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Going viral

    You know that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” The one in George Bailey’s alternate universe where Violet gets thrown out of a dance hall? There she is, in the clutches of two burly cops, spitting and fighting, and screaming, “I know every big shot in town. I know Potter!

" That’s pretty much what it looked like the night Irving Petz got dragged off the David Letterman Show. He wasn’t actually claiming to know every big shot in town, but he had just spent fifteen minutes in the Green Room with President Obama, who was about the biggest shot in town.
   If he stopped to think about it, and he would, after the interrogations, the administrative hearings, trial, and court-ordered counseling sessions were finished, it wasn’t everybody who got a close up view of Secret Service agents crab-walking the President to safety. And knowing you caused the crab-walk, well, that was pretty special. Irving would think about that for a long time.
    And the dog. He’d think about the dog, too. That damn dog. It was pretty much the dog’s fault that Irving’s life came crashing down around him on the David Letterman Show. Well, the dog and his wife. Can’t forget about Darlene. If she’d never gotten that stupid dog, he never would have made that video. Letterman never would have called. Irving would have missed out on his Warholian fifteen, but from where he was sitting now, in a federally-mandated psychiatrist’s office, that would have been just fine. Let him live his life out in obscurity in Des Moines, Iowa.
    Yeah, that would be better, even though Irving had never thought he’d end up there, writing real estate appraisals for some insurance company.  A man of his intellect reduced to that? To tramping through the mud or crusted snow or overgrown lawns outside three-bedroom ranch and split-level houses, tape measure at the ready, and inside, jotting down the dimensions of kitchens, utility closets and crawl spaces. He noted distinctive architectural features–yeah, like that’s going to happen in Des Moines–and analyzed the quality and trajectory of the neighborhood. He did due diligence on comparables, put it into a report, and shipped it off to headquarters. Sometimes he dropped a copy in the mail for the homeowners, give the local rubes a thrill.
    If he thought about it, Irving might concede that calling  his neighbors and  friends  rubes was going a bit too far. After all, he was born and bred an Iowan. True, by all rights he should be living on one of the coasts. Maybe LA, writing screenplays, or the Bay Area, helping pioneer a new era of clean, renewable energy. He had a lot of ideas on how to make that happen. No technical skills, mind you, but ideas. The kind of things that could point scientists in the right direction. That’s what this world needs, ideas.
    In fact, Irving’s ideas had pretty much convinced him he belonged in New York, or Washington D.C. He could see himself working for one of those big think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, or ThinkProgress, or Organizing For Action. What a pity the whole world had to suffer because he was stuck in the middle of flyover country. How had that even happened?
    What happened was, after graduating from Iowa State with a PoliSci degree, Irving took a job selling insurance. Just for awhile. Just long enough to put a dent in his student loans, and build up some capital for his escape to the coasts. Then he met Darlene, who was waitressing at the Denny’s across from his building  They fell in love, or she got pregnant, one or the other. Long story short? They got married. She quit her job, popped out a coupla kids. He got a mortgage, and the coasts just got further and further away.
    His life was on hold, but the ideas kept coming. The Internet was a life saver though. Irving started blogging. Two, three times a week, he pounded out seven hundred clean, concise and insightful words on investing in education and infrastructure, on immigration reform, health care reform, tax reform, green energy policy, foreign policy. It got to the point that if Irving didn’t write about it, he had a hard time believing it had happened.
    After a decade or so Irving had a subscription list of close to two hundred people who hadn’t blocked his emails. He had a page on DailyKos. He had one on ThinkProgress. He even had a paying gig in the local paper. Well, it wasn’t the Des Moines Register. More like The Savvy Shopper, serving cost-conscious consumers throughout the greater Des Moines area. Okay, they didn’t exactly pay him. Not in cash anyway, but they printed his website beneath his byline.
    Still, it was frustrating for Irving to watch pundits and wonks spouting his ideas on the Sunday morning talk shows. By all rights, he should be on those shows. Instead, he pounded out his essays in flyover obscurity, ever hopeful, desperately dreaming that one day George Stephanopolous, or Andrea Mitchell, or even Rachel Maddow might stumble upon his work.
    Then would come vindication. Suddenly those in the know would know that he was the real deal. They would quote him on the air. They’d call him up. Harry Reid would ask for advice on parliamentary strategery. In short, Irving Petz knew somehow, someday, he would go viral.
    That’s about the time Darlene decided she wanted a dog. Not just any dog, a black Scottie. It was about a week before Christmas, deep snow covering the lawn and Irving just hitting the send button on his latest essay, possibly his best ever, called “Weather Isn’t Climate,”  in which he demolished all those climate-change-denying neanderthals, when Darlene came waltzing in bragging  about her Christmas present to herself.
    Irving said. “Aren’t we supposed to discuss these things? I thought we had a partnership.”
    Darlene insisted there was nothing to discuss. “The kids are grown up and I’m bored.. You’ve got your blog to keep you busy. Me? I’ve got nothing.”
    “Yeah, but a dog? Who’s gonna feed him? Who’s gonna walk him? What do we do with him when we travel?”
    “Travel?” she scoffed. “When was the last time we took a vacation?”
    “Okay,” he conceded. “But you never know. If one of my essays goes viral, it’s Katy bar the door.”
    “‘Katy bar the door?’ Does anyone actually say things like that?”
    “Well, that’ll be part of my appeal, not just cogent thoughts and stunning analysis, but expressed in a folksy vernacular which is sure to strike a chord in reader and listener alike.”
    Darlene gave it some thought. She wanted him to succeed. She really did. His dreams, his ideas, she’d always loved him for them. They somehow made him harmless, and therefore, endearing. “I suppose if you hit the big time–“
    ”Go viral,” he corrected.
    “Okay, whatever.” She shrugged. “Anyways, if you do we could afford a dog walker. Or I could just stay here while you fly off to the coasts.”
    Irving tried to keep a blank expression. Truth be told, the thought of jetting around alone had a certain appeal. He wasn’t bad looking for a guy his age. Why, just the other day a waitress called him a Silver Fox.
    “Anyway,” Darlene concluded. “You don’t have to do anything. Angus is my dog. I’ll take care of him.”
    So Irving went along with it. Over the years he’d figured out that was the best way to deal with a fait accompli. They slid into Christmas. The lights were up, the house was decorated, and there were heaps of presents piled under the tree. Far more than usual, which was strange because there were just the two of them this year. The girls were both spending the holidays with their in-laws.
    Come Christmas morning the mystery was solved. Darlene kept handing him presents, saying, “Go on, open it. Actually, it’s for Angus, but he doesn’t know how.”
    Pretty soon the floor was littered with chew toys, squeaky toys, pull toys, rawhide bones and little tartan body sleeves. Angus lay exhausted, surrounded by shredded wrapping paper. Irving got a scarf and a pair of gloves, which was great, since this was shaping up to be one of the coldest, snowiest winters in Iowa’s history.
    Which led to the next crisis, when two days later Darlene announced, “It’s too frigging cold. I’m going down to Florida to see Mom.”
    “You’re taking the dog, I assume.”
    “Can’t. Mom’s condo complex is pet-free.”
    “But what happened to ‘He’s my dog. I’ll take care of him?’”
    “Irving, come on. He only a little dog. Just deal.”
    So Darlene ran home to Momma, leaving Irving to feed and walk the dog. There he was, walking through the neighborhood, carrying his biodegradable poop bag. “Degradable is right,” he thought. “I’ve become the man I despise.”
    Oh, it was ignominious. Here he was, chock full of brilliant ideas, the quintessential public intellectual, reduced to scraping dog shit off his neighbors’ lawns. He told himself, as he often did, that when he found himself in a hole, he should stop digging.
    He gave it a shot with Angus. He’d read somewhere that dogs were loveable, so he tried loving him. Fat chance of that working. The dog was stupid. There was no other word for it. When he let him out in the backyard the dog would bolt after a squirrel. The squirrel would dash up a tree. Angus would crash into the tree.
    Or he would take a run at a bird which would fly away, leaving Angus to run into the fence. Instead of falling in love with his dog, Irving started to hate his wife. Which is when he decided to videotape the mutt. Maybe when Darlene saw how stupid her dog was, she’d come to her senses.
    A couple days later, he’d recorded a half hour of Angus playing demolition derby with inanimate objects. Actually, a tree is an animate object, in the sense of being alive, but it doesn’t move. (This is the way Irving tended to think, which is one reason his essays were so insightful).
    Anyway, he went on Facebook–not something he tended to do. But Darlene had talked him into opening an account, saying it was the best way to see pictures of his grandchildren. On the other hand, she was all over it, posting cat videos and inspirational posters, scenic mountain lakes with never-in-this-world sunset colors, invitations to all her friends to join her in farms and mafia families and God knows what all else. She was either posting photos of family and  friends or signing petitions demanding that Facebook respect her privacy.
    By the time he uploaded the video, Irving was so disgusted with Darlene that, instead of messaging it to her, he posted it on her wall. That way all her friends would see how stupid her dog really was. She would be publicly humiliated. She would be hounded from Facebook. She would become a social media pariah.
    The deed done, Irving started writing a follow-up essay mocking climate change deniers for gloating over another record low temperature. It was hard to concentrate with his smart phone pinging away like one of those old Pong games on steroids. He didn’t even recognize that particular chime. When he checked the phone he discovered they were all Facebook posts. So he brought it up on his computer. There were hundreds of notifications. Apparently every one of Darlene’s friends had shared the video on their own walls. And then their friends did likewise.
    Over to Twitter. #AngusVideo was trending. An email from LinkedIn. Two thousand people wanted Angus to join their network. Then the phone rang. Channel 4 news wanted to run a portion of the video on their program. Was he okay with that?
    Irving said he would be happy to come on the show, maybe share some insights on getting  Iran back to the negotiating table. The producer hesitated. “Uh, I think we just need your permission for the video. It’s gone viral, you know.”
    Viral. Irving slumped in his chair. Finally, at long last, he’d gone viral. He shuddered. With a video. Of a dog. He buried his face in his hands. Dante had it wrong. There were weren’t just nine circles of hell. There was a tenth, and Irving was the sole occupant.
    He spent the next week trying to capitalize on his sudden fame. That’s the key to going viral, he understood. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and if you don’t act, it will pass before you know it. Irving made sure to link his website to the video, and it did drive more traffic to the site. Some days saw as many as 4,000 unique visitors. And they didn’t just visit, they left comments as well. Okay, most of them were some variation of “I was hoping to see more videos,” but still, it was a springboard.
    Irving decided if he couldn’t win their minds along with their hearts, maybe it was time to go to Plan B, which involved monetizing his virality. Which meant selling ads. So he contacted online advertising specialists. 4,000 unique hits a day definitely got their attention, but once they learned the details, their responses were dishearteningly similar to the visitor comments. “I was hoping to see more videos,” they said. “You need something to drive more business. You need sticky hits.”
    Irving drew their attention to his essays, his cogent comments, his blistering attacks on Tea Party Neanderthals, his thoroughly researched, brilliantly expressed reform proposals.
    “Videos,” they said. “Videos are what the public wants. It’s what our advertisers want.”
    Another dead end, and Irving sank back into despair. He hit rock bottom when Angie Detweiler, his immediate supervisor, dropped by his office. “For our superstar,” she gushed as she placed a box on his desk. “We’re all so proud of you.”
    Opening the package, Irving was thinking maybe at the very least he could parlay his celebrity into a raise. Inside the box a black Scottie stamp rested on its bed of velvet. “What’s this for?”
    “I thought maybe you could put a stamp beneath your signature–on your appraisals. Sort of like your trademark?”
    Irving leveled a glare at her, sort of a now-I’m-reaching-for-my-AR-15 glare, which made Angie gather up the wrapping paper, and as an afterthought, the stamp it itself, and back slowly out of his office.
    That’s where it might have ended, just a particularly humiliating experience, the bitter dashing of his fondest dreams. But then David Letterman called. Well, not Letterman himself, of course, but his producer, who invited him on the show in a week’s time.
    “This is about the video, I suppose,” Irving said woodenly.
    “Of course it is,” she laughed.
    “The answer is no,” he intoned.
    Her surprise was palpable. “Oh, really? Most people would be thrilled.”
    Irving mustered a froth of hauteur. “I, most emphatically, am not most people.”
    There was silence on the line. Then she said, “Well, this is awkward. Usually when people say no, that’s it. But this is a unique situation. You see, President Obama is scheduled that night.    “Really?” Irving’s ears perked up. Hope sprang once more. Maybe if he could get him alone in the Green Room, maybe–
    “Really,” she confirmed. “And the thing is, he wants you to be on the show.”
    “He wants me?” Choirs of angels started stretching their vocal chords. “Really?”
    “Oh yes. He said he’s dying to meet you.”
    In an instant, Irving’s life was back on track. His dreams were alive. He was alive. Well, of course he’d do it.
    Darlene sounded almost as excited as he was when she heard the news. Of course she’d come straight home. Of course she’d take care of Angus while her husband was in New York embracing his destiny. “Oh, Irving, I’m so happy for you.”
    The next week flew by in a blur. Irving asked for the time off, and Angie was only to happy to give it to him. She talked about how thrilled everyone was to have a celebrity in the office. Irving put in long hours culling the best of his essays. This would be his only chance, he had to make it work. He put together position papers, white papers, briefing papers, on health care reform, tax reform, education reform, on green energy policy and foreign policy.
    All too quickly, the day arrived. What a thrill to land at La Guardia and see a uniformed chauffeur holding a sign emblazoned with the distinctive Late Night With David Letterman logo, and right below it, in bold black letters, his name, “I. Pertz.” Okay, they misspelled it. Maybe next time on the show he and Dave would share a laugh over it.
    As the limo crept through midtown, Irving clutched the complimentary bottle of water he’d liberated from the back seat bar. He looked at the lights, the buildings, the bustle.
    Then it was out of the car, into the cauldron of preproduction. An aide met him at the door and whisked him to makeup, talking a mile a minute about Irving’s expectations, his needs. Did he want a sandwich? A drink? They didn’t recommend it, but some first time guests were so nervous.
    She tried to take his briefcase. “We’ll keep it safe. That way you don’t have to lug it around.”
    Irving said no, he needed it. “When do I get to meet the President?”
    It would be about an hour. First they wanted to run through the schedule. He should see the theater, get a glimpse of the layout, so he wouldn’t feel awkward when he first came out. Irving went where he was supposed to go, did what he was told to do. He smiled graciously when staffers rushed  up to tell him how much they loved his video. It was the least he could do. He wouldn’t forget the little people. He’d be known as the Big Idea Guy with the common touch.
    And then, it was time. Escorted to the Green Room by a couple Secret Service agents, Irving tried to contain his excitement. They frisked him, a little roughly, Irving thought. After all, the President asked to see him.
    “What’s in here?” they demanded before popping the latches. Just a bunk of binders, color coded, tabulated, really nice work.
    “You carry these everywhere?” one of them scoffed.
    “They’re for the President.”
    The agents exchanged a glance, and a grin, and seemed to be trying not to laugh.
    Weird, Irving thought, though he didn’t have a chance to dwell on it. One of the agents opened the door, and Irving passed through.
    The President stood up when he entered, and extended his hand, a huge grin on his face. “You must be Irving,” he said.
    “Yes, sir, Mr. President, and may I say what an honor it is to–“ Irving began the speech he’d so carefully memorized.
    “No, no,” the President interrupted. “The honor is all mine.”
    “The honor is yours?” Irving spluttered. This went way beyond his wildest dreams.
    “I can’t tell you how much I love your video,” he exclaimed. “And the girls, they watch it all the time, just ROTFL. Even Michelle,” he added, with a slight hunch of his shoulders. “Even Michelle will smile from time to time.”
    Irving thanked him, of course, and asked him if he’d seen his website.
    “I had one of my staffers check it out. He said that’s your only video.” The President seemed a tad disappointed. “He said it’s mostly political stuff.”
    “Actually, it’s policy,” Irving corrected. “I’ve got some great ideas,” he added, popping the latches on his briefcase. “Here’s some ideas on how to work out the bugs in the Affordable Care Act.”
    “Oh, please,” he waved it away. “Let me just enjoy this moment.”
    “But it’s critical advice.” Irving grabbed another binder. “Here’s one on education reform.”
    “You know, I’ve got people piling reports on my desk all day long,” the President snapped. “I’ve got a million people for that. But how many of them can make me laugh? Not one.”
    Irving pulled out another binder. “Tax reform?”
    “Let me be clear, there isn’t a lot of joy in this job. I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”
    “Green energy?”
    “Sometimes, I’ll get off the phone with Putin, or Boehner, and I’ll ask one of my people to hit play.”
    “Arab-Israeli peace?”
    “Hit the button, I’ll say.” His eyes got dreamy. “And for half an hour, it’s like I have no worries in the world.”
    “Iran nukes?”
    The President took Irving’s hand, the one not holding a binder, in both of his. He looked deeply into Irving’s eyes–were those tears? Was the President crying? “I just want to thank you, Irving,” he said thickly. “You saved my life.”
    Then he glanced at his watch, and smiled sheepishly. “I’d better pull myself together,” he said, turning to the bathroom door. “Can’t go on Letterman with streaky makeup.”
    “I’ll just leave the reports here, Mr. President–or should I give them to the Secret Service?
    He waved dismissively. “Forget it, Irv. I’ll never see them. But be sure to send me your next video. I swear, you’re a genius.”
    Then he was behind the door until some pert young thing came rushing in. “Where is he?” she demanded.
    Irving nodded at the door.
    She started knocking. “Mr. President, is everything okay? You’re on in two.”
    The door opened. The President emerged, his mask back in place. “Never better,” he announced smoothly. “So let’s hit it,” and he strode through the doorway without even a glance Irving’s way.
    He sat there, numb. His moment, his once-in-a-lifetime moment, his chance to play in the big leagues, gone, dashed, destroyed by that damn video. By that damn dog. He looked for a knife, thinking he’d just end it all right then. Turn the Green Room into the Green Splattered With Red Room. But of course, there were no knives, or forks either. The Secret Service had seen to that.
    Irving sat there, and got as teary-eyed as the President had been. Or even more. He wiped them with the back of his hand, and didn’t even bother checking the mirror.
    Then it was time. The pert young thing was back. She recoiled at the sight of his face. “What happened to your makeup?” she gasped.
    “It’s part of my schtick,” Irving snarled.
    Down the hall, a turn to the right, the sound of howling laughter welling up behind the curtain. And then he was through. Off to the right, between the band and the desk, a giant screen showing Angus smashing into trees, smashing into fences, into doors, tearing around corners, slipping and falling and sliding across the kitchen floor. And the audience roaring, standing as one, applauding, cheering, screaming Irving’s name.
    There were Letterman and the President, standing, laughing so hard they had to hug each other to keep from falling over. Then the host gave a signal and a door opened. A dozen black Scotties came bounding onto the stage. They surrounded Irving, hopping up and down, yapping and barking and snapping at his ankles.
    And that’s when Irving Petz started channeling his inner Violet.

Schwartz comes home

     Sunrise at midnight: bankers and tourists on parade, stirring from early slumber, scrambling for toast and eggs. Schwartz nudges his glass across the tray. Heidi frowns but pours another gin. He grins and sips and leans back, eyes closed, heading home.
    “Come on Sidney, it’s just one goddam day. You’re gonna be there, what, two months? What’s a lousy day . . . Just go along with her, sit around, sip some wine–all right, gin–meet some people, let ‘em take your picture . . . It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
    Seatbacks and tray tables to their full upright position. Heidi walks up, shakes her head and insists. He gulps the rest and surrenders the glass. Ten minutes ‘til touchdown. He closes his eyes again, grips the armrests and waits. Ticking off the seconds like hours, he opens his eyes and watches Frankfurt drift by through tufts of fog, a lot like smog, a lot like coming into Los Angeles. He hums the rest, grins, pats his bag and watches the red tile roofs rise to meet him. A park, a river, the autobahn, the bundling lurch. The gateway rolls up to the plane and he watches them waiting for him to leave.
    She’s waiting for him. He doesn’t need a photo to recognize her. Tight blue jeans, black leather jacket, and greenish spiked hair. He waves and they rise in ambush. Popping, sizzling flashes and he pushes through the mob back into the plane. He sighs and sits and it’s Heidi again, short blonde hair severely cut, a frown as she says he has to leave.
    “Just let me rest–jet lag.”
    “Alright. Just let me rest.”
    “And I tell the passengers they must wait so you can rest?”
    Schwartz nods and closes his eyes. The Polizei descend. Hands grip his arms and lift him up. He grins and says, “Heil!” which they don’t seem to mind. They escort him down to customs. The popping resumes and Schwartz sees Bobby back in the Apple slapping his forehead and ripping open another bottle of Maalox. Schwartz grins and shakes their hands when they hand him the bag which he hands to the other uniform along with his passport.    
    Barely a glance and he waves Schwartz through and on the other side it’s her again, Salli with the spiked hair and the itinerary all typed out in triplicate. “Bobby called and said I should meet you,” she says.
    Schwartz nods and rips the pages into pieces and drops them. While Spiky’s picking them up he goes down to rent a car. The damn girl refuses to speak English and he stumbles over a half-dozen tongues before he finds the right one, and he doesn’t know that one either, so it’s back to English. She just frowns and shakes her head.
    “I can’t believe it. This is worse than New York,” he mutters, heading outside to have a go at the bus schedules conveniently posted on a dozen signs. Phrase book in hand, he studies the words for seven minutes before realizing they’re English and the bus he wanted just left. Its about 38C and the buses’ spitting and bellowing gives him a headache. He slumps on the bag and wonders how the hell you say gin in German when he hears a horn and sees old Spiky grinning at him. He shrugs and gets into her BMW.

    “I made you a reservation at the Frankfurter Hilton,” she says, accelerating hard into traffic while he groans and paws at the seatbelt which doesn’t want to uncoil. She takes a corner and cuts across three lanes to make a left against the light. He tells her there’s a job driving cabs waiting for her in Manhattan. She hits the horn instead of the brake and yells something in German at a white-haired man with a cane and violin case, hugging the lamp post.
    Fifteen minutes later she helps unfold him from the leather seat while the doorman takes his bags. “I’ll check you in,” she says. He stumbles to the Casablanca Lounge and scales the stool. “Der gin und tonick,” he says to the skinny, greasy-haired, white-jacketed barman, wondering if the g is hard or soft or like a y and whether the kid will understand.
    “Sure thing, bud. You just get in?”
    “Hey, so’m I,” the barman says. “Names Rick–pretty good, huh? Rick working in the Casablanca Lounge?”
    “Sure, whatever.” Just get me the drink.
    “So, how’re things in the Flatbush?”
    “How should I know?”
    “Didn’t you just say–“
    ”No, I was asking you–“
    ”I just said I was. God, you guys with jet lag.” He finally sets the drink down. Schwartz grabs it like it’s the Holy Grail. “So what is it?” Rick continues. “Banking? Politics?” He frowns at the wine-stained corduroy vest, the chamois shirt missing the second button from the top, and the thick beard graying in spots. He shakes his head. “Vacation.”
    Schwartz shakes his head. “No, I’m coming home,” he says softly, downing his drink. “Give me another, and this time put some gin in it.”
    “So you’re a native, huh? Geez, don’t get many around here. ‘Cept for a conference or something.”
    Schwartz shakes his head, starts to speak, but lets it go.
    Another pop. His retina seared, Schwartz gropes blindly for his bag and finds it gone. “What the?”
    Spiky grabs his arm. “Sidney, this is Bruno Herrmann. He’s with the Hamburg Zeitung. He came all the way down here to greet you.”
    Schwartz twists free. “My bag. Somebody stole my bag.”
    “No, Sidney. It’s in your room, number 2146. Here’s your key card.”
    He grabs it and escapes to the lobby, running in circles in search of the elevators. People stare but he doesn’t care. So many Polos and khakis, the threadbare uniform of fading American Empire. Spiky grabs his arm again, and says gently, “This way, Sidney.” She leads him across the lobby, Bruno and his photographer tagging along.
    Schwartz lies down on top of something lying on the bed. He pulls it out. “The Wall Street Journal.”
    “Flown in every day,” Spiky says. “Just like home.”
    He throws it at Bruno, who ducks before he bows. “Herr Schwartz, we are honored to greet you on your triumphant tour of our nation.”
    “What does he want, Spiky?”
    “It’s Salli, Sid.”
    “Just a few questions, sir,” Bruno says, stepping behind his photographer as Schwartz removes his shoe. “After your recent election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, what new horizons do you wish to conquer?”
    “What?” Schwartz lies back on the bed. He laughs. Bruno frowns, then asks about the critical reception of “The Hosts of Spring.” Schwartz sits up and says the critics are a lousy pack of jackals who like to pull down stragglers and gnaw on their flesh but they’re wrong if they think old Schwartzy is washed up. “I’m not anydamnwhere near finished, and If they think I am they’re in for a surprise when I finish my next book, not that it’ll do any good since they’ve been laying for me ever since I tore them a new asshole in ‘Sayonara Narragansett.’ And you can quote me,” he says, getting up and heading for the bathroom.
    “Wait, wait,” Bruno cried, chasing him to the door. “A lousy pack of coyotes who what, what was that?”
    Schwartz laughs and turns on the shower. “Spiky, I’m going to stay in here until Bruno and his dwarf are gone, even if I have to drown myself. So if you want me at your damn conference . . .”
    “You mean you’ll come?” she shrieks. “Alright, Bruno. I gave you your shot. Now get out.”
    As long as he’s in there, Schwarz figures he might as well shower. He undresses and steps under the tepid water, and stands there a long time letting it soak his head and stream off his shoulders, splashing on the cool white tiles so like the cool white tiles he hates in the Hilton in Manhattan. Then a knock on the door and Salli says she has a gin and tonic waiting if only he’ll come out.
    “Bring it in here,” he says, shutting off the water, unlocking the door and grabbing a towel. She knocks timidly, and he opens the door. He grins at her wide-eyed-little-girl expression. “Thanks, kid. I’ll be right out.
    She smiles and half-curtsies and closes the door. The gin is cool and biting, the towel is rough as it scrapes his skin. He stares at himself in the mirror, the sunken red eyes, the swollen nose, the craggy, jowly cheeks covered with a thick graying beard. His lips are full and dry. The corrugated forehead grows taut as it chases his hairline across his scalp.  He grins, not bad for sixty. He checks out the eyes again and realizes he’ll have to get some sleep one of these days.
    Wearing only his jeans, he returns to the room to find Salli sitting on his downturned bed. She jumps up when he approaches. “I, you must–“ She reaches for a sheet of paper and reads: “9:00 a.m.: Arrive Frankfurt. 9:45 a.m.: Arrive Frankfurter Hilton. 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.: Nap.”
    “You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you, Spiky.” Schwartz unbuckles his belt. Salli turns to face the window. He removes his jeans and slips beneath the covers. “Aren’t you going to tuck me in, Spiky?”
    She tenses. He see the blush creep up her neck and he laughs. He didn’t think girls blushed anymore, especially girls with spiky haircuts. The last sound he hears is the click of the door as she leaves.

            *            *            *            

    Schwartz sits in the open window of a bar in Heidelberg reading an email from Bobby. “Nice going, Sid. You just about killed your chance for another Pulitzer.” Schwartz looks again at the photo Bobby attached from the front page of The Times. He certainly looks drunk, and this time the Polizei escorting him are grim. He scrolls back to the email. “Jesus, you hardly set foot on German soil and you make trouble. Christ, Maureen Dowd picked up on it. And why’d you have to ruin Salli’s conference? She’s just a kid, you know. This was her big break and you shot it down.”
    Schwartz scratches his head, trying to figure out exactly what did happen back there. He shrugs and turns back to the phone. “You know what Pete Corwin wrote? ‘It’s a shame all our writers can’t die young. It’s better to see potential lost through untimely death than to see it drowned in a bottle of gin.’ Jesus, Sid. They’re saying you’re washed up, finished. They say you’ve been going down hill since ‘Little Rock Arcane.’”
    Schwartz scowls. Critics. They can trash him, make fun of his little games, his exploits. Hell, he does it all for them anyway. But why can’t they leave his writing alone? “Little Rock Arcane” was crap, pure unadulterated crap. He wrote it in a week to win a bet and he sent it to Parker because he owed them a book. He still can’t figure out why it sold so well, why the critics read so much into it, why it made his reputation. Hell, even the French liked it.
    The book began, “I am alone; I am steeped in misery,” and it went down hill from there.
    Schwartz shakes his head and feels that pain again down there where he figures the bottom of his left lung should be, or maybe it’s his heart. He lights another Gitane and raises his glass to the blond kid in the Grateful Dead t-shirt behind the bar.
    He hasn’t touched a drop of gin for two weeks now, ever since Spiky gave him his first German beer. He decides to email Bobby the news. Tell the critics he’s given up gin. Tell ‘em he’s getting down to his fighting weight, working on a new book. A sequel to “Little Rock Arcane.” Yeah, that ought to keep them all happy for awhile.
    The kid brings the beer and hangs around the table trying to make conversation. The kid’s read all Schwartz’ books, liked em all, except for the bad one. Schwartz told him to bring them in and he’d sign them. For a minute there he felt the way he always knew being a writer would make him feel. Then the kid brought all his friends around to pester him. They made him into a goddamned event. Ever since Schwartz blew up and overturned that table the kid’s been hovering around him trying to work up the nerve to say he’s sorry, hoping his wounded puppy eyes that work so well with the frauleins will make Schwartz forgive him for being an asshole, probably since birth.
    “Thanks, kid,” Schwartz says. “And hey, don’t worry about it.” The kid grins and skips back to the bar. Schwartz wonders what the hell came over him, and why the hell he feels so good about it. Didn’t cost him a thing, he figures, to make somebody happy. Yeah, but, he thinks, since when did that matter?
    He tips the glass back and cool liquid honey rolls down his throat. He sighs and watches the Americans wander past, guide books in hand, more Polos, and khaki shorts ‘cause it’s a sticky day. Damn college kids from all over the states coming over here and acting like damn college kids. Schwartz curses the ever-resilient dollar and wishes he were Canadian.
    The German kids aren’t much better, but at least it’s their own country.  He watches them hang around the Hard Rock Café wearing their black t-shirts with the names of American rock groups on them, and hates them for it. Then he see old Spiky jouncing up the street, swinging her canvas bag, her jacket shed for the heat, wearing a nice cotton blouse and yellow shorts. She’s let her spikes go back to blonde. He likes that. Makes him feel wanted somehow.
    She’s grinning, but it looks like a frown for the joy that overtakes her face when she sees him. She runs up the window and stands outside, kicking into German as she tells him what she’s been up to today, then repeating it in English when he, laughing, shouts, “Whoa!”
    “Have a beer with me, Spiky?”
    She smiles and nods and hops over the low windowsill.

            *            *            *

    It’s raining and chilly and Spiky sits crying at the wheel of her BMW while the convoy of green trucks rumbles past on their way back to the base up the road a few miles. Schwartz sits in the passenger seat, his window down, the rain dribbling through the trees and splashing against his face. They’re somewhere in the Black Forest, the Schwarzwald–he likes to say the name–been there for months, stopping in gasthoffs for weeks at a time. Most of the Americans have left with the sun. Schwartz speaks the language like a native now. He sits for hours on the porch with the Herr and Frau just talking about nothing in particular.
    They don’t know who the hell he is. They don’t read Der Spiegel or The Herald Tribune. All they know is this chubby, bearded American who loves the Deutschland is drinking their beer and eating their sausage and talking with them, sitting there with his arm around a young girl with a crazy haircut who smiles up at him all the time; who could be his daughter but isn’t though he treats her like she is, but a well loved one, his favorite.
    All they know is he spends every day from ten until four upstairs looking out over the rolling hills, typing, typing, and typing. Sometimes the girl goes into town on the bicycle she borrowed from Herr, and sometimes Schwartz pedals with her, shakily, laughing at himself and singing German songs.
    Sometimes she goes off in her car for a couple of days and comes back with some packages and they leave and go somewhere else where it starts all over again; sitting on the porch with another Herr and Frau who don’t know who he is, drinking their beer and eating their sausage and talking for hours with them like a native.
    The trucks roll on. The soldiers, black and white, in fatigues, stare out the windows through the rain. They’re all just kids, just staring blankly ahead. Spiky sniffles. She grips the wheel with both hands, staring at the soldiers staring at nothing. Schwartz pats her hand, her knee, her shoulder, then leans over and rests his head on her shoulder. She won’t tell him why she’s crying.
    She turns to him. He opens his arms and she lunges into them she cries and cries and he strokes her hair and kisses her softly on the forehead. She thinks about the rogue she met at the airport almost a year ago now. What a beast. What a slob. What a terror and humiliation he was when he came to her conference so drunk, and insulted the guests, and couldn’t speak German and wouldn’t speak English. She helped him off the stage and that time she did tuck him in back at the Hilton.
    Now she sobs in his arms, his gentle hands caressing her shoulders, her back, stroking her hair. He tells her it’s okay. She can tell him what’s the matter. Is it him? Is she tired of wandering with this old man? He can understand that. She’s young. She has a whole life to live. It’s okay. He can go it alone now. He’s happy. It took him a while to figure out what it was he was feeling, but now he knows. It’s happiness. She’s made him very happy, for the first time in his life.
    He places his hands on her cheeks and raises her head. He kisses her on the lips and tells her again that he’s happy. If only she’d stop crying.
    She breaks away from him, opens the door and runs out into the woods.
    “Spiky, come back,” he calls. “Are you nuts? It’s raining out there.” He grabs her jacket and goes after her.
    She runs through the forest, feet thumping softly on the damp brown carpet. She is  crying, “Leave me alone.”
    He trudges after her, his breath bursting out in short white puffs. “Spiky. Spiky, wait.”
    It’s cold and he doesn’t have his own jacket. That pain in his chest, down there where he figures the bottom of his left lung should be, or maybe his heart, is back and sharper than usual. He has to stop though he doesn’t want to. He collapses against a trees. He hears his own ragged breathing, the grinding gears of the convoy, and the steady drip of the rain drops finding their way through the naked trees to the ground.
    He listens to his heart pound, thudding in the empty woods. He hears it grow fainter, softer, slower. Now his breath comes more evenly. The pain diminishes. It returns to the background where it’s been the past few months. It’s okay there. He can handle it.
    He looks at Spiky’s coat. He wants to chase her some more, but he knows he’ll die if he does. He realizes he loves her and laughs at the thought of an old man like him and a young thing like her.
    She has taught him how to love, and because of that, he knows he can let her go. If only she’d come back, he could let her go. Then he hears soft footsteps in the woods and turns to see her, smiling shyly, damp, walking slowly, holding out her arms to him and saying, “I’m sorry.”
    He goes to her and wraps the coat around her. She looks up at him, rain drops splattering likes tears on her cheeks, and says, “I read your book last night.”
    “I left it out for you. What did you think?”
    She sniffles. She gazes around the woods. She  listens to his breathing and her own, to the soft drops and the harsh machinery on the road. She tries to smile but can’t. She feels the tears again and this time fights them. She tries to look him in the eyes as he would do if their roles were reversed. She can’t. She stares at the clump of soggy leaves she scuffs up with the toe of her black leather boot.
    “I love you, Sid,” she says, for the first time, in a shaky voice. “That’s why I can’t lie to you.” She raises her head and stares into his expectant face. “It was awful, Sid. I’m sorry, but it was.”
    For a long time he doesn’t say anything. Then he says, “I know.”
    She sees the tears in his eyes and notices his smile. “It’s all gone,” he continues. “That heavy lump of nothing I’ve carried around inside all these years. It’s gone.” Tears spill out of his eyes. He shakes his head.  “I don’t miss it, Spiky. That’s the surprising thing. I don’t miss it at all.”
    He puts his arm around her and they walk back to the car. He opens her door and holds her tightly as the last of the trucks roars past. Then he walks around to the passenger door and climbs in.
    She drops him off at another gasthoff, and heads for the autobahn. He waves goodbye, knowing she won’t be back. She’s going home now, and so is he.

Once I Built a Railroad

    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his front porch swing rocking back and forth, sipping iced tea and thinking of nothing. He recalls the time when with a word he could change men’s lives.

Once I built a railroad . . .

    He hums softly to himself and smiles at the joke he shares with his memory.
    A young man, handsome, virile, dashing in a cutaway, he sips champagne and the ladies laugh at his throwaways. The Ambassador strides pat, eyes glued to the future, to his destiny and that of his nation. Mr. Wilson tosses a comment, gently, not intended for the ears of the Ambassador, who turns at the sound of laughter. He frowns, locks his hands behind his back, and resumes his strides toward the Senator and the Senator’s wife. Mr. Wilson glances at her. She catches his eye. She smiles and nods and he returns to the surrounding ladies’ attentions.
    Tom Karker shuffles the envelopes, extracts a pair, and strolls whistling up the walk. Mr. Wilson waves his glass of tea and Tom stops short. The whistled note hangs in the air. He checks his watch and trots up to the porch.
    “Running late,” he announces, thrusting the envelopes in Mr. Wilson’s direction.
    “Have a glass?”
    The postman shakes his head. “Not today, Mr. Wilson. Inspector’s in town. Gotta be on time.”
    Mr. Wilson fingers a stack of faded photographs. “Wanted to show you my Melissa.”
    “Some other time, Mr. Wilson. Really, I’d love to see them.” Tom trots across the lawn to the Jenkins’ place next door, then to the Browns’,  then around the corner, where he resumes his strolling and his whistling.
    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his porch rocking back and forth and sipping his iced tea, thinking of nothing.
    He raises his glass and says, “Slowly, slowly. It will come. Nothing’s so important that it can’t wait. You have a gift. Use it, don’t force it.” The young man’s face breaks into a grin and he moves away with his pale, dark-haired bride. To be noticed by the great Mr. Wilson–what a wedding gift. And he gave me advice. I didn’t even ask and he gave me advice. He squeezes her hand and she looks up into his eyes and sighs, “He said you have a gift.”
    Mr. Wilson watches them drift over by the orchestra and thinks of how he felt when H. G. Wells said the same thing to him. You have a gift, he thinks, and smiles, and nods at the well-wishers too nervous to approach.
    The wind picks up, rustling the morning paper lying unread at old Mr. Wilson’s feet. He picks up the photographs and walks slowly through them, one by one; memory upon memory, real enough to hurt, to bring tears to his tired old eyes. Little Melissa in her white christening gown, in her mother’s arms. Smiles, golden hair and bright blue eyes. The sun shone through the leafy elms, bright on the stoop, the pure white dress and golden hair.
   Mr. Wilson sniffs and rubs the back of his hand across his eyes. Dear, sweet Melissa had every gift a man could give his little girl. The best of homes, the finest schools and the secrets of knowledge, power and wealth that only a man of his stature could provide.
    He picks up another one. Melissa sat on the white sand, surrounded by moats, turrets and walls. Dressed in yellow with a sun hat to shield her delicate eyes, she held her pail up to Papa as he pressed the button. Behind him he remembers, stood Mama, arms crossed, frown creasing her brow, shoulders hunched, even then. “Walter, it’s been an hour. Please can’t we go back inside now?”
    Mr. Wilson hears the car door click shut and quickly hides the photographs. He grabs the newspaper and rustles it as if just turning a page as Susan walks up the sidewalk.
    “Good morning, Mr. Wilson,” she sings, smiling brightly as she picks up the empty glass from the table beside the swing. “Did you sleep well last night?”
    “As well as a man can in this heat,” he grumbles.
    “Why didn’t you use the air conditioner?”    
    He shakes his head vigorously, the too-long silvery hair flying from side to side. “Fill my room with poison? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
    Susan almost frowns, then the smile returns to her lips. She leans over to adjust the blanket wrapping Mr. Wilson’s legs. “That’s nonsense,” she soothes. “Air conditioners aren’t poisonous. All they do is draw in air from outside, and cool it down before blowing it into the room. It helps put you to sleep.”
    “Like a dog is put to sleep,” he says, jerking the blanket from her. “Let me be,” he snaps. “I’m not an invalid.”
    She reaches for his head and smiles.
    “Suppose you’re going to tell me to cut it again,” he scowls, pulling away.
    “Oh, no, Mr. Wilson. I like it long. It’s so soft and fine.” She tries to touch it again, then stops, deterred by his look of terror. “Would you like me to bring you some more tea before I start cleaning?”
    “Yes, I would.” He holds out his glass, then, narrowing his eyes, adds, “No poison this time.”
    She laughs and heads inside.
    “And you clean the rugs this time, you hear?” he calls after her. He tugs the blanket up around his waist. Damn college kids, think they know it all. Come around her, torture me. Make me feel so damned useless. A man of my accomplishments, too.

Once I built a railroad,
I made it run . . .

    “Here you are, Mr. Wilson.” Susan places the glass on the table beside the swing without waiting for his thank you. When she adjusts the blanket again, the photographs slip from his lap. They scatter across the swing and fall to the floor. She gives him a look of disappointment and bends down to pick them up.
    “Get away from me,” he hisses. “Just leave me alone.”
    “Oh, Mr. Wilson. I thought we agreed you weren’t going to look at these anymore. You know it doesn’t help.” She holds them out of reach as he clutches at them.
    “Give me my Melissa,” he pants, grabbing as many as he can from the swing. “Don’t take my little girl away,” he cries in a weak, strangled voice. “Not again. God, not again.”
    She holds them above her head and he reaches for her arms. Almost standing, he feels the pain in his legs again and slumps back down onto the swing.  His arms hugging her waist, his face presses against her belly. She sets the photographs on the swing and rests her hands on his head. She strokes his soft hair and coos, “Oh, Mr. Wilson. Poor, poor Mr. Wilson.”
    “Give me back my Melissa,” he repeats plaintively. “Give her back.”
    “But Mr. Wilson–“
    ”You have no right,” he barks, his voice regaining a hint of its once-formidable power. He pulls her hands away from his head, and staring up at her with all the dignity he can muster, pronounces, “You can’t take a man’s child, his only child. All he has left in the world.”
    She gazes at him with a curious expression. He attempts a threatening glare. She almost laughs, but feels much too sad. She hands over the pictures and goes to clean the rugs, leaving old Mr. Wilson sitting on his front porch swing rocking back and forth, sipping iced tea and thinking of nothing.
    He tells the waiter to bring him another drink, and one for his friends. “Mr. Wilson, you mustn’t keep the President waiting,” Mr. Palmer says.
    “If I can, then I must,” He replies. “And I can, so . . .” He winks at the other men and sips his scotch and soda. They laugh heartily and look at each other with congratulatory expressions. Imagine the honor of drinking with this extraordinary man.
    “Mr. Wilson–“
    ”The President can wait, Palmer. That is, if he wants my support.”
    “Oh, he most assuredly does, sir. Why, the endorsement of the largest chain of newspapers in the country will ensure his reelection. I must reiterate his gratitude for your–“
    ”He should direct his gratitude at Mr. Dewey.”
    “How so?” asks Harold Pinchum, chairman of Fargo Industries.
    “The only reason I am endorsing the President is the fact that he is not Mr. Dewey.”
    “Dewey’s ahead in all the polls, far ahead,” Harold says. “Do you really think you’ll have that big of an impact?”
    “I have no doubt. Neither will you in a week’s time,” Mr. Wilson says to general approval. It is nice to be a big man, to walk down the street and watch heads turn, to hear the whispers as he passes, “There goes Mr. Wilson.” “THE Mr. Wilson?” “None other.”
    Mr. Wilson hears the whine of the vacuum. The girl’s actually doing the rugs. About time. He shifts on the swing and looks up and down the street, checking the windows of the Petersens’ across the street where Amelia sometimes stands and spies on him. No one there, coast is clear. It is safe.
    Melissa stood on the sidewalk in the warm September sun, dressed in a white cotton blouse and red plaid skirt with shoulder straps, and saddle shoes, on tiptoe to kiss Mama’s cheek. Mama wore a proud smile tempered with wrinkles of pain around the eyes. They don’t show in the photo, but Mr. Wilson remembers the tears which filled her eyes, overflowing after the shutter clicked. Melissa squirmed and tried to escape when she  clutched her to her breast. Mr. Wilson smiles at the memory of his headstrong girl.
    He patted Mama’s hand and wheeled her back up the ramp to the living room window where she could sit and wave until Mr. Wilson and his little girl were out of sight.
    “Papa, when will Mama get better?” she asked as they walked up the street toward Phineas Bates Elementary School.
    “Soon, Melissa. Soon,” he replied, telling himself it wasn’t a sin to tell a lie like that to a little girl on her first day of school. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back and looked up at him with a happy grin.
    “I’m a big girl now, aren’t I Papa?”
    His words caught in his throat, but he nodded yes. Then he knelt and took her in his arms and kissed her forehead. In a thick, shaky voice he said, “You be a good girl and a good student, and make your Papa proud of you.”
    She pulled away, promising she would, and skipped up the steps to another world.
    The picture slips from Mr. Wilson’s grasp and his head lolls to one side. He dreams of his little girl and her Mama, the two of them holding hands in the rainbow mist. Niagara’s roar filled the air and their ears and they were oh so happy then. Then they disappear one after the other and Mr. Wilson dreams darkness. A well of emptiness. Standing at the bottom gazing up to a distant blue circle, he extends his hands and touches damp, clammy soil.
    She’ll come back, he tells himself in his dream. One day my little girl will come back and make me proud again. I know she will. I know she will. And she does. She kissed him lightly on the forehead. Mr. Wilson smiles in his sleep.
    Susan smiles back. She pats his soft, silvery hair, and walks away.


Once I built a railroad.
I made it run.
Made it race against time . . .
    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his front porch swing rocking back and forth, sipping iced tea and thinking of nothing. He hums softly to himself and smiles at the joke he shares with his memory.
    When Mantle goes down with a broken ankle in the last week of August, not even Whitey Ford’s pitching can keep the Yankees in the pennant race. Dark days lie ahead, and many men’s and boys’ dreams are shattered along with the centerfielder’s ankle. A quick glance at the bench reveals no replacement, so the club dips into the farm system for someone to throw to the wolves. A kid named Walter Wilson answers the call. He’s been tearing up Double A pitching all summer, after only three weeks in the rookie league. The kid’s just eighteen and the reporters scream, “The Yankees are only two games out of first, and they bring up a raw kid who’s never been tested? Why, they’re throwing away the season.”
    Young Walter smiles when he reads the stories. He smiles and thinks how wrong he’ll prove them tomorrow when the Red Sox come to town.
    His first major league hit is a grand slam in his first major league at bat. The next time up he hits a two-run triple, then a two-run double, and in the bottom of the eighth, just a single. The kid hits for the cycle and everyone forgets about Mickey Mantle.
    The wind shifts out of the north and the temperature drops. Leaves drift across the lawn and rustle beneath the porch swing where old Mr. Wilson dozes. The wind tousles his hair and breathes cooly upon his face. Mr. Wilson stirs, then wakens with a start and a sharp cry, “No!”
    Then, fully awake, he looks up and down the street, checking the windows of the Petersens’ across the street where Amelia sometimes stands and spies on him. No one there, coast is clear. It is safe.
    The sky was black with more than a threat of rain. It was a promise. Melissa wore a black dress and held Papa’s hand. They stood together staring at the black box in the hole carved out of rich, green grass. Mr. Wilson doesn’t know who took the picture. It just showed up one day in the mailbox. At first he was upset at the cruel joke someone had played, but now he’s grateful. It’s the last of the stack. That last one of Melissa before she disappeared.
    She came home from college when Mama died. She came home for three whole days before returning for finals. She left Papa alone with his memories and the pain of a world gone awry. So many hopes, he told her when they returned from the cemetery. “I had so many hopes when I was in college, just like you do.”
    “But mine’ll come true,” she said.
    “That’s what I thought, too,” he replied, a faraway look in his eyes. “I hadn’t any doubt. But something died inside me the day I left school. And something died inside me every day since until your Mama was all that remained.”
    “You should have put her in a home, Papa.”
    “How dare you say that?” Mr. Wilson demanded, rising from his chair. “She was your mother. She gave you life. She gave you her life and this is how you thank her?”
    “Papa, she died a long time ago. Only her body remained. Why couldn’t you see that?” Melissa’s eyes were filled with tears. Mr. Wilson remembers that now. For the first time, he remembers that she cried.
    Mr. Wilson walked outside on the porch. Lightning forked across the sky. Thunder crashed so close that the walls shuddered. The rain fell in sheets across the ground, blown by the wind onto the porch, onto Mr. Wilson crying alone.
    Melissa sat in the darkened room and listened to the thunder roar and Papa sob. She remembered how when she was a little girl he was the strongest, smartest, bravest man who ever lived. She dried her eyes. How could I ever have loved him? she wondered. She went upstairs and packed her bag and came back down to find him still standing on the porch.
    “Papa? I’m going back to school now. Finals start tomorrow. Will you come to graduation?”
    Mr. Wilson stared at the wet grass. He watched a car splash down the street. He heard the slick of the tires upon the pavement, the click-thunk of the wipers. He heard the splatter of the rain on the porch, the now constant echo of thunder. He heard the howling wind. That was all he heard. “Winter’s coming,” he said to no one in particular.
    “Papa . . .” Her voice trailed off. What was the use? She stepped off the porch, ran through the rain to her car. She got in and drove away without looking back.
Once I built a railroad.
I made it run.
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad,
Now it’s done . . .
    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his front porch swing rocking back and forth, sipping hot tea and thinking of nothing. It’s late November now and Susan will be furious when she finds him outside. Aw, the hell with her, with all these college kids who think they know so much. Mr. Wilson likes it on the porch. That’s where the memories are.
    As soon as the captain turns off the “Fasten Your Seatbelts” sign five men leap to their feet screaming “Allah Akbar” and brandishing automatic rifles which seem to have materialized in their hands. Passengers and flight attendants scream and cover their heads. Mr. Wilson smiles sardonically. As if that’s going to help.
    He keeps his seat, keeps his wits about him, and concentrates on being what he appears to be: a harmless old man, inconsequential, beneath notice.
    “Oh no! No, no, oh my god, no!” a man wails at the rear of the plane. Mr. Wilson grimaces. Panic is contagious. Panic leads to violence, and the last thing he wants is gunfire. Not while we’re airborne, he thinks. There will be plenty of time for that after we touch done.
    The terrorists walk down the aisle collecting passports. Mr. Wilson hands his to a thin, young man with dark, tangled hair and ruthless eyes. He forces his hand to tremble and pretends to avert his eyes. When the terrorist raises his gun like he’s going to strike him, Mr. Wilson covers his head and cowers. The terrorist laughs contemptuously, and tosses the passport back unopened.
    Mr. Wilson sighs when the youth is gone. Wouldn’t they love to get their hands on him? Wouldn’t they be thrilled to know the CIA’s own Walter Wilson was on board? I should have been an actor, he thinks.
    When the jet lands in Cyprus, the tall one, the thin terrorist with long yellow hair and a livid scar stretching from his right ear to his chin, begins barking orders in a strange language. The others each shoot a passenger, an American. They toss the bodies out the door.
    “Just to show we mean business,” he announces pleasantly, in a posh British accent.
    The terrorist holding the passports shouts suddenly. He points at a stocky young black whose severe haircut marks him as a soldier. The tall one barks and the others set upon the recruit. He puts up a struggle, but is soon subdued by rifle butts and steel-toed boots. The passengers begin to scream and moan and sob as the terrorists drag the bleeding, unconscious soldier to the front of the plane. The tall one turns and orders, “Silence.”
    Fear conquers horror. The passengers weep silently as the wrenching slap-thunk of fist, foot and weapon pounding human flesh fills the air. No, this is not the optimal moment, Mr. Wilson cautions himself, but for once in his life emotion overwhelms discretion.
    “No!” he shouts. He stands and points a finger at the leader. “No!”
    The tall one waves his men away and approaches Mr. Wilson along. A grin plays upon his face in anticipation of sport with a pathetic old man. He approaches carelessly. The last thing he expects is the iron hand which chops his throat. Before the tall one hits the floor Mr. Wilson has seized the weapon and dispatched the others. He manages to slip away unnoticed in the ensuing commotion.
    The following morning he buys a paper on the way to breakfast at a terrace café. While he sips his coffee and nibbles a croissant, he reads of the mysterious white-haired man who saved the Marine and his fellow passengers. Mr. Wilson smiles and sips his coffee.
    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his front porch and waves at Tom Karker approaching with another batch of overdue bills.
    “What are you doing out here, Mr. Wilson? You cant to catch pneumonia?”
    Mr. Wilson grasps a set of faded photographs in his purplish fingers and says, “Thought you’d like to take a look at my Melissa.”
    Tom shrugs and almost gives in again. “Not today, Mr. Wilson. I’m freezing my balls off.”
    “We could go inside?”
    “No. Then I’d get all warmed up and I’d never finish my route.”
    “Please? She’s such a pretty little girl, my Melissa is.” He holds the first one up for Tom to see. “This is her the day we christened–“
    ”Sorry, not today.”
    Mr. Wilson watches Tom hurry off across the lawn. So diligent, so loyal. He’ll go far, Mr. Wilson thinks. He sighs and shakes his head slowly from side to side. He is still gazing at the spot where Tom no longer stands when he hears Susan’s door click shut. There is another sound, another door. This one doesn’t click, but shuts briskly. He looks up expectantly.
    Susan approaches with a beaming smile, her hand guiding the arm of her reluctant companion. An efficiently attired woman of maybe forty, blonde hair and bright blue eyes, Susan’s companion allows herself to be led up the walk.
    “Oh, Mr. Wilson,” Susan cries. “Melissa’s here!”
    “Melissa?” the old man says, fingering the stack of photographs he’s hidden beneath his blanket.
    “She’s lecturing at the University. Can you believe it? When I saw the name on the flyer, I said it couldn’t be the same Melissa Wilson. But I had to find out for myself. Then when I met her, I knew she was the one.”
    Melissa approaches with guilt-tempered joy. All these years of not knowing, of dreading to find out what happened to her father. Sometimes she hoped he’d died. Other times she fled from the vision of Papa spending his final moments alone. No matter what she accomplished, the guilt of her abandonment lingered to spoil the moment. At times she consoled herself with accusations against him. He never tried to reach her. Wasn’t that his duty?
    She didn’t even know where he was, and he had to know about her. She was in the papers constantly, and Papa always read the paper. She left standing orders with her staff to put his call through no matter what. Though it never came, she knew somehow this meeting would one day occur.
    Now she faces him with so much to say, so much to tell. She knows it has to start with an apology.
    Old Mr. Wilson sits on his front porch swing rocking back and forth, sipping hot tea and thinking of nothing.
    “Mr. Wilson,” Susan says. “Melissa’s here.”
    “Melissa?” he says, brightening. He pats the seat next to him on the swing.
    Melissa moves quickly to his side. He remains cool, distant, but she realizes it must be hard, after all these years. “I have something to show you,” he says.
    “What is it, Papa?” she asks.
    He remains silent, hands in his lap beneath the blanket. He gazes at the lawn, the naked trees and the gray sky; he gazes back at his little girl.
    “Well, I guess I’ll get to work,” Susan says tentatively. “Call me if you need anything.” She goes inside, wondering if they even heard her.
    “Papa?” Melissa repeats.
    “Dear Melissa. Dear, sweet child,” he murmurs in a sad, weak voice.
    “Oh, Papa.” She wraps her arms around his neck and presses against him, sobbing and kissing the wrinkled skin of his face. All these years of not knowing, of wondering how she’d react when the inevitable meeting took place. Now she knows.
    Mr. Wilson detaches her hands from his neck and returns them to her lap. He reaches beneath the blanket for the photographs. “I had a little girl named Melissa once, but she went away,” he says wistfully. “Would you like to see a picture of her?”
Once I built a railroad,
but now it’s done . . .


    “You must remember this one?”
    Sunlight sprinkled flowered meadow, line of night bisecting cloudless blue. She, knelt down, hands cradling a frail blue blossom peeking up through clover. I said no.
    “But you’re the botanist.”
    “Only on weekends.”
    It was the weekend, she insisted. I said all right, let’s name it.
    Ezra. Forever after, Ezra.
    Laughing at the power of two, (who think themselves immortal through a love which didn’t last the week), we ran back to the picnic, waiting to be spread across the blanket, waiting to be spread. The line of night marched on.
    Lunchtime later: Waiter trying hard to please but can’t. Finally coffee flows. She jumps up screaming. He tries to sponge it dry. I snarl and he slinks off. I get the blame, her amber hair no longer so appealing.
    Let’s go home and clean it, take off that steaming skirt. She wants it her way. I leave alone, waiter miffed and stiffed on tip. He had it coming.
    Another feast: Metro running late with rain drops dribbling down the stairway. The station piles up soggy bodies not yet minds, still lingering at the office. Poring over one last memo and the report that didn’t work.
    “Who’s that?”
    Strobelike faulty fluorescent throbbing in the tunnel. Charmaine and Tiffany waiting by the edge. Too close. Mother, caught up with packages of back to school, too busy to notice.
    She, slouching on the bench, finger pointing at the tall, balding man against the wall. Agate attache still held in the right while in the left the quartered Chronicle. Eyes scanning race results for Any Doubters in the fifth. I said no.
    She named him without me. Jason Trumpfeldt. I laughed, though the time for games had passed without either of us knowing when. She had yet to see it.
    A surging crowd moments before the train appeared caught the two unsuspecting, waiting for the rumble. Footing lost, they teetered til it came in view, too late to stop before the middle. A wasted warning blared and tiny voices hung like knives in the air, dropping, catching us standing; an island amidst the sickening surge. Mother shrieked and wilted on forgotten packages. Wasted purchases now, spilling shirts and skirts, froot of the loom on yellow tile floor.
    I noticed, though she didn’t: Jason, folded paper underarm, moved through the mob and grabbed a seat by the window, fifth row from the rear of the second car. What luck to find his favorite seat free.
    Shaking on his knees, the conductor stared in horror at the wreckage. Fearing for his job, her eyes asked, but I didn’t feel like talking. Blue coats bustled through the milling crowd, cordoned off the station, running surface cars until the mess was cleared. Jason’s windfall wasted.
    And the sheep wandered out, bleating “Did you see them? Wasn’t it awful? Their poor mother.”
    She and I just stood like no one could see us, and maybe no one could. Still there when the white coats came and scooped them up in bags. She went over to touch the crumpled woman no one seemed to notice until detectives brought her back to life with questions she cried at. I wanted a drink.
    Staring in the mirror at the stranger drinking the drink I just bought her, thinking of laughing legs and flowers no one ever heard of.  She looked at me. I got off the stool and walked.
    Sunlight after the rain: The crew rolled up the tarp to restart the game. Up by three in the fourth, and it was cold. Soggy peanuts. Dry ones reclaimed their left field seats. They stared at me, my program mush.
    Almost dry, tied in the tenth, and they pinch hit. Jason Trumpfeldt, someone said, scanning his program. Familiar name. I almost laugh when I remember and am not surprised when he puts one in the seats. We didn’t score, but I kept the ball.


    All the women here have tight, leathery faces and beehive hairdos which mark the day they grew old. I can imagine them drinking coffee at formica-topped tables in linoleum-floored kitchens. Flies sputter against the screen door. The television plays in the other room while they suck Pall Malls through ruby lipsticked lips and gripe about their children.
    Their husbands cluster in the lobby wearing white caps which tell what and where they were. Some jangle medals and badges. Some hobble on tripod canes. Those not bald are gray. Their noses are bulbous and red. Standing stiffly erect, each tries to convince himself through the eyes of the others that he’s still twenty-one.
    They remind me of Tim’s father, who lost his hips to some tropical disease on the death march of Bataan. He and Tim moved to town during my junior year of high school. Graced with a boyish enthusiasm and an endearing ineptitude, Tim was built like a tackle. He joined the football squad mid-season at the coach’s request. He could have been a star, but he preference for cheer leading was reflected in his play. Senior year he got his chance, but he led cheers like a tackle.
    One day the summer before senior year, Tim came by in his new pickup. I jumped in and we headed into the foothills. We talked about rivers we wanted to kayak, trails we wanted to hike, and girls we wanted to date. We stopped at a liquor store in Angels Camp where one of Tim’s Dad’s old army buddies worked. Tim talked him into selling him a pint and we drove to a spot overlooking the bridge they were building on Highway 9. Nobody was working because it was Independence Day, so we sat there swigging the stuff like we really liked it.
    Tim said all his life he’d wanted to be a fireman. I remember thinking how we all felt that way, but most of us outgrew it. When I asked if he was going to college, Tim just shrugged.
    We finished the whiskey by sunset. On the way home we pulled into an overlook to see the lights. What we saw was fireworks all up and down the valley. In Modesto, Escalon, Manteca, Stockton, and Lodi. From our lofty vantage point all those tiny, multicolored starbursts made us feel removed from all those ordinary lives, almost immortal, strangely sad.
    Senior year they split the town down the middle and opened a new high school. Bob, Matt, Stewart and I survived intact. We pretty much ran the old school that year. We saw Tim occasionally. All he could talk about was the establishment of new traditions, which would last forever. We didn’t have much time for Tim then. We were busy maintaining traditions which would always be older than his.
    After graduation, one of Bob’s friends from band decided to join the army. He wasn’t going to be a soldier, they wanted him for his lips. I lost a friend, but the army gained a trumpet. Soon we all got back to the business of summer vacation. In a few weeks we’d be working seventy hours a week at the cannery to earn a year’s tuition at Cal, but there were still plenty of hearts to break, and plenty of beer and swimming to go through down at Pig’s Lake.
    I laughed when Tim acted on Mark’s precedent and joined the Coast Guard. One day in mid-August he called to say he’d washed out of basic training. He asked me to pull some strings to get him on at the cannery. He’d decided to go to college after all.
    I said it was Matt’s Dad with all the contacts.
    “Yeah, but Matt doesn’t like me. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
    I did all I could, which was nothing. Tim receded into the nether world where every college freshman’s history goes. I didn’t even seem him until the following summer, but the year after that, one morning, as I was walking home from a double shift at the cannery, Tim came rattling up in a flatbed Ford that was already old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He jumped out of the cab and started pumping my hand like we were old buddies.
    He said he’d gotten on with the fire department, but he hurt his back on his first fire. He was some kind of hero, he explained, fishing the newspaper article out of his wallet. “I just wish Dad could’ve been here to see this.”
    The last time I saw Tim’s dad, he was sitting barechested on a stool, giving himself a haircut. “What are you doing now?” I  asked.
    “I’m still with the fire department.” He pointed at the paint cans and brushes on the truck bed. “Right now I’m doing pressure accounting.”
    “Pressure accounting?”
    He reached into the cab for a map which showed all the fire hydrants in the city. They were color coded according to maximum water pressure. Tim’s job was to paint the hydrant caps to match the colors on the map.
    “It’s really an important job. People’s lives depend on me getting it right,” he said, tapping the map. “I’m helping people, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

                       *                                     *                                              *                                     *

    Ellen turned in early after battling Stephanie to sleep. Alternating cooing and stern, yielding to me at intervals, to read to her, or hum, or just set her in the crib to cry. The man next door has diabetes and a heart condition, says the note his wife taped on the door for the housekeeper. He needs his rest, so we hold Stephanie in their arms when her whimpers turn to screams. Ellen says the light will keep her awake.  I go down to the lobby to read.
    At night the lobby hums. The women sit on the circular couch beneath the crystal chandelier. They sit erectly, chatting, staring at their men through humorless eyes. They lean forward to stub out their cigarets with sharp, stabbing motions. Their husbands mill about from wall to wall. Bellmen answer the chimes towing racks and carts. People register and disappear. The phone at the porter’s desk rings twenty times and stops. Then it starts again.
    All the men here look and talk and act like Ellen’s Dad. They march from the doors to the registration desk, where they regroup for the return. They laugh and shout among themselves, bumping into, pushing past, those who aren’t with them. I would like to hear their stories, just not from them.
    I  think of Stephanie upstairs in her crib, her little fists balled, her face curled into the sleeping pout we love to watch, and realize someday Stephanie’s husband will see me in men he doesn’t respect.
    A shout rings out. Two men embrace. The blue stitching on their white caps reads: 7th Infantry, Peshawar. They call each other buddy. I was called buddy once, when a friendship came back from the dead to announce that it was over.
    During the summer after graduation, when Bob, Matt, Stewart and I  whiled away those long hot days, Bob and I  grew closer than we’d ever hoped two friends could be. We read each other’s poetry and planned our lives. Bob was going to be a labor lawyer. He wanted to help the working man. He considered it his duty.
    I admired his commitment, along with his poetry, and the way he played the saxophone. I  admired him so much that when I  realized how much Bob like Carrie, the girl I wanted for the summer and ever after, I  urged him to ask her out. I’d seen the way she looked at him, and knew she would never look at me that way.
    I  wasn’t best man at the wedding. One of Bob’s law school buddies was. But Matt and I  drove home from the city for the ceremony. At the reception we hung around remembering the good times we’d shared with Bob. We finally got to speak to him when he ran out to the parking lot. “Hey guys, leaving already?” His face was flushed. “The fun’s just starting.”
    We all hugged and said we’d be in touch more often now that he and Carrie were moving the Bay Area. She’d found a teaching job in Concord, a forty minute train ride away. They got an apartment there, and Bob commuted to law school. I wrote them a long letter saying how happy I  was for them, how eager I  was to spend some quality time with them.
    Six months later I got a reply. It was a mass mailing which began, “Dear Friends, Boy, have Carrie and I been busy!”
    I didn’t respond because they still owed him a letter.
    Six years later Ellen and I went back to the city for a visit. Matt had a wife and kid and had moved back to the valley, but there were still plenty of people to see. One afternoon, returning from an ambivalent lunch with old friends from the brokerage days, I  saw a familiar face. It saw mine and said, “Pete? Pete Sinclair?”
    Bob clapped me on the back and introduced me to his secretary. “Angie, this is Pete Sinclair, my old buddy from high school. My best old buddy.”
    He clapped me on the back again, grinned like a Congressman, and said, “How ya doin’?”
    I told him his first novel had just been summarily rejected by William Jovanovich. It was the story of a group of white collar workers who tried to form a union.
    “How’s it turn out?”
    “Badly,” I  said. I detailed some of the tactics management used to undermine the organizing campaign.
    Bob nodded. “Yeah, that’s the way it works, all right.”
    i asked about Carrie.
    “Oh, she’s doing super. Say, she’d love to see you. How long are you kids in town? Let’s do a dinner.” He patted his pockets until Angie produced a card. “Give me a ring,” he said.
    The card read: Robert M. Petersen, Cambray & Associates, Management Consultants.
    “Hey Bob, isn’t Management Consultant a euphemism for union buster?”
    He grinned. “You bet.”
    “But I thought you wanted to be a labor lawyer.”
    “I am.”
    “But I thought you wanted to be on the workers’ side.”
    “I did, but the job fell through.” He shrugged and grinned again. “Any port in a storm, you know how it is.”
    “Yeah, I know how it is.”
    He clapped me on the back again. “My old buddy from high school. I can’t believe it, my best buddy.”

                              *                                          *                                      *                                   *    

 Around two in the morning someone walked down the hall pounding on doors. Dull distant thuds, increasing in volume at ten second intervals, awakened us.
    Ellen said, “That’s weird.”
    I  mumbled something in a half-sleep. Resisting images of fires and terrorist bombings, of leaping fourteen floors to certain death, I rolled over and drifted off again.

                                     *                                    *                                     *                                        *

    Riding down to the lobby I  hear someone say Tom Hall was elected chairman last night, and he had vowed to make next year’s reunion even better. The men discuss the bitterly contested election. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” one of them snaps.
    One last grand dinner before everyone goes home to Arizona, Alabama or Florida. They start the celebration in their rooms. Ellen and I  decide to do it up right our last night in town before driving back up the coast to Maine. The hotel sitter is due in an hour and Ellen hasn’t even showered. She needs some tampons, Stephanie is out of diapers, and I  needs a drink.
    I put Steffi in the stroller. The elevators take their time so we amuse ourselves with the mirrors. I go right at them, turning at the last second, and Steffi leans way out of the stroller to keep herself in view. Two couples arrive to wait for the lazy cars. When a third appears, the first two wives realize they don’t have their name tags. Their husbands receive their marching orders.
    The quiet is shattered by a sound like a dozen cats caught napping beneath the hood of a car on a winter morning. Stephanie jumps. I  can distinguish singing now. “The old gray mare she aint what she used to be, aint what she used to be, aint what she used to be. The old gray mare she aint what she used to be, many long years ago.”
    I push the stroller to the hallway to see the mob, and find only two more couples. Wearing their finest formless drapery, the women lurch and launch into the second verse. Their men follow, slapping each other’s backs with the kind of hearty, war-born camaraderie only fading memories can produce.
    They reach the elevators.
    “Were yawl frum?”
    “Wull, ahm frum Jo-juh.”
    A woman in purple rayon proves to be the ringleader. Whenever they begin to subside, she whips them into another chorus. Turns out she’s Tom Hall’s wife, and there are a dozen people waiting for the elevator. They all join in. Stephanie glances up at her father. I  concede the first elevator to the mob, moving to the door furthest from the revelers.  I’ll wait for the next one, even if it takes all night.
    The red light chimes the door open right in front of them, revealing six people already on board. Before I  can get out of the way, Mrs. Hall hollers, “Thuryit is, less go.”
    By the time I  realizes all twelve of them intend to board, I  have already been swept inside, barely able to keep the stroller upright. They push in behind me. Those from the higher floors yell there isn’t any room, but they continue to push in. I lean over the stroller and shove the man about to step on my daughter. I  push him and hold him off, my back braced against the wall. Someone presses the button to close the doors, and the others retreat.
    The woman in purple pesters the man leaning over the stroller. She can’t understand why the hell he wants to stay in New Yoke when everbuddy else is living it up in the sunshine.
    They all speak louder as if to make up for the limited space, until a woman shouts, “Shut up, please. There’s a little baby in here.” Though she and her husband are the right age, he must have fought on a different front. Or he spent the intervening decades growing up.
    In a flash of sobriety one of the men realizes what’s been happening. He turns to me. “Hey, sorry ‘bout that, buddy,” he says. “No hard feelings, hey buddy? Put ‘er there.”

King's garden

web tracker They walked along the edge of the water without speaking. They strolled along, arm in arm, digesting dinner, and the sights and sounds once-familiar or painted with the sparkling brush of never-seen-before. The boats bobbed on the black-turning blue surface of the Sound, and Abba standards drifted demurely from the bandstand along the way. Then she laughed at The Dixie Queen. "How funny. A Mississippi River Boat here."

"That's new."

"I imagine there's a lot that's new."

"In twenty years, yes." He stopped at the corner and looked back towards the Grand Hotel. "She's not. New awnings, maybe, but that's all."

"I love our room. So bright and airy. And the view!" She squeezed his hand and felt like skipping. "Is that really where the Nobel Prize winners stay?"

He said yes, again. She wondered if anyone famous had ever stayed in their room. He suggested they stop for an aquavit, in the park across the street.

"I suppose there must have been," she said after they took their seats at a table near the square, in the shadow of some otherwise forgotten king.

"Must have been what?"

"Someone famous."

"Someone famous," he repeated blankly.

 "In our room," she prompted.

He sighed and gazed at the big white boats moored along the quay. She laughed suddenly.

"What is it?"

"Remember when you thought you'd win it?"

."I never really thought I would. But I wanted to."

"Same thing."

He shook his head. "Not really. You don't talk about what you truly dare to dream."

"So you were what--kidding everyone?"

"Myself. I was lying to myself." His bitterness sent her back to the days when he had boasted of his dream. If he hadn’t thought he would, why had he forced her to read so many lousy stories? If he said now that he never expected to win it, that means all the hairy-chested bravado, that Hemingway derring-do, was all just a posture. Or he wasn’t being truthful now when he said he’d never– One way or the other, it was a lie.

Unfamiliar territory this, this thinking him a liar. Once done it can lead to things coming undone.

She propped her elbows on the table, her fingers intertwined above her brandy. She rested her chin on the tips of her outstretched thumbs and watched him watching the sea. He slumped in his chair, smoking idly. "Rökning," she thought. She recalled how proud she'd been to pick it up herself from the sign on the subway, and how he'd laughed at her pronunciation.

He inhaled deeply, the butt in his left hand. Absently, he twirled the snifter with his right, and blew the smoke upwards in two streams past his nose. She wondered why he

wouldn't let her share her joy with him. He was the one who wanted to come here. He said he wanted to share with her this city where he spent those happy boyhood years.

Still holding the cigarette, at an angle away from his body, his wrist rested against the bottom of his rib cage. The ash grew so long she was sure it would fall before it reached the ash tray. He removed his glasses and laid them on the table. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, between deep-set hazel eyes. She loved his nose.

She loved his nose, and that gesture, and smiled though he didn't see it.

"You're going to lose it."

"What?" He spoke so abruptly she thought she might cry.

"Your ash." He glanced down at his hand as if surprised to find he was smoking.

"Here, let me," she said, reaching for the ashtray. "It'll fall if you move."

"I can do it," he insisted.

The ash left a gray smudge on the white table cloth when he tried to brush it away. She bit her lip and glanced at the water, wondering what he saw there.

The pop band resumed their labor on the bandstand in the middle of the park. The music pulsed above the sounds of laughing children and families enjoying the late night twilight. A horse-drawn carriage clopped by carrying a couple snuggled in the naive embrace of newlyweds.

"Americans," he sniffed.

She said she thought it was romantic.

"It's like Chicago, or New York, or anywhere else. It's what the tourists do."

"Well, why can't we be tourists?" She told herself not to whine. His sister Melissa once said she changed into a little girl around him. "Isn't that what we are--tourists?" She had set her sights on quiet reason, but landed closer to shrill.

"Not here, we aren't." He waggled two fingers in the air and the waitress disappeared behind the bar.

"Can't we go walk along the water after this one?"

He shrugged. "If you want."

She leaned back suddenly and craned her neck to see around the back of the café. "Is that 'Surfin' USA' I hear?"

"Probably," he frowned. "When my father brought me here there was a folk band and everyone wore native costumes. It was very festive. I remember a swirl of blues and yellows and lots of gentle laughter." He flicked his cigaret at the base of the statue. "Pox Americana."

"I wonder how he's doing?"

"Mother says the only change we can expect is death."

"At least he hasn't had to read the papers."

"I wish he could," Kurt said, tossing off the rest of his drink and standing. "I wish he could read every word. I wish he could hear the accusations. I wish he could smell the scandal."

"But that would be so cruel."

He nodded. "You wanted to walk?"

She jumped up and turned towards the water.

"No, let's go through the park first. I want to see how much it's changed."

"Why don't you stop torturing yourself? Of course it's changed. The whole world's changed in twenty years."

"That's true." He spun on his heels and headed towards the Opera House, leaving it up to her whether she followed.

She bowed her head and trotted after him.

Together they turned to the right at the Opera Café. "One of the hottest spots in town," the concierge had told them. They passed it by and strolled the tree-lined promenade, past the horses nuzzling each other in front of their carriages.

She laughed. "Remember the horses we saw in Charleston who wore diapers so they wouldn't mess the street?"

When he merely nodded she said, "You used to laugh at that."

"I used to, yes."

"Why don't you laugh anymore?"

"I'm tired of laughing at the past."

She turned away and said softly, "But there's nothing funny about the present."

"Is laughing so important?" he asked. He stopped by the bandstand, where a single violinist, a wraithlike girl, had driven the Beach Boys perpetrators back to their lair.

"I like to be happy." He had no answer to that, so they listened to the musician for awhile. The fragile instrument seemed bulky against her frailty. She fought rather than held it, yet from the struggle produced notes of surprising delicacy. When she finished the number, one of Vivaldi's seasons, she stepped back, cowering before the audience's potential response.

She was grateful for the applause, as if these strangers' acceptance was more essential to survival than the Kronor passersby tossing into her case. She launched into "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," gliding over the notes she couldn't reach.

"You want to laugh at the past?" Kurt asked.

"You make it sound so evil--laughing at the past."

"When we lived here," he began, ignoring the squeeze on his arm to hush and enjoy the music. "Mother used to send me on errands to father's office, his club, and the various restaurants in which he conducted business. He always seemed happy to see me. 'Here comes The Ambassador,' he would say. That's what he called me, The Ambassador. He'd set me on his lap, and introduce me to the people he was with. Then one day she sent me to a restaurant just around the corner from here. He was with a woman, and as I walked in he said so the whole restaurant could hear, 'Well, here comes Mother's little spy.'"

"How awful for you."

"It's pretty ironic when you stop and think about it."

When she remained silent he said, "What's the matter? I thought you liked to laugh at the past."

She shook her long black hair and said, "You must have hated him for that."

"Strangely enough, I moved closer to him. I figured out what she was doing, and I resented it."

He nudged her and they moved along down the path, tossing a few coins in the violinist's case as they passed. Past the playground and the glassed-in sidewalk cafes, they turned right, then right again to return through the heart of the park.

They paused by the fountain to watch the old men sitting alone side by side, smoking and saying little. Kurt reached for his pack. He shook out a pair and she reached for one. As he lit it she remembered when he said that lighting a woman's cigaret in a public place was the greatest intimacy he could imagine.

Beyond the table tennis players, a crowd had gathered around a chessboard painted on the pavement. She tugged on his arm to stop and watch. A tall, old man, with thinning gray hair and wispy beard, stood to the side. He propped his chin in his right hand, his elbow cradled in his left. He thought for a long time before nudging a white pawn ahead one space with a timidity painful to witness.

Before he had retreated, his young, dark opponent seized the knob atop his bishop and twirled it diagonally ahead three spaces. He stepped back triumphantly.

The old man frowned, and stared, and frowned again. He crept forward to move his queen to the right. The observers murmured their approval. The youth grabbed his king, slung it to the right one space, took half a step back then raised his hand. "Wait." He moved the king back a space.

When the white rook slid across the pavement to stand behind his queen, Kurt whispered, "Now he'll resign."

Instead he moved the king again, this time behind a pawn. Kurt muttered, "Idiot."

Three moves later, black was mated and the audience applauded. As they walked away Kurt said none of them knew anything about chess.

"You mean the crowd?"

"They shouldn't have applauded. That kid should've resigned before we got there. It's an insult to keep going when it's over."

"Maybe he didn't realize it was over."

"Maybe he shouldn't have been here," he mimicked her tone.

Maybe we shouldn’t be here, she thought, but commented on the skill of the old man instead.

Kurt nodded. "He obviously knows the game. Too bad he's the only one." He hesitated as they neared the café. She said, "I don't think we should have any more, do you?"

He shrugged. "You're probably right." They turned towards the water. "Can you imagine anything more pathetic?" he asked. "He probably lives alone, and his only pleasure is chess. He comes down here every evening hoping for a game and ends up babysitting idiotic tourists."

She grabbed his hands and turned him to face her. "Why must you destroy every moment, Kurt? Why can't you just accept something without analyzing it to death?"

He looked away, back to the water. "I didn't realize I was the scourge of the superficial."

She smiled. "Maybe I am making too much out of it." She twined her arm with his. "But you know what I was thinking? Too bad they don't have those back home."

The light changed and they crossed the street with the other pedestrians. "You know what would happen if they set one up in the States?" he said. "In twenty-four hours every piece would be stolen or broken. They'd have to keep them locked up. That would mean someone would have to be there with a key. So they'd have to rent them out to pay the salary. Then somebody would notice the spectators and start charging admission. Then the corporations would get a hold of it. Soon all the white spaces would say Starbucks, the black ones McDonald's, and each of the chessmen would wear a different logo."

She laughed.

"It isn't funny," he snapped.

She didn't respond. There was nothing constructive to say. Down along the waterfront the boats rocked at their moorings as night finally fell. They strolled past them, listening to the gentle slap of the water and the clank of the hooks against the bobbing metal masts. The lights of the Royal Palace shimmered on the black, black water of the sleeping sound.

She decided to give in. It could be the only thing to save them, and her reservations didn't seem so compelling at the moment. "Maybe we should live abroad for awhile."

He stopped, and turned, and kissed her gently below her eyebrows. "We can't."

"Why not?"

"Mother. She's going to need someone after father dies. I'm the only one available."

"Can't you hire a nurse or something?"

He shook his head. "I can't rely on strangers to fulfill my responsibilities."

"Why not?" she demanded. "Isn't that what she did?"

"What do you mean?"

"Nannies, governesses, boarding schools. She couldn't have spent any less time with you if she'd gotten an abortion."

Laughing, he told her that her democratic upbringing prevented her from appreciating the benefits of that system. "Democratic upbringing," she sneered, pulling away from him. "You should've followed your father into the State Department. Democratic upbringing--that's just a polite version of working class, isn't it?"

He chuckled. "Maybe it is."

He grabbed her arm before she could run away. "Chris, wait. That's not what I meant. You have this great egalitarian streak in you. I mean, you believe in total equality. You bought the American Ideal in its entirety, and I love you for it. My parents were too busy fulfilling the American Dream to bother with ideals. Don't be angry."

She shook her head stubbornly, tears threatening to drown her words. "Your mother never forgave me for marrying you. You know what she told me on our wedding day? 'You two are too different.'" She shook off his conciliatory hand. "Well, maybe she was right."

He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. As he kissed her eyes and cheeks and lips she realized he was happy. She began crying in earnest.

She regretted her tears when she felt him change. His body sagged and the happiness went out of him. "What is it, Kurt?"

He didn't answer right away, and when he did he was back beneath the cloud. "You're right. Mother never liked you. And I never liked her, but that doesn't change things. It's not something I want to do. It's just something that comes with life."

"But it's not fair," she protested. "It's not fair to me--to you. She shouldn't put such a burden on you."

He stared at her and she was wounded by the sadness in his eyes. "Chris, don't you realize life is nothing but a series of burdens? First you're a burden on your parents. Then your children are a burden on you. Then your parents are a burden on you. Then you're a burden on your children. Then you die."

As she stared at him she felt a burden of her own begin to lift, begin to waft gently into the salt scented air. How could something so heavy become so fairy light, she wondered.

"How long have you felt that way?"

"Years and years," he said.

"How can you bear to go on living it that's all life means to you?"

He shrugged and pressed her shoulder to turn and begin the long walk back to the hotel. "As soon as my father dies Mother will throw out his magazine collection," he said.

She pulled away from him. "What has that got to do with anything?"

"If you would just listen, maybe you'd understand." His arm trembled as he tightened his grip around her shoulders. "My father never threw away a magazine in his life. There are hundreds of boxes of back issues of 'The Economist,' 'Foreign Affairs,' and 'National Geographic' in our basement. Mother always hated them. She used to beg him to get rid of them. I remember once she screamed at him, 'They're worthless. They're absolutely worthless.'

"My father said, 'I know. I just can't let them go.'"

He leaned against the fender of a car and stared at the harbor. "That's the way I feel about my life, I guess."

She hesitated, then made up her mind. "Well, that’s the way I feel about my life, too."

She turned and walked back to the light, where the Grand Hotel stood bright against the darkness. She left him, standing there with the boats bobbing and the masts clanking, the lights shimmering on the water. She left him, staring out to sea, still searching for whatever it was he thought it promised him. She left him, with his memories of a happier time, or a least a different time, when all was new, and all held promise; when the future was limited only by the size of his dreams.












Harvest madness

I am alone. I am steeped in misery. I wander bustling night streets feeling the chill of approaching winter in passing faces. I stare into each one’s eyes, searching, pleading. The streets are wet and the lights of life glow double on the pavement, reflected in the eyes enjoying the pleasures of being together

I look at my hands. Short, stubby fingers, soft fat hands. The hands of a chubby boy. When those hands become fists, people laugh, and I whimper home alone, humiliated. I wish I had long, thin, aristocratic hands. I imagine myself making brilliant conversation, index finger crooked in midair; elegant punctuation. With long, graceful fingers I could carry an umbrella as a cane without feeling self-conscious. I could hail a cab with dignity. I could grow my fingernails. As it is, I can’t stand to clip them. If you’ve ever seen close-cropped stubby fingers you’ll understand why. My thumbnails and the fourth fingernail on my right hand are dirty. My pinky sports a red cut, a half-inch long, across the tip. A souvenir from a drunken stumble last night.

I spot an old woman. Bent and shriveled, she sets down her blue vinyl shopping bag and removes the cigar from her mouth. Saliva glistens pink and green from the flashing neon light above her. She stares at her emission, then with a slight shrug she picks up her

bag and shuffles off. She is dying, with only small pools of spittle to attend her. 

A couple in their thirties, dressed in their finest, stand arguing. With them are a boy of twelve, bored and resentful, and a ten-year-old girl. Her eyes never leave her mother’s face. She is learning her way in the world. I cannot understand the words. If only Eugene O’Neill spoke Chinese. Shopping as a family, fighting in public, failing their children by worshiping them; they have coopted the no long extant middle-class dream. No doubt he keeps his Kiwanis membership card in prominent display at the office; more white than white, hated by all. Lonely in his way.

I am approached. She looks at me with pained eyes mirroring my own. Like my own they seek comfort. Large, green eyes in an ivory face framed by black hair bristling in the damp air beneath a gray knit cap. I love hair that responds to rain. I love the way the edges of her mouth droop ever so slightly. I love a woman who reflects my pain. Without seeming to move she reaches into her purse. Her eyes never leave mine. Time slows. She pulls out a cigarette, cradled by long, thin fingers. I think of my own. I cannot speak. I reach for my lighter. She is waiting. The flame leaps and with her hands upon mine she guides it to her. Time stops. For an instant we are all one. Her fingers, my hands; my fire and hers. Then the spell is broken. Her hands release mine, our flames disengage; mine extinguished, hers glowing bright as she inhales.

We stand a moment longer, eyes still locked. The sounds around us are receding, no words exchanged. She turns, I follow. Out of the lights, into the darkness we move. She leads, I follow. She glides up three steep blocks. I labor behind, bewildered, wondering when and how I should speak. A streetlamp lights the foot of a stone stairway reaching into darkness. Thirty yards behind as she passes through the glow and disappears, I sense that I’m losing her and quicken my pace. I take the steps two at a time. Up one, two, three flights I run, until I reach a quiet, curving street lined with narrow two-story houses with high pointed roofs and gingerbread trim. The porchlights glow softly in the mist.

Fighting the ethereal mood I nearly panic as I look wildly about in search of her. There. Three doors to the left. She is frozen in the shimmering mist as she fumbles with the lock. I want to run to her, but a voice tells me to move slowly. She knows why I’m there. She is willing. I know this now. My mind is still down the hill among the despairing, but my body is drawn as if by a magnet. I resign my consciousness to this strange but welcome power. I walk up the street, taking in the dreamlike atmosphere; the street so quiet yet alive. It is the peace of contentment.

As I draw closer to her door, I am drawn deeper into the serenity surrounding it. She has left it open. I am not surprised. It’s the way things will go from now on. Dark inside, I close the door and move to the right toward the staircase I know is there. I hear the rustle of cloth and look up to see her in a white robe captured by candlelight. Removed, as though there is a sheet of gauze stretched tight before my eyes, she seems to float down the steps, carried in the candle’s sphere.

A grandfather clock in the corner mars the perfect silence. Each tick draws her nearer. Each tick takes me further away. As I am encompassed by this moment I am encompassing it. She takes my hand in hers. They communicate that pain with which she snared me on the street below. I feel my own misery being absorbed. The feel of her hand on mine touches the store of emotions I’ve been hoarding. I am aroused.

She leads me up the stairs. As I am drawn into her, I am withdrawing. My consciousness, my intellect is leaving my body behind. It races into the vacuum surrounding us both. I observe my body from without, yet observe, without ever feeling, its sensations from within.

She leads me to her room, and leaves me at the door a moment to place the candle on a nightstand. I undress entranced, as though hands other than my own are doing the unbuttoning, unzipping, untying, removing. I move toward her. She moves to the bed and removes her robe. She snuffs out the candle, allowing me just a glimpse of her hair black against her shoulders, her arm white as it brushes across her breasts.

I find her arms. I feel the coolness of her arms and legs as she envelops me. I feel the warmth of her mouth and the wetness of her tongue against mine. I feel the touch of her skin upon mine and discover the sensation of flesh. We do not touch with our hands, allowing our entire bodies to experience the feel of each other. I observe all this from a distance, yet remain a part of it. I sense that she is doing the same, but I do not find her. I haven’t yet touched that sensitive spirit she showed me through her eyes. I do not see now, I only feel. I have the exquisite pleasure of experiencing my body feeling pleasure. My soul is in ecstasy, and I am observing it.

We lie together, resting, enjoying the passive pleasure of mutual sensation. My mind is falling back into itself, the physical sense is diminishing. I am falling asleep. She is in my arms, purring, and my mind stumbles upon the realization that we haven’t yet spoken. It attempts to seize that thought, but too late, it passes into subconsciousness.

It is a dark, moonless night. Crystal clear but very dark. It is late. The city is deserted, and very dark. Only the streetlamp by the alley pierces the gloom. The street is wet, rivulets running down the gutter to the sewer. I hear water dripping from ledges, and fire escapes, and awnings. I stand under the light, waiting. I see myself from above and behind me. I see a man in black emerge from the alley behind me. I don’t hear him. I do not move. He comes up behind me and pulls a pistol from the pocket of his overcoat. I try to shout a warning, but it is too late. He puts the gun to my head and pulls the trigger.

My scream is lost in the roar of the gun. My head slams back hard against the pillow as the bullet enters my brain. I am lying in an unfamiliar room. The sunlight is shining through lacy white curtains, filling the room with a pristine light. The entire room is white. The blankets and sheets, the bed frame. The furniture is white, as are the walls and ceiling. The floor is covered with a thick white carpet. At the foot of the bed lies a white robe.

A white robe. She’s gone. I reach for my watch on the nightstand. 10:30. Perhaps she’s bathing. I wait and listen. There is no sound. She’s downstairs fixing breakfast then. I get out of bed. My clothes are folded neatly on a chair. Next to them is a robe. It is white. It fits me. I go downstairs to the kitchen at the back of the house. A door leading to a small garden is ajar. In the center of the garden is a tiny brick patio, with just enough room for a white table and two chairs. On the table sits an empty coffee cup and a plate bearing crumbs from a pastry. But she’s not there.

She must have gone out for awhile. There ought to be a note. Where would it be? Not in the bedroom, I would have seen it. The kitchen? Nothing there. I wander through the house, searching. Nothing. I am confused. Still, this is her house, she’ll be back. It is Saturday and I have no plans, so I might as well wait. I take a leisurely shower and dress slowly, expecting all the while to hear her voice, or at least to see her. I fix myself a late breakfast and carry it out to the garden, I don’t yet know her name, yet I feel closer to her than to anyone I have ever known or could hope to know.

I consider last night. What does it mean? How can I explain the experience of leaving my body while being so intimately attuned to my physical being? And that dream--so vivid. Even now I’m shaken by it. I didn’t think you were supposed to actually experience death in a dream. As I think about these past fifteen hours a chill comes over me, a sense of foreboding. Perhaps I shouldn’t stay. There’s something eerie about this place and about this woman, something opposed to physical reality. I should leave. I don’t feel safe here. Could it be the dream was some kind of warning? A warning to escape? Yet, if this were a trap, would she have left me alone? There’s nothing to prevent my leaving. The door isn’t locked. I walk outside. Everything is as I remember from last night. Except the mist, of course. The serenity remains. In the sunlight all the houses possess an ineffable storybook quality. So rare, yet so natural when you find it. It’s the feeling comfortable yet elegant houses convey.

I see no one, but one never does in such settings. It’s one of the qualities necessary for this special atmosphere. I retrace my steps to the stairway. Obviously I’m not restrained from leaving. Knowing this, I elect to stay. I must speak with this mysterious woman. There are some questions wanting answers, answers only she can provide. She seemed so much in control. Only the pain in her eyes belied her serenity. I wonder about the pain. What caused it? Perhaps the answer lies in the house. By studying her environment, perhaps I can uncover her secret. Knowing this is essential to the cure. Isn’t that what she asked of me?

Back inside, I hesitate, unsure where to begin. The door opens to an entryway. The stairs are opposite the door, along the right side of a hallway running to the back of the house. Through an arch on my left is the living room. A hardwood floor, Persian rug in the center, is bordered by a plush green velvet sofa and two matching armchairs. A massive fireplace, with an inlaid stone hearth, dominates the wall opposite. The walls and ceiling are of polished mahogany. A large picture window, its light barred by drapery matching the furniture, occupies the left wall. The right is given over to bookcases, framed portraits and mementos.

Over the mantel hangs a large bronze plaque bearing the inscription:

The sum total of our aspiration is deprivation,

The sum total of our exertion is exhaustion,

The sum total of our life is death;

Futility reigns triumphant in the end.

It is unsigned. A clue to her melancholy, or a symbol? It looks weather-beaten and very old. How strange that such a bleak testimony to hopelessness should be so prominently displayed.

If at all possible, when in the home of a stranger, I will peruse their bookshelves. The best way to learn about a person is to learn what they read. If they do not read, that may be the most significant piece of information to be learned. I move to the bookshelves. They are dominated by expensive, ornate, ancient volumes of forgotten lore. There are several works by Poe, first editions. Collected works of the major philosophers: Hegel and Wittgenstein in German, Sartre, Voltaire and Rousseau in French, Hume and Berkeley. There is Confucius, Lao Tzu. There are several of whom I’ve never heard. Here’s a book, can it be in Sanskrit? Can she have read all these?

There is a smattering of more contemporary works: Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison, The Cannibal by John Hawkes; Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault; Henry James, Joyce, Kipling; the collected plays of George Bernard Shaw, Das Kapital, Defending Pornography, the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

I find a book with which I am unfamiliar, in a language I can read. Harvest Madness, by Dorian Sheffler. It is very old, well-worn. I begin to read.

"To appear to be the sum of our own being: this is our goal. What is a man but what he appears to be? Of what value is the true self if it differs from that which is perceived? The mystery lies within the soul, you say. I say, unburden the soul of captive truth and the soul is set free. Unshackle the spirit, let it roam. Seek not personal gain, seek only the essence of your being. Let it be known.

"Manifest your desires. Be understood. Hold nothing in reserve, for that which you restrain will surely restrain you in turn. The soul is weighted by secrets it is forced to carry. As you release these secrets you lighten the soul. A being unfettered in spirit is a being unfettered in fact. Use this wisdom I am imparting during this brief sojourn here, and you shall be free to roam the ages with me.

"I am bound by no man. I am bound by no physical law. My spirit is as one with the universe, and I shall go where I please and do what I shall. I am transparent. Hide nothing and you too shall become as I am. These words are my gift to you, child. Take them as your wisdom and you shall be bound by no man. For I transcend all men and all time. I am eternal."

I pause, uncertain of what lies ahead, unsure I want to pursue it. Does this Dorian Sheffler, this poor imitation of Kahil Gibran, hold the key to this place, to that woman? I summon from my memory the sensation of observing my soul, of experiencing my body experiencing pleasure; so detached, yet so much more intense. Even now, I recall this only as a dream. I cannot recapture the moment. I cannot satisfactorily explain it, even to myself. The apprehension returns. I am frightened, but not yet willing to leave.

It is late afternoon. The sunlight assumes a golden hue, setting the houses, trees and street aflame. My favorite time of day, when the colors of the setting sun attach themselves to objects, bringing them to life a moment. As I watch through the window, the colors grow. The houses shimmer and seem to move under a power of exhilaration. Then, the colors fade. As the sun recedes below the horizon it drains the air of color, magic, and life. It grows dark. She hasn’t returned. I am increasingly concerned, and the misery threatens to return. Her spell is broken. Her power fades with the light. A chilling fear rushes into the space vacated by her magic.

Night has fallen and she has not returned. I recall the night before. It lives as a memory, but is it mine? It was obviously not real, her absence proves it. I can explain away the experience, but how can I explain this house, this neighborhood? I’m not dreaming for I am not asleep. The idea occurs to me that this house is death. Suddenly my questions lose their urgency. I no longer care to know the answers. I am leaving.

I burst through the doorway, leaving the door open. I don’t worry about the house. What harm can come to death? It is dark and misty, the ethereal calm has returned. For a fleeting moment I am tempted to return. No. I fight the thought. I focus on the world of the streets below. That is where I want to be. There life is visible, and the glaring lights cut sharply through the air. Vivid colors you can feel inside, unlike the misty cloud through which I run. Everything moves slowly here, as though it were underwater. Time moves at its own speed, casting shadows on my thoughts. I am blind. I am casting off. I’ve been running for hours it seems. I can feel my feet pounding the pavement beneath me. I can feel the wind in my face and rushing past my ears. Yet, as I look behind me, I see her open door just twenty yards away. I seem to be immobile though I’m sprinting down the street.

I feel that peaceful cloud re-enveloping me, and I struggle. It erodes my defenses as I deploy them, and soon I resign myself to its power. I have not stopped running. In fact, I’m running faster than I had thought possible. So effortlessly, I sense that I will never grow tired. I could run like this through eternity. I look down at my legs churning in and out with alarming speed; my right foot glancing off the pavement, then behind. The left taking its place for an instant before yielding again to the right. I still haven’t moved. I have the sensation of running not through space, but through time itself.

Running through time itself . . . white light explodes in front of me and I am swept into it by my own momentum. I am carried out of space, out of time, into a dimensionless dimension. I can no longer sense things in the usual manner. I flow through a void, not quite weightless, but beyond the power of gravity. Not actually moving, but never in the same place either. It is a feeling similar to that split second at the top of a roller coaster, when the lead car has begun to respond to the pull of gravity. It has begun to react, and you know this. Yet where you are, in the middle, you feel, not motion itself, but the inevitability of motion. I feel this now. Not for a split second as on the roller coaster, but as a constant; trapped between sensing motion and motion itself.

I look around and see nothing and everything. I’m surrounded by what is not blackness, but what would serve as blackness in a world that knows no colors. I see images, shapes, figures; not recognizable, not actually visible, like trying to photograph a bullet the instant it’s fired from a high-caliber rifle. The image is there, but the shutter is not quick enough to capture it.

I remember the connection I made immediately before falling into the light. Running through time itself. How directly tied it seems to Harvest Madness. Who was Dorian Sheffler, and why does the book seem such an integral part of my experience? I notice my legs continue to pound the pavement, though I’m no longer on the earth. The thought that the woman with the green eyes is Dorian Sheffler passes idly through my mind. I dismiss the thought.

I sense a sudden change in the void. I slow, though I have felt no motion. Strange. Ahead I see a soft light glowing, growing in dimension and brilliance. I know something has changed. I can feel it, but I cannot determine exactly how it is that I do. The light shimmering in the distance explodes. It rushes toward me, envelopes me again and hurls me through to reality once more.

I am standing motionless in the street, in front of her home. The door still stands open. As I came hurtling back through the boundaries of time and space, I began to sense more strongly the nature of the dislocation of my spirit. Upward and inward my mind instructed. Focus your senses. I was drawn to the point where I now stand, and there I met the physical realization of that sensation. A woman’s hand upon my face. At the instant the sensation becomes concrete, my eyes focus on a face--her face. She is back. I am exhausted. All my questions, all the things I thought to say threaten to bubble out at once, yet I find myself reluctant to speak. Her eyes are piercing mine again, and I gratefully release myself to her.

This street, this night, this woman; has it ever been any other way? I can see for an eternity, past and future, and what I see is an unbroken horizon of her, me, here and now. Her eyes continue to burrow into my consciousness. She has retained my pain, and through her eyes I feel it rushing back into me. The image of the inscription on the plaque above the mantel hovers before me and I realize how deeply I feel its message at this moment. Futility. How firmly it holds us in its grasp. How disdainfully it squats over us, fouling our lives with its stinking waste.

I am sinking back to earth now. I am still under her spell, but my consciousness is back on the city streets. I see a man in ragged clothing lying in a doorway, curled up in frail defense from the coldness of the night and his world. His face is scarred and battered. Red broken veins stand out against the skin stretched tight across his swollen nose and bloated cheeks. He wears a patch over one eye, and appears to be missing a finger or two from his left hand as he tips back the bottle still in the bag in which he carried it from the store. The side of his mouth and his cheek glisten from his drooling. A dark spot on the sleeve of his brown corduroy jacket shows where he rests his head. His red flannel shirt is stained. He looks directly at me, but he doesn’t see me. He is alone.

I am approached. She looks at me with pained eyes mirroring my own. Large green eyes in a face as white as the hair framing it is black. It bristles in the damp air beneath a gray knit cap. She beckons with her eyes. I turn and walk away.