By Charles Rafferty
There’s a funny smell around Register 8 and none of the cashiers want to use it, but it’s Saturday, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and Maggie is stuck there.
Maggie is the cutest girl in Marshalls, and she worries people will think that she is the source of the smell. This is preposterous. The sight of her in the break room makes me think, unaccountably, of vanilla extract, of cakes leavening behind the little window of my grandmother’s oven.
A men’s wear price check comes over the PA, and because I’m in the pants section, I’m able to make it to the register more quickly than Adam, who is over in the dress shirts, straightening the rows. Adam has been hitting on Maggie ever since he got hired for the Christmas rush. Maggie and I are year-rounders, and the first thing I check on the schedule each week is when our times will overlap. To take a belt or a fleece jacket from her hand means the possibility of contact, of rapture.
“Can you get this for me?” she asks. It’s an Oleg Cassini dress shirt. I know right away that it’s $9.00 on clearance, but the customers don’t like a quick answer. They think you’re making it up. They want to see you go over to the shirt bins, find an identical shirt, hold them side-by-side, and nod. The cashiers like it this way too. It punishes the customer for being stupid enough to bring over the only Oleg Cassini dress shirt that doesn’t have a price tag riveted to the center line of buttons.
“What does she need, dude?” says Adam, trying to see the tag on the collar, but I pull it close.
It doesn’t matter. Adam is already scanning the bins. He knows the only peach-colored shirts we sell are Oleg Cassini. He walks down the opposite aisle, grabs one, and heads straight to the register. Adam is a real douche.
From the shirt bins, I watch Maggie give Adam the sleepy-eyed smile that makes me love her. It reminds me of the Rod Stewart song that is everywhere on the radio, and which every guy in the store is singing in his head as he approaches her. Then she looks at me as if to ask why I haven’t brought the customer’s shirt back.
When I do, I hear Maggie telling the customer it’s “awful” and that they “can’t find the smell.” She speaks loudly enough that the people at the end of the line hear it too. She’s been giving the speech all day. I hand her the shirt and fail to graze even the forlorn edge of her thumb.
Mr. Mortka can see that the line for Register 8 is half the length of any other, even though the store is full of customers. It’s plain that people are trying to keep away. So when the store closes, Mr. Mortka calls me and Adam over. He tells us to find the smell and get rid of it.
“Don’t clock out until you do,” he says.
In front of each register is a display bin. The one in front of Maggie’s is full of cheap pocketbooks, and there’s a door you can slide open at the bottom to replenish the merchandise. We empty all of it, and Adam scans the inside with a flashlight. There’s nothing there, so Adam says he’ll try pulling the bin away from the register, which I didn’t even know was possible. The bin is heavy, but we manage to push it aside.
When we do, the smell gets suddenly much worse. We can see that there’s a slot between the bottom of the bin and the floor, a hidden compartment of sorts, and we can see lots of filth in there, which is probably mouse shit, but when we get on our hands and knees and shine the light in, we can see it’s more than that. Dead mice are all over the place, mixed in with a nest made from socks and lacey underwear. Maybe there’s a dozen of them, covered in what might be maggots.
“How the fuck did they get in here?” Adam says as he backs away, rubbing at his eyes.
We get the mop, the heavy gloves, and a bag. At least we have found the source of the smell, so I don’t mind scraping up the half-liquefied mice and scrubbing the floor with bleach. My only wish is to make the air around Maggie’s register pure and cerulean once again.
As we’re pushing the bin back into place, Maggie comes over. “You guys are the best,” she says, and I don’t even care that she’s lumped me into the same category as Adam. That song starts going off in my head again—the net of the tinkling mandolin with the fat bass notes sliding around beneath it, trying to find a way out.
And then she leaves. I watch how her purse, hanging from a strap attached by golden buckles, bangs against her left hip as she walks out the door. “I’ve got to get a piece of that,” says Adam, leaving me holding the mop and the bag of liquefied mice. I take it all back to the stockroom and throw the bag into the compactor. I can tell that Maggie likes Adam, that it’s only a matter of time before she’s making out with him in the break room.
What do I do? I flip the compactor on and mope. I’m still at that age where you think you’ll love the same person forever. I couldn’t leave her if I tried.
My Children’s Mothers
By KJ Hannah Greenberg
Sophie, my butterfly bulldog, yawned, releasing fetid gas. It bewilders me how she feels soft, snuggles sweetly, and yet smells like a sewer. Hounds are odorous when wet. That is, bassets and borzois, notoriously, tang. Bulldogs, though, while not jasmine-fragranced, ought not to pong like manure.
No matter. Sophie’s lugubrious eyes make me scoop her up and place her on my lap. I return to pounding my keyboard. Not everyone’s fond of cranky, handicapped balladeers, so I make do with my pet’s farts and belches.
Truly, I must find someone, besides my malodorous dog, to populate my universe. Namely, I need a volunteer who will help me type, edit, and submit my folksongs, and who will offer me encouragement. My ideal aide will love language, i.e., will be a writing enthusiast. Additionally, he or she will: tolerate my brusqueness, exhibit no “allergies” to coarse diction, and work for nothing. I’m a crotchety, immobilized composer. Meaning, I’m broke.
I revise a want ad bit before hitting “send.” My notice describes me, my apartment, and my canine companion. It could take anywhere from minutes to years to never to locate a fitting helper.
My inbox remains empty of responses. My gal pals, the ones who used my seed to start their family, suggest that I try unconventional appeals. They remind me how their willingness to break with custom enabled them to trade with me to father our child.
Their aspiration’s sweet, but, ordinarily, no songwriting assistant works with a librettist to gain a family. In the case of the two moms, our barter brought them a son and brought me: semiweekly drops of fresh food, bimonthly visits from rent-a-friends, and a descendant.
Contrariwise, my assistant will accrue losses—there will be no glory in associating with me because I compose lines no one seems to want to hear. When, for instance, I compiled my favorite songs into an assemblage and offered them to music producers, my work was dismissed.
One producer responded, “I enjoyed your lyrics, but need a more complete collection. Also, only listeners who own an OED might buy your music. Sophisticated language is a hard sell as are creations full of foreign words and allusions. Today’s audiences want: spunk, sparkle, whimsy and wisdom.”
Another producer wrote, “You’re skilled. A certain kind of consumer might be willing to google definitions while listening. It’s a pity, though, that there’s no music to accompany your lyrics. Could you resubmit after you have music to go with your words? Also, rewrite. Eliminate overwriting, enjamb more, and be more fluid.”
Finally, a third emailed back, “Sorry for the delay. We have been out of town and are now overwhelmed with the holidays. As such, it could be upwards of two years before we can review your lyrics. Have a pleasant season.”
My child’s mothers make counterarguments. They claim that liberals would welcome a gimpy, isolated, slovenly lyricist, if they knew about me and that Sophie would make a splendid avatar.
Those ladies know how to access YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They insist that I access social media.
When I tell my dog about those dreams, she releases more gas from her bowels and her mouth, tucks her tail in, and falls back asleep. Should avatars snore?
A month evaporates. No suitable candidates answer my ad. After delivering my midweek meals, my child’s mothers stay to chat. They insist that they can make me a social media star.
I sigh and reach to pat my son’s head. He’s asleep in a pack on one of his mom’s backs.
Too soon, my small apartment overflows with women who: love women, don’t care that I’m incapacitated, appreciate my masculinity only for its procreative potential, and are earnest about catapulting me to celebrity. Those females have brought an array of pocket-sized and otherwise portable devices, which, along with high tech buzz words, they are using toward promoting me.
Something in cyberspace clicks. When my newest disability check arrives, I invite those ladies back, order in pizza, and adjust my blood sugar meds to respond to our carbohydrate feast. On account of those womenfolk, I’m on route to starring on a YouTube channel and to mastering Facebook.
Another season passes. I’ve yet to connect to a reliable musician with whom to twin for my songs. I’m no richer than I was before, either. On balance, two more pairs of gals have asked me to contribute to their families and I’m amassing electronic fans.
I again provide seed. In turn, I receive more casseroles, cakes, and burgers than I could eat even if I somehow reached a healthy person’s life expectancy. All things considered, I’m no longer reliant on borrowed friends, and no longer struggle over curbs when attending events as I no longer attend them alone.
Sophie, whose muzzle has becomes increasingly silver, still farts. I’ve had additional surgeries. Soon, I’ll need a live-in care provider.
My ladies remain disinterested in the degree of my infirmities. They’re still in love with my flatulent dog, and they’re still protective of me.
I host another pizza dinner. My two daughters and my son are the honored guests. After my kids tire of riding laps on my wheelchair, they cuddle with their respective mothers.
One friend, accompanied by acoustic guitar, sings one of my songs; she made up some music for it. Two other women sing harmony. Pity she’s no professional.
Sophie, who’s been asleep, opens one eye, wags her tail stub, and goes back to slumbering. If I had had a tail stub, I’d wag, too.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see my ballads published. My friends, though, like my songs. I don’t know if I’ll ever father more children. My friends, though, like the ones I’ve sired. I don’t know if I’ll ever be lonely, again. My friends claim I’m increasingly less tetchy. I doubt I’ll ever obtain a songwriting assistant who’s desensitized to my manners since obtaining one no longer matters.
He Spoke of Marionettes
By Adam Kluger
It didn’t matter
It didn’t matter
It didn’t matter that she broke out of the embrace and said goodbye. It was time to meet her friends at dinner. That was fine. Really. It didn’t matter that there would be no kiss at the turtle pond. Despite walking by the Romeo & Juliet statue or at Shakespeare Garden where the elaborate, corniced stone bench held them together. Silent. She was cold. He was comfortable. So comfortable that he would be glad to do just this. Lean against each other. Not talking. No big need right then.
It was a first date. He bought flowers and cleaned up the apartment. She would never see the flowers. Or the bowl of fruit. Bananas, tangelos, and grapes.
No. Wait. Not tangelos, but nectarines.
The grapefruit beers in the freezer were a slushy dark orange inside the bottle, with some residue on the bottom. Peculiar things you notice when you end up alone in your apartment.
They hugged when they first met and it was one of the best hugs he had ever felt and he didn’t want it to end so he lingered and so did she and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that school kids were yelling and running by. It didn’t matter that she had gotten lost and that when he finally spotted her he was surprised, and happily so. When he spotted her standing on the roots of the tree looking at him he was glad. Glad that it was him she was looking at, even though she was looking at him from behind aviator shades.
He tried to remove her sunglasses and she stopped him. But he saw her eyes. How very blue. She had silverish eyelids or at least he thought she had put on make-up that goes on eyelids. He was still thinking about her eyes because now he could not think of the right name of the translucent shade of blue of her irises but they did seem to reflect light like one of the stones in a ring in the front window of Tiffany’s.
They held hands and one way fit and the other way didn’t. So they went with the one that did not intertwine the fingers, even though he thought that way to be naturally more intimate. It did not feel right, so he decided to move to hand-in-hand and they both tacitly agreed, almost immediately, that this other way would be the way they would hold hands for this first meeting and perhaps it would be this other way that they would hold hands again. At least this is what he was thinking.
Coincidentally but off topic, he walked right by a blind man asking for help crossing the street. The blind man had been standing on the northeast corner near his grocery store and the tone of his voice was pissed off. Pissed off that nobody was helping him. Pissed off at being blind, probably.
But he was merely speculating and pondering all this as he walked right by the blind man on his way to get supplies. Yes, the same grocery store where he bought tangelos, no wait tangerines, and grapes, and bananas. And also grapefruit beer and irises. The purple flowers. The flowers had a vibrant azure to them just like her eyes. Specifically her irises. But he didn’t know that at first because he was actually quite enamored of her glossy, red, sparkly lower lip. He wanted to kiss her then. He waited till the turtle pond when she turned to him and said, “You’re quiet.”
He boldly responded, “I was just thinking this would be about the best place ever to have a first kiss.”
She rebuffed him gently and panic set in.
Maybe she didn’t dig the beard. Fuck! Now what? He went back to being an affable tour guide providing details about marionette cottages and Egyptian sculpture. And the kiss when it finally took place was not a good one. It was rushed and tense and perfunctory. It was a slammed door in his face and she was going to meet friends.
“Call me later,” she said.
“Why? Do you want to meet up after you see your friends?”
Nah. She wasn’t jumping at that idea.
As he walked back toward his apartment he pulled his phone out of his pocket. The phone had pocket-dialed her, so he left a voice message that he tried to make somewhat humorous, all the while thinking she didn’t pick up, even though she knew it was me.
It didn’t matter really. But maybe sort of, it did.
By Peter Loftus
‘I could walk you up the road to your bus stop,’ he said. ‘You could share my umbrella.’
She didn’t skip a beat. ‘No thanks, I’ll be fine.’ She shook her head and smiled.
Wow, she was quick off the mark. He wasn’t coming on to her. They were both aware of that. She just didn’t want to walk 500 metres with him. In the pissing rain. Staying dry. He could understand that, in a way. Maybe she wouldn’t feel comfortable with him that close, huddled in under the umbrella.
‘You won’t be fine. Not in that jacket. You’ll be soaked. Let me walk up with you and you can take the umbrella. I’ll be at my stop anyway.’ He knew her answer already but wanted to make her say it, so her response would be out in the open, patently idiotic, baseless, but there for all to see. Plus he liked the interaction. It was vaguely, safely flirty:
Come on, walk with me.
He was ancient after all, at 48 to her 32. A completely different demographic. No, species. And he could ask because: 1. She knew his wife and what a devoted husband he was and 2. the idea of him propositioning her was so cartoonishly ridiculous.
‘No, I’ll be fine, really. A bit of rain never hurt anyone.’
He felt the skin around his eyes tighten but kept the grin screwed firmly onto his face.
‘You’d rather get wet.’
‘It’s not that I’d rather … it’s just that it doesn’t bother me. Jeez.’ She swung herself awkwardly into her denim jacket in a way that occluded her face for an instant.
He packed his glasses into his bag and checked the zips were all fastened.
‘All right then. See you tomorrow.’
‘Bye,’ she said. ‘Will I close the door?’
‘No. No thanks, I’ll be right after you.’ And he pulled on his jacket and woolly hat and became invisible and stepped out into the rain.
Figments of Men
By Laurette Folk
I noticed it less in the mirror, because you use mirrors every day and most often begrudgingly. It was in photographs that I became painfully aware of it. Sure, I have the same nose, same eyes, lips. These aren’t the issue. It’s the skin. My wedding photographer, she advised me not to show every emotion I was feeling. She said, try to dull it. You can see for yourself how well I listened by looking at the album. Truth is, I come from expressive people. I had a grandfather who continuously frowned because of his sad life. There’s a picture of him on the fridge wearing his proverbial scowl and a Happy New Year’s hat with only the Happy showing. I had a grandmother with a map for a face; you could trace the detours of her life around her eyes.
Also, my body appears to be condensing, becoming more egg-like. One can see this in the pictures. It’s a really terrible idea, I’ve discovered, to wear white or off white and be photographed. My figure had always been relatively thin, and my hips—well, they’ve forever spanned east to west, but the stomach was a smooth bridge between them. No longer.
I can’t say I envied the babysitter because I wanted to be young again—I didn’t. There is a certain angst that comes with youth, and it has everything to do with coming up in the world. I came through all that. The babysitter, as beautiful as she was, had that tangled knot inside her. I heard it in the unsteadiness of her voice, her use of the same phrases, her covering the same safe topics in conversation. At least there is a breeze, or we sure do need the rain or thank God it gets cooler at night, excerpt for when it didn’t, which was that night we all went in the pool.
Everyone went swimming that night, my husband and I, his friends—men I had never known or seen before, figments of men. You have to understand how men can be when they get together in a pack, and the testosterone is reverberating between them like a peculiar heat, and there are steaks sizzling on the grill and beer in the cooler and stogies turning to ash in makeshift ashtrays or crunched between confident teeth. You have to understand how men can be when they see a girl with blue diamond eyes, a virginal Madonna in a bikini with wet hair and a smile that, when you saw it, you felt privy to something wonderful.
To be honest, I felt responsible for her. When they lifted her up toward the jilted moon, forging her a makeshift pedestal, she twisted about, frantic, and her bikini top slipped, and there in the dark weight of the night were the tender parts of her, exposed. She slid down, mortified, submerging herself as the men roared. It became dark and chilly, an evening when the dew settled early.
I unpeeled the layers of water to find her. When I did, she was curled like a tadpole in the mud. I hoisted her out of the pool, a wet doll, and guided her across the dark, dank grass. I felt nauseous then, a slow dull nausea, like the months when I was pregnant. I had leaned against a tree to steady myself when I saw him coming. He came shimmering out of the darkness, as I pulled an arm from my throat and then a leg with a foot and then two legs, two arms with hands and so on. He had vine leaves in his hair and was leading his own procession of admirers. I waited for him to recognize me, but why would he? He knew me when my hair was soft about my face and my eyebrows were fantastic arches in the seamless rise of my forehead and my waist had that delectable hourglass curve he liked to hook his hands to.
Did he remember the box of oils, the wine, the blanket on the road? My sketched image, the shower near the backdoor, the water drowning out the guests’ laughter? One can only guess.
He passed us by—me, the fragments of people strewn in the grass, the girl beside me, now shivering with anxiety. It was this blatant show of rejection that really got to me. Years ago, it was a more subtle process, winding and unwinding and I was remarkably tolerant. Now, I am a different woman. I turned to the girl, noticed the tilt of her ripe hips, those endless undulating tresses of hair. Wait! Wait! I called out to him, grabbed her hand and shot it up to the stars. She’s here! I yelled. She’s here! Yours! Yours for the taking!
The Best Craic Ever
By Geraldine McCarthy
Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded. Some lad would spill a pint on your best glittery top, the delicate one that says hand wash only. Or someone in stilettos would stamp on your toes as you boogie on the dance floor. No, best to avoid the nightclub altogether and go out early in the night, early in the day even, to an old man’s pub. Grab a seat by the fire and order a glass of Guinness, something with eating and drinking in it.
That’s just what we did one Wednesday afternoon: myself, Dora and Belinda. Pooled our resources to get a taxi over the border to the wilds of county Clare. Settled ourselves in with old fellas sipping whiskeys while a sour, grey-haired woman tended the bar. Forgot all about lectures and essay deadlines and continuous assessment. This, we told ourselves, was a type of field trip. A foray into the hidden Ireland.
I went to the bar for the second round, braving the stares of the locals, three men of indeterminate age, unshaven, dressed in overalls and mud-splattered boots. They meditated over pints and smirked over in-jokes and shifted from one side to another on the high stools.
“I’ll have three glasses of Guinness, please,” I said, trying to keep the quiver out of my voice.
The bitter woman glared, gave the counter a rub with a cloth. “I’ll bring them over.”
I placed a ten pound note on the bar and returned to our table.
The woman delivered the drinks and change on a small round tray and threw another log on the fire. The timber hissed and spat as we waited for her to move away.
Dora and Belinda were like ones on Valium. They lounged in their seats, legs stretched out to the fire, puffing on their Silk Cut Purples in leisurely fashion. I thought about my politics essay at home, half typed up, and worried that I wouldn’t have time to finish it properly before Friday. I knew the other two hadn’t even started, so there was no point in looking for sympathy there.
“Do you think we’ll have any trouble getting a taxi later?” I asked. “We are in the middle of nowhere.”
The two exchanged glances.
“It’ll be fine, Kate.” Dora leaned forward. “Here, have a fag. Now, what were we talking about before?”
“Bosco,” Belinda spluttered.
“Ah yeah, I was a Forty-Coats girl myself,” Dora said, grinning. “Him and the Muppets. They were my favourites.”
And here we were, supping porter and reliving our childhoods when there was studying to be done and exams to be passed. I’d been flattered when the girls had invited me along on this jaunt, but now that I was in the thick of it, I couldn’t enjoy it. I took another gulp of Guinness, hoping the longer we stayed the more the alcohol would calm my nerves.
“I think I’ll go powder my nose,” I said.
The loos were at the end of a long, narrow corridor. I entered the door marked ‘Mná’ and was pleasantly surprised. The cubicle was tiny, but clean.
Out in the corridor again, I met one of the farmers coming towards me and wondered where I could go to avoid a logjam. I stopped in my tracks, wedged my back to the wall to let him pass. As he did, he groped my left breast, looking me squarely in the eye, half-mocking, half-serious. He continued on his way, as if nothing had happened, the smell of the farmyard wafting after him.
Sweat poured off me as I returned to my seat.
“Getting a hot flush, Kate?” Dora smiled her smile.
“Yeah, it’s just the fire,” I said.
“My round,” Belinda announced with gusto.
“You’re fine. I think I’ll head back. I’ll just ask the old woman about a cab.”
“Well, we’d planned on making a night of it,” Dora said. “And a cab on your own will cost you a fortune.”
“Look, I’m not feeling great. Could be coming down with something. I’ve a bit of birthday money that’ll pay the fare.”
The two girls shrugged before Belinda skipped up to the bar to put in her order.
As the cab crossed the border back into County Limerick, I sighed with relief. Some friends they had turned out to be. They probably wouldn’t invite me on any more outings, but I didn’t care. So what if I didn’t know any cool people besides them.
I paid the silent driver and slipped into my house. Took the stairs two at a time and pored over my essay until the wee hours. Anything for a distraction.
Karina, her voice full of envy, asked me the following morning how we got on, as we walked into college together. Of course, I said we had a great time.
“Yeah, going to old man’s pubs is the in-thing now. And the more remote the better. Oh yeah, we had the best craic ever.”
Stomach for Two
By Steviee Geagan
The problem with unwillingly renting out my body to an unidentified foreign being is never getting a warning in advance before it does something obnoxiously disrupting. I might be at a fast food joint, standing among the equally hungry people in line. At first, everything is fine. I’m all cool and in control as I recite: bacon cheese burger, no mayo, extra pickles, and a side of Farley’s Famous French Fries over and over in my head. Suddenly, just as the customer ahead of me walks away with a grease-splotched doggie bag in hand, The Thing inside of me decides to get finicky.
Rivers of sweat will flood the creases of my palms as The Thing starts to squirm and writhe about, creating some sort of acidic whirlpool in the pit of my stomach. On wobbly knees, I’ll step before the cashier to place my order. But rather than relying on the practiced and perfected order of a bacon cheeseburger with no mayo, extra pickles, and a salty side of Farley’s Famous Fries, The Thing will up the ante by shrinking the size of my throat to that of a pinhole in addition to robbing my mouth of its moisture. And I’ll just stand there, with my eyes glossed over, clutching at the counter and blurting something out like: “I please get burger bacon with side of pickled Farley’s extra mayo?”
The Thing won’t cut me any slack in class, either. I could be filling out notes at my desk, right as rain can be. Then, the teacher will call on me to answer a question. This seems to aggravate The Thing as it mainlines adrenaline straight into my veins. My sweat glands will malfunction once again, and I’ll ask the teacher to repeat the question, as I can’t hear over the drum of my own heart pumping in my ears. Hell, even if I could hear, there wouldn’t be a chance of concocting a semi-coherent answer because, in addition to temporary deafness and sweat-slicked palms, The Thing made sure to wipe the ‘Spanish 2’ memories in my mammillary during its tantrum.
The suffering doesn’t even end in my own home. For instance, right now, as I write this, The Thing twists itself in knots inside my stomach. I try my best to ignore it by continuing on with my work. But the feeling of distress secreting from The Thing soaks into the lining of my stomach; consequently, making me feel the same. And the level of distress will build until I’ve written and rewritten the opening paragraph countless times. Sometimes the discomfort is brought on by the content, sometimes it’s my syntax. Other times the original way it was written was just fine. But The Thing just wanted to see how many times I would rewrite the same sentence before I’d ultimately catch on and be quiet, playing into its demented game of Literature.
The worst part about The Thing is that I can’t tell anyone about it. I mean, how can I explain that I have some unexplainable, unidentified being who lives in my stomach without them thinking I’m referencing the movie Alien? Even if that wasn’t the case, if I would go to approach someone with the intent to tell them about The Thing, it would simply have my tongue swell and forget every letter and syllable of the English language. That way, I look like an out of water Aquaman, rather than Ripley.
The Perfect Storm
By Charles Rammelkamp
“It was the perfect storm,” Marge was saying over the phone. Marge was my agency contact for temp. jobs. “Two of their clerks already had vacation plans made. One was going on a cruise, the other had a family time-share in a cottage on Lake Huron or someplace, and then another’s mother suddenly died, and another quit, just when the students were going to start coming back for the fall semester and needed all that hand-holding.”
“Why’d the clerk quit?” I didn’t really care, but I thought I should say something. But then Marge didn’t say anything for such a long pause, and I thought maybe the connection had been cut. “Marge? You still there?”
“I don’t know. Who knows?” It was the kind of denial of knowledge that sounded like concealment but I let it pass.
“So about a week, you think?”
“It could even lead to something full time.”
It was Marge’s constant refrain. Did she get some kind of placement fee? A kick-back, a percentage? Did she just assume this was what everybody wanted, a salary, benefits, health care coverage, vacation and sick time, a pension? A 401K? Not my style. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted from life before I got stuck in it. Or was I already?
“OK, I haven’t got any plans, and it’ll be air-conditioned, so I’m in. Dog Days of August be damned. When do I start?”
Susan Wallace, the office manager from hell. A sexy, dark-haired girl in a loose summer dress and flip-flops, but for all the appearance of being “laid back,” a real martinet.
“We’re understaffed as I’m sure Marjorie told you, and it’s new student week,” Susan began, ignoring the hand I’d extended. “So you won’t be getting a lunch break, I’m afraid, and you’ll have to request a replacement at the desk for any bathroom breaks. And only one of those in the morning and one in the afternoon.” I’d been assigned to a little desk at the entry to the Student Registration Building. Students would come in in a kind of panic and I’d take down their vitals, notify the secretaries to the counselors, who would meet further with the students and then assign the students times to meet with the counselors themselves. Many levels of bureaucracy at work. Then the students would come back to me so that I could tell them when the secretaries called me to tell them to meet with the counselors.
“Peter’s pretty stressed right now,” Susan confided. Susan ran this whole show, the temps, the secretaries, the counselors, the dean, and incidentally the students. Peter was Peter Graham, Dean of Something or Other. Chances are he was not the one who was “stressed.”
“I’ll take that book, too,” she said, indicating the novel I had brought along with the superfluous sack lunch, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man. “No time for reading on this job. I thought you’d have known that already.”
I could stick it out for a week, I figured, but I suddenly understood Marge’s mysterious reluctance to speak on the phone. Stick it out. Stuck in life. The phrases I used so glibly came back to haunt me. I kicked myself for not picking up on the signals about why the clerk had quit. The perfect storm, indeed.
HOW WE REMEMBER
By Arya F. Jenkins
Outside the lawns roll green into infinity. So clean. A tree, here, there, surrounded by supportive flowers. Why the urge to write this? No matter.
Inside, everything white, although of course, it is not really so. All the nurses and doctors are white, save for the Indian, Dr. Sarnath. And the janitor-ess?—Sylvia, is Puerto Rican. Everyone else, black, like her.
She rolls backward, then around to the table where Luther and Esme are playing Gin Rummy, looks first at one then the other, then the coffee and finger-stained red backs of cards on the table. He is bulky, she, small, gray-haired, comfortable in her smallness. They wear hospital gowns, Esme with a light sweater top. They know she doesn’t intend to play, is just there like the weather.
“How are you today, T,” asks the morning nurse on duty whose nametag pinned on blue scrubs reads, Doris.
“Why you call me, T? I’m Mrs. Smith?”
“Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. That’s right,” she says. “Under the tongue. Drink this down.”
The bitter aftertaste blends with the memory of oatmeal, toast and apple juice taken minutes before.
“It’s sunny out,” says Luther, flipping down an eight of wands, which Esme takes up.
“How you know, you’re not even facing outdoors,” Esme challenges him while still looking at her hand.
“I can feel it,” he taps his temple. “I’m sick-ic.”
“Ha ha,” Esme guffaws, just as a gloved hand stanches her wheelchair as she turns to remove herself. The orderly’s name is Henry.
“How you doin’ today? Ready to take a few steps?”
“Not really. Not feeling well,” she says.
“I understand.” He is kind, a new guy.
“Your mother and father, are they of different origins, cultures?”
“Again?” He leans in his ear. She repeats.
“My name is Henry. I am from Baltimore.”
“Are you mixed?”
“No need to yell.” He looks around himself. “I’m adopted. My parents are Caucasian. I’m new here.”
“That explains it.”
“What’s that,” he pushes her down a hallway, away from the view of the lawn and intractable sun playing games.
“Your perfect accent. Your German is perfect,” she says testily. Might as well be in another country. It is like addressing walls here.
“Here we are.” He sets the brake.
Isn’t that her face, red punky hair, ironic smile gazing back from a wall of photos under a sign that reads, “One Day At A Time.” Before her are three steps and to their right a walkway with parallel bars.
“I can’t. This is pointless.”
“You can do it. You think you can’t, but you can.” Before she realizes it, he has replaced her slippers with thick, hard white sneakers, tying them too tight, but she says nothing. “One, two, three,” up she goes and begins climbing, right foot shaky, heavy, his arm around her waist.
“You fell off your bicycle and hit your head when you fell. You were not wearing a helmet and have suffered aphasia and memory loss.”
“My name is Mrs. Smith. I am a black woman with five children who lives in DC.”
“Steady as she goes.” He is mostly quiet doing his job, guiding her.
“I wish to see the sun”—if she cannot go outdoors, she wants to see light. “If I do my homework, will you take me back?” She walks hesitatingly pausing to prompt her right leg and foot to rise again. Directly opposite is a framed painting of green hills that she holds in sight instead of those foreign objects below—her feet. Through the long side window overlooking a parking lot, an attractive middle-aged woman wearing a ponytail, glasses and jeans exits a vehicle with a satchel, flips away a cigarette, then looks up at her.
“That’s your partner, Janis,” he says.
“Partner in what? Crime?”
“She comes every Saturday and Tuesday. Once she brought your terrier, Sam. Do you remember?”
“That’s right. I’m not Mrs. Smith, not married. My name is Tara.”
“What did you say?” He turns to look at her, eyes wide, unblinking.
“What did you say? That you’re not Mrs. Smith, your name is Tara?”
One, two, three, he returns her to her chair and departs officiously as if to an appointment. In the resultant quiet, she imagines herself not to be there, to be invisible, someone without a care in the world, tethered to nothing, like space. Presently, the woman from the parking lot approaches, tissue in hand as if she has been or is about to cry.
“Do you have a cold?”
“What did she say?” the woman asks Henry.
“She said her name is Tara, not Mrs. Smith and she is not married.”
“Did she really?”
“Yes ma’am. Doctor Sarnath will be here at noon. This appears to be a big step.”
The woman sets down her satchel, removing from it a medium-sized red and black paperback. “Do you remember this? You wrote it, Tara.”
What is the point? People hover, what do they want, who are they? “I want to return to the room with a view. When are my children coming?”
“I am Janis, your partner. I know you recognize me even if you can’t speak properly yet.” She looks deeply into her eyes, holding onto either side of the wheelchair, kind eyes even behind lenses.
What is that scent? She closes her eyes, and inside sees limbs entwining into familiar forms. “Angel,” she says, and Janis falls to her knees. “That’s my Angel, my perfume. Yes, yes.”
The Paint Box
By Bruce Levine
A paint box full of colors, and yet she couldn’t decide which one to choose. Andi was exasperated both with herself and with the picture in front of her. She’d chosen such a simple subject and yet it consistently eluded her; would she ever get it right? This was the third time she’d set out to try and it would probably be the third time she’d tear up the paper.
When she’d begun painting she thought that watercolors would suit her best rather than oil or acrylics, but now she truly wondered.
Her goal was to achieve the variables of color in nature, a lofty goal in and of itself, she knew that before she began, but she was determined to face the challenge.
Today it was the trees behind her apartment; a small forest that, she hoped, she’d capture, but the more she worked the more frustrated she became. There were so many variants: silver-green, blue-green, gray-green; on and on it went. And the more she mixed the colors on her palette the further away she seemed to be from what she saw.
Maybe tomorrow, she thought, as she swished her brushes in the water, turning it into a perfect blending which she wished would, magically, appear on the paper.
“Okay, Barnaby,” she said to the basset hound who had suddenly awakened and decided that he wanted to go out. “Just a minute.”
As she turned to take him out she accidentally knocked over the water glass, spilling it on what should have been her painting, flooding the page with colored water.
Andi mopped up as quickly as possible with paper towels before turning to Barnaby and heading toward the door.
When they got back from Barnaby’s walk she got a phone call and then got further sidetracked so, eventually, the soaking wet paper remained on her painting desk, forgotten, as she went to bed.
That night Andi dreamt that she had finally achieved conquering Mother Nature’s palette and put it on paper.
At exactly seven-fifty a.m. Barnaby howled his daily alarm clock wake-up call. How he managed to be precise to the minute Andi never figured out, but he managed it daily and Andi got up, threw on some clothes and raced to take Barnaby out for his morning walk.
Twenty minutes later, having given Barnaby his breakfast, Andi returned to her painting table, expecting to clean up the mess she’d left the night before.
She’d hoped for magic and dreamt a magical transformation, but never expected to actually see a Jackson Pollock version of her forest, perfect in every manifestation of color. She’d worked so hard and never achieved her goal. Now all she had to do was to frame her masterpiece, smile, and take all the credit.
One Last Lie For Rupert
By Blake Johnson
We kept Rupert out of sight during the service, locked inside the casket with his arms crossed like some sort of gap-toothed pharaoh. His mother said that this way he couldn’t embarrass anyone, and she laughed and dabbed her eyes with an unwrinkled hanky. I stared at her curled wisps of hair and coagulating mascara; my throat quivered as I swallowed a rising sob. I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t joking.
The priest spoke about grief and loss. He claimed that only the passage of time brought peace in such circumstances. Funny how he never mentioned the afterlife—how Rupert might be in a better place, shooting up with popes long decayed. I could almost see it, needle dipped in His Eminence’s vein, Rupert taking the opportunity to swipe that ridiculous papal hat for himself. Maybe the priest danced around the subject because he was of the mind that suicides dropped straight through the ground and into hell. To hear Rupert’s mother talk about it, one would be right in thinking his demise was no less than self-slaughter.
I knew better.
Rupert’s mother got up to say a few words—all of these people were there for her after all. He didn’t know them, and if he had, he would have cursed them right to their faces. A strange thought: has this crowd of bankers and city councilmen and retirees been able to suspend reality so much as to think they actually loved Rupert? Are they so deluded by the black garb and fresh broken ground that they believe their solemn looks to be genuine?
Rupert’s mother said her piece—five minutes of her repeating the same exact lie in as many different ways as possible. When she spoke into the microphone, the speakers delayed her voice by just a fraction of a second, giving the impression that her words were diluted, more water than wine.
I wish I could say I didn’t hate her, that I understood the need to hold in her heart the Rupert of twenty years past, when the word heroine was tantamount to mother. Amazing how the dropping of the letter e could change so much.
Hearing about this younger Rupert was like hearing about a legend, one I could not fathom or believe in. My eulogy, vetted and edited by Rupert’s mother, was its supplemental text, a concordance of his good deeds.
“And now,” the priest said, “the deceased’s beloved girlfriend, Jaimie-Beth, would like to say a few words.”
I went to the microphone, stared at the scrawl that was not mine. The truth, the beloved truth, was that the sum of Rupert’s benevolence could be counted on three fingers.
There was the time he stumbled across a bridge on a winter night, tottering and wasted, and saw me for the first time. His breath plumed like smoke as he watched me inch closer and closer to the bridge’s edge, toward freefall, toward the abyss.
“Billiards,” Rupert said, swaying back and forth like a pendulum. “I need a partner.”
And I looked at him and then at the inky water below, and I took his hand and refused to let go. Rupert showed me there were more ways to escape than a fatal plunge into icy waters.
Then there was the naloxone he gave to a desperate stranger; he only did it because he was sure there was more at home. Positive, was his exact wording. Positive as an STD. And, not for the first time, he was mistaken.
His final kindness was a self-imposed rule. Whether it was necessary or not, who can say?
“Do not call anyone if I slide away,” Rupert told me. “You hear? They’ll lock you up, too, Jem-Jem—I don’t care what the law says. One way or another, they will lock you up.”
Because I had as much trust in my heart as he did, I did exactly as he asked. Our downstairs neighbor must have heard me whimpering, because he came by and asked me if everything was okay, and I said, yes, everything is fine, everything is just fine, even though it was not.
The people staring at me could never understand Rupert’s kindnesses, much less appreciate them. These blind crows were only capable of their sympathy because they thought Rupert had gone away.
Rupert hadn’t gone anywhere.
Rupert was there with me, with us—I saw him reflected in your eyes, and yours, and yours—and you fools, you perfumed and clean-shaven elect, never had a goddamn clue.
This Lovely Haunting
By Ingrid Anders
We hope you know: we love you. After everything, your father and I love you as much as ever. And we will do whatever we can to help you.
My child, we want you to know we are not upset. The pain, the worry, the doctor’s visits, the bills—all nothing compared to the joy and love we felt when you were here. And now that you are here again!
My angel, I know it is you. I knew it at the first shortened breath, the first stomach cramp, the first odd craving. All uncomfortable symptoms, yes—but oh, how sublime to feel them again! Even though the pregnancy test was negative, I knew immediately you were there.
And then you appeared! As an orb. Right there in our holiday photo. For the camera you shone like the Christmas star—the most radiant ornament we had ever seen—exposing our family trio to be the divine quartet that it is.
The poor photographer! How she wiped the lens. How she shot us from different angles. How she closed the blinds. But your light would not disappear. Ultimately, she gave us the photos for free. And while we won’t exactly send them out to family and friends, we were overjoyed to paste them into our album.
You see, my sweet, we knew instinctively what the paranormal specialist later confirmed for us: that you meant us no harm, that your return was nothing to fear. She informed us that some ghosts return because their life was happy. Others because of unfinished business. Or unanswered questions.
In pondering your reasons, we asked ourselves what business of yours was not unfinished! But we knew that wasn’t it. And while I would want my womb to have been a place of great warmth and comfort for you, I knew that wasn’t it either. Only this morning—when the list of baby girl names fell from my planner—did I know why you had come back.
So this evening, with your brother in bed, your father and I sat down together with your sonogram printout and the list of names. We passed the papers back and forth between us, searching them with our balmy eyes, beseeching them with our deepest sighs, until we knew your name. Which I will tell you now. Though I selfishly would like to withhold it, so that you would stay with us just a little bit longer.
Oh, what I wouldn’t do to prolong this lovely haunting! But, alas, as your parents, we do want what is best for you. You must continue on your journey. Yes. And who are we to keep you here when your foremothers and forefathers are waiting for you?
So, my angel, may you now move on knowing better who you are. Most importantly, my child, our little Rosalie Jean—named for your grandmother and her mother—may you now rest in peace.
By Pamela J. Picard
My cat spends most of his days on a shelf my brother nailed to the wall just underneath the windowsill. The shelf bows in the middle from his weight. He’s a house cat, rarely leaving the second floor library, sleeping all day and feeding all night on dry food.
I hear him when I fall asleep in the room next door crunching and then digging in his litter box. The chomping sound comes first, and then the crap smell.
Burying my head in my pillow to avoid the stink I close my eyes and imagine I’m married to one of the women in my brother’s Playboy. I have a beautiful wife; she’s named Naomi and she has a foreign accent. She sings to me in other languages then kisses me with her tongue. We live in a long house, not like my house with so many stairs, so high to climb. This house has miles and miles of hallways to run up and down, and dozens of glass windows.
One of the boys in the neighborhood likes to ask me if I have a dink or a rosebud? The first time he asked I was afraid I was found out. I had been discovered that I was not like the other girls, and what if someone threw stones at me like they did to the women in the religious movies my grandmother watches. I would have to fall to the ground, like they do, while crowds of people surround me and yell things.
I did not answer. I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew I was a girl, but I thought like a boy. I did not want to be a girl all the time; sometimes I wanted to be a boy, especially when I thought of Naomi. I like to wear my brother’s old jeans, the ones with real front pockets, not like the girls’ jeans with only fake ones. You need real pockets to put your hands in, pockets to hide a fist.
Someone once told me girls like me went to hell. Hell would be better than my town, I thought. Better than being around the boys in the neighborhood who ride their bikes over people’s lawns and steal beer from the corner grocery. Better than watching the girls pretend to like sipping the stolen beer giggling into the can, laughing.
At night, while I listen to the cat eat and poop, I worry what’s going to happen when I get older. Kids only like me when they need someone to win at laser tag or baseball. Older ladies don’t play tag or baseball, and I don’t know any ladies who have wives like Naomi, or any wives at all.
I suspect I’ll live alone, with my pet, in my untidy kitchen where I cook and eat out of the same pot. This doesn’t bother me or make me afraid; I’m ready. I prefer this to living like my Aunt Rita, who’s married to my Uncle Tom. They fight like chickens in the yard. Aunt Rita is so tired she let the hairs on her chin grow long, or so my mom says after they leave on Sundays. “Rita really let herself go.” She talks of how Rita was so beautiful when they were younger and all the boys would ask her to dance. I figure being alone is better than that, it’s too sad to have something and then lose it.
Field day is always my favorite day of the year. It’s when tomboys rule. We always play against our competing school from the other side of town. Cora is the fastest girl on the other team, a few inches taller than me now. She always says hello to me before the games, and I like her voice.
Being the two fastest girls the coaches pair Cora and I against each other in the 50-yard dash. Two teachers string the tape between them at the finish line for us to run through, pulling it tight between them, smiling at us. Cora wishes me luck before we start. I run as hard as I can, and I feel Cora fall behind my heels. I cut the tape, raising my arms above my head. They pinned a blue ribbon on my white t-shirt, and it blew in the wind while one of the teachers took a picture.
Later on, Cora and I ate an ice cream sandwich at the picnic benches. She pulled me behind the building where the janitors bring trash, and gave me a seashell she found at the beach.
“I want you to have it,” she said, kissing me on the cheek. I held the shell in my hand the whole bus ride home, making it sweaty and hot.
I tucked it under my pillow before I went to sleep, and I didn’t feel as alone.
By William Cass
Like always, Meg rose shortly before five. She reached over and ran her hand up and down the empty side of the sheets, then sighed and climbed out of bed. Gus barked once from his basket next to the closet and went back to sleep. She went into the kitchen and started the coffee maker. While it brewed, she used the toilet, brushed her teeth, and looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. She tugged at the wrinkles crawling from the outside edges of her eyes and smoothed sleep from her disheveled mop of gray hair. By the time she’d made the bed, her coffee was ready and she carried a steaming mug into the living room. She sat on the couch sipping it, looking out the front window at the first blush of dawn, and waited for the newspaper to be delivered. When she heard it plop onto her front walk, she went outside, carried it back to the couch, turned on the stand-up lamp, and spent the next hour reading while the dregs of her coffee grew cold.
It was after eight when Meg finished showering. She dressed in khakis, moccasins, and a red fleece over a T-shirt against the fall chill. Gus was waiting by the back door when she came out of the bedroom. She took his leash from its peg, hooked it to his collar, and he led her through the back gate and up the sidewalk. As he tugged and sniffed, children passed by on their way to the elementary school down the street where she used to teach.
A little girl stopped beside them, squinted up at Meg, and asked, “Does he bite?”
“No.” They were the first words she’d spoken in two days.
“Can I pet him?”
Meg nodded and watched the girl scratch Gus behind the ears while he whined happily and licked at her hand. The sun had begun peeking over the treetops.
After the girl had gone on her way and Gus had done his business, Meg returned to the house, unleashed him, and went back outside. She filled her plastic pitcher that hung from the spigot next to the back door and began watering her potted flowers. She started with the ones on the tiny back patio that surrounded two rusting, tulip-backed chairs. She moved on to those on both sides of the house, refilling the pitcher as needed, and finished with the assortment along the front steps. By the time she’d finished, the sun had risen enough to warm her shoulders.
When she got inside, Meg poured another cup of coffee and settled back on the couch with her knitting. She spent the next few hours finishing another afghan she was making for a local homeless shelter; she had no family of her own left for whom to knit. As she worked, she was vaguely aware of a shaft of sunlight shortening on the floorboards and the sounds of roofers replacing shingles on a house up the street. Gus never moved from his spot on the couch against her hip.
Just before noon, Meg took Gus out for another walk, then made herself a tuna fish sandwich for lunch. She stood at the kitchen counter eating it slowly with a glass of milk and watched hummingbirds through the window at the feeder hanging from a maple tree branch. A few of the leaves on the tree had begun to turn: yellow, orange, red.
After lunch, she went into her bedroom and resisted the familiar urge to look at the photograph on top of the bureau. “Not yet,” she whispered. Instead, she stretched out on her back on the bed and tried to read a magazine. Gus followed her to his basket; not long afterwards, he fell asleep. Sprinklers hissed on in a neighbor’s yard. A few minutes later, she was asleep herself.
Meg awoke startled and disoriented, the light in the room already starting to fall. She sat blinking, regaining herself, then ran her hand over the space next to her on the chenille bedspread. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and looked at the clock on her nightstand: 3:32.
She said, “Okay, then.”
Meg paused to look once at the photograph on the bureau, then went out back with kitchen shears to choose flowers to cut from her pots; there were a few pansies still in bloom, as well as some violas, snapdragons, and mums. When she’d finished, she reached in the pocket of her fleece, took out a rubber band from the assortment she kept there, and wound it around the small bouquet. She replaced the shears in their drawer, leashed Gus, and they went out to her car at the curb.
The drive wasn’t a short one, a couple dozen freeway exits, then left along a river. Meg parked where she usually did. As she started to walk, the groundskeeper gave her his customary salute from his shed where he was storing away his tools for the day. She nodded in return and walked on. Her husband’s grave was over under a tree beside the river. She replaced the flowers she’d set against the tombstone the previous afternoon and tossed the old stems in the flowing water. She studied his name etched into the granite with the dates of his birth and death. Grass has finally covered most of the grave’s earth, lime-green with newness. She waited until she saw the taillights of the groundskeeper’s truck disappear down the cinder lane before sitting down against the tombstone. Gus curled up next to her with his head on her lap and she placed a hand on the warmth of his side. She didn’t pray; she just let her thoughts drift, as they usually did, over the quiet way he’d spoken, the little things they’d liked doing together, his touch. Except for the gurgle of the river, it was quiet. As gloaming approached, the air grew colder, and she pulled Gus closer.
The Man Who Didn’t Laugh at PG Wodehouse
By Paul Gray
It was April and the clocks were striking once, 13 times: “plum … plum … plum …”
Winston/Bertie hurried down Gussie Fink-Nottle Avenue ignoring the telescreens, which, swinging this way, that way, eternally tracked the movements of the proles.
Even if you weren’t actually dipping into Wodehouse as you walked (the safest tactic, favoured by most), it was wise to wear at all times a semi-imbecilic simper, as though permanently clad in The Master’s ineffable wit and whimsy. Such was Winston/Bertie’s approach today.
Only after he’d elbowed his way aboard the out-of-town-bound air-car and plonked himself down did the smile fall from his face.
“What-ho, what-ho, what-ho – darling!” Julia/Stiffy gushed. He pressed against that pliable young body and they collapsed to the springy turf, kissing. Here in Catsmeat’s Copse they at last could be free of the cameras, for none had been installed this far south of Jeeves-opolis (formerly London).
They both worked for the Ministry, painting PG Wodehouse’s face onto porcelain eggs for distribution to the knick-knack shops and bookstores. Each had recognised at once the other’s unorthodoxy, and so had begun their clandestine love.
“You look flushed,” she cooed, lovingly brushing back his sweaty hair.
“I’ll say!” he ejaculated, and then, feverishly: “Let me ask you something, dear.”
“I suppose we are both, what, about … 33?”
“No, seriously. Have you ever seen a book anywhere that wasn’t written by PG Wodehouse? No—don’t answer. Neither have I. Has it ever occurred to you to ask why?”
“Erm … ”
“The whole country—a PG Wodehouse theme-park. Cities, towns, even humans, all named after his characters. Bookshops and libraries stocked full of books—all written by … him. No other authors! WHY?!”
Her mouth clacked shut. Something ominous was in the wind.
“I was in the second-hand shop,” he resumed, “ostensibly seeking an unread PG, but really looking for … I don’t know what. The dealer slipped me … this.”
From his pocket he pulled like a treasure a thickish volume.
“Stories by HG Wells,” she commented. “Is that one of The Master’s pen-names?”
He hooted. “No, you little silly! He’s another writer!”
She jumped as though he’d bitten her.
“But … but there aren’t any!”
“Don’t you see? It means everything we’ve ever been told is a damn lie! There ARE other authors!”
He was on his feet now, frantically pacing.
“Perhaps dozens! And here we’ve been brought up on butlers, the idle-rich, cow-creamers, eccentric, pig-keeping earls, impecunious baronets in Hollywood, and unreliable aunts—never suspecting that there were other choices, other—”
He heard the “click” and swung round.
Her eyes had changed.
“Sorry, Bertie,” she sighed, levelling the revolver. “Just call me ‘Aunt Agatha.’ ”
Courtesy of Julia’s treachery they had beaten him soundly with rubber truncheons, before handing him over to the pig-faced, burly, bearded Chief Enforcer O’Brien, for further “correction.”
The two sat opposite each other, somewhere, Winston assumed, deep within the Ministry.
“Of course, we knew all along,” suavely continued O’Brien. “All day long you are regaled, are you not, via tannoy at your workbench with snippets of The Master’s incomparable similes? Oh, you snickered in all the right places. Still, we knew … Bertie.”
Far from destroying him, the beating had roused in Winston a defiance he had not dreamed he possessed. “Winston!” he croaked, through mashed lips.
“One last chance, Bertie,” the other rumbled, as if he had not spoken. “Will you even now not freely consent to laugh at … The Master?”
“Cannot—or will not?!”
O’Brien sighed and, flipping open a folder, read.
“ … ‘He stood there like an ostrich goggling at a brass doorknob …’ That is the one, isn’t it, Bertie, the Wodehousian that you most despise?”
My God, thought Winston, how had they known that? And then: of course—the Thought-Police!
“It isn’t funny!” Winston asserted.
O’Brien flinched as though slapped. His face darkened. “Then you are insane!” he pronounced gravely. “For only a madman could spurn such delicious perfection! Yes … insane. For you have been having delusions. For instance, you recently believed that there are … other writers!”
Winston’s heart bounded. Although they’d beaten him he had not been searched. His free hand flew to his inner pocket. He felt there the thick volume and tore it forth.
“There!” he spat. “Explain that!”
O’Brien’s eyebrows rose. “Very good, Bertie,” he cooed. “There is hope for you yet.”
Puzzled, Winston glanced at the cover – and boggled, for ‘HG Wells’ had vanished and he was now clutching a copy of Thank You Jeeves.
For a moment he did actually doubt his sanity—and then the moment passed. Julia. It must have been Julia. Julia and her black trickery.
“I still have not laughed,” he said, smugly, discarding the book as so much trash.
O’Brien suddenly looked very tired. “Very well … Winston. You are a special case. As such, you will be accorded special treatment. A little while ago you asked, did you not, ‘Why?’ ‘Why are there no other authors?’ You alone of all humanity are about to be shown the reason. Room 101!” he barked.
And then all was a blur. Winston found himself being whizzed down interminable gloomy corridors by white-coated flunkies. A steel door loomed ahead through which his wheelchair clattered—into pitch darkness and a still deeper silence.
At last, just as Winston’s nerves reached cracking point, the room flared into light. He gawped. At a desk sat a huge man in dark glasses, a man of fabulous opulence. He was pointing a revolver at Winston. The upright nameplate on the desk proclaimed:
BIG BROTHER: SOLE EXECUTOR AND LITERARY AGENT FOR THE WORKS OF
They had won, Winston saw, for he was now laughing. And Big Brother joined in until the room rang with hysterical shrieks. And just before the bullet tore into his brain Winston was thinking that ‘Bertie’ wasn’t such a bad name after all.