Best of 24:7


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 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 …

by Steven J. Frank

He wasn’t quite sure when his watch had become dislodged, or where it might be. But that would be as good an excuse as any. He’d go back later, maybe tomorrow, knock on her door and explain. Then she couldn’t possibly tell him to get lost.

The morning air was lush and it made him drunk. His coat was too heavy, his shirt felt grubby, and his crotch stung like a salted war wound. The smell of her room lingered under his nose. He knew exactly where he was, which way he needed to walk. The streets were unfamiliar but recalled; he’d memorized them as he’d driven her home along them two nights before. So far he’d only missed one class. A miracle. She never liked to miss class, she’d told him.

Avoiding injury was becoming an effort. Sprays of swollen cherry and magnolia buds crazed the sunlight. The worn brick sidewalk, already slick with late-March mud, upwelled around every tree. She tried not to miss class, she’d said, because her father liked to ask questions. He told her the last time he’d heard his own father’s voice was before they reassigned him to the Gulf the previous summer. Both of them had gone on and on like that for who knew how long, talking ridiculous, he described the blind roar of night maneuvers at the Johnson airbase, she tried to mimic the look on her father’s face the afternoon he discovered her in bed with a glass of wine, a Laura Esquivel novel and no clothes. Her eyes seized his when he spoke, as if his every word were precious and yet completely beside the point–no more than prelude. Her eyes seemed to know something he didn’t.

And, later, the rest of her–rangy and glorious, the pale dormroom light spread across her like the last moments of sunset on a beach.

His shoe slapped against the toe of the curb rising above the brick sidewalk, nearly pitching him into the street. Idiot, he cursed silently. No one ever stopped at that stop sign. He could have been killed. And what if? How would she react to news of his poor flattened carcass? With devastation? Or secret relief? He’d left because he didn’t want to look like a wuss, asking if he might stay. But also because of something he sensed–a departure time wordlessly announced, mutually understood. If he hurried now, didn’t kill himself, he might just make it to his next class.

He stopped dead. No notebook. No problem set, no answers, no clue. What was he thinking?

–Hi Daddy.

Thinking about that conversation was what. He couldn’t get it out of his head. As if she’d been expecting the call.

He was supposed to be in college so he could make something of himself and possibly deserve the long-term attentions of someone desirable. Someone with a full-time father on active duty. He was quite sure he was supposed to be in college and going to classes and studying something. There were classroom buildings just a block away up the hill. He’d met her in one of them. But he felt somehow disoriented, like a visitor, not part of the day-to-day. People would be wondering about him by now. Maybe he would never see her again because it had happened so fast, and he knew how things that sizzle also tend to sputter. He could picture her sympathetic frown, the furtive glance up and down the hall, the door closing.

At least two of his roommates had no classes until afternoon. If he went back now to get his notebook, one of them would say he looked like shit, and with raised eyebrows tell him, but maybe a good kind of shit and smack his knee at his wit. And when he said nothing the other would push back his glasses and say oh, do forgive, we are too coarse and vulgar to learn of your amours. And the envy and unanswered curiosity would sharpen an edge into their voices.

He’d felt a sullen terror watching her speak with her father. She had no regional accent but her old man was supposedly this big-shot judge in Birmingham. Tried to talk with his daughter about Breughel and Bosch, but her clipped responses gave her away.

–Yes, she finally answered, drawing out the word with a conspiratorial smile, eyes downcast. Then she stared at him. Suddenly he felt scandalous. He wanted to drape something over her.

–A little, I guess. Taller.

Trying to reconstruct the other end of the conversation: Does he look like me?

–Oh, I would imagine so.

Is he a good catch? Of upstanding character? A Godfearing Christian? Lily white like me?

Is he irresponsible? Does he trip over curbs and forget his notebooks and alienate his roommates and drive a faded black Escort with one wheel in the grave …

–No, I expect he’ll drive me to dinner somewhere.

The car. Where had he left the car?

Across the street from her dorm was where he’d left it, he realized at once. He couldn’t go all the way back at this point. He’d miss still another class. Besides, someone would see him and tell her what an idiot he was. He’d just leave it there, along with his watch and his pride, and hope the car thieves were more discriminating.

–Actually, that’s where we went last night.

Then,

–No, Daddy, no pizza for us. (Crossed fingers, clenched-eyed shrug.)

No, daddy, no pizza for at least another twenty minutes, she might have said. They’d just ordered. The man was evil in his recollections of youthful abandon and its rituals.

–Still your daughter, remember.

That’s what I’m afraid of. (Together they stifled a laugh.)

Ahead of him was the parking lot of the building that contained the room that would host the class he, as a good catch of upstanding character, should be attending. People threaded through the double doors from the left and the right. All carried notebooks. Their voices silenced by distance, they moved in a processional that seemed somehow manufactured, television with a broken volume control. The building was broad with sandstone panels beneath the windows. They caught the sun like mirrors. He found a lawn bench between a pair of stringy acacias, sat down and studied the tableau with a hand shielding one eye from the glare.

He couldn’t remember exactly what she’d told him about that Laura Esquivel book but it had struck him as remarkably clever, well worth the effort to recall exactly. And the distracted expression she reflexively got when her hair fell in front of one of her eyes, the right one, and she had to pull it back behind her ear. A detail he would have to commit to memory if she decided to dump him. He was laying down now, face warm against the sun, the air indolent. Through the red veiny sky of his eyelids he imagined figures flinging themselves through entrance doors, one after the other, mechanical in pursuit of their destinations.

He didn’t know why he felt so unanchored and removed. As his mind began to quiet, he decided maybe he had no solid evidence he’d be dumped after all–even though he wasn’t always responsible, not Godfearing, not even a Christian, certainly not unusually tall. She herself was not free of flaw. Not with morning breath that could launch an F-16. He was immobile, savoring the ecstatic disconnect, soaring in the wonder of no place to go.

by Janalee Chmel

Chris is fine, I say to Jennifer.

We are in a coffee shop halfway between our houses. Jennifer and I meet once a week to unload on one another. So far, today it’s been my turn. Jennifer is eight months pregnant. I am telling her about my New Year’s Eve with Chris.

I mean, Chris isn’t real happy with her life these days, but she’s making do, I guess. You know Chris. She’s tough.

Jennifer waves for a refill on her coffee and nods at me. She’s the only one who might understand, so I decide to risk it.

Jennifer, Chris’s work is so tough. You wouldn’t believe what I saw her do. It brought up all kinds of memories, I say.

I study Jennifer a moment to decide if this is too much for her, or us, right now. With what we’ve been through in the last year, supporting one another has been like two kids deciding who plays invalid and who plays nurse.

But I tell her.

Well, I spend the day, that day, December thirty-first, alone in Chris’s apartment because she works from seven to noon. I drive her to the clinic at seven so I can have the Jeep all day. Not that I know anything about Phoenix to scout about on my own.

So, anyway, I drive her to the clinic and I say, Tough day ahead? I know it is. She got a call the night before while we were having beers on her living room floor. Some tech telling her she has a surgery first thing. She’s never done one of these kinds before so she wanted to get to work early to read up on it.

I didn’t sleep a fucking wink, she says as we’re driving. You know how Chris is.

Good luck, I say when she gets out of the Jeep.

I’m really nervous, she says. I’ll need a beer later.

We’re ready to bring in the new year, you know. We both hated ‘96.

Jennifer says, did anyone have a good 96? I was so glad to see that year go.

I nod and say, You and me both. So, anyway, I spend the day waiting for noon. I watch a little TV and walk her dog. I don’t do anything too exciting. I’m just happy to relax a little. Gives me time to think about all the other shit. You know, Jennifer, I never think about it. Even that day. Even when I tried.

I wonder if I should bring this all up again. Jennifer’s probably sick of me talking about it. She’s nodding at me as if it’s OK to go on.

Jennifer says, You need to learn how to think about this when you’re alone, Denise. Maybe then you’ll cry. She pauses and shrugs, then says, Maybe not. I still cry a lot and it makes me feel better. You’re different.

I wonder, does Jennifer want me to think about it alone so I stop bugging her? At eight months pregnant now, though, shouldn’t Jennifer be feeling better about the miscarriage? Yeah, right. Shouldn’t I be healed? Your mom is supposed to die before you; your child isn’t. But, I decide to go on. This has been the nature of our friendship all year.

So anyway, I try to think. Don’t think. Shower and head to the clinic at 11:30. I want to see Chris in action. You know, Dr. Chris! Our Dr. Chris! You’d love seeing her there. She’s so in-charge.

I walk in and there’s an older woman with a little, old dog on her lap, and a girl, I guess about my age, only she’s got an engagement ring. Bitch!

Jennifer smiles and I see her absently fiddle with her ring.

Just kidding, I say. Who, me? Bitter? Moi? The girl is sitting there with a puppy that’s just out-of-con-trol! I’m telling you, that dog needed less caffeine. Speaking of which, where’s our refills?

We both look up and the waitress scurries over with the pot.

So, the receptionist comes out from the back and the older woman starts to stand up, but the receptionist looks at me and this other girl and asks us into a room right off the waiting room. We, this girl and I, both laugh and say we’re not together.

I’m Denise, I say. Chris’s friend.

This woman says, Oh, like she’s all happy to see me and tells me she’s Katy and I can go in back.

I wander back. There’s this funny parrot. I say hi and he — like on cue — takes a shit! You know, maybe Chris taught him that trick.

I wouldn’t doubt it, Jennifer says laughing.

I keep walking back. There’s this fridge where they have one of those word games stuck all over the door. You know? With one word on each piece and you move the pieces around to create sentences? There’s sentences up there like

BITE ME. DOGS DO

and

I GET WET

and

DANCE WITH A MONKEY

I smile cause I know Chris definitely created a couple of those. Can’t you see her doing that? That’s so Chris. It’s kind of strange seeing the stuff back there. Like seeing the back of a stage set with all the ropes and pulleys. The main room back there — you can tell the public, the owners, don’t go back there because there’s bagels on one of the exam tables. It’s pretty big. Two of those silver metal tables about waist high. A couple of big cages stacked near a wall. And there’s a couple of rooms off this room, and a hall going back. I just wait in that main room. I feel like an intruder, you know? The table with the bagels has a book on it open to a page about neutering dogs whose balls haven’t fallen all the way. No, really! Didn’t I say that? That was the surgery Chris was all uptight about.

Seriously? Jennifer says. Oh, Chris must love that!

The diagrams in the book were hysterical! I suppose they’re not if you’re a vet, but Chris did say that ever since the asshole dumped her, she’s found quite a bit of humor in neuters. And satisfaction.

At this point, I haven’t seen Chris yet but I hear her with hyper puppy and engaged girl. Laughing. Joking. Just a check-up, I guess.

Well, I have to go to the bathroom so I wander down that back hall and find one. There’s this map of the Grand Canyon on the wall and Big Bass Fishing or some other kind of magazine on the back of the toilet. Kind of funny.

Anyway, when I’m done, I go back up the hall and there’s Chris. She’s standing next to the open exam table. That old woman’s little dog is on it but the woman isn’t there.

Hi there, Dr. Horst, I say, all chipper and happy to call her doctor, you know?

Hey you, she says, but not real up. I’m still in the doorway to the hall. She goes to a drawer between the two tables and pulls out a syringe. She sticks it in her mouth and pulls the cap off with her teeth. You know, like you see doctors do on TV. Like it’s a pen cap, or something. So natural. I smile at her and she leans back against the cabinets. She’s filling the syringe with this pink stuff — looks gooey, not watery. Like a clear lotion, or aloe. Yeah, like pink aloe gel.

I walk up to the dog. He looks a little old but he seems nice enough. I mean, he doesn’t seem aggressive. I get up close to him and I say, what’s the prognosis, doc? Even though I hate that word — prognosis. I hate the word doctor, come to think of it. Not one M. Deity could keep my mother from withering away before my eyes. They act like life is so discardable.

Jennifer jumps in quickly, like she’s heard me say that before — she has — and says, They’re not all bad, you know. You should let go of some of your anger, Denise.

I only nod. This is the crux of my story. I can’t get diverted into that topic now. I lean in toward Jennifer a little and continue.

So, anyway, I said, what’s the prognosis, doc? And Chris says to me, I’ve got to put him to sleep.

No, Jennifer says, and sits back.

I wonder if Jennifer can see it coming. I sure didn’t. I go on quickly.

I just back up. I don’t say anything. I wanted to save him, Jennifer. I wanted Chris to save him. I mean, he was alive. He was breathing. He looked at me when I walked in the room. His owner was probably just down the hall waiting for some prescription, I bet.

I wonder if I’m telling this right. Does Jennifer get it?

What determines that, Jennifer? Life. I mean, I guess to Chris it is all scientific. She can think it’s over even when a heart’s still beating.

As soon as I say that, I remember Jennifer’s words last year. Its heart just stopped beating. That’s all they can tell me.

Jennifer is looking past my shoulder, but she looks back at me knowingly. We’ve gone over and over the concept of death. I was there when cancer finally stopped Mom’s heart. Jennifer says she knows the moment her child died inside her. Those events were separated only by two weeks.

I go on.

Lungs sound like shit, Chris says to me. She tells the tech standing there that the dog collapsed twice last night.

But still, Jennifer. What is it? Chris is a scientist. She sees it all as biological systems — functioning or not functioning. But isn’t there more to life? When does death really happen? Is it a system shut-down or more? And what does that pink stuff do? Help things along or force it?

I’m not making myself clear, I say.

Jennifer says, I understand. You know I do. Life isn’t scientific.

I nod in agreement. Jennifer says, please tell me what happened.

You sure? I say.

I think so, she says.

Chris, she walks up to the dog and the tech holds his little leg out and Chris sticks that syringe in and squirts all the pink stuff in and the dog — he immediately relaxes. He just relaxes. Like my mom did when she took her last breath, Jennifer. Just like something left her. The dog was the same.

Chris goes out to talk to the woman who I suddenly hear sobbing. I am so curious to look at her. I want to see it on someone else’s face. But the tech, she’s wrapping up the dog in a towel and I can’t leave. I have to watch. I realize I don’t know what they did to Mom’s body right after. I was in the kitchen. Did I tell you about any of that? They arrived after we called and I didn’t watch. I might have been on the phone with you. I probably was.

The tech puts the dog in this plastic bag. A yellow plastic bag, and I remember the zipper. I heard a zipper that night, Jennifer. I totally forgot it until that day with the dog and then suddenly I remembered the zipper! They put her in a body bag. My mom. In a body bag.

I bring my coffee mug to my lips, but taste nothing. I’m pushing too hard. For what?

Then, Jennifer leans across and puts her hand on top of mine. There’s a tear in her eye. Why can’t I do that?

She says, you need to finish this.

I turn my hand over to hold hers and I go on.

The yellow bag, it … the tech knots the top and holds it up off the table with one hand. It’s full and round at the bottom, I say.

Like a stork carrying a baby in a blanket, Jennifer says quietly.

Yeah, but not moving, I say. Just a round lump.

We stare at each other. I finish the story.

But then, so the tech says, to the doggie freezer! and walks back down the hall.

I’m stunned. I bet they put Mom in a freezer, Jennifer. They froze Mom.

Jennifer nods knowingly. One hand rests on her sizable tummy.

by Kent McKamy

There was a take-her-down haughtiness about the pretty girl in the black bathing suit sitting still as marble, reading, when Buck commandeered the chaise facing into the sun next to her. She was the obvious choice at poolside today.

Buck carefully placed his Marlboro Lights, Bic lighter, book, Hawaiian DeepTan #4, towel, plastic room card and sunglasses case on the molded white table between them. Glancing at her, he sucked in his stomach as he stripped his yolk-yellow “Just-Do-It” T-shirt over his head. He straddled the padded chaise, edged it to a 45-degree angle to hers and eased his muscled body down, letting his flip-flops drop off the ends of his toes. He opened his paperback of Death in Venice, found his place, and proceeded to gaze at the girl over the top of his book.

She was reading a magazine, but Buck couldn’t see which one it was. She had cigarettes and matches on her table, Buck had noticed, so right away he knew they would be smoke allies. A conversation opener, definitely. How shiny her black hair was in the bright sun. No telling what color her eyes were behind those wraparound sunglasses, but he imagined they were large and dark brown. The kind he liked.

Nice legs, Buck thought, following her slender ankles and calves up to her smooth thighs, a little heavy, rounding into hips completely bare and visible in the high-thigh cut of her bathing suit. One piece. Not too obvious. Very sexy. Buck was conscious that he was staring. He shook his head slightly, inclined his eyes toward his book.

Buck would never describe himself as a reader. He was a kayaker, a skier, a racquetball player, a happy hour regular, a fun guy, a party guy. When he read, he read spy books or science-fiction, fantasy books. He had picked up Death in Venice at the Tucson airport bookstore, because it sounded like Funeral in Berlin, a spy novel he had enjoyed in four sales trips between San Diego and Seattle. Somewhat disappointed to find it a book of short stories rather than a novel, and a translation at that, Buck had started the title story the night before in his room, where he had gone after dinner, seeing that there were only couples in the bar, and nothing else doing. There was something in the clunky, kind of textbooky writing of Thomas Mann that kept Buck reading. This kind of dry stuff was a tip-off that the action would start anytime. Some trigger event would shake dry old von Aschenbach loose. But Buck had fallen asleep before he found it. Cracking open the book now in the hot sun, the first sentence he came to was, “In his fourth week of his stay at the Lido, Gustave von Aschenbach made certain singular observations touching the world about him.”

Yes, Buck thought, looking up: How true. You need time away, a different place, to see things differently. Buck was strongly conscious that in the past three days, things that had been important to him just last Friday were less important, more remote. He was aware of what seemed to be a wider world. His sense of understanding and tolerance seemed to expand and at the same time, sharpen. He felt more sensitive, more giving, more forgiving. He was a man with feelings, no question. Feeling magnanimous, Buck let his thoughts trickle on. How satisfying to be here, nothing to do, nothing to worry about, feeling the mid-morning Arizona sun sizzling his skin with a sheen of searing heat. How satisfying to be keen enough to make certain singular observations touching the world about him.

Buck’s eyes moved up to the roofline of the hotel, a remote and unreal thrust of red tile against the thick blue sky. His gaze descended slowly down the side of the hotel, casually coming to rest again on the girl opposite him. She had not looked up. She did not seem to have moved. Had she turned a page? There was something about her. Stretching and tensing his strong legs, Buck decided it was time for a little more movement. As he squeezed some of the creamy suntan lotion into his left hand, there was a flatulent sound from the bottle, and he looked up swiftly to see if the girl heard it, and would know it wasn’t him. She hadn’t stirred. Making a great show of spreading the lotion over his taut legs, he eased his feet into his flip-flops and stood up to run the lotion over his bulging arms and chest. He rubbed slowly, keeping the girl in lateral view as he turned to smooth what lotion he could over his shoulder blades. Turning toward her again, he dabbed small amounts onto his face, and massaged it in vigorously. He sat down again with an audible exhale, and languidly returned to his book.

For ten minutes, Buck read slowly. Then another passage snuck up on him: “We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet we are all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire — our craving and our shame.” Laying the book on his chest and tipping his sunglasses atop his blondish thinning hair, Buck thought, ‘Craving.’ You got that right. Hard to believe it was like that back in, what, the 19th century? Is it a conquest or horniness or what? You see a girl. You make a move. You get the girl. He turned his eyes to the sky. I wonder how my chin looks to her, he thought. I have a good chin.

He was aware, through half-closed eyes as he lay back, that the girl was moving, shifting her position. He glanced toward her. She was flexing her legs, turning and stretching, the soles of her feet pushing toward him. Without knowing what it was, he sensed again that something was different about her, in the way you could see a man 100 yards away walking toward you, and know that he had had a stroke. Nothing obvious, but something off. Looking at the bottoms of her feet, the delicacy of her plump little toes, he was touched by this intimate undersurface of her. Except she has. . . wait a minute . . . nine toes. One toe’s missing, between the big toe and middle toe of her right foot. You had to look closely to see it.

Now that’s certainly odd, Buck thought, I wonder how she lost it? Maybe she was born like that, damn near perfect except for being a toe short, the way some cats have six toes on each paw instead of five. Does she walk different? Like to be a fly on the wall the next time she goes to buy shoes. Funny, though, how it makes her more intriguing.

Still, she is a wounded bird, handicapped. Buck felt an approach would be easier now, more readily accepted.

Placing both feet flat on the grill-hot tiles, he rose to his feet in a single motion, leapt into a little “Oh! Ah!” dance in the air, and quickly jammed his feet in his flip-flops. Snatching his cigarettes and lighter, he stepped across the distance between them.

“Good morning,” Buck said heartily. “Care for a smoke?”

“Got my own,” she said, gesturing with a carefully manicured hand toward the table beside her, not looking up.

“What a day, huh?” Buck looked skywards, turning in profile as he lit his cigarette. “What’re you reading?” he asked, cigarette between his lips, lifting his sunglasses to his forehead. He had often been complimented on his see-through aqua-blue eyes.

“Just an article.” The girl held the cover of the magazine toward Buck. Marie-Claire, whatever that was. She wasn’t wearing a ring. She kept her shades on, though. Nice teeth, dimples when she smiled. Buck loved her liquid-red lipstick.

“Any good?” Probably some fashion magazine, he thought. About all women read these days, outside of gossip rags.

“This article is,” she said.

“What’s it about? Mind if I sit down?” Buck asked. He tugged the long legs of his brightly flowered bathing suit, pulling it a little lower on his hips. Still no more than a hint of love handles.

“Take a look.” She folded the page back, held out the magazine. He looked. It was in a foreign language. French, maybe.

“You can read that?”

“Just the odd word here and there. What about you? What are you into?”

“It’s a spy thing by Theodore Mann. Death in Venice. Ever hear of it?” Buck looked at the cover. “Thomas Mann, I mean.”

“Yes, I think I read it a long time ago, in school maybe. It’s about some old gay guy, right?” She kept her sunglasses on, but Buck could tell she was looking directly at him.

“Gay? I don’t know if he’s gay. Really. I’m not through it yet,” Buck said. It was a strange thing for her to pick up on.

“Whatever. I don’t think I liked it very much,” she said. She stretched, and Buck could see that she had shaved very carefully under her arms. There was no stubble at all, just a faint shadow where her dark hair had grown.

Buck looked around, then got up again to give her a better view of his body as he shifted to sit on the other side of her chaise. That way, he didn’t have to keep turning his head to talk to her. He patted the slight rope of flesh easing over the top of his trunks, and flexed his chest with its cushion of light curly hair.

“So, how’s the water?” Buck asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I hardly ever go in the water. Ruins my hair,” the girl said, running her fingers up to fluff the back of her hair. “Besides, I saw when you got up. I’d scorch the skin right off my feet if I stood up right now, anyway.”

“Yeah, probably right,” Buck said, and turned to look out at the pool, away from her. “It is definitely tippy-toe hot.”

“Yes, I bet I could toast my tiny tootsies, all right.” She wiggled her toes at him. “All but one,” she said, tilting her head flirtatiously.

Buck pretended not to have noticed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, one of my little piggies has gone missing, didn’t you notice?” Swinging her right foot around, she pointed to her toes one by one. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy ate roast beef, this little piggy had none, and this littlest piggy went wee-wee-wee all the way home. But that darn old second little piggy. I guess he stayed home, all right.”

“I broke my collarbone once,” Buck offered.

“Ah, wounds and infirmities.” she asked, smirking. “I thought you were warming up to tell me how beautiful I was regardless.”

“Oh, sure. You are. You really are. It’s just that I was…sort of…I never saw anybody, never a pretty…a beautiful girl like you, or anybody, without … you know…”

“A toe, huh? Well, don’t forget I have nine others.”

“I know. Sure. I know.” Buck paused, looked at his book, then chanced a look right at her. She was studying him. “I hope you don’t think it’s stupid, but what happened? I mean, if it’s too personal or something, just forget it. It’s probably a dumb question.” Buck dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes.

“Well, of course it’s personal. The toe fairy didn’t come in the middle of the night and take it away. But, no, I don’t mind your asking. A lot of men…people do. You’re a little more straightforward than most,” she said.

Buck felt suddenly exposed, and hot. Years before, he had gone through one of those EST weekends where you practiced saying anything you wanted to anybody in the room. An exercise in straight talk or no-shit honesty or something like that, it was called. He had never felt comfortable with any of it. Good Lord, he wondered, did I offend her?

“As a matter of fact, I was born without that toe. It may be genetic. My father was born with only half of his little finger on his left hand. You can’t imagine how commonplace something like that is.” She shook her lustrous hair, and it swayed thickly from side to side, like in one of those slow motion shampoo commercials. She thumbed down the shoulder straps on her bathing suit, pulled up the cups, and swung her legs up onto the chaise. She sat in a sort of lotus position, her feet hidden, her chin resting in her laced fingers.

“Oh, I see. Gee, that’s too bad. I didn’t mean to, uh, pry. I guess you don’t even notice it.” Buck wanted to talk about anything else.

“I just wanted to see if you believed me,” she said. “No, I wasn’t born without a toe. I’m not a freak. It’s missing for quite another reason.”

“What about your father then? Missing his little finger?”

“I thought we were talking about me, about my toe. Or rather, my non-toe.”

“Oh, yeah,” Buck said. “We were. We are. I just was wondering…” The sense of calm and control he had felt just a few moments ago was ebbing.

“Actually, I lost my toe in a rather bizarre way.” She looked away for effect. “Sometimes, it’s easier just to be a little lighthearted about it.”

Buck was certain he’d done something very offensive, and didn’t know what it was. He looked away from her. He was about to put a cigarette in his mouth, and then thought to offer her one. He held out the pack.

“Oh, I don’t smoke, but thanks.”

“You don’t? I guess I just assumed you smoked when I saw those Marlboros there. I thought, ‘Cool that we smoke the same brand.’ You don’t mind if I have one, do you?”

“Go right ahead. Those are Chico’s cigarettes. I just brought them down for him.”

“Ah, I see.” Chico, Buck thought. Sure, she’s too good looking to be here by herself. Still, she isn’t wearing a ring. “Chico’s your husband?” Might as well get it right out there.

“No, Chico’s my lover. He’s the man who owns my toe.”

“Owns your toe? What do you mean, owns your toe?”

“He keeps it in a little silver tube around his neck. It binds me to him, he thinks.”

Jesus, that’s kind of weird, Buck thought. “You’re going a little fast for me.”

“Chico cut it off and kept it. He thinks that makes it his. And me, his.”

“Cut it off! He cut off your toe? My God! What is he, some kind of a lunatic?”

“No, it wasn’t like that. I did something he didn’t like. It was a love thing.” She paused. “Did you ever do something someone didn’t like?” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, sure, I guess so. I mean, hasn’t everybody? Just now, I thought I’d really put my foot in it with you. Jesus. I hope you know I didn’t mean anything…”

“So you’re…what? A professional golfer,” she said. “What with that tan and everything.”

“Ah, no. I sell Hobe Cats. Sailboats. Outdoors a lot.” Buck blurted, “But I can’t believe this guy just cut off your toe like that.”

“Well, he was sort of within his rights. He thought, anyway. Mexicans…I mean, Latinos…I think that’s correct these days…are funny about things. And they are very jealous. Chico is especially very jealous.”

“And…?”

“And he thought I was flirting around with another guy, and we had an argument and he knocked me down and tied my feet to a chair. Then he got a little drunk and hit me a couple of more times and then he said he was going to cut me to teach me a lesson, and I said he wouldn’t dare, and he cut off this second toe here.”

Buck stared at her, and then suddenly jerked his head around to look behind him. A couple of chairs away, there was a guy lying there, sort of looking their way, but he didn’t look Hispanic. Who the hell was this girl? How could she be so cool about it?

“Just like that. Just like that he cut off your toe?”

“No, not just like that. He made a little cut first, and I swore at him and tried to hit him, but I fell over in the chair. Then he just grabbed my toe and sliced it off.”

“You make it sound like you just sat there and approved while this maniac deliberately mutilated you.”

“Well, I have to tell you, there wasn’t any pain right away. I was surprised, but I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I saw all the blood coming up, and I felt a little sick. And somewhere, I know I had a sense of…curiosity…that it didn’t really hurt. Chico got a towel right away to stop the bleeding, he really did, and then he got some ice from down the hall and he tied one of his ties around my ankle for a tourniquet. He said to keep my foot up high, on the back of the chair, and after a while the bleeding stopped. In the morning, we got some Bacitracin and some bandages and it just healed over in a couple of months. All you can see now is some scar tissue where the skin closed up. Chico kept my toe in a bottle of Tequila he carried around with him for a while and when he figured it was cured, he took it out and it dried up and he bought this little silver capsule in an Indian trading post, and now he wears it around his neck with a silver chain. He takes it out every once in a while. I couldn’t bear to look at it at first, but now it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t even seem like part of me anymore.”

“So you just travel around to places and he comes around every once in a while to keep an eye on you?” Buck probing.

“Something like that. He may show up sometime today, but I don’t know when. He’s sort of unpredictable.”

There was a man’s voice behind Buck, and he knew someone was standing very close. He whipped around, and saw a short, stocky, dark haired figure leaning toward him. He couldn’t see the man’s face because he was looking right into the sun over the man’s shoulder.

“What?” Buck almost shouted.

“I wanted to know, do you care for anything from the bar?” the busboy asked.

“Uh, no…wait a minute. Do you…I’m afraid I don’t know your name…do you want anything to drink?”

“Call me Hazel,” the girl said. “As in Witch Hazel. Yes, I think I would like something…maybe a lemon-lime…or a cherry Coke. Something mixed up.” She took off her sunglasses for a moment, and Buck saw eyes even more intriguing than he had imagined.

“A lemon-lime…and I’ll have a gin and tonic.” Buck didn’t usually drink alcohol in the sun, but today felt different. “Put ‘em both on my room.” He fumbled in the pocket of his trunks for the plastic key, took it out. “Damn, the room number isn’t on it.”

“That’s all right, sir. If you’re a registered guest, just sign your name, and I can add the room number inside.” He handed Buck the drink check.

“Thanks,” Buck said, signing ‘Buck Towland.’ “I appreciate it.”

“I should tell you,” the girl said, ” Hazel is my synonym for today, or whatever you call it. I can’t tell you my real name.” Buck smiled, uncertain of what she was talking about.

“I’m surprised you can drink in this heat,” the girl said. “I try to never drink alcohol in weather like this. It makes me all disoriented.”

“Oh,” Buck said, “it doesn’t affect me.”

“Unless it’s tequila. I think tequila is meant for hot weather. That’s what Chico says.”

Buck was fascinated with her. What was this thing with Chico? There was something uncertain here, shifty ground. Casually, Buck looked carefully around again.

“Are you alone here?” she asked, and carefully put her sunglasses back on. She pulled up the sides of her bathing suit slightly.

“Sure am. Alone and free as the wind. Which there isn’t any of, worse luck.” He thought suddenly of the lonely old man in Venice, driven by longing, unable to act. “How about you? Except for Chico, I mean?”

“Well, I’m not exactly alone. I’m with a friend. A girl friend, I mean. I’m down from Mendicino, you know where that is?” Buck nodded as he lit another cigarette. “You know, we’ve been talking all this time, and I don’t even know your name.”

Buck hesitated, then said, “Gus… Ash. Ashback,” he said. Two can play that game. Then, turning and seeing her outstretched hand, he reached across and shook it. It was the first time he touched her, and although he was sure he met her eyes behind her dark glasses, he looked away rather too quickly.

“Gus,” she said. “Gus and Hazel. What a couple of old-fashioned names. Gus, you cuss, you and I have more in common than I thought.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Actually, I work for America West,” she said. “I’m here for a little R& R. Rock ‘n Roll. Until Chico comes along anyway. Then: ‘all of me’,” she sang, “at least, all ten toes. Maybe you’d like to meet him?”

Buck didn’t know why he was so taken with this girl. Her words made sense, but totaled up, she didn’t. She felt like trouble. But her appeal was unmistakable. That thick, dark, heavy hair. Those cocoa brown eyes pulling up at the corners, her long plumpish legs meeting at the narrow black crotch.

“Look, when Chico comes, I’ll just bug off. Three’s a crowd. You want to jump in and cool off or what?”

“Are you sure you’re not expecting someone? I saw you glance around,” she said.

“Well, tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about your friend. Who knows what he’d think? Or worse, what he might do to you if he saw me talking to you.”

“Or what he might do to you? Oh, maybe he’d think how nice it was I met a new friend, so I wouldn’t be lonely, waiting for him. Yes, I’m sure that’s what he would think.”

Buck said, “Yeah, well I’ve seen guys like your Chico and I think he wouldn’t like the idea of your meeting a new friend so much at all.”

She looked at him carefully, appraisingly. “You’re afraid of Chico?”

“Hey, I’m not afraid of him. Well, maybe a little. He just sounds…a little crazy.”

From across the pool deck, Buck saw the waiter approaching with a tray full of drinks. There seemed to be someone walking behind him, but Buck couldn’t tell for sure. The waiter placed the drinks on the table between them, and moved on. There was no one else there. For the moment. The girl was playing with her lipstick, twisting the cap up and down. Buck picked up his gin and tonic, and started to sip. He glanced to his right, and saw she was holding out her glass, waiting to clink his. He touched her glass with his. “Sorry.”

She took a swallow. Looking straight ahead, she said, “What if there is no Chico?”

“I’d say you’ve got a weird sense of humor. But I don’t believe you.”

She laughed. “I got you!” And when he looked more puzzled than angry, she said it again: “Gotcha!” She flicked some of the fluid from her drink at him.

“Got me? ‘Got me’ what?”

“There really is no Chico. Nobody cut my toe off. That’s not how I lost my toe.” She picked up her lipstick again, looking at the tortoise shell case closely.

“Hazel, or whatever your name is, give me a break.”

“I wouldn’t fool you any more. There really is no Chico. I lost my toe, that’s what you really wanted to know, isn’t it…in a hunting accident.”

“Now what? Chico shot it off?”

“C’mon,” she said, laughing. “I told you, there is no Chico. There was no Chico. I was just having fun with you. The way I lost my toe is, I lost it when I was ten years old, out hunting with my Dad. My rifle went off when I was carrying it and I shot off my toe right through the boot. But one thing was true: I didn’t really feel it, then or later.”

“Hazel, I…” Buck began.

“And there was one other part that is true. My toe was preserved. The doctor who treated me preserved it. ‘Cause we asked him to. I carry it around with me. Want to see it?” She was holding her lipstick case between her thumb and forefinger.

“God, no!” Buck said.

“I keep it to remind myself that I can’t be careless. I can’t fail to be on the lookout. Must be on the qui vive. It’s sort of a good luck charm.”

“Your own toe? That’s sick!”

“That’s right. My very own toe. And I think it’s healthy. I made my own, say…rabbit’s foot.”

“Hazel, listen, I’ll tell you, you’re one hell of a pretty girl. I mean, you really are. But there’s just something about what’s going on…I’m not sure we’re really…you know…on the same wavelength…”

“I knew it. I should never have told you about the toe. I should have said when you asked me, it was just too personal and let it go. I think, well, I feel like we could be friends.”

“I’m sure your friends love your sense of humor and I know you were putting me on, hell, you still may be putting me on, but I just don’t feel very friendly right now.” My new honesty, Buck thought. Well, I’ve blown this one. “Nothing personal. It’s just me.” He rose, and slipped into his thongs.

“You were trying to pick me up, weren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘pick you up’. Just talk or something, I guess…I thought maybe you and I…”

“Well, Gus, honey, you succeeded. So if you will just sit down, we can have our drinks, and start off again on the right foot.”

He looked down at her sharply. “You know what I mean,” she said. She glanced to one side of him, as if she saw someone approaching. She quickly turned her eyes back up to his, and began to get up. But he had seen her look. “Hazel, I think it’s time to go. Time for me. Time for you. Nice talking with you. You take care of the other nine, hear?” He reached down to shake her hand.

“Keep this to remember me, OK?” She planted the lipstick in his waiting hand.

“Christ! What the hell do you think you’re doing? I don’t want this thing!” he shouted. He threw the lipstick as far as he could. It splashed into the far end of the pool. He stared back at her, grabbing his towel, and wiping his hands furiously. “What the hell are you, some kind of … freak?”

She laughed. “It was just a lipstick.”

“Yeah, lipstick my ass.” Gus felt queasy, and snatched his belongings up quickly. With a sense of relief, and at the same time a sense of having lost, Buck scuffed away as swiftly as he could in the damn flip-flops. He had never done that before, flatly turned down what looked like a sure thing. What the hell? he thought, I’m not going to marry her. I just wanted to screw her. So she’s a nut. There’s others. He reached the glass doors that led into the snack bar, and went inside. His skin goose-bumped with the sudden chill.

He ordered another gin and tonic at the bar, and while he was waiting, he looked back outside to where he and the girl had been sitting. She was no longer there. It was as if she had just dematerialized.

“Here you go, friend,” the bartender said, sliding the icy drink toward him.

“You see that girl I was sitting with out there?”

“Nope, didn’t. I’m pretty busy right here, don’t pay much attention to the pool.”

Buck nodded. He finished the drink in two swallows, ordered another. When it was gone, he signed the chit and went back out to the pool. He walked around to the deep end, searching. He spotted the lipstick resting near the drain. It took him three surface dives, kicking hard, to get all the way to the bottom. On the third try, skimming his hands along the rough cement, he squinted his eyes open and saw the lipstick case just in front of him. He reached for it, almost out of breath. He bumped it with his fingers, and it skittered away. He reached again, almost ready to give up. When he had it tightly in his hand, he doubled his legs under him, and pushed upward as hard as he could. He broke water with a gasp.

He sat on the chaise for most of the afternoon, not really reading, daydreaming more, sweating out two more gin and tonics, then three beers. The girl never reappeared. Once, coming out of a doze, he glimpsed a Mexican-looking guy in tight jeans and a western shirt near the outdoor elevator at the far end of the pool.

The brown and gold lipstick case, upright on the table next to him, cast a longer and longer black shadow across the round top of the table as the late afternoon sun edged into the hills. He glanced at it now and again. By the time he got up to leave, he had not opened it, but he took it with him.

by John McCaffrey

Ronald scanned the personals of an Internet-based dating service, sifting through photos of women ages 27-37, a decade he decided, as a 38 year old, he could date effectively. This is how he thought. An Engineer’s mind. Life decisions, including affairs of the heart, were approached with precise planning, sober preparation, logical thought.

He was dateless now for a year, but aware of being alone just recently. The remainder of time had been absorbed in a work project. From January to October, ten months, he had designed and overseen the installation of a new software system that enabled a well-known Fortune 500 company to make payroll with just one computer stroke. He had consulted on the project, and the check for his services made him blush more than the glowing compliments received from the company’s executives. He hadn’t though much of the 300 or so employees that lost their job due to the efficiency of his product.

In November and December, Ronald basked in the glow of his success, spending a little of the money on a two-week vacation to South America and buying a vintage Camaro which he kept under protective blanket in the garage of this three-bedroom condo. But the New Year came and he found himself a bit depressed with his idle status, being in between jobs and in no need financially to work for a while. This did not sit well with him and he began to drift into a languid anxiety that manifested itself in a sprinkle of adolescent acne across his forehead and a nervous tic where he would yawn and rub his eyes vigorously with the balls of his hands. He had already ruined two sets of contact lens in this fashion.

It was the winter’s first blizzard, a steady plop that whited the sky and blocked him inside for a day, when Ronald logged onto the computer, checked his e-mail, and opened the lone missive without looking at the sender’s name. It was a pornographic advertisement, slipped through his SPAM detector, promoting Russian women, of all sizes, shapes, ages. Amateurs, girls right off the boat, former Communists, now living it up in America, caught in compromising positions by their boyfriends, guys who obviously liked to wield video cameras around their homes and catch their Russian girlfriends in compromising positions. Ronald was not the type to view pornography or even masturbate, much, but the words bore into him and he found himself clicking onto the web site, ordering a free trial membership, and ogling the computer screen for hours while a foot of new snow blanketed the ground.

He decided, right away, that the Russian girls were not posing; they really were caught, quite literally, with their pants down: on the toilet, applying makeup, brewing coffee, watching television. It was their eyes, their obliviousness and absorption into something else, that aroused him. Looking elsewhere, intent, not aware of the camera, not aware of the boyfriend, not aware of him.

He downloaded one picture; a broad-shouldered woman, probably in her late 40’s. She had thick, short-cropped dark hair and a wide nose and was bending over and peering into a refrigerator. Her heavy left breast dangled like a ripe summer squash, her nipple discolored and erect, pointed. She was reaching for something, either a tomato or an orange or apple. Something round. Her lips were pursed. The muscles of her naked legs long and tight. Her red-painted toes sparkled on the linoleum floor. He took the picture and went to his room and imagined being the boyfriend. Her turning and catching him with the camera. She would pretend to be upset, maybe shoo him away, flip the fruit or vegetable at him, and then she would come to him, press the camera out of his hand, lay her lips on his neck, run them down his shoulder, to his chest, her hair tickling his nose, her smell, earthy, sweaty, soft, and then her hands, quick, clever, confident, finding their way.

* * *

Ronald had been married. Right out of college. Her name was Germaine. She was Scotch/Irish and plain faced and squatty with hips a bit too wide and thick chalk white legs that inspired field hockey opponents to give her a wide berth when she thundered toward the goal.

They made an odd couple, physically. Ronald was tall and reed thin with a mop of straight black hair that ended in a straight line over his eyebrows. When he sat down he was all elbows and knees and he was sitting when Germaine brushed by him in Freshmen Bio-Engineering Class. One of her muscled legs caught his thigh as she passed, but he didn’t feel it and it wasn’t until a month later, at a school football game, that she tapped on his shoulder as he was waiting to buy a hotdog and introduced herself and told him that she had been sitting behind him now for weeks in class. He hadn’t noticed. They started seeing each other soon after. And they had sex, after their fifth date, both losing their virginities, right before they were to go home for holiday break.

There was a pregnancy scare their junior year. A condom had burst and Germaine was late a week. Ronald prepared immediately for a baby. He drafted a letter to his parents, informing them of the pregnancy and his plans to marry Germaine and set up an apartment near school for the two of them. He would continue his education, and take on a part-time job at night. She would wait until he graduated, then would return and get her diploma. By the time he finished and spell-checked the letters, Germaine was at his dorm room, smiling and holding a box of Tampax. She wasn’t pregnant. A month after both graduating on the Dean’s List (she with a 3.9 gpa he with a 3.8), they married, moved to New York City, got jobs of equal pay at different engineering firms, and rode the subway uptown together to work each day from their one-bedroom apartment in the East Village. They lived this way for 10 years.

* * *

“You tell me about yourself. I’m tired of talking about me.” They were in a Starbucks drinking Chai Lattes. Ronald was facing her and the back of the room. She was facing him and the front of the room. Ronald looked up from his cup and blushed. It was his first date since joining the Internet service. Her name was Alice and, like him, was trying Internet dating for the first time. Because, as she said almost as soon as they sat down, “because she liked adventure.”

Alice spoke with a fast paced monotone and laid out her story in two breaths. She was 29, an Engineering Major, a graduate of North Carolina, who liked the south but didn’t want to live there. She liked sports, Carolina basketball, of course, and Nascar racing. She was looking for a serious man who was quiet but fun loving and liked to laugh and take walks on the beach. And what about Ronald?

Ronald coughed and sipped his coffee and winced at the heat. He had been boning up for the meeting for three nights. Reading “Dating for Dummies,” and pouring through back issues of Men’s Health and Maxim. The words and thoughts and tips streamed through him mind like data from a computer: Lean forward. Smile. Look her in the eye, but not too long. Keep your answers simple. Enjoy her. Don’t get complicated. Ask questions. Act confident, not smug. Don’t talk about your mother. Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about politics. Talk about goals. Have goals. Pay for the date, but don’t expect anything in return. Touch her on the arm when making a point. Don’t seam eager. Don’t seem needy. Lean forward. Smile.

Ronald leaned forward and smiled. It came out crooked and his top lip jammed on his front teeth. His right arm jostled the coffee and bits of whipped cream plopped onto his shirtsleeve. He wiped at it with a napkin and smiled again. This one was too big, like a maniacal clown.

“Me,” he stammered, “uh, well, I run a consulting company. I just finished a job, I mean, a consulting job, that was good, and, I guess, right now I’m, uh, working to make some goals, I have goals, I mean, but I’m working to reach them, or get to them.” He swallowed a few times to calm down. “But goals are important to me. So is simplifying. I’m not complicated. You know. I mean, I am with my goals, complicated, but simple with most things.” He reached over and tapped her wrist. “I’m not eager. Or needy. I mean. Except for my goals. I need my goals.”

Alice’s face blanched and Ronald recoiled and grabbed at the coffee. He took a long swig and felt his hear rate spike. His head tightened and he began to fantasize about being home, alone in his room, sitting at his desk, in front of the computer, viewing the Russian pornographic site, eating cold pizza and crawling under his comforter, listening to the wind and night settle in.

She smiled and then reached out and laid her hand atop his. She had long fingers and splayed nails. Her skin was soft and warm. “Goals are important to me, too,” she said. “Like right now, I’m training to run in the New York marathon. 24 miles. I’ve never done one.” She lifted her hand from Ronald’s and stretched her arms over her head. She was wearing a black turtleneck that accentuated long taught breasts. Her hair was blond and straight and ran to her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and oval and her eyelashes ticked at the fragile skin around her cheekbones. She had a long nose that flayed at the nostrils and gave her an athletic aura. Ronald found her very attractive.

“Running, yeah,” Ronald said, “that’s a good goal. I mean accomplishment. A marathon. That’s something.”

“Maybe we could do it together. Do you run?”

Ronald looked down at his hand and wanted more than anything for her hand to be atop his again. “Run. Yes. I like running. It’s one of my needs. Goals, I mean.”

“Running or the marathon?” she asked

“Um, the marathon. I mean, running first. Then the marathon. But you can’t do one without the other, right?”

She laughed. “I guess. Well, you can train with me, if you’d like. She lowered her eyes and took a napkin and wiped at the corners of her mouth. “I run three times a week, five miles, after work in the park. Start at 6:00 and end around 7:30. I don’t go too fast. Want to meet next week, start Monday?”

“Ok,” he said.

“Great,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

* * *

The Divorce. Ronald always said it in two words; the “the” like a Mr. or Ms. The Divorce. Saying it always preceded an involuntary shake of his head and a pucker of the mouth. The Divorce. The Divorce. It repulsed him.

Germaine and he were both 21 when they got married, and 31 when they split. The marriage ended precisely on the anniversary of their wedding: April 1st. It was Germaine’s idea, to be married on Fool’s Day. It had delighted their engineer friends. Befuddled them, for sure. But made their year. Their group was not a giddy crowd. Joking, humor, playfulness, was always more difficult than advanced trig or putting together a home radio. And not as interesting. Their Fool’s Day Wedding promised to everyone a new beginning, a post college metamorphis where they would shed cloaks of nerdiness and embrace a life of good jobs, affluence, respect, and, maybe, fun. But it was a disaster. Several friends and family members didn’t show up at all, thinking the whole thing a prank and the DJ they researched and hired, who promised a range of disco favorites that would have the crowd “boogying” all night, canceled at the last minute, sending a replacement whose music ranged from lurid hip hop to crushing heavy metal. The worst thing, however, was that Ronald was violently ill. Hung over and throwing up almost to the moment he said “I Do.” His best man, his lab partner in school, had taken him and the other men from the wedding party out the night before to a local Hooters Restaurant. Ronald had gorged on honey glazed ribs and onion rings and had opened his mouth wide, at the urging of their bottle blonde waitress whose breasts extended nearly arm length, to down five tequila shooters. He was not a practiced drinker and his friends had to carry him out soon after, a wet wipe stuck to his forehead, mangled pork dribbling from his lips.

Germaine had been absolutely thrilled at the idea that Ronald and the group of men were going to Hooters to celebrate the marriage. It fell into her idea that they were now “with it” people, not engineering geeks, but fun, rowdy folk who partied hard and got married on April Fool’s day. She stayed in, of course, in bed by 9:00 p.m. after a long talk with her grandmother, her mother’s mother, who leaned into her ear when she spoke and twice whispered over her gray whiskers: “Let Ronald be a man. That was my mistake with your grandfather, god rest his soul.” The fact that her grandfather was still alive, quite healthy in fact, and snoring in the next room, seemed a bit odd. But she took the advice with her to bed and only woke up twice during the night: once to go the bathroom; and once to eat a Twix bar.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she saw Ronald’s eyes. They were glassy and red and too far back in his head and he was moving, although his feet were still, listing side to side like a sinking ship. Germaine was steaming up the aisle, her father, her matching height and width, gripping her arm, the organist grinding out Here Comes the Bride, and her eyes just riveted on Ronald. As her father let go, and Ronald stepped over to take her hand, assume the reigns and lead this prize to the finish line, a wave of bile flooded his mouth, and he spat, right at the alter, tequila and barbeque sauce and stomach acid, that landed atop her white laced shoe and a gasp went up from the crowd and all Ronald could gurgle, as he gulped air and wiped sweat from his forehead, was “April Fool.”

* * *

When Ronald got to the park it was blustery and the sharp late January wind whisked against his newly shaven face. It was early evening and still light, but very cold, and his breath rose in clouds as he strode toward their arranged meeting place. Alice was there before him, in baggy gray sweat suit with a pulled down bullet shaped black wool hat.

Ronald came up to her as she tied a sneaker. Alice looked up and smiled and didn’t seem shocked or surprised or that thrilled to see him.

“Hey, you found me,” she said, returning attention to the sneaker. “Let me just tie this and we’ll stretch and get going. Ok?”

Ronald rubbed his shirtsleeves and grunted. “Sure.” He was decked out in a one-piece Lycra running suit, black with blue racing stripes that hugged his body like seal skin. The sales clerk at Speedo had given the gear a strong recommendation, telling Ronald that it was “aerodynamic and would cut precious seconds from his best time.” As an engineer who had made a career of developing computer systems that streamlined operations, lightened workloads, cut delay, he could not resist this sales pitch. He also purchased a pair of Nikes, silver tipped, and a black wristwatch with a face the size of a baseball that would tally the miles, yards, feet, inches he ran at any given time.

But now, standing in front of the looseness of Alice’s sweat suit, her body hidden somewhere inside the folds of soft cotton, he felt like an alien being, a black and blue string bean whose every bump and knob and dimple on his body was exposed in the lining. He didn’t dare think of what an erection would reveal, and he held his hands together over his crotch area and moved side to side to keep warm while waiting for Alice.

“Why don’t we warm up with some light jogging and sprints, and then we’ll do the long run. Ok?”

Ronald nodded and smiled. He liked her voice, which was a bit lethargic but hinted at hysteria.

“How far have you been running, lately?” she asked.

“Uh, about a mile or two,” he lied. “You know. Getting ready. Working toward the goal. Right.”

Alice wrinkled her forehead and pointed a finger at his sneakers. She had small hands and pudgy, wrinkled fingers that shone pink in the cold air. “New?”

Ronald blushed. “Uh, yeah, my old ones wore out. So I figure now’s a good time, right. To buy some new ones.”

“Do you like them?”

“Yeah, they feel good,” he hopped a few times and then looked down and wiggled his toes inside. “Feel good. Yep.”

“I have to admit, I don’t wear Nike.” She wiped a bit of snot from the end of her nose. “The whole slave labor thing.”

Ronald didn’t follow. This is what worried him. His inability to make small talk, converse about a myriad of topics. He was not well read. And his mind did not absorb facts and interesting tidbits of pop knowledge or current events. Although he read the paper daily, watched the news, rarely did anything seep in. Computer systems, physics, mechanical operations, his memory was like a steel trap. He could disassemble a complicated engine and return it whole, piece by piece, in an hour. But if you asked him who Shaquille O’Neil played for or how Princess Di died or who the star of the Sopranos was, he was a blank slate. Of all the things that terrified him after the divorce, the feeling of being out there single, exposed to pithy conversation with people who dealt in this foreign world, made him almost retch.

“But I don’t mean to get preachy,” Alice continued. “I mean, look at me, I don’t eat meat but I own a black leather coat. But Nike, you have to admit, is really bad. Did you see “Downsize This,” the Michael Moore movie about corporate layoffs? Great movie. He really made Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, look like an asshole.”

Ronald swallowed and smiled and coughed into his hand. “No, I didn’t see it.” He swallowed again. “But I once developed a software system for Athlete’s Foot. Linking their stores by computer.”

“Cool,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Ronald said.

“Well, let’s go.”

“Ok.”

* * *

Time heals and time wounds and then time decides what to do with you. Ronald’s time started after Germaine walked out the door. Left behind a gap so wide he shivered for days in the apartment, chilled to the bone even though it was late summer and still hot and humid enough to cause clothes to stick. Ronald’s hurt was equal to his relief, for her leaving seemed to unclog an artery in his soul, and all the emotions of his last ten years poured out.

First was anger. Fights were relived in his mind, arguments where he felt victimized, instances when he had compromised. Like the time he wanted to move cross country, to Sante Fe, to take a job that better suited his talents, interests, personality. The idea filled him with such excitement and renewal that he could hardly breathe. But she wouldn’t even discuss it. Became indignant that he would even consider such a big a move when they were both still getting established here. Her job was going well and her family was nearby and they were finally saving money and what about the house they had looked at in the New Jersey suburbs. He didn’t even put up a fight; somehow felt as if his desire for change was wrong. That he was ungrateful to her. And gave up. But now the anger, the rage, poured out and he walked around the apartment throwing pillows and cursing her indifference to his needs.

Then came sadness. A black cloud that just gripped him and shoved him under the covers. Shook him like a wet sock, wracked his body. She was gone. Forever. He sniffed their pillowcases for remnants of her smell. Tore through photo albums and sobbed at pictures of them together, on vacations, at parties, with friends, family, alone. The sadness lasted two weeks, and he didn’t shave, barely showered, and ate Pop Tarts and Macaroni and Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then it was gone. Stopped like a cold wind when the door closes. Just like that.

Depression. That crept in next. Came while he was watching a movie. ‘High Plains Drifter’. Clint Eastwood. It was the tenth movie of An Eastwood Marathon on TNT. The day after Thanksgiving. Ronald came from a small family, mother, father and sister, and they had all gone on a cruise for the holiday. He had begged off and spent the day alone and walking, nearly 20 miles, across streets and avenues, passing hundreds of people going places fast. He had made it through unscathed, even proud, as he laid down that night in bed and realized he could be alone, even on a day that demanded company, and be at peace. But the next day, during the movie, right after ‘The Outlaw Josie Whales’ and ‘Magnum Force’, it took him. A thud that anchored his feet and twisted his stomach and then sapped him across the forehead. He couldn’t get up. Didn’t want to get up. And felt such hopelessness as to want to stick his head in the screen and let Clint blow it off with his pistol.

The depression also lasted two weeks and he came out of it with a call. From Germaine. He didn’t pick up the phone. Hadn’t in 14 days. And as he sat on his couch, wrapped in a blanket that stank of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, he listened to the message.

“Ronald, are you there. Hello. This is Germaine. Just wanted to see how you are. I have been thinking about you. Us.” And then she broke down, her voice shattered across the tape, wet tears pouring through the line. “I mean….I don’t know what I’m doing. Or who I am. I miss you. I was wrong. Give me a call.”

Ronald was stunned. His mouth open. His hair strung out and stiff from grease and sleeping all day. An energy, long deserted, came to his hands, tingled his fingers, his toes, like a dead car battery getting a jump, his lights came on and his eyes opened as wide and he stood and shook off the blanket and walked around in circles and then said: “shit,” to himself and then……………he did nothing. He sat back down. Wrapped himself in the blanket. And turned the volume up on the television.

* * *

“You run pretty good,” Alice huffed between strides. Ronald was dying trying to keep pace with her as they darted through the park, on a thin cement trail dotted with wet yellow leaves and new frost. His suit was riding up his ass and he was having difficulty breathing. The only good thing was he didn’t have to worry about getting an erection as it felt that all the blood below his waist had stopped moving.

Alice was an easy runner, long loping strides that contradicted her slight frame and diminutive stature. She barely came up to Ronald’s armpit and her baggy outfit made her look more like his daughter than date. But even though she was small, she was proportioned so it looked right, perfect, and that translated into stunning grace and balance as she turned on a dime and dodged oncoming bikers and other runners.

“We’re almost at 5k,” she belted out. “We can stop or go an extra mile, push it, if you’d like.”

Panic enveloped Ronald. His right side felt as if someone was jabbing him with a penknife and the soles of this feet ached. He didn’t know the right answer. Stop and she might think him weak and not goal oriented. Keep going and he risked vomiting and losing a bowel movement in the smothering suit. He decided to risk defecating on himself. “Keep going,” he spat out. “I feel great.”

“Cool,” her feet quickened and made him dizzy as she sped forward. “We’ll kick it up a notch.”

Ronald gulped air and expanded his chest against the gripping fabric. He had never been athletic and never had pushed his body. His mind, however, was taught and nimble and he could focus, could ruminate on a mathematical equation for days, scan systems book after systems book, follows transmitters and cues and wireless data and ion surges and analytic conversions. So he trained his mind now, to blot out the pain, to eliminate the searing in his legs, pinpoint everything to each step, to Alice in front of him, see at as a puzzle, the way her legs moved, his legs moved, could he get them in unison, draft against the breeze, minimize his gait, streamline his arm movements, stablize his neck, lower his head, cut off wind resistance, glide. When she slowed and stopped he kept going, oblivious and tuned in to his movements. He kept going a good 500 feet until he realized he was running alone. He blushed and jogged back, puzzled but somehow elated at this new discovery.

“Wow,” Alice huffed, she was pulling her hair back behind her ears. Sweat dripped from her nose and chin. “You were really cooking.”

Ronald smiled and looked down at sneaks. They were covered in mud. He felt for the first time like an athlete, a runner, a man who relied on his physique. Who challenged himself. He felt the rumblings of an erection in his tight pants. “Yeah,” he said, “caught my second wind.”

She smiled and he thought he saw her glance at his midsection and below. The wind was whipping now and it was getting dark. “Do you want to jog back to my apartment and get some water,” she asked. “I don’t live too far from here.”

Ronald wanted to blush but his face was already red and raw from the cold and the exertion. He nodded and then felt a drop of sweat roll of his nose. “Ok,” he said.

* * *

Germaine came into his dream that night. Alice was beside him. So was his running suit. He was naked and sleeping in her bed. Sex had come easy. Alice had led him to her room, glass of water in hand, and sat him down and unpeeled his layer of lycra and took him. But slow and steady. Like her voice, but limber and lithe like her running. He had come quickly. Too quickly, but she didn’t mind and they wrapped around each other and his arms didn’t feel thin or his chest small at all.

Germaine was playing field hockey in the dream. He was in goal. Wearing nothing but a chest protector and a Scottish kilt. She was weaving around the field, knocking teammates and foes to the ground, grunting and yelling his name and shaking her stick in the air, the hard ceramic ball stuck to the blade. She came at him with a fury, like a storm that rises over a hill and descends on a sleepy town, and he could not hold his balance. Could not defend the goal. And then she was inches away from him, towering over him, as he lay prostrate in front of the goal mouth, and she reared back her stick and sent the ball at his head, flying, it came fast and he closed his eyes and waited for impact…..

Alice’s lips woke him on his forehead. She was smiling and she kissed Ronald again, this time on the lips. “Good morning,” she said.

Ronald glanced around confused. He was erect and cold under the sheets. Goose pimples dotted his arms. “Good morning,” he returned.

Alice wrinkled her nose and wriggled her arm under the covers. Her fingers danced on Ronald’s penis and she raised her eyebrows. “Ok,” she said.

Ronald leaned over and took her in his arms. He rose from the sheets and looked down at their bodies under the blankets. Their skin seemed to taper together, perfect contrasts of white. He waited, above her, then set down and entered her, his head over her shoulder, sniffing at her pillow and hair, cascading into her sighs and cries, his eyes, far away, distant, oblivious, not feeling the thrust of his pelvis, the pleasure or the pain, just like his run, without extra waste, taking in images, letting light come to him, not seeking it out, and rising, deep in the iris, to stop the shot, with one hand, and throw it back with a laugh and move on, riding out of town, into a desert of warmth and water.