SKINTIGHT

A smell of sulfur was in the air on a morning when the men had gone, and the wives, in their beds, smiled in their sleep, breathed more easily, and burrowed deeper into their dreams.

Jack’s wife woke, her eyes open and her little nose flaring, smelling something beneath the sulfur smell.  One of those smells she was used to not noticing when the men were around.  But it was all right, now.  Wives could do as they pleased, so long as they cleaned up and were back in their proper places when the men returned.

  Jack’s wife–who was called Susie–got out of bed too quickly and grimaced as the skintight punished her muscles.  She caught sight of herself in the mirror over the dressing table.  Her sharp teeth were bared, and she looked like a wild animal, bound and struggling.  She grinned at that, because she could easily free herself.

She cut the skintight apart with scissors, cutting and ripping carelessly.  It matter that it was ruined–skintights were plentiful.  She had a whole boxful, herself, in the hall closet behind the Christmas decorations.  And she didn’t have the patience to try soaking it off slowly in a hot bath, as the older wives recommended.  So her muscles would be sore and her skintight a tattered rag–she would be free sooner.

She looked down at her dead-white body, feeling distaste.  She felt despair at the sight of small arms, hanging limp, thin and useless in the hollow below her ribs.  She tried to flex them but could not make them move.  She began to massage them with her primary fingers, and after several minutes the pain began, and she knew they weren’t dead yet.

She bathed and rubbed down her newly uncovered body with oil.  She felt terribly free, naked and rather dangerous, with the skintight removed.  She sniffed the air again and that familiar scent, musky and alluring aroused her.

She ran through the house–noticing in passing, that Jack’s spider was eating the living room sofa.  It was the time for building nests and cocoons, she thought happily, time for laying eggs and planting seeds; the spider was driven by the same force that drove her.

Outside, the dusty ground was hard and cold beneath her feet.  She felt the dust all over her body, raised by the wind and clinging to her momentary warmth.  She was coated in the soft yellow dust by the time she reached the house next door–the house where the magical scent came from, the house which left a wife in heat, longing for someone to mate with.

Susie tossed her head, shaking the dust out in a little cloud around her.  She stared up at the milky sky and around at all the houses, alien artifacts constructed by men.  She saw movement in the window of the house across the street and waved–the figure watching her waved back.

Poor old Maggie, thought Susie.  Old, bulging and ugly, unloved, and nobody’s wife.  She was only housekeeper to two men who were, rather unfortunately Susie thought, in love with each other.

But she didn’t want to waste time by thinking of wives and men, or by feeling pity, now.  Boldly, like a man, Susie pounded at the door.

It opened.  “Ooooh, Susie!”

Susie grinned and looked the startled wife up and down.  You’d never know from looking at her that the men were gone and she could relax–this wife, called Doris, was as dolled-up as some eager-to-please newlywed and looked, Susie thought, more like a real woman than any woman had ever looked.

Over her skintight (which was bound more tightly than Susie’s had been) Doris wore a low cut dress, her three breasts carefully bound and positioned to achieve the proper double-breasted effect.  Gaily patterned and textured stockings covered her silicon-injected legs, and she tottered on three-inch heels.  Her face was carefully painted, and she wore gold bands on neck, wrists, and fingers.

But Susie ignored what she looked like because her nose told her much more.  The smell was so powerful now she could feel her pouch swelling in lonely response.

Doris must have noticed, for her eyes rolled, seeking some safe view.

“What’s the matter?” Susie asked, her voice bolder and louder than it ever was when the men were around.  “Didn’t your man go off to war with the others?  He stay home sick in bed?”

Doris giggled.  “Ooooh, I wish he would sometime!  No, he was out of here before it was light.”

Off to see his mistress before leaving, Susie thought.  She knew that Doris was nervous about being displaced by one of the other wives that her man was always fooling around with–there were always more wives than men and her man had a roving eye.

“Calm down, Doris.  Your man can’t see you now, you know.”  she stroked one of Doris’s hands.  “Why don’t you take off that silly dress, and your skintight?  I know how constricted you must be feeling.  Why not relax with me?”

She saw Doris’s face darken with emotion under the heavy make-up, and she grasped her hand more tightly when Doris pulled away.

“Please don’t,” Doris said.

“Come on,” Susie murmured, caressing Doris’s face and feeling the slick paint slide beneath her fingers.

“No, don’t . . . please . . . I’ve tried to control myself, truly I have.  But the exercises don’t work, and the perfume doesn’t cover the smell well enough–he won’t even sleep with me when I’m like this.  He thinks it’s disgusting, and it is.  I’m so afraid he’ll leave.”

But he’s gone now, Doris.  You can let yourself go.  You don’t have to worry about him when he’s not around.  It’s safe, it’s all right, you can do as you please now–we can do anything we like and no one will know.”  She could feel Doris trembling.

“Doris,” she whispered and rubbed her face demandingly against hers.

At that, the other gave in, and collapsed in her arms.  Susie helped Doris out of her clothes, tearing at them with hands and teeth, throwing shoes and jewelry high into the air and festooning the yard and picket fence with rags of dress, stockings, and undergarments.

But when Doris, too, was naked, Susie suddenly felt shy and a little frightened.  It would be wrong to mate here in the settlement built by men, wrong and dangerous.  They must go somewhere else, somewhere they could be something other than wives for a little while, and follow their own natures without reproach.

They went to a place of stone on the far northern edge of the human settlement.  It was a very old place, although whether it had been built by the wives in the distant time before they were wives or whether it was natural, neither Susie nor Doris could say.  They both felt that it was a holy place, and it seemed right to mate there, in the shadow of one of the huge, black, standing stones.

It was a feast, an orgy of life after a season of death.  They found pleasure in exploring the bodies which seemed so similar to men’s, but which they knew to be ,miraculously different, each from the other, in scent, texture, and taste.  They forgot that they had ever been creatures known as wives.  They lost their names and forget the language of men as they lay entwined.

There were no skintights imprisoning their bodies now, barring them from sensation, freedom, and pleasure, and they were partners, not strangers, as they explored and exulted in their flesh.  This was no mockery of the sexual act–brutish and painful as it was with men–but the true act in all its meaning.

They were still joined at sundown, and it wasn’t until long after the three moons began their nightly waltz through the clouds that the two lovers fell asleep at last.

 

“In three months,” Susie said dreamily, “we can . . .”

“In three months we won’t do anything.”

“Why not?  If the men are away . . . “

“I’m hungry,” Doris said.  She wrapped her primary arms around herself.  “And I’m cold, and I ache all over.  Let’s go back.”

“Stay here with me, Doris.  Let’s plan.”

“There’s nothing to plan.”

“But in three months we must get together and fertilize it.”

“Are you crazy?  Who would carry it then?  One of us would have to go without a skintight, and do you think either of our husbands would let us slop around for months without one?  And when it’s born how could we hide it?  Men don’t have babies, and they don’t want anyone else to.  Men kill babies, just as they kill all their enemies.”

Susie knew what Doris was saying was true, but she was reluctant to give up her dream.  “Still, we might be able to hide it,” she said.  It’s not so hard to keep things hidden from a man . . .”

“Don’t be so stupid,” Doris said scornfully.  Susie noticed that she still had smears of make-up on her face.  Some of it had transferred itself to Susie in the night.  The blotches looked like bruises or bloody wounds.  “Come back with me now,” Doris said, her voice gentle again.  “Forget this about the baby.  The old ways are gone–we’re wives now, and we don’t have a place in our lives for babies.”

“But someday the war may end,” Susie said.  “And then the men will go back to Earth and leave us here.”

“If that happens,” Doris said, “then we would make new lives for ourselves.  Perhaps we would have babies again.”

“If it’s not too late then,” Susie said.  “If it ever happens.”  she stared past Doris at the horizon.

“Come back with me.”

Susie shook her head.  “I have to think.  You go.  I’ll be all right.”

She realized when Doris was gone that she, too, was tired, hungry, and sore, but she was  not sorry that she had remained in the place of stone.  She needed to stay awhile longer in one of the old places, away from the distractions of the settlement.  She felt she was on the verge of remembering something very important.

A huge dust-colored lizard crawled out of a hole in the side of a fallen rock, and Susie rolled over and clapped her hands on it.  But it wriggled out of her clutches like air or water or the wind-blown dust and disappeared somewhere.  Susie felt a sharp pang of disappointment along with her hunger–she had a sudden memory of how that lizard would have tasted, how the skin of its throat would have felt, tearing between her teeth.  She licked her dry lips and sat up.  In the old days I caught many such lizards, she thought.  But the old days were gone, and with them the old knowledge and the old abilities.

I’m not what I used to be, she thought, I’m something else, now–a wife, created by man in the image of something I have never seen, something called woman.

She thought about going back to her house in the settlement and of wrapping herself in a new skintight and then selecting the proper dress and shoes to make a good impression on the returning Jack; she thought about painting her face and putting rings on her fingers.  She thought about burning and boiling good food to turn it into the unappetizing messes Jack favored and about killing the wide-eyed “coffee-fish” to get the oil to make the mildly addictive drink the men called “coffee.”  she thought about watching Jack, and listening to him, always alert for what he might want, what he might ask, what he might do.  Trying to anticipate him, to earn his praise, and avoid his blows and harsh words.  She thought about letting him “screw” her and about the ugly jewelry and noisome perfumes he bought her.

Susie began to cry, and the dust drank her tears as they fell.  She didn’t understand how this had all began, how and why she had to become a wife, but she could bear it no longer.

She wanted to be what she was born to be–but she could not remember what that was.  She only knew that she could be Susie no longer.  She would be no man’s wife.

“I remembered my name this morning,” Susie said with quiet triumph.  She looked around the room.  Doris was staring down at her hands, twisting in her lap.  Maggie looked half-asleep, and the other two wives–Susie didn’t remember their names; she had simply gathered them up when she found them on the street–looked both bored and nervous.

“Don’t you see,” Susie persisted.  “If I could remember that, I’m sure I can remember other things in time.  All of us can.”

Maggie opened her eyes all the way.  “And what would that do,” she asked, “except make us discontented and restless, as you are?”

“What good . . . why, if we all began to remember, we could live our lives again–our own lives.  We wouldn’t have to be wives; we could be . . . ourselves.”

“Could we?” said Maggie sourly.  “And you think the men would watch us go?  Do you think they’d let us walk out of their houses and out of their lives without stopping us?  Don’t you–you who talk about remembering–don’t you remember the slaughter?  Don’t you remember who became wives, and why?  We, the survivors, became wives because the men wouldn’t kill their wives, not if we kept them happy and believing we weren’t the enemy.  If we try to leave or change, they’d kill us like they’ve killed almost everything else in the world.”

The others were silent, but Susie suspected they were letting Maggie speak for them.

“But we’ll die,” she said.  “We’ll die like this, as wives.  We’ve lost our identities, but we can have them back.  We can have our world back, and our lives, if we only take them.  We’re dying as a race and as a world, now.  Being a wife is a living death, just a postponement of the end, that’s all.”

“Yes,” said Maggie, irony hanging from the word.  “So?”

“So why do we have to let them do this to us?  We can hide–we can run far away from the settlement and hide.  Or, if we have to, we can fight back.”

“That’s not our way.”

“Then what is our way?” Susie demanded.  “Is it our way to let ourselves be destroyed?  They’ve already killed our culture and our past–we have no way anymore–we can’t claim we do.  All we are now is imitations, creatures molded by the men.  And when the men leave–if the men leave–it will be the end for us.  We’ll have nothing left, and it will be too late to try to remember who we were.”

”It’s already too late,” Maggie responded.  Susie was suddenly impressed by the way she spoke and held herself, and wondered if Maggie, this elderly and unloved wife she once pitied, had once been a leader of her people.

“Can you remember why we did not hide or fight before?” Maggie asked.  “Can you remember why we decided that the best thing for us was to change our ways, to do what you are now asking us to undo?”

Susie shook her head.

“Then go and try to remember.  Remember that we made a choice when the men came, and now we must live with that choice.  Remember there was a good reason for what we did, a reason of survival.  It is too late to change again.  The old way is not waiting for our return, it is dead.  Our world has been changed, and we couldn’t stop it.  The past is dead, but that is as it should be,  we have new lives now.  Forget your restlessness and go home.  Be a good wife to Jack–he loves you in his way.  Go home and be thankful for that.”

“I can’t,” she said.  She looked around the room, noticing how the eyes of the others fell before her.  So few of them had wanted to listen to her, so few had dared venture out of their homes.  Susie looked at Maggie as she spoke, meaning her words for all the wives.  “They’re killing us slowly,” she said.  “But we’ll be just as dead in the end.  I would rather die fighting, and take some of them with me.”

“You may be ready to die now, but the rest of us are not,” Maggie said.  “But if you fought them, you would not only get your death, but the death of us all.  If they see you snarling and violent, they will wake up and turn new eyes on all of us and see us not as their loving wives but as beasts, strangers, dangerous animals to be destroyed.  They forget that we are different from them now; they are willing to forget and let us live as long as we keep them comfortable and act as wives should.”

“I can’t fight them alone, I know that,” Susie whispered.  “But if you’ll all join with me, we have a chance.  We could take them by surprise; we could use their weapons against them.  Why not?  They don’t expect a fight from us–we could win.  Some of us would die, of course, but many of us would survive.  More than that–we’d have our own lives, our own world, back again.”

“You think your arguments are new,” said Maggie.  There was a trace of impatience in her usually calm voice.  “But I can remember what happened when the men first came, and I know what would happen if we angered them.  Even if we managed somehow to kill all the men here, more men would come in their ships from the sky.  And they would come to kill us for daring to fight them.  Perhaps they’d simply drop fire on us, being sure this time to burn out all of us and all life on our world.  Do you seriously ask us to bring about this certain destruction?”

Susie stared at her, feeling dim memories stir in response to her words.  Fire from the sky, the burning, the killing . . . but she couldn’t be sure she remembered, and she would rather risk destruction than go back to playing wife again.

“We could hide,” she pleaded.  “We could run away and hide in the wilderness.  The men might think we had died–they’d forget about us soon, I’m certain.  Even if they looked for us at first, we could hide.  It’s our world, and we know it as they don’t.  soon we could begin to live as we used to, and forget the men.”

“Stop this dreaming,” Maggie said.  “We can never live the way we used to–the old ways are gone, the old world is gone, and even your memories are gone, that’s obvious.  The only way we know to live now is with the men, as their wives.  Everything else is gone.  We’d die of hunger and exposure if the men didn’t hunt us down and kill us first.”

“I may have forgotten the old ways, but you haven’t.  You could teach us.”

“I remember enough to know what is gone, to know we can’t go back.  Believe me.  Think about it, Susie.  Try.”

“Don’t call me that!”

Her shout echoed in the room.  No one spoke.  Susie felt the last of her hope drain out of her as she looked at them.  They did not feel what she felt, and she would not be able to convince them.  In silence, still, she left them, and went back to her own house.

She waited for them there, for them to come and kill her.

She knew they would come, she knew that she had to die.  It was as Maggie said; one renegade endangered them all.  If one wife turned on her man, all the wives would be made to suffer.  The look of love on their faces would turn to a look of hatred, and the slaughter would begin again.

Susie felt no desire to escape, to hide from the other wives as she suggested they all hide from the men.  She had no wish to live alone; for good or ill, she was a part of her people, and she had no wish to endanger them or break away from them.

When they came, they came together, all the wives of the settlement, coming to act in concert so none should bear the guilt alone.  They did not hate Susie, nor did she hate them, but the deadly work had to be done.

Susie walked outside, into their midst.  To make it easier for them–to act with them in a sense–Susie offered not the slightest resistance.  She presented the weakest parts of her body to their hands and teeth, that her death should come more quickly.  And as she died, feeling her body pressed, pounded, and torn by the other wives, Susie did not mind.  She felt herself a part of them all, and she died content.

 

After her death, one of the extra wives took on Susie’s name and moved into her house.  She got rid of the spider’s gigantic egg-case first thing–Jack might like his football-sized pet, but he wouldn’t be pleased by the hundreds of pebble-sized babies that would come spilling out of the egg-case in a few months.  Then she began to clean the house in earnest, a man deserved a clean house to come home to.

When, a few days later, the men returned from their fighting, Susie’s man, Jack, found a spotless house, filled with the smells of his favorite foods cooking, and a smiling sexily dressed wife.

“Would you like some dinner, dear?’ she asked.

“Put it on hold,” he said, grinning wolfishly.  “Right now, I’ll take a cup of hot coffee–in bed–with you on the side.”

She fluttered her false eyelashes and moved a little closer, so he could put his arm around her if he liked.

“All this and the best coffee in the universe,” he said with satisfaction, squeezing one of the mounds of flesh on her chest.  “With this to come home to, it kind of makes the whole war-thing worthwhile.”

 

 

Making It

2.46593 is, according to Kinsey, the average number of times per week that the average American makes it.  (Make.  Definition 25 in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language is to go or travel at a particular speed.)  some of us now, we travel faster and more.  That figure is likely for 1990 or 2010.  Probably not 2020.  Certainly not 2052.

Would it be sophomoric to suggest that the. 46593 might refer to oral-genital contact without penetration?  No doubt.

But to things poetic:

Against the haloed lattice-panes

The bridesmaid sunned her breast;

Then to the glass turned tall and free,

And braced and shifted daintily

Her loin-belt through her cote-hardie.

                                                                       –D. G. Rossetti, The Brides Prelude

Talk about soft-core!

“She’s delightfully realistic and appealing.  Needs no batteries.  The doll that actually plays with you.  She never gets tired, you can play for hours.  She ‘comes alive’ when you blow the magic bunny-locket whistle.  Put her on her bouncy bunny and blow the whistle–she sways back and forth, stops all by herself.  Take her off and whistle–she waves her arms and legs, rocks from side to side like a lively tot.  she has a mind of her own!  Put her in her chair and show her the pictures on her magic slate.  If she likes something she jumps up and down with joy–if she doesn’t. she shakes her head ‘no’ “

Good girl, Shirl.

If you’d lived before the sixth moon landing, could you have imagined anything more bizarre than what I’m about to discuss?  Well, unusual.  No?  Confused?  What the hell, it was a natural extension of the marriage manuals, an infinite variety.

No, clown, I’m not talking about the sixth moon landing.  The sixth could have been the nine hundredth for all it arrested the imagination of the man on the street.  Besides, a man with sickle blades welded to the hubcaps of his Volkswagen  had just killed eleven people in California.  You had to expect popular distraction.

Now, the natural extension of the marriage manuals, etc.  imagine a couple together on the bed.  Assign faces if you wish, the more familiar the better.  Let’s maximise identification.

Though they haven’t been to church since their parents took them instead of sending them, they’ve assumed the missionary position.  (Got the faces yet?  Come on!  Top or bottom–exercise your favorite fantasy.)  king of the daisies, Mr. M. was–not ten minutes ago–fertilizing the tiger lilies in the backyard.  Mrs. M. was slightly starching Mr. M.’s shirts.  The article said passion was to be spontaneous.

“Oh.  Ohm . . .  Uh.”  Mrs. M. feels it’s expected of her to vocalize her passion.  She is naked.

Mr. M. wears a lightweight wireless headset.  Adapt your eyesight to electromagnetic spectra.  Trace the waves back to the transmitter plugged into the electrical socket behind the bedside table.  Track further to the CD player humming erotically.  Listen in.

“The clitoris is the homologue of the male penis.  As you feel it now, the shaft may measure something over one inch in length.  Move your index finger along the inner surface of the labia minora, ending each digital stroke against the clitoris.  Bear in mind that this is completely normal activity, eventually terminating in . . .”

Can you appreciate the quality of the recording?  Note the vibrant measured cadence, the dis passion of a newscaster announcing this week’s body count in some small third-world country.

“Ohhhh.”  Mrs. M. screws her eyes tightly shut, except when she glances up to check her husband’s depth of involvement.

Mr. M.’s eyes are also closed, except when he glances anxiously down to reassure himself of the height of Mrs. M.’s ecstasy.

Enough, enough.  I hate this Dickensian feeling of drawing you ahead like the Ghjost of Christmas Future.

“Tain’t even Christmas, Carol.”

Just imagine–this doll’s so talented she can do something most people can’t.  Just clap your hands!  Does other things too: picks up her bottle to drink, raises her arms to come to you, even plays peek-a-boo.  She’s sixty-two inches tall with fully jointed body, has big blue eyes, rooted hair, and lif-like vinyl body.  Wears . . .”

False hair for the female pudenda.  Merkins.  It was a seller’s market among the Southern California survivors after the nuclear plant at San Onofre went.

On the read-out console of a third generation IBM 6040.  Where else would you seduce a cybernetic sub-systems analyst (B. S., M. S., Michigan State University, 2045-46:  Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2049: and her eyes are smoky green of Brazilian topaz)?

“I never saw you before,” she murmurs.  “What the hell are you?”

Gallantly I fold my jacket to slip beneath her hips.  “I’m a writer,” I say.  Truthfully, I’m an advertising copywriter employed by the largest toy manufacturer in the Midwest.  I’m on hand whenever your kid has a birthday or is anticipating a Christmas.  “One of the many Leisure toys,  have you played with all of them?”

“Toys?”  She laughs.  “Delightful.”

“I’m sorry, I was–”

“–thinking out loud.”  She smiles as her fingers jig over the keyboard.  “I was going to program Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.  instead, I think we’ll hear ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’ “

Do you realize how many dead soldiers are airlifted off the battlefield with hard-ons?

“Adorable baby puts her chubby hand to her lips and throws you a big kiss, with kissing sound!  Just pull the string on her back: no batteries needed.  She’s soft and cuddly, has a foam filled cotton body.  Life-like vinyl head and hands, rooted hair, sleeping eyes with long lashes.  Eyelet embroidered playsuit.”

Alloplastic vaginas?

“I’m a modular lover,” she says.

“No need to be egotistic,” I reply.

“Modular, you ass!  I believe in modular love affairs.”

Shit.  I don’t like to talk while I’m doing it.

“I plug lovers in.  I take them out.”  she bares lovely teeth and moves faster around me.

Instant circuits overload and I–Ohhh-Holy–

Ever do it on horseback, Doris?  Swinging to Branbury Cross?

“Susie with twist’n’turn waist is an all-action fashion doll with wonderful mobility.  She twists and turns from the waist to pose in many different poses.  She has eyelashes, bendable legs, rooted hair.”

I watched my niece and her little friends playing on the carpet.  Six toy soldiers  were gang-banging a girl doll.  It was not pleasant.  The doll’s boyfriend might have done something, but he was occupied with another female doll..

Out in the backyard, my nephew was almost finished.  The toy soldiers had killed the last of the civilians.  He scooped them into a mass grave beneath the rosebush with his toy bulldozer.

It’s only a toy, Joy.

Brown-haired woman with caramel nipples lies quietly for the moment, nascent liquids boiling beneath the skin.  She unplugs me, gentle disengagement, but handles my softness with firmness.  “I’ll want it again soon.”

And I’ll want hers again soon.

“Tell me poetry.”  she had no time for it before.

“Which?”

She flops over on her belly, a soft brown otter stretched luxuriously.  “Love poet.”  she contemplates the blank read-out.  “No Lawrence, no Levertov, no Kandel or Patchen.  No McKuen.”

I say, “I know.  One of my favorites:

“I caught this morning’s minion, king-

Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon

In his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and

Striding

High there, how he rung upon the rain of a wimpling–”

“No.”

I protest.  “it’s not about love, but it feels like love–”

“No.”

Fearful of next minute’s denial, I try again:

“Yet, love and hate me too.

So, these extremes shall neither’s office do;

Love me that I may die the gentler way;

Hate me, because thy love is too great for me;

Or let these two, themselves, not me decay;

So shall I live, thy stage, not triumph be;

Lest thou thy .love and hate and me undo,

To let me live, O love and hate me too.”

“That feels like love,” she says.  “Continue.”  she demands with her thighs.

2052. 4.46593.  Who says there’s no such thing as progress?

In the old days it was:

·   Fear

·   Premature ejaculation

·   Impotence

·   Frigidity

·   Perversion

·   Inadequacy

 

You’ve heard of them?

Now it’s:

·   Light aluminum alloy skeletons

·   Flexible plastic skin

·   Stainless steel stroke arm

·   Ten centimeter thrust along the plotted arc

·   Stroke cycles per minute

·   Depth of penetration gauge

·   Appreciable frontal shut-off switch

·   Degree of lateral tumescence control

·   Auto-lube-pac

·   Lap counter

·   Angle of thrust

 

Holy M & J (that’s for Masters and Johnson, Bubbie),  they’ve even got a model that ejaculates flavored yogurt.

No doubt for the .46593 trade.

Don’t you hope to live to see it/feel it?

Sorry, Laurie.

Sometimes I feel like a coelacanth.  Got that?  A crossopterygian fish–Latimeria chalumnae.  Take the pronunciations carefully.  Seal-a-canth.  Very good, baby.

All the scientists thought the coelacanth disappeared 70 million years ago.  They were wrong.  A live one was caught in 1938 in the Indian Ocean off South Africa.  Another one in 1952.  It’s a priceless link between the old and new, between water-living and land-living animals.

Look at the fish, kiddies, ain’t it ugly?  But check it closer.  Don’t those fins look like legs?

Once upon a time, unhappiness was having dead batteries in your vibrator.

“baby Tender Love makes little boys feel like they’re real daddies!  Vinyl-form doll has skin so soft it feels like a baby’s.  Can be twisted and turned.  Baby Tender Love can also be bathed and washed just like real.  She drinks and wets, and has shiny blonde hair made of modacrylic.  Dressed in a lace-trimmed pink top and panties.  Comes–”

When I was a baby, did my parents never hold me?

There were no caresses, no kisses, no hugs or ever being cradled in secure arms.  Is that why I now hunger for flesh?  How I hate the rub of plastic and the taste of metal.

And how I grasp–

She shrieks, more startled than in pain.  “Don’t you ever trim your nails?”

“It’s tactile,” I say.

“Too tactile.  Continue.”

“I want to know your name,” I say.

She raises her head, shaking it to clear taffy strands from in front of her eyes.  Puzzlement.  “So?  I’ll never see you again.”

“I want to know anyway.”

“A name has strings attached.”

“Damn,” I say.  “I’m not a camera stealing your soul.”

She smiles a few seconds before saying, “Karma.”

“Oh?”

“It’s a joke.  You get out of me what you put in.”

“Fair enough,” I say.

“Now continue.”

Plug in.  plug out.

Did you like the idea of having roots?  Like a cypress: anchors into your life.  Into school and church and community and state and country.  Into friends and family.  And that was what I missed most.  More than the flesh-touch alone, also the closeness of years.

But we moved.  If we worked, we were transferred.  If we had leisure, we traveled.  Things and places became stale and we left and that was all right.  But people were counted in our personal lives among things and places.  They were as impermanent as paper dolls and rented furniture and modular buildings.

I’m lonely.

The intransigence of intransigence.  Oh, shit, how I hate it.

The computer room is silent, so quiet that our breathing is the loudest sound.  During “business hours”–that is when human beings are in the presence of the machine–the elevator music plays a background.  White noise they call it.  Sea sounds, surf rushing in over rocks.  Wind-wrapped mountains.

We are our own white noise.

“Continue, oh, continue,” she cries.

Plug in.  plug out.

“She’s the flexible, lifelike Teenage fashion doll who is jointed at the ankles, knees, hips, waist, shoulders, and elbows.  This enables her to assume virtually every position of the human body–a doll that can mimic every action of her lover.  Her hair is permanently rooted and styled fashionably to below-the-shoulder length.  Perfect addition to your collection.  Full selection of accessories.  Order below.”

Charlotte, you wouldn’t have believed it.  Not after having come from a school like Baylor, where girls still wore stiff formals and accepted scented corsages with a conditioned Southern disdain.

Never, Carly.

But imagine it.  We were in Chicago.  Here’s a boardroom.  Grown men–eleven of them (oh, and a woman)–sitting around an ancient hardwood table.  Then I got up and showed them the storyboards for the new campaign.  They dubiously examined  the displays of tiny aerosol cans.  Cautiously they circled the mnemonically cued copy.

“Feminine deodorant spray for dolls?” ventured Weingarten, of marketing.

“Believe it,” said the woman.  “It will sell.”

Always trust the instincts of a survivor.

“Do you know anymore poetry?”

“No. I’m sorry I don’t”

“That’s too bad,” she says.  “I rather liked it.”

“Let’s continue,” I say.

2062.  8.46593.  So it’s progress, yes?

“ . . . her to assume virtually every position enables . . .”

“ . . . to assume virtually every position enables her to . . .”

You know what’s coming?  You even want to know?  Strike the transition set.  Forget prosthetics, alloplastic vaginas, electronically enhanced dildoids, aids, inducements, augmentations.  It’s new, new this season.  Total sensory experiences.  Record, play back, buy off the rack.  Masturbate yourself; punch a button, slot a disc. No romance?

Think of fine new words for the scene: sectional intercourse, homosensuality, psychlingus.  You’ll love it won’t you?

Orgasm’s an orgasm.  You feel it going in; you feel it coming out.

Can’t we dally, Sally?

Plug in.  plug out.

Call me your module.

Darling . . . yes?  Words that bind?  Sorry.

“It has been lovely,” she says.

Between spurts:  “Continue?”  I say.  “Continue?”

“What are you?”  She laughs.  “A tank circuit?”

“Continue?”

And she rolls off me.  “Pause. Need my breath.”

I remember smoking at times like these, but now it’s unhealthy.  I recall talking, but that’s not done.  I remember wishing to wash my skin, to urinate, to find food in the refrigerator.

She hums tonelessly.  She is white noise.

“Continue now?” I say.

“Yes.”  Skin between her eyes wrinkles thoughtfully.  “Now different, though.  I want to do it the old way.”

Dearest . . . Old reflexes jump synapses long suspected unbridgeable.  Have I pretended too long, I, the coelacanth?  Do I still swim?

I want to do it the old way.

I want to do it the–

Sheesh, sheesh, the desperate unreasoning panic of a shark lifted from the life-giving water; my internal organs, no longer supported, tear loose from inner walls.

Suddenly I wish, I wish, I wish . .

But I can’t.

 

 

 

 

Storm On The Red Lake

“Do you believe in vampires,” he asked.

She snapped Dracula closed and pushed it under the tapestry bag containing her cutwork.  “Mr. Stoker writes amusingly,” she said.  “I believe I don’t know you. Sir.”

“What a shame,” he said, putting his hand on the chair across from her.  She looked up–and up; he was tall, blond; his uniform blazed crimson, a splash of blood against the green trees and decent brick of Market Square.  The uniform was European; his rank she did not know, but clearly he was an officer.

“You should be better acquainted with vampires.”  he clicked his heels and bowed.  “Count Ferenc Zohary.”  Without invitation he sat down, smiling at her.

In this August, when she was spending the summer before her debutante year, negotiations were being held that might finish the long war.  The President had hosted the first meeting between the adversaries at the White House.   Now the opponents met officially at a nearby retreat and schemed between times at the Andrews Hotel.  Her Aunt Mildred did not encourage newspaper reading for unmarried women, so she was out-of-date, but knew the negotiations were supposed to be going badly.  The town was crowded with foreign men; there was storminess in the air, a feel of heavy male energy, of history and importance.  Danger, blood, cruelty, like Mr. Stoker’s book; it made her heart beat more strongly than, she felt, any woman’s should.  Don’t talk to them, Aunt Mildred had said.  But for once her aunt was out of sight.

“You are part of the negotiations?  Pray tell me how they proceed.”

“I am an observer only.”

“Will they make peace?”

“I hope not fro my country’s sake.”  he looked amused at her surprise.  “If they continue the war, the two countries will bleed, Russia will lose, turn west; they will make a little war and probably lose.  But if they sign their treaty, Russia will fight us five years from now, when they are stronger; and then the Germans will come in, and the French to fight the Germans, and the English with the French.  Very amusing.  My country will not survive.”

“Is it not wearying, to have such things decided and to be able to do nothing?”

“I am never wearied.”  Her companion stretched out his hand, gathered together her half-finished cutwork linen, and waved it in the air for a moment like a handkerchief before dropping it unceremoniously on the ground.  “Your mother makes you do this,” he said, “but you prefer diplomacy.  Or vampires.  Which?”

She flushed.  “My aunt controls my sewing,” she said.  Cutwork had been her task for the summer, sitting hour after hour on Aunt Mildred’s veranda, sewing hundreds of tiny stitches on the edges of yards of lace, then cutting out patterns with her sharp-pointed scissors.  Linen for her trousseau, said Aunt Mildred, who would not say the words “sheets.”  in the fall she would go to New York, planning her strategies for marriage like a powerless general.  The battle was already hopeless; without greater wealth than she commanded, she could not hope to be in the center of events.  She would become what she was fit for by looks not by station, the showy, useless wife of some businessman, whose interest in war extended only to the army’s need for boots or toothbrushes.

But now she had her taste of war, however faraway and tantalizing; she was sitting with a soldier, here in the hot thick sunlight and green leaves of Market Square.

“Do you like war,” her companion asked, “or simply blood?”

An interesting question.  “I think they both concern power.”

“Precisely.”  he leafed through the book while she watched him secretly.  In the exquisitely tailored crimson uniform, he had a look of coarseness combined with power.  Above the stiff old-braided collar, his neck was thick with muscle.  His hands were short and broad-nailed, his fingertips square against the yellow-and-red binding of Dracula.  Perhaps feeling her eyes on him, he looked up and smiled at her.  He had assurance, a way of looking at her as though she were already attracted to him, though he was not handsome; a thick-lipped mouth, a scar on his jaw, and a nick out of his ear.  And he had thrown her cutwork on the ground.  “My name is Sara Andrews,” she said.

“Andrews, like the hotel.  That is easy to remember.”  no sweet words about her face being too beautiful for her name to be forgotten.  “Do you stay at the hotel?” he asked.

A gentleman never asked directly where a lady lived, to save her the embarrassment of appearing to desire his company.

“My aunt has a cottage at The Point.”

“That is not far.  Do you come to the tea dances at the hotel?”

“Seldom, Count Zohary.  My aunt thinks the diplomatic guests are not suitable company.”

“Very true.  But exciting, no?  do you find soldiers exciting, Miss Andrews?”

“Soldiering, yes, and diplomacy; I admit that I do.”

“A certain amount of blood . . . that is nice with the tea dances.”  with his thumbnail he marked a passage in the book and showed it to her.  As she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, she read.  “Do you find that exciting?”

“I am not a vampire, Count Zohary,”  she said, uneasily amused.

“I know that.”  her companion smiled at her, showing regular even teeth.  “I, for instance, I am a vampire,  and I can assure you that you are not one yet.”

“You, Count Zohary?”

“Of course, not as this man Stoker describes.  I walk in the sun, I see my face in a mirror; I assure you I sleep in sheets, not in dirt.”  He reached out and touched the thin gold cross she wore around her neck.  “A pretty thing.  It does not repel me.”  his fingers hovered very close to her neck and bosom.  “The vampire is very sensual, Miss Andrews, especially when he is also a soldier.  Very attractive.  You should try.”

She had let him go too far.  “I think you dare overmuch, Count Zohary.”

“Ah, why I dare, that is the vampire in me.  But you don’t hold up your cross and say, ‘Be gone, necturatul!’ “ he said.  “And that is the vampire in you.  Do you like what you read, Miss Sara Andrews?  You look as though you would like it very much.  Are you curious?  If you will come to the tea dance at the hotel, I will show you the handsome hotel sheets, and show you that vampires are–almost–as civilized as diplomats.”

He looked at her, gauging her response: and for a moment, horrified, she felt she would respond.  She wanted the brute crude power of the man.  “Count Zohary, you have mistaken me, I am respectable.”  she snatched the book away from him and stuffed it deep into her tapestry bag.  “I have–certainly no desire to see your–”  she would not give him the satisfaction of finishing the sentence.  “You’re making me talk nonsense.”

He brushed his moustache with his finger, then lifted one corner of his lip.  “What will convince you, dear respectable Miss Andrews?  My fangs?  Shall I turn into a wolf for you?  Come into your chamber like a red mist, or charge in like the cavalry?”  over their heads the leaves rattled and the wind soughed through the square.  Count Zohary looked up.  “Shall I tell you the future in your blood?  Shall I control the lake for you, or call a storm?  That is my best parlor trick.  Let us have a thunderstorm, you and I.

The wind controlled the lake, and Lake Sauver called thunderstorms once or twice a week in August, without help from foreign counts.  “If you can tell the future, Count Zohary, you know that everything you say is useless.”

“It is not my most reliable gift, Miss Andrews,” he said.  “Unfortunately, or I would not be here watching these fools negotiating, but back in New York drinking better beer at the embassy.  It works better after I have had a woman, or drunk blood.  Shall we find out together what those fools at the hotel will do?  No?  You do not wish to know?”  On the table there was a ring of condensation from her glass of ice water.  With mock solemnity he shook salt from the table shaker over it and stared at the water as if into a crystal ball, making passes like a fortune-teller.  “Seawater is better to look into; blood best.  Ice water–ach.  Miss Andrews, you make me work.  But I see you will come to the tea dance.  Today, Wednesday, or Thursday, you will come.”

“I will not,” she said.  “Of course, I will not.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Certainly not.”

“Thursday, then.”  From the direction of the lake, thunder muttered above the white tower of the church.  Count Zohary made a gesture upward and smiled at her.  She began to gather up her things, and he bent down, stretching out his long arm to pick up her fallen linen.  “This is almost done, you must come Thursday.”

“Why Thursday?” she asked, unwillingly.

“Because I have a bet with myself.  Before you have finished this Quatsch,” he said, “I will give you what you want.  I will have turned you into a vampire.”

A moist wave of a breeze rolled over the square, hissing: the leaves were tossed pale side up like dead fish.  She stared at him, the smell of the lake in her mouth, an acrid freshness.  He smiled at her, slightly pursing his lips.  Flushing, she pushed her chair away.  Count Zohary rose, clicked his heels, raised her hand to his lips; and through the first drops of rain she saw him stride away, his uniform the color of fresh blood against the brick and white of the surrounding buildings, darkening in the rain.  A soldier, his aide-de-camp, came forward with a black cape for him.  Unwillingly she thought of vampires.

 

That night the rain shook the little-paned windows of her white bedroom.  This monster has done much harm already,  she read.  Moisture in the air made the book’s binding sticky, so that both her palms were printed with fragments of the red name backward.  The howling of wolves.  There no wolves around the city, nor vampires either.  She could tell her own future without him: this fall in New York would decide it, what ever her strategies.  Women of her sort had all the same future.

How much less alive could she be if she were a vampire’s prey?

She pictured herself approaching men of her acquaintance and sinking her teeth into their throats.  This was fancy; she had no access to the ordinary powers of men such as the count.

But he had told her quite specific thing: and it intrigued her: he was with the embassy in New York.

The next day, though she was tired, she diligently sewed at her cutwork and pricked at it with her scissors, and finishing this respectable task, she felt as though she were again in control of herself, triumphant over Count Zohary, and ready to face him.

At her instigation, Mrs. Lathrop, her aunt’s friend, proposed that they visit the Hotel Andrews, and Aunt Mildred was persuaded to agree.

On Thursday, Elizabeth Lathrop and her Daughter, Lucilla, Aunt Mildred and she all fit themselves into the Lathrop carriage, and at a gentle pace, they were driven through the curving streets.  It was a perfect day, the breeze from the lake just enough to refresh them, late day lilies and heliotropes blooming behind old-fashioned trellis fences; a day for a pleasant, thoughtless excursion; yet as they passed through Market Square, she looked for his glittering red figure, and as they pulled into the handsome gravel driveway of the Andrews, she found herself excited; as if she were going to a meeting of some consequence.

Aunt Mildred and Mrs. Lathrop found them a table by the dance floor, which was not large but modern and well appointed.  An orchestra was playing waltzes; a few couples practiced their steps on the floor, and many soldiers sat at tables under the potted palms, flirting with young women.  There was no sight of Count Zohary.  At one table, surrounded by a retinue of men, the notorious Mme. J. held court, a laughing, pretty woman who was rumored to have brought down three governments.  While the orchestra played, Mrs. Lathrop and Aunt Mildred gossiped about her.  Lucilla Lathrop and Sara discovered nothing in common.  From under her eyelashes Sara watched clever mme. J.

Three women from the Japanese legation entered the room, causing a sensation with their kimonos, wigs, and plastered faces.  She wondered if these were Japanese vampires, and if the painted Japanese ladies felt the same male energy from all these.  Were those Japanese women’s lives as constrained as hers?

“The heat is making me uneasy, Aunt Mildred,” she suddenly said.  “I do believe I will go and stroll on the terrace.”  under her parasol, she let the lake wind cool her cheeks; she stared over the sandy lawn, over the lake.

“Miss Andrews.  Have you come to see my sheets?”

“By no means, Count Zohary.”  he was sitting at one of the little tables on the terrace.  Today he was in undress uniform, a brownish-gray.  In the bright light his blond hair had a foxy tint.  Standing, he bowed elaborately, drawing out a chair.  “I would not give you the satisfaction of refusing.”  she inclined her head and sat down.

“Then you will satisfy bt accepting?”

“Indeed not.  What satisfaction is that?”  she looked out over the lake, the calm harbor.  While yachts swayed at anchor, the ferry headed out toward the island, sun glistening off its windows and rail.  She had seen this view for years from Aunt Mildred’s house; there was nothing new in it.

“Come now, turn your head, Miss Andrews.  You don’t know what I offer.  Look at me.”  On his table was a plate of peaches, ripe and soft; she smelled them on the warm air, looked at them but not at him.  A fly buzzed over them; he waved it away, picked up a fruit, and took a bite of it.  She watched his heavy muscular hand.  “You think you are weary of your life, but you have` never tasted it.  What is not tasted has no flavor.  I offer everything that you are missing–ah, now you look at me.”  his eyes were reddish-brown with flecks of light.  He sucked at the juice, then offered the peach to her, the same he had tasted; he held it close to her lips.  “Eat.”

“I will have another but not this.”

“Eat with me; then you will have as many as you want.”  she took a tiny nip from the fruit’s pink flesh.  Soft, hairy skin; sweet flesh.  He handed the plate of fruit to her; she took one and bit.  Her mouth was full of pulp and juice.

“I could have your body,” he said in a soft voice.  “By itself, like that peach; that is no trouble.  But you can be one of us, I saw it in a square.  I want to help you, to make you what you are.”

“One of us?  What do you mean?”

“One who wants power,” he said with the same astonishing softness.  “Who can have it.  A vampire.  Eat your peach, Miss Andrews, and I will tell you about your Dracula.  Vlad Draculesti, son of Vlad the Dragon.  On Timpa Hill by Brasov, above the chapel of St. Jacob, he had his enemies hands and feet lopped off, their eyes and tongues gouged and cut out and their bodies impaled;  and as they thrashed in agony, he ate his meal beside them, dipping his bread into the blood of his victims, because the taste of human blood is the taste of power.  The essence of the vampire is power.”  he reached out his booted foot and, under the table, touched hers.  “Power is not money, or good looks, or rape or seduction.  It is simple, life or death; to kill; to drink the blood of the dying; but oneself to survive, to beget, to make one’s kind, to flourish.  The negotiators here have such power, they are making a red storm, with many victims.  I too have power, and I will have blood on my bread.  Will you eat and drink with me?”

“Blood–?”

He looked at her with his light-flecked eyes.  “Does blood frighten you, do you faint at the sight of blood, like a good little girl?  I think not.”  he took a quick bite from his peach.  “Have you ever seen someone die?  Did they bleed?  Did you look away?  No, I see you did not; you were fascinated, more than a woman should be.  You like the uniforms, the danger, the soldiers, but what you truly like, Miss Andrews, is red.  When you read about this war in the newspapers, will you pretend you are shocked and say Oh, how dreadful, while you look twice and then again at the pictures of blood, and hope you do not know why your heart beats so strong?  Will you say, I can never be so alive as to drink blood?  Or will you know yourself, and be glad when the red storm comes?”  he tapped her plate of peaches with his finger.  “To become what you are is simpler than eating one of these, Miss Andrews, and much more pleasant.”

“I wish some degree of power–who does not–but to do this–.  This is ridiculous, you must wish to make me laugh or to disgust me.  You are making terrible fun of me.”

“Drink my blood,” he said.  “Let me drink yours.  I will not kill you.  Have just a little courage, a little curiosity.  Sleep with me; that last is not necessary, but is very amusing. Then–a wide field, and great power, Miss Andrews.”

She swallowed.  “You simply mean to make me your victim.”

“If it seems to you so, then you will be my victim.  I want to give you life, because you might take it and amuse me.  But you undervalue yourself.  Are you my victim?”  For a moment, across a wide oval in front of the hotel, wind flattened the water, and through some illusion of light and wave, it gleamed red.  “See, Miss Andrews.  My parlor trick again.”

“No–I often see such light on the water.”

“Not everyone does.”

“Then I see nothing.”

By his plate he had a small sharp fruit knife.  He picked it up and drew a cut across his palm; as the blood began to well, he cupped his hand and offered it to her.  “The blood is a little lake, a little red lake, the water I like best to control.  I stir it up, Miss Andrews; I drink it; I live.”  With one finger of his right hand he touched his blood, then the vein on her wrist.  “I understand its taste; I can make it flow like a river, Miss Andrews.  I can make your heart beat, Miss Andrews, until you would scream at me to stop.  Do you want to understand blood, do you want to taste blood, do you want your mouth full of it, salty, sweet, foul blood?  Do you want the power of blood?  Of course you do not, the respectable American girl.  Of course you do, you do.”

He took her hand and pulled her close to him.  He looked at her with his insistant animal eyes, waiting, his blood cupped in his hand.

She knew that at that moment she could break away from his grip and return to Aunt Mildred and the Lathrops.  They had not so much as noticed that she had been gone or know what monstrous things had been said to her.  She could sit down beside them, drink tea, and listen to the orchestra for the rest of her life.  For her there would be no vampires.

The blood, crusted at the base of his fingers, still welled from the slit he had made in his palm.  It was bright, bright red.  She bent down and touched her tongue to the wound.  The blood was salty, intimate, strong, the taste of her own desire.

 

The white yacht was luxuriously appointed, with several staterooms.  They sailed far out on the lake.  Count Zohary had invited the Lathrops and her aunt to chaperone her.  On deck, Mr. Lathrop, a freckled man in a white suit, fished and talked with Count Zohary.  Aunt Mildred and Mrs. Lathrop talked and played whist, while Lucilla Lathrop’s knitting needles flashed through yards of cream-white tatting.  Sara began another piece of cutwork, but abandoned it and stood in the bow of the boat, feeling waves in her body, long and slow.  In part she was convinced Count Zohary merely would seduce her, she did not care.  She had swallowed his blood and now he would drink hers.

Under an awning, servants served luncheon from the hotel.  Oysters Rockefeller, cream of mushroom soup with Parker House rolls, salmon steaks, mousse of hare, pepper dumplings, match-sticked sugared carrots, corn on the cob, a salad of cucumbers and Boston lettuce, and summer squash.  For dessert, almond biscuits, a praline and mocha-butter ream glazed cake, and ice cream in several flavors.  With the food came wine, brandy with dessert, and a black bottle of champagne.  She picked at the spinach on her oysters, but drank the wine thirstily.  In the post-luncheon quiet, the boat idled on calm water; the servants went below.

Mr. Lathrop went to sleep first, a handkerchief spread over his face.  Then Lucilla began snoring gently in a deck chair under the awning, her tatting tangled in her lap;  Mr. Lathrop’s fishing rod trailed from his nerveless hand;  Sara reeled it in and laid it on the deck, and in a silent noon the thrum of the fishing line was as loud as the engine had been.  Aunt Mildred’s cards sank into her lap.  She did not close her eyes, but when Sara stood in front of her, her aunt did not seem to see her.  Alone, Mrs. Lathrop continued to play her cards, slowly, one by one, onto the little baize-colored table between her and Aunt Mildred, as if she were telling fortunes.

“Mrs. Lathrop?”  she looked up briefly, her eyes as dull as raisins in her white face, nodded, and went back to her cards.

“They have eaten and drunk,” Count Zohary said,  “and they are tired.”  a wave passed under the boat; Aunt Mildred’s head jerked sideways and she fell across the arm of her chair limply, rolling like a dead person.  Sara almost cried out, almost fell; Count Zohary caught her and put his hand across her mouth.

“If you scream you will wake them.”

Grasping her hand, he led her down the stairs, below decks, through a narrow passageway.  On one side was the galley, and there, his head on his hands, sat the cook, asleep; near him a handsome servant had fallen on the deck, sleeping too; she saw no others.

The principal stateroom was at the bow of the ship, white in the afternoon.  The bed was opened, the sheets drawn back; the cabin had an odor of lemeon oil, a faint musk of the lake.  “Sheets,” he said.  “You see?”  She sank down on the bed, her knees would not hold her.  She had not known, at the last, how her body would fight her; she wanted to not be here, to know the future that was about to happen, to have had it happen, to have it happening now.  She heard the snick of the bolt, and then he was beside her, unbuttoning the tiny buttons at her neck.  So quiet, it was so quiet.  She could not breathe.  He bent down and touched the base of her neck with his tongue, and then she felt the tiny prick of his teeth, the lapping of his tongue and the sucking as he began to feed.

It was at first, a horror to feel the blood drain, to sense her will struggle and fail; and then the pleasure rose, shudders and trembling so exquisite she could not bear them; the hot cabin turned to shadows and cold and she fell across the bed.  I am in my coffin, she thought, in my grave.  He laid her back against the pillows, bent over her, pushed up her skirts and loosened the strings of her petticoats; she felt his hand on her skin.  This is what she had feared, but now there was no retreat.  She welcomed what was to come.  She guided him forward; he lay full on her, his body heavy, pressed against her, his uniform braid bruising her breasts.  Their clothes were keeping them from each other.  She slid the stiff fastenings open, fumbled out of her many-buttoned dress, struggled free of everything that kept her from him.  Now, she whispered.  You must.

They were skin to skin, and then, in one long agonizing push, he invaded her, he was in her, in her very body.  Oh, the death pangs as she became a vampire, the convulsions of all her limbs!  She gasped, bit his shoulder, made faces to keep from screaming.  Yet still she moved with him, felt him moving inside her, and his power flowed into her.  She laughed at the pain and pleasure unimaginable, as the lake waves pulsed through the cabin and pounded in her blood.

:Are you a vampire now, little respectable girl?”

“Oh, yes, I have power, yes, I am a vampire.”

He laughed.

When she dressed, she found blood on her bruised neck; her privates were bloody and sticky with juice, the signs of her change.  She welcomed them.  In the mirror, she had fine color in her cheeks, and her white linen dress was certainly no more creased than might be justified by spending an afternoon on the water.  Her heart beat heavy and proud, a conquering drum.

She went on deck and ate a peach to still her thirst, but found it watery and insipid.  It was late, toward sunset, the light failing, the water red.  In the shadows of the waves she saw men silently screaming.  She desired to drink the lake.

Mr. Lathrop opened his eyes and asked her, “Did you have a pleasant afternoon, Miss Andrews?”  His eyes were fixed, his color faded next to hers.  Lucilla’s face, as she blinked and yawned, was like yellow wax under her blonde hair.  Flies were buzzing around Mrs. Lathrop’s cards, and Mrs. Lathrop gave off a scent of spoiled meat, feces, and blood.  

“Good afternoon, Aunt Mildred,” Sara asked.  “How did you nap?”

Aunt Mildred did not answer.  Oh, they are weary, Sara thought, weary and dead.

Count Zohary came up the stairs, buttoning his uniform collar gingerly, as if his neck were bruised too.  To amuse him, she pressed her sharp cutwork scissors against the vein of Aunt Mildred’s neck, and held a Parker House roll underneath it; but he and she had no taste for such as Aunt Mildred.  She threw her scissors into the blood-tinged lake: they fell, swallowed, corroded, gone.

Under a red and swollen sky, their ship sailed back to the white hotel.  Count Zohary and Sara were the first to be rowed ashore.  Across the red lawn, lights blazed, and outside the hotel a great crowd had assemble.  “In a moment we will see the future,” he said.

“I saw men dying in the lake,” she answered.

They walked across the lawn together, her arm in his; under her feet beach sand hissed.

“Count Zohary, perhaps you have friends who share those interests that you have taught me to value?  I would be delighted to be introduced to them.  Though I know not what I can do, I wish for wide horizons.”

“I have friends who will appreciate you.  You will find a place in the world.”

As they entered the even more crowded foyer, the negotiators revealed, shaking hands.  From a thousand throats a shout went up.  “Peace!  It is peace!”

“It is the great storm,” said Count Zohary.  For a moment he looked pensive, as though vampires could regret.

They gained the vantage point of the stairs, and she looked down upon the crowd as though she were their general.  Many of the young men were dead, the Americans as well as the foreign obserers.  Sara looked at the victims with interest.  Some had been shot in the eye, the forehead, cheekbones; some were torn apart by bombs.  Their blood gleamed fresh and red.  The flesh of some was gray and dirt-abraded, the features crushed, as if great weights had fallen on them.  Next to her stood a woman in a nurse’s uniform: as she cheered, she coughed gouts of blood and blinked blind eyes.  Outside, Roam candles began to stutter, and yellow-green light fell over the yellow and gray faces of the dead.

But among them, bright as stars above a storm, she saw the vampires, the living.  How they had gathered for this!  Soldiers and civilians; many on the negotiating staffs, and not a few of the observers; the eminent Mm. J., who bowed to Sara distantly but cordially across the room; by the window a nameless young man, still as obscure as she; and her bright, her blazing Count Zohary.  The hotel staff moved among them, gray-faced, passing them glasses of champagne; but her glass was hot and salty, filled with all the blood to come.  For the first time, drinking deep, she was a living person with a future.

That autumn she was in New York, but soon traveled to Europe, and wherever she went, she helped to call up the storm.

QUIETUS FOR A PLAYER

After too many balls went out and never came back, we went out to check.  It was long walk–he always played deep.  Finally, we saw him, from a distance he resembled the towel we sometimes threw down for second base.

It was hard to tell how long he’d been lying there, sprawled on his face.  Had he been playing infield, his presence, or lack of it, would, of course, have been noticed immediately.  The infield demands communication–the constant, reassuring chatter of team play.  But he was remote, clearly an outfielder.  The infield is for wisecrackers, pepper pots, gum-poppers; the outfield is for loners, onlookers, brooders who would rather study clover and swat gnats than holler.  People could be pretty much be divided between infielders and outfielders.  Not that one has a choice.  He didn’t so much choose right field as accept it.

There were several theories as to what killed him.  From the start, the most popular was that he’d been shot.  Perhaps from a passing car, possibly by one of those gangs.  Or maybe some pervert with a telescopic sight shooting from a bedroom window, or a mad sniper from a water tower, or a terrorist with a silencer from the expressway overpass, or maybe it was an accident, a stray slug from a robbery, or a shoot-out, or an assassination attemptable away.

No matter who pulled the trigger, it seemed more plausible to ascribe his death to a bullet than to natural causes, like, say, a heart attack.  Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent.  Not that kids don’t die of heart attacks.  But he never seemed the type.  Sure, he was quiet, but not the quiet of someone always listening for the heart murmur his parents repeatedly warned him about since he was old enough to play.  Nor could it have been leukemia.  He wasn’t a talented enough athlete to die of that.  He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him.

The shooting theory was better, even though there wasn’t a mark on him.  Couldn’t it have been, as some argued, a high-powered bullet traveling with such velocity that its hole fused up behind it?  Still, not everyone was satisfied.  Other theories were formulated; rumors became legends over the years.  He’d had an allergic reaction to a bee sting; been struck by a single bolt of lightning from a freak, instantaneous electrical storm; ingested too strong a dose of insecticide from the grass blades he chewed on; sonic waves, radiation, pollution, etc.  and a few of us think it was simply that, chasing a sinking liner, diving to make a shoestring catch, he broke his neck.

There was a ball pinned in the webbing of his mitt when we turned him over.  His mitt had been trapped under his body and was coated with an almost luminescent gray film.  The same gray was on his high-top gym shoes; as if he’d been running through lime, and it was on the bill of his baseball cap–the blue felt one with the red C that he always denied stood for the Chicago Cubs.  He may have been a loner, but he didn’t want to be identified with a loser.  He lacked the sense of humor for that, lacked the perverse pride that sticking with a loser season after season breeds.   He was just an ordinary guy, .250 at the plate, and we stood above him not knowing what to do next.  By then some guys from the other outfield positions had trotted over.  Someone, the shortstop probably, suggested team prayer.  But no one could think of a team prayer.  So, we all just stood there, silently bowing our heads, pretending to pray while the shadows moved darkly across the outfield grass.  After a while the entire diamond was swallowed and the field lights came on.

In the bluish squint of those lights, he didn’t look like someone we’d once known–nothing looked quite right–and we hurriedly scratched a shallow grave, covered him over, and stamped it down as much as possible so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip.  It could be just such a trivial stumble that would ruin a great career before it had begun, or hamper it years later the way Mantle’s was hampered by bum knees.  One can never be sure that kid beside you isn’t another Roberto Clemente, and who can ever know how many Great Ones have gone down in the obscurity of their neighborhoods?  And so, in the catcher’s phrase, we buried the grave rather than contribute to any further tragedy.  In all likelihood, the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, would be clumsy too, and if there was a mound to trip over he’d find it and break his neck, and soon right field would get the reputation as haunted, a kind of sandlot Bermuda Triangle, inhabited by phantoms calling for ghostly fly balls, where no one but the most desperate outcasts, already on the verge of suicide, would be willing to play.

Still, despite our efforts, we couldn’t totally disguise it.  A fresh grave is stubborn.  Its outline remained visible–a scuffed bald spot that might have been mistaken for an aberrant pitcher’s mound except for the bat jammed in the earth with the mitt and blue cap hooked over the handle.  Perhaps we didn’t want it to disappear completely–a part of us was resting there.  Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder who played there before him, realizing he was not the only link between past and future that mattered. As for us, we started to walk back, but by then it was too late–getting on supper, getting on to the end of summer vacation, time for other things, college, careers, settling down and raising a family.  Past thirty-five the talk starts about being over the hill, about Nolan Ryan still fanning them as if it’s some kind of miracle, beating the odds.  And maybe the talk is right.  One remembers Willie Mays, forty-two and a Met, dropping that can-of-corn fly in the ‘73 series, all that grace stripped away and with it the conviction, leaving a man confused and apologetic about the boy in him.  It’s sad to admit it ends so soon, but everyone knows those are the lucky ones.  Most guys are washed up by seventeen.

 

 

LAKE OF LIFE LOST

That night, Janette woke from real life, and found herself by the side of the same lake as the night before.  Though the bank on which she lay was hard clay, cool and damp as the night around her, a mat of sewn magnolia leaves had been laid out beneath her, filled with moss.  Under her head was a celadon-green pillow made of cloth softer than any lamb suede she had ever felt.  A single magnolia blossom drifted down from the branches over her head and brushed her throat, as it tumbled noiselessly onto the mat.  She sat up.

She was alert now.  Waiting.

She stood.  The lake’s incandescent surface was the tranquil dark silver of a black pearl.  It reflected the reeds and rushes surrounding it.  For a moment she worried about her appearance and considered walking down to the shore to check herself in the water.  Just as she had the night before, however, she knew without a doubt that there was no need to be afraid.  She was beautiful.  She looked better, much, much, better than she did in real life.

Her hair would be long, fine, and straight, but fluid.  A russet-gold.  Her face would be long, the bones underneath strong and curved as if made by someone who carved violins from expensive wood.  Every line would be softened by the quietest of shadows and her skin would match the color found on the palest Siamese cat, creamy with a faint tan.  The complexion would be unmarred.

She was dressed in a fine mail,  the chinks made from rose alabaster carved into the shapes of leaves and fitted one over another.  It did not feel heavy.  She was strong.  In her grasp was a book of poems and stories written in another place, by a no longer childish but not yet fully adult hand.  Her hand.

Her wait was short.  Out of the cloudless sky flew a magnificent black swan, circling over the water.  Its wingspan was more than twenty feet across, its eyes and legs the same silver black as the lake.  So dark were the bird’s feathers they were barely distinguishable from the night until it dipped below the level of the reeds and landed with a graceful splash.  Its breastbone as it cut the water left behind gentle ripples, like the raised ornamentation on the back of a woman’s hand mirror.

The swan drifted back and forth on the lake, eyeing her warily but with interest.  Whether it was shyness or reluctance or fear she couldn’t say, but it had done this last night for what she figured to be nearly an hour.  Then it had taken off again and stroked towards the horizon long before dawn was due.

Tonight, however, she grew impatient.  Instead of holding still she moved quietly to the water’s edge.  The swan noticed at once and stopped in the center of the lake.

She didn’t understand.  Every time so far, every detail had been under her control, everything ordered and predictable and eerily peaceful, just the way she wanted it.  Why wouldn’t the swan come near?

Though she wore short gray boots more exquisite than any she could ever hope to own for real, she didn’t care.  She stepped into the water and began to wade toward the swan.  It surprised her then.  Suddenly swimming toward her.

Janette backed out of the lake and up the bank, almost returning to the magnolia tree.

Gliding, the swan reached the shore.  Sweeping itself onto dry land with a single beat of his wings, he was bird no more.  Rather, he was a young man, as she’d known he must be; a year or two older at the most than she was.  He was built sparely, with refined, supple arms and chest and neck.  His black hair ruffled in the breeze like feathers blown against their grain.

He bowed his head slightly as he walked up the bank, lowered gaze watching algae give way to bare clay and then low moss.  Shame seemed an indelible part of his expression.  She didn’t understand it.  It wasn’t what she had expected.

She went to her mat and sat down on it, thinking he would follow.

He shook his head.  “You don’t want me to,” she felt, not heard him tell her.

“Yes, I do,” she said aloud and stood up again to fetch him.

But when she tried to embrace him, he no longer had arms.  They had become wings again.  Her encounter with his human form was so brief, she had time to touch his hair only once, running fingers along soft locks as razor-edged as feathers, before her arms encircled a swan’s neck, and the bird nipped her on the shoulder to make her stop.

 

Janette opened her eyes and stared at the tray positioned over her hospital bed, vials of drugs lined up against its near edge, waiting for injection into her IV.  She still clutched her journal, but its cover was grimy and discolored from holding it with feverish hands.  She could feel that her panties were wet.  The nurses would know she’d had a wet dream, but say nothing.  The nurses knew everything about her.

Janette fell into a fitful lethargy after writing only a few lines of her dream into her book, woke to write a few more, than became only semiconscious once again.  The third time she dredged herself out of the fever, her parents were perched on the edges of their chairs at her bedside, her father looking angry as he usually did, not angry at her, just angry, and her mother surreptitiously inventorying the increasing sarcomas covering her daughter’s hands and arms, using their size and number as an indicator of the amount of time left.

“Those hard-hearted legislative bastards may  not have any feelings,”  her  father started, “. . . or guts . . .” he digressed, “Don’t any of them have daughters?  Doesn’t one damn politician in this country have children anymore?”  Though he didn’t notice it, he punctuated almost every word by stabbing himself in the back of the hand with his pen.  The short blue marks made an inappropriate counterpoint to his expensive manicure.

Janette looked from her father’s to her mother’s hands.  The more widespread the sarcomas on Janette’s hands became, the more obsessively her father had begun caring for his own hands.  Her mother, however, no longer painted her nails or cared for her cuticles, or even put lotion on her hands.  Her mother’s were penance and a statement of self-consciousness and the desperate state she had been put in by her daughter’s illness.  They were also meant to ease the horrible contrast between the diseased and the healthy.

Janette hated how much their hands told her, but she knew both her parents loved her.  She smiled at them.

“I swear,” her father said, “if I could just get my hands on a few of those condescending idiots and–.”

“How are you today, honey?” her mother interrupted.  “Are you still recovering from your trip?”  Her mother’s voice caught after ‘recovering”, as the censor in her head must have told her what an awful choice of phrasing that had been.  “Do you need me to talk to the doctor?”

About morphine, was what she meant.

“ . . . but the rest of the state is behind you, Janie sweetie.  Look what started pouring in today.”  Her father hefted two huge canvas sacks, with scuff marks all over them, from the post office, and stuffed with letters, padded envelopes, and boxes.

She thought of the stories regularly carried in the tabloids, about sick people whose lives were spared by letter-writing campaigns from concerned readers,  as if the human body was a television show you could save from cancellation.

The pressure in her head was so severe it was frustrating trying to listen to him.  She felt like part of her brain was being forced against the inside of her forehead, which was what her rapidly growing lymphomas were doing.  Just enduring the pain made her want to hyperventilate, as if she were putting forth some great physical effort, running the hundred-yard hurdles over and over again, endlessly without a break.  Under such a regimen even the best athlete would break down, cramping and moaning.  But she couldn’t breathe deeply or quickly at all.  The tumor had already damaged her lungs, she needed to take oxygen periodically.

Even lifting her gaze to meet her parent’s depleted her as well.  She kept trying to do it, kept trying and trying.  She couldn’t believe something so simple as moving her eyes was such a big deal.

So she continued to stare at their hands.  After awhile it became impossible to concentrate on her father’s voice anyway, and she closed her eyes.

“Do you want me to talk to the doctor?” her mother asked again, sounding very close to Janette’s right ear.

“No, Mom,” she said.  She didn’t like to talk anymore.  Her words were slurred because of the tumors.  It scared her mother so much.

Hoping her smile followed her into unconsciousness, she let herself drift away.

 

The swan circled and circled overhead.  Monotonously.  Calmly.  Conserving energy.  Gliding.  Beating his wings only when it was necessary to stay aloft.

He was stalling.  He was afraid to come down.

But she had called him here so eventually he had to come down.

When he did, he landed at the end of the lake farthest from her, so far away she didn’t even hear his wings ruffling the surface.  He swam aimlessly about a tiny inlet, acting as if she wasn’t there.  Every once in awhile, however, the swan’s head and neck would loop gracefully around, on the pretense that the bird wanted to preen his feathers.  But she knew he watched her.

Janette decided to walk around to his shore.  For some reason her mail felt heavier that night, the air lukewarm instead of cool.  Her surroundings weren’t as invigorating as they had been during her previous visits.  Her stride grew short, then shorter, until finally, no matter how much she pushed,  she couldn’t prod her legs beyond a listless walk.  It took her most of the night to round the lake.

He never left, though.  He never moved to an inlet farther on.  It was almost dawn when she crouched by the water’s edge on a beach made of taupe-colored pebbles the size of peas, and watched him swimming idly twenty feet away.  For several minutes she studied him, while scooping up water and listening to it sift through her fingers, dribbling back into the lake.

“Why are you ashamed to come to me?” she asked finally.

He didn’t answer, but flew toward her onto the shore, transforming into the same young man as before.  He walked past her, up a low hill covered knee-deep in poppies.

Turning, he beckoned to her, then disappeared over the crest of the hill.

She followed and came soon to a peach tree, alone on the landscape.  Its long, narrow leaves were so dark a green that the logic of this world suggested they used the darkness the way other trees used sunlight.  The tree was filled with ripe fruit.  He plucked one and gave it to her.  Its skin was velvety black.  She cupped a hand over it, then hesitated and let go.

Sensing her fear, he urged it on her again.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, “but . . . “

Reaching for it, he stared at her with a serious expression and then took the first bite himself.  His throat quivered slightly as he swallowed, reminding her of the swan.  The fruit inside the black skin was a rich rose-orange.

He offered the peach to her again, holding it with the tips of his fingers so that when she took it, there would be little chance of physical contact between them.  Once more she wrapped her hand around it.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  Then she darted around his out-stretched arm and kissed the juice left on his lips.  “But it’s not what I want.”

Startled, he shied back, dropping the peach.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“You can’t let me touch you,” a soft, clear voice circled her thoughts.  “I’ll kill you.”

“Why would I be afraid of that now?  Do you think I’m afraid?”

“I’m not talking about fear.  You’ve called Death’s child,” the tones grew shaky.  “I’m the son of the first death.”

His transformation into bird did not go smoothly.  His face was still human as he lifted above the trees, his breast more skin than feather.

She couldn’t tell if he had made himself completely over before he disappeared.  She picked up the peach.  The exposed flesh was covered in hard, little nodules of dried mud, which she carefully brushed away.  Raising the fruit to her lips, she tasted his taste again, hot and sweet, juice too startling and potent to drink, like tea made from mead instead of water.

 

Coming to, she saw a nurse by her bedside with a needle stuck into her IV.  They’d begun morphine.  Her body and mind relaxed into a deeper useless.  The new drug wouldn’t get rid of the pain, so much as deny her access to it.  To her, the drug was making her smaller in a sense, making her . . . less, so she was able to feel less’

“Have you been practicing your lucid dreaming?” a male voice asked.

“I’m sorry, what?”  It was her therapist sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi.”

“Have you tried it yet?” he asked with sincere interest.  For the first time she noticed that his hair was black.  Was he the source of the dream swan?  She wasn’t sure, she didn’t want to discount it, but he seemed too old at twenty-eight and, she thought ruefully, definitely too heavy to fly.

“The dreaming?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I was wondering if you’d tried it and if it was helping.”

“No,” she told him.

She couldn’t say if he believed that.  He sat patiently waiting for her to begin, for her to give him a topic to latch on to.  She couldn’t start and right then that determined the subject for this session.  They were going to talk about anger, about her getting the disease, and about living out the rage it had engendered no matter the amount of time she had left to do it.

 

Her mother was back next morning, babbling under pressure.  No doubt she’d received a bad report from the doctor before she’d stepped in.

“Daddy and I were thinking,” she said, “about your journal.  You write so well, and I can tell from looking at the book that you’ve just about used all the pages.  Would you like us to do something special with it, um, when you’re done with it?”

Though Janette hated to show how possessive she felt about it, she clutched the book closer to her under the sheets.

“Perhaps take it to a publisher?” her mother asked.

Thankfully, their conversation was interrupted.  Out in the hallway, they heard a fight going on with someone in a wheelchair.  Janette figured it to be around six-thirty in the morning, the time they got the more ambulatory up and moving toward their various therapeutic destinations.

“Let me walk, damn it!” shouted a male voice emptied of most emotions other than resentment

Rubber soles and rubber wheels squeaked sharply, sounding like a tussle on a basketball court.

“Why can’t you just let me push you?” another man’s voice.  “Survivors know better than to waste their strength on the trivial stuff.  They save it up, to use for what’s important.”

“I’ve been putting my strength in a goddamn Keogh account for the last two days.  I’m tired of being in beds and wheelchairs and loungers.  Now, please!  Let me walk!”

Several seconds of nothing but background hospital noise.  Janette’s nurse moved on the next bed.  A horrendous sigh came from outside.

“Okay, Bruce, that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.  Come on, get up.”  Stifled grunting.  A wheelchair sent banging into the wall just to the left of Janette’s open door.  Uncoordinated feet shuffling forward in vinyl-soled slippers.  “But if you get sick and puke up your entire intestinal tract like the last time, I’m not taking the heat.”

“That’s what I love about you, Harold.  You’re just a demon for responsibility.”  This said by the tall male patient finally being helped past her door on foot by an orderly.  Bruce, the hospital worker had called him.  He looked both younger and older than Janette estimated him to be, about twenty-four.  Younger because he was big-boned and meant to carry a lot of weight, which he wasn’t now.  And older because the pain lines and the uneven complexion of disease were already settling into his face, the skin graying around his lips and eyes.

Bruce must have begun exhibiting his full symptoms only recently.  He still looked pretty much okay.  His hair, cut in big blunt shocks, flopped down over his face, but it was still shiny and thick.  It wasn’t drained of life yet, being a healthy dark brown.  While he’d clearly lost weight, he still had an athlete’s shoulders, and his calves, visible below the hospital gown, made her think of a pole-vaulter she’d had a crush on in her sophomore year.

Just then, Bruce turned his attention away from the orderly, a gesture of defiance, and glanced into Janette’s room.  Since she was closest to the door, she was the first person he saw.  Only his eyes registered his sudden discomfort at the sight she presented.  Then he recognized her.  The intensity in her eyes said he was adamant about that recognition, though he couldn’t place it.

Ten feet from now, he’d figure out who she was.  He’d remember her face from the news.  The young woman who’d testified before state and federal health agencies for more money to educate teens on the dangers of careless sex.  The girl who wanted politicians to spend more money for shelters and hospices.  The girl who some critics said used her condition’s gruesome appearance as a terrorist tactic.

His last impression as he passed the door was fright, very personal and deep.  He’d seen times to come in her.  She turned her face sharply away.

Don’t look at me, she thought.  Please.

 

Janette’s mat was turning brown and brittle.  Before, the magnolias’ foliage had always stayed green, eternally new, but now the leaves were dying.  They took on scalpel edges and sharp points like the disposable lancets used to draw drops of blood for testing.  Dozens of them stuck her in the arms when she rolled over and sat up.  From inside the mat, the moss padding wheezed dust with each movement.

The dampness was gone, the night’s cool, too.  Heat had shrunken the lake and evaporated the midnight-blue clouds that often lingered near the sunset horizon.  The reeds and rushes smelled brackish.  The air was fever dry.

For hours she sat motionless on the mat, wishing she could wake up.  What good was this place now, when the swan wouldn’t come to her, and the disease was taking it over?  She’d never known that dying magnolia blossoms felt exactly like pieces of old, popped balloons, rubbery and tired.

Every once in a while, she thought she detected movement far away in the sky, a familiar silhouette.  But each time it was only her imagination, or a shimmer in the rapidly heating atmosphere.

 

She woke to hear someone bawling and choking and coughing up.  

It was her.

I’m suffocating.

She could feel them; her lungs heavy and sodden as steaming cardboard inside her chest.  Ever since the doctor had listed the side effects she could expect from the tumors, Janette had lived with a constant, justified panic of not getting enough air.  The struggle between what her involuntary reflexes wanted and what her body could still deliver was a losing one.

Crying hoarsely for the nurse, she raked at her chest and fumbled for the call button.  A hand she couldn’t see pulled hers away from the controls.  She scratched and wrestled for them.  Desperation gave her the edge to wrest the call switch back, then press the button again and again.

Until she felt the oxygen tube being shoved up her nostril.  The chill rush of oxygen streamed through her nasal passages and down her windpipe.

“Shh, Janette,” said the graveyard duty nurse.  “We’ve got the oxygen going.  The doctor will be here in a minute, sweetie.  So you try not to fight so much, okay?”

She tried to quiet herself, to be good and please the nurse, but the panic wouldn’t go away, and she realized she no longer had control of her emotions.  They weren’t even valid emotions anymore, it seemed, but noises her messed-up brain was using to save her.

When the doctor came in, he pronounced her to have pneumocytosis, “which we were prepared for, Janette.”  Trying to reassure.  “We haven’t been caught off guard.  We know how to deal with it.”

Stupid things, she thought.  They all say such stupid things.

She spent a restless, terrified day, trying to breathe better and clear her badly blurred vision by blinking again and again.

She did survive this first battle with pneumonia.  Antibiotics worked for the time being.  Her vision improved a little, but it was closing down, the epripheral portion gone and the bouts of bleariness becoming longer.  Her headaches reached a point where she’d black out periodically from the pain.

During the sleepless times, she missed her world by the lake, but even when she could sleep, she didn’t go there.  Every time she felt herself lapsing she told herself she’d wake up there, but it never happened.  It wasn’t that she didn’t dream any longer.  She dreamed.  Of all the things she should be doing but was too lazy to work on anymore.  She began to wonder if the part of her mind that would normally allow her access to the lake was already destroyed, dead before her.

For hours she stared at her TV.  This thing will never leave my arm, for as long as I live, she thought.  It drove her crazy, kind of.  Made her want to rip at the needle.  In fact, she dared herself to, worked herself up to the idea during the most delirious moments, and would have done it a couple of times if she hadn’t felt so drained, so beyond will.

During her next visit from the staff psychotherapist, she told him about her urge to do it.  She tuned out his response though, and put herself on automatic for his questions.

What must it be like for the therapist to be here? she wondered instead.  What a weird concept, therapy for the dying.  Social services version of last rites, she thought, a fundamental anathema, and sort of a an extravaganza of resources, too.

She may not have listened, but the therapist must have spoken to someone.  When she was feeling only a little bit better, they made a special exception and wheeled her out to the atrium one morning.  A registered nurse had to sit nearby to monitor her alone.

Janette had been trying to catch up on her stories about the dreams ever since the pneumonia.  She’d put off chronicling that last dream by the dying lake for days.  Always, she’d been an overachiever.  Her parents had been proud of that fact, and she’d been proud of it.  There had never been a time when she didn’t have about ten projects going at once.

“You feel anger, don’t you?” the therapist had asked her once or twice.  “Towards the disease.  Anger about what it’s doing to you.”  He never asked if Janette had anger toward herself.  Or what she really had.  Guilt.

Guilt because she no longer worked at anything really.  She had allowed college and her parents to fall away.  She felt like a loser.

Today, though, she determined to accomplish something, even if all that meant was a couple of paragraphs about the last dream.  If all she did was explain why she’d needed to make up the world by the lake.

She tried convincing herself that sitting out among the greenery, basking in the sunlight coming through the greenhouse windows gave her the energy she needed to work.  She took up her mechanical pencil and arduously aligned its tip with the first blank line of a page she could barely make out.

Seconds later her fingers cramped and she lost her grip on the pencil.  Two sentences were evidently beyond her.  The pencil rolled and dropped to the floor.

“Here, let me,” said a male voice she knew.  The pencil was picked up and laid next to her hand splayed on the wheelchair’s tray.

Bruce.

“Doesn’t look broken, “ he said, picked it up again, clicked some fresh lead into the tip, then laid it down.

Janette didn’t move to retrieve it.  All her concentration was placed in keeping her hand from jerking spastically in front of him.

He still looked good.  Relatively.  Of course, it had only been about two and a half weeks since she’d seen him outside her door, but she suspected he’d be the type to stay almost handsome until close to the end.

“You know, if you want, you could dictate to me,” he said.  She could him discreetly reading over her shoulder.

“No.”  With her good hand, she softly closed the book.  She was terrified of what he might have read.  “Thank you, though.”

“What is it?” he asked.  “What you’re writing, I mean.”

“Personal.”

He nodded.  He’d been standing when he retrieved the pencil for her, crouching beside her chair while he talked, with his hair smelling incongruently of Physoderm, instead of shampoo or, worse, sweat from too many days of restless sleep.  Now he sagged to the white-tiled floor and sat cross-legged next to her.

“What do you write about?” he said, persisting.  “Do you write about being afraid?  Maybe letters to people that’ll, you know, live on?  Apologizing?  Wishing them well?  Or just what you’re feeling from day to day?”

“Dreams,” she said.

He glanced up very intent.  His eyes suddenly had too much concern in them, even for someone sensitized to this issue.

“What type of dreams?”

Her response was bitter, but she was proud of the honesty.  She’d never been so forthright.  She wasn’t ashamed of the bitterness.

“Things I don’t ever get to have,” she told him.

Bruce flinched.  He looked down at his knees.  In a few minutes he got up and moved to another part of the atrium without having said another word.

She was puzzled and hurt by the reaction.  It destroyed her confidence in publicly admitting her bitterness, just as swiftly as she’d mustered it up.

 

The sky was purple-white with lightning, striking again and again, split seconds apart.  It was coming her way.  Thunder cracked so loudly, it felt as if she were shut up in a room with it, as if it bounced off the ceiling of her world by the lake.  Rain refused to fall, though, and the clouds looked thin and empty.  Not even a breeze came up to brush the final leaves off the magnolia or spread the piles of them beneath it tumbling along the shore.

Janette sat against the tree’s trunk, idly tearing the mat apart tiny piece by tiny piece.  The mat had represented so much to her when this place had been alive.  Now it only made her angry.  Each leaf was surprisingly tough, stiff like water-ruined leather after it’s dried.  Almost impossible to rip.

She knew she should get away from the tree.  Besides herself it was the only object of any height for the lightning to strike.  But this was her world and she understood the lightning intimately.  She couldn’t escape it.  The disease had finally broken into her night kingdom.  This was a dream, after all.  Not reality, but an analog of it.  The lightning was going to hit her no matter where she went.  She knew exactly what it would feel like.

Like sharpened thorns in her blood, the pain pricking new wounds deep inside her where neither she nor doctors could get to them; excruciating tears in muscles and artery and bone.  Such agony could drive her mind into that surreal place where mad people lived, never precisely awake, nor living the temporary terrors the healthy dreamed while asleep.

So while she pictured herself running over the sullen landscape, the barren hills, hunting for shelter, crouching uselessly in shallow ravines, it seemed more reasonable to simply sit and wait.

The swan dove at her from behind, surprising her from a direction he’d never chosen before.  His wings raked her face as he flew around the tree, one claw ripping out a strand of her hair.  Had it been intentional?  His feathers smelled of ozone.

He stalled out his flight prior to reaching the shore, and landed as a man with his back facing her.  He was furious.  He was frustrated.

Knocked flat by his pass, Janette hadn’t gotten to her feet when he spun about.

“Who do you think you are to keep calling me here?  You know I don’t want you to.”  his words burned in her mind’s ear.

“This is my world.  I’m in control here.  And I want you to give me what no one else will or can,” she said.

“Release from your pain,” he said accusingly.  “You want me to take it away by taking your life.”

“I want you to touch me.”

“And kill you.”  Nearly hissing.

“I’m already about to die.  Why do  I have to keep saying it?  I’m about to die.  I’m ready to die!”

“But if I touch you here, you die that much quicker.”

“So?”

“It’s a choice.”

“And I’m making it.”

Suddenly her cheek stung.  It had taken this long for the slap from his feathers to register.  “. . . I wasn’t asking you to kill me.

I can’t say it.  She couldn’t.  but she wanted to.

She had to.

“I was asking you to make love to me.”

He looked at her in silent incredulity.

“So I wouldn’t have died without knowing what real love felt like,” she explained.

“When I was a little girl I’d go to church,” she went on, “waiting to hear God’s voice, looking at the stained glass and expecting to hear God whisper in my ear, desperately wishing he would speak up.  He wouldn’t have had to say much, just call my name.  But you know I don’t think he  speaks to people anymore.  Not really.  You know it in your heart, but don’t want to admit it to yourself.  You think, how powerful is this God anyway?  How real is he if he can’t even whisper, I love you, Janette, in the golden voice you imagine him having.

“That’s the way it was with the man who gave me this.  I kept thinking the act would make us lovers,  that this special intimacy was waiting for me, because that’s what the movies say happens.  But I knew it wasn’t really special, not with him or anyone else before.  I kept telling myself over and over that it could be that way if I only believed.  But I never heard the words, I love you, Janette.  I never even felt them, I love you, Janette.  Never.

That’s why I called you here.  I thought you could show me how love was supposed to feel.  Even if there’s nothing after I die.  I wanted to know there was something real about love when I was alive.”

He didn’t move.  Not a muscle in his face moved.

She felt horrible.  Rejected.  She didn’t bother to apologize as she turned away.  He could probably tell from the stunned regret she showed that she was sorry.  She walked toward the tree, to sit on the other side and forget the lake until she finally woke up.

Three steps later, a ticklish breeze lifted the hair behind her ear.  Turning for a last look, she was startled when her face met his hand, which he cupped gently about her cheek.

His eyes meowed with mistrust, not of her, she thought, but of what he did as he took her down roughly to the bank’s powdery dust, dust so fine it puffed and rippled out around her head like silk.

There was a great deal of sorrow in his passion, a great deal of love in his anger.  He made love as if this were the only pleasure he would ever be allowed, and she realized that in that way they were too alike.

Afterward Janette lay very still next to him in their world, one hand resting on her breast, feeling her speeding pulse tapping against her fingers at a dozen places just below her skin.  It felt like rain pattering inside herself.  As it slowed, the storm finally broke.  Droplets stippled the dust on their faces, and cooled their feverish bodies.

 

She woke weeping silently.  Of all the ways she had expected to fell, she never thought she would cry.  But she was awake for only the briefest of moments, just enough to taste a tear on her lips.

 

“Your hair is russet-gold,” he murmured.  “The bones beneath your face are curved and strong, as if sculpted by one who makes the finest violins . . . each line softened by the quietest of shadows.”

 

MAGIC MAN

There must have been a hundred kids in Sandra Sommerfield’s backyard, back then on her birthday; everyone from Findley Place it seemed like, and the rest from places I hadn’t even heard of.  While I was getting dressed that morning I heard Aunt Beverly saying to Uncle Jim it was a waste of good money, but I just thought it was plain and simple silly.  Sandra had turned ten, but you’d think she was the stupid Queen of England the way people were fussing over her.  It was making me sick to my stomach.  I was only ten then, too, but you didn’t see people acting like that around me.

Of course, that was then–before I learned about my hand.

The way Sandra’s mother set it up, we had to sit on those little wooden chairs that fold up when you’re done with them, and I had to sit on the end in back because of my leg that I had to keep straight sort of.  I could have adjusted the brace, I guess, but I didn’t feel like it.  Sandra was prancing around in a pink dress and a pink ribbon in her hair, and I almost couldn’t stand it she was acting so bad.  So I kept the brace tight and kept my leg out, hoping all the time she would prance by and trip over me so her mother would scold her and I could pretend how bad it hurt.

She didn’t though, so I had to be good, even though I would’ve rather have been back in my room, thinking about . . . things.

Actually, I didn’t mind sitting in back.  I could see pretty good, because the yard bunched up into a little hill there before it sloped down to the river, and all the big kids had to sit on the ground in front so the little kids didn’t have to stand up.  And way down there at the bottom was the Great and Astounding Albert, doing his tricks in a black suit that made him look like he was going to a wedding.

:Nothing up this sleeve,” he said.  “And nothing up this sleeve.”  and the next thing you know he had a little bird in his hand or a blown up balloon or flowers or miles and miles and miles of pretty ribbons and streamers.

Mrs. Sommerfield and my aunt were sitting on the ground right behind me, and after awhile I could hear Sandra’s mother whisper, “Oh, dear, do you think he’s having a good time?”

And my aunt said, “Sure he is.  Why do you say that, Nancy?”

“Well, he seems so . . . so solemn, I guess.  Damn, you don’t think anybody was teasing him, do you?  About, well, you know.”

“No, dear, he hasn’t been teased, believe me.”  and she sighed like she does when Uncle Jim tickles her in the hall.  “He’s just studying, that’s all.”

I didn’t turn around but my aunt was right.  Right the, right there in the backyard with the hundred kids and the million trees and all the cake and ice cream in the whole world sitting there on the card table, I decided I wanted to be a magician when I grew up.  I couldn’t play ball or anything because of my leg, and my mother always told me that the best person you could be was the person who was nice to other people all the time.  Well, the Great and Astounding Albert must have been a nice person, because he was making all of us laugh and clap, and he was giving out pretty things and winking at the girls, so I spent the whole time trying to see how he did it.

Nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve.

Steven, I told myself then, you could really do that if you tried, you really could.

So the minute Aunt Beverly took me home and supper was over, I went into my room and I practiced.  I stood in front of the mirror and tried to figure out how the Great and Astounding Albert got all those birds and ribbons and things from his sleeve.  It had to be a trick, though, because there’s no such thing as magic, and when I couldn’t do it I almost cried.  I almost gave up.  But I didn’t.  when you have a leg like mine and you can’t be like other people, you don’t give up just because you want to cry.  You try and try again, just like my mother told me.  Try and try again.

So I did.

I took spoons from the kitchen and sticks from the yard, and I put them up my sleeve and tried to make them drop into my hand just like the magic man did.  It never worked.  And by the time two weeks were gone I was moping around the house and not eating and just making myself miserable.  That was silly, I know, and I should have went ot Uncle Jim right away, but I wasn’t used to him yet.

See, it was raining one night, and my mother and father and three sisters and I, we were coming home from the restaurant where we always go when something good happens at my father’s store.  Then all of a sudden there was this tree and a lot of light that hurt my eyes and a lot of darkness that hurt me, too.  And the next thing I knew I was in this funny-smelling room, and lots of people in white were standing around, and beverly and Jim were there in the corner.

Beverly was crying.  Jim wasn’t smiling.

They told me Mother and Father and Shirley and Beth and Karen had passed away in the accident.  That meant they weren’t coming back.  I knew that, and it hurt for along time.  It still does, at night, when my covers need tucking in and Aunt Beverly tries to do it, but she doesn’t do it the way my mother used to do it and . . . well, it just isn’t the same.  I know that because I  heard Uncle Jim say that one night when I was supposed to be asleep instead of going to the bathroom.

“Dammit, Bev, I feel sorry fro the boy, you know I do, and Fred was my brother, for God’s sake, so I have an obligation.  But that still doesn’t change the fact that you and I hadn’t planned on children, and suddenly we’ve got one ten years old, and a cripple at that.  I mean, it just isn’t fair.”

He really isn’t mean,  but he doesn’t understand sometimes.

So it was awhile before I told him what I told him what I wanted to do, and after he looked at me funny for a minute he grabbed me up from the floor and took me out to the car.  We went right downtown to this gigantic bookstore, and Jim picked out four or five magic books he thought I’d understand.

On the way home he said, “It’s funny, Steven, but there was a time when I wanted to be a magician, too.”

“So why didn’t you?”

He shrugged a little.  “I guess I didn’t want it badly enough.  See, when you grow up and you have to decide what it is you want to do with your life, you really have to want it badly enough or it isn’t going to work.  If you want to be a doctor, you have to raelize there’s an awful lot of school to go through–”

“Boy, I sure wouldn’t want that.”

“–and money and things like that.  Or if you want to be a teacher you have different things to learn, or a writer or a–”

“Magic man,” I said, grinning.

“Right,” he said.  “A magic man.”  then he reached over and touched my leg.  “Now you listen to me, pal–this magic stuff is hard work.  It takes a long time to get it right, and I don’t want you to give up.”

“Oh, I won’t,” I promised.  “I’m going to be the best magic man in the whole world when I grow up.”

He didn’t say anything for a while.  Then: “Why, Steven?  Why magic?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Because it’s nice.”

And it was work.  Boy, it was hard work.  Some things I couldn’t do because my fingers were too short or I didn’t have the right hidden things and I couldn’t make them or buy them because I hadn’t saved enough.  But I got pretty good with cards and the shell trick and the coin trick and things like that.  And every night I would show Beverly and Jim a new trick, and they would applaud and ask me how I did it.  I never told.  I never told them once.  You never tell a trick or it isn’t magic anymore.

But I still couldn’t get anything to come out of my sleeve.

Then it was May, and I was sitting out in back, wishing our house was on the river like Sandra’s.  I was wearing shorts because it felt good on my leg–though I still couldn’t look at it all pink and shrively  like that–and I was trying to get a pebble out of my sleeve without lowering my arm.  The kitchen window was right over my head, and it was awhile before I realized they were arguing in there.

“Well, I don’t care,” she said, like she was about to start crying.  “I just don’t care.”

“Bev, please be reasonable.”  and I could see without seeing him that he was standing with one hand on his hip and the other shoved in his hair, with this look on his face like nobody ever listens to anything he says.  “Bev, this is the chance we’ve been waiting for, and we simply cannot take Steven with us.”

“But why not?”

“Dammit, Bev, use your head!  Kuwait isn’t London, y’know.  It may have tons of money, but it isn’t the kind of place I’d want the boy to grow up in.  it’ll be at least a year, and he’s barely hanging in school as it is.  God, doesn’t he have enough problems?”

“We could get tutors.”

“Beverly.”

“We . . .”

I couldn’t hear anymore for awhile, but it didn’t matter.  The sun went cold, and the trees seemed like they were covered in ice.  I snapped my brace back on and walked out to the street.  Sandra and a few others were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk across the way, but when they called to me I didn’t answer.  I didn’t feel like it.  They only played with me because their mothers told them to.  Not all of them, some of them.  And it was hard to tell from one day to another which one it was.

So I walked for a couple blocks until I was in front of the luncheonette, looking at the pictures of the sundaes and sodas that are all white from the sun.  then this man walked out, and before I knew I grabbed his arm to stop him.  It was the Great and Astounding Albert, only he didn’t look so great and astounding without his wedding suit or moustache.

“Mr. Albert,” I said, and then I saw what I was doing so I tried a smile that felt real silly and backed away from him.

He stared down at me from about a mile up, frowning like he thought he should know me but he didn’t.  we stood there for a couple of seconds before I told him where I was from and where I saw him, and he smiled and nodded as if he’d guessed it all along.  And when I told him I was going to be a magic man when I grew up, he put a hand on my shoulder and took me inside where he lifted me onto a red counter stool, and we each had a double ice cream soda while he told me all the places he’d been and the famous people he’d known, and how all the other magic men used to come see him but now they don’t anymore.

It was the first time I noticed how old he was.

“It’s hard, Steven,” he said, suddenly sad and tired looking.  “I’ve lost the knack, it seems, to make grown-ups believe.”

“But it’s all tricks, isn’t it?”

“Sure it is.  But the real trick is to make it look like it isn’t a trick, but magic.”

I thought about that for a moment, not really understanding.  Then we talked some more, and he reached out and pulled a dollar bill from behind my ear.  I brushed a hand through my hair and laughed, before I knew it I was telling him how I couldn’t pull anything out of my sleeve because every time I let my arm down the things would fall out.  Well, he looked really serious at me for awhile, and I was afraid I’d said something to make him mad.  There were other people coming in and going out and buying the paper and smiling at me like they knew me, but I didn’t pay them any attention because just then the Great and Astounding Albert held up his arm and pulled down the cuff of his jacket and said, “What do you see up there, boy?”

I kind of leaned forward and squinted.  “Air.”

He snapped his arm straight out and I ducked, frowned, looked up the sleeve again and said, “Still air.”

Then he made a pass in front of me, slow and gentle, like a snake charming a robin.  Slow and gentle before he cupped his hand like there was something in it.  I waited, and one by one his fingers opened.  “Now what do you see?”

I didn’t know what to say.  “Air.”

“And that’s all there ever is, son.  Air.  Everything else comes from someplace else, and ther’s nothing up my sleeve but air.”  he closed his fingers again, blew on them, opened them and said, “What’s there now?”

It was getting awful silly.  “Air.”

“See?  Now you try it.”

Well, I thought he was kind of crazy being so old, but he told me again so I rubbed my hands together, made the moves as he did as best I could, and pulled air from my sleeve, making the kind of trumpet sound from my lips like they do on television when the elephant disappears.  Then Albert laughed and I laughed, and before I knew it I’d made the slow pass in front of the waitress’s face and tucked the air back in my sleeve.  She giggled at first and then started to cough, wheeze and gasp for her air back, but I was excited because I suddenly knew what Albert was saying about tricks and magic, and I thanked him politely because my mother always told me to be polite, then I slid off the stool and hurried home as fast as I could.

Sandra and the others were still playing hopscotch, and when they saw me run-hobbling like that they thought something was wrong so they ran across the street.  I told them not to worry, though, and before I could stop myself I had shown them my trick.

“Hey, that’s not magic,” Sandra mocked, twisting up her face like she’d eaten something terrible and falling to the sidewalk.

“That’s what you think,” I told her, then ran-hobbled inside and went straight to my room.  I practiced.  I practiced hard.  And after dinner that night I told Beverly and Jim I was going to put on a big show for them.

“Steven, I’m really not in the mood,” Jim said.  “I’ve had a bad day.”

“Oh, Jim,” Beverly said.  Her eyes weren’t normal; they were all red and swollen, and I knew it was because of the things I’d heard.

“Hey,” I said, “it’s all right, don’t worry.  I’m going to be such a great magic man that Uncle Jim can stay home and he can tell his boss to–”  And I snapped my fingers in the air.

I thought they would laugh.

They didn’t.

Jim only got a funny red in his face, and Beverly started to cry again.  Then Jim put his hands around my waist and pulled me in close and said, “Steven, there’s no better boy in the world than you.  And I swear, if I ever regretted having you with us I take it all back.”  I think he was going to cry, too, but he swallowed hard and didn’t.  “But, son, this is the most important part of my career right now.  If I make this move and do a good job, I’m going to be the most important man in the office.  And when your aunt and I–”

The telephone rang.  Beverly went to answer it, but Jim kept on talking.  I didn’t hear him though.  There was this noise in my head, like the sound of the ocean when you listen to a seashell.  I was trying with all my might to know what he was saying to me, but all I got was that I was going to stay at a place called Greenbriar until they came back from the Arabs and that was going to be a very long time.  I didn’t like that, and I tried to tell him my magic trick was all we ever needed, but just then Beverly came back.

“What is it, love?” Jim asked, pushing me back a little and getting up.

“That was Nancy.”  she looked at me and I looked back and all of a sudden she was on her knees and hugging me, telling me it was going to be all right, dear, and it sometimes happened, and it sure was a along time before I figured pout that Sandra and her friends had gone to where my parents and sisters had gone, that night in the rain.

Beverly thought I was going to feel bad, but I didn’t.  Sandra wasn’t a family person.  She was the little girl who lived on the other side of Findley Place, and there were a lot of little girls like that around here, so I was sorry for Sandra’s mother instead.  But I wasn’t all that sad about it.  I just said that if they didn’t want to see my new trick because of Sandra’s mother then that was all right, and Beverly said would I mind waiting a day or so, so I said no, that was okay.

The next day in school the teacher had us all be quiet for a moment for Sandra and Jennie and Eddie and Sissy and Kristy, and then the nurse came in and looked at our tongues and felt our necks and foreheads, and a couple of kids were sent home to their doctors.  I was glad I didn’t have to go home, because it was hard for me in scholl some days because I missed a lot whenever I had to go into the hospital for the operations to fix the bones and muscles in my leg.

I did all my work the best way I knew how, got a gold star for my spelling and a silver for arithmetic, and brought the papers home to show Beverly and Jim.

But there was no one in the kitchen, and no one in the backyard, so I decided to go upstairs and practice my new magic.  I was almost to my room when I heard the noise down the hall.  It sounded like laughing, but the kind of laughing you get because something hurts but not enough to cry.  I was scared.  I didn’t want anyone to  be sick, or go where Mother and Father went, so I ran down there and opened the door.

Jim and Beverly were in the bed.  Jim was on top of my aunt, and he was naked.  And she was shaking her head all over the pillow and making those laughing noises, and I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there until Beverly opened her eyes and made a squeak, like a mouse.  Jim rolled off her and pulled the sheet up to his stomach.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  he was mad, real mad.  “Explain yourself, Steven.  Why were you watching us?”

I tried to think as fast as I could, and the only thing I could think of was the magic.  So I started to talk, so fast I couldn’t understand what I was saying.  And while I was talking I went over to the bed and winked at Aunt Beverly and made a slow and gentle pass in front of Jim and tucked the air up my sleeve.

“What,” he said, “the hell was that supposed to be?”

I blinked.  “Magic.”

He looked at Beverly, but she only shrugged and tried to smile.

When he looked back at me, though, he wasn’t smiling at all.  “Steven, I don’t know what to say to you.  What you’ve done . . .”  he swallowed, and I thought he was going to cry again.  He coughed and punched his chest.  “You’ve got to learn . . . you’ve got . . .”  He frowned, then reached out and pushed me away.  I fell back against the wall he pushed me so hard, but I didn’t cry because the next thing I knew he was lying on the floor, his legs all tangled up in the sheets and his face so blue it was almost purple.

Aunt Beverly screamed.

So I screamed, too.  But when I crawled away like I was some kind of snake or something, screaming and shrieking and making my head ache.  I ran away.  I should have stayed there because I had heard the screaming before, at night, in the ran, while the fire came in the car and took my parents away.

I heard footsteps on the stairs a few minutes later.  A lot of people running in and out.  A doctor came in and checked me over, and it wasn’t until I slipped off the bed and went into the hall that I heard someone say that Uncle Jim was dead.  I don’t know what the word was, but it means you don’t have any air left in your lungs.

I looked down at my hand.  I looked up and saw Aunt Beverly in her pink bathrobe watching me.  Nancy was standing beside her, and she was watching me, too.

“I don’t want Uncle Jim Dead,” I said, feeling the tears and the bump inside my chest.

A policeman came by and another doctor, and they all started talking.  And I started thinking.  It wasn’t very hard, though, to know what the Great and Astounding Albert had taught me, and I felt so bad that I could barely see through all the crying.  I started to walk down the hall, down to Jim’s bedroom, and no one paid any attention to me.  Beverly was making little sounds, and the policeman and doctor were talking very quietly, and Mrs. DePaul was somewhere there, so no one saw me when I went into the room.

There was a stretcher on the floor.  And two doctors were kneeling by Uncle Jim’s body, looking like they were getting ready to put him on this green plastic stuff that looked like a garbage bag.  I didn’t want Jim in a garbage bag.  I didn’t want him dead.  So when the men turned around I went over there and knelt beside him and took his hand and put it next to my cheek, and I promised him I would never do magic again.  Then I took the air from my sleeve and made a slow and gentle pass in front of his face.  The doctors yelled at me.  Beverly screamed again, and suddenly everyone was jumping around and pushing me away and Jim was sitting up with a nothing look on his face.

A nothing look.  Nothing behind his eyes, and spit coming out of his mouth, and he wet himself like a baby while Beverly fell to the floor.

And there was nobody left to take care of me.

They took Aunt Beverly and Uncle Jim away in an ambulance.  Then a nice woman in a green dress said she was from the city and would see that I wouldn’t be alone anymore.

And that’s how I came to Greenbriar.

A lot of brick buildings and kids like me who have something wrong with their legs or their arms or they can’t get out of bed, teachers and classrooms and lots of television and special ways to play ball.  Every Saturday afternoon they show movies in the little theater.  Evry Saturday night and on holidays someone comes to do a show, like cowboy singers and clowns and people with animals . . . and a whole lot of magicians.

On Sunday there’s visitors.

But no one for me.  Uncle Jim is in a place like mine, only I don’t think it’s as much fun, and no one will tell me what happened to Aunt Beverly.  The kids from my old school don’t come at all, and I’ll bet that’s because their mothers won’t let them.

And maybe it’s wrong, but I don’t care.  I have my own little room and I practice every night.  And as soon as I’m good enough, I’ll go away.  I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to do.  See, it isn’t any fun to be the best magic man in the world if nobody wants to see you.  So I’m going to this place way down on the other side of the park.  I’m going to do slow and gentle passes.  Then Shirley and Beth and Karen and Father will come home with me, just like always before that night in the rain.

And Mother, of course, because she was always my friend.

Like Uncle Jim said–if you want it bad enough, you can do it.  And I want this very badly.  After all, who’s going to stop me?

With nothing up this sleeve, and nothing up this sleeve . . . but lots and lots of air.

ELEVATOR

It was a stifling summer outside when suddenly everything stopped.  The faces of the little girl and her father went pale; maybe the father was even more terrified than the little girl.  She wasn’t able to recognize real fear, nor was she aware of the danger of the situation.  She only felt that her father’s grip had suddenly become tighter, and this caused her face to turn white as a sheet.  As for the others: the tall fellow—destined always to experience life from so presumptuous height—was wobbling to such a degree that he had to lean on the inside wall with his elbow.  Actually, he wasn’t so much leaning as bumping against the wooden surface of the wall, taking advantage of its proximity to avoid collapsing on the floor.  The elderly couple were huddling together quietly and moving gradually into the corner, as if trying to conceal themselves.  The remaining four—the soldier, the man with the beard, the woman in red, and the man in the suit—were dispersed in all directions; one fell down, the other hit his forehead on the edge of the panel with the buttons, the third tumbled onto the floor, and the fourth pulled at the tall man’s sleeve and stumbled forward.

Out of all of them, the woman in red, with the pierced navel, responded to the event the loudest, letting out an inarticulate sound followed by a salvo of curses, but nobody objected—as they might have under different circumstances.  The man with the beard, who knew precisely what was happening, continued to lie soberly on the ridged, rubber floor, caressing the hairs of his beard with his fingers.  The gentleman in the suit—a striped jacket and trousers of indeterminate color—quickly stood up again and looked at his expensive watch, demonstrating to everyone that he was in a terrible hurry to get somewhere.  The soldier was the only one with his fleshy hands on his forehead, in noticeable pain, although he had on no way admitted defeat.  After the first wave of shock had passed, the father concluded that the elevator was indeed stuck.  The rest of them neither confirmed nor rejected this conclusion.  It seemed too soon for them to replace their usual formal head-nodding on stepping into the elevator or stingy salutations when exiting with alarm, sympathy, and unity in a common cause.  But it wasn’t long before it seemed that everybody, except the two silent old people, had accepted the reality that they would have to communicate and work together.

The man with the beard suggested pressing the emergency button, but, as was the case with all the other elevators in town, nobody believed that it would actually work, despite what the law required.  Maybe one of them even put his thumb on that big round circle, without the least hope that this would lead to an observable result.  Wanting to determine the height at which they were stuck—as if that would solve the problem—they tried to guess the floor they were on.  At first, the digital readout only showed two eights, indicating that the power supply had been interrupted, throwing off its calculation.  The soldier smacked the number display and then rapped on it with his knuckles; perhaps as the expression of some naïve thirst for vengeance on his part?  However, not only did the screen still refuse to display their vertical location, it now lost even those few flickers of life it retained.  The passengers began a verbal inquiry, the last person who’d come in, the tall fellow, who was sitting at the rear of the car –he’d gone in the back, since his destination was the top floor—confirmed that he’d entered the elevator on the tenth floor.  Now they were asking each other on which floor they’d joined the party, and where each had planned to exit the elevator, and concluded finally that they must be somewhere between the tenth floor and the fourteenth—the destination of the father and his little girl.

The father, a doctor, holding the little fingers of his daughter tightly, went up to the soldier after a while and looked at his bruised forehead in the dim elevator light.  The doctor examined the head of the man in uniform, and told the soldier that his injury couldn’t be treated in these conditions, and all they could do was try to make him comfortable.  They looked for a hard object to bandage against the soldier’s bump, which looked like a small horn growing on a newborn calf.  Not having too many other options, the doctor’s daughter pointed to the soldier’s belt where a gun hung in a white holster that would have been more or less level with her head.  The soldier reached for his gun slowly and bashfully, checked the safety, and put the handle on his forehead.  The sudden coldness surprised him and he dropped the weapon.  It bounced off the door and fell on the floor.  Some of the passengers looked at each other silently—keeping their fears to themselves.  The woman in red was the first to reach for the gun.  But rather than give it back to the frightened and clumsy soldier, she went up to him and pressed the handle to his reddened skin herself.  Yet, it didn’t bring him relief; on the contrary, now he was embarrassed as well as in pain.

 The old lady whispered something to her husband and he kneeled on the floor and started poking around the man with the beard (who, meanwhile, had informed the others that he was a painter); soon the old man was squeezing carefully through the other people’s legs.  The old lady explained that the sudden stop had caused her glasses to fall off, and she’d only just realized that they were missing.  Some of the other passengers kneeled then too, wanting to help the old man, who was still on his knees, impressing the younger people with his endurance and persistence.  The number of people in the car blocked a lot of the light from the weak fluorescents, their silhouettes casting numerous shadows—the deep darkness on the floor making their joint quest more difficult.  The man in the striped suit–a stuffed shirt, really—didn’t pitch in with the search, but instead started calling for help.  He started yelling various names, as if he knew important building personnel who were in charge of keeping the place running day to day.

No matter the volume, it was all in vain.  the building’s elevators had only recently been installed and they were, as it was said, absolutely cutting edge.  they had thick walls and solid insulation, which kept their movements perfectly quiet–an utter joy.  nothing like those rickety, terrifying, ancient elevators you find in older buildings, their decrepit mechanisms straining to pull vibrating cords tied to old tin cans up musty tunnels.  No, these new models moved quickly and silently, and always stopped with the utmost gentleness.  They gave the passengers a feeling of trust and security.

But everyone present had no choice but to accept the fact that the system wasn’t working properly–perhaps a flaw in the installation process?  Soon enough, when he noticed that his yells were useless, the man in the suit started to slam his open palms violently against the metal doors–something of a shock for everyone else.  when he figured out that even this wasn’t loud enough, he lifted his briefcase and started to smack it against the silvery, mirrored surface.  The echoes from this latest assault bounced all over the elevator car, occupying every plane and angle, and inciting even more unrest among his fellow passengers.

Suddenly the tall fellow grabbed the stuffed shirt’s hands.  Having gotten his attention, the giant then pointed toward the little girl who was covering her ears with her hands and looking at both with confusion.  Her father tried to convince the panicky man to apologize to the girl for the scene he was making. but he refused, explaining that what he was doing was for the collective welfare and common interests of all the stranded passengers.  The doctor didn’t give up, however, but continued dignified persistence until their juvenile bickering turned into a heated argument.  This was the first actual fight of their ordeal, and it put everyone even more on edge.

Moments later, when he realized that he’d already missed his meeting, the man in the suit removed his jacket, holding it in one hand while clutching his briefcase in the other, as though there was something strictly confidential in it.  The other passengers began to notice that the temperature, which should have been regulated by the ventilation system, was now increasing in waves, each even more unbearable than the last; they had to do something about that.  Most of the men removed some layer of thri clothes, and loosened their ties if they had one–or if they didn’t, like the painter, they rolled up their pants.  the old lady pulled out an old magazine and begin fanning it in front of her face, turning to her husband’s from time to time, letting her husband work it when she got tired of waving it.  Everyone else was wiping their dewy with everything within reach–their sleeves or facial tissues that they had been keeping in their pockets, thinking that they would never have to use them–everyone, that is, except for the soldier and the woman in red, who were chatting incessantly on various subjects.  At that particular moment, the soldier was explaining to the girl how his gun worked, how to switch the safety on and off, how to aim and shoot–things that he shouldn’t be talking about so nonchalantly in other circumstances.  The father interrupted them, saying that it would be appropriate to try, for a change, to keep quiet and listen, in case anything was happening outside–whether the elevator next to their was moving, for example, or whether they might be able to hear any workers trying to fix whatever malfunction had stranded them all there.  They should be trying to hear any updates and instructions that rescue teams would surely be calling out, discussing their prognosis and planning the best possible way to get them out of there.

Except for the rumblings of their bodies, however, there still wasn’t a sound to be heard.  By now the old man had already stated his hypothesis that the tall fellow was the culprit.  Despite everyone’s reasonable rejoinders, the old man blamed the tall fellow and his capricious decision to force himself upon the collective in the elevator for stranding them in this situation; the elevator must have had a weight limit, and the tall fellow must have caused an overload.  On account of his being the cause of all their troubles, the old man then asked that the tall fellow–who had revealed that he was a historian–tell everyone some stories, which would put their own unfortunate situation in the proper perspective.  So the tall man told them their time in the elevator was historically insignificant and spoke about the old legends, for instance when the galleys of the Githiesh navy got lost at sea and couldn’t take part in an important battle, thus not providing sea support to their infantry.  Later, however, when the sailors worked together, and all the captains coordinated their movements, they surprised the enemy from behind, and thus defeated them utterly.  The tall fellow would have certainly continued to dig through these musty catacombs if the well-dressed gentleman, who been grinding his teeth all the while, hadn’t suddenly–after ferociously mashing his phone’s key pad—put his phone to his ear.  Not a word was spoken, until this small cause for hope was extinguished as well: there was no signal.

It would have been one thing had the tenants of the building simply not cared not cared about the passengers trapped in the elevator—that wouldn’t have concerned them quite so much—but the fact that there had been no sign of life, that not a single sound had penetrated the car, and that the passengers had been unable to get a single message through . . . this seemed to threaten their assumptions and beliefs about the state of the world they’d recently left.  Time was passing, and soon the woman in red, who was sitting on the floor with her back against the wall and her hands wrapped around her knees, declared quite loudly that she was about to faint from hunger.  The soldier had leaned his head on her and was already dozing off.  Swallowing his self-importance, the well-dressed man addressed the group as a whole, concluding that the day must now be over, it was probably night outside.  The passengers had long since begun licking their dry lips, hoping to relieve their increasing thirst, and it was then that the artist pulled a small water bottle out of his bag, and, after taking the first sip, passed it on to the others.  When he was first offered a sip from the bottle, the man in the suit politely—albeit with a grimace—declined; a little later he was quick to grab the bottle and fiercely drink down what was left.  The water seemed to calm the passengers, and now they all lay down on the floor—inasmuch as this was possible—which had seemed wide enough at first, but now felt much smaller.  Except for the soldier, who would occasionally wake up to keep an eye on his fellow prisoners, and the little girl, who kept complaining to her father—even though he was doing his best to placate her by telling her stories, patiently and quietly—the others soon fell asleep.

The snoring and the deep sighs that became from the passengers on the floor mixed with other bodily sounds, until the entire group sounded like a small joyful band.  Some of them bumped their heads together accidently, or pushed aside their neighbor’s belongings, but overall there was no hostility, no angry shoves.  This temporary respite didn’t last long, however.  Their peaceful dreams were interrupted by a jarring bang.  Almost everyone jumped to their feet, save for the artist and the man in the suit, who—as if stuck to each other—didn’t’ budge.  With messy hair and bleary eyes, they rose their sight toward the light of the elevator’s ceiling; this time they looked at each other not with suspicion, but terror.  Now several of them mentioned that they had to answer the call of nature.  For a while they were wondering just what to do about it, until the tall historian came up with the idea to use the empty water bottle while the rest closed their eyes or turned their backs.  Then they all fell asleep for the second time.

There were no outbursts of desperation come morning, only the gurgling noises of their empty stomachs, like abandoned kittens mewling on someone’s porch, permeating the car.  Their shared vulnerability had turned into a mutual compassion and softened their hearts.  The woman in red went on and on about some recent events in her neighborhood.  Reminiscing remorsefully about her lack of compassion for a stray dog that had been playing in front of her building, she promised she would mend her ways once they got their lives back.  Now they all started to evoke similar poignant memories from their lives, as if standing in front of some invisible adjudicator who would soon make a final decision about their destinies and allow only a few to go back to address their errors.  Through these recollections they felt they were somehow guaranteeing their futures, giving evidence of their own worth—or their pretentions to superiority.  After the soldier explained what had brought him to the building the previous day, his companions concluded that he shouldn’t have been there in the first place—he’d gotten the wrong address.  But squeezed between the bodies of the father and the woman in red, who every so often was taking out a book and pretending to read attentively, the soldier didn’t regret his mistake for a minute.  The businessman, on the other hand, suddenly turned toward the old man and his wife, saying that he’d never liked old people and almost never let them cross the street, when he was driving—he’d zoom right into the crosswalk and cut them off.

After they’d all purged their souls, they went silent again.  The painter dozed off, snoring loudly.  When they began to stir again, they noticed that the heat coming from the ventilation system had been replaced with cool air.  It was blowing steadily from above and now everyone started to put their clothes back on and lie closer to each other.  Some of them switched their seats, depending on their ability to tolerate the chill.  Some time later, you could hear a sort of chewing sound coming from one of the elevator’s corners, shortly followed by a loud smacking of lips.  Those who were closer to the old man and woman could see for themselves, and those who were farther away could simply sense that they were chewing candies without sharing.  The woman in red crawled closer to them and begged for some.  At first the old woman held tightly to her bag and wouldn’t give in.  she relented soon enough and opened the bag to give the woman a single piece of nicely wrapped candy.  This only served to reaffirm dislike of the old couple, especially given the way the doctor’s young daughter was staring with watery eyes at the woman eagerly munching her prize.

A new ray of hope emerged when the elevator restarted, moving down one floor.  And yet, they were all certain that—if, for some reason, the elevator resumed its travels—it should go up, not down.  Still, this development reassured them that their ordeal—which had lasted more than twenty-four hours—was nearing its end.  The well-dressed businessman and the tall historian jumped to their feet and again started to yell out to their invisible saviors and bang uselessly on the doors with the soles of their shoes.  This time no one complained.  This supposed glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel made them increasingly impatient.  For a while now, the painter had been scribbling caricatures of the various passengers on the smooth walls of the car, using a pencil he’d taken out of his pocket.   He claimed to be an artist, but, in fact, his drawings seemed more like imperfections being introduced onto the surface of the hitherto spotless elevator, which, until then, had been shining like a crown jewel.  But such purity was lost on the car’s current inhabitants, who were staring at the painter without complaining or criticizing his sketch.  The painter was scrawling from the floor to the ceiling, slowly turning their dungeon into a sort of scribbled whirlwind that they all felt they were being drawn into as time went by.  To them it seemed that these lines were the only thing expressing their situation—cold, hungry, thirsty, tired—forced to contend with all the fallacies that their current ambiguous state brought into relief.  It was because of this that the painter—who hadn’t said a word since beginning his drawing—became an object of renewed suspicion, since the passengers would have dearly liked to find someone to blame for their predicament.  Spitefully, though with curiosity as well, they began to question the bearded man.  The old woman accused him of stealing her misplaced glasses when she’d been unable to find them on the floor.  The historian, who’d previously blamed everything on the inevitability of history questioned the painter’s decision to keep the water bottle a secret for so long.  The old man concluded that only the painter seemed as though he’d been fully prepared for this incident.  The soldier, the woman in red, and the father and daughter all refused to take part in this new trial, only mumbling quietly on occasion, as if trying to douse this fire.  It was the father who eventually succeeded in calming everyone down and saying that it was useless to worry about who was responsible for the accident, and how it would make more sense to do so afterward, when they got out.  They realized he’d said “when” instead of “if.”  This was somehow the final blow.  Exhausted, they all gave up on the idea of being rescued.  The soldier and the woman in red were hugging each other; he was playing with her belly-button ring while she was tracing the tattoo on his left forearm.  The little girl finally calmed down and sat in her father’s lap, while the painter gave up on his drawings and dropped his blunt pencil onto somebody’s shoe, without checking whose.

The old man was exhaling into his wife’s hands to warm them up—the least he could do.  Although it was cold in then car, the man in the suit had already begun to make himself a bit too comfortable; he’d dropped his suit jacket onto the floor, loosened his tie, unbuckled his belt, and even taken off his expensive watch that he’d been staring at so often in the dusky elevator light.  Almost half naked, he then leaned back, stretched out across the elevator’s door like a gatekeeper.  They were all petrified, just waiting for this performance to end and the curtain to fall.

The following morning, the elevator finally moved up.  As if some mysterious crown wheel had finally loosened, the elevator car cut silently through a thick layer of air.  At first, the passengers who were awake—or were only half-sleeping—thought that they were imagining things, that they were hallucinating, and this meant they were on their last legs.  Soon enough they realized that they were actually moving, but they couldn’t decide if the elevator was simply moving up to the next floor, where they were initially supposed to stop, or of it was headed for the very top of the skyscraper, or perhaps it was about to drop down into an eternal abyss.  Regardless of what was happening—as the elevator rapidly accelerated—no one had any intention of detaching themselves from one another; their bodies were more or less glued to each together.  Likewise, they had no intention of preparing themselves to make their long-awaited reentry into the civilized world with dignity.  All they did was sit still, with no expectations at all, just sitting quietly and breathing heavily.

They only moved when the doors opened in front of them, but only to close their eyes, or cover them with whatever was at hand.  An emergency team jumped in, making sure everyone was okay.  The passengers clung to the elevator’s walls as if caught on fish hooks and grabbed onto each other’s arms, making it difficult for the emergency team to coax them out onto stretchers.  Even as they were exiting one by one, the paramedics couldn’t help but notice that the members of the now disbanded group were all trying to reach out to each other, perhaps waving weakly, as though to hoping to schedule their next meeting as they passed each other in the hallway.  Indeed, the presence of all these newcomers evoked a look of fear, uncertainty, and suspicion in the passenger’s eyes, as if the emergency crew had been sent with the express purpose of separating their little band from whatever invisible and mysterious feeling that their captivity had created, and which was now being taken away from them.

When there was no one left in the elevator, and the ambulance sirens could no longer be heard, a lady with various soaps and detergents, a rag, a scrub brush, and a bucket full of water walked into the empty car.  With her wet rag, she wiped away the thick, full lines of the drawings that covered the interior of the elevator.  Scrubbing away the painter, the soldier, the woman in the red dress, the doctor and his daughter, the historian, the old man and his wife, and, lastly, the man in the suit.