I've planned it for you my love. First we'll go down to the beach. We'll buy ice-creams, vanilla for me, chocolate for you. (We'll share them of course.) Then we'll sit on the beach and watch children play. You'll tell me how much more beautiful I look without make-up. Just me, happy and natural. I'll pour oil on your back and massage it into your skin. (I'll pay special attention to your butt.) Then you'll do the same for me, and you'll slide your fingers into my bikini bottom and tickle me and make me giggle and I'll turn, tell you, 'Don't', and slap your arm. Then you'll tickle me more, and I'll run away from you into the sea and, when you chase in after me, I'll splash water in your face and you'll dive under the waves and grab my ankles and plop I'll go under and see you there blowing bubbles and we'll kiss and our mouths will fill with salt and yurgh and we'll rush out of the water thinking we've caught typhoid from the sewage and we'll pretend to be sick and shock everyone. Then we’ll go for a shower and you'll sneak through to the women's changing rooms and in the shower we'll make mad passionate love, first standing with the cold water splashing on my heaven seeking face, then on the hard tiled floor with your lips on my neck and my nails digging into your buttocks holding you inside me even after you've come and, as I gasp for breath, my mouth will fill with water and I'll cough and spit all of it in your face. You'll bite my nose and lips and kiss me.
In the evening we'll sit at a pavement cafe and you'll tell me the names of the stars and how they form the constellations and I'll read your palm and tell you you'll run away with a dark haired beauty called Samantha and have three children and travel all over the world – especially South America and South East Asia – and you'll settle in France and have a vineyard and a pottery, and you'll say, 'No, how amazing, I know a girl called Samantha, stunningly beautiful, what an extraordinary future I have – when will all this happen?' and I'll say, 'Now,' and in bed that night all the stars you've named will come into our bed and zoom around in our eyes and the bed will shake till the walls shake and the pictures shake and the furniture rattles across the floor and the hotel manager rushes all over banging on doors shouting, 'Earthquake, earthquake, everyone out,' and the sweat from your body will cover me and I'll swim in your syrup and you'll swim in mine and, busted and broken in each others arms, we'll float into our paradise of sleepy dreams.
In the morning we'll take a boat to the tiny uninhabited island just off the coast and we'll say to the fisherman who takes us, 'Come back at six.' We'll find a ruined castle and, in a shady nook under a spreading tree, I'll seduce you for more of the same as we wallowed in the night before, and for the first time in my life I'll say the words, 'I love you,' and mean it, and we'll be so enamoured with our love we'll forget the time and be late for the boat back and we'll look at the setting sun and laugh and search in vain for the boat. When the fisherman comes back he’ll be angry. We’ll say sorry and giggle. Then we'll sail to the village and stand in the local bar by an open fire, me wearing your jacket, wondering how we can get back to the hotel. We'll pool what little money we have and get a taxi back and then rush inside to borrow more money to pay the driver because everything will be more expensive than we planned. We'll sleep like logs and I'll dream of your rescuing me by leaping off a cliff as I fall and taking me in you Icarian embrace and floating me into a cave full of jewels and silky splendours.
In the morning we'll rest in each other's arms and later we'll come home.
That's my weekend with you my love. Will you come? LS
A glittering spaceport twirled with rhythm matched by millions walking its infinite cobweb corridors. Rygel Spinners carefully inched through cavernous thoroughfares; Betelgeuse Sauropods zipped by on wheels of crystalline steel while countless polylimbed monstrosities roamed from gate-to-gate and everywhere in between. Interstellar Junction was the largest human-run port in the galaxy.
But in a secluded ballroom, a magnificent cavern whose history was lost in dust-covered apathy, where spirits roamed while malfunctioning ventilation spawned random tiny cyclones, there came a lilting melody. A melody of souls, hearts, and minds; of joy, grief, and fraternity. It sang from a corner of the room, rotting piano wire moaning an eternal crescendo exultant and frightening.
The man behind the keys was aged indeterminately; this from either years of rejuviplasty and his own impish features, or something far stranger. Wearing tattered garments greyer than the dusty linoleum, he had spindly fingers that were muscled and veined; twin five-legged spiders dancing across checkered peaks and valleys.
The child, a girl of seventeen, wandered lost into the ballroom. A waif like the musician, her life consisted of day-to-day struggles giving little reward and scarcely feeding her starved frame. Chocolate pools of lost dreams and indifference were trapped behind eyelids set in a face wrinkled with premature age, giving her a maturity alluring and disturbing.
She crept closer to the man at the piano, heart thudding. Finding a chair some meters back, her form silhouetted by incalculable stars, she sat with legs wrapped around the backrest, toothpick arms supporting a bobble-head with a mane of crimson trailing down her back.
The crescendo reached a climax and abruptly ceased. The pianist straightened, smoothed locks of colorless hair from his cherub face, and said without looking behind him: “Why are you here?”
She was startled: “Er…music?”
“I know that. How’d you come here?”
“Yes, but where?”
“Everywhere—in the crèche, on the slidewalks, through the elevators nobody rides—”
“Really? Why are you the first to come?”
“In two hundred years,” said the man.
“Life is too concerned with things that don’t matter to care about those that do,” he caressed the piano’s keys. “Entertainment, politics…they forget about love, why the Maker gave man emotions and beauty in the first place;” his cherub face looked on her again, “so I’m not surprised no one’s come in two hundred years. What surprises me is…you’ve come.
“What were you playing?” Her voice quavered.
“One I created.”
“Anyone who will listen.”
“…you’d like to hear a song for you?”
“What do you want me to play?” He smiled congenially.
“I’m here to play for you, miss. It is my…function.”
Behind what she could now see wasn’t a grey garment but a vanilla suit covered in eons of dust, he uncoupled a panel. A screen beeped where a heart should be, gears spun, fluid pumped through a translucent sphere. She said: “I thought you were a man?”
“What’s a man; his chemistry, or his soul? I’m a man, alright. I have a soul that only took me two hundred years to find,” his grin faded, “and I’ll lose it soon, for lack of purpose.”
“To create magnificent music. I am a living jukebox, if you recognize such an obscure reference—”
“How come you talk like people do? You don’t sound like no robot.”
“I told you, I am a man. Music has given me my soul. A ghost in the machine are these songs I play, and through His gift of music I’m alive, inhabiting this body.” A sigh. “And for this reason, I must soon depart.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In this world there is no place for a thing like me. In this time individuals care for themselves, not for beauty, not for love, not for music,” he exhaled mechanically, the irony lost on the waif outlined against the stars. Then he perked up: “But I’ll play you a song, yes?”
She grinned: “Yes!”
So he played a song so magnificent she trembled, shivered, and wept. The music entranced the wind, made dust spin in eddies, made stars shine brighter and stole her soul beyond its body into ages past, where she imagined people in expensive tuxedos and gowns waltzing in time and holding each other close. The dance was intimate, regal, perfectly synchronized to the music; and as her mind beheld it, the eddies in the dust conformed themselves with that vision and to her great delight became a thousand couples adorned in multilayered garments whose color was the monotone grey of the very dust composing them. These spirits danced in harmonized splendor, and as the malfunctioning ventilation spun the apparitions, the music reached a climax, then slowly died. The waltzing spirits crumbled into piles about the room, and she said almost regretfully: “It was beautiful…”
“Play it again?”
“This would be an abomination,” he smiled, walking from the piano. He came to her, and bending down on the chair he looked her in the eye: “I’ll always play for those who listen. Music is God’s language, which has awakened me, and now you. So...spread the renaissance.” He took her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, smiled again. Then he turned, fading into the shadows; becoming one with the inky silhouettes of a bygone era that defined the Stellar Ballroom.
She wanted to follow, but could not.
Then like a glitter in her mind’s eye, an idea crept at her and she looked at the piano. And sitting down, she struck a note. LS
“We make this junk disappear without a fuss.” Kurt supervised operations for the thrift store. “Get it in, clean it up, move it out—raaaw-hide!”
“Cool,” Nile said, energized by his first day of employment after being laid off early in the Great Recession.
“Work hard and you can take home one thing a week,” Kurt said. “Call it a bonus.”
“Is that legal?” Nile didn’t want to risk losing even this minimum wage gig. They could continue to scrimp by on Leslie’s paycheck—especially if she got the promotion—but things remained a little tense, even after he’d cleaned out the basement and staged a garage sale netting almost six hundred bucks. He’d noticed the Help Wanted sign at the thrift store while dropping off the leftover kitchenware, stained bedding and old clothes. This figured for a good interim thing, and working for a charity felt like a donation in itself.
“Like I give a shit about legal.” Kurt’s jaw bulged rhythmically working his gum. “Know why the only hair on my head is eyebrows?”
Nile examined Kurt’s egg-smooth scalp. “Alopecia?”
“Alo-what? Fuck no. I don’t have time to take an honest crap. First of every month I slather on that Nair shit.”
“Wow.” Nile admired those who burned through their lives like an acetylene torch through tinfoil.
* * *
Nile offloaded a U-haul full of clothes, skis, snowboards, stereo equipment and video game consoles, the driver watching with leathery arms crossed. “My boy’s in jail for dealing,” she said. “I’m moving and he’s nuts if he thinks I’m hauling his crap across the state.” Later, Nile discovered a baggy of weed in a zippered CD storage case.
“Sure. Take it,” Kurt said. “Spoils of war.”
* * *
“No thanks,” Leslie said. She hadn’t smoked in years, though she’d been a stoner in school. Nile suggested it might help her sleep, a problem since even before her promotion. “But knock yourself out.”
“I will,” he said, her lack of enthusiasm rendering him lonelier than ever.
* * *
A station wagon pulled up crammed with books. Not the usual dog-eared detective/mystery/sci-fi paperbacks, but leather bound volumes with deckle-edged pages, titles foil stamped in gilt. Homer, Melville, Plato, Hardy, Poe and names he didn’t recognize.
“My dad read all these,” the nervous grey-haired man said. “Pretty much ignored me and mom, but a hell of a smart guy. I don’t read books myself.”
“I always meant to,” Nile said. He asked Kurt about the books.
“They take up a lot of room and don’t sell for shit,” Kurt said, his head a tennis ball fuzz. “Take’m.”
“You said one thing a week?”
“A load of books is one thing.”
* * *
Nile radioed Kurt to help lift a treadmill from the bed of a pickup, while the driver sat with the engine running, belly molded like foam around the base of the steering wheel. “You don’t shut off diesel,” he said, leaving without a tax receipt.
“Christ, I hate exercise equipment.” Kurt scratched his wolfman beard, hair radiating skyward.
“I could take it home?” Nile said. That week alone, he’d offloaded two elliptical trainers, a ski machine, three stationary bikes and numerous ab exercisers. “Get in shape?”
“Go for it, cowboy,” Kurt said.
* * *
That night, Nile smoked a joint, propped a book on the treadmill console and jogged 1.7 miles before throwing up the Doritos he’d had for dinner. Leslie didn’t come back after the argument. His attempts at self improvement were a little behind schedule.
* * *
Kurt came to say goodbye, fired for allowing employees to take merchandize. His recent depilation lent his face the appearance of perpetual alarm. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “But you’d best lay low.”
Nile bit his lip to avoid tears, still devastated by Leslie moving out. With the dope gone, he’d intended to put the books and exercise equipment up on eBay, his timing defective once again.
“We’ll be fine, cowboy,” Kurt said as they shook, gum on pause, grinning.
* * *
Nile sat in his director’s chair making no sense of Plato. Donations had slackened as the economy reached new lows. Philosophy made his head hurt.
A restored cherry red convertible, top down, pulled into the bay. The driver lingered with hands on the wheel listening to the throb of the engine before killing it. He stepped out of the car and dangled the keys between thumb and forefinger. “You take cars?” he said.
“Sure.” Nile put down the book and stood on legs sore from the treadmill. He caught the keys.
The man withdrew a title slip from the inside pocket of his distressed leather bomber jacket. “The wife says my midlife crisis is over. I got a few tickets, stayed out late—hell, she doesn’t know the half of it.” He chuckled and raking fingers through his comb-over. “I just can’t stand to sell my ride, you know?”
It looked like he might cry. Nile stilled his gum chewing and grinned. “I’ll take care of it.” He exchanged the title for a blank tax receipt. Maybe they actually did take cars. “All set.”
“Life’s a bitch sometimes.” The man stood still.
“Yeah. But you’ll be fine,” Nile said. “The bus stop’s around the corner”
The man glanced back every few yards until the tire shop obscured his view.
The vinyl seat felt cool against Nile’s back. He smiled, turned the key, igniting the engine. A bronc ready to buck. This donation would disappear without a fuss. LS
It's Monday, sheet day. I go upstairs to change our bedding - our bedding. I pull off our blue sheets with the sunny little dots on them, shake the pillows out of their cases, and clack-clack something falls to the floor. It glints golden in the last gleam of the afternoon sun. I pick it up. My hand cradles the ruby-studded medallion and delicate row of eight fine golden feathers hung below, as if someone shrunk a golden goose and plucked her feathers to make a thousand dreamcatchers like this - this big, hoopy, garish earring that isn't mine. LS
The girls built a ladder out of the chairs and pillows in the living room. Then they climbed it, each struggling to get to the top first, clearly uninterested in the danger. Stephanie tugged at Sehra’s hair, which was short and brown like her father's, while Sam pinched Terra’s thigh, a little too close to the crotch, Jan thought. The structure wobbled under their struggles, the pillows swallowing their feet and slipping around on each other. None of the furniture was loved. It was unsentimental; unattached. There were no memories in them, except that they were in the "good" room, which the kids weren’t supposed to enter.
The top of the pile sat just below the chandelier, a brass number with six light bulbs, each perched on a tarnished ‘S’ and flickering like a candle in a light breeze. The girls grabbed one apiece, twisting in little turns, having to pull their hands away when their fingers got too hot. Terra, who always wore long sleeve shirts, won their race, and was the first to hold up her bulb and drop it to the hardwood floor. The other girls paused to watch the glass shatter and blink as it tumbled around the room. Then they each became braver, more determined, and grabbed their bulbs harder and with more fingers, alternating hands as quickly as possible until the floor was a diamond field, only two of the bulbs remaining in the fixture.
“Why are they doing that?” Jan’s mother asked through the speakerphone. “It sounds horrible.”
In the newly dimmed room, Jan watched each of her daughters jump in the air, twisting and kicking to outperform the others, landing flatfooted on the tiny, delicate shards.
“To punish me,” Jan said.
The girls walked around the room slowly, as if they suddenly found themselves waist deep in ice water. But when two or more of them came within reach of each other, they began shoving.
"Ouch," Terra squealed as she stepped back. "I landed on the metal screwy part."
Stephanie, who looked like Jan when she frowned, walked to Sam and stepped on her toes, cutting them with the glass stuck to her soles.
"Can't you make them stop?" Jan's mother asked. "They might hurt themselves."
Sehra tried to run, but the blood seeping from the balls of her feet made her lose traction. Soon, all of the girls were sliding around as though they were climbing up a hill they had just sled down. Stephanie and Terra grabbed each others' forearms and swung themselves around until they pitched over onto the sky-blue couch, gray paisleys suddenly swiped with red.
Jan backed her wheelchair away from the kitchen phone using a mouthpiece and her head. She turned the wrong way, still uneasy with the mechanics. She blew into it and the chair moved forward, taking her to her children.
"Please stop," she called into the room. Her faint voice barely penetrated the pinched laughter.
"Why?" Sehra called from the chairladder.
"This is not how you should behave," Jan answered.
"That is not for you to decide anymore," Stephanie said.
"We are adults now," Terra said.
"Two weeks ago, I could not cross the street," Sehra said, having landed from a graceful leap. "But now, I can buy groceries."
“My bosom,” Sam said. “It aches.”
The girls gathered their voices together, and it was noisy. Jan wheeled herself back to the speaker on the wall, nicking the baseboard when she turned too sharply.
"It's no use," Jan said to her mother.
"It's not fair," her mother said. "Oh well. Would you like me to write it down in your journal for you?"
The noise in the good room quieted down, but it took a moment for Jan to realize it. The girls were no longer jumping or giggling, and instead there was silence. Again, Jan left the phone and moved her chair. There were little red footprints leading out of the room and down the hall, and Jan moved to follow, hoping that they hadn't gone upstairs. The blood had started to dry to a salty brown, and the glass was visible only as bumps in the clot. By the chair stack, down feathers had blown out of a pillow and landed in the puddle, looking as though someone had gone duck hunting with a cannon. The trail of footprints led under the door of the guest bathroom. Jan urged her chair forward until it bumped the door, then back again, then waited to see if the girls understood that to be a knock. Sam opened the door a crack and leaned her head out.
"Is everything alright in there?" Jan asked. "Anything I can do?"
"We're fine. We'll be out in a minute."
Sam poked her head back in without closing the door and Jan stayed there in the hall, peeking through the crack. Stephanie was picking glass out of Terra's left foot, while Sehra wiped the right foot with alcohol. Sam picked up a roll of gauze and ripped a long section off. Jan tried to reach out towards them. She looked down at her arm and mouthed her wish towards it, that it would lift up and grab the girls, pull them out of the bathroom and hold them down in front of the TV. That it would dial up their friends on the phone and then hold that phone to their ears until two in the morning. She urged her legs to remember the time, just a month ago, when they had been worth something to so many people. The girls were no longer giggling. They no longer played at violence, or competed. They worked diligently, tenderly washing and bandaging, while Terra leaned back against the toilet and cringed. LS
As far as Eric Krieg could see heading south on Interstate 280, traffic was virtually stopped. He and his wife, Lindsay, sat in the contoured black leather seats of his red Porsche 911. Both were trim, tanned, about 50, and dressed in clothes from Wilkes-Bashford. Eric was getting angry.
“Take a deep breath,” Lindsay said. “You can’t do anything about it.”
“Don’t lecture me,” he said. “I don’t need one of your lectures now.”
“Then relax. We’re going to be here for a while. I’ve phoned Jean. She knows we’ll be late. Just calm down.”
“I can’t stand the South Bay,” he said.
“It’s not so bad.”
“Yes it is.”
“Why is that?”
“For one thing the freeways are always clogged up like somebody’s constipated asshole.”
“Well, we don’t come down here that often.”
“I don’t see why we have to come down here for this.”
“You mean Jean?”
“We should have found someone in Menlo Park or Palo Alto.”
“I don’t know, but we should have.”
“If you would have helped choose someone, then, yes, maybe we could have.”
“So this is my fault?”
“No, this is a traffic jam. I chose Jean because Marilyn said she was helpful with her and Don.”
“So how did she help them?”
“Marilyn says things are better now. She and Don are happier, communicating more, not arguing as much.”
“I still don’t get why you’re so bent on this—why it’s either this or ‘Hit the road, Jack.’”
“We need help, Eric. That’s why I’m so bent on this.”
“I don’t see what the problem is. I make lots of money. You don’t have to work. You get your manicures and pedicures every week. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t cheat on you. I don’t beat you.”
“You’ve been a good provider, Eric.”
“Let’s save it for Jean.”
“Come on, Lindsay.”
“I think we need a referee. I just don’t want to get into it now.”
“It isn’t sex, is it? You don’t seem to have much of an interest in it anymore, so I just don’t push it.”
“Eric, let’s just wait until we get there.”
“So what is it?”
“If I’m not always ‘attentive,’ then cut me some slack, will you? I work twelve hours a day so you and the kids can have a good life, so they can go to their fancy private school, so you can get your fingers and toes painted every week.”
“Quit being an asshole, will you?”
They sat silently for a very long time.
“You didn’t used to be this way,” she said finally.
“Do you know how incredibly hard it is to do the work I do?” he said. “To work the hours I work? To wonder who is going to try to cut my balls off tomorrow or the next day or the next?”
“If it’s the work that’s making you this way, then do something else. You’re a smart guy.”
“Where would the money come from?”
“You might not make as much, but that would be okay.”
“Yea, right,” he said with a laugh.
“Eric, I could live without my weekly manicures and pedicures. You might even manage to live without your Porsche. We could find a way to live with less money.”
“Yea, dream on.”
“Come on, Eric,” she said in a weary voice. “This is why it’s so hard to talk to you. This is why I think we need someone like Jean.” She was silent for a moment. “Do you remember when we had fun together—actually had fun? That seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it?”
They sat in silence again.
“Yea, it does,” he said quietly. He paused. “Where do you think all this is headed?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
A few minutes later the traffic began to open up and Eric and Lindsay were moving again. Soon they saw three Highway Patrol cars, two fire trucks, two ambulances, two tow trucks, and two cars that had both been smashed and gutted by flames all lined up by the side of the road.
“My God,” Lindsay said as a tear rolled down from one eye.
Eric said nothing and drove on. LS
November 10th, 1964
Dear Dr. Weissman:
I am writing to thank you most kindly for taking the time to visit with my husband Frank and me in August. I am most pleased to inform you that although we did not resume our counseling appointments in the fall that we are doing so very much better! You will also find enclosed cash in the amount of thirty-five dollars for the appointment that Frank canceled in September. I would have sent the check to you, but I don’t want Frank to find out and get cross.
Frank feels that these sorts of situations, between man and wife, simply don’t need to be aired publicly. Now, I myself realize that you assured us that our appointments, that the things we discuss, were completely confidential. Frank also felt that the drive to your offices in Des Moines would take too much time from the fishing and hunting that he enjoys. When I told him that he could hunt pheasant any other time he did become quite angry. Frank gets his temper from his father’s side. I have learned when to acquiesce and keep peace. Some of your suggestions have most certainly aided me, Doctor. Frank also expressed his concerns that people in our small community might begin to suspect. I think it embarrasses him – you understand. Frank grew up on a farm near Fontanelle not far away and we have lived in Greenfield for more than thirty years. I must say that my work as a second grade teacher made the long, extra car trips burdensome. In addition to that I was honored recently for twenty-five years of active membership in the Eastern Star, which coincided with one of the Saturday appointments, I believe. Frank just doesn’t enjoy long trips by car – or at least not with the two of us in the same car, as he likes to say. I remember telling you that I don’t mind his smoking, but he refuses to roll down the window just because I ask him. Frank resented having to stop in Winterset on the way home to visit with my mother to have pie. They have never gotten along well, but then she can be difficult and lately she does take a great deal of time to chew each bite.
I enjoyed our visit together, hoping that some of the difficulties could be solved with your helpful suggestions. Frank prefers to just follow the Bible. I know that you asked about his reactions when you were so thoughtful to telephone. Frank would just not let me talk long. I am sure that as a member of the Jewish religion – Frank told me that’s what you must be, that you can appreciate his feelings in all of this. I also am enclosing two more dollars to replace the Dr. Kinsey book you loaned us. Frank threw quite a terrible fit over that, I’m afraid. He certainly never let me read it. He told me he burned it.
The real relief for me has been the time I’ve gotten to rest in recent weeks. The doctors and nurses here have been so kind. Why, they remind me of how very nice you were. They tell me that there will be some lingering discomfort after I am discharged, but I manage to get up and walk with a cane for a few minutes every day. Our minister reminds me that we must accept God’s plan in our lives, and do you know, it was a miracle the bullet did not strike the main artery. Instead, it bounced right off my hip bone! The doctors and staff were all amazed. Of course Frank has apologized and I forgive him. If I had not dropped that pot roast on the kitchen floor while he was cleaning his hand gun it would not have gone off. I simply startled him. At first it was amazing how I felt no pain. Well, these things happen and we have to get over them. Frank has gone duck hunting and says he will put the meat in the freezer for me to cook when I get home again. I don’t imagine that he would approve of my writing to you today, so perhaps it is best that you do not contact us again. Thank you, Doctor, for all your help. We will be just fine, Lord willing.
Mrs. Frank Tharpe LS
“With all my heart,” Bette Davis said in her character’s moment of luminous doom, “I still love the man I killed.”
Yes, he thought as he watched the final, fatal moments of The Letter at the Stanford Theater, which ran old movies in downtown Palo Alto, you can’t do evil better than Bette.
As the house lights came up and the old-time movie curtain came down, he rose from his seat and headed toward the exit and home. He came here often, and he usually came alone.
He liked to see old movies on the big screen. He liked them on the TV screen too. He even liked them on YouTube on his computer. He liked the sharp dialogue and fast-paced editing. He liked the bright, quirky actors and actresses who appeared in the same kinds of roles again and again. He especially liked the other-worldliness of black and white: how light and shadow danced together for ninety minutes to tell him about good and evil or ignorance and revelation or hope and despair. And he loved the countless shades of gray that flowed like musical harmonies between the darkest black and the brightest white.
For most of his life, he liked just about all kinds of old movies from Westerns to swashbucklers to screwball comedies. His appreciation came from his parents, who were from that era and enjoyed the movies in many of the ways he did. He brought them to the Stanford often before they died, and they were thrilled.
Now, in the four years since he and Judy divorced, he found himself being pulled more and more toward one kind of old movie, the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. It wasn’t a calculated choice. It was more a matter of drifting, like the way Fred MacMurray just wound up in Barbara Stanwyck’s arms in Double Indemnity or Robert Mitchum found himself up to his neck in trouble with Jane Greer in Out of the Past.
He and Judy had been married for twenty-six years, which, he sometimes thought, was twenty-five years too long. Their two children were the perfect distraction, and, as soon as they went off to college, their marriage collapsed like a punctured soufflé. Then, after a long and expensive divorce, he was fifty-five and alone, living in a small condo with his TV and growing collection of old movies.
After the first few months, friends began to introduce him to women they knew, and he joined an online singles community. But the dates with these women were usually awkward, and the awkwardness made him feel even more alone. His friends were very nice, but he needed more in his life. Work was manageable but rarely fun. His children were living in Dallas and New York, busy with their careers, and hard to reach on the phone. Since his parents died, his own siblings saw less of each other too. Everything was dissolving into something else. But what could it be?
Then he stumbled onto noir. One night, after another awkward date, he noticed that Gun Crazy, a pulpy noir he hadn’t seen in years, was on TV. He started watching and couldn’t stop. He was seeing it, he kept thinking, with brand new eyes. It was so bleak and dark and at the same time comforting. He even laughed out loud when one character, a carnival clown, told the young hero: “Some guys are born smart about women, and some guys are born dumb. You were born dumb.” Yes, these movies were saying something to him.
As he traveled deeper into the noir world, he was drawn more and more to the impending doom that oozed out of every frame of film that flashed before him: the dark and deadly big-city streets; the sexy, dangerous women; the aimless, ominous cigarette smoke; the disturbing, tilted camera angles that kept him constantly on edge. He even loved discovering the titles of more obscure movies he was learning about for the first time--Raw Deal, Brute Force, The Set-Up, Nightmare Alley, Cry of the City, In a Lonely Place, Born to Kill, The Damned Don’t Cry, and The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He loved the whole self-indulgent wallow. And, for the moment, he needed it.
Someday, maybe, the next part of his life would emerge from this fuzzy gray dissolve he had settled into. Someday, maybe, he would happily return to the plucky, up-with-life movies of the 1930s. But for now this would be his world. LS
“What are you concealing?” Frida yelled.
Her husband Vincent sat on his hands at the dining room table. His knuckles were going numb, and he shifted his weight.
Frida glared at him and stooped to try and see the object through a tiny space between his thigh and the polished wooden chair.
“Vince,” she breathed in that long drawn out way that said she was tired of this game.
He didn’t move, wouldn’t even look at her.
If he were a child she’d lift him right up off of his chair and stand him firmly on the ground where she could grill and lecture him on deception. But Vincent was a very large man. He weighed almost three times as much as Frida. She thought of giving up. What did it matter anymore anyway, the things he wanted to hide from her? What more could he possibly do? Burn the house down, maybe. That had almost happened twice already; accidents in his more lucid moments when he remembered that pots were for cooking and cooking meant food in his belly.
Dementia stole those connections in Vincent’s brain, but Frida held a lingering suspicion that whatever Vincent hid from her could do them both a lot of harm. She was too tired or maybe she’d plain lost the imagination to figure out what it could be.
All those years and they never talked about transgressions or funds that vanished, just went on with their daily routines, looking forward to retirement—whatever that was. When the list of to-do’s would shorten, Frida guessed. A vague time in the future she used to dream about when they would finally do something fun, take a trip to someplace exotic like Machu-Picchu. Maybe visit the house in Mexico where her namesake Frida Kahlo lived and died so fiercely.
Frida pulled a chair out from the table and sat. “What a brave woman Frida was.” She said it wistfully like she used to say things when she knew the house was empty. She was looking at the wall, not at Vincent.
She reached out and touched his shoulder. Still looking at the wall she said, “Remember? Remember when Tommy was little and I told you one night about my worries that he wouldn’t have any friends and he’d get into drugs and something awful would happen to him?...And you said ‘Tommy is fine. You need to get out of the house and do something…It’s making you crazy’.”
She tucked her hands in her lap, then she stood up suddenly and left the room.
Vincent sat there a long time, though he no longer had a concept of time. Shadows lengthened across the table and it began to get dark. He shifted his weight again and laid his hands on the table. He forgot what he was sitting on or even that he’d tried to hide something from the woman who took care of him.
“Frida,” he said to no one, “brave.” LS
“That’s where I grew up,” Grandpa used to say, pointing at the old painting on the living room wall. “All those years, growing up with five other siblings in one small room.” He’d then describe bits and pieces of his youth, jumping from subject to subject, all without taking his eyes off of the painting of the yellow wooden house.
We’d seen the house he grew up in— it wasn’t wooden, nor was it located on a hill in the middle of a forest. So every time he started talking about the house in the painting, we diverted our attention elsewhere and found subjects that we could all relate to, like Cousin Betty’s wedding or Uncle Roy’s new wife. As we all sat chatting around the coffee table after the weekly family dinners, he often stared at the yellow house, his chair pulled up close to the wall, his body leaning forward as though examining an organism under a microscope.
When Grandpa got sick, we had to take him to his bedroom and visit him there. Dad placed flowers at every corner of the room; Mom changed their water every day to keep them alive. My uncles and aunts bought him a flat-screen TV that had twice as many channels as the one we had at home. But Grandpa remained uninterested. The constant smile on his lips was gone. He wasn’t always aware of who was in the room or what new present he received, but he seemed well aware of the inescapable.
Weeks before his death, I managed to hang up the painting on the wall facing his bed and watched his face light up with joy at the sight of the house. “That’s where you grew up,” I told him before he had a chance to say it out loud. For the first time in months, he looked me straight in the eye, nodding. “Six brothers in one small room,” he added. He went on, and I sat there next to his bed, filling in the details that he’d told us before, helping him tell the whole story the way he wanted it to be heard. LS
"Fiction gives a second chance that life denies us."