Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chapter One

Yes, I know this place is dead but I'm damned if I'm posting this stuff to That Other Place. I am not unduly obsessed with ocean stuff - this is actually part of the same thing I posted a couple of months ago. But I'm happier with this and a lot more happy about where it's going, I think. You may consider it the first chapter.


Feedback please!

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A smooth grey arc broke the surface of the water, sending ripples and salt smell across the tank. The water was dark and shallow, all things considered, lit through the sides by Barnum's handheld lamp. The big man was never exactly the most unanimated of sorts, and tonight, in particular, he was positively unsteadied by the excitement of it all, causing his hands to shake more than a little. But the hunter, perched with somewhat ridiculous daintiness in his heavy salt-bleached boots on the step ladder above, barely noticed the giddy shadows his companion was throwing across the room as he talked, talked, talked up his pile of gold.

Within the confines of the tank, all that manmade, gaslit fire was reduced through the thick French glass walls to a gentle glow. And it was into this little puddle of Atlantic Ocean that the hunter was concentrating his thoughts.

"Of course, we made out in the blurb that they were white whales. Hah, a little white lie, just to get people interested. Did you receive any of the cuttings? I asked for them to be sent on to you. The whole thing was amazing. We got a very proper scientist in to certify. God's own whales, you know, like they would have had on the ark. It's important to honour him in all his works, isn't it? I feel like I'm doing my own small bit for the Lord, building another kind of ark right here in New York City, just in case He ever feels the need to flood us all out again. We'll have it all here in this museum, the whole world, soon. We could float right out of here on the right boat. We're not even that far from the ocean like poor Noah was, though they've laughed at me in my time just like they laughed at him. Well, we showed them up properly, didn't we? We'll do so again, perhaps. Yes, God's own whales."

The hunter let him talk. It wasn't that he couldn't hold his own in polite company, or even the company of soft-skinned salemen with round fat arms and groomed moustaches. He wasn't a seadog mute, one of those whose only utterances besides those needed to sail the ship were strictly between themselves, their hammocks and the creaking wall. He was never left behind when a party set out for shore or when they arrived at a port to buy and sell goods, to barter in different dialects, accents, customs. He was a good negotiator. He knew when to be the foreign exotic, when to roll up his sleeves to display fierce rings of tattoos etched around his arms in black ink just a few hours before. He knew when to knot his bandana around his neck in the fashion of a certain group of land hunters, loved and, more importantly, feared within a ten-mile radius of their hunting grounds. He knew which phrases would signal accord and hint at a shared local upbringing, and which phrases would signal notorious criminality, the whispered threat of edged violence if negotiations were not quickly concluded. He wished he could say that he was doing the same thing now, remaining silent deliberately to unsettle Barnum and to leave him malleable for when they finally got down to talking business. Certainly this was a not unwelcome side effect.

But he would have been silent, even had the deal depended on his volubility. Too much... everything... his whole world... was staked on securing Barnum's agreement. There was nobody else in the western world who'd even give him a serious appointment to discuss it, and for good reason, of course. If it didn't mean so much, he wouldn't have been so scared. Yes, scared. Admit it. But if he hadn't been so scared of failure, he wouldn't be here, in this Broadway building, perched upon a wooden step ladder watching grey oceanic shapes moving through a tide-free water, themselves the only cause for waves, listening to Barnum talking them up.

He had asked to be brought here. They'd begun the night taking drinks in Barnum's office, non-alcoholic, of course. If Barnum had been slightly more shrewd, he'd have ensured they stayed there; the man was no idiot, but, perhaps, ego and his apparently genuine love for these creatures, which he'd stripped of all meaning and context, ensconced in his four-storey street house, outweighed his desire to do a deal around a table at which he held all the cards. The trouble was that Barnum was too damn likeable. He hadn't batted an eyelid when the hunter had outlined his plans. He hadn't laughed or ridiculed him, just sucked in his breath, stared at the floor for a moment, and then looked back up at the hunter with a schoolboy's grin in his eyes. The trouble was that the prize Barnum held was too damn important. For the hunter, allowing considerations of honour and friendship to come between him and his goal was simply not an option. He had hoped to draw strength from the whales, to refind himself in their tiny ocean, their salt spray and their oil. He had seen himself turning from the tank with renewed focus, lining up Barnum in his sights as he'd lined up the two great, sad creatures that slipped now side against side in the water beneath him. But they resembled nothing, here in this place, trapped by French glass, torn from their oceans. If anything, he felt more unsure of himself now than he had in Barnum's dust cloud study with its heavy velvet curtains and thickly upholstered chairs. Had he been such a mighty hunter, after all, to have captured these animated bathtub toys?

"...Of course, now that we've built the water pipe and brought them up to the second floor, I'm sure they'll outlive us both, eh? But I suppose we can't really be sure. Make no mistake, you will get your expedition and I don't suppose it makes much difference to you what you're hunting so long as you get paid. Certainly you can't accuse me of not being a risk-taker. Just look at these creatures. How many weeks did we wait for that pair? We could have come home with one in time for Emily's birthday. That would have been grand. But we waited. We waited. I don't mind spending the money. In fact, I consider it my duty to this great nation to enrich her children's knowledge of God's creation. But how many will see them before they fall sick and die? Wouldn't it be better to wait a year and go a-hunting whales again? That scoundrel in Philadelphia wouldn't even know where to begin thinking about what you want to attempt. Perhaps one more whaling trip first, eh, my friend?"

No expense spared. No risk untaken. To be fair, it was truer of Barnum than many of his contemporaries, detractors and competitors, which was why he was the only one with the capital to fund the hunter's plans. But, he now remembered, the man certainly made a lot more of these qualities in his advertising rhetoric than in his business deals. It was a fine selling point that the museum had been put together without consideration for the usual penny-pinching, cowardly ways of a miserly businessman. But Barnum also knew where to take risks. There may have been two whales swimming in the tank beneath him, but, as Barnum had said, they were grey, not white, though white whales swam off the continent's coasts, though the hunter had tried his hardest to persuade Barnum to give him 10 more men, a larger ship, more money, more time to capture two white whales instead. But to be the hunter who captured alive two white whales? That had been a question of pride, nothing more. He had been happy enough to let it go in favour of money and the chance to set sail again. This was about more than his pride. This concerned his very life.

The hunter tightened his grip around the ladder. How could he have been such a fool as to hope that Barnum would agree? All those weeks on the ocean, he'd somehow forgotten the man's gentle yet stubborn insistence that grey were just as good as white, friend, grey were just as good as white. After returning from New York the last time, he'd gone out into the deep ocean on a deathwish and a prayer. He'd wanted to hunt, to really hunt, with long spears and barrels and oil-melting fires; none of these rickety wooden traps strung up over rivermouths like twigs and nets set up by little boys to capture minnows, nestling up against their mother's coastal skirts. Maybe he'd felt, after seeing what Barnum intended for the creatures, like he needed to atone somehow, to throw himself upon the will of the ocean. And he'd courted death for, oh, about a week. Right up until the first kill of the trip, right up until he'd knelt with his men on the ice floes, and he'd felt, for the first time in his life, a shaking heart-pounding nausea from the exertion of the kill, and he'd heard still-hot blood cracking open the frozen water and known he was no longer a young man for whom the gods would make an exception of mortality. One week later he stepped out onto the deck for a moment to freeze beneath the frozen stars. Gazing over the side, across what was less water and more breakable ice, solid matter to be tilled and ploughed like so much worm-filled earth, he'd caught a sudden movement on the edge of his vision, a shimmering flash.

And that was the moment when all his priorities had changed.

He could not walk out of this city slum palace without a deal. He just couldn't do it.

The grey shapes sank back into the tank. Barnum had set down his lamp now, on a table in the corner of the room, but the windows were high and the curtains were drawn. Light filtered up from the street lamps on Broadway below, reflected off the white ceiling, fell in little dusty star showers onto the salty water. The hunter tried once more to recall the ruthless focus that descended upon him during his weeks at sea. All he could focus on were the sounds from the street, spinning wheels and screeching women, calls for a good time, darling, and flophouse dockers returning gin-soaked to their stalls. A couple of them had clearly stopped for a fight since male voices were being raised, a dirty female laugh, somebody's genderless hand throwing a near empty bottle in the direction of an unseen wall. The glass smashed. It was doubtless filthy glass, dripping with the stink of cheap liquor, and cutting into porous flesh and thin, dirty blood, if cutting into anything at all. But it smashed with a sudden resolution, a shimmering flash on the edge of the hunter's hearing.

And he recalled the sound of a different piece of glass, or something like glass, shattering against the ice and the silence of the ocean, a few days after that night on deck beneath the frozen stars. If he'd seen her again in that very room, it could have given him no more strength or resolve than that manmade, spit-stained bottle breaking up with a bright and brittle noise and wasting its contents in the street. He climbed down the ladder and turned to face Barnum, calm, expression open and sincere.

"Barnum, come now, whales are splendid creatures, miracles of creation. But they're not that hard to capture, as you've seen we have done so three times already. It won't be long before your competitors catch up. And, of course, the trouble with whales is that everybody already knows that they exist."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Price Of Love

Just in time for Valentine's Day. /

I was sleeping off a drunk in the backseat of Clay Watson's old Ford when he asked Laura to marry him. Senior Prom had been the night before.

I might have danced with a few girls, but by the time the dancing begin in earnest I was already drunk. Staggering with my weight out to his car Clay laid me out in the backseat with my head turned to the floor in case I threw up.

My head felt like it was undergoing some strictly off-the-books maintenance - when I finally got my head up to see what the hell was going on - Laura was crying and Clay was staring. It was daylight.

"Where we are?" I managed.

Clay's face had something naked - a look like I hadn't seen him wear since we were young and played league ball and were both on the Phillies and lost the championship game - and even though the trophies were tacky plastic statues splattered with gold paint - he wore that look after the game, staying in the park and rec after all the other players had gone.

Laura sobbed when Clay looked at her.

"We're going home Brad," he said.

He started the car. We drove from a copse of oak. I knew the place because I'd been third wheel in the back one night when Randy and Laura had driven out here and had told me it was their spot. They said it in tones of friendly ownership, the kind you use when you describe your new baby.

He'd finally asked her I guessed, like he'd been threatening. But how could she have said no? Laura and Clay loved each other. It was a truth as structurally sound as concrete. They had dated for nearly six years beginning in middle school homeroom.

Clay dropped Laura. I got into the front, and Clay wildly took off. My head wasn't helped by the bouncing and rocking of the car.

"She said no," Clay said. "She says she doesn't feel the same about me, Brad. She says we been together too long and she loves me but not like that, not that kind of love, the marrying kind. Not anymore."

He pulled up at my house. I momentarily wondered if my folks would be mad that I had stayed out all night - before I got another look at Clay's broken face.

"What else did she say?"

"She just wants to be friends."

I got uncomfortable when he started crying. Clay was a tough guy, the kind no one dare pick on in school. I liked him for other reasons but it never hurt knowing as long as we were friends no one would pick on me. I had a thought. What if part of Laura's reasoning had been the same? Date the toughest guy, so no dirt bag messed with you. I didn't like coming face to face with my own thinking: that Clay's protective influence in school was why I was his friend.

When I left Clay in his car staring into the sun, I felt a little like a butcher leaving a fresh cut of meat out to rot

***

I do not remember quite how it happened. It was toward the end of college when I realized that I hadn't spoken to Clay in more than a year.

The longer you live, the more life becomes about generalities.

I could barely remember what Clay looked like.

Generalities.

The previous year I had stopped going home after a fall-out with my parents. I spoke to them rarely. My spring, winter, and summer holidays were spent at school.

Clay was a memory as indistinct as a forgettable buddy movie by the time I took my first full-time paying job as an adult at a marketing firm.

A few years into my new sped-up life as a professional, I went home for Christmas.

The years had not been kind to the old town of Liberty, Iowa. The economy suffered a draught and it seemed all buildings except for the local church, were victims of peeling paint and predatory time. The old neighborhoods all come to ruin, I thought, but God provides.

The day before Christmas, my mother sent me to the local grocer to purchase things she needed for a Christmas ham.

Standing in a line of unfamiliar faces, I saw Clay for the first time in nearly eight years. He pulled into the grocery lot in a more advanced specimen of the same car he had driven in our pre-voting days. Clay was a few pounds heavier and had grown out his hair.

My first thought, I am ashamed to say, was: God, don't see me.

I watched him through the front glass windows of the grocer. The checkout girl impatiently glared at me. She named the price three times before I managed to hand over the amount.

My next thought was not so unkind as I recalled the times Clay and I had shared as boys.

I took the plastic bag of groceries, hurried to the parking lot.

"Clay!" I yelled out.

At first he didn't recognize me. Then he shook his head like a dog shaking off a dream.

"Brad," he said.

"It's good to see you Clay." I extended my hand.

He heartily shook it in his bigger one.

"Been a long time." His weary face split in a grin. "Damn - how long's it been?"

"Been a while."

He nodded. "Been a long while."

"So, how's it been? You still living here?"

"Uhn, yeah, still here."

We spoke for a few more increasingly uncomfortable minutes until I held up the grocery bag. "I better get back...you remember my mom's stress level 'round the holidays."

"Uhn, yeah," he said.

We shook hands again.

He was still out there when I started my rental. He had lit a cigarette.

I slowly wheeled past him.

I rolled down my window.

"By any chance, you ever hear from Laura?" I asked.

"You didn't hear? We got married last year."

"I didn't hear," I answered. "Congratulations."

"You should come by sometime. Laura, she'd love to see you."

"I'll do that," I said.

There was nothing left to say. With a wave I took off. Later that evening, around the table, listening to my family trade the inevitable barbs and concessions, I asked if they knew Clay had married Laura.

"No," my mom said. The others concurred.

I called up Clay's parent's house when I couldn't find a listing for him in the phone book. The woman who answered claimed she had no idea who I meant; but that she and her husband bought the house five years ago.

A day after Christmas, the doorbell rang. I answered it. It was Clay. His car was running in the driveway.

"Have some time today, Brad?" He asked.

He was the old Clay, the one I scarcely remembered. I was reminded of everything he had once meant.

Clay told me his mother had sold the house after his father had passed.

He interrupted my dutiful "I'm sorry" with a look.

"Why are you sorry? don't you remember him?"

My memories of Clay's father were vague.

He drove to the copse of woods. The same oaks I had woken to after a prom almost a decade ago. Built at the edge of the copse was a small house. Apparently, the builder had a few beers before erecting the frame, because the entire thing leaned to the left, like a poorly drawn perspective.

"Built it myself," Clay said.

"Good work," I replied.

"Laura's sick," Clay said. "She told me she was happy you were home but she isn't feeling up to seeing any old friends."

Memories come often unbidden. Strands of moment collect in your head when you least expect it. I recalled how heartbroken Clay had been when Laura had refused him. I guessed Clay had won his heart's desire. His obsession had proven fruitful. I wondered, sensing his nerves were at their barest threshhold; even though I was not about to ask - if the result had been worth love's suffering.

"How is she doing?" I asked him.

He shrugged.

"I'd like to see her."

He was pale. "Not today."

Clay called the next day, the day before I went back to Chicago. He told me Laura was ready to see me.

A half-inch of light snow had fallen in the night. The roads were slicker than they should have been.

He waited on the porch of his unsteady house.

"She's inside," he said.

The house was only a couple rooms. The lighting was sparse. A couch that had see happier days was busting its side seams. Someone had put an old blue blanket on it in a restorative attempt. It was obviously decorated with a man's touch. The house plunged into darkness in certain areas.

"Laura," Clay whispered.

She was flopped in a chair. She looked much the worse for wear. Where she had once been fresh-faced - and not that many years ago - her skin had since discovered the wealth of impurities hard-life has to offer. It was an unhealthy stain like her maker had given her another go, but this time applied the wrong finish. It was grey, mottled in sections. There were dark grapes under her eyes and her lips held reptillian fissures.

Her lips split further when she smiled at me. Blood circulated in them. She coughed. Her wracking chest cough moved the entire chair an inch.

"Laura I haven't seen you for years," I ignored a fat blister strain that called her forehead home.
I took her hand. It burned with fever.

The fingers were fat. Many women, no matter their appearance or background, often possess abundant grace in their hands. Laura's hand was unlike those. The thick, clumsy thing beat with fever. Yellow and black bruises corroded the nails.

Clay bustled at her side, like a loving servant. She drank a lot of water. Clay filled a cheap plastic pitcher continously from the kitchen faucet. He'd bring it in and pour water and she'd lift her cup - a child's mug decorated with bears leaping from rainbows - to her lips and down she gulped it. She never once let the mug go. She had an arid thirst.

She appeared to have lost the human gift for making noise, seemed only conversant in smiles.

Perhaps a half an hour had passed. Clay gestured. "She gets tired," he apologized.

I gripped her hand encouragingly when I made my farewells. I studiously ignored the bubble on her forehead that had pressurized and burst. She did not notice the pus that streaked to the top of one eyelid. The yellow and sweet-smelling ichor reminded me of hot butterscotch.

Clay sat on the porch. After a minute, I sat next to him.

"She's been like that for years," he said. He rubbed his eye. "You were off doing your own thing, my man. I got it. I understand."

"I was busy in college," I said in my defense.

"When Laura went off to college and I stayed here, she said we would stay friends." He grimaced. "Friendship wasn't what I wanted but I was willing to be her friend, hoping she'd snap out of it. First she stopped calling. Then she stopped emailing. After a while I started taking a few classes, myself, at community. I met another girl."

There was a snow shower drawing across the sky. It was beginning. "Supposed to be a good one," he said. Then: "Brad, I realized all the time that I was going to stay here in this town. Probably could've loved that girl I dated." His faraway eyes took me in. "But she needed me." I knew without prompting that 'she' was Laura.

"Her father called me. He said 'Clay, Laura needs you. She's missing'."

"Remember how her father never liked me? Him calling me, maybe I took it as the constellations falling in line. But I drove up to Winsoma college in Eldridge, Indiana. They told me she hadn't been a student there for over a year when I got up there. I set out to find her. I drove that town upwards and downwards, looking for Laura. If I hadn't eaten in a diner up there called Lamar's Place, I don't think I would have ever found her ."

"I had just ordered my food when a couple walked in. A man and a woman. It was January and there might've been five inches of snow on the ground, blowing hard. But they walked in completely naked. The guy was real hairy, 'n had just finished...he had just finished with her, because his works were gummed up. And...it was dripping."

"There were white things that looked like giant maggots all over his body. They were on his scalp. He had a big black beard. They were in there."

"She...didn't have them, except for down there. There were just a few down there. Probably from him. But they were dying. She walked in behind him and she was dropping them from between her legs. When they fell they stopped moving and curled up."

Somewhere above us a branch caught the wind and dropped a load of snow.

"This wasn't a situation where you tried not to look," he said. "You had to look. There were five other people there, probably regulars, all of them old. All of them but one," - he laughed but not a laugh that contained any mirth - "turned around and seen these two come in. The one didn't turn didn't have his hearing aid."

"The old guy behind the counter, the owner, Lamar, was just gapin' at them. I think I might've just got up and tried to leave right then if I hadn't recognized the naked woman. The woman spilling worms from her privates was none other than the girl I had fallen in love with and had wanted to marry. The girl who had said no. The girl I was up here to find. The girl who wanted us to be just friends."

"I thought it was just accident, but over the years since, I think he knew I was up there looking for her."

"Sometimes I wonder if I hadn't been in that diner on that day I would have come back and eventually forgotten about her. Just like you forgot about me." He put up a hand to forestall a protest but I had no protest to give. There was no debate left in me.

"Lamar, he told them they better pack it up and get out of there. He was breathing hard like he was about to have a heart attack. The naked man with the black beard just laughed. He picked a white worm from his beard. Black beard had the deaf old man in a headlock and forced that worm into his mouth before anyone could react. The old guy had probably lost his hearing a long time ago and was gumming a plate of hashbrowns. He didn't even see his death come in, nude and covered with squirming."

" Still, nobody moved. Lamar hadn't seen the movies where a gas or deli shop owner stores a shotgun under the register. He probably hadn't had to throw out anyone in his life. For God's sake, this was Indiana. A dumpy grease trap in Indiana. These two had walked in and brought it all to a screaming halt. The old man who lacked a hearing aid now owned a worm. He plopped his head into his hash with a little wet thud."

As I listened to his bizarre tale, I felt sweat under my collar. I started to grow uncomfortable.

"I was the youngest guy there, the most able guy there, by far, and this was Laura, my Laura, and if it had been any other situation I wouldna' had no problem. But, Brad, this guy, with the black beard scared me. I wanted to flee, even if I had to jump through a window."

"Black beard went over to the jukebox. It wasn't a real jukebox. It was just designed to look like one. I ran out of there, right by Laura who was just watching events blankly. I ran right past her. I took my chance." He ran his hands through his hair. In doing so, Clay revealed a swath of hair the hue of machine silver.

"I cracked the glass on the door. Hell I almost went through the door. My car was a piece of junk and half the time it didn't start. So I ran through half a foot of snow up the street. I musta' went up six maybe seven blocks. I got behind a stack of firewood and hid. I stayed there until it was dark. The snow had stopped when I finally felt brave enough to get up. The lights were on in the houses around me, safe, comfortable, familiar lights. That might have brought me out of my shock. The street had long ago filled in my prints. Since I was unfamiliar with the town except for having driven it numerous times like a fool thinking I'd catch a glimpse of Laura out walking; and since I had taken some wild turns, it took me a while to find Lamar's Place."

When I finally found it I ducked down around the lot to get to my car. Problem was I had parked it right in front of the diner. So I had to go close enough to look in."

He shook like an invalid when he lit up a smoke. The tobacco must have tasted purifying to him for he went on: "I looked in there. The only light came from that fake jukebox."

Clay's face was somber as the ice and snow. And it was really coming down, a good December snow. The kind that unluckily comes just a few days shy of Christmas, in either direction.

'Those old people were in there, face down in their plates at the counter. It was probably because I figured there was no one there but I decided to go in. I went back to my car and got out the 'Shriner - you remember the Shriner?"

I remembered. I was not too sure why he called it the Shriner but it was a wooden stick bat like they used to use in the old days of Baseball before steroids. Nowadays players could break stick bats just by looking at them.

"I had the shriner ready 'en I went in. There was a dead, frozen worm on the window. Except for the hum of the fake jukebox it was quiet in there. I had my stick out ready to knock someone's head off. I was pretty sure no one was there, or I woulda' probably been on the interstate. The jukebox gave off a faint blue light. Everything, from the countertop to the old people sitting at the counter, was blue."

"There were those white worms everywhere. They was dead. I could tell they were. The worms had curled into little balls that kinda looked like a forest mushroom. I squished on a couple on my way to the counter. They smelled like, well - like my - Gene - my dad's - cherry cigars when you squashed them; the ones he smoked after work. Sickly sweet cherries too ripe to make into a pie."

"Got to the counter before I realized I'd been stupid. One of those that I'd taken to be one of the old guys sitting with his head in his breakfast was Black beard. He was wearing Lamar's clothes, including a white apron. He turned toward me with a big smile. But he didn't have teeth. He had worms that were set in his mouth like teeth but they squirmed."

"He looked at me like he was playing it all for a joke and graciously had let me in on the fun. The clothes - everything - him waiting there for me. He was playing me for a joke. His expression said he knew what was in my mind, that he'd seen it."

"Well, I took the Shriner and I swung it at his head as hard as I could."

"Brad - he opened his mouth wide and he bit it."

"He shook it in his mouth like a dog."

"It was a toughened piece of wood - but he broke it, the worms in his gums wrapped it and just busted it up."

"He looked at me excitedly. I waited to die like the others. But he just got up from the counter and marched around to the inside, and I swear to God I thought he was going to take my order. Only he pulled Laura's head up by her hair and set her chin on the counter, her eyes wild. He had hid her behind the counter."

"She didn't look much different than she looks now, but there was more of her there. I don't know how she had met him but I'll bet you it wasn't difficult. She never knew what she wanted. Who knows how something like that finds someone, and gets permission to do what it does."

"Laura screamed out of her eyes though her mouth was smiling."

"Anyways, he says, and I'll never forget that voice - it sounded exactly it was supposed to - if that makes any sense - he says in that horrible voice THAT SOUNDED EXACTLY LIKE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO - that since I love her I can take her back."

"The way he was playful - it must have just seemed like a great joke to give her back. Back then, before I knew how she was, I thought maybe I could take her away from there; thought that I could save her. Of course - you saw her. It's been that way since."

"I told him yes. I even added a sir. Because I loved her. I always had. I'd save her if I could. I said yes. But his best joke; he saved for last. He tugged down Lamar's borrowed pants with her facing me across the counter. Laura's eyes were pits of suffering. He fucked her. Toward the end she let out a horrible, deafening scream."

"I stood paralyzed watching his face over her shoulder, oily with hair and white worms."

"When he finished he told me to take her and go. He didn't buckle his pants when he came around the corner to leave the diner. He just walked out the door into the winter night, privates hanging out. His pants dropped right down to his ankles between the diner's threshhold and the cold wind outside, but he didn't even try to fix them. He just walked into the snow.

"I used to wake up thinking he might go to one of those lit houses, where there was happiness and children, where a family was eating dinner. He might come knock at their door to be let in."

"You understand. Might come up to be let in and I knew there was nothing anybody could do about it."

"I took her back home. She don't say a word. She don't clean herself. For a while her parents took care of her but they were old when they had her - and they're up there, past the point where they should have to wash up their little girl. So I married her. No ceremony. Nobody should have to see her that way. Her dad knew the justice of the peace. Just sent in some paperwork. I built this house, by where she used to like it so much - to try to make her more comfortable."

Clay looked at the sky. "I've left her alone too long."

"What will you do?" Not even I knew what I meant - exactly.

"Just going to keep taking care of her," he said. "I'm just going to keep taking care of her."

I asked him questions but there were no real words that passed between us after his story.

I think I was already trying to forget his story.

Later I thought about all the memories I'd lost - and how I'd feel if I had to take care of Clay - or for that matter Laura. I barely remembered them or cared to. I knew I'd never be able to pay that kind of a price for love.

I was laid off from my job at the marketing firm a couple years later when the industry took a hit. I moved to a smaller place and took work as a temporary. When I'd first come back to Chicago I kept in contact with Clay - calling him every few weeks, or emailing him, but old habits - such as my habit of losing contact came back to me. He must have realized it because he didn't try to force the issue. He stopped calling when I didn't warm to him.

One day when I'd nearly forgotten it all there was a message on my cell. "He came back and he took her," was the only message Clay left. I looked at my phone. He had called from a gas station not that far from Chicago.

To recall that story Clay told me a couple years ago when I was home for Christmas, I had to hunt down the slippery slope of my memory.

My memory's not the best. I did not remember the whole story - just bits and pieces; probably because I play with numbers all day. As I rode up an escalator to an Italian place where I would scan the job classifieds and eat alone, I kept thinking about the price of love. Call me loveless or heartbroken, but I preferred it my way.

Already I can barely remember telling this story. I will never have to endure the cost of love.

In my journey I saw a familiar face, one I couldn't place, on his way to a similiar destination.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Relationship Ads

In computers there's a thing called proxy cache. That's when your Internet connection keeps a familiar page loaded in its memory, speeding up your browsing time because you're not forced to sit and wait for the familiar web page to grab all its content from scratch and put it back together again each time you visit.

I looked at her like she was that.

It hadn't got to the point where I didn't recognize that she had gotten a haircut when she went out and spent a hundred and sixty dollars highlighting and chopping at her already beautiful hair to accentuate, she said, the luminous parts.

It hadn't gotten to that point. Yet.

But it had reached an impasse'.

Cosmopolitan. My wife loved it. I didn't care one way or the other. She looked at it with a calculating interest, the same way my secretary at the bank looked at a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

"Don't worry Harry," my wife whispered. I smiled up at her, thinking that my reassured smile would let her know that I was, indeed, reassured.

They say that when you fall off a horse you should get right back on because otherwise you might never get back on. I heard lots of people say that when I was in Iraq. It was a morale-booster.

I felt a ribbon of air waft across my hair. A rubbery thud from a door swinging closed. I smelled purer air than the air out there in the hospital corridors. The air was cleaner, reminding me of peroxide when you pour it over a cut and the impurities bubble forth.

It could have been a space ship I entered.

I felt my wife caress my brow, running her fingers lightly through my hair.

I guess I was a little afraid. My heart was pounding in this new room, the rhythm like a dream I used to have of myself running down a highway, each step thudding in my ears, and each placing of a foot causing me pain as though my feet were covered in a suppurating formation of blisters. The shoes filled with goo. Clug-Clug-Clug. The trees quiet of all bird songs and the highway empty of all traffic. Clug-Clug-Clug. At the end of the dream when I looked down I saw the pus sloshing from my shoelace holes and the sides where my ankles met rubber. I looked behind me. I'd left a wet trail of blister pus on the highway. I woke up usually when my dream-self had decided to chase the trail back, to see where I had come from.

The dream used to bother me because I figured a repeat-dream was trying to tell me something. If you have a dream at least once a year your mind must be muttering the same unintelligible words to you, right? Like an SOS on repeat.

That's how I felt now. Each squeak of the bed's wheel, each breath, I felt the sides of my mouth cracking with pressure. I felt sweat running in my armpits.

I reached out. She gripped my hand with her delicate own.

"Harry," she said. "Do you have second thoughts?"

I shook my head. "Never." Although I did.

I thought she must be smiling.

I told myself, she's probably more nervous than me. She was going under the knife next.

***

I heard another voice. The nurse. Her accent was faintly German and she spoke with deliberate thickness. The nurse was telling my wife she had to wait out in the waiting room. "Ja have ta wait out there." If I concentrated I could hear my wife's thighs rubbing together.

"Honey," I heard my wife's voice. "The nurse says I have to wait out there during the operation."

"I heard," I told her.

She took my hand in her own.

"God bless us," she said. Something soft brushed against my forehead as she kissed it with cobweb softness. Her lips moved to my mouth. I tasted her, taking in a breath of sharp perfume. Her lips were so soft and full and welcoming. Like neither of us wanted to fail the other, as if even such a thing as tiny as a kiss can allow disappointment to achieve truth and reality.

Suddenly I was overcome with lust. The way she smelled and the touch of her soft skin on mine. The moisture in her red and full and quivering lips mixed with excitement and fear at the impending surgery.

Those lips smiled.

I smiled back.

"Keep your fingers crossed," I told her. I hoped my voice was brave because I didn't feel all that brave. I had undergone major surgery after a car wreck when I was in college but I did not remember much about it.

She was gone. I smelled the orderly. I heard him laugh briefly and discuss something in tones of high excitement with the nurse while we waited for the surgeon.

We had flown to Berlin for this surgeon. My wife had first read about him in the new Cosmo. Her voice had broken with excitement while she read, reminding me of a third grade teacher who had read The Red Badge Of Courage that same way, indulging us by changing her manner for each character. A doctor had placed an advertisement in the Cosmo for a new medical procedure that could restore a healthy relationship between two people. The ad described it as being as easy as flipping a switch. To be able to flip a switch and move beyond all the hurts that were destroying your relationship.

"They say he can cure relationship problems," she told me. "Honey."

I told her no because I did not believe. Besides my health insurance would not cover the expenses of the operation.

His name was Helmut Lamp. Doctor Lamp owned a medical facility in Berlin. She emailed his facility; it turned out he was actually visiting Chicago for a conference at the University of Chicago, and he offered to meet with us.

The day Doctor Lamp showed up at our modest house, my wife and I were both nervous. When he came walking up the driveway he wore a double-breasted suit and was nearly seven foot tall. I have always been interested in remarkably tall people, and such a giant caught my interest. Someone that tall probably has to have custom fit clothes made, unless he does not mind wearing the hideous styles; which are, invariably, the type of clothing they sell for the very tall. Heinous Bermuda beach shorts of a fashion that went out of style the day it was introduced, which was probably in the mid-eighties during the surfer-wear heyday. I might have made a quip on that very subject, but I don't remember.

What I do remember is the way he smelled.

He smelled bad. Moist-bad. The same smell as when I lifted up the corner of a board after we had just gotten married and moved into a new house; it was rough work getting the board up and when I finally did I was astonished and horrified to see an army of black garden spiders, the really big kind, glare at me angrily and scuttle for my feet to crawl up my pants legs and get revenge.

I had fled and purchased spider poison at the Value tool supply store.

He smelled like that; wet and earthy, like something that crawls between the dark places. I must have immediately wrinkled my nose because my wife kicked me. I straightened my features out and shook hands with Doctor Lamp.

The whole meeting he appeared irked to be there and I don't think I helped because I asked him very piercing questions on the subject of restoring relationship integrity. I felt I was well-within my rights but he reacted as though I were insulting him.

"I don't think you understand Mr. Rosenberg. Many of the populace on this side of the Atlantic continue to believe that medical advances not originating in America are tabloid sciences." He made an annoying sound when he talked, clicking and smacking his lips after his S's.

"Then why aren't they doing it in America," I countered. I was enjoying myself.

"America is not the only country, sir, with advances," he retorted. "Other technologically advanced cultures are capable of progress. Progress in science. Progress in advanced weaponry. Progress in love."

On and on it went, back and forth, while my wife talked on the phone to my mother. I was later to discover, from my wife, that she had told my mother about the possibility we wouldn't get a divorce after all, and had a very tall, very intelligent and very sophisticated German gentleman discussing it with us on our veranda.

I inherited all my stubborn attitudes from my mother, and she reacted the same way I reacted with Dr. Lamp. Had I listened, I would have heard my mother making statements that were as doubtful of the procedure as my own.

Although my wife was not, I was very surprised when an administrative assistant who worked for Helmut Lamp contacted us two days after his visit and told my wife that the good doctor was most impressed with both of us and had cleared his schedule, which was backed up more than a year, to operate on our relationship.

I was to be reset, to my old self. My wife, too. We would lose all of the bad memories that had brought our marriage to its knees. It would be like we had just met, with just a flick of a sterile scalpel on a mental switch.

My wife celebrated it as a huge victory.

While I enjoyed her celebrations on our behalf, I knew that the cost of the operation would drain our resources. When I called attention to this my wife shushed me. She was very good at that.

***

"Well, hello my American friend!" The doctor shouted. The seven foot tall man was dressed in white and I was struck by a brief fit of hilarity when I pictured him wearing nothing but a pair of Bermuda surf shorts and his white doctor's coat, a stethoscope hanging around his neck like a gold and diamond hip hop medallion.

"Doctor," I answered, trying not to seem like a man lying in a hospital bed awaiting someone else's mercy.

"I saw your wife in passing. She looks very beautiful," Lamp said.

I wasn't absolutely sure that I wanted Doctor Lamp making comments about my wife just before operating on me, but I wasn't going to make a scene either. He spoke to me for a little longer before he became very quiet. I could still hear the orderly talking to what I assumed to be the nurse. He was complaining about something by the tone of his voice, but I couldn't quite make out just what he was complaining about.

"We're going to put you out," Lamp said. "Let me reassure you Mr. Rosenberg, this is an utterly safe procedure. When you wake you will feel disorientated and dizzy but this will pass. You will be new again."

One of the strangest things about losing the stability of your relationship is the feeling of absolute despair.

I lay there wondering what it would be like to be new again.

***

I heard the nurse talking to Lamp but she whispered, and I hadn't noticed it before, but she had a way of clicking through her words in a sound very reminiscent of a fingernail tapping on wood. I heard more thick accent then I did words.

I wondered if there was a bright light showing. The doctor told me not to move. A sharp prick. The last thing I remember was that clicking sound as I fell unconscious. I smelled the moist smell, remembered very clearly lifting the board in the backyard and the smell wafting from underneath the rotten two by four. Then I saw my wife's face and I bet I smiled up at Lamp and the nurse, as I faded into the dull heart of a grey light.

I stood in a great hall filled with phone booths. Full sized phone booths, the kind Superman used when he needed to put on his costume. All the phones rang at once. I couldn't decide which phone to answer. I knew that my wife was calling but I could not decide which phone to answer. They all quit their shrill ring at the same time leaving the great hall quiet and still. I wondered if my hesitation had caused me to miss some opportunity to escape, and if I would be trapped in the great hall forever. I hadn't noticed it before but none of the phones that had recently rung had phone cords. The receivers seemed ominously unconnected and suddenly I was glad I hadn't answered any of the phones.

That's when I woke up to a fuzzy world filled with dark rubbery blots and grey smudged blurs.

I heard a soft voice cooing to me like I was a baby again. When I attempted to get up and move closer to make out the blots and smudges a hand held me down. I was forced to lay there while the voice continued to coo, in a tone that reminded me of my own voice that I had used on Spot, the cat, before he got out the front door and was run over by a Ford Escort on a Sunday afternoon. I cooed at him when he was a black and white kitten and he'd come into the yard looking for food. I cooed to him when he was a cat, when I was alone with him. I cooed over the broken pile of cat, the mush of ripped muscles and squashed bones. The driver of the Escort, a high school male with greasy black hair and mouth full of braces with bits of food stuck between them, kept apologizing and calling me sir as I cooed and I wonder if he thought I was cooing to him.

I felt another prick. There was intense pain in both of my eyes. I could not move them. They also felt hot. I tried to say something but I was having some sort of spell of dry mouth because the words stuck on my tongue. I was swept under again; I felt a vast wave of patterned darkness and for an instant fireworks went off in my brain.

I was in the great hall again. I suddenly realized I could see. Of course, I knew I was in a dream. I noticed there was no green. There was plenty of blue. There was plenty of black. The hall ceiling and walls were brushed gold.

The phones rang. This time I decided to answer one of them. I picked the one closet to me and picked the receiver from the handle.

"Hello."

"Harry." My mother.

"Mom?" I asked. I suspiciously looked around the hall.

"Harry," she said. The phone grew hot in my ear. I dropped it. The cheap black receiver started to melt, peeling away revealing the ditzy substandard electronics beneath the black coating.
I heard my mother weeping from all around the golden hall, her voice sniffing back anguished tears.

"They," she said.

Have you ever been hung up on? I mean really hung up on, like in a movie, when the phone rattles out a bleating siren of total finality?

That's what I heard, but magnified by the large hall, as though the noise bounced around, from wall to ceiling to floor to wall again.

My ears whistled like a five o clock siren.

I opened my eyes.

I stared into an empty white ceiling blank as a ghost.

It took me a moment to realize I was in a hospital gurney. I sat up and looked at a nondescript room, no TV, no vase of flowers; but there was a big grey dry sink connected to a white cabinet filled with medical supplies.

It took me a longer moment to realize that I could see again. I blinked and my eyes felt soaked with something like petroleum jelly. I didn't care how they felt, because they worked. I could see again.

The door opened to my room. I do not know why but some inner voice, some random thought that might have been left over from a troubled childhood, told me to lay back and close my eyes, and fast.

I followed the voice's directives. I closed my eyes and held myself perfectly still at first - then I had a thought: sleeping people never stay perfectly still. So I moved around a little.

When I opened my eyes I saw something that made my heart race like my veins and arteries had been replaced by a horse track. My plumbing went hot and my blood ran cold.

It was not the prickly black hair of the thing, and it was not the multifaceted clear eyes like an old teddy's bead-eyes, it was the eight legs that sprouted from the white nurse's outfit. They had little growths of grey skin the color of old mold at the stalk ends.

It was not that the eight legs of the spider-nurse were waving like weeds in a spring breeze. It was because they were reaching for me.

I got out of bed, blinking afterimages from my eye. I heard the spider's voice come clearly out like a human voice with a German accent.

"Mr. Rosenberg, you should not be up and about just yet." The voice had a register of fear in it. I knew I was not supposed to be awake.

I ignored the coolly professional voice, trying to wipe away the cosmic dust-looking objects superimposed on my vision. All I could think was: get away from the enormous spider. I worked on instinct, remembering the dry sink and jaggedly moving in that direction. I looked back once to see if the spider was coming but it stood, the antennae on its head almost looking puzzled, staring after me with all hundred or so beady eyes.

I reached into the sink. Nothing there. I moved to the cabinets. I saw a white cardboard box about the size of a matchbox. I opened the cabinet and got it down and opened the box and shook out a dozen or so syringes. I still had my back to the giant black spider. It didn't appear to know what I was doing. I took two syringes and held them in my fist so the syringe handles did not show, so all that showed was the needles. I walked toward the arachnid. I made myself smile, deep and earnest. I let the smile touch my eyes. I took some acting courses at a community college some years ago and I put every ounce of what little I had learned from the woman who taught the class into my performance. The spider reminded me of a humanoid Tarantula.

When I got close enough I plunged the syringes into the thing's head at roughly the perimeter where a person's ears would be. I shoved the needles in and pushed the inject button.

I don't know what was in those syringes but the spider did not scream while it thrashed around. It made no human noise at all but I got a real good gander at the size of the thing's fangs. It shuffled and twisted and a pink foam bubbled from between the fangs and dripped to the floor where it smoldered like acid.

Whatever this thing was, shook in a death rattle like a belly dancer rolls her stomach. A moment later it expired.

I leaned against the sink and threw up until all I had left was bile. I could taste the bile in my throat and it reminded me of the stuff eating away at the tile flooring so I threw up some more. When I was done I turned around to inspect my handiwork.

I felt like I had to inspect this thing I had killed, but I did not do it like a hunter inspects the carcass of his recent kill - I felt nothing but terror looking at the thing on the floor. It really was a giant spider. The thing jerked every so often with a death-kick and all eight limbs moved. I was kneeling by it when I heard voices.

By this time I trusted my new sense of danger and I hurried to the light switch and flipped it. But prior to flipping out the light I retrieved two more syringes. I took a position by the door.

I waited.

The door opened and a black stalk fumbled for the light. I turned the light on for it and when this spider, even bigger - it was the orderly who had been complaining to the nurse in the background when I was getting prepped for surgery - came into the room. I put the syringes in the exact same way. It struggled as I pressed the needles in - the left one fell out of my hand but I pushed the needle in my right hand all the way. I hit the mother brain. The thing went down. It scrabbled its eight hairy black legs.

But I was already creeping down the hospital corridor, my ass hanging out the flaps of my hospital gown. I had two new syringes primed and ready.

The third spider I took was another nurse. It was a smaller spider with brown fur instead of black, and when I withdrew my syringes I kept them. She had been on the phone. I picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

On the other end, some furious thick clicking. I hung up.

I was almost out of reception when someone found the bodies; not sure which body they found or how close they were I hid in a maintenance closet. I would have moved the corpses if I could have and hidden them but they were too heavy and I did not want to get any of that acid on me.

I heard voices screaming even with the door closed.

I found a wooden stick next to a yellow mop bucket and some wet floor! signs. I regularly played softball a couple times a week in a league and I knew how to hit a ball. I figured bashing a ball would be the same as bashing a spider. Then I decided that hitting a giant spider with a board was definitely not the same as squashing one with your shoe. I put the stick down.

Suddenly I felt disorientated, and crouched next to the mop bucket. I couldn't think of anything but my wife and how much I wanted to reach her and make sure she was safe. My eyes were not working right, though. I kept seeing bottle rockets going off in my peripheral vision. I don't know why I did it but I cried because of this whole situation and, surprisingly, that seemed to do it and I once again looked at the world without the special effects, or the roller coaster feeling.

I kicked open the door. I was going to go get my wife.

My fighting spirit quickly left me as I stepped into an empty corridor. There was no one to fight. I scurried - a bad term, I thought - down the corridor. That was when I took a good look at my syringes. Acid had eaten through them. All that was left were needle nubs. I cursed and dropped them.

I found another operating theatre and opened the door. There was a guy in the bed and he was snoring, dead to the world. I rifled through the medical cabinets, thankful that the spiders at least stocked the place like a real hospital, finding an identical box of syringes. This time I took a couple extra and put them in my right sock. I bit the tops off two and spit them, the same as I done with new BIC pen caps in Mrs. Osgood's seventh grade homeroom.

I shook the guy awake as gently as I could. He roused slowly, and when he finally came awake he stared right through me.

"Doctor Lamp?" He asked.

I realized he was disorientated.

"Hey man," I said. "You don't know me and I don't have time to give specifics." I ran him through the story. I basically told him I had been just like him, and woke up. I did not describe the giant spiders. There was no time and I did not want him to think I was crazy and waste more time trying to convince him I was not crazy. So I told them they were terrorists.

I got him to his feet. His name was Mark, he was from Kansas, and he had a degenerative disease that mostly ran dormant in his family until he had gotten married and realized he was possessed by Rage.

"This was my wife's idea," he said.

"Yeah, mine too," I replied.

"I knew this was a bad idea. I knew it from the very beginning." I let him rage while I tried to plan out how we were going to get out of here. I finally had to tell him to be quiet, though, because his voice got louder and stormier the longer he set into his subject.

"Sorry," he said.

"Let's just get out of here."

"I still don't understand why you think we're in danger..."

"Shhh," I told him.

I heard a couple voices in the corridor.

"Lay down," I ordered.

When the two spiders held open the door they only saw Mark. I was getting the door shoved in my face and pressing myself against the wall as close as I could get. Mark did as I had asked and lay in the hospital bed. He added a touch I would not have: he snored. He drew breath in and let it ripple out with a deep, annoying liquid gurgling sound.

The spiders stared at him for a moment, and I got my syringes ready - feeling like an expert by now. I thought we were done for but they released the door. After it had closed, I sighed

"They gone?" Mark asked.

"All gone."

I helped him up.

I took a hold of his hospital gown by the sleeve and we made like prize winning dogs at a dog show, parading for the exit.

I didn't know my way around but it wasn't that big of a place. There was no one in sight. We finally reached the door that led to the receptionist desk. The wall was transparent plastic of some kind. I looked through and saw a wide desk, stacked with clipboards.

But

There were spiders in there. One spider in particular made my blood run cold. It was twice the size of the orderly. Some pre-civilized sense went haywire when I saw the enormous creature and I wanted to flee right then.

It reminded me of an office strategy meeting; the smaller spiders were listening to the larger one, and I could almost make out a few words, if not for the transparent wall, because they were speaking English. They had German accents but they spoke English.

I dragged Mark away from the transparent wall.

"We're going to wait," I told him. "Right here."

I kept thinking about my wife. I seem to have done the cliche and woken up into a nightmare, and I wondered where she was, if she was okay, trying not to think about what might have happened. I refused to think that something might have happened to her. She should be waiting for me, somewhere out there in the waiting area of reception, and that's where I needed to be. I needed to get through those spiders.

Mark asked me for a cigarette but I told him I did not smoke.

"I smoke two packs a day," he declared.

"Yeah."

"Yeah." He scratched his chin. "I mostly roll my own. Smoking is good for the soul. Some say it isn't good for you but those who say so have got no souls."

I was busy watching the large spider give orders to smaller versions. I should have paid more attention to Mark.

When I turned he was opening the wooden door to reception. He was opening the door right into that horde of spiders out there. I grabbed but it was too late. The door swung open. Mark opened it in a Rage.

He saw and turned back toward me, intent on running.

It came quick, definitely quick, but not painless by the look on Mark's face. The big spider - the really big one, put a big leg through his back at midriff level. The leg popped out Mark's front with a bright red spat! The leg dug in, barbed at the joint, and pulled up, effectively splitting Mark vertically up to his chin. His last look at me was a half-pleading one. He yawned like he was looking up for pop fly and his head broke off its neck and went rolling into the wall leaving a trail of blood like paint from a drippy paint roller.

I turned on my heel and took off down the corridor. The spider made a clicking sound behind me. It sounded like ire. I wasn't going to stick around and find out how it was feeling.

I rounded a corner and chanced a look back. Sure enough, the spider was rushing down the corridor, going right up the wall and running upside down on the ceiling when there was an empty gurney or other obstacle in its path.

Shit. There was no way I could outrun this: I had the two syringes and I decided to turn and face the thing's charge. I swung around prepared to feel one of those legs or worse (the spider crawling over me, dripping hot venom on my face and shitting web) but the spider stopped and regarded me.

The voice that came from the thing was none other than Dr. Lamp - and the human tones caused my mind to jerk in surprise even though I had previously experienced the nurse speaking in clear Homosapien English.

"Do you think we might talk this over like logical beings?" The Dr. Lamp spider asked.

I did not hesitate. "Sure," I said.

"I mean you no harm."

"Sure," I said.

"I can reunite you with your spouse. Your very beautiful wife."

"You can?"

The spider's fangs clucked in a very human gesture of impatience.

"She's waiting in my office. I will take you there, directly. As a measure of trust I will even lead the way."

The spider did not wait but turned and scuttled back the way it had come, still doing that disorientating thing of crawling on the wall and ceiling if its path was obstructed. I followed at a distance.

I hesitated at the threshold to reception. Mark's remains were cooling and the air smelled like evacuated bowels.

Dr. Lamp, unsettling as an arachnophobic's worst nightmare, gestured with one black stalk. To my discomfort the end of the leg was stained cherry, thick root hairs pressed down with sticky blood like he had applied a liberal amount of hardcore salon hair gel, the kind that cost twenty dollars and change per application.

What the hell.

I followed

Walking by the spiders filled me with a primal fear and I could smell that wet dark pungent odor of things that live their lives hiding underneath things, stale, moist, like the bottom dregs of a movie theater popcorn popper. The only thing missing was the pale acne-sore refreshment guy asking if you wanted to try a combo, his inquiry bored and yet resolute.

Mimi was waiting in his office. She stared straight ahead like someone who has recently learned of a death in the family. Her eyes were wide and fearful, because her arms and legs were cocooned in silky spider fiber. What the hell. There was a free chair. I sat.

She started right away. She did not need an invitation to harangue me I knew. I admit I was still a little surprised when she brought up my habit of putting things in the microwave without putting a paper towel down so whatever I was cooking exploded all over the microwave - and she had to clean it while I went back to watching an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun.

"You don't work," I told her. "You had a job when we married, Mimi. WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?"

"Whatdoyoumeanwhathappenedtothat! You didn't want a wife, Harry," - she put poison in my name. "You wanted a sexy housekeeper!"

"How can I change, when you don't like anything about me?" I asked. I had been saving that one up. I think she must have guessed from my expression - I had also been saving up that expression - it was one part hurt dignity and two parts noble suffering.

"You smug bastard," she sang. "How could anyone like you if they knew you?"

"Well I don't know, Mimi," I sang back. "You should have married Jeffrey. You could have been the happy couple riding off into the sunset. -but I'm not sure he could support you on his gas station salary."

"Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg," the huge spider - Dr. Lamp - interjected: "part out your problems is not giving concessions to your partner." The spider tsktsked. "That's why you came here, isn't it? To reboot to the beginning before you had built up defense systems."

We were both silent, taking this in.

"I want children," Mimi said. I looked at her. She looked at me.

"How can we have children if you don't work? How can we afford a child on just my salary?" I was getting my rhythm.

"Sometimes I feel like you keep me around as a sex puppet," Mimi said. She turned to the spider. "He just wants to drill me and roll over and go to sleep after he drinks a twelve pack of beer and watches ESPN."

Tears rolled down her cheeks and she looked at her restless hands.

"THE CRYING THING," I screamed. "Do you see that?" I asked the spider. "Do you see it? That's what she does, that's her favorite thing to do. She Cries. SHE BLUBBERS."

Mimi was crying like she couldn't take a breath, incoherently waving her hands in shooing motions.

"Mr. Rosenberg, nothing is ever solved by shouting." The spider's multifarious red eyes picked me apart.

"Yeah, I know." I looked at Mimi. Something snapped in me. Here we were in this place, and she was trapped in a chair, and we might not survive. "I'm sorry I raised my voice," I told her. I crouched next to her, as if to study the efficiency of her tears.

"I'm sorry," I said.

She stared straight ahead, face glistening.

"I'm sorry, Mimi."

She still didn't look but when I begin to say it a third time she said in a cold, distant tone: "I heard you, Harry."

"Here it goes again," I said. "See this is what she does. Poor martyr. Saint Mimi the blessed. IF YOU'RE GOING TO BE A SAINT DON'T BE A BITCH ABOUT IT," I yelled.

"Mr. Rosenberg," the spider said. It was a warning.

"Look what you've got us into, Mimi. Just take a look around. Does this thing look like a MARRIAGE COUNSELOR? We flew to Berlin on a trip we can't afford for a procedure we can't afford and look at you with your tears, not accepting any of the RESPONSIBILTY."

"If you don't keep your voice down, Mr. Rosenberg, I'm going to have to eat you." The spider gnashed its fangs. One of those fangs was about the size of my hand.

I walked toward the door.

"Oh yeah," I said. When I had been sitting I had filched the syringes hidden in my sock and I kept them palmed. The spider looked like it was getting hungrier - and possibly - angrier. I approached it.

"Are you going to let us go after this little session?" I asked.

That wet ugly smell. "Gah," I said.

I saw the spider rear back and one of the legs looked like it was about to swing into action.

"How much do I owe you for our session, doc?" I asked, plunging a syringe into the thing's forehead, dead on. One of the legs came around and batted me to the wall where I brought a few diplomas down with me. My left arm left numb, I had difficulty sitting up. I looked at it. Glass shards blooded my forearm and I think it was snapped underneath the elbow because it flopped like a headless chicken when I tried to move it.

Dr. Lamp - the biggest spider I had seen - my guess was that it was the king - was down. The enormous hairy black spider leaked fluid from the hole I had made in its head with the syringe. Just like before, the blood hissed and spat like acid as it ate away what it touched.

I found a knife in the good doctor's drawer and used it to cut through glistening spider rope to free my wife from the chair. The stuff gummed up the blade and by the time I had finished the blade was ruined. I tossed it.

She was quiet all through this. When she turned up her eyes, looked at me, I mean - really looked at me, I saw a mixture of forgiveness and something else - love - I hoped - shining in her wet tear-stained eyes.

She still slapped me. She covered her mouth, stifling one of those crazy screams.

"Your arm," she said.

"It's fine. We need to get out of here. Worry about that later"

I walked around the elephantine corpse which took up most of the office and went through the good doctor's drawer. I wasn't sure what I was looking for. There was no phone. I kept an eye on the acid that had slowed to a sizzling few drops.

I found a bunch of popular magazines in the drawer taped with different colored note stickies. I flipped a few open. The stickies marked the page in each of the magazines where an ad was featured for marriage counseling and rehabilitation services.

"Jesus, look they've got them all."

She came up next to me.

"They even put ads in hunting magazines?" She asked.

"What - you don't think manly men have feelings?"

"I didn't say that, Harry."

"No, you implied it Mimi." I mimicked her: "They even put ads in Hunting magazines?"

She balled her fists at her side. "I'm sick of your - shit," she said.

I stepped up to her. "Slap me again. Go on, just like your mother did to your father."

"I don't even want to look at you," she spat.

"No - go on, Mimi, remember when you told me, just a few years ago that you were glad you weren't an abuser like your mother was - that you beaten the family ghost, as you put it. Well, honey - like mother like daughter."

That did it. Her hand came around. I grabbed it with my good hand.

"'Gotta be quicker than that, Mimi dear," I said just before she head butted me. My nose cracked in the mid-bridge and I cried in pain.

My bad arm flapping uselessly like a short, useless T-rex's arm, my nose bleeding profusely, I went down hard on my ass.

She was an apparition, The sides of her head shook like a cake in an earthquake.

"You dumb bastard," she screamed, making empty claw gestures at where I had been standing. "I am nothing like my mother. But you're a lot like my father and I'm starting to see that maybe my mother was right about men. All you men do is drink, piss, fuck, and watch TV."

"Real nice," I said.

That's when a baby spider fell from the ceiling. I knew it fell because it landed on Mimi's cheek.

One beat later, Mimi let out a strained, frightened scream.

The spider jumped off. I hurried to step on it. The spider was too fast for my foot, especially in my present condition. Mimi's cheek had a nice pink blister in the middle of it, toward her nose. I looked up.

"Mimi, follow me," I told her.

Her face had a nice shiny ball of bruise gaining leverage moment by moment from the spider bite.

"I'm not going to follow you anywhere," she said. "I'm calling this marriage off. What does a doctor say? What does a doctor say, Harry? Dead on arrival? Is that it?" Her voice was high and mellifluous. "We're Dead on arrival," she trumpeted.
I opened the door and backed out into the hospital corridor.

"Mimi," I said. "You need to come with me."

"I'd rather die!"

Spiders begin dropping on Mimi. Some of them weren't so little. When one the size of a small bird dropped down on her head, she changed her mind about coming. But it was too late. Spiders in all their black multitudes, hairy, and hoary, crawled up her legs, biting, poisoning, chewing. A real big one, about the size of a full-sized male deer crawled up her back and started nipping the back of her skull, at the nape of neck I had kissed so often and so passionately over the years. Her prophecy had come true. She lay jerking, throat opened and spilling a slop of foam and blood. Before I shut the door I saw her eye roll toward mine, her cheek on the floor. Then a spider crawled up and bit right into her eyeball, into the beautiful blue middle.

I let go of the door.

I detoured into a room. This one was empty. There weren't any medical supplies so I headed back out. I finally took the side of a gurney off.

I was closing in on reception, planning to just break through those spiders out there, none of which were nearly the size of Dr. Lamp. I could run through them and gain the outside door.

But reception was empty. The bored chairs, the receptionist's desk with a wall of colored medical folders behind her, each color corresponding to an certain age group, or a specific medical condition, or (most likely) letter of the alphabet- it looked like a place where people performed medical procedures. But when I spied over the desk back into where the receptionist would sit, the bottom of the chair was covered with sticky cobweb fragments. There were cages filled with fattened cats. Snacks at feeding time.

Mimi was dead. She was dead and probably eaten by now. I wanted to gas this place, burn it down to the screws. The thing was in my mind, though, running back and forth like a mechanic under a car, that, maybe it was for the best, a bad part, the part I usually kept under wraps, the self that had been created when I was on a tour of duty in Iraq. The thought I had often had over there in that desert landscape, when someone died. Better them than me.

Was it better her than me?

I would return and burn it all down.

Spiders hate fire.

But when I tried to leave, when I pushed open the exit; she was waiting.

She was big as a house.

I knew it was the female. I had forgotten that in many spider species the females are the big ones. This female had no rivals. When she looked at me she made a face that didn't look like a spider's face at all.

I held my piece of gurney and looked at motherfuckin' Mothra the spider. I threw the makeshift weapon down.

I thought about Mimi when I saw the blue sky grow black and hairy.

She looked angry. Why not? I had killed her husband.

She made a sound, that dropped me to my knees. She was laughing.

I closed my eyes. I knew the tone of that laughter.

Mimi had laughed like that when we argued and it turned out she was right. It was a full-throated laughter, genuinely callous and cruel.

The queen said: my children killed your wife.

God, can I never get away from these women, I thought.

The answer learned, as I was being digested, was no. Their names were written in my blood.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Home for our Meteors- Part 2 chapter 5

MANDY
A long time ago I watched my father bleed, he lay on the pavement outside our house, one arm wrapped around his belly the other reaching up at me. The night was light, there were stars. His face was pale, but he didn’t look afraid. I stood above him, maybe two steps away, I didn’t want to step closer and kick him. I just wanted to watch him go. So that’s what I did. It took a while, and he made a lot of noise, he told me who’d put the knife in him, how one they’d stuck it into the left side of his gut they had yanked it across all the way to his left side and there they pulled it out.

“It hurts more coming out then it does going in.,” he said.

I stared back at him and tried to count the beads of sweat on his head.

“I loved your mother and she loved me, our whole fucking lives this was true,” his voice creaking but clear, “Even when I did what I did for all those years, and now even when she’s done what she’s done tonight. It was all love.”

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, big blobs of sweat dropping one by one into his eyes. I tried listening to my numbers, but hear only his voice in my head. I look down to my shoes, my blue Mary Janes, they have dirt on their toes, and some of father’s blood is heading towards them. I take a step back, don’t want them stained.

“We loved you, and your brother, god rest his soul. Maybe I’ll get to see him now, can you imagine that Mandy, me and Paul in heaven, playing football like we did when he was alive.”
He takes a gasp, and reaches out for me suddenly, his right hand flapping in the air like a chicken being held upright by its head. I make no effort to go towards the chicken. I don’t like chickens. They’re noisy and smelly, they taste funny, but their skin is okay if a little chewy. After a few seconds his hand falls down and slaps the pavement, makes a real smacking sound like the pavement is made of flesh and bone. The pavement doesn’t feel anything though, not anymore. It’s been trod on one too many times.

Father’s eyes closed but he carries on talking, faster now, it’s harder to hear. “Mandy my darling, my angel, let me touch you one last time. It’s okay I won’t hurt you. I just want to feel your skin against mine. Please Mandy, my darling angel. You’ve been everything I could wish for in a daughter. I love you and if I’d had been a better man, then I’d have been the father you deserved.”

He doesn’t talk again. His breathing slows down, and eventually an ambulance arrives. I think Mr Paisley from across the road called it; he’s been watching us from his window all this time. The men from the ambulance don’t help father to much they touch his neck, and look at the hole the bloods been coming from. One of them takes me by the hand and leads me away, as we walk down the middle of the street, I wonder if we’ll get run over because the cars go fast down this road, they go so fast you don’t always see them until it’s to late. Then I turn my head, and see my Daddy for the last time.

I remember this as I lower my self into a hot bath to soak for a while. Small beads of blood trickle out from inside me, and they grow, and they fade in the water. Dried bits, fall off my skin and hair, they lift up to the top of water and learn to float. I count them, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. I close my eyes and slip down underneath the warmth, feel the water rise over my head, let it soak my hair thoroughly, until only the tip of my face is above the surface, along with my feet and knees. I hear the workers shouting amongst themselves, the harvest will be a struggle this year. Mark says the new pickers are lazy and possibly stupid, for some of them English is there national language. For all he knows they might be doctors in their own country, but in his they are pickers of fruit and vegetables, and not very good ones to be sure. This is what he says over dinner when he thinks I’m not listening. When he sees my eyes glaze over and I’m playing with my food, he talks in detail about his work, his day, and his thoughts on it all. As if he’s clarifying rather then explaining them, he doesn’t expect an answer, nor does he get one. I don’t reply, I don’t know how, if I do speak to him over dinner I wouldn’t stop until breakfast. When I sit back up in the bath I look at the hot and cold taps. Behind them are bath toys for my babies, the last few days I’ve been playing with them as I sit here, for hours and hours. It’s better then reading, better the bleeding, better then what’s next but not as good as sex. I don’t think, it’s been six months since me and Mark made love, we didn’t want to take risks with the baby, although the doctor did say it was fine. The truth is Mark was a little relieved; he’s never been easily aroused, at least with me. Always wanted to protect me, care for me, to make sure I had everything I needed, but didn’t want to abuse me. Which is what he thinks he does, when he puts his dick inside me.

Half an hour later I dry myself, sitting on the cotton covered seat, my knees tremble as a draft comes in though the window, I hear the sound of Mark driving his tractor into the shed. I rub my legs with the towel, press down hard enough for the skin to turn red, and then watch as the white returns, before folding the towel over the radiator. Getting dressed on the bathroom rug, looking into the mirror as I pull fresh knickers on, I see that I’ve aged since I saw my father die, I am, in fact the age, my mother was when she gutted him. This is hard to except, hard for a blink of the eye, then I shrug knowing that her and me now have something in common, we both lost our children. Even if I can never think of anything else between us, now I have this, and I forgive her. Pants still half on, half off, with my hair a tangled mess, my breast naked and pointing down. I forgive my mother. It’s not how these things are supposed to be done, you’re supposed to have thought about it, thought about what was done, truth is it hasn’t crossed my mind for years, I did my thinking some time ago.

So my clothes on and forgiveness is given as I open the bathroom door. Head slowly down the stairs; my legs are wobbly and sore, use the banister to stop the fall. As I see the hallway I see the front door being unlocked from the other side, and I breath deeply. Mark comes in, clothed in green and brown, covered in mud, covered in a days work. As he takes his jacket off, he sees me standing there and he smiles. A smile that can still melt me to oil, that will bubble and eventually burn.

He carries on taking off his coat, “hello sweetie, have you had a bath, good, you needed that, and it’ll probably make you feel so much better. Are you about to make dinner? Because maybe you don’t need to do that, maybe we order in, or go out, or I could make something. Just a thought. I’ll cook something, you can watch, and if it looks like I’m going to do something wrong.”

I reach the bottom of the steps, and a smile makes its way across my face, “I’ll cook. You watch,” I go into the kitchen.

“What?” he says stunned.

“I’ll cook. You watch.” I say again as I reach the fridge.

“Okay then honey, I’ll watch, you cook, but if you need any help, well just say so,”

“I won’t need to help,” I watch him out of the corner of my eye, as he makes his way across the kitchen, his mouth is open, and I think his hand is shaking a little. It might just be the cold. I he’s happy. “But thanks anyway, how was work?”

“It was good, I suppose, I laid it out for Simon that he has to get the others into shape, think it sunk in this time. I told you about the new kids, right?”

“You know you did honey, when you came for lunch,”

“Right, right,” he says but doesn’t sound as if he can remember.

“So you think they’ll have it done before the morning?”

“Well I’d be surprised if they didn’t, should be done already, I guess they might need until 8 or 9, who can tell with these people, pisses me off. You know that.”

“I do,” I’m taking the vegetables, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, and spinach to the sink where I will wash them; while I’m there I’ll fill four pans with water. “Sweetie, can we talk about something.”
He answers quickly “Of course,” and I wonder if the absurdity of my question is totally lost on him.

“I want to be able to give you everything you need, we can give up on a family, that’s not an option anymore.”

“There are other options,”

“Not for me to have a child of my own. I don’t want to talk about the other things, right now, because children…well that’s always been what I wanted, I want to give you what you want, or at least let you have what you want,” I turn the four gas burners on.

“You are what I want,”

“That’s sweet, that’s incredibly sweet, but that’s true,” I turn the taps on and start to wash the vegetables, “Now you have to answer a few questions for me.”

“Sure, anything you want,”

“I want to know if you’ve ever slept with anyone else while we’ve been together,”

“No of course not,” I don’t watch him speaking, I listen to his tone, and his tone tells me that this is true. I’m surprised. A carrot snaps in my hands.

“Okay good,” I say, “Well I’m glad about that, but truth is things, are going to have to change.”

“What do you mean?” his voice begins to rise. “Have you found someone else?

I begin to put the washed carrots, in the nearest saucepan; the water is warming another few minutes it will have boiled. “No of course not, how could I? The way I’ve been lately, and I wouldn’t want to. This is about you and your needs.”

He starts to speak but gives up, and reaches into his pocket for a cigar, as he lights I carry on, “We need to get a girl, to live with us, someone who can be a friend to me, and be of service to you. I know I’m not explaining this well.” I let go of the potato in my hand; it rolls around the sink until it lands in the plug. “I want to give you everything, give you love, companionship, make your life as easy as possible. I want to get lost in you. I don’t want to exist if it’s not as part of you. But you don’t like fucking me, we both know this, and you’ve said why. I respect that, and no matter how hard I’ve tried, I can’t make you think differently but you still have your needs, and that one has been ignored for a while. So, I’ll give up that part of you, just as I’ll give myself up for you“ I turn to him, he’s been watching me cigar dangling out the side of his mouth, his eyes dazed. “We need to find a girl you want so badly it hurts, someone who can give you all the pleasure you’ve been wanting all this time, we should find you a woman to abuse.”

“Mandy….” That’s all he can say, he gets to his feet, and walks over to me, I let him wrap his arms around me, they fold over themselves along my back, I tuck my head under his chin, and slowly return the embrace.

We stand holding each other in the kitchen of our home for ten years, it’s the first time we’ve hold on for a long time. The water in the saucepan is beginning to bubble, the taps are still running and the vegetables sit in the sink. I have no doubt in my mind that something has been decided. No doubt that something just changed when I proposed my offer, and he took it and me in his arms. He holds us both, his new woman and me. I am holding him, but if someone were to walk past the kitchen now they’d see only him because I have disappeared. This is what I’ve always wanted, always craved forever since my daddy bled on our doorstep. I do not want to count, and now I don’t. Of course it’s only for this moment, but if we find someone that moment will be repeated, over and over again, until you will wonder where I’ve gone,

“I love you Mandy, utterly completely, and I know you see things deeper the most people, you can see the problems behind people, the truth and stuff. So I’ll do what ever you ask, and if you need another woman in here to help with the cleaning or just as someone to talk to, well we can do that of course we can do that.” He says all this quickly, and I don’t know if he means it, I don’t know if he’s just trying to excuse himself. I just know it doesn’t matter anymore, all that matters that he gets what he needs. Nothing less, nothing more, so I breathe his smell in deeply as he releases his strong arms, and we kiss, and it’s nice. It feels like something comfortable, and I know I want to devour him, but he doesn’t want that, he wants a gentle kiss, and then he wants to talk about nothing, as I make dinner, So when he removes his lips, I turn back around to the sink, picking up some broccoli with one hand and turning the gas down with the other. I scrub, and I clean vegetables, and listen to him talk. It is good, to be making dinner for a man you love, and it is good to be nothing, when being something has never worked. I let the memory of my dead children slip out of my mind, I let the memory of my dead father slip from my mind, and I have already late my the hate for my mother slip from my mind.



We are eating dinner, four veg, sausages and bacon, he drinks beer, and I drink water. The light above us has flickered twice since we sat down, I stood up to fetch a new bulb from the cupboard, and Mark told me to do it later. So we sit half waiting to slip into darkness, half enjoying the company and the food. There are things I want to ask, and I think he does to. I want to move ahead with this, doing that means I have to become visible in this marriage again, it mean’s my opinion in this marriage matters. I do not want this. This has to be about him, however I think he’s getting ready to ask, for the past ten minutes he’s been quiet, occasionally glancing me and playing with what’s left on his plate. Putting sausage ends and bits of cabbage in a piece of bread, folding it then unfolding it. Repeating this over and over again.

I ask “I think I’ll clear up now, if that’s okay with you.”

“That’d be great, thanks,” he replies.

I stand up, take both our plates, and put them by the side of the sink.

Even when I turn on the hot and cold taps, I hear him breathing. It’s tired and slowed he’s been up since dawn, and the four beers he had with dinner have worn him out, once the washing up is done, I’ll take him in my arms, as he sits there his head can rest against my belly. He can listen to where his children used to be; he’ll hear a comforting echo. It will drift him off to peace and comfort. When he’s ready, we’ll go to bed, and sleep side by side.

“Did you have anyone in mind?” his words snap me out of my reverie.

“I didn’t no, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as they can make you happy, that’ll be enough darling.”

In the window’s reflection I see him roll the bottle of beer between his fingers, and say “I don’t know how to go about this.”

“You just find someone like you found me,”

“You came to work for my father, you lived in a caravan, I got lucky with you that wouldn’t happen again,” He sips from his beer, and glances over at me, runs his eyes along my body. Maybe he’s suddenly afraid I can see him, because he turns quickly and drinks again, finishing the bottle, before saying “So what would you suggest Mandy? I don’t know how to do this, before you there was no one,”

“Well who do you like, I mean your pictures in the living room.”

“They were my fathers pictures, he asked me not to take them down” again his voice rises, he is defensive. He gets defensive.

“I know, sweet darling, honey love, I know, I meant, your fathers, but they must have seeped in, haven’t they? Isn’t that the woman you’d like.”

He chuckles, heading for the fridge “Maybe, but we won’t get any of those girls round here, not working here anyway,”

“Well who do we have working here?”

Taking out another bottle from the fridge, he pauses before saying “Wives and girlfriends mostly, no single women, I’m afraid.”

Sunday, February 05, 2006

He Must Wear Gloves

I chopped something like 12 thousand words from this. Lots of it gore. I'll do another draft next week. I made an effort to strip down the prose to its bare bones. The original ending was rather grim. Also, there are a few areas that need to be cleaned up so the story points more clearly toward the ending. I'm just not willing to do so right now and I wanted to post something since I've been MIA lately. Anyways, thanks for reading. Hope you have fun reading.


FREE DOG TO A GOOD HOME LOVES KIDS COMIN GET HIM 811 S HAWTHORNE BOAT IN THE DRIVEWAY


Ruthie Hathaway did not know why she did it and only later did she think to ask herself why?

Why, she took a walk on her lunch down to Hawthorne. Why, it wasn't far. Why, the air was heavy and wet with forecast rain and the street a dull monochrome but pedestrian traffic still persisted on the narrow bridge. Why why why.

Why not?

She found the house immediately. An old flat bottom boat, hung on cement blocks, looked like it had never seen water in its life, had spent all the time it had been removed from the manufacturer, from the show room, from the lot, on cement blocks in the driveway. She walked up the front steps to a green door.

An old woman opened the door. The old woman's face was grey and soggy, the mouth a slash of red like a wrong answer on a test. The poster image for how you might end up if you didn't listen to your doctor's snippy advice when he told you to cut back on the french fries and ice cream cake and get an exercise routine, Ruthie thought.

The woman's brown teeth hadn't heard of Crest Whitener and her breath had never shaken hands with Trident or nodded politely to Dentine.

"Come in. Watch your feet." The hag turned her back.

Ruthie gingerly stepped into the foyer and followed the woman's bulging backside up a set of dimly carpeted stairs.

The house smelled of stale, cheap wine. Ruthie heard a bird screech.

"I'm Lee," the hag offered. "You can see I'm moving." Ruth saw there were cardboard boxes stacked like children's puzzle blocks, the kind with the giant alphabet letters stamped on them. The boxes looked damp, the flaps open. A strong smell came from the hag's kitchen.

There was a black dog on a half-chewed couch. The dog was black and medium-sized. It was laying as dogs tend to do, forelegs crossed and head lazily cocked. The dog whimpered.

"Dog didn't chew the couch just so's you know."

The black dog jack-knifed its ears.

"My son's sending me to a retirement home in Florida. They don't allow dogs and that's why I'm gettin' rid of him."

The black dog had beautiful blue eyes like a painted James Dean on a tin plate. The dog whimpered.

"Dog's name is Samuel, call him Sammy if you like," the hag continued.

Samuel was shiny black, his coat sleek and glossy. He had a perfect dog face somewhere between human and ape. He looked at Ruthie with piercing blue lake eyes. Please take me away eyes. He laid his head on her knee and she felt his warm throat gulp through her work khakis. He must have some Siberian Husky in him.

"Hi Sammy," Ruthie said. She ruffled his ears. "You like that?"

Samuel barked.

Not knowing why she did it, not having any ability to see the future or forsee the consequences of taking the dog, Ruthie said one word, low and clear: "yes."

Ruthie made arrangements to pick up the dog at 6pm after she got off work. She hummed on her way back to the hospital. She worked in the Neonatal ward as a nurse. She didn't hum there. She cared for babies with Hydrocephalus - enlarged craniums, babies with congenital heart disease, babies with the AIDS virus. She fed a tiny baby abandoned by a crack addict and born prematurely, small as a tiny kitten, hairless and beautiful and strange. Neonatal was connected by a long white-washed hospital corridor to the Pediatric side which in turn connected through an impersonal steel and cement artery to the much happier Maternity ward.

She still found time to wonder what Jack's reaction would be when he saw Sammy. Jack was twelve and she hoped he'd get that look on his face, like he'd gotten before Roy had come into their lives, the look of excitement that worked his lashes like the pumps of some brilliant machine.

She called a cab. The temperature was getting somewhere in the vicinity of freezing. The cab, a white one, with a sign on top advertising a casino, emblazoned with tumbling casino chips, pulled up in front of the hospital. She gave directions to the driver.

In the dark the house on Hawthorne looked like it oozed paint down its sides. Cold light poured from the windows momentarily revealing a face that made Ruth shiver. The house didn't have a face you could ever say anything good about.

The green front door opened. Ruthie's heart was racing crazy, just like the time she'd almost been in a car accident a few months after Jack was born, unsure if she'd attempted to get into an accident on purpose, but after narrowly avoiding one realizing that wasn't what she wanted.

It was the hag, Lee, standing in the light of the open door, her sagging jowls like squish-squashed dough.

"Samuel's all ready to go," Lee said, reproachfully eyeing the cab which shone its headlights on the garage.

Ruthie expected the hag to give the dog some cursory kiss or farewell but as soon as Samuel's back paws were out the door, Lee closed it.

Things got complicated when the cabbie, dusty smudge of hair bristling on his cheek, refused to let Samuel in the cab. "It's the guidelines," he apologized. "Can't have animals in the cab unless they got a cage around em. Cab's just like an airplane, M'am."

She gave him an extra twenty dollars she could not afford.

She walked the dog up the apartment stairs. She tried to be discreet. You could have animals if you signed a sheet but she didn't feel like dealing with the apartment manager tonight, a fat man with a neck like an old chimney, firing up a plump head of flaming red hair.

Samuel was docile. A few times he sat back on his haunches and looked around as if memorizing the amount of floors they went up.

Now here was a dog, she thought a bit proudly, happy she had called the number, had put up with the horrid old woman long enough to claim this creature.

She got to her apartment, keeping the dog out of view as she entered. Jack was watching the tube, and his head only moved a fraction when she swung open the door.

"Hi mom," Jack said.

Jack shouted in surprise when he was bowled over. Samuel gave Jack's face a thorough tongue-bath. He makes a good impression, Ruthie thought, grinning.

"Where did you get him?" Jack asked. His face was tight with excitement.

"I got him for you," she answered - not precisely answering his question but how was she to explain she had gotten the dog from a very passable imitation of a witch who'd survived the Salem Witch trials.

Samuel wagged his tail. The dog's eyes shone with pleasure as Jack pet him. It was she she had hoped. Jack's eyes had the same old look, the one she thought of as 'pre-Roy'.

During the next week Ruthie saw a change in Jack that excited her. He was emerging from his 'post-Roy' shell. She emailed a request to work less so she could spend more time with Jack. She walked the brightly-li (queasy-lit) hospital corridors with her clipboard. Egelstein the head nurse would have to sign and route the request to adminstration and Ruthie was worried, having had run-ins with Egelstein in the past.

Before her shift was over, Egelstein found her.

"I got your email," Egelstein trumpeted. "I'm sorry Miss Hathaway. We've got staffing shortages. But I'll keep your request on file."

Ruthie murmured a polite thank-you. Thanks for nothing you old bony bones monster, she thought.

Egelstein walked off with a little piff-piff. Ruthie thought Egelstein might have been born here, among ill babies, where she could fulfill her appetite for a mother's pain.

When she got home Jack's face scared her. He looked too pale. He was dressed in his coat and he carried a part of the cold air with him that circulated in an endless rhythm through his coat. It was the yellow one she'd bought him last Christmas.

His first words were: "He's run away."

He looked like he'd been crying, red and slightly salty circles under his eyes like he'd been shined with grief polish. Jack shook his head. "I've been out looking for him everywhere." He wiped his face with his coat sleeve.

His words came quickly, they spun out like a car on a gravel road. "I took him potty and Sammy pulled the leash right out of my hand. The red leash went flying through the grass. He ran right out into the street and took off."

After she settled him, she decided to go looking.

This neighborhood was safe unlike their last apartment where just across the hall a woman had been raped. The dark was deep this winter. There was the old red Mustang the man with the lined-face drove. He gave her the creeps. He always looked at her. More distressingly, he always looked at Jack. If she saw him, she always hurried Jack inside because you never knew what a stranger had in his mind, what fantasies might stir and lap the edges of his soul.

She supposed nowhere was safe.

There was no Sammy. No dark dog lounging against the reflective metal of the far street light pole. No dark dog to greet her with a hanging red tongue or blue-eyed laughter. When she went upstairs, she found Jack already sleeping.

She went to bed. She dreamt of a long tunnel. She was walking through it, the tunnel-slides sloping down more like a cave - a very dark cave - heading to God knows where - but then she recognized she was in the hospital. She smelled fire. She heard babies crying, a lung-shattering weeping. She heard a bark. The sound of thick nails scraped the hallway with the same madness inducing property of a tape running on a reel and spitting out its guts. She closed her eyes. When she opened them she was face to face with Samuel. He pawed the ground, his ears hung low. He looked different. The eyes. That's what it was. The eyes were no longer blue. They were black and the pupils had evacuated.

She woke to a scratching at the door. The scratching echoed in her head, part of a dream, and not.

Ruthie looked in the peephole. There was no one there. No blonde and thin Roy with gleaming eyes like the surface of a shiny bowling ball. But the scratching continued. Suddenly hopeful she turned the lock and unlatched the dead bolt and pulled the door open.

The black dog wagged his tail.

"You're back," she chided. She held the door open. The dog came in, trailing his leash.

"Where did you go? Jack was so upset." Samuel jumped on the couch and curled up. His head dipped. He was exhausted, she thought. "What have you been up to Mr. Sammy? Where did you go?"

Jack was shocked when he woke to find Samuel sleeping on the couch, gently snoring.

"He came back," he let out, exultant.

Ruthie nodded. "And today is a no school no work day for us. We've got to take Sammy to the vet."

There was a vet a couple blocks up, right on the corner. The morning was cold and sunny. They walked on the sidewalk. Jack held Sammy's leash, Ruthie noticed, very tight.

They waited only ten minutes before the receptionist told them they could go back. She was a dirty-blonde with either too much makeup or not enough in the right places. "Cute dog," she offered.

The vet wasn't much older than Ruthie, maybe a few years. He was dressed somberly, like a vet should be - Ruthie hadn't wanted to bring Samuel to one of those pet stores slash veterinarians where she supposed it was okay to get your pet washed and groomed but the thought of them also doubling as needle-givers freaked Ruthie out a little.

Ruthie had wanted to be a vet herself at one time, before she had Jack and everything changed. Back then it had seemed like a good idea. Every girl likes animals, she thought. It's like how a boy might want to be a policeman or fireman - though the world had changed so now little girls wanted to be fireman and little boys wanted to be vets.

The vet's name was Miles.

"You've got a real healthy dog Mrs..."

"Miss," she said. She smiled at him.

"I'm Ruthie Hathaway," she said. She put out her hand. She noticed his was clammy.

Jack watched the proceedings with barely hidden anxiety. It's like he expects the vet is going to announce that Samuel has a few hours to live, she thought.

"So when did you get, -" Miles looked at a computer screen -, "Sammy?"

"Yesterday."

"Do you have a shot record?"

She shook her head.

Miles examined Samuel, reaching under his stomach. Sammy growled. "Yeah that happens a lot. I'm going to give him the basic ones. He looks healthy."

Miles opened Samuel's jaws. Look at the size of them, Ruthie thought. They were long and white. The dog seemed to stick its tongue out at her.

Miles looked shocked.

"What kind of dog is this?" He asked.

"I don't know."

"Well," it looks like he might have some wolf, judging by the teeth. Something like a wolf." Miles laughed. "What planet did you get him from, did you say?"

She rolled her eyes at him.

"I'll just give him Parvo. First rabies vaccine. Do you want a flea collar?"

She paused, unsure. "He got out last night."

"So that's a definite yes to a flea collar."

She nodded, still unsure. "How much will all this cost?"

Miles looked at her, briefly glanced at Jack.

"We have a special for new customers. The first visit is free. When you come back that's when we start charging you." He turned his back and got the Parvo vaccine ready, flicking the needle and squirting it.

Her lips thinned. She didn't want sympathy.

"I won't give him anything else, but do you think you might locate his papers if he has any?" Miles asked.

She shook her head. "No," she said.

"Okay," he said. "I'm going to take a blood sample. We're partnered with the Animal Health center, part of the university of Indiana. I'll send this to a guy I know, just to check for any toxicity in Sammy's blood. I also want to do a test for Leukemia."

"Do you know how old he is?"

Miles shrugged. "Hard to say. I'd guess he's about five years old give or a take a year in either direction. You say he ran away last night? Sometimes dogs try to return to their old homes. There've been cases of dogs finding their former masters hundreds of thousands of miles away. Some people say it is hearsay. But I assume he probably didn't have to go that far to return to his former master."

When they got home she figured out Jack's supper and took a shower. When she'd gotten in the shower Spot was chasing Jack around the couch in that age-old game of pursuit and pursued. She put shampoo in her hair. She had soap in her eyes. She heard Jack shout.

She got out of the shower, wrapping a towel around her and opened the door. Thoughts of Roy came back.

When she cautiously peered out through the open door, not sure what to expect, she saw Jack and Samuel sitting on the couch. They were watching television quiet and contented.

"What's going?" She asked, fastening the towel in the back.

"Nothing mom," James said. "We were just playing." He smiled. Was his face a little pale? Was that a little darkness under his eyes or were those just shadows caused by the line of furniture? No, he did look a little pale.

"What happened?" She asked. She put knowing in her voice. The Moms Know everything voice that she made sure to use rarely so he didn't get used to it - so it still discomfited him into answering her straight.

"Nothing really ma."

"Okay, I just heard you yell."

She went back into the bathroom, got back in the shower, shifting a little under the hot spray. She'd never figured out how the hell to work the shower head that the manager had told her had all kinds of features and settings when she moved in.

She stood under the water, steaming, and was suddenly struck by something.

Jack had been watching Trading Spaces. She hung her head under the spray. She knew from experience he wouldn't watch a show like that; when bord she'd tried to rope him into being her TV companion for the night. When that happened they watched something he chose because he adamantly refused to watch one of her "shows".

So, then, why had he been watching Trading Spaces? It certainly wasn't because, like herself, he found the carpenter attractive.

It was a bad day at the hospital. Ruthie worked beside a nurse named Joy cleaning up after a baby. The premie had passed just at mid-day - Joy regaled her with stories of her boyfriend, Nick.

Ruthie had heard stories like this one before and wondered if Joy was a secret nympho. It wasn't any of her business but she couldn't help but be a little disquieted by the other woman's black fingernail polish.

Joy of the Black Finger Club. Joy of the Secret Nympho Nurse Club.

Joy of the Nurses Get Nasty Porn Star Club.

It got harder toward the end of the day. Sometimes when Ruthie checked on the frail spirits in their glass berths she was reminded of fish in a can and she couldn't seem to drop the stupid thought. Every squealing baby was a Sardine in a can. Peel back the can and squeeze out the middle and wipe the fish sauce from your mouth. The thought horrified her. When her shift was over, her eyes were painted with tired, her limbs brushed by it so that she slumped while she walked.

As she was leaving she saw Egelstein watching her from the Nurses Desk.
Ruthie stood at the bus stop, not seeing adults. The man in the worn green flannel jacket with the long grey disheveled beard appeared to be an infant on its way to homelessness. A woman wearing a too-short black skirt and white domino checkered blouse and a sport coat that looked it came from somewhere expensive but probably came from the fifty percent off rack; Ruthie saw her as a florid baby, a giant head on a small, tacky body.

The bus turned the corner, its windows painted with advertisements for gambling, ads with phone numbers to call if you have a domestic problem and Feel Like You Can't Escape, the ad read.

She boarded the bus, and she felt trapped, surrounded by these adult babies, sitting or holding on to straps strategically positioned to allow for a person to keep his or her feet while the bus tumbled and twisted through the downtown streets. The only thought in her head was: I'm bringing my work home with me.

She thought she smelled cologne. Roy's cologne. But she had to be imagining things.

Jack didn't say anything when she unlocked the door. He looked rumpled and even paler than before.

"Where's Sammy?" She finally asked, realizing he wasn't going to initiate a conversation.

"He's under my bed. He likes to sleep there."

"Are you hungry?" She flipped the burner.

"No thanks."

"You sure?"

"I'm not hungry."

He didn't say anything else, and she didn't even hear him leave, as he slipped outside on silent feet.

Jack hadn't made his usual mess. She didn't know if she was relieved or not. Certainly boys should be messy. It was ingrained. But the apartment was immaculate. No potato chip crumbs between the couch cushions, no dishes in the sink awaiting their fate in the dish washer. She went into his room, curious.

His room was spotless. He'd even made his bed. The comforter, an old Spiderman one that he'd begged and pleaded for was pulled tight as something from a five star hotel. Had the mythical hotel bed-maker come and made his bed while she was at work, she wondered.

The comforter was a little too big for his bed and it touched the floor. She knelt down and raised it up. It was dark underneath the bed.

It was darker than she'd expected.

More omnious too.

So quiet.

Where was the dog?

The dog must be under there somewhere but she didn't see him. She didn't see Samuel's blue eyes or hear him wagging, ruffling the bed's under-skirt.

She put her hand underneath the bed. It disappeared into the blackness.

But all she felt was dust.

Dust and more dust. I'll have to vacuum this, she thought. Samuel must be pressed up against the far side of the bed that touched the wall.

"Sammy. Here pooch. Here Sammy. Mr Sammy."

She called a few more, nonsense names, the kind you called dogs you liked. They came to you and licked your hand or sniffed your shoe or laid on your foot or any number of things.

However, the black dog, if it was under the bed, didn't make a sound.

"You there, boy?" She stood.

The air in the room smelled stale.

She opened his window. Outside the sun was falling.

She made coffee, sat down on the couch to watch the news. She fell asleep this way, her hand between her knees like it was searching for safety. She woke when she heard Jack come in.

She wiped at her eyes. What was that stale smell? Was that her? Like bread gone to mold.

"My stomach hurts," Jack said.

He did look sick, too. His eyes were too round. His face seemed gigantic under his hair, big and pale, slightly flushed.

"I don't feel so good," he said.

Having said that, and after looking around ilke he didn't recognize the apartment, he went to his room.

She at until she recovered her wits. Her own head pounded.

God, she thought, what if we're all getting sick? The flu. I knew we should have gotten flu shots. It's an urban legend that the flu shot actually makes you sick. I know that.

She put her hands to her temples. she wanted nothing more than to duck her head under an icy faucet. She heard the toilet."You okay in there?" She finally roused herself to her feet and walked clumsily toward the bathroom, head in an uproar of tumbling pots and pans.

The bathroom door was open. James was by the toilet, slumped against the bathroom wall, his legs outstretched like the chalk outline of a body in a murder investigation.

"Are you okay?"

Jack looked at her, his eyes like dark bruises.

"I don't feel good."

She flushed the toilet and helped him to his feet.

She put James to bed. She put her hand on his forehead and then after a moment put her cheek to it. The heat she had expected was not there. His head was cool. The flesh was chilly.

She called the hospital and left a message at the Nurse's Station. She wished she could see the look on Egelstein's mug when the skinny woman got her message. You were supposed to find a replacement to work for you.

Still no sign of Samuel.

She went out and laid down on the couch. The last thing she heard before her consciousness faded was the phone ringing a shrill sound halfway between a scream and a chortle.

She woke. The machine had picked up no less than four messages. "Jesus," she said. Two of the messages were from Egelstein. The first one started with Egelstein's long wispy drawing of breath like breath held underwater and then gradually spilling forth. Egelstein wanted to know why Ruth hadn't found someone to fill in for her. The second call was Egelstein berating Ruthie about the need for staffing to be at a certain number; that any less than the appropriate and standard (favorite Egelstein words, for sure) sent the important work of taking care of sick babies topsy-turvy.

The third message was from Roy. Roy sounded drunk. There was loud noise in the background. He said he was just checking in with her. Checking in with me, she thought. Why would he call to check in with me? She wished she hadn't listened to the message after she heard it.

Roy. The man she'd trusted, who she'd left alone with Jack. She would never know what happened between the two of them when she had been gone. It was the stuff of nightmares for any mother, she thought.

She missed the last message. She played it again. It was Miles, the vet.

"Hi, I'm sorry to bother you Miss Hathaway, but could you call me here, at the office when you get a chance. It's not of any great importance so just...whenever you get the chance?"

He sounded nervous. As unlikely as it was, she found herself smiling. A smile after Roy's call. Who would have thought?

The phone rang. She didn't pick it up. What if it was Roy again.

She let the machine get it. It was Joy.

"You okay honey? Egelstein's about to blow a fuse. She said your son has the flu."

Ruthie picked up the phone. "Hi Joy. He does have the flu."

"Oh no, he alright?"

"I was just about to check on him."

Joy paused. "Well I didn't mean to bug you. You know how Egelstein is. That's why I'm calling. Ruthie you better watch your ass around Egelstein when you come back. She's on the war path. And you're public enemy number one."

"I will."

"You take care of that kid of yours."

Ruthie hung the phone up.

She went to check on Jack. His door was closed and when she opened it she got a whiff of stale air like swamp baking in the sunlight.

He was in bed. She saw that Samuel had crawled out from under the bd and was now curled up inside the sheet licking at Jack's neck.

What was he licking?

She stepped on a creaky section of her son's carpet and the floorboard rattled.

Jack was sleeping. His eyes were rolling under the lids, though. He had his hands splayed out like he was falling. Falling into dreams, falling into sleep, falling into nightmare: she wondered about all three.

And wasn't it all the same when you got right down to the bottom of it?

She meant to get to the bottom of the sheet. The dog was moving underneath it. The sheet puffing and pushing back and forth. Pulsating. The sheet wasn't Spiderman like the comforter kicked to the bottom of the bed.

The sheet rippled. It was Egyptian cotton, soft and thin, puffing up and then down again like a set of old antique bellows.

She pulled back the sheet, dragging it over the dog's head.

The dog's head.

The dog.

Looked up and there was that face that was so expression-filled, but the eyes had changed from crackling blue to icy black.

Ruthie Hathaway dropped the sheet and covered her mouth.

Jack's pale neck was stained by a smear of red blood.

Samuel snarled.

Jack woke at the sound of the snarl. He yawned and put his hand on his neck.

"I must have scratched myself," he told her.

Ruthie backed up to the door and stared at the dog.

The dog's tongue came out, cleaning its hairy muzzle.

"I feel better," James said. He put his arms up in a hefty yawn. "I feel a lot better." Some color had returned to his face. "I don't even remember going to bed."

She put her hand to her head.

"You alright ma?" His face was now reaching full color, like a red sunset traveling across his face.

"Yeah," she said. "I'm alright."

She called Miles the vet back.

The receptionist put her on hold. She wondered why he'd called her. Was it for a date? He'd been pleasant-faced with sensitive hands - had to have hands like that to be gentle with animals so they didn't buck or move when he gave them shots.

She'd ask him about Samuel. So, Jack said he scratched himself. No big deal. But was it normal for a dog to lick at a wound like that? The dog had been guzzling it, under the sheet. The dog crawling up her son's sleeping body, Jack shuffling underneath it.

No, she didn't care for that idea at all.

"Miss Hathaway?"

"Yes. I'm here."

"This is Miles, - obviously." He sounded nervous. It was a stifling sensation, like Miles was trapped in a hot elevator.

She thought, maybe excitedly, maybe not, - she wasn't sure - that he was going to ask - her, gasp, on a date. Can I date the vet? Would our first date be at the zoo?

"I was just calling to remind you that Sammy needs his second rabies vaccine."

"Oh," she said. She felt unfriendly, perhaps even angry. She thought perhaps she'd had enough dog. Enough vet, after this call. Women like her ended up with men like Roy. That was the way the world worked. The world was a place where no one really ever got what they wanted, thus the world was just another awesomely lonely place, in the abstract sense.

"I've got to go," she said.

Why did she draw all these crazy men to her? What was it about her? Did they smell it on her?

Roy hadn't been the first. He'd been the latest in a long string of Roys. Cloning was illegal - but cloning Roys wasn't, each one worse than the last.

Now on the other hand there's the Miles of the world. They're almost sane. The only problem was they did not want the Ruthies.

That night she watched Letterman's top ten list before switching to one of the cable channels. David Letterman used to be better, during more innocent days. Nowadays he acted halfway broken, dementedly earnest, the gap in his teeth seemed sad, not jovial or convivial.

When Jack came out of his room to take Samuel out she decided to come with. They got their coats.

The apartment parking lot was empty. Jack held Samuel on a leash while the dog traversed the grass beside the lot, his nose sniffing out the best place to do one or two - or both.

A can rattled. There was a figure across the lot. The shadows held it close, too close to make out at first.

Roy.

It was Roy. He stepped out, blonde hair hanging limp. He seemed to glow almost red under the parking lot's lamps. She looked at Jack. "Inside quick," she said.

Jack had seen Roy. His face went white as a sheet of printer paper.

"Hi guys," Roy yelled. He was drinking a can of something, but it must have been a final swig, because he tossed it to the side and bent down and picked up another can. He cracked it open. He took a drink.

Roy grinned. He didn't look much the worse for wear. He never looked worse for wear though. Roy had the ability to go without a shower but never stank when he did, never smelled like anything other than Roy. His smell had once occupied her daydreams. After she realized how crazy dangerous he was, the scent lingered in her nightmares.

Samuel barked.

Roy laughed.

Roy's hearty laugh was the laugh of a man who liked his beans green, his corn yellow, and his steak bloody, so raw the red dripped off it and made a little pond on the plate to soak the veggies in. "MMM," Roy'd say. "These are some tasty vittles, Miss Hathaway. You're a gourmet cook, like off the TV."

She remembered his intensity in love-making, in what she reminded herself was bad love-making. The sex was dark, struggle-some, as Roy made her kneel in front of him and smashed her face into his groin like she was there to honk the horn of a big yellow bus in a traffic jam.

Samuel barked again and growled at Roy.

Roy finally turned his attention to the black dog.

"That a lab?" He asked. "That's not the kind of dog I'd get." He laughed.

"I missed you. Missed you both." He eyed Jack. "Hey Jack, how're you doin'?"

Jack looked down at his shoes, his expression knit into a mixture of fear and anxiety.

"I'm not gonna' just leave my family, no matter what you think, Ruthie. I'm here because you two need me. You need me and you know it, just like I know you need me. Well I'm back and I'm not going anywhere. What happened before was just a little family trouble and it never shoulda' went as far as it did." Roy raised his hands, one holding a tall boy of cheap beer. "I can't help what happened. I can't take it back either. You can't expect me to change the past."

Roy emanated fear and chilly weather. The kind that robbed you of your backbone. His smile was full of big teeth. A graveyard smile.

"Go," she told Jack.

He ran to the door yanking Samuel who didn't seem to want to go anywhere. Samuel wasn't barking now, though. Just glaring. A mean glare.

"Give me Sammy," she called to her son.

Jack tossed the leash to her. When Roy saw Jack going in, he moved quick. His mouth spiraling in that graveyard smile, he was halfway across the parking lot by the time Jack got inside the apartment vestibule.

Roy put out a big hand to grab her.

Samuel sunk his too-big jaws into Roy's right leg right on the ankle bone. Roy wore his favorite classic fit blue jeans but they obviously weren't enough protection. Roy stopped reaching for her and tried to kick the dog off. He resembled a vaudeville marionette, kicking; turning a circle trying to shake the dog off. Roy screamed.

The dog growled and bit deeper. Roy tried to kick the dog off with his other foot but wasn't successful. It had a latch on him. "Get this fucking fuck offame," he screamed, pumping saliva from his lips. "You hear me you dung bitch, get the cocksuck fuck offame. I'll murder you where you stand." Roy went down. The dog exchanged Roy's ankle for his face. It moved in close to maul. The dog chewed Roy's cheek like a chew toy.

Ruthie ran toward the door. She got in. "Sammy," she called. She felt a sort of mean-spirited triumph. A flap of bloody was coming off Roy's skull. "Sammy COME!" Samuel turned a bloody muzzle to her. He turned back and tugged the rest of the now unresistant cheek from Roy's face. Then he gave her a bark and bounded off in the direction of the street. "Sammy!" She screamed.

The dog vanished up the road, passing parked cars and disappearing briefly before reappearing, dragging his red leash, running faster than before.

Roy lay on the parking lot cement groaning. Blood poured from his face. She rejected her first thought, which had been to approach him. His face was ruined. She felt a joy at that. Pain borrowed, had been returned with interest.

Upstairs in the apartment after she'd shut and locked the door, she hugged Jack for a long moment.

"Roy," was all he could imagine.

"Roy," she agreed.

She wondered if she should call the police but decided to let Roy or a neighbor do that. She didn't automatically believe Samuel would come back, like last time, not the way he had looked when he had run. Some animals, she thought, have an instinct that kicks in and tells them they've done something bad, or overstepped what people would deem acceptable. He probably headed toward his old house, his old master, the old woman Lee.

She sat and waited for a knock from the police.

The knock did not come.

Saturday. She took the garbage out first thing. There was no sign of Roy and she wondered briefly if the entire episode had been a dream. There were, however, his littered cans. Cans of what one of Ruthie's old boyfriends called Hangover beer. The kind that kept you in the bathroom the next day making rice paddys out of three ply toilet paper. The cans were scattered around a light post on the edge of the parking lot like drunken worshippers of electricity.

She opened the lid of the enormous garbage can. She half-expected to find a wounded Roy waiting in there, matted with melon rinds, with a mouthful of cigarette buttes. His injured cheek self-bandaged with the auto classifieds section of the local newspaper.

No Roy waited in the garbage.

She looked across the street while she dumped the garbage: cola cans, an oversized Corn Flakes cereal box, soiled meat wrappers, an empty double-wide carton of brown eggs.

No Ray waited across the street, crouching beside a car, his jack knife open. The one he carried in his back pocket like a pious woman might carry a Cliff Note guide to the psalms.

No Roy waiting anywhere was always a good thing.

Jack was still sleeping. She begin preparing breakfast and was getting ready to wake him when the phone rang. She answered it, thinking it must be the police. Someone had to have heard the racket Roy made and called the police last night. He certainly hadn't wandered off with half of his face missing.

Had he?

It was the vet, Miles. "I wondered if I might come by this morning. I'm making a house call to a friend of my mother. She has a sick pug. I remember your address, and I'm in the neighborhood.

"It's Saturday." She bit her lip.

"I know, maybe another time would be better..."

"Sammy ran away last night."

"He did? Do you think he might have went back to his old house?"

"I bet he did," she replied. She wondered briefly if she should tell him about the incident with Roy. I watched my old boyfriend, a sexual abuser, get a once-over by Mr. Puppy Wulligans, AKA the newly adopted pet Mr. Samuel Hathaway AKA Sammy. Ladies and germs but bu - who's paying for the missing cheek?

"Well I'm close by. I can drive. Do you want to go look for him?" He asked.

"We can take a look," she answered, looking around. "But I have to go right now. My breakfast is burning."

She gave him directions to the apartment.

Jack was dour, seeming withdrawn. She was pretty certain it was Roy's appearance the previous night. Neither talked about the grisly way Samuel had mauled Roy. It was on her lips but she didn't say anything, couldn't say anything, couldn't think of anything to say, without sounding like what had occured had been a miracle of a sort - without giving a bad impression: "Last night we both witnessed something extraordinary." That's how she felt - like both had witnessed a brutal kind of justice, an answer to a prayer they had not actually voiced.

Jack perked up when she told him the vet was coming and they were going hunting for Samuel. When she told him he was going to stay home and 'mind the fort' he was less happy. A lot less happy. This forced her to reconsider, and by looking at his eyes, which were proof of a recent excavation of painful memories - her decision was made for her.

"You're coming. I was wrong. It's your dog, isn't it?"

They waited outside for the vet. She didn't feel entirely comfortable having him inside. The apartment needed a good cleaning but she wondered if she just didn't have a problem with people in general these days - primarily men - though Egelstein was certainly on her radar as an enemy blip - that was for sure - but it was the appearance of Roy that convinced her. She bit her lip.

Miles drove a white van with a logo on it that read Healthy Pet. The image of a Happy dog underneath.

They got in and she gave him directions to the house where Lee lived. She didn't know whether or not she believed the dog had returned there. Do they remember their homes by smell and emotion, or some strange juxtaposition of memory and sound?

She and the vet made uncomfortable small talk. By the time they turned onto Hawthorne was she beginning to wish she had not agreed to go look for Samuel. She didn't like the house and had no wish to return, see the hag again, wasn't sure she even wanted the dog - committer of miracles though it was.

The boat was gone. The cement blocks remained, lumpy with small pyramids of rock dust.

They parked on the street behind a rusty red GM pickup with a license plate inside the back window that she thought read GUCKOR.

She could smell the smell of shit and lawn, sour and sweet rolled into one.

If Samuel had come back, maybe the old woman had already gone, and he'd been unable to find his way back to the apartment. She was not sure she minded. She was grateful she supposed, that he had protected them from Roy but she wondered now at her own behavior. The wave of ferocious glee she had felt watching Roy's mutilation.

She remembered the bloody muzzle looking up, the eyes flat and boring holes.

She stumbled often in the clumsy movements of her life. The inside voice that had encouraged her to get the dog was the same voice that encouraged her to enter into relationships with all the Roys in blue jeans, shirtless with the beginning slope of a beer gut. She could see them in her mind's eye, standing in line, one right behind the next but at an angle so she could see them all at once all saying the same thing which amounted to: "Get me a beer, bitch." Grinning, corn silky and smug and so Marlboro man tough. These men she accepted into her life, men of the open road, the road that went all the way to places like Houston and weathered locales in the Mississippi where men like that thrived, she thought, doing odd jobs and taking what they want from a woman. She licked her lips. Maybe the dog was a good idea after all.

She walked behind Miles. There was a note on the house's green door. It was from the city. It was a notice to turn off the water.

Miles knocked and then rang the doorbell.

Jack came forward and sharply rapped the door in a brutal pulse.

The door opened. It swung and butted the doorstopper. The smell that hit Ruthie was the smell of old socks and potato chips sprinkled with a little battery acid.

Miles looked at her. He went in.

Ruthie looked at Jack. "Wait in the van, Jack."

She looked around the neighborhood. The houses were locked into a step with Saturday's peace of mind. It was cold. The grass swayed in the cool breeze. A breeze that come from up north, growing off the man-made lake, Lake Lewiston, which marked another town just up the point a click, fifteen minutes by car.

She stepped into the foyer and hurried when she heard Miles say, "hello."

His voice came from the kitchen.

She moved through the dusty dark of the living room and to the kitchen. Luminous green garbage bags of a brand she had never seen at the grocery store were filled with trash. The 'moving boxes' she had seen, were filled with garbage. Milk cartons (2%) leafy lettuce gone brown, rusty cans mottled with age, wormy sausages, moldy bread loaves, shreds of moth-eaten clothing, spaghetti noodles crusted with tomato paste. There was damp oil on every available surface in the kitchen. The yellow oven's front panel was ripped off revealing the oven's rudimentary mechanical brain.

Patches of mold glistened on the ceiling. A bowl in which a sponge floated was surrounded by an estuary of red. There were maggots moving on the sponge.

"I can't believe this," she said.

Miles was talking to an air conditioning vent. He turned at the sound of her footsteps and blankly looked at her.

"Look, she's in there," he said.

Ruthie knelt.

A pupil looked out from the vent.

"Who's in there?" Ruthie asked. She knew of course.

"You come for Samuel?" The voice demanded. "Dog come here with blood on his muzzle."

How was the woman inside a vent? She must have another room in there, or was standing on a table to reach the vent in the the basement, Ruthie thought.

The owner of the eye giggled. The giggle was marshmallow mushy with a hint of pecan.

"Dog is staying with me. I am moving in with my son instead." The eye focused on them. "Don't you come back here. If my son smell you I tell you that he won't be pleased. He'll follow you when it is night. When it is his time."

Lee coughed, a sick wet old thing. A dying thing.

"You go home and pray to your Lord of hosts that my son don't come visit you."

"What-," Miles begin to ask.

"Out," Ruthie said. She grabbed Miles by the arm and drug him down the stairs.

She shoved the green door open. The sun lit the foyer and stairs. It was not her imagination. Ruthie heard the eye hiss at the light.

She and Miles by unspoken agreement ran to the van. Ruthie shivered. She turned and saw clouds paint over the sun briefly and the house seemed bright in the sudden gloom. The rough paint slimy with crusted over paint blobs shone white. Ruthie saw the old woman laughing in the window. The thing in the window left a gauze of wisp on the window pane. Pale winter would have been jealous. The hag's hands spidered on the glass.

They drove.
"What was that?" Miles's hands were shaking on the wheel.

Ruthie turned to look in the back seat. James had fallen asleep. He seemed pale and slight

"I don't know," she said, but she thought she knew. It was an immigrant of a sort. Even monsters grow lonely. Even monsters bear children.

When monsters grow lonely, why Ruthie thought, sometimes they do what many lonely people do.

The hag got a pet.

There was poetry in this, like many things - Ruthie thought. The hag had cared for its dog but when it thought it could not keep it, the hag-thing had come out, perhaps at midnight, and scrawled an advertisment.

FREE DOG TO A GOOD HOME LOVES KIDS COMIN GET HIM 811 S HAWTHORNE BOAT IN THE DRIVEWAY

That was where Ruthie and Jack came in. She'd brought home a dog that had been changed, perhaps, just by its proximity with the thing. A monster no longer lonely but certainly come unhinged. Do all things that creep in the dark and roam in the loam's dusty sepulchral glow become enfeebled like this, Ruthe wondered.

A cold rain started. Ruthie thought about the hag's son. And what was the son - of a thing like that? Another monster in disguise, of course. Had they all immigrated and joined the population, to suffer from the same excess and madness of humanity?

Oh, but there were wonders left, weren't there? And now, now we cohabitate with the monsters.

When Miles reachd her apartment complex, she put her hand on his upper arm.

"Thank you," she told him.

He shrugged his shoulders minutely against the fabric of his thin coat.

"I'm sorry you couldn't get Samuel back," Miles said.

"I'm actually glad," she said. She woke up Jack when she slid open the van's passenger side door.

"Wait - Ruthie, I'd like to see you."

"What?" She arched her eyebrow.

"I'd like to see you."

"A date?"

"Yes," he said. His eyes warmed.

"Okay," she said. "You have my number."

"Thank you," he said.

She and Jack walked across the parking lot. When she looked back, Miles was staring. He quickly dropped his gaze.

The sun had now become a ball of fire receding like someone had shot a medieval sling into the sky, filled with a ball of flaming pitch, that rode the sky paralyzed yet hurtling, immobile for seconds at a time before zip - another move toward sunset.

The night was chilly. The moon gave out jolts of wan light, like a malfunctioning paint sprayer. She and Jack watched the evening news. They sat on the couch in silence. Ruthie wanted to give Jack some breathing room.

There was a knock at the door.

"Who is it?" She asked.

She looked through the peephole."Jack go to your room."

It was Roy.

Roy's face had dried to a red jelly, one side like the surface of a frozen side of beef. He'd packed his cheek with grass. He smile fishtailed and took half his face with it. The glistening part of his face oozed a fluid like milk when his face muscles moved. The cheek twitched. The smile was a rictus.

"Where's that fucking dog?" Roy screamed. He pounded on the door, sending a jole through it.

He had his knife out. The blade rippled with steel glamour.

He backed up and hurtled himself at the door. The door and frame shuddered. She knew the door was going to give.

It gave way at his next charge.
Roy came in in a crouch, warily holding his knife, eyes searching for Samuel.

Maybe there had been a decent boy there once. Maybe in the days of his real youth when dreams could still be followed, before they got too far away, before they soared in the sky like pale kites, shadows of what they once were.

But that boy was long gone.

Roy went for her.

She struggled against him but he put his forearm across her neck. He unbuckled his belt. She could smell the rotting blood on his cheek. She was losing the struggle. Roy's eyes burned with appetite.

Roy bit her cheek. Ruthie screamed. He was going to rape her and lay her cheek open so that the smooth muscle twisted like a fish. "So Ruth," Roy said. "Can a fella' get another chance or are you one of those Three Strikes You're Out bitches?"

She tried to put her fingernails into his eyes but he laughed.

"No," she said.

She saw a shadow cross the light.

She saw the light and shadow were the same.

A large white figure loomed. It jerked.

A long hand with fingers as thin as syringes grabbed Roy's head. Another hand came around as Roy staggered backwards and ripped out his throat. Stuff the consistency of chilli fell out.

Ruthie blinked.

Samuel barked. The hag grinned. The hag's son was tall and spindly. He did not blink.

Roy lay on the floor, somehow still alive, wild-eyed.

The son crouched over Roy. It pounded its pointy fingers down on his chest.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

SKRKAK.

Roy's chest cavity broke and the son's sharp hand reached down inside his chest. The dog barked. It whirled around chasing its tail.

"Son won't let me have my dog," the hag told her.

Ruthie tore her eyes away from the gruesome thing the son was doing to Roy and looked directly into the eyes of the hag.

"You keep Samuel," the hag told her.

The dog launched toward Jack's room. Ruthie heard it barking and scratching at Jack's door.

The son picked up Roy's body by a loop of blue jeans. He picked it up effortlessly and turned toward the door.

When Ruthie looked again, the apartment was covered in black crow feathers.

Years later she remembered the son's face in her dreams. It had no distinguishing marks. The face might as well have been the face of a neighbor quickly seen entering his apartment with bags of groceries. She'd wake up from those dreams and think: he must wear gloves.

He must wear gloves.

He must wear gloves.

Years later she'd stare into the sky at twilight. She'd think of a world that had once been beneath but was now around them.

He must wear gloves.

He must wear gloves.

Years later she'd sleep next to Miles in a big bed and she'd hear Jack talking to Samuel in a low-key voice from the hallway.

But for now: Jack had come out of his room and stared in amazement at the crow feathers. The dog trotted beside him. It shot her a Hey Let's See What You Owe Me Lady look.

She looked down at the crow feathers and back at Jack and Samuel.

"Get a broom," she told them. The dog grinned at her.