by Adam Holwerda
who always told me
I wasn't quite good enough
And that I'm still not.
Okay, she didn't say that.
She's pretty supportive.
For Jill and Bruce, and that house
in Hemlock. For Chaucer too,
and all my other dead animals.
What do you mean
I can't have two of these?
This book is largely the work of three months – those being the last three I spent at Michigan State University earning my Bachelor of Arts in English. Think of it as my dissertation. A collection of small works meant to amuse, surprise, disturb, enrich and explode your head. I tried to keep from censoring myself, and so there are some adult themes and words (sorry Mom) that some readers might find problematic. However, I believe the tone and feel of the book remains consistent. One of the stories, the second to last one in the book, titled “Eleven Minutes,” is also published in The Offbeat, an MSU literary journal, although that version has a significant typo that makes me laugh hysterically whenever I think about it. I spared you the typo in this one.
When I came upon the For Sale By Owner sign in the middle of the forest, I thought someone had played a joke. It wasn’t propped up against a tree or next to a rock or any other significant landmark. Someone’s house was no longer for sale. I skipped toward it, wanting to pick it up, turn it over. Take it with me so that when I got home I could tell Sheila and use it as a prop for my recounting.
“Right there, in the middle of it all, someone left this sign,” I said to nobody, "As if the world itself were up for grabs.”
I was so occupied with the sign that I almost fell in.
It was a hole in the ground, right in front of the sign. Covered from distance by the growth of ferns and yellow saw grass. As big across as a swimming pool, and dark. I hadn’t even meant to stop, wouldn’t have, except some instinct locked my muscles.
I stood there, aghast. Looking into it made me dizzy. I remembered being a boy and sticking my head down the well behind my country house, dropping stones to see how long it would take for each PLUNK to reach me. I was fascinated with holes as a boy and even now I had the urge to chuck some unsuspecting slab of limestone down this one's belly. I got on my own belly and inched forward, the way I had in Flagstaff, at the canyon. My whole head and neck were dangling over the hole and even though my body anchored me on solid ground, hands wrapped in tall grass like handles, it felt as though I were about to fall. I could see maybe twenty or thirty feet into the hole before it got too dark to make out the edges anymore. I whispered to myself, building up the courage to let loose a yell into the chasm, and when I did it there wasn’t an echo. I yelled again, and then stopped, nervous. There had to be an echo, hadn’t there? Nausea started in on my guts and I had to roll over and look at the sky. Then I looked at the For Sale sign again.
Did it belong to the hole? It was close enough closer than it was to any of the other things in the immediate landscape. But who would be selling a hole? Who would even bother to claim a hole in the first place? I knew the answer to that second one I would. When I was nine I’d dug my own hole near the bike path in my backyard, big enough around for me to sit in and deep enough so my head would only barely emerge if I stood my full height. I’d tried to con my cousins into paying to see a bottomless pit, not much, just a few nickels each. They’d been suspicious, but my aunts and uncles humored me, dropping coins into my soiled hands and pretending to be impressed. I’d had a fantasy about a bottomless pit since I was even younger than that, imagining that if I jumped into one I’d fall so long that falling became unremarkable. I’d die of thirst before I ever hit any bottom.
I sat up and pondered at the sign. There was a phone number on the bottom of it, written neatly in black marker. I had my phone.
“Hello?” a man said on the third ring.
“Hi. I’m calling about your…hole for sale?”
“Oh. Wonderful. Are you there now?”
“Yeah. Sitting by it.”
“Can you stay? I’ll be along as soon as I can.”
“Sure, I guess. How far do you have to ” He’d hung up .
Good one, Elliot. What if the guy lives in the city? What if he commutes? You just committed to staying by this hole indefinitely. It was almost romantic. The hole and I had just met and here I was, prepared to give it hours of company. As it turned out, I only had to wait five minutes.
He came from behind me, silently.
I jumped when he spoke, which scared me twice as much because my legs were dangling over the edge. I turned around, sheepish. He was a tall man, at least seven feet, but slight, and the dark clothes he wore bagged around him like curtains. He wore old glasses, lenses milked and frames made of wire. His translucent gray hair and the wrinkles on his waxy face made me think of my grandfather in the casket. He smiled at me.
“She doesn’t like when you sit like that. Gets her excited.” He gestured to the hole. I took my legs out. He laughed.
“My little joke.”
“Right.” I got to my feet, and he held out a hand that could have palmed a pumpkin. Shaking it was like being a kid again, and he did have that feeling about him. Like this man would make anyone who came near him feel not only small, but young. Foolish.
“Elliot,” I said, and the man nodded. He didn’t give his name.
“So you’re here because you’d like to purchase the hole.” He eyed me, like he was trying to figure if I was worthy of owning one.
“Maybe I’d like to. I don’t know much about it. As a prospective buyer I might have a few questions. How much is it worth? Does it have any special history, or a name? Have you had it appraised recently? Finally, is there any structural or water damage I should worry about?”
The old man smiled big.
“Let’s start with the water damage.”
“Nine summers ago I sat out here with a hose I had snaked from my home. More than a mile of hose. I pumped out an entire pond’s worth of water, seeing if I could fill it up. Couldn’t. Didn’t get any fuller than it is right now. Structurally, she’s about as sound as a hole is going to get. Most empty parts in the ground are caves, or are dug out like mines, and those all have structural problems. Caveins. But here, look. This hole just goes straight down. What’s going to cave in?”
“You’re a natural born hole salesman.”
“Or I would be, if I’d ever sold a hole before. Mostly I consider myself a poet. Now listen, I can’t address your appraisal question, because I’m not familiar with real estate. Never dealt with any of those house people. But this hole has a history, sure. Been with my family for a long time. My uncle died and left it to my brother and I when we were sixteen. Used to be kind of an obsession with us. We’d come out here and camp by it on weekends. The next summer my brother got into some trouble and ran away. The police were on him, and he would have gone straight off to prison. They never found him. I came out here a week after he’d gone and found one of his shoes right on the edge. In the shoe was a little note for me.”
“He jumped in?”
The old man nodded.
“I was under the impression this was a kind of special hole, the kind that doesn’t stop. So I figured he might still be alive. I spent the next four days on my chest, yelling down the hole that I loved him and that I knew he was all right. But Mister Elliot, that was seventy years ago.”
“No need to be. I’ve made peace with her since then. I feed her things, sometimes.” For a second, I thought he meant me. Way to be, Elliot. The crazy old man is going to push you in. A sacrifice to the hole god. He didn’t make a move toward me, but I put my left foot behind my right to brace myself if he tried anything. How many dead things were already at the bottom? I guessed a lot.
“What sort of things?”
He waved his hand.
“Chairs, desks. Televisions. Once a piano, and that time I was sure I’d hear it hit, explode in a symphony of taught strings set loose, keys dancing against her walls. But no. I mentioned my poetry, didn’t I? She’s the only one who's ever read it. I fill a wastepaper basket with crumpled bits of verse, douse it in butane, and just before I tip it, I light a match. That’s when I can see the furthest into her. Until the light is just a winking in the distance, like a satellite in the night sky. Over the years I’ve probably filled her with a landfill’s worth of odds and ends. Of course, filling is most likely the wrong word.”
I wasn’t sure how much of this I believed.
“Did you name it?”
He shook his head. “Not me. I don’t know who did. But her name is Lenore.”
“Oh.” It explained the way he spoke of the hole like it was some old ship, or stranger, an actual woman. I puffed out my chest.
“Well, sir. I’m impressed. I’ve never seen such a hole, and I’m sure it’s the only one like it. I can’t imagine how much you’d be selling it for.” The old man started chewing his cuticles.
“What would you do with her?” I hadn’t thought of it. I hadn’t even decided I wanted the hole, but something in the back of my mind knew that if the price was anything I could pay, that I would do my best. It was Sunday afternoon, I was at probably the end of my hike, and at the moment nothing seemed more important than owning this hole.
“I don't know. Maybe rappelling. Rock climbing. Bungeejumping, even? Try to get to the bottom and come back up.”
He nodded. “I would sell it for something small. Do you have…a bottle of water and a flashlight?”
I did. I passed him my CamelBak and a small LED flashlight I dug out of my pack. He traded me a piece of folded paper from his back pocket. He pointed to several lines, and I signed them. Then he signed a line, and I put the paper in my pack. Lenore was mine. I dialed Sheila. She either wasn't going to believe it, or she wasn't going to care.
The old man looked at me, wistful. “You won’t get to the bottom. None of us will. But we’ll make the best of the journey.” He went to the edge of the hole and looked down into it. The water bottle was strapped to his back, the straw in his mouth. He clicked on the flashlight and looked back at me, winking. Then, before I could move, he pitched forward and disappeared.
“SEVENTY YEARS,” I could hear him yelling to his brother,
“SEVENTY YEARS' HEAD START!”
Joey didn't usually have trouble sleeping after they made love. He’d just roll over and wake up the next morning.
That night he lay staring at the ceiling until his back hurt, then turned on his side. Mary was asleep already. What had he thought she did afterwards? Knit or read or something? That hadn’t happened. Why had he assumed she had to be doing anything at all?
When his side began to hurt he turned the other way. What time was it? It had to be getting late now, hadn’t it? After midnight, at least. His stomach growled. Enough of this. He’d get up and walk downstairs, make himself a bowl of cereal and drink some milk. Watch a bit of television. Maybe fall asleep in the chair.
His stomach growled again. Louder. He swatted at it. Three seconds later and the sound came once more. It confused him - it didn’t feel like his stomach was growling. Three more seconds and he realized it was coming from Mary. He smiled in the dark, marveling at the volume of his sleeping wife’s digestive tract. He imagined it full of food, pushing air bubbles around. It sounded animal. A bullfrog chirping in a pond some-where. He imagined Mary’s belly blowing up in the dark like the sack under the frog’s chin. Three more seconds and it came again.
He counted along, tapping his finger on the bed between them. One. Two. Three.
This was uncanny. How long could it go on for, at this rate? The growling noises coming from a stomach were usually from the resettling of whatever was left inside, weren’t they? Shouldn’t it settle already? Surely the noises would stop.
But they didn’t stop. He counted off nine more times in the dark, fascinated. He put his hand on her belly and felt them ripple. One. Two. Three.
He froze. It wasn’t his wife’s voice. It sounded like the frog. Her belly had said his name. He stopped counting but three seconds later it came again.
“What?” he said, too stupefied to keep silent. What did he expect it to say next? Surely it wouldn't answer him. Had he even heard it really say his name at all?
“Oh my God.”
He wanted to shake her, to wake her up and make it stop, but couldn’t bring himself to move. Instead, he counted. One. Two. Three.
He felt his head go flat, his eyes saw ribbons of white in the dark. Was his nose bleeding? His finger started tapping again. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Joey held his breath. What would it tell him next? That it was hungry? What would he do if it said it wanted a sandwich? Would he jump from the bed and throw himself out the window? He already wanted to, and who the fuck cared if it said “hungry” or not?
If he had been himself he would have dismissed the entire thing. But he was tired, traumatized. He had also started thinking about his mother and the puddle of blood that had looked like Jesus. This was like that. Joey wasn’t religious, not to the letter, but he went to church and he pretended to understand. He’d tried to read the Bible, at least.
“You are?” he asked his wife’s gut.
If someone had told him he’d one night be talking to God in his wife’s belly growls, he would have probably turned around and walked away as fast as he could. Now, he was surprised at how easily he accepted it. For the next five minutes he kept quiet, listening to it speak. The Lord said, in two syllable pairs at the same three second interval:
“There is a child inside Mary he will become the Christ reborn I am telling you this so that when he is born you will love and keep him as though he were your own.”
“He’s not mine?” Joey said, confused.
“Oh. Right. Do I have to name him anything? Like, should he be called Jesus, or what?”
But Mary’s belly didn’t shiver again. He went downstairs and ate his cereal, unsure of how to feel. He was numb. He sat in front of the television and watched high definition insects devour each other until he was too keyed up to do anything but pass out.
The nine months went by fairly quick, Joey getting promoted in his construction job to assistant foreman. Mary stayed at home and made baby clothes out of multicolored yarn. When it came, it was darker than both of them, and Middle-Eastern looking. Mary was apprehensive, afraid of what Joey would say, but he didn’t. He figured God had just made this one look like the last one.
They named it Jesse, and Joey did his best to love him.
When Jesse was five, he set fire to the neighbor’s house. Joey maintained it was an accident, but kept his reasoning to himself. He’d been at work, and Mary had been out shopping for groceries. Still, it had to be a coincidence. No son of God was going to commit arson. Child protective services came by and asked a lot of questions after the fact, but Joey didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t around most of the time and while sure, little Jesse had his tantrums just like the next kid, he wasn’t the type to be playing with fire. Mary was convinced they were going to slap the two of them with neglect and take Jesse, but that didn’t happen. After a while it all just went away.
In elementary school, Jesse and the principal got to know each other too well, and Mary kept having to go down and apologize for the other kids who went home with black eyes and bloody noses. Every time Joey heard about it he got concerned, because he knew how cruel other kids could be to someone who looked a little different. But no son of God was going to be a bully. That much he was sure of.
In middle school Jesse got caught selling drugs to sixth graders. Ecstasy in pill form, little crosses printed on the sides. He’d told one girl it would give her a religious experience, and she’d had a minor freakout in one of the bathroom stalls, sweating through her sun dress and tearing her hair out. She’d had to get stitches in each of her palms, from where her fingernails dug in. Joey couldn’t fool himself anymore. His kid was one of the troublemakers. What if that whole talking belly thing had just been his imagination? His conversation with the Lord just a waking dream? But he’d believed it so long now that there wouldn’t be any going back, even in the face of doubt. Jesse was just a late bloomer, he was sure of it. When the time came, he’d show the world who he was. Lamb of God, version two.
Jesse fought with his mother often, belittling her and threatening physical domination. He was taller than both of them by then. Joey kept out of the disputes, and before long he could tell his son despised him as well. Any time Joey spoke up, Jesse just sneered at him.
“You're not my father,” he'd say.
“Look at you. Whiter than she is.”
In high school, Jesse started a cult. It started with a few kids, jocks and bruisers, but that little group persuaded and intimidated a bunch more to join. By the time any of the teachers found out about it, kids were already cutting off bits of themselves and feeding each other as a kind of sacrament. Of course, they couldn't prove it was Jesse, even though he admitted it freely. The trouble was, every other kid in the cult also claimed responsibility for its existence. The school couldn't kick them all out (by that point they numbered almost twohundred) so the assistant principal made an example of the few he thought had the largest likelihood of having a hand in it. Jesse was one of these.
By sixteen the boy had turned inward, and kept to himself in his room. Joey hardly saw him, and even his mother who was home all day only saw him for brief moments in the afternoons, when he'd take whole boxes of cereal into his lair, where he played crashing death metal and read Nietzsche. Mary didn't bother trying to speak to him anymore, because any word or look she made was always taken as a provocation and turned into an argument. And then she had no recourse. He would yell, and she would end up crying. At night she told her husband. Joey felt bad for her, but he had more responsibility than ever at work, since he'd been promoted again, to foreman.
One night, Jesse stole a car and led police on a highspeed chase for over an hour. When they caught him, he told them he was the son of God. They cuffed his wrists and ankles and brought him in.
Joey came to the station and bailed him out with some money he'd been saving in a highyield account for retirement. The boy scowled at him and didn't speak the entire way home.
That night, after his wife fell asleep, Joey cried. He did it quietly, and only allowed himself to keep on for ten minutes. After that, he pulled it in and tried to sleep. He couldn't.
His wife's stomach growled.
Joey's heart quickened, like it always did when Mary's belly did this. Maybe this time it would be the Lord telling him it had made a mistake.
"Sorry," it would say, in its two syllable halt,
"I was was wrong not Christ just a bad kid."
"Please," he hissed.
"Please tell me what to do." He counted, breath held.
One. Two. Three.
He sat up when it got quiet
The bugs, the wind through grass
A girl sat on a low branch
Throwing her eyes at him
Like black oil paint
She was naked, hanging wrapped
In fists of willow
The tree draped her bald head
Her toes were flowers
What are you doing here,
He said to her,
In my coma?
For that thinlipped mouth
To say he was in hers
When he woke it was eleven
He was old his body ached
His name was a chair or
A vase filled with dead rot
The nurse said noises at him
At daycare his wild tantrums
And headaches had brought his father
From work as other children napped
And one girl woke screaming
Who am I! Who am I!
Who in bloody Christ?
It starts with me in the lobby of a bank in Chicago. I don’t know how I got here, or why I’m wearing a teeshirt and a jacket only. It’s twentyfive degrees, according to a school ticker that also advertises that seventynine percent of its students rated excellent on the ISAT. I am standing between two glass paneled doors. One leads to the cold, one leads to the interior of the bank. I am looking ominous near a pair of automated teller machines. I am fairly sure I'm waiting for someone.
When he or she shows up, I'll know. I don’t worry about the fact that I don’t know who I’m waiting for, or that I have no recollection of traveling to this particular bank. I feel I probably walked. I’m wearing leather shoes without socks, and there is a slippery accumulation of dirt and sweat under my feet. I am sliding around in boats made from dead animals. I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting, but my skin is cold and there is a persistent line of snot rappelling from my left nostril. It could be the silk from a spider’s asshole, and it never stops coming. After several moments of trying to wipe it away, I no longer bother. It comes, and I let it, seeing how far it will reach before breaking off. It gets to my knee, and the lower half of it breaks off and gathers in a pile in front of me. The process repeats.
This is me when I’m alone. I look into the bank and find a hefty teller staring at me. I make myself look as suspicious as I can. The line of snot is swinging back and forth, and my hands are jammed into my pockets as far as they will go. I am slouching, and with my mouth I begin to appear as if I am speaking gibberish. The hefty man looks away.
Later, when I am alone, I am in Sears Roebuck. It is filled with short round women, all latina, tugging along little brown children. They are shopping for the same clothes they’re already wearing. Nothing fits together. I think, what the fuck have we done? You don’t belong here, I want to say to one. You belong in a desert, a jungle, sagging breasts hanging bare and sticks stuck through your face. What the fuck, I want to say, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry we made you into what you are now, because otherwise what are you all doing here, in this northern wasteland, in this tiny building with all this failing capitalism? You don’t belong. Neither of us belong.
I’m looking for socks. I find some, womens', on a wall titled “accessories.” This description isn’t odd, it’s wrong. Socks are a necessity. An addiction. There is nothing greater than the feeling of pulling on new, never-worn socks. There is no drug that can replicate it, no pair of tits that can make you forget it, no book in the world that can make you feel such faith in humanity.
But these socks are womens’ socks. There are no men’s socks, it seems. Not even when I ride the escalator to the second floor, an ancient thing that rumbles like a washing machine and forces me to imagine an open Maytag waiting for me at the top like some woman’s gaping mouth, wanting to eat me alive.
No socks even then, at the top of the Maytag escalator. I return to accessories. I take a pair of socks. I don’t have any money. There is a bag in my left hand, and a book spilling out of jacket pocket. I have just bought Voltaire, Joyce, and The Turn Of the Screw. My pocket is housing Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things. I know it is probably that I’ll never finish any of them, but the words are a comfort. I take the socks. Women’s white socks. I don’t hide them. I walk to the cashier. I ask him where the bathroom is, and I can see in his eyes that he thinks I am going there to get sick. I don’t look well. Perhaps this is a common occurrence at Sears Roebuck, and he is more worried about me emptying myself on the floor of the bathroom than he is of me committing any sort of larceny. He points, grudgingly, behind him. I can see in his face that if I get sick, he will have to clean it up.
I don’t like him.
In the bathroom I put down Voltaire. I rip the bag of women’s socks open with my teeth, and I pull a pair of them on over my feet.
There is nothing like the feeling, have I told you that? No opiate, no woman, no book is any better. I put my shoes on and stand up. My books I place on the toilet tank. I look around at the bathroom, imagining the man on his hands and knees, scrubbing away. My fingers I place down my throat. I yark and cover the tile with bananas, nutella, coke and blood. The mixture is a warm brown.
This is me, still in the bank, still standing there with a rope of snot hanging from my nose. The man I’m waiting for enters, uses an ATM, and motions for me to follow him. We leave, and begin to walk. Wind comes at us directly, freezing my eyeballs and the liquid inside the cochlea of my right ear, making me nauseous.
We don’t talk. Inside the coffee shop we go to, I order a coke and a banana and brown sugar crepe. The price should have been 4.75 and another 1.50 for the coke, but the man (he is Greek, and his English is very good) tells me it is 8.82. I don’t argue. He cannot have misheard me, but he gives me something different. A banana and nutella crepe. I haven’t had nutella before, but it reminds me of chocolate and so that’s what I pretend it is.
I am full. The man across from me is typing on a laptop. We still haven’t spoken.
Next we are in a bookstore. I cannot find any poetry, and so I pick the Joyce, the Voltaire, and the Henry James. Behind one of the racks the man who doesn’t speak gives me two keys, which I pocket. At the checkout there is a tall girl with crimped blond hair and glasses. Her voice is musical, and she smiles at me. She smiles at everyone. I think about having her naked, bent over a pile of books. She smiles at me, and tells me I’m buying the good stuff. I think about giving her the good stuff on a pile of the good stuff. She smiles at me, and she says thank you, and I say thank you, and I leave.
The man has left me, only moments before tucking a small wad of paper into my hand and turning the other way. I read it, and then chew it up. I spit it onto the side of a building as I pass, and it sticks. The building is Sears Roebuck. I think about my feet, and the way they squish around in my shoes. I think about socks, and about the feeling of pulling on new ones. I go in.
The door is a revolving door, and as I go through one of its little cornerpie chambers I think about this city and its unhealthy obsession with revolving doors. Human roundabouts.
I’m walking to the address on the paper, hungry again after unloading my crepe. I see a woman with a white puffy dog, watch a man who looks a little like Brad Pitt get out of his car. I see a cyclist with long hair and rubber bands around his ankles, and watch a little girl with soccer ball in hand bound out of a house to get into an SUV. I realize that everything is significant, and the order doesn’t matter. At the same time, nothing is significant, and there is no order. Profound, and at the same time, I don’t care. The square key unlocks the apartment building, the round one the apartment. That is how it has been and how it will be. And at the same time, things fall apart. Nothing lasts.
Not even anything.
I don’t know which one of me is writing this, or if I even need to. Maybe one of me wrote it already, or is planning on it. Maybe we all write something like this at some point. I don’t know, but I’m the only one of me around right now, and I have nothing better to do.
When I was little, and all of me were, I used to dream nested things. I’d be in a supermarket, carrying a bag full of jelly beans. Then I’d wake up, a floating eight year old with a bag of jelly beans, daring my bed to float up and meet me. Out the window a few more of me would be playing in the dark. Jump rope, that one. Two playing tag, another four or five swimming in the pool. I understand that these are all me in different dreams I already had, or haven’t yet.
Looking around is okay, but there are words on the walls. Big and red, and I can’t read them. It’s not until I’m older that I start to read in dreams, and at eight years old, the words drop me and I wake up without the jelly beans, under my bed.
I must have fallen through, or else I roll out from under expecting to find another one of me still asleep, and maybe one above him, floating with a bag of jelly beans. But at eight, no. This doesn’t happen until later, when I’m twenty-four.
I’m twenty-four and this isn't a dream.
The floating me isn’t holding jelly beans. He’s got a plane. A flat surface that is black on both sides. It’s not any particular shape. Not rectangular, or circular like those ACME black holes Wile E. Coyote used to buy in bulk on Saturday mornings, but that same general idea. Anyway, I’m standing there, in my boxers, watching myself floating there, and another one of me asleep in the bed underneath. All of us have sleep erections, but I’m not holding mine like the other two are. I look around to see if there are any more of me, even look out the window to see if maybe some of me are playing frisbee in the dark, but I don’t see any. We’re alone.
I don’t strike myself as particularly awake. I’m probably still sleeping, anyway. I wonder what happens if I take the plane from the floating Clayton, and then I stop wondering so I can do it. He doesn’t want to let go of it, but it’s kind of slippery and hard to hold onto with just one hand. This, as I will later come to think of it, is the machine. It’s open on both sides, open like a bag. I put my hand in it, and it doesn’t come out the other side. It’s the same when I flip it over, only that side stings. I think about putting my head in, and even though I’m pretty sure I’m still asleep, I don’t do it.
I wake up twice after that, and watching it happen is almost like being dead. The floating Clayton wakes first, rolling over and yawning. He opens his eyes and looks at me, standing next to the bed with the machine in my hands. He is unsurprised. Very likely he also thinks we’re dreaming, I don’t know. I can’t read his thoughts, or see through his eyes. I’m expecting him to fall, to land on the other of us, but this doesn’t happen. He floats toward me.
“What is that thing?” He points at the machine.
“I don’t know,” I say, “You had it when you were sleeping. I took it from you.”
“Oh.” He floats thoughtfully.
The sleeping Clayton groans and pulls the pillow from under his head. He turns onto his stomach and fastens the pillow over his ears.
“Hey,” Floating Clayton and I say.
“I’m having a dream,” he says, “and it’s not the best one I’ve had, but it’s better than being awake. Take what you want, my wallet’s on the bed stand.” Then he’s snoring again.
“You haven’t fallen yet,” I say.
Floating Clayton shakes his head.
“Here,” I say, and look around the room. Near the open closet is a copy of The Journey Home, from the English class we failed our senior year. It’s a book I’ve never read. I pick it up and open it to the first page.
“Here,” I say, “read.”
Floating Clayton looks apprehensive, but shrugs. He leans forward.
“Too dark,” he says. “Let me hold the thing again.”
I give him the machine and go to turn on the lights. We flinch at the brightness, and all of a sudden I don’t feel asleep anymore. I have to pee. I’m hungry.
“The branches were strewn above them like distorted mosaics of crucifixions, the hawthorn bushes blocking out the few isolated stars to ensnare them within a crooked universe of twigs and briars.” He sits back in the air and smiles at me.
“Still up here,” he says.
“We’ve read in dreams before,” I say, “so maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yeah,” floating me says, "But we’ve never read that book. And if we haven’t read it, that means whatever I just read came from our subconscious. Which means we’re a genius.”
Maybe that’s when I know we won’t wake up again, that we’re as awake as we get. Floating Clayton probably knows too, or wants to believe he knows, because he’s the floating one. I envy him.
“I have to pee,” we say. The sleeping Clayton groans again. We ignore him.
“You first,” I say, “you’re floating.”
“Okay.” He floats to the bathroom. From beside the bed I can hear him cursing, and think I should have gone first. Peeing with an erection is already hard enough, and to couple that with levitation must make for a frustrating game of spurts and wet walls. I decide to wake me up.
“Hey,” I say, “I’m not a robber and I’m not leaving. You’re me and we’re both here. One of us is floating and we’re not asleep.”
He groans again, but then he is looking at me.
“Why the hell is the light on?”
“I turned it on.”
“I wouldn’t have turned it on. You’re not me. Leave me alone.” He closes his eyes. “Why the fuck would I dream of waking up and wanting to go back to sleep? Stupid.”
The floating Clayton comes back. I don’t hear him, because he doesn’t have to walk. He looks embarrassed.
“I used the shower,” he says.
“I’m sorry about the rest of it, but I can’t get low enough to clean anything. I can’t float up or down.” I feel bad for him.
“Here,” I say, and give him my hand. I pull, but he stays where he is. Pretty soon I’m hanging from his arm, but he doesn’t so much as dip.
“Stop it,” he says, “that hurts like nobody’s business.”
I stop. “Sorry.”
He shrugs. I walk to the bathroom. It’s wet. I try to use the toilet, but I can’t aim it right, so I use the shower too. When I get back, floating Clayton is over the bed, wrestling the pillow from the other one.
“Fuck off, man!” Floating Clayton lets go of the pillow.
“Sorry. It’s just…” He pulls back and slaps me, the one in the bed, in the face.
“It’s just that I’m NOT a fucking DREAM!”
Maybe that’s how it started. I wasn’t there, not directly. Three of me were. The machine makes everything work differently. I don’t have memories of it, but it’s what comes out whenever I try to write down what happened. So it’s probably true.
Another one of me came out of the machine two hours after that. Maybe that one was me, but probably not. It doesn’t matter. Let’s say it was me.
I’m falling, like in a dream where I had to read something. Only, I fall sideways, out of a hole that another one of me is holding onto, into my room. Three of me are standing there, arguing, and my head is bleeding. One of me is floating, and all of them stop arguing and look at me.
“What the fuck?” we all say, and then, because we all said it, we laugh.
It must have happened just that way. And before you start thinking that the machine was just a me-maker, you should know that before the day was out, it had sent through four copies of my future wife, three pairs of my future children, all at different ages, and a man who says he’s me at seventy. This last was most interesting to us, especially the floating one, because seventyyearold Clayton also floated.
He did it quietly, in the corner, and watched the rest of us with wet eyes.
Red Ball Jets
I wanted to see them on me, wanted to feel them and even though William said it was a bad idea I dropped to a knee and ripped open the bag, pulling them from it. They were immaculate, impossible they were mine. William said to hurry, that a man was coming, but calmly I slipped out of my old shoes and pulled on the Red Ball Jets, relishing the fit, the fuzzy newness. As I laced up William told me the man was a security man, and that he was closer, but I knew I had time. There was (jump higher, run faster) nothing to worry about. A single moment more and I was done; done with all preparation and off like a shot, laughing as the security man dropped his head and fell forward into a loping sort of stride behind me. Four steps, five, and I was in the clear, the Jets pouring it on even as I closed my eyes to keep the wind out of them and I ran blind until I'd lost count of time. I slowed, unable to imagine the security man anywhere near, and when I opened my eyes I stood alone in a field, with nothing to see but tall grass from horizon to horizon.
My clothes were shredded from the run but my Red Ball Jets shone like stars.
Last NightI found a tumor
Wart or growth or whatever
On the end of my thumb
I watched it reach toward my knuckle
With its white doughy fingers
So I put the bolt cutters between my knees
And pinched it off
The thumb, not the tumor
Satisfied, I went to bed
But I guess while I was sleeping
It grew back
The tumor, not the thumb
Pudgy, pale and throbbing
Reaching for my wrist
So I put the chainsaw between my knees
Frank’s All-Night Eatery is actually a standin for a truckstop that serves really terrible pies. I’m here again tonight. There’s half a piece of some wicked custard sitting in front of me, and it’s almost five in the morning. Frank and I are the only ones in the place. He notices I’m not eating for about the tenth time, and decides this time he’s going to mouth up.
“Not hungry this morning?”
“You know what I want, Frank?”
“Not in the mood for pie, then? I got a muffin or two wrapped up in the back. Wasn’t going to bring ‘em out till later on, but if you aren’t feeling that pie I can set you up.”
“What I want, Frank, is for a lady to come walking through that door and come sit down right by me. She’ll be kinda shy, look at me like
I’m more than just another animal. Don’t even have to be pretty. I’ll play it real slow, like I don’t know she didn’t pick any other spot in the whole place. We’ll get to talking and it’ll be the first real conversation I’ve had with a woman in more than a decade. Maybe nothing happens, probably she leaves and I never see her again. But that’s okay, because I already have my reason.”
Frank looks amused.
“You picked the wrong time to hope for that, bucko. It’s damn near sunrise. Don’t know many girls stay up this early. Come back later, around two. We get some women in here drive truck. Always interesting talk.” I shake my head. He doesn’t get it.
“Sure would be nice, though. Grant you that. Why’ncha eat your pie and I’ll get you one of them muffins on me. You can imagine it’s a lady.”
“I’ve eaten the last pie I’m going to eat. Would have been nice to go out on a winner, but I guess it doesn’t matter much. My father used to tell me it all ends up in the same place, and he was right. I’m going there too.” Frank was emptying the register, something he always did at five.
“Eaten my last one of those, too.” Maybe then he got it. He stopped doing what he was doing, and looked at me hard. Cocked his head.
“You ain’t talking about…what I think you’re talking about.”
“You mean killing myself? Ending my life? Suicide? Those are it.”
“You can’t do that. You don’t got it so bad. Plenty of things to live for, even if there isn’t a girl coming in here. Besides, you’re one of my best customers.”
“Frank, where am I from?” He doesn’t say anything.
“Where did I grow up? Go to school? Who was my first love, my first wife? My kids? Why don’t they want me in their lives? Why are my parents dead? Don’t give me some stock line about things to live for. If you knew me, you wouldn’t have said it.” He looks down.
“Listen, it’s okay. It’s just the way things are. You’ve been there. I could have talked to you if I wanted to. Here.” I pulled out my wallet.
“How much for the pie?” He waved his hand, and I could see there were tears in his eyes. I thought there might be some in mine too, but it seemed I’d already done that for the last time too. I pulled all the money out of my wallet and put it on the bar. I put the wallet beside it.
“You can give that to the police. Tell them I walked to the reservoir.” I get up. When I get to the door, Frank tries to say something. I wait for him to get it out.
“Why did you tell me this?”
“Had to say goodbye. To somebody.”
Chilled afternoon, gray like the sky and the falling rain. People wrapped in newspaper go by halfsprinting, and others scuffle along huddled beneath large umbrellas. Maureen, the hairstylist, is as gray as the day. Her pale blonde hair is matted against the sides of her face, and she slumps against the faded red brick walls of the building’s back porch. A cigarette smolders in her grimlipped mouth, and sizzles each time a droplet finds the cherry, threatening to go out. Maureen does not seem to notice her eyes are floating in their sockets, lacking focus, idly staring at nothing whatsoever. Maureen had not moved for some time. Already her clothes were soaking through, and perhaps even if it began to hail she would remain, with her dying cigarette and her faroff eyes, oblivious. The door to the back porch opens.
“Your smoke break was finished with ten minutes ago!” Maureen starts, and through the everywhere curtain of water sees her boss, Trinka, hands on hips and eyes narrowed.
“You’re soaked, Maureen! And we have customers to deal with! Inside, inside!” The wet hairstylist nods and flicks her cigarette, turning wordlessly to the door and stepping inside.
“Get yourself cleaned up now, I can’t have you cutting hair like this. Use the bathroom.” Maureen nods again, and moves toward the bathroom.
“Not there, not there, can’t you see that’s my only good rug? Go around!” Maureen looks to the back door and twitches, as if she means to run for it, but after a moment her eyes stop darting and she steps aside, tottering along on the linoleum instead. She reaches the bathroom door and steps over the rug, sighing.
“Clean up all the water on the floor, too. And don’t be long in there, Maureen, I’m not paying you to mope around. What’s the matter with you, anyhow?”
In the doorway, Maureen turns.“My husband. Left me for another woman. Monday.”
But Trinka hadn’t waited around for an answer, had waddled back into the showroom and Maureen hears her addressing a customer. Her voice is high, tittering with too much zeal. Maureen towels her hair, wrings her clothes. Another ten minutes and she is holding an old woman’s dark hair in her hands, shearing it slowly and without much precision. It is clear that her mind is somewhere else.
“Girl, I have somewhere to be in twenty minutes,” the old woman says, clicking her tongue. Maureen’s eyes refocus, and her snips quicken.
“I’m sorry. I must be a little off today.”
“Got something on your mind, have you?”
“Hmm? Yes, I suppose I do. My husband left me for another woman. Can you believe? Just this Monday.” The old woman blinks, and sniffs, adjusting herself in the seat as she rolls her head further back.
“Oh. Well, you’ll get over it. Happens to everyone.”
“I got home from work and all of his things were just”
“You know, I think I might want highlights. All of the younger women are doing that nowadays. I could look decades younger.”
Maureen’s car idles in front of her home. She glances at it. Too empty, she thinks, and makes a decision. Her friend Rita, a sorority mate from university. She lives in the city, and Maureen will visit. Drop by anytime, hadn't she said that? Yes, Maureen thinks so. Rita will listen, will understand. This, or the absence of her husband in the house they had bought together. Maureen dashes inside to write down the address and is off again just as soon. The door opens and Rita is standing there with her mouth shaped like a Q and with eyes that don’t quite register what they see. She is wearing a black sequined dress and pearls around her neck, and her hair is poised above her head like a nest of serpents ready to uncoil.
“Oh. Dear Lord. Muh...Maureen? Is that you? Oh! I haven’t seen you in - well, since.” The woman clears her throat. “Come in, don’t stand out there. I’ve missed you, what’s the occasion?”
“I came by because. I needed a friend, I needed to not be alone. ”
“Oh? How unfortunate.”
“I was hoping we’d be able to talk.” Rita clicks her tongue.
“Ooh. It’s not the best of times. Peter and I were just getting ready to leave for a dinner party. I would invite you but, well, you just couldn’t show up looking like that. You’d have to change, and by then...” Maureen looks around. There is a couch in the living room, but Rita had not asked her to sit.
“Oh, of course, Rita. I should have called. And thank you about the dinner party, but it’s best if I don’t go, anyway. I have things to do at home.” The thought of home chills her, the place is no longer one of love.
“I’m sorry for intruding.” A man’s voice calls from the other room.
“Rita, I can’t find those cuff links you bought me, have you put them somewhere?” A man walks through a hallway door.
“Peter, this is Maureen. One of my oldest friends. From college. Maureen, this is my husband.”
“Hello.” Maureen nods. Peter tips his head forward to look at her from behind the tops of his glasses.
“Hello. You look...are you all right?”
“She’s fine, Peter, she just came to say hi. We don’t have time, I told her we’re on our way to a dinner party.” Peter waves his hand.
“Nonsense. You haven’t seen Maureen since college? Talk! The dinner party doesn’t start for another forty minutes anyhow. And between you and me,” he winks at Maureen,
“If you knew about the dinner parties Rita has dragged me to you’d know how much I hate being early, or even on time.”
“Sit. Talk.” He smiles at Maureen and walks back into the bedroom. Rita regards Maureen politely and touches the ring of pearls around her neck.
“So. Come into the kitchen. I don’t see why we can’t sit for a minute.”
“Okay.” The kitchen table is wiped clean, an angelic pair of salt and pepper shakers smiling widely. Maureen looks at her lap. Rita licks her lip and Maureen thinks for the first time, Maybe I shouldn’t have come, I’m inconveniencing her. She doesn’t even want me here.
“My husband. He left me a note. Monday and he was gone, he took all of his clothes, his things. He said it was another woman, he said.” Her lips tremble but she does not cry.
“He never said goodbye and he was my.” She doesn’t say it.
“When I found him I was done looking. It’s not true, they say it’s not true, that love is a myth and it’s all just. But now that he’s gone it’s like he’s dead.” Maureen looks to see the effect of her words, but sees none. Rita is drumming her fingers on the table.
“Monday. It happened Monday,” Maureen says. It is the only thing she knows for certain.
“Yes, well.” Another sigh from the other woman. “You know, my dear, it was bound to happen, of course. I was there when you were married, you remember. I told you then that he would never be able to stay faithful. That it was only a matter of time.” She leans in, whisper-ing, “And there is no changing the fact that he probably wished he had married someone more...well, Maureen, you were never the most beautiful girl in the room.”
“He wrote me a note. In the note it said he loved me.”
“Of course it did. Do you know why he left? Was there someone else? How was the sex? Men only know one thing. Was that it? If you can’t please your man in the bedroom, you can’t expect him to stay with you.” Maureen’s throat closes up and she begins to wonder what she’ll do when she leaves here, when she finds herself back in her car, alone.
“No, I....I suppose that might have been it.”
“There you are then. I wouldn’t be so upset about it, it was going to happen. You know that. You saw it coming, didn’t you?” Maureen’s eyes close. She saw no such thing. She can’t think straight.
“He was gone when I got home, he was gone and the note and he never said goodbye and I don’t know how I’m going to”
“Yes, yes. It’s a bad situation.” Rita was standing up.
“But I really must, I mean, Peter and I really must be going. The dinner party isn’t going to wait for us, you know.”
“Oh. Of course. Thank you for listening.” Rita comes forth with a wide grin and an arm that wraps around Maureen’s shoulder like a snake.
“Of course, Maureen. You’ve always been a dear, dear friend.” She’s ushered to the door.
“Thanks again,” she says, as the door shuts. From inside, she hears,
“Peter!” In the car on the way home Maureen tries not to think. Being alone is even worse at this point than being told to consider the possibility that it was her fault her husband had left her. It hadn’t been, had it? She had loved him as hard as she’d been able. Still did, in fact. If she gets home and he is there waiting for her, asking for forgiveness she'll give it. Even if he isn't asking for it. She’ll even vow to never throw it in his face during an argument. The thought spurs her on, drives her foot into the gas pedal as her car speeds up. The night air whistles past the tiny crack in her driver’s side window and she turns up the radio, the drone of some callin advice show filling her ears but not her head. Her head is filled with thoughts of her husband. He is home. She can feel it. He'll be there, waiting for her. His car parked on the road. It is almost certainty at this point, and she can’t bear to think how she will feel if she is wrong. The spot is empty.
At work the next day her eyes are hot and red from lost sleep. She cuts hair, and she can see in their faces that she’s not there; that she’s not human to them. Just a necessary thing. A cashier at the head of a checkout lane. But she keeps catching her mouth opening, her words spilling out.
“My husband.” She needs to talk it is like her need to drink, or urinate. It will soon be four days since her husband left her and she still has not talked about it properly. She ought to mention how he had whispered in the dark that he couldn’t believe he’d gotten so lucky, and how she’d been unable to stop smiling, even when he couldn’t see. She ought to say just what the letter had said, word for word, and how she’d fallen to the ground clutching her heart, screaming for him in case it had been some sick joke. Her listener would hold her hand, sigh and nod in all the right places. Maureen would tell, and her listener’s eyes would grow dark and tearful, and she’d hear how sorry they were. Two more customers come in, and Maureen’s hand is itching for a cigarette. Then she notices one of them, a man.
“Maureen. Hello. You remember me from yesterday, don’t you?”
“Peter. Yes.” He climbs into her chair and smiles at her.
“Guess today was my day for a haircut.” Then, furrowing his brow,
“Are you all right? You look terrible.” She giggles.
“I’m going insane. My husband left me. I can’t”
“Your husband left you?” he takes her hand.
“How horrible.” She closes her eyes and can feel it coming, a waterfall of sorrow, dropping words onto her tongue.
“I don’t want to be a bother. It was Monday.”
“No, no. I want to hear.” He looks into her eyes and Maureen is dizzy with relief. Peter's face is a mask of concern. He sits, waiting. Maureen is carried away and tells him everything.
my love for you
is like radiation poisoning
nausea, hair loss, pus-filled boils of admiration
my teeth fall
out of body-rocking ecstasy fallout of blond-bombing
your pupils mushroom, cloud
my geiger eyelids click click
i cough blood
kiss me and the tumors in my hiroshima
spread, love love
that creeping dose
The Exploding Heads of Mesmerson County
The old man sat on the porch of the old house and rocked in his chair. One of the townspeople strolled by, a teenage boy named Bobby Steepleton that Arthur happened to recognize. Bobby had with him a bat and a glove, and glanced in Arthur's direction as he passed. On his way to the big game against the Richmond boys, who were supposedly bigger and better and...well, Bobby's shoulders were slumped and he didn't wave. But then, no one ever waved. The people of Mesmerson County couldn't see him. The girl scouts passed Arthur by, as did the mailman, and only once in a while would the Keatons' dog wander into his yard and look around, confused, before leaving again. The only real visitor he had anymore was Oscar.
Oscar was just as old, and maybe older, than Arthur. Outwardly, he liked to pretend he had a limp. His eyes were milked over to make people think he was blind and a mischievous grin usually spread itself over his wrinkled dark brown skin. He was no more an old black man than Arthur was an old white one, but the parts they played had become routine. Like their visits, their conversation, and the cane. Oscar would arrive unannounced, usually with a paper bag to drink from and a new cane. When he left, he'd most often leave the cane. Arther would hang it on the coat rack just inside the door like always, and in a day or two the cane would be gone.
About a minute after the Steepleton boy walked past, Oscar hobbled through the front gate and grinned up at him. Arthur nodded.
The cane was made of bamboo this time, with a grip made of tightly-wound reeds. Oscar tapped it up the steps of the porch and leaned it against the house and began to sit. The chair that made itself beneath him was a white wicker rocker, and the old black man let out a sigh that matched his age as his body folded into it.
“I hear there's a big game today.”
Arthur grunted. “Richmond. For the Valley Championship. Boys are nervous.”
“How does it turn out?”
“Wouldn't you rather wait and see?” Oscar raised an eyebrow. Arthur sighed, nodding.
“Gonna be close. We'll be down a couple runs, right up to the end, but we pull through. Last at-bat.” Oscar snorted. He took a swig from his paper bag and gave Arthur a toothy grin.
“That the best you can do, old man? Give them a walk-off win? Gee, ain't you a fun guy. So exciting. When you ever gonna mess things up? Throw the Mesmies for a loop?”
“You think they should lose?”
“It would be a start, way things go around here. Always looking bad before turning out okay. Your style is getting old.”
Arthur chewed at his bottom lip and thought. He was getting old.
“I mean, when's the last time you gave anyone cancer? Called up a car crash? Authored a killing in the heat of passion? Hell, when was the last time you made a tornado? Thunderstorm even? You let them off easy every time.”
“Can't help it, Oscar. I only think of the good things. Optimistic, I guess.”
“But not realistic, my man. None of it.”
Arthur shrugged. Bluebirds chirped and a warm breeze played through the willows. From next door, the smell of lilacs made it to him, along with the aroma of the sun-drenched strawberries in the patch across the street. There was nothing he loved more than summer, with its lazy days and little dramas. Its games. Baseball, now there was a game. Oscar had grown restless beside him.
“Hey, hey,” he whispered, like he had a secret,
“Old lady Henderson up the road is cooking a pie. Let's say when she goes to pull it out, she slips on the linoleum and goes headfirst into the thing. Roasts herself. Freak accident. Think about that for a minute.”
Arthur looked at Oscar out of the corner of his eye. “I like old lady Henderson. She's a fine lady. What happens instead is that she's forgotten to set the timer. In an hour or so, she remembers that she's forgotten and panics, thinking she must have burned it. But it's fine, it's not burned at all. What's more, it's the best pie she's made in months.”
Oscar sat back.
“You really are the most boring keeper I've ever run into. Most of those I can at least persuade.” There was amusement in his voice, like there always was, but there was something else too. Arthur thought it was disgust.
“I'm consistent. Not boring. And you can't tell me to think about something and have it happen. Doesn't work that way." Oscar sighed.
“Never hurts to try. Been workin' on you for more than a century now. You don't remember them old days, when we had some fun?” Arthur did.
“That sort of thing doesn't do it for me anymore. You go anywhere else, any other county, and find chaos. Things happening without reason. Left up to chance. I like Mesmerson I like that it's different than other places. It's better. I don't understand why you keep coming back, Oscar. It's not as if I let you work your mischief here.” The old black man waved his hand.
“Been everywhere else. Only place left to mess with is this place, and you got a grip on it. I respect that, you know. Keeps things interesting, having limitations.”
“Still, you tell me I'm boring.”
Oscar shrugged and drank some more.
“The way you run this place is. You, I've liked you ever since I met you.” Up the road, at the ball diamond, the Mesmerson boys had taken the field. The umpire had just finished brushing off home plate and had signaled for the game to start. Though they couldn't see the field, or hear the umpire's throaty
“Play Ball!” it wouldn't be a problem. Not for Arthur and Oscar.
“The game's about to start,” Arthur said.
“About time. Those boys in the red outfits, batting first which are those?”
“Richmond.” Arthur thought about it.
The Richmond boys were fiendish baseball players, and their coach was the type who preached winning at any cost. His boys slept, breathed, and bled baseball - and they never seemed to lose. The Mesmerson team, who Arthur had watched every year since they'd started competing in the area little league tournament, did just as well, but always with a scrappy tenacity that gave them wins with close plays and clutch hits. It was strange to see, and even the Mesmerson coach didn't quite understand it none of the kids on the team ever seemed to hit above .300, and the pitching always hovered around average. This was all Arthur's doing, of course. Winning was good for the kids and good for the town. Some of the older folks had even started down to the park on weekends to watch the games and cheer on the boys. It was good to see. The Richmond boys scored twice before the first out came, a strikeout, which was followed by a walk and a groundout double play.
“Don't think about those Richmond boys, Arthur.” It came as a casual remark, but its tone was serious. Arthur looked sidelong at his companion.
“What? What are you on about, Oscar? I'm not thinking about them they're doing it all themselves.”
“Just don't, that's all I'm saying.” Arthur bit his lip. He started to think about the Richmond boys. Their cleanup hitter was a tall muscular boy named Howard Wendelmann. There was a rumor going around that he was fourteen, and therefore too old to be playing. He was also their pitcher, and he threw the ball at seventy miles an hour. The first two batters struck out on three swings each, and walked away shaking their heads. Batting third was Bobby Steepleton.
“Don't think about that Wendelmann boy, Arthur.” Arthur thought about him. The boy was fourteen. He was also the recipient of a generous crop of facial hair which his coach made him shave away every day. And the coach, the coach knew Howard's age and still played him. Arthur didn't get angry much anymore these days, but he was a slight bit annoyed, and so he thought about Howard Wendelmann and the fourteenyearold boy's next pitch. Bobby Steepleton put it out of the park. The crowd went wild, and even down the road they could hear echoes of the roar. Arthur smiled a bit.
“You thought about him, didn't you? Even though I told you not to.”
“Couldn't help it.” Arthur didn't see it but it was Oscar's turn to smile. He took an excited gulp of whatever was in his paper bag and licked his lips. Arthur thought about the Wendelmann boy again, and was satisfied to know that the shot had shaken him. His confidence was decimated, partly because of the home run but mostly because of the pitch. It was supposed to be a fastball but had ended up a fifty mileperhour floater. Right down the pipe. He walked the next batter before getting the last out on a line drive headed right for his face, snowconing it in his glove just inches from his right eye. Arthur frowned a little – he hadn't meant for that to happen, not really. That was too close. Wendelmann hadn't been hurt, but still... He supposed he was getting a little too excited. He sat back in his rocking chair and took a deep breath, filtering the sweet summer air through the hair in his nostrils. Oscar sat beside him, dark fingers bridged, thumbs resting on his lower lip. The cane lay forgotten against the side of the house. The game went on, Arthur orchestrating bits of it, and finally it was the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Richmond boys up by two. The final halfinning. The first two Mesmerson batters walked, and the Wendelmann boy was tired and nervous. His pitches had been erratic, and every time he thought he'd gotten his control back something odd had happened. A slow pitch, a pitch way outside, some that looked as if they might hit batters. He couldn't figure it. The Richmond coach was upset, and Arthur could feel that he was worried about losing. Not this game, the coach thought, not this game. The next batter struck out, but on a pitch in the dirt so the two runners moved up to second and third base. Oscar grinned.
“Was that you or him?”
“Him.” Arthur smiled.
“Listen, Arthur,” Oscar said, leaning forward and putting a hand on the other man's knee,
“This is important. You can't think about any of the Richmond boys. Don't do it. Not the third baseman, the shortstop, the second baseman, the fat first baseman, or any of the outfielders. Don't think about that Wendelmann boy or the coach.” Then, as if realizing he hadn't done his math right, Oscar added,
“Don't think about the catcher either.”
“Why not?” Arthur asked.
“Just don't.” The next pitch was to Steepleton, who socked a blooper up the middle, right over the secondbaseman's head. The Mesmerson third base coach was waving his arms and the boy on second base was rounding third base and going home. Arthur was, of course, thinking about each of the players on the Richmond team. Nothing specific, but the stage had been set.
“Don't think about any of the Richmond boys, and whatever you do, Arthur, don't think about any of their heads exploding.” Arthur's mouth dropped open, and so did Oscar's, into the widest grin he'd ever made. Steepleton's single would have been an inthepark home run to win the game, but he just stopped between first and second and began screaming.
Cliifford told people he was a magician. That he’d been one ever since the moment he was born, when he’d sawed himself in half. The story went like this. His mothers were conjoined twins. They halfshared a uterus, or rather, shared a uterus that halved halfway down, split like the cloven trunk of a tree. Each woman had a vagina of her own, and when Clifford was conceived (which, he likes to say, was a whole separate magic trick) the little embryo he became attached itself to and grew on the very place the two sisters became one, on the very precipice of their Siamese misfortune.
On a particular night, and it was a Thursday, Clifford got this far into his monologue without anyone in the audience so much as gasping. He supposed that having two mothers was becoming some kind of social norm, and that was all right. It always bothered him when they reacted too early. When they reached for a polite applause or sympathetic ooh. So far, everyone in the audience kept silent. That was good. Because here was the trick.
“I grew there,” he said, “a fragile egg, to the size of a pear. Then to a gourd, a pumpkin. Okay, not a very big pumpkin.” No canned or polite laughter.
“Finally I was due to arrive. A child of conjunction. And here I came, but from which mother? Which would bear me, birth me, send me into the world wet and screaming? The doctors didn’t know either there was one on each side, holding each of my mothers open, waiting for me to slide down. That was when they discovered I was twins, that one of me was coming headfirst and one of me breach, and out came the instruments, one cold metal grabbing spoon for each of us, pulling.”
“Out we came, but again the doctors were surprised. The nurses were so bewildered one of them fainted and the other one puked on her. From the right mother, my head, my chest, my arms. From the left, my legs, my torso. I shot blood at them, posing. Tada.” Clifford stripped, dropping clothes in piles at his feet. It was a change he’d timed, improved, perfected. Before anyone had a chance to look away he was naked in front of them, deep purple scars running like train tracks across him just where they’d expect, where he’d been stitched and sewn back together so hastily. His spine curled in on itself in a Q, and now he heard the gasps, the cries. Now he heard the same hurking noises the nurse, and every nurse after her had made. Clifford told people he was a magician, but his only trick was this.
On a Thursday, this particular day, he threw his arms in the air and yelled.
“So you’re here because you’re having too much sex.”
The kid is twenty-four. Dr. Werner is forty, and slightly overweight. She is frowning. The kid is having a hard time looking at her. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a drawing of Florida. Under the drawing, it says “I’m no island, but you’re going to love my peninsula.”
“I just need some kind of…like, can you give me a pill that’ll make it stop happening?”
“To stop the sex from happening?”
“Yeah. I don’t have any control over it.”
“You mean, you can’t stop yourself? Like a compulsion?” He looks confused.
He looks confused. “Not…not really. More like, it happens, and I don’t want it to.”
Dr. Werner looks concerned. “Are you being raped? Is someone forcing you to have
The kid looks confused again. “In my dream? No. I’m just there, having sex. No one’s forcing me.”
“In your dream?”
“Yeah. That’s why I want the pills.” Dr. Werner lowers her head. She sighs.
“It was my understanding we were talking about your actual behavior. You made an appointment with me, and told me it was about a sexual addiction.”
“It is. My subconscious is addicted to sex. Sorry, I don’t know a lot about this kind of thing. I thought you guys were interested in dreams.”
“Sometimes we are. But we don’t assume the problems our patients come to us with are dream problems.”
“Let’s start over. You’re having dreams about sex, and you want them to stop.”
“Yeah. It’s like, every time I go to sleep. And they’re really real. So then, when I wake up, I spend all my time during the day thinking about them. I can’t get anything done.”
“I see. How active are you, sexually? When’s the last time you’ve had actual sex? Or masturbated? Maybe you just need a release.”
“I…” the kid looks down.
“I can’t ever…I don’t get erections. I don’t think I’ve had an orgasm.”
“What about when you wake up from these dreams? Do you have erections then?”
“Not really. Sometimes, halfway. But it’s not like the dreams are particularly arousing.”
“The sex dreams aren’t arousing?”
“Well, it’s always some girl I’d never be attracted to. My fat cousin. Girls from school who ate at the last table in the lunchroom. Last night I dreamed about my fourth grade teacher. She looked kind of like you.”
“Can you help me? Prescribe me something?”
“I’m a psychologist.”
The man who sat down across from Eddie Carter with eleven minutes to go was very obviously not his girlfriend.
“Anna’s gonna be running a little late, Eddo,” he said, straightening his coat.
“She had some trouble picking out the right shoes and all the taxis were filled up. She’d call you, but she left her phone back in the room and she’s pretty sure that if she goes back to get it, she’ll miss all the empty taxis and by the time she gets back they’ll be full again.” He looked around, nodding.
“This is a nice restaurant. Very forties art deco.” Eddie narrowed his eyes.
“Did she send you ahead to tell me?”
“No, I just know. Sort of my thing, knowing things, you know? Like how I know you’re Edward James Carter, and you were born in Murraysville, Pennsylvania, and growing up you had a best friend named Pete who fell off a grain tower and died while you watched, and how you didn’t start hitting puberty till you were fourteen and you had this secret irrational fear that you were turning into a girl.” Eddie’s face went pale.
“Listen, man. Mister. Whatever. I don’t know who you are, or what you’re about, but I don’t like being blackmailed. It’s never happened to me before, but if that’s what you’re doing, I don’t like it.” The stranger spread his hands affably in front of him.
“No, not at all! You’ve got it wrong. I like you. I’m just telling you these things so that when I tell you the world is going to end in ten minutes you’ll believe me.”
“The world is going to end.”
“Yeah, this one at least.” He looked at his wrist. There was no watch there.
“Well, nine minutes now.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You’re going to propose tonight. You’re touching the engagement ring you got her. In your pocket. From Zales.” The incredulous smile dropped off Eddie’s face. Of course he was. The most beautiful diamond ring he’d been able to find. All for her. And for a minute all he did was stare at the stranger. The man looked normal enough, slight facial hair covering high cheekbones and eyes that had seen a lot. He thought, I still don't believe you, but what he said was different.
“How does it end? Nuclear?”
“Nah, it ends like no way you’ve ever been told it would. Like a magic trick. There you see it, there you don’t. Only, you don’t actually get to see it after it's gone, because you go with it. I'll see it, but there’s only one of me.”
“You’re going to watch the world end.”
“Done it before. Hundreds of times. A world a day, sometimes. Today it’s yours. Nice enough, when you look around. It would be a nice one to go out in.” He leaned in, giving Eddie a believe-you-me kind of look, “There were some others, Eddo, that were begging to be put down. Horrible places.”
“Uh huh. So, you’re telling me this because I can do something about it?”
“No, no. See, I’m like the foreman on a demolition job. I come in and see that everything is in order, everything’s set to go. All paperwork, really.”
“Oh, right. So why tell anyone? I mean, if nothing can be done ”
“Well, I can’t save the place, but I can do something for someone.” The words hung in the air, and someone near them started tapping a glass as they offered up a toast.
“You want to save me.”
The stranger edged in closer. From here, Eddie saw the toll time had taken on him. This man was deceptively old.
“Listen, I can tell you still don’t really believe me. And that’s all right. It’s important for you to keep the hope, otherwise you’d be a miserable puddle of despair right now, and neither of us wants that. What I’m trying to do here is offer you a chance to stay alive. You would replace me, do what I do. You don’t have to go down with the ship, and heck, you can stay around as long as you like. See a whole lot of interesting things, and I can finally get some rest.”
“How much time is left now?”
“And until Anna gets here?”
“Is there any way you can, I don’t know, show me?” The man sighed and looked around the restaurant.
“If that’s really how you want to play this, I can do that. But I’m only going to show you a taste, because I don’t want you to go into a seizure and make all these nice people choke on their food. You still want it?” Eddie nodded and licked his lips. He was nervous, and a moment later when the man reached across the table and put a palm to his temple, he was nothing.
Light and dark, up and down, negative and positive, infinitesimal and infinite, none of those comparisons meant anything anymore. Eddie saw through someone else’s eyes a place that wasn't a place at all, but rather, the absence of one. It hurt to look at, but at the same time it was the most wonderful thing. Unimaginable. The closest sensation he could compare it to was staring up into the sky from the bottom of a pool, and even that was way off.
A splitsecond might have gone by, or a hundred thousand years. Time didn’t exist when nothing could experience its passing. And then Eddie was back in the restaurant, and there were only five minutes to go.
“Holy God.” He’d been convinced.
The man across from him gave him a knowing nod.
“That was between the last world and here. But it’s like that every time. I’m going to need an answer, Eddo.”
Eddie closed his eyes and thought. The world was ending and here he was being offered an escape hatch. How many people would ever get this chance? He could be a true world traveler, see things the man in front of him hadn't even dreamed of...but he’d have to watch each of them wink out of existence, and he’d have to do it alone. It was a sad thought, and for the first time Eddie looked at the stranger with veiled pity. Then there was Anna. If he left, she would die alone, wondering where he’d gone, with no one but a stranger to greet her as it all fell away. He didn’t think he could let that happen. In the end, Eddie only asked one question.
“How many other people before me have you asked to take it on? Your job?” The stranger closed his eyes and smiled, as if he’d been expecting the question.
“Tens, hundreds. I haven’t kept count.” Eddie nodded.
“I’m sorry, mister, but my answer”
“Is the same as theirs. Yeah. You know, I knew you wouldn’t do it.”
The stranger got up, and wiped at the lapels of his coat. Eddie thought he saw a tear roll out of one of the deep eyes, but it was just as quickly gone.
“I’m sorry.” The stranger looked at him wistfully, then past him.
“Eternal life just ain’t the promise it used to be. But I’ll survive.” He turned to go, then turned back.
“It’s only a matter of time, you know. You’ve got three minutes, and she’s getting out of the cab right now. Make it count, Eddo.”
“Yes. Uh. Thank you.”
The stranger smiled and walked down the aisle, past the maitre’d, and out the front door. Barely a moment passed before Anna walked in, long locks of curly red hair falling over a forest green dress. She was magnificent. Eddie saw her searching for him, head darting left and right as she did it. He grinned, because at that moment he knew why he’d chosen to stay. Finally spotting him, her own face opened up into a smile, one of relief and comfort. She hurried over to his table, and slid into the space which had been occupied by the stranger only a moment before.
“Sorry I’m late, Eddie, I ”
“They look lovely, Anna.” He was pointing at her shoes. They were dark brown, high heels with golden bows on each toe. She gave him a puzzled look.
“What? Oh, yeah. You know, it was these darned shoes, that’s why I was”
Before she could finish, Eddie was out of his seat and kneeling beside her.
“Anna Moss, I’ve waited my entire life for this moment. And now that it’s here...well, there’s just not enough time for me to say what I wanted to. Will you marry me?” Her lips were trembling. She covered them with her hands, and her eyes were wet and shining.
“Oh, Eddie. Yes, I’d love to.” He slid the ring from his pocket onto her finger and brought her into his arms. He put his lips to her ear.
“If it’s you or forever, I’ll always choose you,” and though she didn’t know what he knew, Eddie was sure she could feel what he meant. She kissed him. And like that, his lips on hers, their world ended.
The stranger watched it go, shoulders slumped, and let out a big sigh. He might have been crying, but when he turned away and began the walk between worlds, a grin began to tug at the corners of his mouth. Where Eddie Carter’s world used to be, there remained only a memory, and a rising wave of wondrous, perfect laughter.
Clayton's Secret Notebook
There is a story I want to tell you about a man I knew once. Something happened to him, and his name was Clayton. Never mind who I am for a minute, this is about him. You know those stories people tell at parties? Fancy parties, where all the guests are wearing ties? The story, it’s always practiced. Embellished. Repeated. Every party the same story. The same guy, the same little group of people gathered around thinking they’re hearing something new, that somehow they’re special.
This story is like that. Except I’m only going to tell it once, and it’s true.
It goes like this. Clayton got married to a nice girl. A beautiful girl. Blonde, tall, great smile. I was there, I danced at the reception with some brunette. If women were silverware my date would have been a real spoon. I gave a mediocre toast. For a present I got them a mixer, one of those big bowls with the spinning claw up top. I think it doubled as a bread maker, maybe. They never used it.
On their honeymoon they go somewhere different. The Bahamas, Hawaii, Paris? Nope. The fucking Grand Canyon. They flew. Southwest from Detroit, got off in Phoenix. Rented a car. Drove out to some tourist hotel by the South Rim of the Canyon. I know which hotel, but I’m going to stop for a second to explain something important.
I know what happened out there, even though I’ve never been to Arizona. Never been west of the Mississippi, and only ever drove through Canada. So everything I know about the Grand Canyon is stuff I’ve seen on TV or read in books. Maybe Arizona is all desert, I don’t know. I don’t know a whole lot, and the little I do know I didn’t learn until a long time after the accident. After the funeral, I tried to get Clayton on the phone, to talk to him about it. I sent him emails, letters. I did what I could do, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. I gave up. I had done my grieving, and I tried to move on with my life and figured he was doing the same. All of us knew there was no one to blame.
Then one day I get a phone call, and it’s not from him, it’s from his mother. He’s gone missing. A strange development, but not altogether surprising or particularly distressing. I tell her he probably just went off to think. She tells me she’s had the police looking for him for three days. It's the second call I get from her that winter – the first one was about Imogene. Clayton's mother got the news before my parents.
When I get off the phone I go and sit on my porch. It’s February, and we’re having sort of a warm spell. All the icicles on my gutter are dripping and I’m thinking about the time Clayton and I drove to Mount Pleasant to play in a poker tournament. I went out the first round and Clayton sat there with this grin on his face, knowing I couldn’t stand seeing him win because it meant I had nothing to do but order drinks until his chips were gone. We were twenty-three. On the way home at five in the morning he drove right over a deer carcass, and the stink came up through the air conditioner and stuck on us, stinging our eyes as we retched out open windows.
You know how when you watch TV sometimes and you’re talking to the guy next to you, or your wife or girlfriend, and all of a sudden someone on the TV says the exact same thing you or she just said? Or when you’re driving down the road and you start humming a song and then you put the radio on and that same song is playing? Sort of weirds you out? That’s how I feel when the UPS truck pulls up and a big thick woman with a man’s haircut gets out and hands me a package. I sign for it, noticing that it says on the slip that it’s from Clayton. Only I feel it twice as bad, because not only had I just been thinking about him, I just got off the phone with his mom. I don’t notice the big lady get in her truck or drive away, but she must, because the next time I look up the street is empty.
I put it in the chair next to me and don’t open it. After a few minutes it’s almost as if he’s there, sitting with me. That’s nice, except I also feel like he’s trying to tell me something and I’m making him wait just so I can pretend things are like they used to be. Not that I don’t want to know what’s in it, just that I’m scared whatever it is will mean he’s gone for good.
It’s a big red notebook. Spiral-bound with leather covers. Filled with eighty or ninety loose-leaf sheets of yellow notebook paper, like what comes off a legal pad. Maybe by then I’m starting to get cold. In February, even when it’s warm it’s not warm. I should go inside, I remember thinking, but I don’t. I sit there on my porch and read this notebook straight through, cover to cover. The first page I’ll never forget. Scrawled in red ink across the first two lines are the words, “Secret Notebook.” Under that, written even bigger, “The Truth.”
I’m telling you this for two reasons. One is, I believe what I read in the notebook. It made some sense, but for the most part it didn’t. That’s how I knew it was true. Two is, I’m the only one who’s ever read it, and after I did I burned it. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea, but I wasn’t thinking right. If I hadn’t, this story wouldn’t need a middleman. I’d just have you read the notebook. Everything I couldn’t have known, all of the details I’d never imagine, all of them come from the notebook. I thought you should know.
Enough of that. This story is about Clayton, and his wife. Her name, you might have guessed, was Imogene. When they were alone, he called her his Imogenery Friend. I always called her Genie.
When they arrived, they drove to a tourist resort called The Grand Hotel, the same name as that hotel up on Mackinac Island where they shot that Christopher Reeve time travel movie back in the eighties. The Grand Hotel is part of a minimall called
“Grand Canyon Village” on Highway 64, just two miles from where the action is. It’s where they’d spent two nights together, and while they had reservations for three… well, things happen. This particular thing, in this particular place, happens on average two or three times a year. Usually it’s a kid whose parents are looking away for a moment to tie a shoe or take a drink. Clayton didn’t see her fall.
Those first two nights were magic.
The happiest my friend had been his whole life. Sure, it sounds like hyperbole. But when you’re twentysix and feel like you’ve found and secured the love of your life, and hey, you get to see and touch her without clothes on too? Give me something that beats that and I’ll shut up right now. If I know Genie, she was plenty happy too, but I didn't get to hear it from her.
I don’t want to leave anything out, but it’s going to happen. Clayton wrote about the fireplace in the lobby, the obligatory Western-themed restaurant and adjacent saloon with a new band every night. Mostly he wrote about the bedroom, the dimples on either side of her spine just above her buttocks. The taste of her sweat and the way she clung to him like a monkey to its mother. The way she whispered his name and how her tongue slid into his ear when he was inside her. That the dirtiest thing she could think of to say was “Give me your baby,” and how that one remark had made him laugh to the point of jeopardizing their lovemaking altogether.
When she napped he sat in a chair by the window and watched her, the corners of his mouth upturned in the slightest way, thinking he’d never be this happy again and not knowing he was right.
The first night they walked to the movie theater a block away and saw Forrest Gump. Imogene got through it fine but Clayton cried at the end when Forrest visits the tree where Jenny’s buried. He was torn between trying to hide it and being proud of being moved by a film, so he only dried the eye closest to his wife. When it finished he found she’d been watching him the whole time with a look of feigned concern.
The next day they got up early and went out on the trail with a group of tourists. They rubbed suntan lotion on each other and traded water bottles, because Clayton said it would be easier to remind her to drink than it would be for him to remember to do it for himself. She had a camera, one of those Nikons with big screw-on lenses from work (she was a Free Press photographer) and she wore out two whole rolls of film on the Canyon before sunset. She took plenty of Clayton too, but he never knew it. Imogene didn't want him to pretend happiness for a photograph - the pictures she took showed the real thing.
The next morning they took the Rim Trail by themselves, which was considered one of the more scenic and less dangerous of routes. Funny how things don't work like they're supposed to.
He was looking through the viewfinder. The sun was behind some clouds and then it came out, and he couldn't see her anymore – she had been replaced with a box full of glare. He had his other eye closed, and instead of pulling the thing off his face and resetting for the sun, he squeezed the shutter button.
He lowered the camera, letting it hang around his neck, and squinted at her.
“Why don't I take another – Imogene?” He was squinting at an empty rock face. Mather Point, one of the most popular views of the canyon. This is where she wanted her photograph taken. He turned around. She'd doubled back so she could come up from behind and scare him, or she was hiding somewhere. But there was nowhere to hide. No Imogene doubling back anywhere. A knot started to tighten in his guts.
He inched forward. He wasn't sure why, she wasn't down there. If she'd fallen she would have screamed, he would have heard it. He would have seen her. So why did he keep stepping forward, six inches at a time? And then, when he got to the edge, why couldn't he force himself to look down? Why was he crying already?
He didn't remember spotting her, didn't remember vomiting, calling the police or climbing down the four hundred feet himself. When they asked him later to describe the sequence of events he told them he had walked to the edge of the cliff and then he was beside her, with two sprained ankles he didn't notice.
Later they told him she'd been dead when he got there, that she'd died on impact, but that wasn't what he remembered.
Imogene smiled at him, and her good eye moved to meet his. The other side of her skull was caved in, and her neck was turned back like a broken pencil.
“I tried to joke,” she said to him, her words somehow clear.
“I wanted to trick you into thinking I fell.”
“I know,” he said,
“Don't talk,” he said, and
“I love you.”
“I ruined all your plans.”
“Don't worry, beautiful. We'll just go home. We'll just go back and it'll all be just how it was. We don't have to have a honeymoon, okay? I don't need one.”
“Look at me,” she said, and he did. It hit him. He wanted to hit it back.
Then there was a helicopter, and he was alone. Imogene wasn't smiling at him – she was dead.
The hospital staff left him alone, and he didn't talk to anyone. For two days he lay in bed, forcing himself to sleep, just so she could be alive again. It didn't matter that when he woke up he got so angry he tried to tear the casts off his legs. It was worth it, and he deserved the pain. His fault. His fault his fault his fault.
He flew back to Michigan with Imogene's body. At the funeral he sat and said nothing. He didn't cry. When I tried to catch his eye he looked away. My parents went over to talk to him and he turned his wheelchair around and rolled himself to his parents' car. He couldn't give anyone what they wanted, couldn't be an object of pity. Feeling was a luxury he didn't allow himself, unless that feeling was anger. His mother and father tried to get him to come back to live in the house of his childhood, but he swore at them. They dropped him off at his old apartment. It was stale and smelled like corn syrup. He thought he should start drinking, but didn't, because he didn't think it would matter.
The doorbell rang, the phone rang, and he didn't answer either. He didn't read or watch TV, and swore off personal hygiene altogether. He slept as much as he could and ate as little as possible, and in the few hours he was awake he wrote in a notebook all the things he should have said to her as she died. Then he made a list of the ways he could have saved her, and finally he wrote down all the most painful ways he could kill himself. That was what he wanted most. He even tried once, had one arm down the kitchen In-Sink-Erator to the elbow and the other on the switch, all ready to do it, when the phone rang. He didn't move to get it, but didn't want to bleed out without knowing what the message was going to be, so he waited.
It was the photo place. His mother had dropped off the camera and the rolls of film for him the other day, and the pictures had been developed. Would he like to come down and get them or should she call his mother and have her bring them to him? He was curious. He called back, and for the first time in almost a month, made ready to leave the apartment. He showered and shaved, and when the photo lady handed him the stack of envelopes with a smile, he almost smiled back.
At home he spread them all on his bed, and spent a minute with each, poring over its details. He even smelled them, imagining he was with a part of her again, a part she'd made just for him, just for this moment. But the feeling soon passed. They were pictures. Just pictures of the Grand Canyon, like anyone else's. She wasn't in any of them.
Except, that wasn't quite true.
It was the very last picture in the bottom envelope, the one he'd taken even though he hadn't seen anything.
On her face was a look of exaggerated terror. Her left foot was raised and stepping back, and her arms were treading air as she pre-tended to struggle with her balance. Clayton stared at the photo for near an hour, fresh waves of despair wracking him. It was like falling in love again, and it was like being shot in the chest. He glued the other pictures to the ceiling above his bed and the picture of Imogene into the back of a red leather notebook. On the first page of the notebook he wrote, “Secret Notebook,” and under that, in bigger letters, “The Truth.”
“The truth is,” he wrote on the first page, “some things we aren't meant to come back from,” and, on the last, “Mark, you deserved to know. I'm sorry. Tell my mom I'm okay.”
The day after I burn the notebook I call his mother back. “What's the news?”
“They want to call it off.”
I close my eyes. When I open them, I'm looking at the picture of Imogene between my fingers. The only thing I saved, because I couldn't burn her. On the phone, I say,“They'll find him. You'll see. Just wait, I'm sure he's fine,” but the words are hollow.
I'm holding the last picture anyone's ever taken of Genie, my little sister, in the last moment of her life before she plummets into the Grand Canyon. I can't look away. On the phone, I say, “You'll see,” and “Just wait.”
The Idea Jar
Hole Sale -
I wrote this story and "Jesse" at the same time, the first and second half of each in two separate sittings. I was reading an anthology by Wells Tower and came across the story of a man who'd taken all his savings and bought a mountain. It made me think – it's come to the point in our world where anything, no matter how big or little, can be bought and sold. What was even odder to me was the idea of someone claiming the absence of land – a hole. That was the seed.
Jesse - I was laying in bed one night and my belly started making these noises, one after the other, every three seconds. It went on for almost fifteen minutes, and by the end I was imagining someone was talking to me. What if something supernatural, paranormal, or spiritual decided to make contact with you in the most counterintuitive, pointlessly complicated way? Something about that was extremely funny to me. There was only one way I could think of to make it funnier. Hence, the Lord speaking to Joey through his wife's sleeping belly.
Wake - Believe it or not, poems usually have as colorful an inception as most stories do. They spring from the same complex or simple thought, and for me it's usually something that strikes me as funny. You know that moment in a dream sequence where one character asks another, “What are you doing in my dream?” and the other one says, “This isn't your dream. It's mine,”? What I thought would be interesting was if the first character didn't only know he was dreaming, but that he was comatose.
The other thing about this poem is the ending. When I was little I went to daycare every morning because both my parents had jobs. I'd get the most terrible headaches, and my dad would leave his job in the next city to come get me. Usually he'd show up during nap time. There was a girl who always woke up scared, not knowing where she was. Only instead of “Where am I?” she always asked “Who am I?” That always stuck with me.
Nutella - This was my reaction to July. A friend told me I had to read No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, and when I visited my sister in Chicago I found she owned the book. So I read some of the stories in it, and something weird happened. I got jealous. I had to prove to myself I could write something this striking, this twisted, this artsy. So I spent a day with my sister's boyfriend walking around Chicago and “Nutella” is how I fictionalized it.
Machine Another reaction piece, this one to a Canadian writer named Joey Comeau. I read some of his stories online, and I liked them so much I had to order his book. The title is a nod to the title of a story of his called “The Machine,” but the content is all mine. I had a dream one night that I had this wormhole that I could carry around that would spit out different people from my past and future. The only real place the dream shows up in the story is at the end, where three different pairs of my future children come through. When I dreamt it, all the pairs had to use the bathroom, only the youngest pair of kids weren't pottytrained, and they were holding everyone up. I went to the oldest pair and said, in my best fatherly voice, “Would you two go in and help your selves?” I think I woke myself up laughing. I'm not proud of that.
Red Ball Jets – This is an older piece, one I actually wrote last year in an introduction to poetry class. It's supposed to function as a prose poem, but I think it works just as well as a microfiction. The idea came from a midtwentieth century marketing campaign for tennis shoes that were actually supposed to make you run faster, jump higher, and all that. Magic shoes. Red Ball Jets. These shoes really existed, and kids actually believed that if they wore them they'd be better athletes. What if a pair of shoes made you so fast that you'd never have to pay for them? If you ran until your clothes just sloughed off your body like dead skin?
Last Night - A humorous daydream I had once. The poem came quick, in a fifteen minute spurt. It still makes me smile, but probably just because I'm a little weird.
Somebody– This came out of a little project I made for myself, to make my dialogue better – four separate single scenes with two characters each. I named the project “For Two Voices” and two of the four sections made it into this book. This one had more substance than the others.
Heartache - This is sort of a modern retelling of a popular Anton Chekhov story of the same name. In that story, the main character is a carriage driver whose son has been killed. He tries to tell his fares, any of them, what's happened, but none of them seem to care. Finally, when he is alone, he tells his horse. I think the Chekhov version is obviously the better of the two, but I tried to capture the same tone in my piece and I feel like I did. I wrote this for my Advanced Fiction class, and people had little to say about how it might be improved, which I took to mean I'd struck out. Recently, at a reading I gave with two poetry classmates, one of them told me she still thought about the story regularly. Reading it over again, I saw why.
enola – I wanted to write a love metaphor poem that was about radiation poisoning. Enola Gay was the name of the B52 bomber that dropped the first nuclear bomb, codenamed “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima. Creeping dose is another phrase meaning radiation poisoning.
The Exploding Heads of Mesmerson County – This one started as a title. I wanted to write a punchline story. A joke like the kind Isaac Asimov loved to write and apologize for, lasting a page or two. There would be two minor gods having a conversation, and by the end, one of them will have convinced the other to explode some heads. Only he'd do it with reverse psychology. The baseball came later, but it seemed to fit. You know that feeling you get every time your favorite team plays the Yankees? Yeah.
Magic– I really don't know. There are some things that just happen, and this piece was one of those. I couldn't tell you were it came from, so I'll just say that as a kid my sister and I had an obsession with magic. We'd send away for a magic kit and learn all the tricks, and then we'd have shows for our parents and friends. It was this preoccupation with illusion and possibility that kindled my imagination and made me want to tell stories. As soon as I found out being a writer was a real thing, that's all I wanted to do with my life. Tada! – The other quarter of that dialogue exercise that got in. Why did it get in? Because, like a lot of other things I put in this book, I wrote it and thought it was funny. The idea of a kid going into therapy for sex addiction when only his brain is sexually active? Come on, you probably thought it was funny too.
Eleven Minutes – The world is going to end before you've started eating and you have a choice. Stay with the one person you love, or leave her to exist as the grim reaper of every other dimension. I wrote this story last summer, and I guess I was feeling romantic. I don't have much of an origin story for it, so I'll tell you about the typo that I hinted at in the note at the beginning of the book. The version I sent to the Offbeat, the one that got published, is the same as this one in every way but one. When Eddie asks Anna to marry him, she looks up at him and says, “Oh, Jimmy. Yes, I'd love to.” JIMMY! It's one of her only two or three lines in the whole story and she says the wrong name! I didn't mean for it to happen. My subconscious pulled a Ross from that one Friends episode while I was writing. Oh no, I thought. They're going to print the wrong thing – I have to stop them. Then I laughed for about twenty minutes. I didn't stop them. It's too hilarious to want to fix.
Clayton's Secret Notebook – I'll do you a solid and tell you that in the first version of this book, “Clayton's Secret Notebook” wasn't a story. The only reason it even exists is because I wanted one more piece to fill out the collection. Before the story existed, Clayton's Secret Notebook was just the title of the book.
So what gives? Where did the title come from? Okay. I had a secret writing blog. Clayton was the name of my fictional alter ego. I'd post things only he could have written, and they'd be there for only me to read. It was meant to break down my stigma of “being bad” while I wrote. I would be sure to have Clayton inject blue language or some disturbing image into everything he posted, and even if it didn't work for the piece I started to get used to writing truthfully. A lot of the things in this book came out of that experiment, so I used the name of the blog as the title of the collection.
Now, where did the story come from? It's an effort to recreate an old piece of creative nonfiction I tried writing in high school. One of my friends' girlfriends told me her uncle and his newlywedded wife had gone to the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon, and that she'd fallen in and died. I was taken with the idea of it, and I wrote about five versions of the story, all with changing names, places, and ordering of events. It was more creative than it was nonfiction, but I never felt like I got it right. It didn't work as a first-person narrative or a third-person narrative, because I didn't know enough to make it feel believable, and that's what I wanted the most. This was true. I wanted the reader to feel the same way I felt when I heard about it. That's the effect I went for this time – I hope it worked, and if it didn't, at least I got in my nod to Paul Auster and his red notebook.
The Idea Jar – If you're like me, and you're probably not, the thing you find most interesting about a good story is where it came from. How it got to be like that.
Stephen King's latest [in 2009] anthology of short fiction, After Sunset, includes a section called “Sunset Notes,” where he goes through each story in the book and explains where he got it. How he decided to dip the pen in that one part of his brain, and why. What was interesting to him about the things he'd written. That's what I tried to give you here – more than just little bags of words, but words about those bags.
I've read that story notes like these are either enjoyed or frownedupon, but since I like them, I'll just assume you will too.
Forgive the assumption.
That's the book. I hope you liked it. If you did, drop me a line – I'd love to hear from you. If you didn't, that's okay too. When I don't like a book, I leave it on a park bench for someone else to also not like, so maybe you could do that. On the inside cover, write something like:
“I've been watching you,
and you seem really happy with your life.
This should help.”
- Adam Holwerda
May 2nd, 2009
East Lansing, Michigan
Adam Holwerda is a graduate of Michigan State University. He has an English degree and a secret middle name. He was born in Rome, the one in New York, and spent most of his life growing up in midMichigan with his sister and his parents. He has a fear of spiders and that aliens will come look at him through his window at night. He likes Indian food and short walks on the beach, but not at the same time because he can't breathe while he's eating and he can't walk without breathing. His favorite animal is the tiger, even though he would probably admit to being afraid of those too. He gets his ideas from a jar he buried under a tree ten years ago, and then dug up. The ideas aren't very good but he understands this is one of the shortcomings of allowing ideas to grow inside of a jar underground instead of actually coming up with them like any other self-respecting writer would. He has a hard time writing about himself in the third person but continues to do it anyway, out of spite. For you. Okay, he's stopping now. Wait. No. He lied. He'd tell you how to find him on the internet, but he assumes you, like everyone else, know how to use Google. Perhaps he is wrong. Probably.