Prose


by Adina Kabaker

“So what do we do now?” says Mr. Finkl. “The cleaning lady used a butter knife to cut her bologna sandwich and it’s not kosher any more.”

“You must clean it in boiling water,” says Old Lady Mandelstamm, “and then bury it in the back yard for six days.”

“A month,” says Myrna, the old-maid sister of Mrs. Finkl, pursing her lancet of a mouth. “MY rabbi says a month.”

“Oy, I can’t believe it, that such a young girl is more frum than me,” says Old Lady Mandelstamm. “Six days is enough.”

“And I don’t believe YOU people,” says Aunt Feigie, the anarcho-syndicalist pinko who doesn’t believe in God. “If there is a god, he’s more interested in what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.”

“You should talk,” says Myrna, “some of the things that you’ve had in your mouth. Since when are you a spokesman for God.”

“Didn’t you hear?” says Aunt Feigie. “I’m her confidante.”

Finkl’s father, the elder Finkl, who could care less about the knife says, “Ask YOUR rabbi. But be careful,” he says, “because if YOUR rabbi says six days and another subsequently says three, you have to go with the first opinion solicited. No shopping for opinions. The first one you got is binding.”

“Oy, listen to Pa, solicited yet,” says Old Lady Finkl. “That’s why you have to be careful who you ask. Myrna’s rabbi I wouldn’t ask.

Myrna looks huffy. She is forty-eight and unmarried. She is so religious and such a feminist she can’t find a proper husband. Some are feminist enough and not religious. Some are religious enough, but you try to find a religious feminist. All she talks about is shopping and nasty gossip about people and all the little frum things in her life. Did she tear enough toilet paper on Friday afternoon to have enough for the Sabbath, she shouldn’t have to tear. Can she set the electric coffee pot ahead, she shouldn’t have to boil before shul the next morning. She can’t talk about her job because she is the liaison from the National Security council to the CIA, and it’s all classified. She’s still mad because she wanted to say kaddish for her mother every day for a year after her mother died, and she knew there was a minyan at the National Security Council, but it was all men. They wouldn’t let her pray with them. One had said,” What do you want to say kaddish for, a nice girl like you? I’ll say it for you,” but she had taken a vow, and she felt like killing the guy.

The anarcho-syndicalist aunt was appalled that the National Security Council had enough orthodox for a minyan. What if the Iraqis decided to attack on shabbos? Would they refuse to answer the telephone. “We can’t come to the phone right now,” their answering machines would say. “Call back after sundown on Saturday. Have a nice shabbos,” Aunt Feigie often thought that modern technology would finally be the downfall of orthodoxy in religion, but the frummies just took it in their stride. Where once they had to hire a goy to light the fire on the Sabbath, now they had their goddamn electric coffee pots. The women, once shaving their heads and wearing clumsy wigs that looked like wood shavings, now wore sleek wigs from places like the Adora Salon or Marshall Fields, and were more of a temptation than they would have been with their real hair. And the answering machines so that they could obey the stricture against answering the phone (did God actually say that they shalt not answer the phone?) without missing an important message.

“So where’s this knife?” says Mrs. Finkl. “At least she didn’t put it back in the drawer, did she?”

“No, it’s on the back of the sink,” Mr. Finkl says. “You got her trained pretty good in that respect. And she knows enough to not mix the milk dishes and the meat dishes in the dishwasher and wait at least an hour before doing a load of one and then another.”

“Holy shit!” says Aunt Feigie. “You can’t do them together? This is worse than when I was a girl!”

“Feigl, your language,” Old Lady Mandelstamm says mildly. “Your mother would turn in her grave is she heard you.”

“She could probably use the exercise,” Feigie mutters under her breath.

by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

The thing that still sticks out of my mind most is how incomprehensible the whole thing was. The events were so inconsistent with the reality I knew, that it didn’t quite feel real. It felt like a dream, or actually, it seems like a story I would write.

I had lived in Syosset all my life, and my mom’s car had been broken into twice, and there was some other crimes I know of but can’t quite remember. But if I had ever wanted to see an actual robbery or such being committed, I always figured I’d have to turn on “Cops.” I was wrong.

Coming back from our Tuesday allergy shots, my dad and me, and my upper left arm was just beginning to itch and swell and ache. My father was driving our white limited edition Eagle Premier, graying black hair, where he had hair, and that was only in a horseshoe pattern encircling his head, tied back into a two inch ponytail, beard and moustache the same silvered black, more silver now than black, which covered the front of his face and joined up with the rest of the hair on his head through means of two sideburns. He was wearing his glasses, the ones which become darker when the world becomes brighter, and his deep voice came out of nowhere. Completely interrupted the song I was listening to.

“Do you want some chicken fingers?”

You know, I did. Some nice breaded white meat from Poultry Plus, with their sweet, but not too sweet, and spicy, but not too spicy, barbecue sauce. That sounded good.

“Yeah,” my voice was deep, started changing like five years ago, and I think by the time I was seventeen, which was then, it had stopped. I was sitting comfortably in the passenger side, seat belt on loose, leaning forward and playing with the ten preprogrammed radio stations. FM naturally.

“Let’s go now.”

Red light turned green at the corner of Jericho and South Oyster Bay, and we made a left. WE passed the Health Connection, the health food store where I worked over the summer. I was a stock boy - pure energy - moving, placing, counting, moving, cashiering, moving - heavy boxes, plastic crates of vegetables, vitamins, supplements, health chips like styrofoam, expensive water. They fired me, well actually, they let me go, after like four weeks. But that’s in the past, no hard feelings. I just don’t go in there anymore.

Anyway, we pulled up to the poultry store. I wasn’t too interested in going in, so my dad went in alone, and I stayed outside in the car listening to the radio. X107.1 - alternative rock, metal. Good station, I just found it this summer and now it’s one of my favorites.

Look up, father on line, two in front of him. Bad song comes on, change, 92.7, o.k. song, but look around some more. 92.3, Z100. Good song. But it’s the end and now it’s over. When I was younger I couldn’t find Z100 because I kept putting the tuner to 100 FM, but Z100’s frequency is 100.3. Anyway, song over, need new song. 104.3 - hard metal - o.k. song. Look around some more. 107 again. Hate this song! Switch!

Boom! What? Boom! Like a bass drum, but heavier, deeper, louder, closer. I looked up, catching a glance of my blank, impassive face in the mirror of the sunshade, folded down to keep early Spring sun from burning my beautiful blue-green-gray eyes. The sound was coming from the store and I naturally looked there first. I could see one of the men who had been on line before my father, his arms up, back to the far wall. The cashier was busy taking the money out of the cash register and putting it into a plastic bag. And the other man who was on line was now holding a gun. He wore a ski mask, something which he had just put on, and I couldn’t remember what he looked like. It took me a little while to take all of this information in, and then I realized that i couldn’t see my father.

That was bad. Before I was just curious and watching, but now I was frozen. And i didn’t care for the song that was on the radio.

The robber was out of the store, into a car and speeding out the road in the same time it took me to take off my seat belt. I didn’t notice the plates or the type of car. I was focused on the plate glass window of the store, empty, wondering where my father was, wondering about those gun shots, walking towards the door of the store, still in the middle of falling closed.

I rushed in, like ripping off a Band-Aid I thought it would hurt less if i did it quickly. i didn’t want to tease myself with first my father’s feet, then his legs, etc.

But even trying specifically not to do that, that’s what I did. Like slow motion. First there were his feet. Then his legs, and his left arm wrapt around them, his right hand shielding his head, curled into a little fetal ball, like I once was, breathing, no, crying. And then there were police sirens, and people noticing the holes in the roof, two .35 caliber bullet holes in the plaster/styrofoam ceiling. My father being helped to stand up by some concerned spectator, his face, his pants wet. Old creased face crying like a child, the saltwater tears matting his beard to his head. And all the fear I might have felt, or thought I did, wasn’t fear anymore. Father-protector. The feeling was more like shame, or pity, or loathing.

I don’t talk much to Bruce anymore, and especially not about that day. People tell us, and especially me, how lucky we all are, and especially how lucky I am, that neither of us were hurt, especially that my father was fine, and how we have the whole family together still. I don’t know what he thinks, but I can’t help believing that it would’ve been better had one of us died.

by Alexis Truetle

My mother calls on Wednesdays. Wednesdays because that’s the day she can pencil me in, neatly, across an empty white page of her file-o-fax. When I’m home, we go to lunch on Wednesdays. I always wear something nice and comb my hair, put on the flowery earrings she likes so much. But since I’m 3000 miles away from home, Wednesday afternoon lunches have sort of evolved into complicated phone calls that eerily remind us of lunch dates back at home.

“Hiiii!” she sings into the receiver. My mother has one of those incredibly melodic voices, rich and commanding. My mother wanted to be an Opera singer. I tell her ‘hi’ back, not even bothering to make my voice as lovely as hers. We tried before. It doesn’t work.

“So how is everything?” Everything’s fine.

“Are you having fun?” My mother is convinced everyone on the face of the Earth is having more fun than me. She diagnoses me with depression when she sees me at home, alone, shut off in my room on a Friday night. I don’t think it’s possible for my mother, who reigned as the head cheerleader/ homecoming queen/ valedictorian when she was my age, to understand that being at home on a Friday night, alone is what makes me happy. It must be a hard thing to comprehend in my mother’s head, a Friday night alone. “Are you making friends?” Lots of fun. Lots of friends, Mom.

“I want to hear all about it!” My mother is one of those people who says they want to hear about it and actually means it. I don’t know. What do you want me to tell you, Mom?

“Shit! You’re in New Fucking York! You’ve got to have something exciting to tell me!” My mother has a mouth like a truck driver. It always shocks my friends at first, who then go on to think this is an incredibly cool trait my mother possesses. Like the time in junior high my mother had gotten stuck driving a car load of my 13 year old friends when a nun pulled out in front of my mother’s van, who then took it upon herself to yet out the window, “GOD DAMMIT! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” She was a nun! I cringed. My friends laughed the entire car ride. My mother, the confirmed Catholic.

My mother keeps asking me questions. I don’t know what it is, but I’m convinced there is something about the phone, that makes it incredibly easy to tell my mother about my days here. Or maybe it’s not the phone at all. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m 3000 miles away or that it’s been scientifically proven the bad track lighting in this 6×10 dorm room has mind numbing effects. Or maybe there are some things about Wednesdays that make it easier for my mother and I to relate to one another. Either way, I’m suddenly telling my mother more about my life and my plans than I probably care to.

And she listens. And I know she is taking this all in, word for word, storing it like a computer, in that huge incriminating evidence file of her maternal brain, I know she’ll find ways to use against me one of these days.

ItÕs weird because I acknowledge this fact, but I still ignore it. This amazes me, the way that I’m eagerly replying to the same questions my mother asks on a day to day basis that normally are enough to send me into raging fits of annoyance inside my head.

But tonight I am incredibly grateful towards my mother for asking these questions, for replying to everything with such enthusiasm. It’s nice to know, that at least on Wednesdays, she still cares. And for once I enjoy listening to her daily affirmations, gossip, talk about her work. Things I normally wouldn’t care about.

“And oh shit, I locked the keys in my car again today.” My mother has a knack for locking the keys in her car. She’s the kind of person who presses the power lock button when she comes to a stop sign. My mother is the most paranoid person I know.

“You’re not gaining weight are you?” My mother always told me, “Sometimes you have to suffer to be beautiful.” Like the time she taught me how to buy an expensive dress one size too small so that starving yourself to fit into it would seem actually worth it. My mother is a very practical person.

I’m not offended by her questions, I’m used to them by now. My mother with her pear-shaped body. I did not inherit my mother’s small-on-top-big-onbottom figure. I do not resemble my mother with her average height and average weight. She says I take after my father.

I stare at a picture of my family we brought with me, focusing in on my mother’s smiling face while she talks about fat grams and Thighs of Steel work out videos. I wonder why I haven’t before realized how truly beautiful she is. How unfortunate it is for me, both of us probably, that I do not have her pink angelic face and rare green eyes, I think. Nobody has ever accused me of looking like my mother. I suddenly have a need to be very close to her. I get this empty feeling, thinking that if only I could stare into a mirror and recognize my mother’s face I wouldn’t feel so horridly far away from her.

“We made you an appointment.” My mother’s confident voice breaks in again and settles with me even though I have no idea what she’s talking about. My mother is always making me appointments that I somehow seem to always miss. Okay. I say ‘okay’ to my mother’s appointments a lot. ‘Okay’ always pisses her off. She wants me to take appointments as seriously as she does.

We are running out of things to say.

My mother takes it upon herself to change the subject. “I couldn’t wear a sleeveless shirt today. I have this damn bruise on my arm. It looks like shit.” My mother bruises easily. At least physically. I’ve inherited this from her, maybe the only physical trait that has been passed down to me by means of her.

Our phone call is lingering. Both of us trying to hold on to whatever it is about this Wednesday tradition that allows us to relate to one another. It isn’t working. Once, during one of our Wednesday lunches, I asked my mother what she thought about a relationship I was in. She had just looked at me and said, “You’re just trying to salvage what’s left of nothing.” It wasn’t what I’d wanted her to say.

Do you remember that Mom? Do you remember when you told me? I ask her.

She’s quiet for minute. “I don’t think so…” Pause. “You’re making that up. I never said that.” Whatever Mom. Whatever.

My mother gives it one last chance.

“I saw that Chris boy you used to bring to the house at McDonalds with some other girl. Did you know about that?” Yes. I want to tell her. I do. I want to tell her all about my teenage boy problems. I’d like to be 4 years old again, sitting in my mother’s lap, hair twirling around my finger, having her tell me that everything is going to be all right. I want to say I really messed this one up, Mom. He was smart and kind and gentle. He was the one. I want her to tell me it will all work out. I want to tell her. I do.

“To tell you the truth, I’m actually glad you got rid of that one. He seemed like such a loser,” I don’t tell her.

There’s more I should tell her. Important parts I’m leaving out. Partly on purpose, partly because I can’t find the words to say them. But mainly because the novelty of this Wednesday is wearing off.

“So I guess I should let you go. It doesn’t sound like you want to be reminded any more of home. It sounds as if you really do need to get away from here.” Yeah. I guess so Mom. I’m glad I left out the part about missing home. All those years of complaining would seem pretty hypocritical I think.

“I’ll talk to you Wednesday.”

I bite my lip. Twirl a strand of hair around my finger. I’ll be the first to say it I think. I tell myself it would mean so much more to her if I said it first. I think about it, practice saying it in my head before I go through with it. I smile thinking how wonderful it will be.

“I love you.” She beats me to it.

I love you too.

by C. Cryf

I look in the mirror sometimes, and self-esteem stares back! I look in my underwear sometimes and gain self esteem from the size of my penis! Sometimes I do something so vulgar and disgusting, it makes me happy that I could, and this gives me self esteem! Sometimes my hair just has that special gleam! Sometimes I sit, and look at the muscles in my arm! So developed! So beautiful! My race, the human race, that is, gives me self esteem. Not the race as in our values and actions, but our amazing form and what we are! Muscles working! We grow and excite! We act in perfect harmony with our bones and muscles! How did it all start? I stare at this arm, so succulent, so sweet to me! I am ready to eat if it was just acceptable in our society! My physique gives me self esteem! I look in the mirror and flex my chest muscles, my beautiful pecs! My rock hard nipples stare back like the headlights on a 57 chevy! Oh so pretty and sweet in their own way! So tasty that if flesh was an edible truth I would steal little children and eat them! Even what I just combobuluted on this paper gave me esteem! My writing style is far better than any of those who think that their’s is good! When I walk down the street and see all the honeys check out my tight buttocks, their warm, wet, succulent, mouth-watering stares give me self-esteem! Then I think about how I could please them! I would be the one who would really bring them to climax! I would give a whippin’ to that G-spot! They’d be proud to tell all of their friends that I was the mac-dad! The one who gave a hittin’ and kept on tickin’ ! Every time I would see them after that, would think to myself about how pleased they were, and my esteem would come back once again! I go to school, and my grades give me esteem! I say, “Wow! A 59, I think that I’ll go home and kill myself! I will write a note telling all you asses who ruined my self esteem, how much I hate you! The nights that I sat in bed and cried! The nights that thought I was good in the afternoon, and by school’s end, how much of a lop of fleshy shit was! You hurt my self-esteem! You scarred it! You ate it like my arm and then you spit it out! You spit it out like a fat, juicy loogy! I could never forgive you all! My esteem is the god flesh of my thoughts! It paces waiting for the new breed to hatch from the collective uterus of the milky way! So milky like the arm of my eye!” Mustard and cheese is what I desire! It will rid my mouth of the aftertaste of something that I had thought would give me self-esteem! It just left a fishy taste in my dirty mouth!

by E. R. Murray

I can still remember the last time he was pushing me. Those big, soft hands on the small of my back giving me just a little more momentum each time. Not too much, not too little.

“Hey, dad. Dad!” I would call. “Push me higher!” My hands squeezed the chains as I swooped down to the bottom and glided back up to the top. I loved the motion and I loved watching everything move. Everything flew around me, the trees, the buildings, the people. Down, down toward the ground and then the quick takeoff toward the sky. There was that moment when everything stopped, and then I fell backwards, back to earth, back to him, back to us.

I guess it was boring for him, standing there in the late afternoon sun, pushing and waiting, pushing and waiting. I’d hear him mumbling behind me sometimes. “Ridiculous”, he would say. “Grown man with better things to do.” Or sometimes he would walk away and let the swing slow almost to a stop, then without a word start pushing again.

Sometimes at home he just seemed to be asleep. Mom would talk to him and he would just say ‘yeah’, or ‘no’, or ‘I don’t know’, or sometimes not even answer. Other times when he would talk, non-stop. He would tell me everything he saw, everything that happened to him that day, everything that went through his mind. “This guy called and said he wanted to place and order and I said ‘wait ’til I get my form’ and he said ‘don’t you think you should have them ready when people call?” and I said do you want to place an order or do you want to tell me my business. Some people always think they can tell you how to live your life. Don’t ever let anyone tell you how to live your life.”

I tried hard to be interested, too. “Really?” I would say. Or, “How about that.”

But I always wanted to go to the swings. “Hey, dad. Dad!” I would call. “Push me higher!”

So he pushed. He lay his hands gently on my back and at the absolute peak of my momentum in one direction he started me off in another. I hung, absolutely still for a moment, and when that moment bled into another, I moved again. The swing made a perfect arc, like a big pendulum ticking off minutes.

“They’re just mood swings,” my mother would tell when he wasn’t around. “Just something he goes through.” She had a funny, sad look on her face, and she started to keep her back to me a lot. “He really loves us a lot….”

I thought that learning to pump might help. It would give him a rest, and maybe make him proud of me. So, when he wasn’t with me, I’d climb on, kick my legs and eventually get a little movement going. Feet out, head back, hold on tight going forward. Head up, knees in on the return. Kick those feet going back up again. Soon I was moving smoothly and independently. I wanted to show him, but I waited for a bad day, a mumbling day, thinking it might make him feel better.

That muggy afternoon in the park I could feel his anger. The morning had been a talker, and the afternoon was becoming a mumbler.

“Just too stupid,” I heard him say behind me as he gave the first push. I felt nothing on the next two passes, but then the reassuring and gentle hands resumed and I was soaring. ‘Now is the time’, I thought. After the next push I kicked my legs out and threw my head back. On the way back down I felt him move out of the way. Again and again I thrust myself forward and kicked backwards. I was really pumping now. Higher and higher, faster and faster, in control of my flight.

“Hey, dad. Dad!” I called. “Look! I can pump.” At the top of the arc I managed to turn just enough to see behind me.

But he was gone.

And now I push. Not too much, not too little. He looks a little like me, but more like him. I think maybe the nose skipped a generation.

“Daddy!” he shrieks in delight. “Push me higher!” And I do. I check to see that he’s holding on tight and that he’s not slipping off the seat, and watch his little rear end coming toward me. I step back a bit so his feet don’t kick me, and just at the top of the arc, when all forces of nature are balanced for an instant, I push. Not too much, not too little.

“Daddy,” he calls again. “Push me higher!”

by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“So, what do you think?” she finished her speech. Her voice and her manner were just as sweet as they were in real life. The speech she had just finished had a definite theme to it: she had a crush on someone, and it wasn’t me. This person was a friend of mine, and that was what had won me the honor of this phone call. She didn’t even know him, but she had liked him for years. She asked me if he likes girls, which I had to answer truthfully:

“No.”

But I had to explain that, damn my conscience.

“I mean, like, he does, but not in a practical way. Like, he doesn’t want a relationship, or anything even close. Sorry.”

“Well that’s okay.” Doubtful that she meant that. “It’s just that I wanted to see if I should give up.”

“Yeah, but you know you won’t. I could tell you there was no hope, no chance, but there’d still be a part of you that said there was hope.” Experience told me this was true. “You want me to tell you that there’s nothing you can do, s o you won’t feel bad when you do nothing. ‘Cause whenever you see him, there’s gonna be this yelling voice that’s like screaming at you to do something, to walk up to him, to talk to him, to do anything.” Why did I say this? Why? “But there’s always t his equal and opposite reaction, fear, that’s like telling you not to because it won’t work, be cause you’ll make a fool of yourself, because something won’t go perfect. You want me to tell you there’s nothing there so you won’t feel bad. But it doesn’t matter. Every time you see him you’ll go through that. And every night, before you go to sleep, and after you go to bed, you’ll have these dreams, these daydreams, not real, like, subconsciously fashioned dreams, but hope dreams, the things you want. Those dreams where he’s lying next to you in your big, empty bed, and he’s holding you or he’s kissing you, or he’s touching you, and maybe more. Or maybe you’re just thinking about tomorrow-maybe you’ll see him, and you’re thinking that he’ll drop a bo ok, and you’ll pick it up, he’ll smile and introduce himself-like you don’t know his name already-and you’ll start talking and he’ll reveal that he dropped the book on purpose, so he could talk to you, because secretly he’s liked you forever and then even tually you’ll end up in each other’s arms. Or maybe you’re reviewing today, thinking what if I had done this or this. But this is just a dream. It’s all like that.” I paused, reviewing all I had said. “Sorry.”

The other end of the phone line was quiet for a time. And I knew everything I said was true, not only for her, but for me. And tonight I would dream of her soft, warm skin, but that was as close as I would ever get.

by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“Get away from me,” she yelled through her tears. “Get away;” her words were nearly unintelligible, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and down into her mouth. They tasted really salty. She backed up, until her back touched the metal grid wall of a jungle gym. “Leave me alone.” She picked up a handful of the small pebbles that were the flooring of the playground and threw it at them in a wide arc. Some of the boys jumped away from the projectiles with practiced grace, while others just took the shots with a military stoicism.

They all kept advancing, though. The semi-circle was growing tighter. It was like a nightmare she once had, except in the dream they were pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and big roly-poly clowns.

“Oh, come on, Jamie, we’re just having a little fun.” Josh smiled when he talked, almost reflexively, and his teeth were perfectly white and straight, and when he smiled like that, and spoke in his angelic child’s voice, and said such rational things like, “It’s only a game,” then his smile was terrible. Like it was now. He was the center of the enclosing arc: the keystone. There were about seven of them in front of her, coming in slowly, like it was such a sure thing that they could get her that they could take their time. She threw some more stones at them, and started shoveling great handfuls, as much as her small, pink nine year-old hands could shovel. The stones fell like hard raindrops from the late autumn blue-gray sky. Robbie yelped and held his hands to his left eye.

George went over to Robbie, who’s face was turning red with the effort from holding the tears in. George gently pried open his hands, and looked at his face. “He’s O.K., just hit him in the cheek.” Josh continued the advance.

“You O.K.?” George asked quietly. Robbie felt silly and childish saying that he wasn’t, and he was reasonably O.K., but it stung where she hit him. His tears turned into a snarl, and he growled out, “I’ll kill the bitch.”

David came up to them quietly, and said, in his high-pitched voice, which always sounded like he was that-close to laughing, “That’s for Josh to decide.” He snickered a little, and jumped away before they could respond.

“You’re lucky you didn’t hurt him badly. Then we’d have to hurt you. Badly.” His smile was leering at her, and it seemed there was no way out. Except up. The thought had occurred to Josh also. She turned around and was about to scurry up the grid, when Neil grabbed her hands off the metal, and pulled her towards him, towards the bars, so that she was pressed face-first against the jungle gym. Neil smiled and licked her cheek. His pink tongue was insanely long, but she was screaming now, screaming loudly, a ragged syllable, pausing only long enough to breathe in, and she wasn’t paying attention to anything else, except that she couldn’t move her hands; no matter how much she thrashed about, and she did do quite a lot of that, his grip on her remained iron-hard, his fingers digging into her wrists the more she struggled.

“Oh, whatsa matter, Jamie,” said Jason, mocking her struggling. She spit near him, not able to turn her head all the way. He laughed, and she was crying more and more. The more she cried, the less anything else came to save her. She was surprised that she still had more to cry. Her entire face felt hot and red and puffy, and she just wanted them to stop and leave her alone. Jason moved over to get closer to her. Josh roughly shoved him aside, and just stood there, staring at him. Jason moved away, stepping back not so much to make room for Josh, but to put some room in between them. Alpha male always gets first pick.

Josh still smiled, and brushed his curly brown hair out of his deep brown eyes. His one distinguishing feature was his smile. All the other boys were of the same height, or near enough, and same weight. They were all lean and wiry. Jason, George and Neil had black hair, the deepest, richest, moonless midnight black. Robbie and Chris had blonde hair; David had strawberry blonde hair, hints of red in the flax, and his was the longest, straight to his shoulders. Kenny had a buzz-cut of indeterminate color, which matched his gray-like eyes that sometimes seemed blue, or green, or hazel, or any other number of colors, depending on the way the light hit them. There were nine people in this group, and the ninth called out.

“Why, hello, Misses Jankowski. What brings you out here? To our playground? Walking steadily towards the jungle gym?” he called out in an exaggerated voice, loud enough for everyone to hear him.

Josh grimaced, his upper lip curling up, showing his teeth in something not a smile. Neil had let go of Jamie’s hands and was climbing up the jungle gym’s metal grid wall. Josh leaned in closely, and whispered, “We were just playing a game, Jamie. No one was going to hurt you. O.K.? Just a game.” She nodded slowly, drying her tears quickly on her sleeves, wiping her entire face, which seemed to Josh to just spread the tears and redness all over her face. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and smiled to reassure her. He had decided that she would probably die soon.

“What are you doing Josh?” asked Mrs. Jankowski, her voice tinged with anger, her hands on her hips.

“I was just telling Jamie that I liked her, Mrs. Jankowski.” Josh had stopped smiling here, and instead looked up like a little puppy dog whose favorite treat was just taken away.

“Come over here Jamie.” Jamie meekly walked over to the teacher. Most of the boys were innocently playing with the swings, and slowly walking away, towards the bigger section of playground; a small windowless jut of red-brick school-building separated the two sections. Josh, standing there all by himself, had turned on all of his boyish charm, channeling all of it into looking forlorn, and sad. Not giving in, Mrs. Jankowski took Jamie away, with one final look at Josh, warning him about the consequences if he had lied, or even worse, made another student cry. She couldn’t imagine that some kids could be so casually mean. But still, she thought, it was better than how some of the kids related to each other in city schools. Some of her friends who had worked in those schools told her stories, stories involving guns and knives, and killing. She waited until she got Jamie inside the classroom. Jamie sat down, and dried her eyes with the tissues that Mrs. Jankowski gave her. “Tell me what happened.” Her tone was soothing and confidential, but it was a commanding tone also. Jamie blew her nose, and began to tell her (making it up using what she had overheard her older sister say on the phone) about how Josh had told her that he liked her, and how upset she was because they were such good friends, and she didn’t want to lose him as a friend. Not even this would make her forget her loyalty to the golden playground rule: Never tell a Teacher. Mrs. Jankowski listened to everything she was told, and she knew that some thing in the story wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the way that Jamie told it, or the way she kept biting at her lower lip. The lipstick was smudged mostly off; Mrs. Jankowski was always a little surprised, upset maybe, about how the girls in fifth grade were always trying to act older. The makeup, and the training bras, and sometimes the stuffing of bras, everything which they affected, it all disgusted Mrs. Jankowski, who was feeling every of her thirty-eight years. Jamie, one of the smarter girls when it came to books, had skipped a grade, and so being the youngest, tried the hardest to act and look the oldest. Why were they in such a rush to grow up? Her deep-seated feeling was that kids should be kids. Jamie left the room, and Mrs. Jankowski used the last few minutes of recess to go to the bathroom. Women’s bathrooms, at least to men, always seem better furnished. The faculty women’s bathroom at South Grove Elementary School was an exception to this rule-of-thumb. The walls were grimy and the ceiling was patchy with mold and falling down in places. Mrs. Jankowski was used to this mess so she just went into the first unoccupied stall. She wiped the seat before sitting down. Along with the feeling of relief, the sound of urinating always calmed her. She flushed and walked out of the stall, pausing to look at herself in the mirror, before going back out. She felt old. She didn’t want to deal with children who were rushing to be old, and she couldn’t seem to convince them to be happy the way they were. They always wanted more.

Josh was gathering his group around him, calling them to their playground, now that Mrs. Jankowski had left.

“Fucking A, man,” said Jason, “Why the fuck did she have to come over here?” Jason was on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth and nose, and all before anyone had even seen Josh move. Josh’s hands were still clenched in fists, but he had turned away.

“What the fuck,” with all the emphasis on fuck, “was that for?” Josh looked at Jason for a second, smiling, while wheels turned in his head.

George looked at Josh, waiting for a sign that would tell him that it was safe to help Jason. Josh jumped at Jason, grabbed his shirt front and shook him, his head hitting up and down on the grass, most of which was yellow and dead. After a few minutes he got off him, slapping him once for good measure, and stood up, brushing his shirt down, and brushing the hair out of his eyes. George went over to Jason, holding a tissue to his bleeding face, and whispering about how to make the bleeding stop. George’s parents were both doctors, just like they wanted him to be. George was only ten, like the rest of them, so he didn’t know what he wanted, and wasn’t worrying about it yet. Josh looked at the rest of the group and smiled. Brian, the ninth person in the group, and the second-in-command, like Josh had the same shade of brown hair, but was curly, where Josh’s was straight, and brown eyes, though his mother called them hazel, because it sounded nicer. Brian didn’t smile as much though, and the reason was whenever he did, people invariably noticed how sharp his teeth were, and how much they made him look like some sort of carnivorous dog, a jackal or hyena maybe.

Sometimes, older adults would make comments to his parents about how they should get him braces so he wouldn’t look so much like a dog, like a hyena.

Brian took special pleasure then in telling them that hyenas weren’t real dogs. When he left they usually muttered something under their breath about how it takes one to know one.

Now Brian was looking at his watch and walking over Josh. “Hmmm. Josh, if you want to get something fresh to eat, we should go now, before recess is over.”

Josh nodded his assent. “Let’s go find us some fresh meat.” He started walking away, towards the little forest that bordered one side of the schoolyard. Brian, Chris, Robbie, Neil, Kenny, David, who was running around, back and then forward, side to side, followed him into the woods.

George helped Jason get up and then walked after them. Josh had started jogging, and soon the whole group was running through the woods. Jason started limping in the direction of the forest, his bloody tissue pressed to his nose. He also started running to keep up with the group, the bloody tissue dropped to the forest floor like one of fall’s red leaves. Was it just a trick of the light, the unsure gloom of the sun-dappled forest floor? Or were they running on all fours? Like wolves.

by Carlee Erika Schilk

I felt a strange tingling on my skin and knew I wasn’t alone. It was really late when I opened the front door of my apartment. The door had jammed and I fumbled with the lock for some time before it finally opened. For some reason, I crept through the hallway in the darkness, not wanting to turn on any lights. The tingling was still with me as I hunted for something blunt to protect myself with.

I had gotten my apartment broken into on more than one occasion-which is what you get for living in a lousy neighborhood-so being on my guard wasn’t all that difficult.

Sure, I could have purchased a dead-bolt or some other device to protect my home with-you know, one of those alarm systems you can install yourself?-but I figured he’d just want to steal that. Besides, a ten dollar dead-bolt wouldn’t stop some psycho intent on coming in and raping or killing some poor hapless victim.

There is an oval shaped lamp I can see silhouetted against the window shades and I quietly unplug it, wrapping the cord around my hand. I can hear faint breathing somewhere close and my heart begins to pound in my ears. My antenna is working perfectly tonight I’m going to clobber whoever is in here for sure.

My steps are muffled by good floorboards and thick carpeting. I’ve always hated thick carpeting. First of all, it’s hot in the summer and in winter it feels scratchy-and all year round, you feel like you’re walking on sponge. Stains are hard to get out of them, too.

Now I can hear more movement-coming from the bedroom. The nerve of some people. I grasp the lamp tighter, its smooth edges cool to the touch, raising it above my head.

A man’s large figure steps out from behind a wall and I attack. The lamp comes crashing down on his head-I make sure of that-and he has no idea what hit him. It is a good, solid thump. Out of curiosity, I crouch down and touch the guy’s head. I can feel the warm blood coming from a long gash on his scalp. Bull’s-eye.

“Warren? Are you alright?” a woman’s voice calls worriedly.

Okay. So maybe I fibbed a little.

“Warren?”

Maybe this really isn’t my apartment.

“Warren??”

But I’ve never raped anyone.

“Stop playing around, Warren.”

Yet.

“This isn’t funny.”

by Robert Frerichs

The highway is the path that leads us to tomorrow. The highway is the relentless, uncaring movement of time.

The asphalt tore beneath our wheels. It looked like the belt of an angry sanding machine set on high. Charlie Krogen had held the gas pedal of his 1972 Pontiac Le Mans to the floor for more than three miles of Nebraskan black-top highway.

CHECK IT OUT! Charlie shouted to be heard over the roar of the V8 engine. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel, and his eyes never left the road when I looked at him; he just nodded, ever so slightly at the speedometer.

I didn’t have to lean over far in the small, hard top coupe to see that the needle was pointing straight down, trembling softly between the B and the R of the word BRAKE. Exactly what that meant was open to debate. The round speedometers markings stopped at one hundred forty miles an hour. The one forty mark was located at about five o clock position, the word BRAKE (which was an indicator light for the park brake) was centered at the bottom of the speedometer at the six o clock position. By rights this meant that we were doing somewhere around a hundred and fifty to a hundred and sixty miles per hour. I glanced at Charlie again; he was trying without success to look relaxed.

I looked back out the window, and began to wonder what level of scared I should be. My reason told me I should be demanding we slow down, my mind told me that I should be afraid to breathe, my heart told me that for this brief moment at least, I was truly alive. In the dusty wasteland of northern Nebraska, feeling alive is not a sensation you let go of lightly.

Less than ten minutes ago, Charlie (better known as CK) and I were sitting in history class watching the clock. Our sophomore class in Mason Public High School boasted a grand total of seventy-eight students, many of whom had to travel more than thirty miles each way to get there. This number was down from the all time high of one hundred and twenty-three students who had graduated in nineteen seventy-two, the year this Pontiac was new. Mercifully the bell had finally rung at exactly three forty-five and we made a beeline to CK’s car in the school parking lot. We hadn’t even bothered to stop by our lockers to drop our books off, we just threw them in the back seat. On Monday, after the weekend, we would reclaim them, untouched, and carry them in to restart the drudgery that is a week of high school. CK often gave me a ride home from school, because I had no car of my own. At fifteen years of age I dont know if its right to say that were drinking buddies, but thats what were.

The prairie highway was straight and clear of traffic, so CK eased the car over into the middle of the road. At this speed the car has a tendency to float, and repeated high speed trips had taught CK to allow room for the car to drift some before it hit the ditch. He kept his foot to the floor and the Le Mans was giving us all it had. I could smell the motor, the grease and oil boiling on the manifold, but the main sensory input was the tremendous sound that a gas combustion engine makes when it exceeds the red line on the tachometer. The tachometer measures the amount of times the engine turns in a minute. The General Motors factory recommends never to go beyond four thousand five hundred revolutions per minute, and there is a red line on the gauge at that mark. I knew by the sound that CK was well into the six thousands. The noise was incredible. With the engine working this hard it consumed somewhere around a gallon of gas every two to three miles. You could almost watch the gas gauge drop. If you wanted to take your eyes off the road.

The late afternoon sun was bright and the trees that lined the ditches on the right-hand side of the highway had their fall colors on. I was looking at other side of the road though, watching the telephone poles go by and trying to figure if we left the black top at this speed, could we squeeze between them. I figured we couldn’t.

A half mile ahead was the turn-off on to a dirt road that led to CK’s parents farm house. It was easy to know when CK’s foot came off the gas, because the tone of the engine changed completely. The high pitched, white noise roar of the engine suddenly changed to a low hum that decreased slowly as the motor gave up its fight against the wind. He began carefully slowing the car down, using very little brake. I imagined it was like landing a jet.

Im not sure when it was exactly that I realized that CK and I were living in a world of old machines. It was a thought that had been building slowly along with a certain feeling of doom and hopelessness. CK and I knew everything there was to know about cars. We weren’t old enough to have a real license yet, just a school permit that allowed us to drive to and from school. Still we could tear an engine apart and put it back together without help from anyone. We could listen to a motor without raising the hood and tell you what the problem was with it. We knew, for instance, that the carburetor took in gas and air, mixed it and then sent it to the cylinder to be compressed by the eight pistons and ignited by the spark plugs. We had improved on the standard equipment of CK’s Pontiac engine by taking a larger carburetor we found in the junkyard to get more gas, taller pistons we bought from a catalog to compress the mixture more tightly, and top of the line spark plugs to ignite the whole thing more efficiently.

We also knew that the exploded gas is removed from the cylinder in the form of exhaust by the opening and closing of valves. The amount that these valves open and close is controlled by a camshaft. The exhaust is then transferred to the muffler and out the tail pipe by the exhaust manifold. To make CK’s car even more powerful, meaning faster, we replaced the original camshaft with one that would allow the valves to stay open longer, allowing in more gas and air, then letting out more exhaust. We put a special exhaust manifold on the engine, called a header, that let these greater amounts of exhaust out of the engine. We had created a monster, bursting past its own speedometer into an uncharted realm. We had done it for no reason other than the oldest reason in the world, because we could.

As we rounded the corner and headed down the dirt road to Ck’s house I felt like we were crawling.

CK and I lived our whole short lives in a world of machines. From the tractors on Ck’s farm, to the big, stationary diesel engines that ran the irrigation systems in the fields, the tiny gas engines that powered the lawn mower and the corn auger, to the automatic feeder and watering machines in the cow pens and hog pens, our world was alive with mechanical inventions. I had learned in that history class (the one that CK never paid attention in) that these were the finest fruits of the industrial age. I also knew by looking at computers being installed in Mr. Benson’s class, that the age of machine was coming to an end. The knowledge that CK and I had was no longer valued at our school. We were dorks, gearheads, drunks, and we were dinosaurs. No one cared about the machines, how they worked. All that mattered now was if you could play a game on a computer. No one cared if you could drive a car at over one hundred miles an hour like CK could. You were really only noticed if you could create a game on a computer. It didn’t matter if you could build an engine from the ground up at fifteen like I could. The future was coming, and I could see I was being left behind, watching it drive away.

Its true the computer is also a machine of sorts, but CK and I had learned our mechanics from our fathers, brothers, and relatives. None of them knew anything about computers. Neither did Mr. Benson, I had found out, when I asked him if we could look inside one.

Ck’s house was built from scratch by his father, the son of a Polish immigrant. During its construction he had nearly cut all the fingers off of his right hand with a power saw. The doctor who sewed them back on had saved them, but had not been skilled enough to leave him with any feeling in them. That wouldn’t have been bad except it took away the one thing he had loved the most, playing the piano. Ck’s dad had only made it to the eight grade, but he knew how to run a farm. Thats why he was still barely afloat when all the others around him had been bought out by the corporations. He had loved to play the piano, and was completely self taught. Now it sat in the basement, collecting dust.

We turned on the television to watch the X rated channel off the satellite dish before Ck’s parents got back from checking the fields up north. Unfortunately there was nothing but snow on the screen and try as we might we couldn’t get it to work; so we took a couple of shot guns out of the gun closet and went down to the creek to shoot frogs for a while.

Shooting frogs was seriously business to me and CK. Seriously funny that is. If you angle the shot just right, so that it strikes the sand right beneath his belly; the frog will flip up in the air and land in the water upside down like he’s been hit by a depth charge. We practiced our technique for about an hour, hunting frogs all up and down the river bank. CK and I had been best friends since the third grade, when we met at an Avon party our mothers went to. We did everything together, thats why when he wanted to try breaking the legendary record of Vinny Havelchek I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.

I want to try and break the Bennett to Mason record, CK said while we sat resting on the bridge.

You know thats fifteen miles, CK, I said, and the record is six minutes!

I know I think I can break it. He said with determination. Vinny was the greatest driver ever. He’s racing in the NASCAR circuit now. If Im ever going to get there I have to break his record.

I dont know man, wed have to average around one forty, one fifty. Thats hauling ass! Besides even if we made it who’d believe us?

Id know, CK said.

Yeah, well, it sounds like a good way to get killed. I shot back knowing it was a futile effort.

Maybe, Ck’s voice dropped to a mumble, but it ain’t like we got a future anyway.

All highways lead to the future, except the highways left behind.

CK was my best friend. I guess thats why he didn’t tell me when he tried to make the run. In the twisted metal of the Pontiac they found not only his body, but the body of a small deer, at least thats what they thought it was. From the tremendous impact of the car into the telephone pole and the field beyond, it was difficult to determine anything other than the fact that it was a machine; an old worthless machine.

by Steven J. Frank

Lovely, yes, lovely. All the colors and the furbelow. But can’t we get on with it already?

Bennett was trapped on all sides and he knew it. They’d taken their places now, row after row. Wife and daughter on his left, soulful faces to the right, all lined up like rigid toy soldiers at attention. He could feel the velvet seat cushion pressing at the back of his knees, smell the perfumed mannequin standing just ahead of him in the next file. What did they know? Missy had almost died two days ago from the blood treatments, did they know that? Did they know he’d checked in on her every two hours, all through the night? Did they have any appreciation for the fact that right now he had to piss like a goddamn racehorse, and if he didn’t soon, he might just flood this entire little ritualistic spectacle that had barely begun even though it was two minutes to post? Two minutes!

The robed and hatted speaker began to chant, with the authority of one whose every incantation contained the answer to some profound question. Why not just get right to the point? Assets and liabilities, that’s all it amounted to, any of it. The thought rang oddly in his mind — as if he’d copped out by selecting the most obvious accountant’s metaphor. But so what? None of his partners knew metaphors from interest floors, none could see beyond their spreadsheets. And as his paddock blacksmith always said, if the shoe fits …

Post time!

Got to get out! –Excuse me.– Get just one fucking minute of privacy. –Men’s room– he mouthed to his wife as he slid by. His daughter glared at him, lifted her arm in an elaborate sarcastic gesture as he passed and inspected her wrist. Nice watch. Movado, maybe? Must have cost a ton whatever it was. He’d find out just how much next monthly statement.

Bennett’s daughter certainly knew what time it was. Knew plenty else besides. Made no secret of it.

Talk about unscheduled liabilities! He’d done everything so she’d turn out a boy. Wore a jock strap night and day to raise his testicular temperature and kill off some of those X chromosomes. That annoying diet, the special positions — all wasted, like lost dollars after a failed investment.

At last he could feel the brass plate against his palm, flung the door open and marched in. Couldn’t they afford to retile the moldering floor in this place, replace that cracked window pane? he wondered with irritation. Wasn’t he paying them enough?

The broken window glass focused the incoming sunlight into a raking shaft, so the little dust cloud Bennett unleashed as he fumbled urgently with his fly glowed in front of him like a plume of sparks. Then the hoagie flopped out in a shower of tiny flakes, dried residue from Georgiana’s birth-control cream, which turned the glowing plume into a fireworks festival. Bennett didn’t wait for the blissful stream to subside before extending the antenna on his pocket cellular, which chirped in obedience as he punched the familiar number on those tiny round keys. Beam me up, Scottie, he always thought in response to that chirp. It was a rueful memory. Beam Me Up! What a terrific horse. Never should have let him run in that lousy 15K claimer. Now 15K wouldn’t even pay his stud fee.

Stud. Another association, this one far more pleasant: that was what Georgiana called him. Sometimes.

So where the hell was Shaffer? Six rings, seven rings … Hadn’t he been specific in his instructions? Stay at the goddamn paddock, watch the race on television, I probably won’t be able to get away for more than a minute, see? Just stay put!

Shake off the drip drops, again the fireworks display. His daughter knew. His wife didn’t, or at least so he thought, at least not yet. What a stupid lapse in judgment, protesting so much! And he’d volunteered for the opportunity, no less, before she’d even had a chance to nag him about how he never spent time with his daughter, blah, blah, blah. Took her down to the stables while her mother shopped or whatever, lolled around pressing carrots and sugar cubes between the twisting gummy lips and racks of rock-hard horse teeth, were just getting ready to leave when Jesse, the smartass private groom, decided to offer his uninvited opinion on the upcoming election.

“Never trusted that Clinton dude. Wasn’t right what he done.”

“Come on, who the hell cares who he propositions! Don’t be so eager to stand in judgment of others! Maybe there’s more to it …”

“I’m talkin bout skippin the draft. Can’t lead if you won’t serve, way I see it.”

“Oh, right. Sure. See your point.” But it was too late. She’d caught his furtive sidelong glance, the quavering defensiveness, the guilt in his voice. Women, all of them, harbored deep chthonic sorcery underneath those goosebumped giggles and talk-show chatterings. Not a single one could be trusted.

Silence all the way back to Lawrence.

“Wonder if mom had an excellent shopping adventure,” he’d finally gambled with a smile.

“Wonder if mom knows her husband can’t keep his cock in his pants.” (Stricken look.)

What a mouth on that kid!

Then the charges started rolling in. A ten-thousand dollar Mastercard bill in one month. One month! Mizrahi at Bergdorf’s, Armani uptown, Lulu’s down in SoHo, the statement went on and on for three laser-printed pages. Good thing he’d decided to save thirty-five bucks and forgo adding her as a supp on his American Express Platinum. She’d have bought a Tahitian villa so she could play Gauguin with her flaky art-school pals by now.

And of course he’d paid all the bills. Said nothing to his daughter. What was there to talk about? Was he supposed to negotiate the terms of his own blackmail?

Call Shaffer again. No answer again. Fine. He’d fired trainers before. Just head back to the party like nothing’s up.

Excuse me.– The proceedings hadn’t advanced a goddamn inch. –Sorry.– Christ, it’s a Movado all right. –Thank you.–

Stupid thing was, those credit-card bills barely made a dent in the monthly income. The Big Eight had become the Big Six, and soon it might be five. Mergers produce winners and losers — just like horse races. Bennett had never let a single one of his clients become one of the losers, and damn if he would let his eighteen hundred partners and ten thousand employees walk into a financial disaster. They listened to him, fortunately, and why the hell not? There were exactly two lawyers in the whole country you could trust to save your multinational conglomerate from the claws of a hostile raider or blandishments from an unwelcome corporate suitor. And both of those ultralawyers trusted Lou Bennett before anyone else. He’d been in on every big takeover fight, knew just how to spin the poison pills so a raider’s every false move would cascade into a tangled prison of tax obligations and accounting nightmares.

But mostly it was a matter of jettisoning the right assets, and fast. Sometimes it was amazing how reluctant these big, supposedly impersonal companies could be to divest themselves of the dead weight — the nonperforming dross that consumed resources needed for survival. And the future. In the end, however, they always listened; Bennett knew just where to breach the skin and how deeply.

His partners knew it as well as his clients. Every one of them remembered who had foreseen the bursting of the ’80s bubble and the sharp downturn in corporate dealmaking work. They had agreed to his proposed staff cuts only because his own practice took the brunt of it. And they barely noticed his replacement of those bodies with a small data-processing systems group, then those breathless public-relations consultants, the investment advisers, the venture capitalists … And now the firm’s consulting arms were growing faster than the vast body of green-visored accountants who inhabited partition pigpens in windowless offices spread over 92 countries.

They’d listened all right. Practically swooned when he delivered that speech at the retreat — the sermon Georgiana had penned and watched him rehearse, flushed as she heard her words exit his mouth. Suddenly rushing at him in that empty lecture hall, nearly toppling him with tie-grabbing, crotch-kneading hands, tongue piercing through startled lips. With the video camera still running! Talk about public relations!

Ninety-four percent of the firm’s partners had shown up — a new attendance record even though the retreats always took place in enticing locations, this time Grand Cayman. And even before his echo faded they agreed to decline the merger that now was beginning to drag down two competitor firms (both of which, Bennett loved to point out, had so enthusiastically mimicked his move into consulting services). Then they voted him chairman and toasted his success as the sun set over rows of palm trees and tax-sheltered bank buildings and the distant shoreline where he fucked Georgiana that night, heaving and galloping with her on the creamy sand so explosively he thought he’d pop an axle.

Yet even as his own partners showered Bennett with special-projects funding and turned his consulting groups into units and then into departments, he knew the tide was beginning to turn. Overhead disparities were growing. Specialized, independent outfits were becoming more and more survivable on their own. The cash-flow statements confirmed it. Soon corporations would again prey on one another, and his firm would shed every single one of its consultants to make room for lost bookkeeping and auditing staff. So would the rest of the Big Six. But Bennett would make sure he was the first one out, even as the competition hemorrhaged money in an overdue effort to catch up. There would be no call in his ranks for desperate mergers that merely compound the fat and hasten a fissioning death spiral into bankruptcy. Who knows — in ten years maybe the Big Six would melt into a puddle around the only Big One left.

Once, just once, he wanted to drop a little innuendo about his take. Prying finance gossips whispered the riches of big law firms and positively drooled over investment bankers’ earnings. But Big Six CPA partners? They hardly raised an inquisitive eyebrow with their relatively puny billing rates. The curious simply didn’t appreciate a basic accounting principle that equates profit with revenue minus expenses. Sure accountants’ billings were comparatively low but so was overhead, with many of the bookkeeping grunts working out of their own dens and garages, waiting twelve years for the privilege of being considered for partnership and (usually) shown the door instead. Bennett, like all the rest, firmly suppressed the temptation to boast, knowing the impact revelation could have on revenues. Client resentment was already causing the lawyers’ billing rates to max out.

So for now he could afford to write checks against the liabilities: feeding and upkeep of all the horses that lost, his wife’s idle but pricey decorating fancies, his daughter’s financial tirades. Not even the chairman of a Big Six behemoth could turn liabilities into assets, but at least he could depreciate them.

Now the speechifying was beginning. Bennett was able sit now, thank God, although he knew he would be called up soon. He glanced over at his wife as the voice on the dais intoned its syrupy monolog. She stared straight ahead, stolid as a rock. What a nice change.

The blowjobs had stopped almost immediately after the announcer declared their marriage results official. Bennett, a realist, had half expected that. And while he found himself disappointed at his wife’s rapid devaluation of sex, after the birth of their daughter, from rare delight (like a one fifty-six trotter mile) to satisfying biological imperative (like a starchy feeding) to bothersome chore (like cleaning stables), none of that particularly mattered anymore. Despite his economic sophistication Bennett could never peg an inflation rate with any accuracy, and his wife’s was no exception. First there was the pregnancy. And then the failure of her swollen flanks ever to recede, so now, nineteen years later, she still bulged like the surplus account of a ripe takeover target. (No suitors bidding.)

But it was that unending natter, the coarseness in her voice, that really got to him. Hard to believe how radically perspectives can change. From the teeming, sweaty tenements where he grew up she was like an exotic stranger from far away — a suburban prize that impressed his friends right out of his life, one by one, as they sank quietly into the routines of their parents and resented his modest social ascent. Now far away was Bogota or Kuala Lumpur, and his wife was just another refugee from another same old neighborhood not so different or distant from his own.

Only she didn’t see it that way. She refused to adapt to his success — didn’t change her plain style of dress, still called his partners “mister” this or that no matter how many times he introduced them by their first names. And whenever they would fight over the trim in the new addition or his forgotten social obligations or yet another set of repairs to their daughter’s car, that old vocabulary and cadence would reappear, reminding Bennett of exactly where he came from. Funny the way money affects people. His wife certainly knew how to spend it but without refinement; their affluence had provided her no incentive to cultivate grace, just more excuses to obsess over appointments and detail.

To Georgiana, on the other hand, it was a goddamn aphrodisiac. Sure she was expensive. So were the horses. So were most capital assets.

Bennett looked around. Maybe now he could make a break for it — slip away momentarily before his name was called! The race was definitely over. He would wait until one of the geriatrics in the back got up relieve his prostate pressure and … there! Bennett turned in his seat and began to lean forward but his wife, without so much as glancing his way, clamped his upper arm like a lobster claw and held him down. Her gaze remained forward.

Good thing, as it turned out. Now the speaker was pronouncing his name, slowly, Loooo-is Aaa-lan Benn-nnett. He winced as he heard his brother’s name, the halting syllables and clumsy curlicues from a different world and another day. Before a week ago they hadn’t exchanged a word in at least five years. Was he responsible for his brother’s misfortunes, for business dealings as inept as the family name he stubbornly refused to change? Who told him to have four kids and then decide it’s time to go into retail? Of course Bennett hadn’t invested. The numbers were doomed from the start.

He and his brother climbed onto the dais from opposite sides. Rocking back and forth on his heels, surprised at the size of the audience, Bennett began to imagine they were the claque of racing fans and horse owners who habitually crowd the plush loges at the Pegasus Club. He studied their faces. Quiet at first, sure, but the smoky lull always dissolves when the pacing car’s swinging gates release nine synchronously trotting horses into the first bend. Dragging little chariots behind them, clustering and dispersing as they enter the stretch, the horses tease each other for the lead and draw the crowd’s hush into a raucous din, cigar butts tumble from cheering lips and knees straighten as the hundred-thousand dollar equine princes round the second bend, then down the final straightaway, you can practically feel the precision thunder of thirty-six hooves clubbing the dirt, straining to silence the stinging whips but never breaking out of their prancing strides — and then it’s over. One winner. Eight losers.

Hadn’t Missy improved magnificently over the last month! Her times came down steady as if they’d been straight-line amortized, and Shaffer had managed to get the best harness driver in the business to ride her today. The purse: a million bucks, this was the Hamble-fucking-tonian! Half would belong to Bennett if Missy won. Not that the money was so important — hell, he took home that much every few months — although 500K would certainly cover this year’s expenses and justify last year’s tax deductions. Instead it was the adulation he adored. Georgiana would be watching, along with millions of others tuned into cable across the country, and they would know Lou Bennett had scratched past every obstacle and leaped every fence, never looking back, until he reached the gilded circle with no one else in sight.

And then it hit him.

Shaffer away from the phone. The entire stable deserted — at post time! Something must have happened, something big. But the vet had told him there was nothing to worry about. Just some rapid dehydration from an irritated digestive tract, dangerous for the first couple of hours but easily treated. He promised she’d be ready! Or maybe they’d scratched her, that could be it also. Found evidence of the chemicals and barred her from the race, hauled Shaffer and his staff into that grimy windowless room where they examine the finish photos and now they were interrogating, probing, accusing — he could get barred from racing, have his name splashed in contempt all over the horse sheets. That fucking vet! He’d promised it would be undetectable!

Now Bennett felt the blood draining from his face, like someone was dragging his guts down to his knees, the shivery sweat starting to dribble over his eyebrows. He could hear whispers from the front row.

An eternity of distension and dread grated past until, at last, the speaker finished. Bennett descended the stairs, battling the vertigo, he could finally get away — at least for a couple of minutes. Raced back to the men’s room as the crowd began to mill around, pulled the cellular phone’s antenna so hard he yanked the little black ball off the tip. Punched in the number anyway. The line came to life.

“Shaffer, goddamn it, what the hell …”

The tinny voice kept cutting out, he couldn’t understand it, fought with the flexing, bowing antenna until the stupid ball stayed put on top. He’d caught just one mangled syllable.

“Scratch? You say scratch?” Bennett heard his own weakness, the hoofbeats thumpthumpthumping in his chest. He could taste the acrid terror beginning to nudge the back of his throat.

Now the voice was clear. “Snatch, I said Missy snatched the lead from Europa three lengths in front of finish. We — you won, Mr. Bennett! I hope you wasn’t trying to call before, we all had to hustle out to the winner’s circle toot sweet. They started the race eight minutes early, it’s so hot out here …”

Bennett’s knees almost gave out in a spasm of relief, followed, incredibly, by pure joy. “Oh … no, it’s fine, it’s just fine. You did right.”

“Congratulations!”

Bennett looked at himself in the mirror above the sink. What a mess. How perversely appropriate.

A few minutes later he and his brother, outside in the soupy heat, stooped facing each other across the yawning rectangular cavity recently cut into the grass. With two others he’d never seen before they let out the belts that supported their mother’s casket, lowering it gently, inch by groaning inch, into the chasm. More words were spoken. Then the first spadefulls of dirt sailed through empty vertical space and scattered on the lacquered wood, crashing like surf over the silence of the gathered mourners.

She’d gone downhill so fast. It was hard to believe that twenty years ago she was accepting that industry award for her textile designs, forty years ago he and his brother were fighting for the first of her crunchy little sweetcakes to come out of the oven, even though there were always plenty for everyone. Children bury parents, new replaces the old: as inevitable, as natural and inescapable as FIFO inventory accounting, which declares the first in eternally the first out. It was a stupid, even cruel metaphor, Bennett knew. But if the shoe fits …

Next Page »