“Power” (November 2010)

note: this story was significantly edited before being posted here.

trigger warning: discusses rape

“About that uniform, respect it. You have to
respect it, even when you’re lying with a woman.”
-Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life

There. His gun. On the mantel, beside my bracelet. He is sleeping. I’m going to take his weapon and blow his head open.

The things he did. Each time. I’ll never wash this filth from my body, scour the flesh clean. I had to pretend that I have love. For him.

Savage. The people, dead, because of him, them. Houses burned. Farms mud. His uniform is there on the chair next to the dying fire. That grey. In my village, grey is the color of life, life that is no longer alive.

He couldn’t even come to bed without the grey shirt, buttoned all the way up to his neck. I wanted to light his beard on fire as he tilted his head back, mouth open, and I still wanted to after he fell asleep. Maybe I still will, after I’ve killed him.

It’s hard to pretend you enjoy it. But I had to. This gun, his gun, on the mantel like a snake. This will make it true. There is only one way to enjoy it: knowing I’ll kill him.

Others. The next victim…she will take her soul-killer’s gun and do the same. When our men come back from the pineapple groves, they will find us dishonored. But a new kind of honor will grasp us. Not an honor of the private parts, but in our hearts, in our hands. Guns.

We will shame our men when they come home, more than they will shame us for having conceded, our enemies’ rifle butts and bayonets. We will make men feel like filth, like vomit, and then we will feed them dinner. They will see our hands holding guns, our molten eyes, and they will eat in fear, as we have forced down each boiling day of grimy disillusion.

And then, we will share our guns—our guns—with them. We’ll show them the power they never thought we’d have. Only that color, grey, seemed capable of wielding control. Never did red blood, a child’s, gleam under the desert sun with a greater spark than a gold button on a soldier’s jacket.

But, as soon as I have killed this man, his own blood will become dull as his grey shirt. And ours will boil. Red will rise. The heart of my people, so clenched and brittle like an old, dried fig, will erupt. When I’ve taken his gun. When I’ve killed him, and saved another woman’s life.

I climb out of bed, a rabbit from a hole. My skin looks black in this dull firelight. At first I take the blanket to protect me from the cold, but I realize, I am hot. Trembling. Shivering in the heat of mourning myself.

My feet feel the woolen rug. I smell the wine, of which I had none. In the mirror across the room, I barely see myself, the outline of a woman, a freedom fighter.

The wooden shaft, lined with metal. I feel it against my hand, smooth as creek stones. The bayonet is on his belt; I will use it later, to make sure and remind myself of the moments-old feeling.

The gun is in my hands now. It feels warm, familiar. I was with Crazy Horse in a past life. Or Geronimo. I killed the spiritless without fear. Time to kill again.

His outline now. Rising and falling. Throaty, aching breaths through his red pig-nose. The tongue, flapping in his throat like his flag in the dry wind. Soon, the flag will fall.

I step towards him, slowly, carefully. His boots are in the middle of the room; I move around them.

The muzzle is at his eyelid. I want to scream, so he will face his fate, not die in his sleep like an old man. But I know better than that. The gun will scream for me.

Now, I’m squeezing the trigger, the way he squeezed my throat at the end. And that will be his final finish; now that I have him in my sights, his soul belongs to me. Now. NOW, I SAID.

A blast, lightning. His body slides up the bed towards his head, as though the rest of him wants to die. He trembles; a frightened lamb, a dead leaf, an unarmed daughter.

His grey mind is splattered like mud. He doesn’t even know he is dead. Soon, all of them will know. A heart is loose. It can kill you now.

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“Recess” (November 2011)

This story was published in the Fall 2011 issue of The Normal Review.

Philip stared at the empty garbage pail, its bright white inner wall and spotless lip, and tried to restrain the little bomb of anger that had just exploded in his belly. He turned around, facing the hall, and was about to shout his wife’s name before she appeared in the kitchen doorway.

Kiera leaned against the jamb, one thumb hooked into the waistband of her light blue workout pants, capsizing them slightly and creating a space between the cloth and her dark beige hipbone. She wore one of his white dress shirts, just three or four buttons fastened. Her large art-nouveau pendant visibly shimmered, wobbling well below shoulder level where its pewter chain came to a point.

“What do you think?”

“It looks amazing on you.”

“You sure know what I like, you must be a pretty good listener.”

“So are you,” Philip said, looking through her and then back at the garbage pail. Even though it was Friday and his work was over early, he looked hot and uncomfortable in his wool business suit. His mouth was open, face red, hands fidgeting like two Bedouins at an empty well.

Kiera straightened her stance, the waistband lingering beneath the edge of her hip. She said quickly, quietly, “Whatsthematterbaby?”

“You…I’m sure you meant to…never mind sweetie. It’s nothing.” He bent his back, opening the cupboard beside his knees.

“No baby. You can tell me, I can take it,” she said. Her hands rose, alighting just above her breasts as they always did when she was concerned for him.

He pulled out the box of garbagebags, foolishly trying to extract one in a nonchalant, unbothered manner. But Philip’s knuckles were as white as the daylight; he couldn’t get a grip on even one plastic bag inside the box labeled “GLAD.”

“Oh,” Kiera said, gliding across the room to him. Her little hands landed on his, warm and soft like solid sunshine. Between her acorn-shaped fingernails she drew forth the bag as though it was a pair of stockings from within the plastic egg.

“Thank you,” Philip said. “It’s just…I wish you could…”

“What?” she said, placing one hand inside the little pocket on her left front thigh. “Tell me.”

“What I mean is…we both have to…we should both try to remember to put a new bag in when we take the garbage out.”

“Did I forget again? I’m sorry, babe, I can always tell when something’s bothering you. You can’t hide from me.” She reached for the bag.

He tossed it to the floor. “I lost that freedom long ago, and now I couldn’t live without you,” Philip said, running his hand through his pomaded hair.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” she said again, patiently speaking the individual words this time, as one speaks to a child.

“It’s not the garbage, it’s nothing you’ve done.”

“Babe, then tell me what it is.” Kiera wrapped her arms lightly around his waist. He stopped shifting for a moment and looked her in the eyes. “It’s work, isn’t it?” she said again. “You know, when I was going to acupuncture school, you were always there for me, to listen to me whine about my teachers and coworkers and hours.”

“That was different,” he said. Kiera’s eyelids narrowed.

“What do you mean?” She pulled back just slightly, to see all of his face at once.

“You were…two steps away from getting a job, and I’ve just been fired.” Then, his face fell as he pretended to pull away from her, knowing she wouldn’t let him, but needing to know yet again.

“I’m sorry, babe,” she said, pulling him back in, close to her, against her body, pulling his arms around her so his tall frame could cling to her completely. Running her hand through his hair, Kiera ached for him; she’d always known this day was coming.

“It isn’t fair,” Philip said, his hands tightening into fists. He held her tightly, plunging his face where her neck and shoulder met, and couldn’t help but kiss her. But he sobbed as he did so, the tears soon rolling down that shoulder like boats on a channel.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “He didn’t appreciate you, he hardly even paid you what you deserved, the amount of work you did for him.”

“I know.” Philip felt himself falling to his knees; he held on more tightly to his wife. “But I…I would’ve done it for nothing, he knows its been my passion since high school! Why would he keep me from my passion?”

“He’s just…you can’t make…you can’t spend too much time thinking about it, babe, it’ll just drive you crazy trying to figure out how he thinks. He’s just like that, he likes to confound people.”

“I don’t mind going crazy, I just…it would just be nice if he could…just once…” He felt himself rise, as if with a fever, and then some god of sorrow poured another jar of tears through his eyes.

“You’ll find another job, baby, you’re qualified up the yinyang, remember that.”

“What other jobs are there for me? He’s my only real boss, probably wouldn’t even act as a reference on my resume.”

Kiera was silent for moment; what he said was very likely true. She pulled him away, slightly but firmly. “You don’t need him,” she said, staring into his eyes. “He doesn’t respect you, or understand what you’re capable of, he doesn’t appreciate you…I’ve met people like him my whole life and I’ve never been sure if they’re even capable of love.”

Philip pulled away even more. “Don’t talk about my father that way!”

“Why not?” Kiera said, letting go completely. “He’s been doing this to you your whole life, I’ve been here watching it happen for four years now.”

“He does love me, he loves the hell out of me, he says it all the time, ever since I was a little kid, he just…you just have to understand about him…” But his mind was drained.

“Babe, people believe the way the act and they act the way they believe, and this ain’t no act of love, this is just him trying to control you, to make you feel bad, the way everyone in your life has acted towards you. He’s no different. He’s no different from any of them.”

“He raised me,” Philip said, slamming the countertop, rattling the plates in the drying rack.

“He raised you into a cripple, Phil! Afraid of what he thinks of you your whole life. He never did you any favors, he’s certainly never shown me any love either, like how about coming to your son’s wedding? That would’ve been a nice gesture, wouldn’t it?”

Philip mumbled something; it sounded like the affirmative.

“You’ve been through too much to put up with him forever. He wants you to be a cripple, but you’re not, baby. You’re really not. You’re strong. You’ve always been strong, what you’ve put with.”

Philip simply stared out the window at the gloomy Friday twilight, his sad, laden thoughts weighing down his brain. Kiera stood by the refrigerator, hands on her temples. But when she saw his despondency, she grew close to him again, placing her hand on his stubbly cheek.

He wiped a few tears away, saying, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too. I don’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know, you help me, you’re the only one who helps me.”

“That’s all I want.”

Philip took a breath, composed himself, looking into her eyes like a boy looking for treasure. “It’ll be okay,” he said, softly caressing the angles of her cheeks and chin, neck and jawline. “Of course it will,” she said, before Philip leaned in once and kissed her. The kiss continued as the clock ticked, and again he wrapped his arms around her. Yet in the next several seconds or minutes, his formerly failing fingertips unfastened the last three buttons of her borrowed shirt, letting her keep the necklace, while Keira had already freed him of his suit jacket and his own white spread-collar, their lips and bodies remaining unchanged for the next several hours.

“The Face of a Mother’s Friend” (ca. 2006)

Paul placed a plate of orange slices on the table in the middle of the room. The slightly grey light shone through the translucent curtains, bringing out the white and red bedclothes and the paleness of Diane’s skin as she lay on them.

Paul looked admiringly down at her, and already felt his hands caressing that skin. He saw her eyes half-closing, gazing back into his; he recollected the scent he had long since memorized. Sometimes, Paul couldn’t believe she smelled the same even when they were miles apart.

Diane reached forward from the pillow and took an orange slice between two fingers. Oranges were a favorite of hers for mornings like this, but the sight of Paul in the grey morning light was another favorite. She leaned back onto the pillow and ate the sweet semi-circle. Paul relished the sounds her mouth made; he had told her as much.

“Are you rested?” Paul asked, and Diane nodded.

“But I want to stay inside all day,” she said. “Is that all right with you?”

“Yes,” said Paul, “even thought that means I’ll have to leave you alone all day.”

“Not all day,” she said. “All people who paint take breaks.”

“Why not just say ‘painter’?” Paul replied. “Or ‘artist’. Don’t you know you are one by now?”

“It’s better not to be sure,” Diane said, placing her peel on the plate and helping herself to another slice. They looked so good, Paul took one too.

“I suppose you’re right,” Paul said. “Keeps the curiosity flowing.”

“Yeah,” Diane said. But whether I’m an ‘artist’ is not what I’m curious about, she thought.

“What will you paint today?” Paul asked her.

“I found a photograph of one of my mother’s friends,” Diane said. “Lots of color in her face.”

“Your real mother?” Paul said. Diane nodded. “I thought so,” he added. “Who is she?”

“Who?” Diane asked.

“The friend,” Paul said.

“She’s someone I saw at the first ten or twelve major events of my life,” Diane replied, “and then never saw again.”

“I don’t know what she looks like,” said Paul, “But I can already see the painting.”

“Are you going to write?” Diane asked, getting the cigarettes and matches from the bedside table. She lit one and ignited the tobacco before putting the flame to the candle next to the ashtray, lighting it also. Shaking out the match and dropping it into the ashtray, Diane glanced back up at Paul, who was taking his time to reply.

“If you’re working, I’m going to try, at least,” he said. “Got a few ideas.”

“Don’t share them,” Diane said, “or I might figure out the ending.” She exhaled some smoke across the flame of the candle, and Paul saw her smile.

“As much as I want to tell you,” Paul said, “you know I never do, about these imaginary people and places in my head. You have it easy, you know.”

“What do I have easy?” Diane asked. Her hand sunk under the bedclothes, and again Paul paused before he answered.

“Well, you have photographs of the people you paint,” he said. “I have to invent everything about mine.”

“But at least you can’t be wrong,” Diane replied. “The person I paint has to look like the person in the picture.”

“If you say so, I’ll give you that,” Paul said, and he relented as well to the sight of her smoking, taking a cigarette from the same pack on the bedside table.

“Are you going to use the Olivetti?” asked Diane.

“Yes, at the desk,” replied Paul, “which means I’ll need some artificial light.”

“I don’t mind,” Diane said. “I can sit by the window. And then, you can pretend I’m not even here.”

“And you can pretend I’m not there either, on the other side of the room,” Paul said, pointing at the desk in the now-dark corner of the room. “We’ll both be delusional.”

“But it will be the most productive kind of delusion,” Diane said, and smiled again. Paul smiled, too, and then they looked away from each other, and both felt a little bad.

“Let’s be sane right now,” Paul said, “for a little while, until the day really begins.”

“The day has begun, though,” Diane said. “See the light outside?” The hand with the cigarette pointed at the glowing curtains. She was right.

“But not for us if we choose,” Paul said. “We can make our own rules.”

“All right,” Diane said. “You see those last two orange slices on the plate?”

“Yes,” said Paul.

“Well, I’m going to eat one right now,” Diane said, and she leaned forward rapidly and grabbed the slice of orange that was closest to her. She ate the fruit, and placed the peel back on the plate without agitation. “Now, when that last one has been eaten, then our day will begin. All right?”

Her initiative, her strength and decisiveness pleased Paul, and yet something about it emptied him as well. He had no choice.

“All right,” he said.

“Is that fair?” she asked.

“Of course it is, sweetie,” Paul replied. “I better not forget and eat that slice.”

“You better not,” Diane said. “And you should probably keep me from wanting it, too. It is my favorite for mornings like this.”

“I know,” Paul said. “It might be hard for me to compete with it.”

“But you will try, won’t you, Paul?” said Diane.

Without answering her in words, he joined her in the bed, and before their cigarette-ends had stopped smoldering in the ashtray, she was certain that this delay of daytime could not possibly improve her painting.

* * * * *

“Do you feel like getting up now?” Paul asked. Diane seemed restless.

“Less than ever,” she replied. Paul took it as a compliment. “What time is it?”

“About three-thirty,” Paul said.

“That clock is slow,” Diane reminded him.

“I know. It’s three-thirty, sweetie, trust me,” Paul said.

“All right.”

“So is it time to eat that orange?” Paul asked, pulling her slightly tighter against him.

“I think it is,” Diane said. “I am getting a little hungry, actually.”

“Me too, I think,” Paul said. “What are you going to have?”

“Bread, cheese, and wine,” Diane replied. She left him lying there and walked behind the counter in the kitchen.

Paul heard her light a match and watched the light of two candles expand in his field of vision. The sound of her taking a plate from the shelf, sharpening the knife, and uncorking the bottle of wine matched the shadows thrown against the wall in the dim candlelight. The sounds and sights made Paul hungry. As she sliced the bread, he got up from the bed and clothed himself.

“I’m going to start as soon as I’m done,” Diane said.

“Well then, so am I,” Paul said. “Wouldn’t it be something if we finished together?”

“Yes,” said Diane, “but I never finish anything in one day, anymore.”

“Me neither.” He sat down at the desk and turned on the light, which illuminated the debris hiding the desk’s surface like a puzzle that produced no image.

Paul began to clear it away, placing it on the floor near the wall in little stacks, and afterward, he blew the dust off of the typewriter. It settled there whether or not he used it.

Diane placed the plate on the table. Then, she gathered all of the bedclothes and pillows up off of the bed, dropping them onto the floor, before closing the bed back up into the couch and replacing the six cushions. Then, she sat down and started to eat, and drink.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked. Paul looked hesitant, or indecisive.

“Should I eat now, or should I create now?” he said.

“Rhetorical question?” Diane asked. Paul shook his head no. “You should eat now,” she said. “You’ll only have to stop and do it later if you don’t do it now. Besides, this plate has enough for both of us.”

“You’re right,” Paul said, and he got up and sat back down next to her, giving her knee a squeeze through her nightgown. She stood up, then.

“I’m going to put some clothes on, and then I’ll come back and join you,” Diane said.

“Okay,” Paul said back. He took a large bite of bread and stared at the still-glowing window. It had only been a moment when Diane came back.

“Okay, I’m back,” she said, and sat close to him.

“I’m glad,” he said. He felt her knee again, this time through corduroy.

After a little while of only polite eating sounds, Diane jumped to her feet once more. “I’m done,” she said. “And now, to cleanse my palate…” She took the orange slice, which had remained undisturbed, and bit the fruit from the peel in one deft bite. “Now, we have no way out,” she said.

“You are right,” Paul replied. “Time to write.”

“Time to paint,” Diane said.

“Time at all,” Paul replied, standing up slowly.

“Time at all,” Diane repeated, and she drew open one of the curtains, the one farthest away from the desk, with a flourish that made Paul wish she had not eaten the orange slice.

* * * * *

It had not been very long when Paul stopped typing. He glanced at Diane, who was gently bringing the point of a pencil down onto her canvas, to outline the person’s face. Looking back down at the desk, he got out a cigarette and lighted it.

He would not betray her trust by saying something to her, yet he was welling up with things to say. At least, he thought they were things to say. Maybe he just wanted to think some of the things, and not say them. Maybe he just wanted to touch her in a certain way, or look at her. Maybe he really wanted to do what he was doing now: see her, without Diane seeing him, and think about what she thought about what he saw.

Diane remembered one of those ten or twelve events in her life, and vividly remembered the friend. Without thinking, she began to alter the outline of the face, so that it matched her memory more than the photograph. And then, she thought about what she had said to Paul: “I have to make the person I paint look like the person in the picture.”

The idea of altering the outline back so that it would match the photograph occurred to her. Then, she wavered. The photograph and my memory refer to the same thing, and neither one is fictional. And neither one is true. Although she knew this would make it more difficult, Diane continued on, without having to use an eraser.

* * * * *

It was nearing nine at night. Paul had amassed six pages of narrative and dialogue; Diane’s canvas was two-thirds filled. His fingertips ached, hers had started to tremble, and neither of them could focus their eyes after looking away from the page.

“Sweetie?” said Paul, without looking away.

“Mm?” she replied.

“Are you hungry again?”

“Only if you are,” Diane said. She looked in Paul’s direction, but when she saw his eyes were absent she turned back to her canvas. It was the second time Diane had looked at Paul since three-thirty.

“I think I am,” Paul said.

“Well, don’t think,” Diane said. “Know. Your decision affects us both now.” She smiled, and Paul understood it was a joke.

“Yes, but you made it that way,” he said, standing up and walking over to stand next to her.

That’s because I thought you would know if you were hungry, Diane thought. “Don’t look,” she said when the canvas entered his line of sight. He averted his eyes politely, and asked “Why not?”

“No reason. Just a personal preference,” she said.

“Well, that’s a perfectly valid reason, if you ask me,” Paul replied. “But how about this: you show me yours, and I’ll read you mine.”

“You’ll read me yours?” Diane said, considering it. She stood up, turning the canvas farther away from him, and sat down on the couch. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Fair enough,” Paul said.

“In the meantime,” Diane said, “I’ll cook us up some eggs to eat.”

“That would also be fair,” Paul said.

“What would? Eggs for making you wait?”

“Why not?” Paul answered. As she jumped up and went to the kitchen, leaving Paul by himself, he stared blankly across the room. He thought he had said something wrong to Diane, but since she had just gotten up to make him some eggs he assumed that whatever it was didn’t matter too greatly.

Soon, he heard the sound of butter in a pan, and the wooden heels of Diane’s clogs against the kitchen floor. It was a pleasant mix of sounds, but the suspicion of his own wrongdoing refused to fade entirely, so Paul got up to put on some music.

A woman’s voice sang the word “guilty” over a background of soft trumpets and barely-present drums. Somehow, this music, this atmosphere, allowed Paul a holiday for his own guilty feeling, whose reason for existing at all he couldn’t determine.

Diane’s eggs were almost ready. Paul’s would take a little more time. She glanced up at him as he focused on the record player, her line of sight perpendicular to his. It was inevitable that she would be contemplating her future with him; for whatever reason, she could never be as playful with Paul at the end of the day as she was at its beginning. The act of creating, which freed her from so many other realities, could not free her from this one. Again and again and this was no exception, when she tried to open her mind to him, she was met with nothing.

“Diane?” said Paul.

“Yes?” she replied.

“Can you bring the salt when you come over with the eggs?” He was still watching the turntable.

“Sure,” said Diane, and with one plate of eggs, two forks, a glass of wine, and a salt-shaker, she came around from behind the counter and placed the items on the table. Then, she sat down next to Paul, with the width of a fist between them.

Diane said, “Paul, I have to tell you something,” then took her first bite.

“What it is, Diane?” he said. He used her name reflexively, without thinking, and then waited for her to chew and swallow.

“It’s a prognostication, actually,” she said.

“Good or bad?” Paul asked, and started on a large bite.

“Not good,” Diane said back.

“What is it?” Paul said again.

“Just that,” Diane began, “I don’t think this relationship is going to last much longer. I don’t think it can.”

Paul swallowed with the eggs still in his mouth. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean that I don’t think it’s going to last,” Diane said, and took a sip of wine.

“You mean, you know it isn’t going to last,” Paul said, “because you’re breaking up with me?”

“No, Paul, no,” Diane said. “I’m looking at the signs.”

“Signs?” said Paul.

“Yes,” Diane said.

“What signs?”

“The signs that you don’t really know me, and you never have known me, and you have no intention of ever knowing me.”

Paul couldn’t respond immediately, so he and Diane just ate for a few moments. He took the wineglass and drank from it, accidentally drawing a huge gulp. His face looked nauseated while his mouth tingled in distress.

“Well, this is a hell of a thing to lay on somebody during dinner,” Paul said. He put down his fork and scratched the back of his head.

“I know,” Diane replied, “but it is only a prognostication.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?” Paul said.

“You can try to prove it wrong,” Diane suggested.

“But you are in control,” said Paul. “Despite all my efforts, you can still prove yourself correct.”

“That would be very bad science.”

“I don’t believe in science.”

“Do you believe in me?”

“Why should I?”

“Because you purport to know me, don’t you? Answer no, and you prove me correct, and justified in my prognostication.”

“I can’t argue.”

Very calmly, Diane ate a piece of egg that she had been holding on the end of her fork. Her mouth made the quiet eating sounds, which caught Paul’s ear. Then, she said “But you can fight, can’t you? To disprove my proof?”

“Is there any point?”

“You tell me.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Prove that you know me, and that we know each other.”

“How do I do that?”

“Be creative,” Diane said.

* * * * *

Diane lay in the bathtub, her head and kneecaps just barely poking through the layer of bubbles. They looked pink because of the red light that shone from overhead, and from red Christmas lights that Paul had strung across the ceiling. Candlelight flickered on the edge of the sink, its thin smoke visible as it cut through the steam in the air.

Paul sat on a chair behind and to the left of the tub, and was reading aloud from a book. His voice was met by the sounds of wordless music, played on violins and cellos, and issuing from a small pair of speakers near the door.

As Paul read to her, the words like drops of pleasure in her veins, she extended her hand from the bathtub and took one of the tiny chocolates from the plate on the nearby stool. Placing it in her mouth, she held her hand aloft, and Paul passed her the wineglass, taking it back from her when she was done with it.

A few minutes later, after Paul had switched books once or twice, and the music’s instrument had become a piano, Paul said “Hold on for a second; I’ll be right back.” He left, and the music got slightly louder.

The warmth of the water held her well, as did the music, the wine, the chocolate—as did her own skin; Diane felt within herself, and collected, and whole. She felt as though she were on the brink of being known. Paul’s efforts might yield confidence in her, as well as pleasure: a confidence that because he did know her so well, he knew how to give her the greatest amount of pleasure, but that there was no limit to how much he should know her. This, she felt, would be love: knowledge of her beyond the physical realm, and hence, pleasure that is as boundless and profound as art itself.

Paul returned, shining a light into the room. On a tripod, he had attached a slide projector, and instantly the works of art started to appear and be replaced against the tiled wall of the bathroom. Diane looked up, and her hand fell to her chest.

Paul returned to his chair and resumed the words, undistracted by the swirls of green and blue and the red lines, and then the orange women playing bocce in a field of cypresses, and then the nude man, reclining, half-under a green blanket in front of a mirror while a small cat basks under the sunlight that makes its way through the window at the nude man’s feet. All of these and more paraded on, and Paul was only halted by Diane’s hand, which he doubled forward to kiss before giving her the wineglass.

The light, the color, the music, the voice, the wine, the warm water, the intention; Diane was impressed. She tried to forget, for now, the prognostication, and focus only on the feelings at hand.

*******

When Diane stood up to get out of the bathtub, Paul looked away as he had when she had been painting not long ago. His glance went up and to the side, and he felt proud that he could be polite and not opportunistic.

“No,” Diane said. “Look at me.”

“Yes?” Paul said, and in turning towards her, he saw Diane’s slow nod. She stood with bubbles on her shoulders, and across her body, appearing in patches that were faintly visible in the shadow she threw against the bathroom’s tiled wall.

“How well do you feel you know what you see?” she said.

“Very well,” he replied. Every curve was familiar to him, like the colors of the skin and of the hair, and like the sound of Diane’s voice. He had seen the expression on her face many times, and while he didn’t know what she was thinking, he knew of the situations in which she would use it. He made a face back to her, one with which he most often responded to this face that she was making. He did what felt appropriate to what he knew.

Diane rested her hands on her hips. She had a feeling as to what Paul was thinking, but she tried to assume that the feeling was wrong. She stepped over the edge of the bathtub, onto the bathroom floor, and extended her hand.

Paul only looked at her at first, and thought about taking the hand or passing her the wineglass, until he realized that she was asking for the towel that hung on the rack on the back of the door behind him. He took it and stepped towards her, and wrapped the towel around her body, rubbing it to absorb the wetness, and warm her at the same time. Now, her body was covered, so he looked at it with his hands instead.

“What shall we do now?” he said. “To the bedroom?”

“To the living room, you mean,” Diane said.

“They are the same thing,” Paul said back.

“Yes, but I want it to be the living room now,” said Diane, and she shook slightly while he held her.

“Okay,” Paul said. He balked. “I just thought you might want me to…”

“No,” Diane said, although not meanly. “Let’s just live together for a while, in the living room.”

Paul laughed. “I find that funny, and perhaps it was intentional, because we do live together.”

“I know,” Diane said. “But let’s live together, actively. You can even see my painting now, if you want, and you’ll see how I live actively.”

“Do you want me to read to you, too?” Paul asked.

“Of course, and I’ll see what your act of living looks like,” Diane said. “That is what art is to me: a recorded act of living.”

“I’ll go first, though,” Paul said. “You’ve been trying to see how much I know you. Now, when I read, you can see how much you know me.”

“All right,” Diane said. “That is fair, and makes sense.”

The two of them separated and Paul turned off all of the lights in the bathroom, picked up the book and the plate and the two speakers, and still had a free hand to touch Diane by as they went into the living room and sat on the couch, Paul in all of his clothes, and Diane wearing only a towel.

*******

After a long period of abstaining, Paul and Diane each smoked a cigarette. The room was lit almost entirely by the light on Paul’s desk. Outside, at midnight, the moonlight was barely visible, tinting the windowpanes the tiniest bit white. Sometimes, a voice would be heard, or the sound of an engine, or footsteps. It was very quiet.

The air smelt of soap and wine, and Diane’s skin, and soon it would smell more of cigarette smoke. Diane’s canvas still stood in the corner of the room by the window, and Paul’s paper, still in his typewriter, was on the desk in the opposite corner. They both thought about getting up to retrieve their art, but both put it off, feeling that there was no real rush. First, they would have their cigarettes, the smoke of each leaking evenly into the air.

“So, I’ll go first, all right?” Paul said, taking one last puff before putting out the cigarette in the ashtray.

“Yes,” Diane said. “That is fine with me.”

“Okay,” Paul replied, getting up almost playfully to get the typewriter and the pages.

“Can you say what the writing is about?” Diane asked.

“Just that it is my raw thoughts,” Paul said. “The things that I am about to read, are my raw thoughts: clean, and uncluttered, and unfancy—and out of the mouth of a fictional character. But they will be all the more alive and real because of that.”

“I believe it,” said Diane, and she smiled with pride and anticipation. “I want to hear them.”

“Good,” said Paul. “I want to see what your canvas has to say.”

“And you will, as soon as you are done testing me,” Diane said. She wanted to take his hand, but resisted for reasons of formality.

“Okay,” Paul said, beginning to read.

“‘She is a sight; my sight. She is a feeling and a sound and a smell; I feel them all. That is plenty, I said. The feeling and the sound and the smell are all very smooth; she provides the smoothness in my life. That’s not enough, Mike told me. Oh, but it is, I said. It’s enough to make life worth living, and innumerable sharpnesses worth suffering. That smoothness, as present and available as one of my two hands, makes me fearless, it makes me free, it makes me able to live. I need it; it is essential and necessary. It is satisfying. It is my element of smoothness, which balances me out as a person. She is the other side of me: the smooth side. Mike looks willing to understand, but unable because he is dubious. But what if she doesn’t want to be that? he asks. We all want to belong, I say. It is her smoothness, her physicality, that can be understood, and that is how we can belong to each other, I to her and she to me: by our understanding.’”

He stopped and took a breath, trying not to smile in pride, as committed writers do after reading something of theirs upon request. Diane looked straight ahead, her eyes and eyebrows in the shape of crying. Paul wondered why, hoping that she had been moved by his words.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” he said. “Did you like it?” Diane didn’t answer. “What’s the matter?”

She turned to him. “I knew you better than I thought, and better than I hoped I knew you.”

Paul swallowed. “What do you mean?” he said. He was going to add ‘by that’ to the end of his sentence, but thought that it might sound aggressive.

“What you just read, I find, was the greatest sign that my prognostication is correct.”

Paul’s stomach churned slightly, and he might have felt a lump in his throat. “Why?” he asked.

“Your love is for my physicality. My physicality is finite. What you write says to me that you seek only to know me physically, and that is why you hardly really know me at all.”

“So my love is finite? Is that what you’re saying?” Paul said.

“I say, yes, your love is finite.”

“Okay, so my love is finite,” Paul said, sliding to the edge of the couch. “So what’s so wrong with that?”

“You have no intention of ever knowing me,” said Diane. “Ever. That is what is so wrong with it. You don’t want to know my depths; you don’t want to see what is inside of me, because then you will have to come to terms with it, which takes time and patience, and you may fail. You want only to understand my outside; your love stretches only that far. And, by definition, finite loves don’t last.”

Paul felt both disbelief and unsurprised. It was just horrible enough to be utterly mesmerizing. He was silent, and thought about what she had said. He was willing to understand, but doubted that he could; coming to grips with such things seemed dangerous to him now. Yet, Paul tried to approach them—to bring them closer—to study them, so that his fear might slowly dwindle.

“Art made me do it,” he said at last, after about sixty seconds. “I just wanted…I just wanted…” He stammered.

“Yes?” Diane said.

“I wanted to have my art and my love at the same time, and it is easier to do that when you are only a physical thing to me. And I love you,” he said, “very much—so much…” Tears came to his eyes.

“I saw that in what you read to me,” Diane said.

“Yes. In that way, I love you so much, and I need you so much too, and my love feel so infinite to me, and then my art feels infinite, too. It feels deep enough; it feels meaningful enough, and productive enough, not to mention.”

“I see, my dear. I see,” said Diane. “But, love that is truly infinite allows for truly infinite art. Imagine what your art could be if your love had infinite sources, like the infinite amount of thoughts that are in my head, or in anyone’s head, for that matter. Love for each innumerable thought, instead of my numerable body parts—just think how much farther art and life can be lead when there is a source of infinite love!”

Her eyes had grown wide, but she had not moved from her position on the couch, except one of her arms, which gently gesticulated. Her physicality demanded that much of her. But she laid the arm back where it had come from, crossed over her chest, and waited to see if Paul had anything to say.

“I see what you mean,” Paul replied.

“I think you do,” Diane replied.

“I would like to have art, and love, and a life that are all infinite,” Paul said, “but I am only myself, and I am what I am. I am not so young. I cannot change with a trend as easily as I once could. I am not as impressionable, and too set in my ways now, even if it would…” He trailed off, looking back at Diane who was eyeing him with a paradoxical look of desperate pleading and of relenting in disappointment.

“I am only human,” Paul said, in summary.

“Why must it be ‘only’?” Diane asked.

“I…” Paul began, but Diane didn’t force him to continue.

“Why don’t you look at my painting?” Diane said. “It’s your turn; that was our original agreement, from long before any prognostication or inquiry.”

Paul had forgotten, and this cheered him up for some reason. “Okay,” he said. He stood up and stretched his back, dawdling as if deeply distracted, before idling over to her easel.

The light that illuminated it was almost all from the moon, as the canvas itself blocked the light from the desk lamp. The face of the mother’s friend looked out at him: a woman wearing a white hat with a red flower on top of brown hair, who had blue eyes and skin with much color in it. Her lips wore red lipstick, and they were turned downwards at the ends, in a look of tender sympathy, made stronger by the eyes that he recognized as the eyes of someone wise and knowledgeable, like a mother’s. Her neck lead down to the collar of a blue dress, and she had one hand pressed against her chest. That was the end of the picture.

Paul sighed sharply, and wanted to cry into this woman’s bosom, and be held by her, and reassured that he would be okay after this bad thing was done happening to him. He could see Diane leaving him in his head, and could almost see himself describing the event to this woman, and her sympathy lifting his spirits, if slightly. The feeling of loneliness, that he had experienced before, he could also see himself commiserating about with this woman, whose other, unpainted hand he could almost feel warmly around his shoulder. Her warmth, her tenderness, her sympathy seemed infinite, all of it to be had by him, if he chose to accept it…

Suddenly, very suddenly, Paul saw the infinite within himself. It was within him already; this woman had brought it out of him. Seeing her physically, and then seeing far beyond that, into her thoughts, had shown him her limitlessness. He needed to see himself that way first, and then he could see Diane that way, his love for her becoming as infinite as this woman’s sympathy.

With this potential, newly found within himself, Paul turned back to Diane, who had been watching him. His eyes were widened, and he slowly rejoined her on the couch, taking her hands in his.

“I’ve seen something,” he said, “and I’m certain that I’ve seen it.”

“What is it?” Diane asked.

“Proof that I can prove your prognostication wrong,” Paul said, breathing heavily.

“I believe you,” Diane said. “I see the confidence in your face.”

“It was the face of your mother’s friend that gave it to me,” Paul replied. “I wanted to value you like I saw you, like I would value gold as gold. But I saw into that face; I saw past it. It seemed to disappear as I saw what was inside. I got inside of it, and forgot that the outside was shiny, what kept my attention in the first place.”

“And you think you can see me this way?” said Diane.

“Yes, I do,” Paul said.

“All right,” Diane said, and she drew away the towel, so that she sat naked in front of Paul. His eyes dipped. “And now?” she said.

His eyes dipped again, but after they were fixed on her eyes once more, they did not move again. “Now, I see the hope you have for me, and your desire for me to be truly free, so that our lives and our love and our art can be truly free together.”

Diane brought the towel back around herself, and took back Paul’s hands. She felt an electricity in them, and in moving her hands along his limbs and shoulders, grazing his back and chest, she felt that it pulsed through his entire body.

Their eyes came back to each other, and in Paul’s, Diane saw what she had not seen in so long, and the thing that could prove her prognostication wrong—the proof that Paul had spoken of: an infinity of possibility.

“The Man Who Needed a Job” (January 2010)

Barry’s hands rested in his lap until he realized they were relaxed. At once, he exerted pressure on his knuckles until the bones began to show through the skin, especially on the right hand, where one knuckle had no finger. That’s better, he thought.

This facility had six inner walls, a door in the floor, and a lens in each ceiling tile. The slotted partitions allowed for maximum diffusion of various metanoiac and non-metanoiac Olfactotums™ throughout the twelve segments of the room. The floor comprised a quintillion light emitting diodes, each the size of a paramecium, creating perfectly uniform light from the room’s center to its edge. On each of the six walls, two and a half quadrillion light emitting diodes provided equally uniform light, so that the lenses rendered a perfect topographic representation of whatever was inside the room. Wherever it might move, the subject’s image remained impeccable, for in the eyes of the lenses, it was not the thing inside the room that moved; it was simply the movement of light.

At the moment, that light was Barry Tingles. He sat in the fourth sechstel, his legs tucked beneath him, for he repeatedly refused the offer of a chair. The reason: not having the chair or anything else in there with him would make Barry want more.

If I could just stop relaxing, Barry thought. Of course he appreciated the offer of the chair, the tea and so on. But Barry’s superiors knew full well that such amenities could impede the quality of the work. Probably just don’t want to have to pay me more for doing it so well, he thought, for getting the job done.

Or else they’re just testing me.

Still, Barry tried to do the best of work at all times. He knew his work ethic was flawed, for if he completed his task too quickly—if his work was the best of the best—he would be out of a job. Perhaps that’s why they were willing to distract him; for Barry’s own benefit, so his gainful employment could continue for as long as possible. But if he were out of a job all of a sudden, at least he’d be free to try something new.

Barry was distracted so he looked up to signal for stroboscopic catatonomy. It clicked on. Barry’s co-supervisor, Lens 21 through 31, noticed an instant increase in synaptic transmission. The increase pleased the co-supervisor, so the co-supervisor put in a request for a certain Olfactotum™, non-metanoiac of course, which he knew Barry would appreciate, if unconsciously. In twelve minutes, they would both know the verdict.

Barry’s blood pressure increased by fifteen systolic over three diastolic. The unplanned increase was noticed and recorded by Lens 71 through 91. Instantly, this co-supervisor reduced the scope of the catatonomy sweep; permission wasn’t required in matters pertaining to the subject’s health, thank god.

Barry leapt to his feet and stood in the corner of the sechstel, his hands reaching out for the partitions. He retracted them hastily and reminded himself to keep the wall-slots unobstructed. This reminder was not a distraction, but rather his mind doing his body a little favor. After all, despite his chosen desire to remain undistracted, Barry knew the benefits of proper ventilation.

He stared towards the upper-leftern-point of the room, as though he saw his mantra there. Had he, Barry would be doing his job, succeeding in training himself to see what he believed. Yet, even if the words were implanted in the air like a constellation, Barry would have no need to acknowledge them. For he clutched them so closely to his mind that Barry didn’t need to hear them, or see them, or know what they meant. The words themselves were all he knew, and that he needed them; he couldn’t live without them.

Hence, Barry Tingles, resting his shoulder on the wall, tried not to close his eyes, and permitted himself to grip the vent in the partition with one fingernail, for if he fell, his reaction would break his concentration.

Barry conjured the words, his mantra, in his mind like a mascot. He held them in a tight bomb of concentrated willpower, and remained standing. Although he knew the pause was a fault in his progress, Barry learned early on that recollecting the words themselves helped him reunite his feelings with the fact that was his product:

I NEED TO GET A JOB.

Thence, his convictions were reaffirmed, his purpose reestablished. His main focus was the meaning, yes, but if Barry wandered from it unknowingly, then all of this would be for naught and the process would start all over again.

‘Course, then they’d have to keep paying him. Barry would rather not perform the same work twice, though, nor would he enjoy getting paid for failing to get it right the first time. That’s not the kind of worker he was. “It would be like getting thanked twice for something I did last week,” he once had explained to Lens 101 through 111. “Like I ain’t done nothing since then.”

This could go forever, and they could afford it. Barry could do this for a long time too, but he’d rather not. He’d like to move on, sooner instead of later actually. But he’d make sure he did a good job here first. Make sure those government boys got all the feelings they needed, enough to feel confident with Barry’s work. Strangely enough, that was his priority.

Catatonomy came to an end, and Barry sat back down on the floor, his knees in front of him.

Lens 21 through 31 noticed something: the sweep had re-upped Barry’s glycogen stores. Good, very good.

“Looking good,” he announced through his Barrier-Free™, raising an exaggerated thumbs-up despite his invisibility. His words churned inside Barry’s resolute head. The corners of Barry’s lips ascended, though his head did not. This was enough; he knew that this, just this, was enough.

Another three minutes before the verdict. The co-supervisor wished it was sooner; rewarding hard work should be instant and allowed at all times. What if Barry forgot what he was being rewarded for? What would that accomplish?

Barry paused a second more; the compliment, undissolved within the shoals of chosen loss, left him dizzy, and as he leaned his head back and stayed his eyes again on the upper-leftern-point, behind his little smile he wished the well-intentioned man had told him nothing of his worth. Barry felt his focus crumbling and come to an end, like sleep when someone says goodnight too late, too loudly.

But it was not gone yet. He gritted his teeth, the smile gone. He gestured for more catatonomy, to rarefy his mind, but none came; it was too soon after the last wave. He dug his fingernails into the slots in the partitions, turning his head and eyes towards the light of the wall. A metanoiac synthemimetic Olfactotum™ wafted from the opposite walls of the room and guarded his discomfort. Heat rose from the ground to the top of his head, each tightening muscle and tendon struggling to stay distraught, dismayed, displeased with itself.

Lens 21 through 31 saw this happening. All of Barry’s bodily rates rose in concert with each other: heart, blood, central nervous, adrenaline…everything but testosterone.

The co-supervisor’s eyes fell away from the monitor, and his lungs expelled a sigh. He didn’t mean to jostle Barry, or cause him to relax…just to prop him up a little bit. I should’ve known better, I guess. I should’ve known better.

But he looked at the countdown: just another minute and half to go, and Barry could be rewarded from the outside in, without words to muck things up and beyond the shadow of a doubt, since the auto-physi-records were indisputable.

Barry’s unawareness is a symbol of his trust, Lens 21 through 31 reminded himself. We must reward his trust by letting him remain unaware.

Barry’s red face turned redder as he felt his feeling falter. He looked at his hand, and thought of biting it. He put his hands on his head to extirpate his hair, but he was shorn.

“I need a job, I need to get a job,” he said, and anticipated the payment he would receive in exchange for doing so. This thought process was Barry’s signal to activate the NeedSim. Lens 61 through 71 pushed a button, and Barry’s glittering new car appeared in the air in front of him. He drove home after a long day at his JOB, pulling up and stopping in the driveway of his great expensive house, built in the Neo-Classical style. Through the house’s translucent walls, Barry’s eyes glimpsed his TVs, comfortable beds and efficient heating systems, fine clothes and fun little gadgets galore, along with toys, tubed oil paints, luxurious writing implements, clocks, desks and chairs to maximize creativity, objets d’art and rich, fulfilling meals with fine wines, all within reach of his happy wife and children whose exceptional health insurance was well-taken care of by his PAYCHECK…. All these things appeared before Barry, to motivate him, to help him see things the way they wanted him to: that he should go on serving his own interests, that he wanted and needed a job more than anything else in the world if he hoped to accomplish this.

As Barry’s face turned purple, his eyes bulged, his saliva escaped from his lips, the co-supervisor noted the timer: thirteen seconds. He bit his lip, wishing he had done so earlier.

“But I….” Barry said aloud. But I… He stopped himself in defiance and tried to do his job. “I need a job, I need a job, I need to get a job….” But I…. I have…. But I have…. “I need to get a job, I need to get a…” His eyes cried while his lips turned downward, his hands tightly tucked behind his head. Barry’s mind was giving in.

“But….I HAVE A JOB,” he screamed, throwing down his hands and plunking back onto the floor. He doubled forward, bouncing, then cataplectic, limp and still.

A moment or two later, Barry sat up and rubbed his red eyelids.

“All right, stop it,” he said, weakly waving his arm once in the air. “Stop it!”

The driveway, the car, the house and all the things and people and wealth within it faded, one by one, until the light emitting diodes shimmered in ripples and disappeared like particles in dispersing waves of smoke. The porthole in the top-center of the ceiling slid open, flooding the six walls with incandescent illumination while the lenses activated their OmniTech eyelids.

The door in the floor opened beside Barry, and Mr. Tupis’s hardhatted head appeared, followed by the rest of him until he stood beside Barry like a white-coated pillar.

“Barry? What happened? Is everything all right?”

“Yeah. I guess,” he replied.

“Are you, well are you sure, Barry? You can tell me,” Mr. Tupis said.

“I just…someone dis—well, I just got distracted.”

“Yeah?” Mr. Tupis said. He removed his hardhat and placed it under his arm so that Barry could see him better, although Barry didn’t look up. “Well, so you got distracted, huh?”

“Yeah,” Barry said.

“Well, look, I know how hard it can be, how weird and tough it is, really I do, but I really need you to try not to do that anymore, okay?”

“Yes, I know, Mr. Tupis,” Barry said.

“You know, because the people need the clearest possible signal, it’s harder for us to filter out the extra stuff, like your distractions, so they, the people I mean, it’ll be harder for them to, ah, absorb it, you know? I know you know this already.”

“Yeah,” Barry said, sighing, disappointed.

“Unemployment, Barry, it’s just awful. But, you know the purpose that your feeling-mass will serve in getting people to want to work again. Absolutely essential and instrumental, Barry, really. I just need you to really buckle down and try to stay on point, just a little longer. You know, the government doesn’t have much money right now, you know that. But we’re giving you all we can because we know, more than anything, that you deserve it.”

“Yeah?” Barry said, looking at Mr. Tupis for the first time.

“Well, of course, Barry.” He reached out and stroked Barry’s bare head. “We all deserve it. We all know just how much everyone in the country is in need, yourself included. And we want to help, that’s why we’re here. And that’s why you’re here, to help the people in this great nation realize that, like it or not, they need a job because without a job life is a difficult mess of unrelated concepts that add up to nothing and produce nothing of value. So much more difficult, less fulfilling, confusing and prone to wasted time. You understand what I’m saying, Barry?”

“Yes, Mr. Tupis, I do,” Barry said.

“You know, Barry,” Mr. Tupis continued, resting his head on his rings, “ever since the Immigrant Liberation Act of ‘27, there have been tens of thousands of jobs opening up each month, all kinds of jobs from the food service industry to the custodial arts to construction and maintenance to iron-smelting….Iron-smelting, Barry, do you know how awesome iron-smelting is?”

“Actually, yes, I’ve done…. that kind of thing,” Barry replied, caressing the place where his finger used to be. “It’s how I…” He stopped himself; Mr. Tupis didn’t want to hear about things like that.

“Really? I’d like to hear about it some time, never tried it myself but I’ve seen it done; went right into bioneurophysiology—er, science—right after grad school, I did….” Mr. Tupis cleared his throat, straightening up his posture as he attempted to get back on topic. “So anyway, Barry, we had that ouster, ah, I mean Liberation, to create jobs because so many of them were gone, to other countries—Damn the rest of the world!—and no one wants to work, Barry. No one. Except you.” He replaced his hand on Barry’s head as though to extort his gratitude.

Barry didn’t respond right away; with Mr. Tupis’s hand on his head, he was thinking of his wife, Soledad, gone since ’27, back to Bolivia.

“Yes, sir,” he said at last, smiling up at his boss.

“Anyway, Barry, you understand what I’m trying to say?

“Yes, Mr. Tupis. I’m doing my best.” He paused for a sniffle and a look downwards. “I’d like to get back to work, if it’s all right.”

“Of course, Barry.” Mr. Tupis whipped his hand away, putting his hardhat back on. “Tell that wife of yours—Soul-Dad?—tell her I said hello, when you get home.”

“I will, Mr. Tupis, thanks,” Barry said.

“No, Barry,” Mr. Tupis said, almost interrupting. “Thank you.”

Mr. Tupis’s being disappeared into the floor, and the hole sealed over with a squeak. Barry stood up, swallowed, and took a deep breath.

“Okay, let’s go it again.”

“You got it, Barry,” Lens 21 through 31 answered, trying to hide any feelings in his voice. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

The co-supervisor and his associates resurrected the LEDs, and the bright light vanished unblinkingly behind the ceiling panel. The sight and sound of catatonomy soon filled the room as the Omnitech Eyelids slid open like the waking eyes of Atlas’s guardian.

Yet, this particular co-supervisor, Lens 21 through 31 trembled as he subdued the inert particle wave, and looked at the permission verdict once more on the Screenpipe:

SORRY L21-31, THAT’S A NO. NON-METANOIAC ODOR-SCENT ‘ROASTED CHESTNUTS’ MAY RESULT IN ABERRANT FOCUS DEVIATION. TIME RUNNING SHORT, REMINDS TUPIS, ADDING, GOOD THOUGHT, THOUGH. MAYBE NEXT TIME.

Then, Lens 21 through 31 deleted it.

He noticed, then, that this new barrage of catatonomy had already caused an increase in Barry’s action potential.

He’s working so hard. His job is almost complete. Soon, they’ll have what they need. Then, Barry’ll be free to try something else. I wish I could tell him somehow.

The co-supervisor sighed, and worked to hasten the process.

It wouldn’t be long now.

“The Self-Made World” (ca. early 2010)

The nurses and stenographers waited in their white rubber coats, steam rising up from under their facemasks and fogging their spectacles. With Origen’s pause, an anxious sigh, sharp and perturbed, escaped from all of the room’s inhabitants. But Origen only pursed his soapwhite lips and waited for the right words to appear without being asked.

With a tightening of his eyelids, he raised one finger and said, “Ah yes, quite; the dream proceeded thusly.”

Thusly did he have every ear and eye in the room at his disposal, as, in the King’s English, he proceeded to explain a complete cure for cancer as it had appeared in the dream, followed by the correct method by which to back-breed the passenger pigeon out of extinction.

With exquisite, interlocking detail, like a Swiss watch, Origen described the elements of the dream—the objects, words, peoples, places, relationships, intentions—to the utmost; no scalpel was without this or that long a blade, no woman’s or man’s eyes were of indefinite color or width apart, no article of cloth lacked the correct number of threads per square inch, and no spoken voice lacked its accompanying intonation.

The description was a flawless replication of the dream, more real than a description in a book because Origen had actually lived it, among it, upon it, in its midst, and yet apart from it enough to observe it all with the utmost objectivity and attention, so that with his gift of infinitesimally acute memory he could relate all manners of knowledge to the world.

His intuition extended into the absolutes of knowledge, not synthesized or invented by experience but knowledge in its purest form: visions of truth, models of explanation for the remedies to all of earth’s problems. He had already conquered war, hunger, poverty, and nearly every illness. Women and men flocked to him for knowledge about their lives, their jobs, their relationships, children, futures, possessions…Origen, with an extended blink of his eyes, replied to them all with the truth. And the people took the knowledge he provided and changed their lives into what they wanted them to be.

Bard Origen…he was above all folly, all human failings like lust and greed, neuroses, disorders and complexes. Access to the purest form of truth had purged him of all self-doubt, all need, all longing, for nothing in existence could be denied him; he knew all and understood all and spoke of all of it as readily as water speaks of wetness. All things were as members of his family, who could be called upon for favors at any time, and could not refuse, for a soul as pure as his deserved everything it asked for, and for himself, Origen asked nothing.

In his special bedroom, the tables and chairs were always filled with spectators awaiting his words and the depth of their meaning to pour from those soapwhite lips like mother’s milk. The difficulties of their lives became as unfitting puzzle pieces, without purpose in the field of perception but to obfuscate something loved. The spectators came to him to simplify that field, to remove its weeds, to vanquish what didn’t belong and bring unblemished clarity to their vision. Always, the words he spoke in service to this end never failed to expose the truth, and since the truth was what they wanted, it was never met with terror or indignity. Origen rectified the injustices of their lives, and pacified their spirits—with compassion, awareness, and calm—to convince the servants of unhappiness that they are not of this world, that they are the product of an imbalance, and that they don’t truly exist.

People flocked to him constantly, both ordinary and important, for answers to all the questions of life, and Bard Origen turned away no one for he was the embodiment of selflessness, and he begrudged no one their urgent need to know. He understood and loved all such efforts, and was glad beyond belief to live in such a time when he might be of some good, before all of man’s discomforts have been cleansed from the earth by those of even nobler blood than he.

With the money he earned, completely unrequested, he modified his house to accommodate the legions of visitors as they waited their turn to see him. Were it not for these unmet friends in need, Origen hardly would have needed any other room at all besides that modest bedroom with its bed, and chair, and table.

Everyone loved him, and valued him, and heaped praise upon him as a miracle-worker though he did nothing but sleep and dream, like any man. And he too took these praises, and dismissed them, saying always, “Next time I will do better.”

Yet no matter how many times he said and delivered on his promise, the people were never disappointed, for Bard Origen fulfilled all their needs without exception. A slumber, a moment, a dream recollected, and nothing could stand in the way of their lives any more than a moth could stagger an oak tree.

Yet there was one man, Antivero, who in all his life had never consulted the man named Bard Origen. Instead, he failed at everything he did: he was a priest defrocked, a policeman disarmed, a politician impeached, an artist exposed as unoriginal, a scientist stripped of his funding.

At all of these things, Antivero had failed, not because of chance or foul play on the part of others, but because he had cheated, lied, stolen, killed, and all without shame, without conscience…in a word, without memory or a desire to improve, so he learned nothing of value and succeeded at just as much.

‘Bard Origen, paid to sleep, while I, Antivero, am a failure at everything I try. He knows all from his dreams, while in the many tracks of my life, I’ve gleaned nothing, nothing but failure, and hatred, and disgust aimed at me by those who watched me fail, and helped me not.

‘Why didn’t they help me? I wouldn’t have helped them, and they failed to help me, so I was right not to help them. I’m just as wise as he is, yet the world does not accept me, does not wish to know me, sees me as a blight on society. I wonder how many times Origen’s been asked, “What should I do about people like Antivero? Tell me what to do, oh Bard, please tell me what to do!”’

Antivero belittled their concerns, and his mind was often full of such thoughts. In all of his short-lived professions, he’d learned another manner of human ugliness. As a priest, he’d learned condescension. As a police officer, he’d learned oppression. As a politician, he’d learned deception. As an artist, he’d learned pretension, and as a scientist, he’d learned skepticism.

From all of these sources, he knew true hatred, of himself and of all the world, and he focused that hatred on Bard Origen who existed only to enrich the lives of others.

Antivero often walked the streets at night near Origen’s house, where the lines of people awaiting the services of the Sleeper were especially long. With a knife or a gun or a bomb in his pocket, he thought of tearing them all to pieces, for in their desire to be cured of ignorance, insecurity, weakness, and ill will, they nursed Antivero’s hatred for all who were different from him, and he knew they hated him with equal ferocity, for he was different from them. He didn’t seek guidance, knowledge, awareness, the content of dreams still glistening with the splendid condensation of truth. He wanted none of it, and that no one else was like him birthed that final ugliness is Antivero’s soul, the one to which all men have access regardless of experience: pride.

Yet his pride was a phantom, which came and went as it pleased. One moment, in his disgust for the world, he was above it because he roiled in misery and hopeless doubt and would never change his ways, and the next moment, there was no getting around it: Antivero was the worst kind of person, and the world would be better off without him.

‘If only it would be that easy for them. Origen lives without lust, and the people wish to be like him, yet they lust for my extinction. Hypocrisy never bore a worthy child, and they are all the proof I need, for in seeking the words of one who knows the truth they turn further and further away from the world, away from all the misery and contempt and hatred within it, in which I find myself.’

And his pride swelled when he pondered these thoughts.

There came a day when Antivero formed a plan, to destroy the Sleeper and ruin his ability, ruin his life, and make all the problems of the world fall back into the laps of its inhabitants. Without this precious oracle’s help, the people would flounder in their hopelessness, despise the world like Antivero, and see this Bard Origen for just another silly human being whose dreams are of no more value than the aspirations of an ox.

The people would stop consulting him, stop caring about him. He would grow lusts and greeds and hatreds, and hamper his own performance. He would become a failure, subject once again to the failures and follies from which he’d been free too long.

With the power of skepticism, he doubted Origen’s importance. With condescension, he realized that only he knew what the world really needed. With pretension, he pretended that he had always known, and with oppression, he decided that the world would just have to accept his actions; it would have no choice.

Deception would put the plan into action.

With beakers and burners pilfered during his time as a scientist, and a few chemicals and conductants, he distilled a sample of his bile, refined it and distilled it, and mixed it with tears he shed during sleep. This done, he decanted, distilled, refined, distilled, decanted, distilled, refined, distilled, until he had a concentration unlike any other. The fluid was a blackish green like age-old bilge, smelt of decomposition aided with lye, loosed a cloud of purple steam whenever it met the air, and was corrosive to every material but wood. Inside its wooden vial, Antivero possessed the perfect poison against his enemy, an essence which had ruined many a dream, many a sound sleep, many a calmness and a life, and which bore a name well-known to every saint since Stephen: PERSECUTION.

‘I will administer this poison to him and the clarity of his sleep will fade. The details will evaporate, the knowledge will grow as remote as the moon, and nothing will make sense to him ever again. And then, when he is asked for help, he will say, “No, for you would not help me if I needed it.”

‘And then they will ignore him, insult him, or hate him.

‘I will go to his house in the very early morning when few people are in attendance, and I will offer him a drink before I ask my question of him, and when he lays down to sleep, the poison will work its course and he will awaken damaged, useless, and all the world will hate him for it. He will have nothing to say in hope, nothing but professions of failure and mistrust of those who let him fail, and seeing how he no longer trusts, no one will trust his dreams as anything but the paltry illusions of an ordinary man, just like their own, and no greater truth will exist within them.’

The morning of the following day, Antivero brought a bottle of wine and waited in line like any other of the Sleeper’s visitors. He gripped the vial of poison in his hand like a priceless bauble and was tempted to remove the lid, to gaze at his creation, but he knew the smell and the smoke would arouse suspicion in everyone around him. Everyone but Origen himself, so he resisted the temptation and merely clutched it, imagining and waiting.

‘He won’t have time for their precious little problems when he learns he’s the same as everyone else.’

He held the vial even more tightly, rubbing it with his thumb, and placed the entirety of what he called hope in the success of its contents.

A short while later, he found himself standing in the Sleeper’s doorway, the nurses and stenographers all urgently watching, listening, as Bard Origen, lying upright in the bed, extricated himself from the thick velvet blankets so he could more easily describe the detail.

“And the table,” he said, hands raised in front of him, “made of ancient cherry wood, scratched as with a fork, a fork with four tines many years ago…there is an envelope on the table, white and tattered, unsealed, containing a piece of beige paper, twenty-five percent cotton fiber and folded lengthwise into three, and on which are written the last words of your great-aunt Clothilde before she…” He rubbed together thumb and forefinger, squinted, and pursed his soapwhite lips before pronouncing the last detail. “…Before she died of a peptic ulcer, aggravated by an overdose of….polypropenol.”

Antivero didn’t see the woman’s face, but her sobs issued with greater severity like a mounting tidal wave, and then, when Origen was finished, her voice exploded into a guttural shriek and she flopped onto the bed to touch the Sleeper’s delicate fingers. “Thank you, young man!” she exclaimed. “To think the poor woman’s last words have been there ever since and nobody thought to open that envelope!”

“Yet there it remained,” said Origen, “so in your heart, you knew it was precious to you, and to her memory.” He smiled.

“No,” the woman said. “It wasn’t, I mean I didn’t know. I told my son to throw it away a million times but he never listened.”

“Then he must have known it had some value to his dear great-great-aunt.”

“He didn’t know her.”

Soon, she withdrew, thanking him again and again, and had to be practically chased from the room. Antivero took a deep breath, and when the nurse said so, he entered the room and sat down in front of the Sleeper.

“My word,” that one said. “I feel that the next time I awaken, I will know the truest secrets of the universe. You are a most fortunate soul to be next in line.”

“I know I will be witness to that good fortune when we have drunk together. Will you honor me by accepting my humble gift, oh Sleeper?” And he held the wine aloft.

“Of course, I will be the one who is honored, my friend.”

Antivero took two cups from the nightstand and placed them on the floor as he opened the wine. With the vial in the same hand as the bottle, he poured from both into one cup, and into the other, he poured only the wine, and no one saw a thing.

Yet one nurse turned to the other and said, “What in heaven’s name is that stench?”

Antivero perspired, and turned around to look at her.

“But don’t say that,” Origen protested, “for this man must live in great unhappiness, squalor, poverty, and misfortune to carry such an unenviable odor with him in his clothes. And it is no more your right, nurses, to point it out to him as it is mine to judge him for it.”

The nurses fell silent, but a stenographer, deftly taking down the Sleeper’s words, waved a hand before her masked face and said, “What is this cloud, this purple vapor? What does it portend?”

But again, Origen sat up straighter in bed, and with a wave of his own hand said, “You, stenographer, have you never seen such a cloud as arises from a man so truly lost? Whose body gives off a frustrated steam, so unsuited it is to the world in which he finds himself?”

But the stenographer fell silent as well, and in this time, Antivero had finished preparing the wine, and handed Origen his cup.

“I have never beheld such an honor,” Origen said, holding the cup aloft, “to assist in the life of someone with as much ache in his entire body as you possess in an eyelash, and so, with this generous cup of wine, I offer you all the thanks I can provide.”

And Antivero replied, smiling. “Never, sir, was there ever any greater hope in my heart that my life might be improved than what resides there now. Truly this arrangement is inequitable to you, for there is no way you could receive the pleasures and gratitude that I will in making use of your gift.”

“Well,” said Origen, smiling also, “we will see about that after I have used it, and if you aren’t satisfied, in any respect, trust me when I say, I will do better next time.”

And he lifted the cup to his soapwhite lips, and Antivero did the same, and they both drank until the cups were empty.

“A bitter brew,” said Origen, “but if I didn’t love bitterness, I wouldn’t be here. So tell me, my friend, what is it you wish to know? What answers do you desire from he who sees the truth in dreams?”

“Sleeper,” Antivero said, “I wish to know what life is.”

Origen sighed. “Your question will test my mettle, my promise, and my prognostication, for remember, I said most clearly that the next time I awaken I will know the truest secrets of the universe.”

“Then it must be truest destiny that sent me here, me, the most unsound soul ever to pollute your divine presence, to ask you this question, now, when you’ve been given such a gift as a moment of clarity into the very nature of existence.”

“And your question, then,” Origen interjected, “must then hold the truest secret in the universe, and no one can say otherwise. But now, let me lay down, fully, close my eyes, and dream up the only possible answer.”

Antivero said nothing more, but watched as Origen made himself comfortable, closed his eyes, and drifted into sleep.

Soon, the Sleeper saw a green sky, starred with eyes, above a ground from which the wind blew upwards; stinging insects were raised up and they stung his face with poisoned tails. Bats’ wings fluttered past the sun, which pulsed over Origen’s head; he couldn’t find balance on his two feet, the blustering brown sand whipping through the air like tiny teeth. In the distance, his watering eyes discerned a tremulous row of trees, growing larger by the moment, while the upward wind sent one or another trunk flying away at random from the row. Soon, he realized they were not trees but people, carrying branches in their raised hands, who yelled and shrieked at him in full volume even across this ever-narrowing gulf of sand.

Soon, they were upon him, and in a chorus of disgust they fell upon the Sleeper with all of their might, with rocks and sticks and insults and damnation, and soon, he lay upon the piled wood, bleeding, aching, wondering why, and through the lens of a skyward eyeball, the sun was magnified upon him until the wood ignited, and the people danced around the pyre, tossing more wood and hatred into the licking flames until the selfsame eyeball that had ignited the blaze shed a single tear, which fell down, past the swirling bats and against the grounded gusts of wind, and doused the fire and it revelers in one drop…

In his bed, Origen’s legs kicked, while the single tear from his sleeping eyes rolled down his cheek, past his neck, all the way to his heart, and he awakened.

He shot upright in bed, eyes wide, face as white as his soapwhite lips, and looked around the room at the nurses, the stenographers, and Antivero, who said,

“Please tell me, my Origen, tell me what life is. Tell me what you know. Tell me and everyone here, now, what wisdom you have uncovered in the gardens of the gods.” He knew he had succeeded, for that sleep was anything but sound.

But Bard Origen said nothing for many moments. He only looked around the room, confused, anxious, his hands clutching his thighs, his breaths bated as though he’d almost drowned.

In his heart, Antivero rejoiced, as did those around him, for they could see that the visions of such profound truth must have been hard even for the Sleeper to behold, and yet he had. And soon, they would know all what he knew, without exception.

Origen opened his soapwhite lips many times, waiting for the right words to come without asking, and soon, with another tear, he said them.

“Our life is but a trial of assumptions made by false witnesses and judged by a world that was not there.”

And with that, he got out of bed, walked to his doorway, and made the crowd disperse, and said he would see no one else that day or any day. He told the nurses and stenographers to leave, and said nothing to Antivero, who sat and smiled.

But the nurses and stenographers didn’t leave, didn’t move for many moments, until at last a stenographer jumped to his feet and ran to the highest point in the house, stood at the open window, and read the Sleeper’s last words to the people.

“Life is but a trial of misunderstandings judged by a world without a head!”

A cheer arose, not just from this morning’s crowd but from the entire world to learn that what they’d suspected all along was true. They streamed away from Origen’s house; he noticed none of it, and wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.

No one ever visited Bard Origen again, nor did he ever sleep as well as he did before knowing the smell of persecution. The people knew all they needed to know, all they’d been waiting for, and they named this knowledge ‘Origen,’ in his honor. Antivero remained there, until he left the Sleeper behind him and ventured out among the people who no longer sought truth, and lived their lives without hope or freedom, helpless, and they welcomed him as they would an orphan into the world that he had made.

“The Man Who Was Always Just Waking Up” (October 2014)

Verne was the type of person who would hear what you said, listening very intently and with a closed mouth, only to forget it moments later. He solved this problem with lists; in order to make sure he didn’t forget anything, miss anything, or overlook anything, he wrote things down.

Verne went through a notebook a month; at its bare minimum, his job at the fruit stand required only a modicum of wakefulness, but people often took his time and his attention to tell him about their days, what they were doing, and what they had yet to do. Being the only caucasian fruit seller in the neighborhood, many upscale customers patronized him. And in order to maintain their business, and to do a good job in general, he knew it was important to listen to them, and listen well.

On his way home from work, he pushed his fruit cart down the streets of New York in a minor daze. He was not about to fall over, asleep, but a light haze of incredulity settled over everything like a luminescent frost. The fruits themselves started to appear detached from reality, as in a painting, dressed in ghostly veils and subterfuges, and taking on a symbolic quality. An apple, rocking on its perch, might stand for a dream of Verne’s, to have owned a fruit store, or perhaps even deeper than that. A rumpled bunch of bananas might equal his fears, or a peach his desires. But he had to steer clear of these fancies, and continue safely and alertly down the busy New York road, prior to getting home.

His lists were often bulging with facts around this time. Mrs Perry bought two loads of grapes because her son, a growing young boy, always ate half a bunch on his own. Mr Whitley’s tastes were shifting, from bananas to nectarines, though there was always a place for a ripe Dole at the end of the day. Mr Windermere, a bodybuilder, bought two or three bunches of those bananas a day, because the starches are not too glycemic, whatever that meant. Verne always maintained a careful eye contact, and when someone said, “Vernon, you look tired” (for most people don’t realize that Verne is a name of its own), Verne would reply by saying, “I’ve always been heavy-lidded, it runs in my family!” And thereby the customer was absolved of her concern.

One day, Verne rested his head on the edge of his fruit stand, his arms tucked under like two plantains, and though he wanted to sleep, a customer appeared and spoke to him. He jumped to his feet and took note of where he had laid his notebook.

“The fruits you sold me were too expensive,” an old man said. It was Mr. Winters.

“When?” Verne replied, bleary-eyed but smiling.

“Yesterday,” Mr Winters replied.

“What was the item? What was the price?”

“Asian pears. Two dollars a pear. I bought five, but I overpaid.”

“Asian pears, and you bought two pairs and a half.”

“No, I bought…” Mr. Winters began, recognizing Verne’s joke as an attempt to lighten the mood. But Mr. Winters was not having it. “I bought five pears, and I overpaid. You overcharged me for them.”

Verne knew perfectly well that Mr. Winters had purchased, not five, but two pears, and that the price was one dollar, not two. He knew this because of a note he’d written, in which the latter man praised both the price and his quantity. “Few things in this life are perfect, but a decently-priced pear,” were his exact words.

Yet, Verne cursed himself. More than once, he’d learned from experience that a system of receipts should be in place. Despite the affluence, the wealth of his patrons, this sort of little scheme appeared regularly, and it was up to Verne to protect his interests without severing ties to this valuable customer.

“Sir, the price was written on a tag in front of the fruit, Mister Winters, as it always is.” He gestured to the orderly contents of his cart, each stack of items bearing a clearly printed price-tag. His gesture concluded over the stock of Asian pears, whose price was no less clear. Black ink on a green card, reading “Asian Pears. One dollar.”

“But you overcharged me, two dollars each, for five.”

Verne took a deep, rapid breath. The air perked him up slightly, and he renewed his helpful grin. “There’s no reason for me to have overcharged a valued customer, Mister Winters, when I know very well the prices of my own items. Have I ever overcharged you before?”

“I haven’t been coming here very long. Maybe this is only the first time I’ve noticed.” The old man’s face was creased, like a crushed white paper bag. The cold wind had drawn water to his eyes.

“I can’t give you a refund if you knew the price but paid for it anyway. Not unless there was something wrong with them.”

“Maybe this is what you do to all your new customers. So you admit that I paid two dollars each?”

“Sir, there’s nothing for me to admit. This is the price, it’s always been the price. Well, this side of the recession, anyway.” Verne chuckled; again, his attempt at levity was swatted intolerably aside like a bee at a picnic.

“I won’t accept anything but a full refund.”

“I’m sorry, Mister Winters. You knew the price–one dollar–you paid it. I would never change the price for a new customer. What kind of sense would that make?”

“It makes perfect sense, don’t accuse me of not making sense!”

A small crowd of browsers and customers was starting to form, whether to gawk or simply waiting patiently for Mister Winters to conclude this interrogation. Verne’s hands were starting to ache from being clenched around the spine of the notebook; his eyes became shifty while the images they saw adopted an auburn haze. The fatigue of the past several days began to settle rapidly throughout his body.

“Sir,” he muttered, “if you feel you’ve been mistreated, you can feel free to stop coming here. There are other fruit dealers, you know.”

Mister Winters gasped and rolled back onto his heels, his white face turning pink with dismay. “How dare you…” His voice rose to a pitch worthy of hysterics. Nearby, evidently, an engine backfired with a loud boom, resonating between the buildings and the ears of the people. Winters then exclaimed, “Gah!….Dammit!” and with a little sputtering, some frothing at the mouth, he fell to the ground, hands gripping his stomach.

Verne’s own stomach frothed upward upon noticing what was in his hands; a small gun. No notebook. The surrounding crowd had grown; they had obviously seen it all. What had happened? The man lay on the ground beside the fruit cart. A stream of blood ran down the edge of the sidewalk, into the gutter.

But the people did not panic. “Yes,” one of them said. “All right, Verne,” spoke another. “Good riddance” said several in near-unison. A few brave hands reached out to pat him on the back.

Verne’s knuckles were the color of white grapes. He saw the dead man on the ground, could practically feel the cold metal of handcuffs around his wrists. An odd steam arose from the body into the wintry weather and dispersed as from a hot beverage, as did all of Verne’s hopes and dreams, which withered right along with the old curmudgeon into a state not unlike a rotten banana.

“Oh my god,” Verne said. Two policemen approached him from the opposite corner of the busy street. He crouched in the middle of the crowd, to find his notebook and hide the gun somehow. Maybe something was written in his notes; maybe Mister Winters had a heart condition. But the notebook was nowhere to be found. He couldn’t run away; this was his fruit stand he’d worked so hard to build. His notebooks bore the fruits of his labor; now, a gun was all he had.

He flicked it underneath the fruit stand. The police arrived at that moment.

“I’m Camiolo, this is Banyon. What have you done here, son?”

“He thinks…thought I was ripping him off.”

“I see, so you ripped him off, eh?” Banyon said. “Well you’re coming with us.” He reached out and grabbed at Verne’s arm.

Verne stepped back. “But no! I think he had a problem with his heart.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Camiolo said. “You types are all the same. First it’s jealousy, then it’s violence, and then suddenly you’re concerned about his heart.”

“You have the right to remain silent…” Banyon began, reaching out with a readied handcuff.

“No!” Verne yelled, stepping back again.

“NO!” the crowd replied, tightening around the scene. A few threatened to get between Verne and the policemen

“Get back, citizens,” Camiolo said blankly, whipping out a can of pepper spray and testing its red stream against a nearby tree. The people obeyed. “Come with us peacefully, buddy, nobody needs to get hurt.”

“Anything you say can and will be used against you…” Banyon continued.

“You’re coming with us, son.”

“He was sick! I’m sure of it! I know it!” Verne crouched down again, and reached for the notebook; the gun appeared in his hand. His face turned the color of overripe strawberries. His voice rose in desperation like a siren. “Let me check my notebook. Let me check it.”

“He’s got a gun,” the policemen said together. Now, Camiolo held his own gun in one hand and pepper spray in the other; Banyon wielded his Beretta, as well as the handcuffs. They approached Verne uncompromisingly, their shadows thickening under the harsh streetlight.

“LET ME CHECK MY NOTEBOOK” Verne said again, holding the gun to his face. “I’M NOT WRONG.”

The gun went off. Verne’s face was split into two halves. Steam rose from both. The crowd attacked the police until more arrived, and the scene was dispersed, and dissolved.

“Vernon?” said a woman’s voice.

“I’m not wrong,” he replied.

“His name’s Verne, not Vernon,” a male voice said.

“I’m sorry. Hey, Verne?”

Verne’s eyes opened into the crystalline sunlight. Zogby stood in front of him, old clothes and mismatched shoes pulled tightly around him to block out the cold wind. Beside him stood a woman, dressed from head to toe in black and brown veils, with black gloves. Her dark eyes glittered; Verne saw something beautiful.

She held his notebook in front of her. “You dropped this.”

Verne had been perched on the edge of the fruit cart. He reached out and gently took the notebook; it was indeed his. “Thank you,” he said.

“Verne,” Zogby said, “this is my new friend Sahirah. We met at the shelter.”

“Yes,” Verne said, “I’ve sold fruit to her before. It’s good to see you again Sahirah.”

“Thank you, Verne. I’m sorry I’ve been saying your name wrong this entire time. I know what that is like.”

“That’s okay. What does Sahirah mean?”

Her hidden face rose behind the veil, as if smiling. “It means wakeful.”

“Be With Me” (February 2008)

A boy sat beside his father, the man in the bed and the boy in the chair. The boy listened to the man’s every breath so no words would go unheard. The father’s eyes glared upwards, the lids rising and falling without regard for need. The boy wondered when the man would close them. He could see the blank, blue eyes of the sleeping man, but he preferred this to watching the eyelids close on the eyes, as though to end their existence.

The square room was light blue: the walls, the carpet, the shades and blinds, the blankets on the bed and the mat on the floor beneath the blue commode. All these things were different shades of one mood, and the boy found his own mood did not always match it. Sometimes, as he sat, he felt anger. Other times, fear. Other times, pity, for himself or for his father. Still more times guilt, anxiety, or regret.

Yet, most of the time, the boy’s mood matched the room as it matched the eyes of the father, for the sadness he felt was blue like the sky and the ocean combined. As he sat in the room, beside the man who brought him into this world but who could not see him or speak to him, the boy felt lost in both the ocean and the sky at once—water to drown him, air to pummel him—with no escape but up and down at the same time.

The boy sighed, his breath overlapping with the breath of his father. Feeling the stillness of the air against his face, the boy smelled the scent of human indignity, and winced at its ugliness. In his mind’s eye, he saw his father’s smile when Bob and Bobby had visited him a day or two ago. His father’s amusement shimmered in the boy’s mind. The smile was its symbol, and the boy felt certain it would be his father’s last.

It was the man’s last moment, inescapably brief. The freedom of his mind came to an end the day he smiled just to please others. Even the boy entered the room while the man was still awake, and the man had felt the need to flash his teeth for a moment. But a smile is more than just a momentary flash of the teeth.

These teeth were only to please his child, to whom he taught openness to everything. That flash was to hide the pain before falling into an open-eyed sleep, during which he heard and smelled and tasted and touched nothing, only pain.

It was a sleep from which he could scarcely be roused. The boy saw the dreams affect the man’s face and body, and only dull pity was possible. He had never experienced pain in his body like that before; empathy was beyond his ability. There had been pain and disease in his mind, but the two pains seemed scarcely comparable. The man could barely move, couldn’t feed or clothe himself. The boy had never been so fargone; he had always been able to live.

Part of the boy felt guilty for this, although he knew his father would want it that way. Part of him wanted his father’s pain to be over, yet he could not conceive of living the rest of his life without his only father. This was more than just the death of a man: it was the death of a father, and no one else could be that father on that blue bed with those blue eyes in this blue room, this little blue boy sitting and watching his father die.

His heart filled with terror at times, for himself and for his father. What would death be to him, when it did come? His father had known; would he? The boy’s hands rested on his knees, and he wanted to ask a question.

The boy longed to hear the man’s words, though the words were a burden. What if the man spoke life into his last thought, and the boy failed to hear it? He kept a blank page marked in the medicine journal, so when words came, he would be ready to write them. The last words would enter the man’s mind at the proper time to fulfill his purpose on earth, to bring relief to the twisted body that was struggling to speak them. That time, only that time, that time and at no other time, from this man, and no other man was his father. Anxiety shook the boy’s soul.

But the man’s eyes turned toward his son. The boy’s facial expression changed from anxiety to calm attention. His father had said that he didn’t want people crying and grieving in his room, before him. The boy didn’t want to cry; he wanted his father to feel his love, to let it stand for the love of all the people in his life. That should be what he sees, as disparate from the pains in his body as possible.

His eyes met his father’s at just the right point. The man did not strain his neck, and his son saw both his eyes. The boy watched the taut skin around the man’s mouth quaver and slither as the man put his face together in order to use it. The father had to take control of it, order it, divide his strength equally among its parts. Even while he spoke, he would have to be aware of what his face was doing. The challenge was in doing two things at once, one with the body, one with the mind, neither useful on its own.

The boy noticed the greater wideness of the man’s eyes and the almost urgent quality of his hands, one hand shifting over to clutch his chest, the other grasping hold of the blanket. His throat gurgled as he readied a speaking breath, and the boy inhaled and exhaled quickly so he would not be distracted.

Before speaking, the man’s body quivered toward the ceiling. His breath was stayed by calcified phlegm, the sound like pigeonwings rattling his throat. His eyes grew wider and bulged from his skull, yet the boy did not break his expectant stare, did not break the softness of his brow or the upturns at the edges of his mouth. He just held his father’s hand and waited, for there was only one time in which it would come, no sooner and never again. Never again, and the boy was ready.

The man spoke in breathy whispers. “Uhh…” he said.

“Yes, dad,” said the boy, who moved closer with his ears along the line his eyes had drawn.

A string of wordless breaths, clicks, and swallows carried forth from the man’s mouth, while spasms changed the position of his hands, yet no winces masked his face.

“One more time,” the boy implored, and the father nodded and began again.

“I…”

The boy reached behind himself and grabbed the journal, readying it on his lap without looking away, and took a pen from his pocket. “What is it, papa? What do you need to tell me?” Don’t leave, thought the boy. Don’t die.

“I love you, Marko,” the father said, and at last he smiled back with unparalyzed lips before closing his eyes again. His hand moved from the blanket and touched his cheek and he said, “Now give me a kiss, I’m going to sleep.”

“All right,” the boy said as his eyebrows arched inward and his smile spread. “I love you too, Dad.” He bent over and kissed the man, who kissed him back with closed eyes. The boy was unafraid, because all he felt was love for the man who had brought him into this world, whose love would carry him out of it.