Shooting Deborah

I rise an hour earlier than most so that I can spend time playing with my long blond hair.  A hair stylist told me once that people paid good money for the sunny highlights that have naturally streaked into mine over the years.  There are times when I will stand for a good fifteen minutes before the mirror, deciding whether or not to wash my hair, or go for a more down-and-dirty tangle.  I think about who will be looking at me that day, the women I might chance to meet.  I spend another thirty minutes picking out my clothes.

Take a particular day a week ago.  I pulled on chocolate brown Dickies–the work pants you can get at Kaplan’s (although I do not shop there)–over narrow-cut boxers, then donned a wide black belt with a curved silver buckle, and a dark blue bowling shirt with off-white piping on the collar and pockets.  The name “Larry”  was embroidered on the left pocket flap, though my name, of course, is Alex Dunn.  Over the shir4t, I wore a vintage brown suede jacket with white stitching, lighter than the pants.  I deliberated on the pants for some time.  I had to make a presentation this day, so something besides sneakers was called for.  I settled on zipper dingo boots that were a faded brown with a metal loop on each ankle.  These I’d found in the back of my father’s closet after he dies.  They must have dated from the early seventies.  I put them on over dark blue socks with little planets and stars woven subtly into the stretch fabric.  Nobody but I would know about those, but detail is everything when you want to feel as good as you look.

Obviously, I am something of a modern dandy.  While there are times when I’m reluctant to admit that I’m a clotheshorse, for the most part I am not ashamed of this trait, for the simple fact is that I get laid more often on account of it.  I am an advertising man–that is. I am in advertising, and even here it is not unseemly for an advertising man to sport long hair and snappy togs, especially if he is the agency’s eccentric creative talent.

Of course, most advertising men in Minneapolis do not dress as I do, but affect a yuppie, frat-boy standard.  If they are particularly daring, you may find them sporting a denim button down or a loud tie.  They shop at Herbert H. White; I haunt the thrift stores, with which Minneapolis is copiously endowed.  As a matter of principle, I refuse to pay more than twenty dollars for a shirt or a pair of pants.  This requires a concomitant heroic diligence in shopping.  You may not realize the sacrifice that goes into looking the way I do, but it is there, underlying the look, nonetheless.  When a client is impressed with my creative dress, say, or when a woman in a restaurant gives me a long glance, neither realizes that they are admiring my moral commitment as much as my fashion sense.  Or so I like to think.

I like to think well of myself.  Why not?  I have made a place for myself, spun a cocoon on the south side of the city, where you will find a small slab of bohemian neighborhood.  I like to think well of myself and my life.  I get plenty of sex and I’m making money.  I support progressive causes; I buy art and go out to concerts.  I’ve been known to read a book that doesn’t have a hero as the main character.  The Baptist folk tell me that my existence is hollow, that I must get right with Lord Jesus Christ, that I must get a haircut.  But at work, I am, as they say, a team player with a can-do attitude, and they’ve made me a partner.  I went to Augsburg College.  It isn’t hard to play along.  It’s a running game against a passing game, after all.  I like to think that if Jesus came back today, he would have a beer with me at Paulie’s.  He would Appreciate the look I was going for on that particular day.

Paulie’s is the bar we’ve all been hanging out at since college.  It’s basically an old service station into which Charlie Morrow put a beer cooler, tables, and a jukebox.  There is neon in the windows, but the only sign outside is an unlit piece of metal on a pole that says “Beverages.”  Nobody has any idea why we call it Paulie’s.

On the day I wore my brown suede jacket, I met Brent and Teri at Paulie’s after work.  I’ve known them both since my freshman year.  Brent (he’s short and skinny, with a preternaturally youthful appearance, and he doesn’t look like a Brent) is an overdue loan collector for First National Bank.  The only bank in Minneapolis with no listed telephone number.  Brent lives in a bare apartment in the suburbs.  He doesn’t like his job and he doesn’t have very many friends.  In a way, I feel sorry for him.  But in another way, being around him fills me with relief at how far I’ve come from the shy social enigma I was just out of high school.  Brent is constantly on the make.  As with some men, women are for him objects of desire and loathing, but always, always, objects.  He is on a testosterone high that hasn’t abated in the fifteen years I’ve known him.  It is a wonder that the vertebrae in his neck haven’t ground themselves away from such constant head jerking to look at legs, breasts, shoulders.  Brent is not exactly the master of the sidelong glance.

He was the first to show up, and he joined me at our usual booth with his usual nervous handshake.  I have no idea why he felt it was necessary to shake hands every time we met.  I knew he wasn’t really comfortable touching anyone.  Over the years and after one bender or another, I’d wound up at his place of an evening and the elaborate precautions he took in the morning not to be seen, to cover up, were amusing.  He closed–and locked–the bathroom door.  His big robe nearly swallowed him.  For a time I toyed with the idea that he was gay and in denial, but what was up with Brent went deeper than that.  The man was fundamentally uncomfortable being in the world.  There was always a moment when it appeared that Brent was deciding–wholly unconsciously–whether it would be more appropriate to hit you or shake your hand.  What am I suppose to do? You imagined his brain shouting.  We’ve got a situation here!

“Did you see that one over in the corner?” Brent said as he sat down across from me.  “Those are some nice tits!”

“No.  She came in after me.”  of course, I had noticed the woman he was talking about–we’d exchanged glances when I’d come in–but to begin a discussion about her breasts . . . with Brent, that way lay madness.

“She can’t be twenty-five.  Probably in college.  She’s got one of those nose piercing.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“All in black.  You like those gothic girls, right?  You sure you don’t want some of it tonight?  How long’s it been since Pamara moved to Texas?”

“Two months.  We weren’t really together, you know.”

He looked over my shoulder at the woman.  “This one’s fine.  Jet black hair.  White skin.  Probably soft as a lily.”

“Jailbait,” I said.

“I thought you hadn’t seen her?” Brent sat back and grinned.

“I’m just going by your description.”

Fortunately, Charlie arrived with a beer for Brent and a whiskey sour for me.

“T coming?”

“She said she was.”

“Good, because I could use a little Deb tonight.”

“Me, too.”

Brent took a pull on his beer.  “What about them Vikes?” he said.  “Think the cheeseheads gonna whoop up on them?”

This must have been a carry-over from work, because Brent knew how little I cared about football.  I gazed off into the smoke of the bar.  “It’s a running game against a passing game,” I replied.

Teri came in in her hospital greens.  Yet, even wearing such a sexless get-up, T managed to give off an air of dominating passion, of out-and-out lust.  I imagined her tall, slender form passing through the corridors of the hospital where she worked.  Terminally ill patients turning their heads for a last, longing look at the desire they could no longer feel because of the pain and dope.

T was a nurse practitioner at HCMC where her specialty was neurological medicine.  She managed the head and spinal-trauma cases.

T sat down beside me.  She always sat beside me in the booth.  I suspect this was because Brent had groped her once or twice fore all the good it would ever do him with T.  she was bi, even poly-sexual, but none of her twists and turns included a kink for Brent.

“Techmed pumps are in,” was the first thing T said.

“You are so out of it, girl,” I said.  “Those were the rage in Paris four months ago.  We’ve moved on since then.”

T cracked a smile.  That’s what T always did.  Tight-lipped.  You had to look carefully at her when she talked if you wished to find out whether or not T had teeth.  “Implantable drug pumps for continuous dosing.  They go in just under the shoulder blade.  The new ones came in today.  We’re going to put one in a Parkinson’s patient tomorrow.”

“What’s in it?”  Charlie asked, setting T’s beer-a-porter on the table.

“Muscle relaxant in that one.  You can put anything in them.  Morphine for pain control is what’s in a lot of them these days.  You inject a couple of month’s worth through the skin and into the pump reservoir.”

Brent coughed-laughed, cleared his throat.  “Did you see that one when you came in?” he asked her.

T frowned at the interruption.  “The curvy one?”

“That’s what I mean.  Alex says jailbait.”

T languidly turned and looked at the woman.  What in Brent would be nigh on stalking behavior was sexy as hell when T did it.  “Oh, I don’t know,” T said.  “She’s okay.”

Well, scratch that one for me tonight, I thought.  She’s liable to think we’re all looking to cook and eat her by this point.  But, in any case, I had other plans for the evening.

“Sort of like Deborah,” T said, turning back around.  “The eyes, I mean.”

“Not really,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”

Brent pointed his beer bottle at me.  “You are looking?”

“Speaking of which, I’d just as soon go ahead now.  Unless either of you have another plan.”

“Let’s,” Brent said.

“All right.”  I downed the remainder of my drink and stood up.  “Let’s tell Charlie and go in back.”

Charlie saw where we were headed and nodded to me.  We crowded into the small back room at Paulie’s and T flinted on the little propane torch that Charlie kept back there for odd jobs–and for us.

We all stood around the tiny flame as if it were a campfire.  For an early autumn evening, it had gotten chilly in the bare concrete room.

Then Charlie came in with the black film canister where we kept a year’s supply of Deborah.

Of course Charlie had no idea what was in the canister.  Or what was in the Maxwell House coffee can we asked to place in his safe those many years ago.  That was why he was the perfect keeper, the perfect dealer.  None of us–me, Brent, T–would have trusted the others with Deborah.  And we were right not to.  I have no idea what Charlie thought was in there.  He never asked about it, even when he was at his most garrulous.  After T took the canister from him, he left us to our own devices.

T took a bent spoon from her handbag and set it up on the room’s plain wood table.  She shook a few crystals–about a salt packet’s worth– from the powder in the container into the bowl of the spoon.  She moistened the crystals with saline from a syringe, the carefully held propane torch close to the metal.  With the finest flickering motion, T heated the metal until the brown-black crystals began to dissolve in the saline.  As always, she heated it until the saline just started to boil, then backed off.  She was very good at this.  It was T who first came up with the idea of the injections.

Time.  Quickly, she filled three syringes with the liquid from the spoon, handing one to Brent, one to me, and taking one for herself.

Brent and I had already popped veins up in the bend of our elbows.  I turned from the others, faced a gray wall.  I looked at what was in my hand.

Deborah was in my hand.  My first and only true love.  I took a breath.  Prepared.

“Damn it!” said Brent.  “I can’t hit the fucking vein.”  I did not look back at him.  “Ouch–shit!  T, can you–?”

“All right,” T said.  I waited.  “There now,” she finally said.  “How’s that?”

“Fucking marvelous,” Brent replied.  “Fucking . . . “  And then he was lost to it, in her.  She was there for him.  She would soon be there for me.

I looked down at the bare white of my arm.  My suede jacket was lying in the corner.  My shirt was short-sleeved.  My vein was very, very blue.  With a quick thrust, I slid the needle through the skin, into the wall of the blood vessel.  My thumb came down on the plunger with the same motion.  Smooth and easy.  I’d learned to do this well.

Deborah flowed into my blood and bones.

I breathed out, long; breathed in deeply.  I looked up at the light bulb hanging on a black cord from the ceiling.  Light, pure white.  Pure white, but softening.  As soft as the sun through Minnesota rain.  The sun through the rain, scintillating now to the prismatic, to prism blues.

And she was there.  Like the colors of light inside me.

I couldn’t see her.  I would never see her again.  It was her presence I felt, more than anything.  The way it felt to be around her, to breathe her in.  to touch and be touched by her, by my old lover, Deborah Garret.  Her fingernails on my skin, as she ran the back of her hand across my cheek.

“Alex.”

“Hmmm?”

“Alex, it’s T.”

“Yes.  What?”

“Brent is totally gone.”

“He always does.  He always does.”

“I want to go with her.”

“Then go.  Go with her, T.”

“Let’s call Charlie.”

“Okay.”  I rapped on the door three times.  After a moment, Charlie came in and took the film canister away.  Just us now.  The three of us.  And the night to spend with Deborah.

I gazed around the room.  Brent was in a corner, slumped on my jacket.  His eyes were closed and his eyeballs twitched underneath his lids.

“I think Brent will stay here tonight,” I said.  “Charlie’ll look after him.”

T nodded.  “I . . . do you mind if I come to your place tonight?” she asked me.  “Kristin is staying at the house this week.”

“Come home with me then,” I said.  “But let’s take two cars.”

“All right.”

I looked at T.  Tears were forming in her eyes.  Tears ran down her face.  “Deb,” she said.  “Oh, Deb.”  But she wasn’t talking to me.

“Are you okay to drive?”

T wiped her nose, sniffed.  “I’ll be all right.  Let’s go.”

I pulled my jacket out from under Brent.  He toppled over, lay on his side, but didn’t seem to notice.  On my way out, I passed the woman he and T had been looking at.  She wasn’t really very special.  Nothing special at all when compared to Deborah.

Driving the streets of Minneapolis with Deborah inside me.  Her fingers on my skin from the inside, caressing, touching me in places no other woman has, where no woman can.  Every wait at a traffic light is an eternity of longing.  But an eternity I can endure, use to gather strength within,  streetlights of the Southside, the colors of a dark rainbow.  We’d driven this way so many times together.  Up Hennepin, up Lake Street, toward the lakes.  Minneapolis, City of Lakes.

By Calhoun, by her dark waters shimmering in the night, where Deborah and I went to be alone, back when we both lived in the dorms.  Back when we’d first fallen in love and couldn’t get enough of each other.  I could never get enough of her back then.

I parked and walked to my apartment.  T was already there, waiting for me at the outside door, although she’d had a key for many years.  We climbed up the three flights of stairs in silence, each lost in our separate thoughts.  But together, too.

I put T on the futon, and I sank into my big chair.  I turned to face the window, to face out over the lights of the city.  Finally, I gave myself completely to Deborah.  I gave myself to the memories coursing through my blood.

 

Alex, where are you?

Here.

Where?

Minneapolis.

I thought.  I thought you were going to leave.  Go to Chicago.  Go to New York.  What about your play?

My what?  Oh.  You can’t have old manuscripts in your bottom drawer if you want to make partner.  I don’t want to talk about that, Deb.

Okay.  I love you.

I love you, too.

You were so intense.  We  were so intense.  Everything mattered so much to you!  God, I would come just thinking of you, all bunched up inside like that, ready to explode.  You were going to take off like the fireworks, baby.  Remember the fireworks on the Fourth?  Sitting by the lake watching them and they were right on top of us, like we were making love in them, like we were one with them.

Yes.  Yes.

All of us.  Me, you, T, and Brent.  Did y’all ever get a place together in New Orleans like we talked about?

We got a place here.

Oh.  Was it nice?

For a while.

Oh.

You weren’t there.  It wasn’t.  It didn’t.   Work out.

I wasn’t there?

No.

Alex?

Yes?

How did I die?  I can remember everything but that.

 

The blue sadness was as delicious as the rapture.  I’d found that out over the years.  That was why I always let her ramble on.  Why I always let her ask that question.  And I could answer.  I could answer if I wanted to, because she’d never remember the answers the next time.

She was always and forever twenty-two years old.  Ghost in my blood.  How could we have done this to her?  How could I have done this to her?

It was easy, really.

I was the theater major, and it was I who had done the research on ritual magic, ritual murder.  For my play, of course.  It was to be a mock renaissance drama.  I was going to out-Marlowe Marlowe, by heaven and hell.  A postmodern Faust, where the good doctor wins.

The weird kids, the freak kids, get very close in small colleges.  We come from small towns, from hick neighborhoods in the city, and no one has ever been like us before.  All we knew were up-tight snobs playing at being somebody.  Nobody like us.  Until we go off to school.  And there they are: our kind.  My kind.  It was such a relief.  I cannot tell you.  There were other people like me!

The artist.  Oh, Brent was a male chauvinist pig, but he was a pig with a genius for paint.  A demon who has stared down into himself and found his own hell, and come back with a picture of it to show around to his friends.  Brent used to paint like a fallen angel.  I still had some of his work in my apartment.,

t, whose life was a work in progress, whose brush was her sex, the living organ of her skin.  What a rare and beautiful thing to bring forth out of the North!  She wanted to be a nurse so she  could be around bodies.  Beautiful bodies in all their lovely and hideous forms.

t, who had drawn us all together in a tight knot of intimacy and desire.  A tight knot whose name was Deborah.

T, who worked part-time at a crematorium.

And Deborah.  Deb, who sang.  Who sang us dark lullabies after we made love.  T and me.  Brent and Deb. T and Deb.  Then Deb and me.  She was my girlfriend, after all.

Deb, whose voice was as chilly as a night wind, and as lovely.

Maybe we’d all gotten a little too close.  We were all terrified that we would end up back where we came from, back in the ‘burbs and small towns where they’d look at us funny for wanting.  Not wanting something more.  Not really.  Just something else.

There is no good and bad.  There is only the ugly and the beautiful.

We wanted beautiful lives.  And that was all it took to earn people’s distrust.  Their hatred.

We had thought we were working a magic against the possibility of return.  One of us would give himself for the others, so that horror would never come about.  So that the others would get what it was they most wanted.  Never to go back.  One of us would give herself.

 We loved each other so much.

We took up kitchen knives in our right hands and drew straws with our left.  Well, except for Brent, who is left-handed.

And the magic worked.

Look at us now, fifteen years later.  The magic worked, and we never had to go home again.

 

The next morning, I woke and found T making me breakfast.  She was scrambling the eggs, with pickle, pepper, onion, and ham, just as she knew I liked them.  I sat down at my kitchen table, rubbed my eyes.  The hangovers could be bad, but so far this one was only mild.  A mild and sweet blue in my heart.  It might have matched my shirt.

“My shift doesn’t start until eleven today,” she said.  “So I thought I’d get you going.”

She poured me coffee in a tea cup and set it down on the blond wood of the tabletop.

“Thanks.”

“You all right?”

“I guess.  Yes, I’m fine.”

“Me too.”

The eggs were soon ready, and T sat down across from me with her own cup of coffee.  She put the slightest touch of milk in hers.

“How’s Kristin?” I asked.

“Fine, I guess.”  She sipped and swallowed.  “I think we’re breaking up.”

“What?  Oh, that’s too bad.  Why?”

“I come home and there’s just . . . nothing.  It’s like we’re both waiting for the other to say something.  Only I don’t know what it could be.”

“Do you fuck?”

T smiled, tight as usual.  “Not much,” she said.

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah.  Listen, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.  Away from Brent.  I know he would go for it.”

“Go for what?”

“Remember those pumps I was telling you about?”

“The drug pumps?”

“The implantable pumps, yes.  They’re very safe these days.  Almost routine.  As a matter of fact, I have one.”

“You have one?”

“Yeah.  I got one of the docs to put it in when I had my eye surgery.  For pain control.  It’s very efficient and effective.  Better than any nurse.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Listen.  We could.  You could get one.”

“Get one?”  I swallowed my coffee, choked back a cough.  I set my cup down.  “For Deborah, you mean?”

“We could divide her up fairly then.  For continuous dosage.  No more sleazy back room at Paulie’s.  We could charge it up for six months at a time.  The technology is not at all experimental any more.  It’s practically routine.”

I couldn’t reply to this.  I sat there and absentmindedly finished my coffee.  Deborah.  All the time, a bit of Deborah trickling into me.

T’s touch on my hand brought me out of my reverie.

“There’s another thing I wanted to ask,” she said.  She sighed, touched my cheek.  What was she doing?  “I’m lonely, Alex.  Kristin is so far away, and I’m lonely.  Sometimes I think we missed something along the way, you and I.  there was something there and we weren’t paying attention to it.  Do you think . . . before you go to work . . . do you think we could . . . be together?  For old time’s sake?”

What was she doing?

“Oh, Christ, T,” I said.  “It’s pretty late.  I have to get dressed.  I have a presentation.”

 

Today I am up at six so I can wash my hair.  Deborah always liked it freshly washed.  The grungy look came in long after she had passed on.  I examine my pretty blond locks in the mirror, and I see Deborah smiling through my eyes.

T was right.  The implanting took all of half an hour.  She performed the operation herself, in an unused examining room at the HCMC medical complex.  Brent first, then me.  Snipped us open and taped us shut, and that was it.  I was already healing.  Maybe the incision wouldn’t even scar up.  But it was on my back, so I would never see it in the mirror.  Nothing to worry about.  T is blindingly efficient.

Now we only have to meet every six months.  No more sleazy back room at Paulie’s.  no more Paulie’s, really. Because I have to admit there was only one reason I ever went there anymore.  I think the others felt the same way, too.  Underneath it all.

Big fat corduroy is in, and today I’m wearing a beige shirt over slouchy black pants, suitable for bowling.  What a hoot; I haven’t been bowling in years.  I like to think well of myself.  Why not?  I’m going to dare the fashion gods, I decide, and I pull a corduroy jacket over my shirt.  It’s a running game against a passing game.

The effect works.  Surprisingly well.  I am a wizard, a goddamn wizard of texture.

“You are a wizard of texture,” I say to my reflection.

 

Do you remember how long we used to take getting ready to go out?

Hours, sometimes.

It was like getting ready was more important than whatever it was we were going to do. We’d pass windows and look at ourselves walking by.

Silly.

We were just kids.

I’m not a kid.  I’m twenty-two.  I’m not a kid anymore.

No.  you’re a woman, my love.

A woman.  That’s better.

 

I sit down on the futon and lace up my shoes–black Converse All Stars.  Oxford cut, not ankle highs.

 

Alex?

Hmm?

I know I must have asked you this before, but io keep forgetting.

That’s okay.  That’s okay, my love.

How did I die?

Alex?

 

I like the color of the gulf of Mexico.  It is a pleasant blue-green.  And warm.  It is like swimming in your own body, your own blood.  We all went to New Orleans for spring break of our senior year, and Deborah and I drove over to Biloxi and we lay out on those bone-white beaches, and we swam under those heavy, humid Southern skies.  And we made love in the sandy night.

And after two days, we went back to New Orleans and found Brent and T, and we were all so excited we couldn’t get enough of it all, of the city, of everything all at once, everything happening all at once.  So we walked the streets of the French Quarter, and we looked at the tangle of iron and masonry, and we all said how wonderful it was, how exquisite and beautiful, and we were all going to move here together, live here together, and it will be a life like nobody has ever had before.  Everything will be amazing, exquisite, and beautiful.  And we are all going to live in beautiful, beautiful New Orleans and go swimming in the sea.

 

So we remained in Minnesota?  So we live as we do live?  The world is still beautiful, only it’s more beautiful on the inside than the out–at least mine is.  I don’t fell that I’ve betrayed anything, not really.  Deborah’s sacrifice wasn’t meaningless.  And she is still alive, still alive, in my living body.  It’s a peculiar kind of live–but then so is mine.

It’s not bad for either of us.  We are always young, always together, and always committed to intensity and passion.  What better way is there to live?  This is how I will honor my past.  This is what I will do with the time that remains.  It is a peculiar kind of live–but then so is yours.  So is everyone’s on the inside of the skin, in the coursing of the blood.

 

How did I die?

Alex?

Alex?

 

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Securing the Loose Paw

Now and then, throughout my life, I have been called upon to give a dog a pill.

Here is what happens.  I open the dog’s mouth.  I shove the pill back as far as it will go.  I close the dog’s mouth.  I wait a decent interval.  I release the dog’s snout.  Life goes on.

The dog looks at me gratefully, as if to say, “What was that?  It was for my own good, wasn’t it?  Yes, sir, you wouldn’t do it if it weren’t.  I appreciate your taking the time.”

Leaves me feeling like James Herriot, this does.

I am always a little astonished at the ease of the operation because I know cats harbor an entirely different attitude toward pill-taking.  A cat regards the administering of medicine as a situation in which it may fling aside whatever social restraints it has adopted over the years and try, fang and claw, to destroy you.

“I may be sick unto death,” the cat says, “but if I go, I’m taking you with me.”

  Forget about sneaking the pill into the cat’s food.  You could serve the cat an entire ground ox with a tiny minced pill stirred in, and when you returned to your kitchen later, the ox would be gone.  Strewn across the floor, however, there would be particles, which, if assembled, would constitute one perfect streptomycin tablet.

Forget about gratitude too.  Most cats, like Mildred in Of Human Bondage, accept hovering attentions with a kind of vaguely understood resentment.  You could drive your dogsled across the frozen tundra for four sleepless days and nights, pick up the penicillin in Nome, drive your dogsled back, and the cat would use the last measure of his ebbing life force to open up your leg–down to the shinbone.

As a boy, my grandparents had a cat named Tyler who was particularly adamant in his opposition to pills.  I can remember one terribly worrisome night when my grandfather and I tried to administer medication to him.  I don’t know how he succeeded in involving me in the project.  I never used to like cats and always insisted on not knowing their names.  I addressed them and referred to them strictly by their colors:  “Hello, brown cat,” or “I saw the gray-and-white cat devouring a toad near the driveway.”

I also don’t remember what was wrong with Tyler.  It was not a syndrome which produced lethargy.  Tyler scored heavy on us in the early rounds.  Any decent ref would have stopped the fight.

From time to time, Tyler would make a noise worthy of Linda Blair and the pill would fly from our midst and skitter across the floor into a dark corner.

In desperation, we called our vet, but he was out.  His calls were being handled by another vet, who was, unfortunately, out of his mind.  “Wrap kitty up in a blanket so that kitty’s little head is sticking out,” he said in a prissy voice.

Once we had kitty bundled up thusly, we should open his little mouth and toss the pill down his little throat, advised the vet.

We decided to try it.  My grandfather and I wrapped Tyler tighter than Tut (during which process we lost only about a cup and a half of blood between us–quite cheap by Transylvanian standards).  As we tried to get the pill into his mouth, Tyler began to writhe in a manner reminiscent of Houdini.

“I think one of kitty’s little paws is about to get loose,” I told my grandfather, just as said paw appeared out of one of the folds and began swiping around like a scorpion’s tail.

There are two things you can do in a situation like that.  One is to move briskly and decisively, while you hold a putative advantage, to secure the loose paw and then complete the job as efficiently as possible.  The second thing is to decide immediately that you are going to throw the whole kit and caboodle in one direction and then run like hell in the other.

My grandfather and I did neither.  Tapes analyzed subsequently by the Public Safety Administration revealed that we fumbled equivocally for a few critical seconds until, somehow, the total Tyler had emerged, with a full arsenal of sharp points.  My grandfather and I will be forgiven for believing that the antichrist had arrived on Earth.  His vengeance was terrible and swift.

The following day, my grandfather and I trudge into the vet’s office carrying a basket which we had covered with a sheet of plywood.  We wore thick gauntlets on our hands and hollow stares on our faces.  The basket emitted a low, guttural sound which was not of this earth.

“What . . . what have you got in there?” asked the vet, with the air of a man who wonders if he is licensed (or even inclined) to treat Tasmanian devils.

“A cat,” said my grandfather and I, with the air of men who have returned from the front after seeing horrors to which no words could possibly do justice.

I honestly don’t remember what the vet decided to do.  It seems possible that he determined that my grandfather and I needed pills a lot more than the cat did at that point.

I have a friend that lived in a small apartment with her cat named Daniel.  He would sleep around her neck at night and they ate tuna and Cheez-its out of the same container.  She said it was that kind of relationship.  (I think we can safely lump “that kind of relationship” and going overboard into the same general category.)

She later found out that he would go to parties on the floor below and drink beer, inhale marijuana fumes, and eat potato chips.

Now, Janet started dating a guy named Paul.  Daniel did not hide his feelings about Paul.  If Paul sat on Janet’s bed, which doubled as a couch, Daniel would insinuate himself under the covers of the bed and burrow, mole-like towards Paul.  We have already determined that Daniel Had a substance abuse problem, so it is possible that he thought he couldn’t be seen.  When he arrived at Paul’s body, he would bite up through the bedspread and into Paul’s flesh.  I swear this is true, and if you’re interested in the made-for-TV rights, give me a call.

Whenever Paul showed signs of leaving the apartment, Daniel would race to the door to show him out.  When Paul went to the door, Daniel would run down the hall ahead of him and down the stairs, ushering, ushering, until Paul was out.  Then the cat would get up on his hind legs and peer out the window, savoring Paul’s departure.

Paul was no warmonger.  He extended olive branches to Daniel, but what is a cat going to do with an olive branch?  Even when Paul and Janet got married and moved to a new apartment, Daniel’s hate burned ever bright.  Like many a guerilla before him, Daniel hoped to whittle away at the enemy’s confidence and eventually drive him off the homeland.

It is somehow not surprising that Paul suddenly began to exhibit terrible respiratory problems, which were diagnosed as an allergy to guess what?  Janet was suddenly transformed into a woman whose fortunes were no less problematical than, let’s say, Roxanne’s.  She searched her soul and Paul’s sinuses (figuratively) and decided to give Daniel to her mother.

Grief torn and, let us not forget, cut off cold turkey from marijuana and beer, Daniel threw himself under the wheels of a car.  Paul and Janet were divorced four months later.  She could never forgive Paul’s sinuses, who she blamed for Daniel’s demise.

I know that somewhere, in that great kamikaze heaven in the sky, Daniel is probably smiling down today, knowing that, in the end, he won.

 

THE ENTIRE WORLD

Liz Watkins sits knitting furiously behind the wheel of her parked rental sedan while a tedious patter of autumn rain pummels the slick gray streets of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Intermittently she looks up from the flashing aluminum needles to glance toward the dripping Foshay Tower, a building once the tallest for miles where her current lover is employed.

Lover.  a sweet tingle spreads through her chest, making her vaguely sick with its intensity.  Mitchell.

Liz’s fingers tremble at the thought of him, and she has to put her knitting down before she botches the intricate cable pattern of the sweater she is making for her sister’s child, Wendy.  Liz is childless, and knows that a niece is as close as she will ever come to maternity.  She adores children and tries her best not to be jealous and bitter: truly, she does try.

Liz turns her thoughts back to her lover, her beautiful Mitchell, and wonders what kind of child they might have produced together.  A son, she imagines.  A tall, rugged boy with wavy dark hair and a strong jaw line, like his father.  Blue velvet, quick smile.  Mitchell’s features, not hers.  Never hers.

Liz would not want a child like herself, no.  not a child who would be teased and ridiculed, shunned by other children.  No, no, no.  she knows what that is like.  In her bones, she knows what that’s like.

She squints through the lenses of her thick trifocal glasses at the large black numerals of her Timex wristwatch.  Almost noon.  Almost time for her tryst, her assignation, her affaire.  Within minutes Mitchell will emerge from the revolving doors across the street and she be with him.  In just a little while, she will become his entire world.

Liz picks up her knitting and sets the needles chattering again, letting the pale beige wool skein out across her nimble fingers, wondering why it is that doomed romances are the most sublime.  Here relationship with Mitchell has been like a piecrust from the beginning, made to be broken.  Mitchell has a wife and three small children.  Married.  Liz lets the word surge and ebb through her mind and wonders at the complexities besetting a secretly passionate nature such as her own.  To date, all of Liz’s romances have involved married men exclusively.

She sighs, working a complicated turn of stitches that will form a cabled buttonhole when the next row is finished.  Why married men?  Is there some malfunction of her spirit, some wicked anomaly in her make-up that draws her toward forbidden delights?

Her colorless cheeks twitch with sudden mirth.  Wouldn’t the rest of the faculty at Emerson Elementary School gasp with shock and disbelief if they knew how dowdy little Liz Watson spends her lunch hours?  Dizzy Lizzy.  That’s what they call her behind her back.  That’s what everyone has always called her for as long as she can remember.  Dizzy Lizzy.  Poor Dizzy Lizzy, can’t get a man, poor old spinster Dizzy Lizzy, ha, ha.  Wouldn’t bed her, wouldn’t wed her, plain old Dizzy Lizzy.

How Liz burns to tell them, all those symmetrical faces painted up like common whores, high-heeled sluts who think their wedding bands give them license to feel superior, to pity poor little Liz Watkins.  Click-clack, click-clack, strolling the school hallways, their conversations muting to whispers as they pass Liz’s classroom.  Flitting glances inside and quickly looking away, never inviting Liz to join them in the teacher’s lounge, never offering to include her in their impromptu faculty planning meetings.

If only they could imagine what passions stir in Liz’s soul, what elaborate hungers beset her, drive her.  If only they could know what illicit acts she is capable of performing to experience those blissful five seconds she craves so much.

One, two, three, four, five.

Liz’s heart hammers against the delicate bulwark of her breastbone just thinking about it.  It’s been too long, too long, and now her desire has become a raging hunger that demands satisfaction.  Now.

The slender shafts of Liz’s knitting needles become a blur of motion and her breasts rise and fall, her breath quickening with the increased tempo of her heartbeats.  Again, she twists her head toward the Foshay Tower.  Men and women dressed in suits and coats have begun to stream out through the twin revolving doors and into the ebbing rainfall, popping open umbrellas or sheltering under newspapers as they take to the wet sidewalks.

Where is Mitchell?  Liz squints through the misty window glass, blinking.  He’s usually one of the first to exit, dark head bobbing as he strides along, chest forward, chin aloft.

Liz’s thighs tremble as memories of their first meeting drift past her mind’s eye.  It was just three weeks ago, that Mitchell Revell came to Liz’s classroom for a routine parent-teacher confrence about his son, Ward.  The moment Mitchell entered the room and sat down in the chair opposite her desk, Liz knew they were going to be lovers, that Mitchell would be the next married man to slake her forbidden thirsts.  Her entire being had vibrated like a high-tension wire during their initial meeting.  She hardly remembers what was discussed.  By the time their conference ended, Liz was already in love with Mitchell.  She’d seen it in his velvet eyes.  Soon, very soon, she would become his entire world.

It always happens like that.  A word, a look, and she knows.

And now Mitchell is her lover.  How many others have there been?  Thirty?  Forty?  The numbers blur with time, their faces growing indistinct once the trysts have been consummated and the affairs are over.

Liz giggles.  How mischievous I’ve been, she thinks, both frightened and amused by her wholesale promiscuity.  What would Daddy have thought?

Whore.

The word stabs into her consciousness, hurting, making her flinch.  The voice that says the word is not her own.  The voice adds: The ones that like it are whores.

Liz’s knitting needles click in precision machine-gun bursts.  I am not a whore, Daddy!  I’m not.  I’m not!

The ones that like it are whores.

I don’t like it!  Stop, Daddy, please stop!  You’re hurting me!

Liz tries to push out the images crowding into her mind, but her efforts are useless, always useless when Daddy decides to batter his way into her head the way he used to batter his way into her body.

Liz drops her knitting into her lap.  “Stop!” she shouts, ripping a handful of hair from hjer scalp.  “Go away, don’t touch me!”

But Daddy won’t go away.  Daddy won’t ever go away completely.  He always comes back.  Even from his grave, he is still able to violate her mind whenever he pleases.

Liz begins to cry.  “No, no, no,” she burbles wetly.

Liz knows it is useless to beg.  It never stops him.  The scenes unwind, unstoppable.

Liz is fourteen years old, asleep in her bed.  She is awakened by the weight of a hot, heavy body crushing hers down into the mattress.  It’s daddy.  He’s been drinking again.  He always comes to her when he’s been drinking.  He fumbles with her nightgown, pulling it up over her face.  He kisses her mouth through the thin shroud of cotton fabric.

“You’re my whole world now,” he mumbles drunkenly, sobbing.  “Now that your mama’s run off, you’re my entire world.”

“No, Daddy, please,” Liz begs, knowing it’s useless to plead.  “It hurts, Daddy.  I don’t like it.”

“The ones that like it are whores,” he grunts.

Liz clamps her eyes shut and bites down on her tongue, trying to bear the pain.  She swore she wouldn’t let it happen again.  She made herself a promise to make it stop.  But now she is afraid to act.

Liz forces the fear back, making her hand slide beneath the mattress where she’s hidden a long, slender Phillips screwdriver.  Her fingers close around its cool plastic handle.

She hesitates, terrified by what she’s about to do.

“You’re my whole world, my entire world, my whole world,” Daddy grunts, hurting her, hurting her.

A black tower of rage rises up in Liz, taking control of her, directing her actions.  Her hand rises, dreamlike, a silvery gleam of moonlight on the screwdriver’s metal shaft, gauzy through the fabric of her nightgown.  And then– .

Liz’s head falls forward against the dashboard as the vision releases her.  It always ends at the same moment.  She has never been able to recall the rest of it, although the therapists forced her to say she remembered before they allowed her to leave the hospital and go live with her aunt Elaine.  All she has ever been able to recall is the anger and the shame.  And counting.

One, two, three, four, five.

Liz rests against the dash for several moments, gasping for breath, trembling.

Suddenly she remembers where she is and why: Mitchell.

She jerks her back straight and sits up in the passenger seat, rubbing a clear circle into the misty glass with her quaking fingers.  It has stopped raining and the sidewalk outside the Foshay Tower throngs with lunchtime office workers.

A rattling moan rasps in Liz’s parched throat.  What if  she’s missed him?  What if he’s already gone?

“No,” she groans, gathering up her knitting and stuffing it into her handbag.  She can’t bear the idea of missing this meeting with Mitchell.  Liz needs him too much.  She needs to be Mitchell’s whole world, if only for a few stolen moments.

Shaking with mingled desire and terror, Liz steps out of her car, her sensible lace-up shoes touching wet pavement just as she catches sight of Mitchell pushing through the revolving door.

Liz’s breath snags in her throat at the sight of him, so tall and strong and handsome.  Quickly she works her way through halted traffic jamming the street, never letting her lover out of her sight.  Breathless and shivery as a schoolgirl, Liz watches Mitchell’s figure as it moves through the crowd.  She angles recklessly between the streams of cars and trucks to place herself on the sidewalk just ahead of him as he heads down Marquette.  He will be surprised to see her.  She is going to be his whole world.  

She centers herself on the sidewalk, waiting, just able to see the crown of Mitchell’s dark head bobbing up and down as he heads in her direction.  Soon, soon.  

Liz stands still, letting oncoming pedestrians stream around her, knowing they won’t notice the mousy little woman in their midst.  Nobody will notice her but Mitchell, and that is just as she wishes it.  

 The moment has arrived.  As Mitchell surges toward her, Liz shifts to her left and positions herself directly in his path.  

He stops, looking down at her with blue velvet eyes.

“Hello,” Liz says breathlessly, smiling.

  “Hi, there,” Mitchell returns, studying her with a quizzical smile as if straining to remember something.  His smile deepens, a flicker of recognition.  “You’re Ward’s teacher, aren’t you?”

“I’m your whole world,” Liz whispers.

He leans toward Liz.  “I beg your par–”

Liz does not even give Mitchell time to finish the thought.  With a quicksilver movement, she plunges a glistening needle into the tender tissue of Mitchell’s brain with one deft thrust into his right nostril.  Just as quickly, she replaces the instrument in her handbag.

Mitchell sways slightly on the pavement before her, still standing, a thin trickle of blood coursing down his chin, blue velvet eyes wide in a silent shriek that consumes Liz entirely, body and soul.

Liz has become Mitchell’s entire world.

Mitchell staggers forward a step, placing a hand on Liz’s shoulder to steady his failing legs.  And then he falls, crumpling down onto the sidewalk, his eyes never leaving hers.

As she watches Mitchell’s final spasms, a volcanic orgasm wracks her body, coming in a shock wave that roots her to the pavement, paralyzing her for the full count.

One, two, three, four, five.

And then it’s over.

Liz turns way from her lover’s lifeless body and passes through the gathering crowd of spectators like a ghost, transparent and unnoticed.  As she wends her way across the street toward her rented car, she hears the first shouts of comprehension.  A shrill scream.  Someone is calling for an ambulance.

Liz eases the car out into traffic and drives away.  She glances at her watch and smiles, realizing she’ll have time to stop at the bakery for cupcakes on her way back to school.

Won’t the children be surprised?

 

 

 

 

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.