a winding green tunnel.
The thing was, Duane had a cool old barn on his family’s farm. Over the start of the school year, Sam began to get in the habit of walking over there. The loft of the barn was full of hay bales, and Duane had arranged everything while the loft was being filled so that there were tunnels in the hay. They would pull a bale out of the opening and then crawl down a series of narrow tunnels into a pair of secret rooms hollowed out. Duane had even thought of leaving small openings for light and air.
Sometimes other kids, usually Frank, whose father was missing somewhere overseas, and Maria, whose father roofed houses would meet up there and the four would crawl through the tunnels and sit in the rooms talking about their friends, their school, their hopes and their dreams.
As the fall fell away, the sun began to set earlier and earlier. The kids smuggled some old flashlights into the hay so they could see their way out, though they would turn them off and sit in the darkness whenever they could. One day Duane showed up with some old candle stubs and a pack of matches from a bar in Broadtown, but the others convinced him it was too dangerous to light candles in the hayloft.
He’d stay as long as he dared, then Sam would rush home along the overgrown path by the light of the set sun, smeared gray and orange across the wide country sky.
“It’s late, Sam,” his mother told him as the screen door slammed shut behind him. “I don’t want you walking back from the Clankman’s in the dark.”
“It’ll be all right, Mom, there’s nothing out there, nothing to worry about.” Same saw a flash of pain across her face and the falling from the uneven spot where her broken cheekbone hadn’t healed quite right. “Really, Mom, don’t worry about me. It’s safe.”
“Well, I guess…” she said. “Here, take this flashlight with you every time, though, it’ll make me feel better.” She reached into a paper bag with a receipt still stapled to the edge and handed Sam a big four-D cell metal light. “I had your father pick this up in town for you. The nights get really dark out here.”
Sam ran his hands over the bright metal ridges along the long, heavy handle. The switch on the side had a solid, firm feel as he clicked it on. Even in the bright kitchen the beam stared out clear and strong… Sam flicked the beam into the shadows behind the table and watched the darkness flee. He grinned and felt his heart jump – this was so much better than the cheap plastic lights they had been using.
That night Sam purposely stayed around the Clankman’s until it was dark as pitch. He wanted to use his new flashlight on the way home. He walked as far as he could until the night was so black he literally could not see his hand in front of his face. He raised the heavy torch and slid the metal slide switch. The light leaped out, poured from the glass lens and the path ahead jumped into view.
He could see the twin ruts running through the center of a tunnel of scrub. He could see the archway of plants, gray-green in the beam. He was not expecting the jeweled constellations of bright lights that surrounded his path.
All along the way, bright twinkling blazing spots shot back at him. Some were white, and some were bright green. They were everywhere and Sam jumped back from this beautiful mystery. Then he gathered himself, swung the beam, and walked through. All along the creek bottoms the fiery jewels, yellow-white and emerald-green, surrounded him, leaping into life whenever his light touched them, blinking out when it swung away.
He felts his soul lightened by the sight and walked through the jeweled gauntlet, crossed the rusted old bridge, and up through the forest on the other side. The lights persisted through the creek bottom scrub and ended when he reached the fields around his family’s own place.
Sam through himself into bed, excited about the lights, flicking his flashlight under the covers, until he finally fell asleep with the torch on, still clutched in his fist.
He was dismayed to find the batteries almost dead in the morning, the bulb only a faint orange glow. He gulped down his breakfast and rushed out early to meet the bus to school. He wanted a few minutes in the salmon dawn to look at the creek path and see if he could figure out what had made the bright jewels the night before.
As he walked down toward the creek he peered into the scrubby brush, covered with thick twists of thorny vines, he immediately saw the white tufts of webs thick through and between the leaves. He picked up a stick and poked one of the webs and jumped back as a huge brown spider came crawling quickly out, jumping up onto the stick almost to his hand. At that moment, he heard the bus horn calling him and he had to abandon his quest and run for the stop.
At study hall he started pulling out the encyclopedia and then asked the librarian for help finding books on spiders. It didn’t take him long to find a picture that looked what had jumped out at him that morning.
It was a wolf spider. The book said they were very common. He felt the hair rise on the back of his neck when he read, “Their eyes reflect light well, allowing someone with a flashlight to easily locate them at night. Flashing a beam of light over the spider will produce eyeshine. The light from the flashlight has been reflected from the spider’s eyes directly back toward its source, producing a “glow” that is easily noticed. This is also especially helpful because the wolf spiders are nocturnal and will be out hunting for food, making it easier to find them.”
So that was it – the white lights were bits of water clinging to the webs and the green lights were the spider’s eyes. He sat and thought about that for a while. He thought about walking through the path, past and underneath thousands of wolf spiders. The thought didn’t bother him. He wasn’t sure why, but the spiders didn’t frighten him. Their green lights in the flashlight were too beautiful.
After school he told the other kids at the Clankman’s about the spiders. Frank didn’t seem to care, Maria was frightened, “You mean those spiders have always been there, we just didn’t know about it until you shined that light?”
“Uggh,” she cringed, “That really creeps me out. I’m never walking down there no more.”
Duane’s reaction surprised Sam. He was angry.
“I can’t believe it, all those nasty bugs down there, living along my road.”
“It’s not your road, Duane, Beside, there not hurting anything.”
“Still, who told them they could do that.”
Sam wasn’t sure what Duane was so pissed about, but he hardly talked any more that afternoon. When it was dark Sam put the fresh batteries he had brought from home into the flashlight and tried to convince the others to walk down to the creek with him and see the spider’s eyes. Nobody would go.
Disappointed, he walked home by himself, and barely stopped to look at the lights, though they were as thick as the night before.
The next morning was Saturday, and Sam walked back to look at the spider nests. He was curious about where the wolf spiders went during the day and if he could find any of them. When he looked across the bridge at the path on the other side, he saw Duane already there.
He had a big metal can with a hose running out of the top of it. There was a handle attached to the top and Duane was straining to pump the handle up and down as hard as he could.
“Duane, what are you doing?” Sam called out across the old bridge.
“I’m gonna kill all those damn spiders – that’s what I’m gon’ do, dammit,” said Duane.
“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” ― Alice Munro, Selected Stories
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Saturday, September 12, 1998 – this is the conclusion of the story of when one of our kids’ pet Fire Bellied Toads escaped and I bought a replacement without telling them
A runaway returns
I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. Tossing and turning and turning and tossing, I ended up on the couch in the TV room. I kept hearing a noise from the window. A tapping, or maybe a melodious scraping sound coming from the window. My exhaustion muddled mind imagined all sorts of horrible possibilities for this sound; when I’d turn on the lights, there would be nothing there.
Finally I realized that what I was hearing was simply the sound of raindrops hitting the glass. It has been almost four months since it has rained at our house, I had forgotten the sound completely.
Today I was out of sorts, headachy and tired. We ran some errands in the morning (soccer games canceled because of muddy fields) and Candy dropped me off at home while she took the boys to a church carnival. I made an omelet and was sitting on the couch eating, watching “Planet of the Apes” and generally trying to imitate a vegetable when a movement in the kitchen caught my eye.
There he was, hopping across the tile floor, heading out of the kitchen, our missing toad. I guess he’s been hiding behind the cabinets or something; luckily I was there to see him make his run. He was hopping pretty well, seemed no worse for wear for his few days on the lam. I scooped him up before the Giant Killer Dog woke up and deposited him back into the aquarium.
We had to come clean with the kids, had to tell the truth about why there were now three fire bellied toads in there. They weren’t upset at our deception, only happy that we now have three toads.
They decided to call the new one “Runaway.”
And a Short Story for today:
You could argue about whether or not Alice Munro is the best short story author of all time… but there is no argument that there are none better. She did win the Nobel Prize for literature for her short stories – something very rare. This story, from the New Yorker’s 2003 fiction edition is a little longer than most of the fiction I link to here… but it is worth the time (as is anything Munro has written).
“How to Commit the Perfect Murder” was an old game in heaven. I always chose the icicle: the weapon melts away.”
― Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
I ride the trains at night. I can’t sleep and I have a monthly pass, so why not.
It was almost three in the morning and I was sitting on the Darkwater platform on one of those little seats that fold down.
There was a maintenance worker, a tired looking old man, washing the platform with a faded green hose. He pretended not to notice me and I pretended not to notice him.
The thief came from nowhere, pulled a gun on the maintenance man, and demanded in a loud and obscene voice that he hand over his cell phone.
He did hand it over, without hesitation. I was thinking how big of a loss this was to him, how many platforms he would have to hose down to buy a new phone when the thief shot him, twice, and he went down in a quickly expanding pool of blood.
The thief turned and ran down the stairs. I followed, not slowly but not running either. At street level I saw the thief disappear down an alley between two dilapidated brick industrial buildings. I followed.
The thief was waiting for me. He was yelling something at me – but I couldn’t make out the words. His gun was big – I recognized it as a Glock 21 forty-five caliber. It was a real hand cannon and it was pointed at me.
My Walther PPK 9mm dropped from the holster in my sleeve into my hand. It is a lot smaller than his Glock. But I am practiced, very fast, and I never miss.
“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”
― John Green, Looking for Alaska
No Throwing the Corn
Amanda found an article in the newspaper about some guy that had cut a series of mazes into his cornfield, about a half -hour east of the city – and was charging folks to walk around and get lost. It sounded like fun, so we bundled the kids and a friend up and headed out of town.
It was getting late, the sun was setting as we pulled up. It was a fun place, although everyone was tired and grumpy.
They have a number of mazes. One made out of hay bale tunnels – with instructions posted on the hay. It’s more of a puzzle than a maze. Then there are three labyrinths made up of fencing right near the parking lot. Jim liked those the best.
The main attraction, though, are the two labyrinths cut into the cornfield itself. They are huge, covering about a square mile or so. One maze is more twisty and complicated, the other more open, with long straightaways.
The rules are simple: no running, no pulling the corn, no picking the corn, no throwing the corn, no cutting through the corn. The smell of the ripe, dry cornfield was wonderful.
I can’t speak much of what it looked like because by the time we hit the cornfield maze the night was pitch black. A lot of people were in the maze had flashlights and/or glow sticks – plus some light (and noise) filtered across the freeway from the drag races going on there.
It was fun, wandering around in the dark, dodging the clumps of screaming kids (many ignoring the rule about no running), and trying to figure out the overall layout of the corn. It was easy to get truly lost, especially in the dark. There are clues to help you find your way out, plus a lot of workers in there checking on the customers… though we never needed any help – simply a lot of walking.
It took us about forty minutes to get through the Phase I maze – we probably walked two miles or so. Jim’s knee was aching, so he sat it out while Amy and I made it through Phase II a little quicker.
The kids kept getting frustrated in the maze when we would hit a dead end or realize we were at a spot we had passed before. I told them not to be so bothered, to relax and keep moving. “You have to walk down the wrong paths to find the right ones,” was my fatherly-zen advice.
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“I haven’t heard from Elana,” Sara said to the ghost of her nephew Jimmy.
“Really? Did you expect to?”
“We’ve been friends for years. We used to meet for coffee almost every week and lunch on Fridays.”
“She ignores my texts.”
“She ghosted you.”
“That sucks. I would never do anything like that.”
“But you’re a ghost.”
“Sure. But still. I never liked that term. It gives us a bad name.”
“Do ghosts ghost people?”
“Well, eventually we move on. To another plane – hopefully higher, but sometimes not. If we have been visiting people, live people, ordinary people, that can come as a shock. We disappear. Like ghosts.”
“So you do ghost people. As a matter of fact, you ghost people inevitably.”
“Well, it doesn’t count. We have no choice. It’s always a surprise, unexpected, when we have to move on. That’s how it works.”
“So you are going to ghost me? You said it was inevitable. You just don’t know when.”
“I guess. I’m sorry.”
“You and Elena. Both of you.”
“Which one is worse? Who will you miss the most, me or Elena?”
“That’s a hard question. With you, there is that feeling of guilt.”
“Guilt? Because you were driving. That drunk hit the passenger side of the car. You never saw them. That’s not your fault.”
“I know. I know. But I feel guilty. I was driving. You didn’t want to go. I talked you into it.”
“You didn’t twist my arm.”
“Yes I did, a little bit.”
“What about Elena? Do you feel guilt for her too?”
“Why? Well, maybe. I must have done something wrong.”
“Maybe she just moved on, like I will some day. Living people move on too.”
“Moved on? What, moved up? Without me? How does that make it better?”
“Maybe she moved down.”
“That makes it even worse. And I am so lonely. You are the only friend I have left.”
“You need more friends. Living friends.”
“Finding new friends, now, today, at my stage of life… it’s impossible.”
“Your stage of life? How about mine? You need to get out there more. You need to do something.”
“I miss Elana. I miss her so much. Does she miss me?”
“I’m sure she does. I’ll bet Elana misses you even more than you miss her.”
“Will you miss me? Will you miss me when you move on?”
“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”
― Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Dean4217 was at the base of the tower, picking up a load of concrete and it was time for a Gathering. He was excited to see it in person. At the present height it took him a week to reach the top and another to come back down. Usually, he watched the Gathering speech on the tablet in his cab; so seeing it live would be a rare treat.
He was shocked and frightened by the size of the crowd. He had worked on the tower itself his entire life and he didn’t realize how much support was needed on the ground – several times the people working at the top or along the sides. The speech itself was familiar – they never seemed to change – a dry recitation of feet gained, tons hauled, how many accidents, people injured (Only fifteen killed this quarter!) and so forth. Then, at the end, the usual exhortations – how his Broadway tower compared to the other two hundred-odd towers going up all over the world (as always – somewhere in the middle) and how important it was to keep climbing.
The Leader looked so small surrounded by the vast crowd, even flanked by the giant video screens. Dean4217 though how much better he could see and hear on his tablet and vowed not to waste the time if he found himself on ground level during another Gathering.
His truck was loaded when he reached it after the Gathering had ended and he saw the mechanics had checked out and green-tagged (it no good to break down on the way up) everything so he followed the leader’s advice not to waste and time – starting the engine and heading right for the entrance ramp.
There was always something about entering that ramp – to a driver like Dean4217 it represented the entire enormous project. Yet it was so nondescript, only a wide concrete ramp arching out of the end of the huge staging lot up against the south wall of the tower. Looking up, you could see how it rose and rose until it became a barely visible ribbon and then turned around the southwest corner to continue on up the west side. Another, similar ribbon, the downward ramp was visible above it, a diagonal slash that Dean4217 knew ended on the opposite side. That ramp too was nondescript – and to Dean4217 it represented relief, a job well done, just as this ramp meant the excitement of a new trip.
He took out a sharp saw blade and cut another notch along the metal edge of his dash as he entered the ramp. He had to reach far over to find fresh steel and had stopped counting many years before.
The first few days of the climb were always the easiest. At the lower altitudes the wind wasn’t that much of a problem and the thick atmosphere meant he could drive without his oxygen mask. Still well below the usual cloud level he could look out and enjoy the view. It changed constantly as he drove around the tower, rising with each circuit. Twice a day he would stop at a corner station for fuel, food, and a bit of a rest. These high stops would serve both the ascending and descending ramps and would give him a chance to catch up on the news and gossip from the higher sections of the tower.
On the third day he had risen to the point where he could see the Samsara tower to the east. This was the nearest tower to the Broadway, the only other one that was visible. He wasn’t sure how far away it was – one day some of them had tried to calculate the distance, using the height that it became visible at. Dean4217 didn’t believe it however, the distance seemed too far away. It looked so solid, so close, even though the curvature of the earth caused the Samsara to appear to tip away from the Broadway as it climbed.
He couldn’t help but look at it out his side window, trying to imagine a concrete driver crawling up that vast expanse, like a microscopic ant, looking over at him in similar wonder. It always bothered him that he had never seen the Broadway tower from a distance and had no idea what it looked like, although he assumed it was a twin to the Samsara over there. A dirt hauler in front of him had to stop to tighten a break line and Dean4217 reached across out his left side window to touch the vast concrete wall, trying to make some sort of connection with the overwhelming size of the thing he had spent his whole life helping to build.
At the first refuel stop on the fourth day, Dean4217 stealthily slipped the attendant a credit coupon to get him out of the station quicker than was his turn. One of the water drivers stared at him in frustration, but Dean4217 didn’t care. He needed to get to that night’s stop on time.
His girlfriend Jenny5309 was a rebar driver and she was on the way back down. They had worked out by tablet message that they could get to the same overnight stop on the same evening, if Dean4217 wasn’t delayed. It was always tough trying to arrange a meeting – the rebar trucks took a lot longer to load and it would throw everything out of kilter.
But this time it worked and Dean4217 had barely had time to secure his truck in its spot and get the safety straps down (he was at a height where wind storms could come up without warning) and he heard a knock on his door.
Dean4217 and Jenny5309 slipped their oxygen masks off for a quick kiss, and then then crawled back into the sleeper compartment. He had spent the previous night’s rest period cleaning it out and straightening everything up and had spent extra credits on oxygen bottles so he could charge the whole cube.
“So we don’t have to wear our masks,” he said.
“That’s so thoughtful,” she replied while hanging her mask and bottle on a hook he had provided. “Are you sure you can afford it?”
“Of course, what else am I going to spend my credits on?”
They both had a little laugh at this, then settled back to talk about what had happened since they had last met. Dean4217 thought about how nice it was to hear a familiar human voice. Each had read most of the stories they told each other – Dean4217 and Jenny5309 sent tablet messages to each other constantly. But they didn’t mind the repetition – hearing each other speak live was such a treat. Dean4217 always laughed at her little jokes, even though he had heard them all before and always sighed when she spoke of delays or problems getting her loads up the tower and he empty truck back down.
“You are so lucky, hauling concrete,” she said. “A few minutes of pumping in and you’re off. At the top, all you have to do is dump into the mixer. It takes so long to get all the rebar loaded and tied down.”
“You get a little more rest time.”
“Rest? I have to watch those loaders like a hawk. They don’t care it won’t be their ass if something blows off near the top of the tower.”
They both giggled at that, even though neither was really sure what was funny about it.
The next morning, as she was getting ready to leave, Jenny5309 suddenly became serious. Dean4217 thought it looked like a cloud had passed over her face.
“Dean4217,” she asked, “Why do you think we do this?”
“Why? I’m a concrete hauler and you bring rebar. Without us… and the dirt haulers and the water haulers, and the supplies, and… well, you know, everybody, the tower couldn’t go up.”
“I know that, dummy. But what I mean is that I don’t know why we build the tower. What it is for?”
Dean4217 paused. His father had worked on the tower all his life. He was a dirt hauler. Dean4217 was born in a rest area. At the time it had seemed like it was very high, though now it was barely a tenth of the way up the tower. His father was so proud when Dean4217 had saved enough money working as a steel bender to buy his own truck and start hauling concrete. It was all he had ever known.
“What do you mean why? What else would we do? Where else would all this concrete, steel, water, and dirt go?”
“I know, but I wonder some times. I wonder too, when will it be done?”
“Done? What do you mean done?”
“I mean finished.”
“It will never be finished. The point of a tower is to grow. It can always go taller. There is no end to up.”
“I know what the Leader says at the Gatherings. I’ve heard it all my life, just like you. But I was thinking, surely, someday we will reach an end. Someday… maybe not in our lives, or in our children’s, but someday the tower won’t be able to go any higher.”
Dean4217 had never thought of that. He sat there silent, staring at Jenny5309.
“What will we do then.”
Dean4217 thought of looking across the vast space at the Samsara tower and remembered thinking of the tiny ant, just like him, working his way up.
“I guess we could build another one.”
“I guess you’re right.”
It was always difficult to continue driving on the day after he had met up with Jenny5309. He thought of her on the down ramp, getting farther and farther away from him every second as he climbed. This time was worse; he was bothered by her questions. He was bothered by the fact he had never thought about them before.
At a rest, instead of using his tablet to contact Jenny5309 he called up all the stored speeches of the Leader and searched them for what he was looking for. He found nothing. The Leader had never talked about the purpose of the tower, if there was one, or what they would do if the tower couldn’t go any higher. It was only the usual platitudes: “There is no end to up” or “We must improve our standing in the universe of towers” or “The tower must grow and the faster the better.”
Dean4217 assumed these bothersome thoughts would leave his head as he climbed, day after day. As he neared the top of the tower, the work began to grow more difficult. The air was thinner and he sometimes he had trouble keeping his head clear even with the oxygen. The wind was now a constant howl and keeping the truck on the ramp was a chore, especially rounding a corner and getting used to the gale which would now be swirling from a different direction.
He couldn’t look while he was driving, but he found himself staring outward at every rest station instead of talking to the other drivers. He was now well above the tops of the cloud layer and looking out all he saw was a vast blanket of white, interrupted by the gray mass of the distant Samsara tower. He found he could not take his eyes off it – it was tough to tear them away when it was time for him to head out.
He had to wait behind two other concrete haulers at the top. Everything had to be strapped down across the flat top of the tower because of the incredible force of the winds. He watched the water trucks loading into the mixer and the bundled workers struggling to unload, bend, and place the rebar off of a steel truck.
When it was finally his turn to dump, he hooked up his safety line and carefully inched out of his cab and down to the surface. First he bent down and felt the top of the tower in the same way he had the wall at the bottom, over a week ago. It felt the same. It was, after all, part of the same structure.
Dean4217 fought his was over to where the mixer operator was tied to a steel chair, manipulating levers to add concrete and water to the rolling tank, and then pump it over to where the rebar benders had finished a section. The operator paused, surprised to see a driver out of his truck under these conditions.
“Hey,” Dean4217 said, “I’m Dean4217.”
“I’m… uhh, I’m Willard3309.” There was a pause, as if the operator had to think for a minute to remember his name. The air was very thin.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” said Dean4217, “How much farther do you think we can go? The air’s getting pretty thin.”
“Well, there’s no end to up.” Willard3309 repeated the mantra. “And there’s been some engineers up here already. They’re working on pressurized cabs, helmets, and armored worksuits. I don’t think there’s any stopping us once they get all that figured out.”
“I see.” Dean4217 stared at the mixer operator for a long time, trying to decide if he should say what he was about to say. He realized he had no choice.
“Why do you think we are building it?” he said.
“What do you mean why?”
Dean4217 started moving his mouth, as if he was chewing, trying to figure out what to say next, when both men noticed an excitement among all the iron workers. It was strange they were silent in the constant roar of the wind, but they were all unhooking their straps, adding safety lines, and moving off toward the edge of the tower. Dean4217 realized he didn’t know for sure which edge it was, but the crowd began to grow, everyone looking out and gesturing wildly.
Dean4217 and Willard3309 hooked their safety lines together and Willard3309 began to move them toward the gathering crowd. They moved quickly, Willard3309 was very used to the top of the tower and knew all the handy clip rings and tie-off points.
At the edge, they put their heads up against another and found out what the excitement was about.
“Another Tower! We’re high enough, we can see it!”
Looking out over the edge, Dean4217 could make out a tiny sliver of light gray against the dark purplish blue sky.
“We think it’s the Wildsmith. The engineers have said it would grow into our view sometime soon. We need to wait until nightfall, we should be able to see their lights.”
Dean4217 was filled with excitement. Another tower! Imagine!
His heart was beating so hard he could barely stand. He stood and stared, though he wanted to get back to his cab and tablet so he could tell Jenny5309 about what he saw.
He remembered that he had a question that was bothering him, but in the excitement, he completely forgot what it was.