Keith Perkins – The Graveyard Man

Keith Perkins
The Graveyard Man

It is a misty November morning and Danny Brennan has already consumed two shots of Irish whiskey. He approaches four graves in the centre of the Kilcrohane Burial Ground to begin his day’s work and is attired in sturdy, knee-length mud boots and a hooded raincoat. His sole adornment is a large plastic bucket with assorted tools. The cap on his whiskey flask peeks out from one of his pockets.

His first grave of the morning bears the name ‘addy O’Mara’. On tender, aching knees and with arthritic hands, he begins by scraping and brushing the moss and dirt to allow the ‘P’ to gain its rightful place. Wilted flowers still bathe Paddy’s tomb in a carpet of muted reds, yellows, and blues. The small plot has only just begun to sprout grass. It was a brief illness. The few dozen family and friends who attended his recent internment spoke of a warm, vibrant, and loyal family man. His widow Mary chose the epitaph now etched on his freshly-restored tomb:

Paddy O’Mara
A loving father, husband, grandfather and farmer
Tender nurturer of both the Irish soil and our hearts
1907-1984

Danny turns and winces mildly.

‘Blasted choices,’ he declares irritably.

He drags his bucket to a second mud-covered grave adjacent to Paddy’s. The words continue their mild echo:

‘Father, husband, grandfather and farmer’.

As Danny’s brush makes contact with the tomb, he whispers:

‘And best friend.’

For Paddy and he were unofficial village twins and classmates some fifty years earlier at the Kilcrohane National School, only a scant kilometre or so up a lonely Irish lane from where he now toils on moist, ruined knees.

They sat next to each other in this intimate schoolhouse, a nondescript, one-story building that opens to the village church. They chuckled in unison and sometimes earned an angry rebuke or stern glare from the imperious schoolmaster. On Saturday, they took to the pitch with a stable of locals followed by a game of road bowling in the village center. And in the waning light of a Saturday evening, exhausted from the day’s sport, they would sink to the damp grass bordering the rocky edge of Dunmanus Bay, still laughing and panting while recounting a missed shot or friendly tussle.

Before returning home, they often shared a pint of Guinness carefully lifted from a forgotten crate behind one of the two village pubs. Bounty in hand, they would run with a wild, reckless abandon that only youth can inspire until they arrived breathless in the cover of a small patch of nearby woods.

‘That was a close one,’ Paddy said, exuding a youthful giddiness that saturated those carefree Saturdays.

‘Too close,’ Danny shot back.

He wore a mischievous smile and stood slightly bent, his hands resting on his long, nimble legs.

Those same long, yet aching, spiritless limbs now carry him to his third grave of the morning. Danny meditates on that brotherhood, that easy laughter, that youthful innocence. His meditation includes a third generous gulp of whiskey from his weathered flask.

‘Blasted choices,’ he spits out angrily.

At 18, Paddy’s eyes bent towards America. With farm jobs scarce in Kilcrohane, he turned to New York’s Hudson Valley for work. The peninsula, already a remote, windswept, forgotten place with Paddy on it, became more oppressive, more dark, more lonely in his absence.

A fourth sip of whiskey does little to erode the ache of that vacancy.

‘See you Danny,’ Paddy said solemnly on his final day in Kilcrohane as the two fiercely embraced outside the general store.

‘It’s your last chance to join me,’ Paddy said, his fair, curly hair whirling rebelliously in the gusty winds off Dunmanus Bay.

Leaves pranced across the empty street in the village center. A light, early autumn rain fell.

‘The Kilcrohane lads in America?’ Paddy added, smiling meekly.

‘I can’t…I just can’t,’ Danny said. ‘Good-bye Paddy…Slainte.’

Danny’s eyes moistened. Taller and thinner, he bent slightly in order to better meet Paddy’s embrace. His three-day growth of whiskers pinched Paddy’s smooth, crimson cheeks. There were hasty pledges to write, a few final best wishes, and then, the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’ were separated.

Now tending to his final grave of the morning, Danny still feels the raw, steady wind off Dunmanus Bay as it blew across the village street on Paddy’s final day in Kilcrohane.

‘Ah, blasted choices,’ he says forlornly.

He reaches for his flask, twists off the cap and takes another quick sip. It is barely mid-morning.

A steady flow of letters from Paddy trickled to a rare Christmas greeting. What Danny did learn before news became scarce was that Paddy had found a farm job in New York. He also met an Irish girl named Mary and after a brief courtship and marriage, a brood of five O’Mara’s swiftly followed.

Danny remained alone. He was bestowed by locals with the title of graveyard man. A friendless, isolated bachelor, his only companion on those long, solitary nights in his tiny flat was his cheap Irish whiskey and a frayed, tired copy of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

After eight years without news, a brief letter arrived from Paddy. Danny retrieved it one early afternoon upon returning from the burial ground, his mud-splattered bucket in hand and flask of whiskey in his side pocket. Exiting the post office, he rushed up a nearby lane and sat down on a boulder under a small cover of woods. He ripped the seam impatiently, took a sip of whiskey, and read its contents with alacrity:

Dear Danny:

I hope this letter finds you well. I just recently returned to Ireland and have settled with my family outside the village of Clifden. The lads and Mary are all thriving. We’ve purchased a farm near Mary’s childhood home and are quite busy tending to all the daily tasks. We feel blessed.

Impatient for some news.

Warm regards,

Paddy

Danny rallied his stunned faculties. He never expected that Paddy would ever return to Ireland, yet now that he was securely on Irish soil again, he might just as well still be living in America. The distance to Clifden was nearly as unbridgeable. Danny didn’t have the resources or the time for that multi-day journey to the far west of Ireland. He earned only a Sunday reprieve from his daily work and his meager stipend gave him scarcely enough money to pay the rent on his dreary, one-room flat and to buy basic food supplies. What little remained he spent on cheap Irish whiskey.

Disconsolate, Danny tucked the letter back in his pocket, the sole unsullied corner of his muddy, damp clothing.

In the glow of a cozy fire later that evening, a heavy rain buffeting his window, he sat and lingered over the final line in Paddy’s letter:

‘Impatient for some news’.

He understood why. For Danny had never written to Paddy with any consistency. A few times he sent a missive with vague news touching on life in the village or a failed romance with a local girl. The few Kilcrohane girls that he did briefly court soon tired of his drinking and couldn’t foresee a future with the village graveyard man.

He still held the same job at the burial ground that he had secured shortly after Paddy left. It was a favor granted by the town postmaster, who, seeing the directionless youth, put in a good word with the village vicar. The few local lads who he did befriend soon married, started families and became heavily cloaked in all the variegated fibers of Irish domesticity.

His only surviving relative was an aunt who raised him from childhood after both of his parents were struck down by pneumonia within a year of each other. He rose each morning in the pre-dawn blackness and quaffed a shot of whiskey with breakfast. He then worked until early afternoon at the burial ground before stopping by the village church to tidy up the small yard and sweep the front steps. If he could spare a few coins, he would stop by the village pub to sulk over a whiskey by the fire. His evenings were passed in perfect solitude consuming a small dinner at a worn, uneven wooden table. He would linger over a whiskey, or perhaps drift through a few pages of The Last Man before falling into a fitful slumber in a corner cot.

Danny’s thinning, greying hair, advancing arthritis and a slight bending of his once tall, supple frame were the only evidence of time’s imperial march. The daily whiskey and the exposure to the winds of Dunmanus Bay had conspired to form deep lines across his red, hardened face. To dress in the morning became increasingly arduous. Decades of brushing and scraping on the damp burial ground grass had reduced his hands to a throbbing mass of misery. His fingernails wore a permanent inky black coating after a lifetime of labour in the mud and muck. His bucket also bore the stamp of time. A long, thin crack ran down one side and a thoroughly rusted handle flirted with annihilation.

Danny rises to his feet and turns for home. It’s a short walk up the gravel lane, across the village street and up another brief path to his flat. As he approaches the sparse lighting of the village, he sees the ‘Open’ sign affixed to the door of the general store. Paddy’s absence was always felt most acutely when passing that place. He very often turned to his whiskey here.

As he neared that same village road just a few months ago while returning home, he saw a bespectacled, grey-haired man. His hair was neatly cut and he was standing before the door of the general store. Unlike Danny’s filthy clothes, he wore clean slacks and a yellow sweater over a button-down shirt. Black shoes completed his casual, yet dignified outfit. Such a refined–almost regal–presence was a rare sight in these parts. His countenance gained clarity with each step Danny took until the ‘twins of Kilcrohane’, stripped of youth’s fair brush, were standing before each other.

‘So nice to see you,’ Danny said, as the two embraced warmly in the shadow of where they bid farewell 58 years earlier.

‘Likewise, my friend,’ Paddy responded, flinching slightly over Danny’s shoulder as the penetrating odour of liquor filled the space around their merged bodies.

Later, under the soft glow of Danny’s fire, each bearing a glass of Irish whiskey, they reminisced about Kilcrohane and their childhood. They also shared details of their lives since that bleak, windy autumn day in 1925.

‘You should have joined me,’ Paddy said softly, dredging up the open invitation he extended to Danny in 1925 as the two mulled their respective futures.

‘You know Paddy, I, uh, couldn’t leave my aunt on the peninsula,’ he responded solemnly. ‘She begged me to stay. It’s a choice I, uh,’ he said somberly while shaking his head slowly.

‘It’s a choice I,’ he repeated falteringly, his voice dwindling into a pained silence.

‘It would have been nice to have you nearby,’ Paddy said, his yellow sweater emitting an ethereal glow before the crackling flame. ‘The lads never got to properly know their Uncle Danny.’

That same flame cast a soft orange glow over Danny’s copy of The Last Man, which tilted precariously against a vase on the table.

‘It hasn’t been easy,’ Danny muttered. ‘The peninsula can drive even the strongest man to, well…’

Paddy offered an acquiescing nod.

Danny glanced forlornly down at his half-empty glass of Irish whiskey.

His crimson cheeks gained an added fervour before the dancing flames as he told Paddy of the unstirred monotony of the last half-century. It was a quotidian routine made more oppressive in the wake of his aunt’s death in 1935. His drinking intensified, leading to his permanent expulsion from one of the two pubs in the village after the owner found him lifting a pint of Guinness from a crate in the rear. It was an act he had pulled off many times with Paddy under more nimble legs, but his arthritic limbs betrayed him. He tripped, noisily tumbling into a collection of discarded beer bottles. Locals began to avoid the graveyard man–a development that only tightened his noose of isolation.

An extended silence hung over the flat. The greying, wrinkled, fragile pair sat opposite each other, whiskies in hand, as the final cracks and whistles of the fire expired. A few months later, Danny received a letter from Paddy’s wife Mary:

Dear Danny:

It is with great sadness that I must inform you of the death of our dear Paddy. He passed away last night surrounded by his loving children, grandchildren and me.
He spoke often of you in the most affectionate terms–both in America and here in Clifden. His interment at the Kilcrohane Burial Ground will take place next Thursday morning.

With love,

Mary

Danny crosses the village street, bucket in hand, and heads home. Later that evening after supper, his whiskey on a side table and the fire bathing the room in a gentle orange, Danny marks the two-month anniversary of Paddy’s death in the same fashion he’s spent nearly every night since 1925–alone with his whiskey.

A heavy squall erupts. Fierce winds rattle the windows. Danny settles in his chair, mulling the vestiges of Mary’s final letter announcing Paddy’s death:

‘He passed away last night surrounded by all his loving children, grandchildren and me’.

As he scans his vacant flat, the only object Danny’s heart can warmly bend towards is his volume of Shelley’s The Last Man. It was the sole item of any value bequeathed to him by his aunt after her death.

‘Blasted choices,’ he mutters testily.

Suddenly, a powerful urge wills him–almost lifts him–out of his chair. He heads to the old wooden table near the door. Never has he moved with such a singular purpose after a day’s work at the burial ground. He picks up the half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey and walks resolutely to the kitchen sink. Slowly, he unscrews the cap and empties the contents of the bottle down the drain. He watches with avidity as the last drops of that demonic liquid swirl into nothingness. He walks to the front door of the flat and opens it briskly. He braces himself against nature’s wild riot and places the empty bottle outside.

‘Free,’ he sighs wearily.

Face now aglow before his modest fire, the words return:

‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’

He crosses his legs and eases his head back against a small pillow.

The storm rages into the night. His breathing softens.

‘He spoke of you in the most affectionate terms…’

Then, with fading images of Paddy clinging to the narrowing corridors of his mind, the peninsula relaxes its grip on Danny, the fire withers, and darkness settles over the village of Kilcrohane.

***

Gabriel Furmuzachi – Qualm

Gabriel Furmuzachi
Qualm

I bought you big, yellow sunflowers. I brought them home and cut their stalks and left them to soak in a little boiling water for a few minutes – as you taught me.

‘They will last longer like that!’, you said.

I waited for you. I waited until the food I cooked got cold, until the music stopped playing, until it turned dark outside and only the streetlights were glowing, yellow and orange.

I sat there alone, looking out the window, trying to guess where you might be, with whom you might be talking, what you might be thinking, whether you’d be laughing. I miss your laughing.

Each time I’d hear the lift doors I’d prick up my ears, like a hound catching the smell of a rabbit, ready to run and chase you back into my heart. But the metal cage would only spew out strangers who didn’t have the key to our place.

The bed felt vast and uninviting, the sheets – cold, texture like ice on a lake in winter, blown by the wind, piling up on the shore, broken into thin scales.

I miss you.

I fell asleep thinking of the morning sky and of the sun emerging from behind interminable, smug clouds, steeped in red and grey. How long until the flowers will shed their yellow and dry out? How long still? AQ

Amina Imzine – Zemestan 1836

Amina Imzine
Zemestan 1836
A Work in progress from the Shahrarah Garden Chronicles
 
Rumours of war have slowed down as the cold and bitter winter has wrapped Kabul in a thick coat of snow. Katsumi looks up to the pale orange light that flames from the Asmai Lighthouse and feels relieved that the makeshift dispensary there is provided with Aleppo soap, eucalyptus, balsam and Chinese green tea so the guards, mainly Kashmiri Lancers, can safely rest until the next shift. “Welcome in the Zemestan season” would joke Javaad Khan, his friend, born in some remote Srinagar valley and pleased enough with his position, assigned to the Bibi-Mahroo Garrison, where two lighthouses stand above Kabul city.
 
 
Sirius heads between the Asmai Height and the Pushta Lighthouse. Curfew will soon start. Katsumi steps down with his snowshoes and quietly treks through the icy Shahrarah Lane. How long lasts friendship when our world is devastated by cholera or plague epidemics, and grief? Lady Alexandrina, whom he’d met in Tehran, passed away as soon as she returned home to St. Petersburg, for her nineteenth birthday celebration. She was his first English teacher, taught him Latin and both shared a passion for Central Asian Herbarium books — dried plants and seeds they collected from Tashkent and Balkh when landslides or sand dunes have not yet fully submerged the fields, orchards and gardens — Katsumi recalls as he tries to cope with the fresh snow that caps his Bactrian camel wool shield.

The rum is warming up his mood. Katsumi couldn’t forget her pale sapphire eyes that brightened up her delicate face, her vivid passion for collecting and editing war veterans’ reports – “I will not teach you French!” she proudly said. At the Shahrarah literary lounge, she loved reading light verse poetry, the modern tales of Alexander Pushkin — and such strong beauty in her calligraphy strokes, first in Russian then in English: As long as there is one heart on Earth where I still live, my memory will not die he received as her farewell gift.
 
 
He shakes his head as to remove the fresh flakes that stick to his white silk face mask. Would poetry bring us some kind of relief? He learned a lot with Lady Alexandra too, when she lived in Kabul. She became his second, friendly English teacher, even if she had soon forgotten her cousin Alexandrina. Like the white, petrified Shahrarah trees lane, there is a silence that doesn’t need to be awoken, so Katsumi treks quietly.

The rum will lift up his mind, as Charles Masson promised. Was he too safely back in London? For the nine-month journey is full of unpleasant surprises, as Katsumi recalls Lady Alexandra that pointed out. Far from his British friends and the Thames he would never visit, Katsumi feels safe here in the upper valley of the Kabul River, safer than in any of the European cities. He looks to the bright sky, and silently thanks the tough quarantine that he and the Afghan doctors-in-chief teams have set up. Aldebaran is going to cross the Pushta Height. Katsumi then notices a snowy, soft blanket that wraps the foothills, the crowded worker dormitories and the tent shelters for shepherd communities. How many will be alive tomorrow?
 

***

 

Snow showers keep burying Kabul in a bitter silence, while the pervasive fragrance of balsam floods the Hanzalah sanatorium. Katsumi quietly moves in and out of rooms, patients are sleeping. “Kurimoto-jan, tea is served”, whispers the nurse-in-chief. Katsumi frowns his delicate eyebrows, smoothly shakes his long blue cotton dress and heads towards the study.

Carefully, he removes his grey latex face mask, the grey latex gloves, and then washes his large and pale hands with the Aleppo soap. The nurse brings the china cup of qehwa but Katsumi’s face doesn’t smile — by the way no one has ever seen him smile, except perhaps Lady Alexandrina. The nurse is one of the few who copes with his dead, calm, beardless face.

Katsumi’s skilled hands return empty the warm cup. It’s time for the monthly report, in English, as requested by the Colony Police station. Katsumi picks up his favourite slim brush and unrolls a blank, silky sheet of paper. As he writes, his brown eyebrows turn into thin moon bows:
December 1836.

Two hundred casualties of pneumonia — 30 from Bibi-Mahroo foothills, 80 from the Shahrarah Women hospital, including 50 infants, 30 from the Pushta Workers Dormitory… Silently the nurse leaves the quiet coroner alone in the fragrance of balsam now mixed with cardamom.
 
 

***

Susan Lloy – Game of Hands

Susan Lloy
Game of Hands

It was the first thing I noticed—his hands. They weren’t rough and calloused, as one would expect, but smooth and elegant with long fingers like a pianist or cellist. Not a handyman. The instant he removed his plumber’s wrench from the red toolbox I was smitten.

I’m not sure how it started. I recently moved into this “Thirties” building from my former borough. It wasn’t my choice, still, the triplex had been sold and three flat dwellers, including myself, got kicked out for major renovation after decades of habitation.

As with any old structure there are problems. Windows don’t open or close. Bathtubs don’t drain properly. Screens fall out and can’t be put back and as any damsel in distress I took refuge with the concierge. He doesn’t reside in the building, yet is here multiple times a week tending to apartment problems, recycling, garbage collection and so forth.

I miss my ol’ hood even though it is has turned into hipsterville. Here, I’m on the border of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the city and I feel like an imposter trudging along its leafy streets, which host multimillion-dollar homes and luxurious cars. The folks here seem confident and without a care. There is a certain kind of look amongst the privileged. A sort of … I’ve got that taken care of, a sphere of confidence in their stride, the way they hold themselves.
 
 
I recall when Von the concierge first entered my abode. His name reminds me of a California surfer and he resembles one with his sun-streaked messy hair and his lean, fit bod. My apartment entrance is wide and airy with two old doors gracing a wall. On a wooden cabinet lies an antique Underwood typewriter with a modern overhead light that hangs low above highlighting its patina and rubbed out gold letters. The double door behind is weathered with flecks of brown and café au lait cream chipped paint lacing a white base. It has the feeling of a Pollock painting, only calmer, less manic. It is an impressive entrance. Everyone says so and I can tell Von thinks the same.

He examines the typewriter and rubs the smooth black sides of the Underwood.

‘What a beautiful machine. Do you use it?’

‘No. But I write.’

‘What about?’

‘This or that. Poetry.’

‘Oh… Can’t be much mula in that.’

‘No. No. Not much.’

I’m quite a bit older than him, but he takes me in. My absoluteness. He looks into my green hued eyes and in that very instant we connect.
 
 
I knew he was coming today for the windows. Two are stuck and the sash cords are jammed in the corners. In fact, one cord is frayed nearly in half. Sadly I won’t be home; though I’ve left some text on the dining room table and an old photograph. It is a black and white photo from way back when. My head leans to one side. Tousled hair dangles over one eye. My jawline is crisp. The other eye peers out. Huge, deer like, inviting the viewer to gaze.

I want him to pick it up and caress the corners. Dive into that image. Feast on me. Imagine there’s a little bit of me left in that single hue and tones of gray and white. Sexually suggestive verse will be scattered across the oiled wooden grain. As you read your perfect hands will want to examine each inanimate within the flat: photographs, paintings, scented cloth, every nook and cranny.

I imagine our hands touching. I’ll squire you to travelled harbours and barren landscapes—gardens of memories and valleys bubbling with stars. Let’s play. AQ

Carrie Callaghan – The Mercenary

Carrie Callaghan
The Mercenary

 
Spring, 1631

A carriage raced down the humpbacked bridge over the Singel canal, across the quay, and then it turned sharply toward him. Abraham hopped out of the way, but not fast enough. The corner of the wooden cab smashed into his shoulder, sending him sprawling across the quay, where feet skittered away to make room. The paving stones hit his mouth like a hammer.

He lay, facedown in the mud, and tasted his blood. Around him, voices cooed and clucked, but no one stopped to help. He fought back tears, then pushed his aching young body up to a seated position. He probed his tongue against the bloody mess inside his cheek.

He had lost no teeth, it seemed, but that was a small mercy. Mud clung to his face and clothes, and now he would look like a vagrant when he met with “Johann.” Abraham had arrived in Amsterdam two days ago, after escaping from Haarlem buried in the back of a farmer’s wagon and on the condition that he meet with this recruiter. And now he was late, according to the church bells. The small advance, just a few stuivers, the Haarlem man had given him was already gone, claimed by the hag who ran the boardinghouse. Tomorrow night Abraham would be sleeping in the alley, unless Johann could help him.

He stood and tried to wipe the cold mud from his tunic, while avoiding eye contact with any of the people walking busily around him. Knots of people flowed past, more than even the prosperous Haarlem could gather in the main square. A woman with a fur-trimmed black bodice and starched white collar stepped around him, followed by a serving woman in a coarse brown linen skirt. Alongside one of the tall brick buildings with the fashionable tapered frontage pointing toward the sky, a boy Abraham’s age juggled four cloth balls and a potato between fingers pink with cold. An old man with a knit cap and a heap of patchwork tunics layered over his shivering hands wobbled by on a stick. He handed Abraham a rag.

‘Pennings, pennings,’ he whispered, his voice hoarse.

Abraham had already run the rag down his face, and he hurried to give it back.

‘I’m sorry, old man. I’ve got nothing.’

Abraham rushed to walk away, though a throbbing in his left hip put a hitch in his step. His heart pinched. If he were injured, or broken, Johann might not sign him as a soldier. And then he’d be begging himself.

No, he’d accept anything by that fate. Ten years ago, his parents had fled Haarlem because their bankruptcy soiled every social connection they had, and now Abraham followed in their footsteps. Except he fled his home because he had been—almost—caught stealing.

It had been wrong of him to try to steal from the silversmith, and foolish to think the man wouldn’t recognize him. No matter. Here he would make amends. He wouldn’t become his cursed, heartless parents.

He found the inn, judging by the painting of a green hare outside, and inside he was the only man in the common room. He shifted his weight back and forth on his cold feet, and hoped the mud was hard to see on the brown of his outermost tunic. Perhaps Johann had already left. The inn had clean-swept floors and a few windows in the front that looked out over the canal, and was tidier than any tavern he had been to yet in this city. Abraham hesitated, conscious of his filth, and then asked the tavern keeper if anyone had earlier been waiting. The man shook his head. After a moment, Abraham sat at a table. He waited, and then, with his stomach gaping with hunger, ordered some bread and cheese. He didn’t have a single coin.

A tall man with a reddened complexion and a short, blond beard entered the main room. He walked up to Abraham’s table.

‘You’re Abraham?’ he asked.

‘That’s right.’ Abraham placed his hands in his lap, and his palms left a hint of anxious moisture on the wooden table. ‘You’re Johann?’

The other man didn’t answer, but he didn’t disagree either. He pulled up a high-backed chair, and the serving woman took his order. He had a slight accent, German possibly.

‘Let’s keep this brief,’ Johann said. He nodded his thanks when his tankard of beer arrived. “We need men. The pay’s good, conditions are good. I can’t say much now about location, but you know where the war is.”

Abraham nodded, though in truth he had only a vague idea of where the fighting was taking place. Somewhere south, or perhaps west, of here. He was seventeen, and he’d had little schooling. But he didn’t care.

‘I’m fine with all that. I want to fight and earn … my place at home again,’ he said, and then flushed at the intensity of his confession. He hoped Johann wouldn’t ask him to stand up, or worse, run. He’d certainly have a limp. ‘Is there some sort of equipment I get?’

Something like a smile swam over Johann’s face, and Abraham noticed a light scar running down the man’s left cheek, hidden under his faint beard. Abraham tore off a chunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth.

‘You’ll sort out the equipment when you join your unit. Our responsibility is to get you there. I’ve got a few boys headed to the fight, leaving tomorrow. You ready to join them?’

‘No doubts here.’ Abraham swallowed a large mouthful of beer.

‘Just give us a signature.’ He pulled out a parcel and extracted a sheet of paper covered in writing. Abraham frowned, slowly picking his way through the first few sentences, before he gave up and signed. It was idiotic, but he didn’t care. He needed a way out. Besides, in addition to clearing his name, he’d be contributing to Holland’s freedom, fighting to keep the Spanish King and his allies away from the United Provinces. That would be worth telling his family back in Haarlem—if he ever saw them again.

As Abraham had hoped, Johann settled the bill with the tavern keeper. Abraham’s belly was full, but when Johann glanced away, he stuffed the rest of the cheese under his tunic. There was no sense in throwing it out.

‘Be at the southern gate just after sunrise tomorrow,’ Johann said. ‘Sober, if you care about your comfort.’

Abraham suppressed a bitter smile. He had no coins for drinking. ‘And who do I look for?’

‘Myself. You’d better be there, or I’ll find you and make sure you pay up at that inn you’re sleeping at. The lady keeps a close watch on her bills, and I’ll take care of it if you’re with us. But it’s on you if you’re not. To be paid in blood, if I know Margrieth.’

‘I’ll be there.’ Abraham glanced down at his waist, wondering how much the lump of cheese would protrude when he stood, and when he looked up, Johann was walking out the tavern’s door.

Abraham followed quickly, just in case the innkeeper decided to try to charge him for the warmth of the fireplace or his time under the dry roof. His hip hurt as he walked. Outside, a grey rain fell, and Abraham pulled his floppy-brimmed hat down over his forehead and yanked his collar up. No fine lace for him. But he’d settle for anything warm and dry, and to hell with fancy.

A boy carrying four bundled packages ran into him, cursed, and scurried along, head bowed under the rain. Abraham could follow him, see what else there was to do in this city beyond affix his signature to documents he couldn’t understand. Instead, he stepped to the side, under the dry protection of an eave, and watched. He blinked back tears. What a fool he was.

‘Pennings, a penning,’ a hoarse voice mumbled next to him. Abraham looked over to see the same old beggar from earlier. A wooden knife hung from the man’s loose belt.

‘Sorry old man,’ Abraham said, and turned back toward the crowd. The man fell silent, but didn’t move away, though Abraham wished he would. Abraham was a soldier now; he should keep honourable company. He should have asked Johann what weapon he would be using. Just how would he have to kill another man? Children splashed and laughed, while a woman in a clean white cap frowned at the water sneaking down the back of her neck.

‘It is like no other,’ the man next to him said. Abraham started and turned to look at him. The man’s brown hands trembled as he rubbed his shoulders for warmth.

‘The rain?’

The man gave him a half smile. ‘The city, boy. This city.’

Abraham nodded, not willing to reveal his ignorance of Amsterdam.

‘I love it still, you know. These streets, these tall houses. See those cranes there?’ He pointed across the canal, above the roofline. ‘Building new houses. When I was strong, I could do that work. I built some of these houses.’

‘Then why doesn’t your Guild care for you now?’ Abraham looked away as soon as the question came out. He hadn’t meant to be rude.

‘Ah, boy. They’ve forgotten me. It’s been too long. No one knows anyone here, not anymore. Sometimes that’s good—’ He smiled and cupped his hand under his hanging pocket, which gave the tinkle of a few coins. ‘When there’s no shame to be had in asking the new masters for a penning. And no one to blame me for what I’ve become. Sometimes there’s pain … But I love it here.’

He straightened his tunics, tightened his grip over the cane, and took a shuffling step out from under the eave. The rain, Abraham realized, had lessened.

‘Wait,’ he said. He pulled the cheese from inside his tunic. “Here.”

The man pressed his lips together, looked at Abraham, and then took the cheese.

‘Just half,’ he said, broke it, and handed a piece back. ‘My thanks.’

Before the rain could resume, Abraham loped on his aching hip back to the boarding house, where fleas hopped from the rag over his pallet, and a leak in the roof dripped water down the nearest wall. He kicked the straw bundle that passed for a bed and cursed his parents’ names. If they hadn’t left him poor, maybe he would have turned out better. He kicked it again, ignoring the pain in his hip and the skittering laugh of another boarder behind him, and sat down. Abraham spent the rest of the night eating the cheese, bit by bit, and waiting for dawn. His last night without a weapon in his hands.
 

#

 
Abraham woke in the dark, not realizing he had slept. He made his way outside the quiet city before dawn, and nine other men waited at the gate, marked out by their shabby clothing and downcast eyes. He hugged his arms against himself and tried to ignore the growing sound of his pulse in his ears. His hip didn’t hurt anymore, at least there was that to be grateful for. Young bodies healed quickly. Two of the men traded bawdy jokes and laughed loudly in the tender morning, but the rest of them scuffed their boots against the ground and waited. Johann arrived wearing a large floppy-brimmed hat and ticked their names off a list.

‘Pieter van Sloot? No Pieter? Damn the son of a whore.’ He made a note on his list and handed it to a filthy boy, who ran off. ‘The rest of you, climb up.’ He pointed at a large wagon hitched to two morose horses, which he had driven up from somewhere inside the waking city.

‘An open wagon?’ Abraham said.

‘Oh, you’ve got standards, do you? In that case, I’ll have my money back, if you please, and you can hire a private stagecoach for yourself.’

‘No, it’s not that, just … it’s nothing.’

Johann nodded. Abraham watched the other men climb into the wagon, some with the limber ease of farm boys, others with clumsy effort.

Finally, Abraham was the last one standing in the mud.

‘Go on,’ Johann said, and waved his arm. He was already looking toward the driver.

Abraham walked over to Johann, who blinked and raised an eyebrow when he saw the boy approach.

‘I’m not going to go,’ Abraham said. ‘But I want to pay back what I owe you.’

‘Christ’s blood,’ Johann swore. He took his hat off and ran his fingers along the lining before putting it back on his head. Then he looked at the ground, turned away from Abraham, and swung back toward him with his right fist.

The punch smashed Abraham in the left temple, and he stumbled and fell.

‘I’m still not going,’ he managed to say.

Johann muttered something inaudible, then yelled out for the driver to carry on. As the wagon started rolling, he kicked Abraham in the ribs.

‘I—’ Abraham tried to say.

‘You son of a whore,’ Johann said. ‘Make me look weak in front of the other men. Couldn’t you just not show up so I could send someone to cut your ear off, like the other bastards?’

Abraham rolled onto one hip and clutched his pulsing rib.

‘Please don’t cut my ear off. I want to pay the money back.’

‘That right? You got a handful of guilders in your pocket? I didn’t think so, you filthy louse. Get up.’

Abraham stood, and Johann examined him. Then he grabbed Abraham’s shoulder, pulled him low, and kneed him in the gut.

‘No one’s ever shown up and asked to back out,’ he said as Abraham coughed. A pair of peasant women walked past them, clucking in amusement while they held their produce baskets tightly.

‘Let me make it up,’ Abraham said, forcing the words out. It had been years since he’d had a beating like this, not since he snuck away from lessons to run around with Bartol and the other boys.

Johann clenched his jaw. ‘Follow me. Don’t talk to me while I’m walking, I need to think.’

They walked back through the tall stone gate and into the city. The cobblestone streets were filling with workmen hauling carts of bricks and bakers piling fresh loaves into their open display windows. Abraham’s stomach rumbled.

‘You’ll work?’ Johann stopped and grabbed Abraham’s shoulder.

‘Absolutely. I can’t read much, but I can run and lift and sweep—’

‘You’re a fool, boy.’

Abraham shrugged. ‘But you won’t cut my ear off.’

Johann spat at the cobblestones and then turned and walked away. He turned, raised an eyebrow, and gestured for Abraham to follow. AQ

Martin Shaw – Buddy Blue

Martin Shaw
Buddy Blue

In my life, machines have amassed by forklift, dressed in pig iron skirts of racing green, precision welded for keener corners. Oil pools, like hot butter reflecting yellow sodium bulbs, while metal elbows pump fists that churn rotunda bellies, moulding fridge doors and cheap tin trays for the Christmas countdown….

With paper underarm, a machine minder, Buddy Blue, sits down on his plastic chair facing the lights and dials. He’s on a ten-till-six-shift, his face as pallid as the paper readouts from the metal encased computer at his side.

Deep into the night, Buddy’s head drops to his chest. The workshop manager notices. He looks stern as he strides over to wake him, then quickly calls the stretcher bearers, the appointed first aiders. Upon seeing Buddy’s lips as dark as his last name, they try to resuscitate him before finding a whiz-bang defibrillator for a jumpstart. However, with blood coagulated after years of working on tectonic concrete floors, Buddy’s body is zombified with thrombosis—and, in fact, he’s now dead as the proverbial door nail.

Buddy’s unmanned machine flashes intermittent red lights in sympathy, and even the computer readout is jammed, the paper concertinaed, labouring, like an accordion out of air and tune. The whole factory is shut down for ten minutes as the production graphs in the office fall from the top of an ink-drawn Mont Blanc, to the marker dots at the foot of the page.

All of us workers can now hear a radio playing from above, before realizing it hasn’t been switched off for years. A game of musical chairs begins – the guy who replaces me being set free from his incarceration of assistant store clerk. However, he’s shackled-down again by compulsory overtime on the factory floor. After a pay rise, it is I who replaces Buddy Blue. His work life passes in the flash of neon lights before me, while my existence is now mapped on a graph, climbing to the top of K2. AQ

Michael A. Ferro – A Night on the Scales

A Night on the Scales
by Michael A. Ferro

As he sat contented upon his reclined chair he could sense the man’s anguish through the solid steel door nearby. With his feet up on the wood desk, he sucked on the pit of a peach that had been so exceptionally ripe he’d used an entire sheet of paper towel to dry his hands and clean his mustache. He took the pit out of his mouth and set it with a tiny clink onto a little white porcelain plate upon the desk and licked his teeth.

“Ain’t no fuckin’ peaches in there, is there?” he said toward the steel door.

This was a man who prized his job. All night long he got to sit and read the newspaper within a large municipal-looking room overspread with bright florescent light. On quiet nights like this one, when there was only a single man within one of the three adjacent cells, he would watch some of his favorite television shows on a tablet that he kept hidden within a bottom drawer of the desk. He knew this particular man on the opposite side of the steel door would be silent throughout the night this time—he would make sure of it.

Near the top of the steel door was a small window with more steel in the form of thick bars. The door itself was new as they had recently replaced it after long-awaited funds from the state came through. His chair had also been swapped and he particularly appreciated that this one could recline. He threw the yellow-stained paper towel into a wastebasket at his side and eyed the door again.

“What? No big drama show tonight? Not gonna yell ‘n’ scream your head off like last time?”

There was no sound from the room.

“Don’t even think about banging yer head against somethin’ in there again,” he said to the door. “I got no time fer that shit.”

Satisfied with the silence that filled the room, the man reached for the handle on the bottom drawer of the desk when through the main entryway came the judge. At first, the man sitting in the chair wasn’t certain that it was him; he’d rarely seen the judge without his immodest black judicial robe flowing down off his large shoulders, but his short cropped silvery hair and square jaw were unmistakable. He walked with a slight limp into the large room and wore a heavy woolen sweater over a snow-white dress shirt with too-long khaki slacks.

“Judge Anderson, Your Honour,” said the man swiftly rising from his reclining position, “What brings you here?”

The judge smiled courteously and came to the opposite end of the jailer’s desk. He placed his big knuckles onto a stack of papers.

“Evening’, Dan,” said Judge Anderson. “Good to see you again.”

“Yeah, only been a few hours, mm?”

“Right.”

The two stood there while the judge watched the cell door.

“Something I can do for you, Your Honour?”

The judge rapped his knuckles upon the desk.

“Need a favour, Dan. It might sound unusual.”

“How can I help?”

“I need you to let me into his cell.”

“… Why?”

The judge slightly furrowed his brow.

“I mean, what d’you have planned, Your Honour?” asked the jailer.

“Listen, Dan, I know it’s an unusual request, but I can assure you that everything’s in order. I spoke with Chief Jailer Ramirez. He’s aware.”

“Oh.”

“Just so you’re aware,” said Judge Anderson, “I plan to spend the night in the cell with him.”

The jailer realized that this meant his world of solitude and privacy would be shattered for the night—there would be no chance to watch his shows.

“I see… well I’m sure y’know what yer doing,” said the jailer. He looked over toward the steel door. “He kin prob’ly hear us right now.”

“That’s fine,” replied the judge.

“Well,” said the jailer turning toward the steel door. “Let’s get to it, Your Honour. Into the jail cell y’go.”

He smiled as he said this and peered back at the judge, but the judge wore no visible emotion.
 
 

#

 
 
The door to the cell closed with a violent thud; not because of any particular force the jailer had used to close it, but rather due to the very nature of these thick, heavy doors. It was impossible to close them without a sound of finality in the air, a gavel’s crash.

The judge stood by the door for a few moments and watched over the man lying upon the cot. The man had his back turned to him with his body snug close to the wall in the fetal position and one arm under his head. The man was breathing softly. If he had been sleeping, the judge was sure that the noise had woke him.

The light sound of the judge’s shoes against the cement floor surprised the man. He’d been awake since the jailer yelled out to him earlier and was now unsure about what to make of the judge being inside his cell. Though he could not see him, for his face was turned toward the wall, the man fully expected the judge to be wearing his antediluvian robe, freshly shined black dress shoes, and whatever else it was that a judge wore underneath their vestments. But upon the judge now stepping over toward the opposite cot, the man could clearly hear the patter of soft shoes hitting the floor in an uneven rhythm.

“You wearin’ sneakers, judge?” the man said casually to the wall.

The judge let out a small chuckle.

“I am, Joe,” said Judge Anderson.

The room was dusky and still, akin to a small basement closet.

“We on a first name basis now, judge?”

“We can be, if you like,” the judge said as he rested his forearms upon his thighs and sat forward.

“Don’t want me to call you ‘Your Honour’ no more?”

The judge realized at that moment how accustomed he had become to watching the man’s facial gestures in his courtroom as they spoke.

“You can call me whatever it is that you like right now, in here.”

“I don’t remember your first name. Sure it was printed on one of all those papers I saw but I don’t remember it now.”

“My name is Ronald, or Ron for short.”

“Ronald,” said the man.

“Mm-hmm.”

There was a long pause.

“I’ll just call you judge.”

“That’s fine.”

Judge Anderson gazed around at the cast of shadows within the cell. Some of the only other times he had been in one were when he took part in walkthroughs of the facility in prior years before minor upgrades. Each time though, the tiny enclosed space had left a profound impression upon him. At night, home lying upon his own bed, he often thought about the shadows in the cells.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Whatchu doin’ here, judge?”

“I’d just like to talk, if you don’t mind.”

“Talk?”

“Yes.”

“Talk ‘bout what?”

“We can talk about whatever you like.”

At this, the man spun with a quick motion and sat up abruptly, though his left arm fell limp to his side. He expected the judge to recoil but the judge hadn’t flinched. Instead, he merely locked eyes with the man as he sat squarely across from him. The man pursed his lips.

“Alright, just what the hell is this!?” barked the man. He waited for a response. He could see that the judge was looking at his arm now, so the man took his left forearm in his right hand and placed it in his lap.

“You know, I was also in the military, Joe.”

The man analyzed this statement and his eyebrows slowly turned upward from their center, relaxing his expression to one of slight puzzlement.

“You were?”

“I was. Marines. Before law school I did two tours in Vietnam.”

The man scratched his head.

“You Marines had them 13-month tours then, right?”

“Most of us did,” replied the judge with a smile. “We wanted those extra 30 days of free R&R to go anywhere we wanted.”

“Yeah,” said the man, cracking a smile for the first time.

“Of course, it was hardly a free vacation, right?”

The man’s smile faded.

“Yeah.”

The judge moved closer toward the edge of the bed and his impressively well-maintained bulk forced a whine from the cot’s wire springs.

“You did two tours over in Iraq yourself about a decade ago, didn’t you, Joe?”

“Yeah.”

“I read in your report that you had some trouble in Ramadi then. That’s where the incident happened that caused the damage to your arm.”

“Yes it was.”

“An IED, right?”

“Yeah,” said the man resting his right arm upon his left, “But what the hell does that matter now? Shit happens. Now I’m stuck in the can for the night.”

“You know that my putting you in here for the night was the right decision, Joe. When they brought you in, you’d been a mess out there, out in the streets. You threw that bottle right through that window and cussed at the patrolman.”

“Yeah, but the building was empty! Abandoned or whatnot. The fuckin’ pane of glass wasn’t even there! Bottle landed on some sheets and didn’t even break nothin’.”

“I know it,” said the judge. “But still—can’t allow you to be doing that kind of stuff.”

The man leaned against the cement wall behind him.

“Yeah, well, I know it, too.”

Judge Anderson relaxed and leaned back.

“This is your third time in here, right?”

“Third time by your ruling, Your Honour, but I got put away twice before over in Harrison County, too.”

“Right.”

“Those were longer stints, too.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Same crime though. P.I.”

“Right.”

The man looked at the fingernails of his right hand while the judge studied him intently.

“So how do you decide how long to put the person away for, judge?”

The judge sat up and tilted his head to the side in contemplation. He brought his hand up and ran it through his cropped, snowy hair.

“Well, first thing I do is review the case against the person and look at their history. Then I assess the crime and hear their defence in court. After so many years you begin to see patterns.”

“Patterns?”

“You start to see the same people committing the same crimes. Sometimes it can be difficult to make sure you’re looking at each individual for who and what they are. Every now and then, a judge of the court needs to stop and take a step back in order to take a closer look at each defendant that comes before them.”

“Oh yeah?” asked the man through a slight chortle.

“It’s true,” said the judge as he leaned forward and gripped the edges of the cot with both hands. “And seeing you in my courtroom for the third time, it made me realize I needed to stop and do just that: take a closer look.”

“You did, did you?”

“I did.”

“And?” asked the man.

“I knew when I handed down your sentence that I was going to come in here tonight and do this. I was looking over your history while I was rendering my judgement and saw someone that I wanted to get to know.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is, Joe.”

The man began to nod emphatically and fixed an exaggerated grin on his face.

“Well, here I am, judge! An ex-military, one-armed boozer. Put ‘er there!” he said using his right hand to hold up his disabled left arm.

“I’m pleased that we’re talking here. I really am.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“Would you like to know why I entered the Marines, Joe?”

The man shrugged.

“I originally joined to pay for my education.”

“Sounds smart.”

“It seemed like a sound plan,” said the judge, nodding. “But obviously, things can happen that can change those plans. No matter what we had in store for after we got back home.”

“Yeah, no shit,” said the man nodding to his arm. “Try gettin’ a job or findin’ a girl, or going to law school for that matter with one dead arm.”

At this, the judge slowly rose while his back audibly cracked as he put one arm behind his spine to straighten it. With a timid glint in his eyes, the man watched as the judge methodically stepped over to his cot and sat down on the thin mattress next to him. After a moment, the judge took the man’s right hand in his own.

“Make a fist,” said the judge.

The man complied and formed his fingers into a tight fist. The judge then took the man’s hand and brought it down to his leg and rapped the man’s knuckles onto his shin through his pants. To the man’s surprise, rather than hearing the dull thud of a bare fist upon another man’s flesh—a sound that he had come to know quite well—he heard the distinct noise of his own bony fingers rapping against an unyielding metal prosthesis. The judge let go of his hand and the man looked up at him before he promptly looked away.

“Listen, Joe,” the judge began. “Here’s what I’ve come to say to you: I know it isn’t easy. God knows we all have our setbacks and you with a fair share more than others. I wasn’t literally there with you in Iraq when you hit the IED, just as you weren’t literally there with me in Khe Sanh when a VC shell fell from the sky and took my leg, nor were you even born yet, but that doesn’t matter—what does matter is we caught the shit.”

After hearing him curse for the first time, the man looked over at the judge who was staring at him with a concentrated sincerity.

“Yeah, we caught the shit and it felt like the end of our world. But let me tell you something, Joe, and I know you’ve heard it before but let me tell it to you again right here and right now: it isn’t the end of anything. You lost the use of your arm and I lost a leg, but whatever we lose the mind compensates for tenfold. Yes, it takes time. Sometimes it takes longer for some than for others. When I got back to the States, I drank quite a bit. A lot of the guys I went over with got into some heavier stuff when they got back, but let me tell you: booze will take you down just as fast as anything else on earth if you got the mind for it. You and I? We both got the mind for it. It can be part of the price we pay to defend our country.”

The judge leaned in toward Joe and put his arm upon his shoulder. “It was my dad that got me to quit drinking. A cop who was sympathetic to us returning vets took me home one night rather than to the jailhouse after a bender and told my dad what went down that night. My dad was a line worker at the assembly plant. He wasn’t born with ten pounds of brains but he had a heart the size of a Buick and let me tell you, son, he set me straight. I didn’t know if I had one ounce of intellect in my head anymore and once I lost the leg I figured that was that—no good even for the line, I thought. But he reminded me of one of the reasons why I went overseas in the first place: I had greater goals. You can’t buy brains or your future, but your actions can acquire you justice, meaning—something over nothing.”

Joe lowered his head and the judge tightened his grip on his shoulder.

“I understand your dad passed away while you were over in Iraq.”

Joe nodded and sniffed quietly.

“I’m sorry, son,” said the judge. “Like I said, though, you’ve got a fair share more to set you back than others, but all that really means is you got that much more potential ahead of you. Much more than me and that’s the straightforward truth.”

The judge looked around the room and gestured widely with his hand.

“This—this place around you right now—this is just a stepping stone. The best places worth getting to are harder to reach than others and they require these things. You step out of here in the morning and all this becomes nothing more than just some stepping stone; you’ve been in worse places, you’ve been in better places. Some places were made just for finding new places. You’ve got a few misdemeanors on your record but you’ve also got a wartime record that I happened to take a look at and let me tell you, that’s the record people are going to remember. You’re a hero, son, and I don’t say that lightly to anyone. The good we do isn’t just written down in some history book, it lives off the page, people breathe it—they soak in it like a sunray, Joe.”

Joe looked away from Judge Anderson though the judge had seen Joe’s eyes begin to water.

“If you can make it through war, son, you got what it takes to make it here at home.”

The judge gave Joe another hearty pat on the back.

“You got anything you want to say, Joe?”

Joe turned his face toward Judge Anderson and sniffed loudly, discreetly wiping at the corner of his eye. He wore a cautious smile.

“So that peg leg is what’s been under that big black robe all that time?”

The judge leaned back and let out a tremendous guffaw, startling the jailer eavesdropping just outside the cell. AQ

Bruce McDougall – Waiting for Bo Diddley

Waiting for Bo Diddley
by Bruce McDougall

Jack walked home from school at noon down Tremont Street past the white house where Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher, lived. After lunch, he returned to school by a different route so that he could stop at his friend Carl’s house and still get to school before the bell rang at one o’clock. Carl’s mother worked afternoons at the Cloverdale Mall, across the street from their house, selling dress pants, white shirts and nylon socks in the menswear department of Morgans. His father worked twelve hours a day as a plumber, installing water pipes and porcelain toilets in suburban housing developments that were rising from farmers’ fields on the outskirts of the city. His older brother went to the local high school, which was three miles away, and took sandwiches with him for lunch in a brown paper bag. That’s why Carl was always alone when Jack arrived on his way back to school.

Jack liked spending time at Carl’s house. His own father was dead, and his mother was a Presbyterian schoolteacher. In Jack’s amputated family, life’s possibilities depended on your obedience to the rules. Rules were the bannisters on the stairway to Heaven. The more strictly you held to them, the more easily you would make your way through life. Disobey a rule, and you’d tumble down the stairs of propriety to wallow in self-indulgent squalor with foreigners, hoodlums and sexual libertines. Jack’s father had taken a tumble and disappeared from his life. Fearing a similar fate, Jack now clung to the rules with all his might.

Before they continued on to school, Carl and Jack sometimes played ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at each other with a tennis ball in front of the garage where Carl’s father stored his tools and a plumber’s jungle of iron pipes, brass drain fittings, bathroom sinks and toilet bowls. On rainy days like today they sat in the basement bedroom of Carl’s older brother listening to his record albums by The Coasters, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke.

Jack and his mother had moved into the neighbourhood three years ago, when Jack was nine. A few weeks later, his mother had driven Jack and his new friend Carl to Lakeshore Arena to try out for their first hockey team. Since then, Carl had become an all-star and now played three times a week at indoor rinks in the city on a team whose sponsor paid for all his equipment, including his sticks and Tackaberry skates. Everyone at school expected Carl to become a professional hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. So did Carl’s parents, who dreamed of following their famous son into a life that offered more than relentless suburban drudgery.

At school, Carl told his friends about the bench-clearing brawls that erupted on the ice and spread into the stands, where even the players’ parents punched and wrestled with each other to defend the honour of their sons’ teams. Only players destined for professional careers competed with such sanctioned brutality. Lesser players like Jack went once a week in hand-me-down uniforms to an outdoor rink, where they stumbled and skidded on second-hand skates, exercising camaraderie and good sportsmanship, while their parents stood behind the boards, offered each other cigarettes and stamped their feet to keep warm until the kids’ game ended and they could all go home.

Jack had watched his first organized hockey games with his dad, who promised that Jack could join a league as soon as he was old enough. But his dad had gambled to excess, drunk rye whisky, gone fishing with unsavory characters on weekday afternoons, and hit Jack’s mother a couple of times. By the time Jack was old enough to join a hockey league, his mother had left his father and taken Jack with her. He never saw his dad again and didn’t know how to find him. On the one occasion when his father came to their house, his mother had sent him away before he could speak to Jack. Jack had imagined his dad drifting through inaccessible shadows with all the other deadbeats and rule-breakers from whom Jack’s mother wanted to protect her son. Once in a while, Jack thought of finding his father, but he didn’t know where to look and he couldn’t go far to do it because he was only eight years old and his mother wouldn’t let him leave the neighbourhood. Then, one morning last year, his mother had told Jack that his father was dead. He had drowned in Lake Ontario, she said. When Jack asked how it had happened, her face tightened and her jaw clenched as if he’d touched a metal spoon to an exposed nerve in her tooth. She said she’d tell him more when he was old enough. Since then, Jack had felt suspended in sorrow like a raisin in one of his mother’s jellied salads. Escape seemed out of the question, unless he wanted to break his mother’s heart. He didn’t want to hurt his mother. His father had hurt his mother, and suffered the consequences. Jack didn’t have the courage to face banishment from his own home.

It was just after twelve-thirty today when Carl and Jack started listening to an album by Bo Diddley. They’d listened to the songs many times, and they knew all the words by heart: “I’m A Man”, “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Mona”, “Bring It To Jerome”, “You Can’t Tell A Book By Its Cover”. The music transported Jack into a world of libidinous fantasy and defiant joy, accessible only to a man with the courage to turn his back on convention and pursue a dream. Jack could only pretend to have such courage. He sat on the edge of the bed plucking at the loose strings of a broken guitar. “Now, lookee here,” he drawled, imitating Bo Diddley.

Carl stood beside his mother’s fold-up ironing board, tapping on imaginary piano keys. “Where you from, Bo?” he said.

“South America,” Jack said.

“You ain’t been to no South America,” said Carl.

“Have too,” said Jack.

“What part?” Carl said.

“South Texas,” Jack said.

“Ee-ee,” cackled Carl, in unison with the high-pitched, gravelly voice on the record player.

Between songs, Jack gazed at the album cover. The cover was as bland and unrevealing as the house of Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher. You’d never have guessed from looking at it what went on inside. In the photo, Bo Diddley and his sidekick, Jerome Green, stood in a white room as featureless as the walls of a bathtub. Jerome was in the background, wearing a shirt and tie, holding a single drumstick over a snare drum. Bo stood in front of him, dressed in a spotless white sports jacket with a tiny black bow tie. He had his legs spread wide, and the toes of his black shoes pointed out, but you could tell from the way he held his red guitar that he wasn’t really playing, just posing for the picture.

It was now six minutes to one according to the clock on the wood-panelled wall. Jack and Carl had sung along to all the songs on one side of the record. They knew that school would start in a minute. But neither of them wanted to stop the music. Carl turned the record over. “All you pretty women,” they sang, “stand in line.”

When the last song ended, Carl and Jack ran out of the house and up the empty sidewalk toward their school. The street was deserted. Noon hour had ended. There wasn’t another kid in sight. Jack had never been late for school and had never been on the street at this time on a school day. He felt like an astronaut who’d fallen out of his spaceship. Even the grass on the lawns seemed unfamiliar at this time of day.

They pulled open the heavy steel door and hurried through the empty corridor. When Carl opened the door to their classroom, all of their classmates turned to look at them.

“Where have you been?” said the teacher, standing at the front of the class.

The teacher, a former professional football player, had a bald head as big as a cannonball and chewed with yellow teeth on the chalk that he used to write on the blackboard. In the face of such masculine power, Jack assumed a posture of abject apology.

“We lost track of the time, sir,” Jack said.

“What were you doing?” the teacher said.

“Listening to Bo Diddley,” said Carl.

Some of their classmates tittered. The teacher shook his enormous head and smiled. Carl’s status as a future player of professional hockey had already won the teacher’s admiration, and he regarded Carl in a much different light than Jack and the rest of their classmates. Jack hoped that the light would extend to him and that the teacher might give them both a break, tell them to take their seats, while he continued scribbling on the blackboard with his nibbled piece of chalk. If Carl had arrived alone, the teacher would have indulged his tardiness with a wink and a warning. But Jack was no one special, and the teacher had no reason to let him off the hook. “What were you listening to?” he said.

Jack looked at his friend. Carl spread his legs, pointed his toes outward and held in his hands an imaginary guitar, like Bo Diddley on the album cover.

“Now, lookee here,” Carl said.

Jack knew the next line. But he felt frightened of offending the teacher, and he didn’t have the courage defy his fear. His breathing stopped and his stomach clenched. He pulled back his lips in the grin of a thwarted idiot. He turned toward his friend but said nothing. The teacher ordered them both to go to the principal’s office.

In the hallway, Jack thought about his mother. He had dishonoured her reputation as a schoolteacher. His disobedience would shame her. He felt tears welling in his eyes. Something he had done in his short life had already cost him the presence of his father. If his behaviour could have such consequences, how was he to know that the shame he felt now was out of all proportion to his transgression? He dreaded the possibility that he might suffer such a loss again, that his mother might banish him from her life for breaking a rule.

Carl closed the classroom door and looked at Jack. “Say, man,” he said, as if their banishment to the principal’s office amounted to nothing more than a lark.

“Mmmm,” Jack said, rubbing his eyes and trying to hide his tears.

“You look like you been whupped wit a ugly stick.”

Jack ran his hands down his face and then began to scrub with his fingers at the flesh on his arms.

Loose-limbed and nonchalant, Carl strolled down the hall. “Don’t be such a suck,” he said as he walked away.

Jack felt as if he were walking to his own execution. He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He longed to escape not just from the school but also from the life of safety and obedience through which his unarticulated grief wafted like the sanctimonious odours of a church.

He thought of bolting down the hallway and out the door, but he didn’t have the courage to defy his guilt and follow his own counsel. He knew that hope lay in engagement, even if it meant engaging with punishment; in avoidance he would find only despair. There was no escape from the consequences of his ambiguity.

All these thoughts occurred to him without form or definition like the ghost of his dead father. He could not put them into words. He could hardly articulate his own name as he stood with his friend at the principal’s desk and wondered as he cried how long he could live with his own failure.

Grief enforced the rules that governed his life. The rules allowed no joy, no glory, no distinction, no diddy wah diddy. They reminded him constantly of his complicity in his father’s disappearance. But he would struggle to free himself from the bland tyranny of obedience to these rules. He would try all his life to stop apologizing for consequences that he had never understood. He would be amazed at the effort it would take, how much time he would need to do it and how sad he would feel when he succeeded. AQ

Robert Rorke – Ten Dollar Bill

Ten Dollar Bill
by Robert Rorke

We came down to breakfast Sunday morning and found Himself slumped on the kitchen floor, back against the white enamelled oven door. His head was hanging down, dark hair hiding his right eye. Mom leaned against the sink, sipping a cup of coffee in her pink flannel nightgown, and looked down at him, as if trying to figure out how she was going to lift him—or if she was just going to leave him there.

He was conked-out. If you screamed in his ear, he wouldn’t have heard you. We’d found him passed out before, usually at the kitchen table, but never on the floor. Did he fall off the kitchen chair? He was like one of those guys you saw on the Bowery. How do you come home like that, so drunk you just collapse? I didn’t want to see any more and almost went back to my room until Mom hustled him upstairs.

I waited with my sisters in the dining room for the okay to walk in. Mom put the coffee cup down and waved us over. I went first.

Mom lit a cigarette on the gas burner and took a long drag on it. “She’s all yours,” she said, pointing.

As shocked as we were to see Himself in such bad shape, the bigger surprise was the dog. She was reclining next to his bent left leg, a tricolor collie blinking at us in the most bewildered way, as if she were waiting for us to tell her what she was doing here, in our kitchen. She was very striking, even beautiful. Her coat was mainly black. Her forelegs were brown, paws and chest white. Her snout was longer and narrower than most collies, with a thin stripe of white in the brown. It gave her a slightly aristocratic air. She was going to need it in this house.

Like me, my sisters were half-asleep. Ringlets of damp hair stuck to their necks and temples.

Maureen, the eldest, immediately knelt to pet the dog. “Look at you,” she said into the collie’s confused, melancholy face. She looked up at Mom. “Where’d she come from?”

“Your father brought her home from a bar. Where else? Who wants coffee?”

The aroma of a freshly cooked pot filled the kitchen. I raised my hand. “I do.”

Maureen glanced at Dad. “He’s really smelly, Mom.”

I didn’t plan to get that close. A thread of drool hung from his lip, pack of Pall Malls crushed in his shirt pocket. I checked the clock over the far wall of yellow cabinets. Eight a.m.

Maureen gently unbent Dad’s leg to free the collie. Now his legs were spread out in front of him, blocking the way to the sink. Standing on his other side, Mom poured coffee into cups she took from the drain board and passed them over his head to Dee Dee, who put them on the table. Then she passed out Tupperware cereal bowls.

“Let’s get her some water,” Maureen said. Mom filled a cereal bowl and passed it to Maureen. The collie lapped up half of it and then reclined on the floor next to Himself, crossing her front paws. Master and pet, in repose.

“Ooh, she’s such a lady,” I said. “Definitely not the saloon sort. What did he say when he brought her in?”

“What was there to say?” Mom said, flustered. “He opened the door at five o’clock and said, ‘I’ve got something here for the kids.’ I looked into the front porch and there she was.”

Having the collie there made it possible to overlook my father, as if he were a sofa too cumbersome to move.

“Well, she’s pretty and that’s nice,” said Patty, the second sister. “What’s her name?”

“I don’t know if she has one,” Mom said, wiping her glasses on a hand towel. “I think that’s up to you kids.”

We all looked at her.

“Well, we could name her after the bar where he found her,” I said.

Maureen shot me a baleful look. “Like what? Dew Drop?”

“We are not naming her Dew Drop,” said Patty. “Don’t be such an ass.”

“No, I think we’ll name her Queenie,” Maureen said.

She was always so pushy. “Hey, who says you get to decide?” I asked.

Mom took a ratty leather harness off the closet doorknob and handed it to Maureen. “Before you start arguing, why don’t you get dressed and take her out for a walk? Your father swore she was housetrained.”

We threw our clothes on without taking showers first and walked the dog together, the five of us. Me, Maureen, Patty and our two youngest sisters, Dee Dee and Mary Ellen. I helped Maureen put the harness on the dog and felt the hairless skin under her coat. Himself was grumbling on the kitchen floor.

“Go on now, while I get him up to bed,” Mom said.

The block was empty except for other dog walkers. It was a cloudy day with a raw, wet breeze. The Black Beauty, Himself’s vintage Pontiac, struck a lopsided pose in the driveway, its fancy back end, with a two-tone Continental kit, nudging the orange berries on our neighbour’s firethorn bush, its grille breathing on the alyssum plants around the border of our garden. Maureen held the leash and guided the collie into the street. The dog trotted along and Maureen, long brown hair lifting off her back, kept her eyes peeled toward Snyder Avenue for oncoming cars. It was uncanny, how she knew which way the collie was going to move. She pulled the leash to her, stopping the dog when a car approached or even if another animal appeared in her path. You would have thought she had been doing this for years. When I tried, I held the leash too loosely, and the dog almost walked into a passing Dodge.

We took the collie across Snyder Avenue where a dirt path ran along Holy Cross Cemetery. Gina Martinucci was already there, walking her dog, a camel-colored mutt named Muffin. She lived across the street. Not one pimple on her face. I’d known her as long as we’d lived here, almost ten years; she’d never looked so pretty. She was wearing a bright green raincoat, her wavy brown hair cascading to her shoulders. Not one pimple on her face. Next to her, I felt grubby in my blue corduroy pants and sweatshirt. And I wished I’d combed my mop of hair.

Gina was obviously ready for church. She sang and played lead acoustic guitar at the St. Maria Goretti folk mass (I hadn’t been to church since starting high school; maybe I needed to go back). There were almost as many girls in the Martinucci house as there were in mine, and one son, also the eldest child. The big difference was that her whole family was involved in the church: her mother sang in the choir, her father was in the Holy Name Society. Rumor had it that the Martinuccis said the rosary together—something we would not do in a million years.

“My God, is that your dog?” she said. “She’s beautiful. When did you get her?”

“This morning,” I said. My sweatshirt was not warm enough for the crisp air.

Gina gave me a strange look. “This morning? You’re kidding. Wow.”

“It was a surprise.”

She bent down to pet the collie. “How old is she?”

I shrugged. “We don’t really know.” I sounded like a first-class doofus.

“What?” Gina said, glancing up. “Well, she’s not a puppy. Where’d you get her?”

This encounter was getting more awkward every minute. I glanced at the flower arrangements on the graves through the cemetery’s wrought-iron fence. Piles of raked red, yellow, and brown leaves colored the dying grass.

“Our father brought her home,” Patty said finally.

Gina stroked the collie’s black fur. “Really? I mean, was she a stray?”

“The dog belonged to a friend of my father’s who couldn’t take care of her anymore,” said Maureen, standing next to me.

Gina was beginning to get it, her knit brow registering the weirdness of this meeting. “Oh, that’s too bad. So I guess you didn’t get to name her. It’s more fun when they don’t have a name.”

“You’re right,” Maureen said. “We were told her name was Queenie.”

I wanted to step on her feet. It was such a frigging stupid name.

“Queenie,” Gina said, trying it out. “Well, that’s different. I guess there enough Princesses around.”

“And they’re all German shepherds,” I said.

Muffin and Queenie were sniffing each other out, the collie ever so standoffish. Maureen didn’t even grip the leash. Gina ran her fingers through the collie’s thick coat again. “She must be shedding everywhere. I’m constantly picking up hair.”

“Yeah, it’s a real drag,” Maureen said, rolling her eyes. She started to lead the dog away. “Come on, Queenie.”

When my sisters were out of earshot, Gina told me, “Her coat’s a little dull. You should give her a raw egg once in a while. Makes it shiny.”

I caught up with my sisters after Gina left. “Why did you tell her we got the dog from daddy’s friend, of all things?”

“Why do you have to broadcast our family’s business all over the place?” Maureen said, letting the dog drag her ahead as she sniffed the ground.

“What did I say? We have a dog. We don’t know how old she is, and we don’t know where she came from—except some bar. Which I didn’t tell her.”

Maureen remained stone-faced. “You didn’t have to tell Gina Martinucci anything. She thinks who she is.” Finally, the dog squatted and peed.

Even though they met under the most unlikely circumstances, Queenie seemed to like Himself most of all. Whenever he sat in his chair, a rust-colored recliner, the dog ran over to him and leapt into his lap, offering her neck for a good rubbing. He always obliged and the dog moaned appreciatively.

“Daddy, why doesn’t she ever bark?” Dee Dee asked. That was Queenie’s thing: to almost bark, moaning when she became excited but never really opening her mouth to let the full sound out. “It’s like she wants to but doesn’t know how.”

“I don’t really know,” he said with a yawn. “I think she may have been beaten when she did bark.”

“Poor Queenie,” Dee Dee said.

There was no question that the arrival of the collie was a blessing in our lives. We could all take care of her. Dad set up a schedule for the care of the dog. Queenie was walked five times a day; I had the late shift. Soon we wanted the dog outside with us all the time. If there was no one else for Dee Dee and Mary Ellen to play with on the block when they came home from school, they could run her up and down the sidewalk between our house and Snyder Avenue or try in vain to teach her tricks, like how to catch a ball. And Queenie was always good company, whether you wanted to hang out on the stoop or walk two miles around the perimeter of Holy Cross.

There were only a few things she hated: baths, firecrackers, and bars. I discovered that one night when Dad called home, asking for money to stay out and drink. That had been going on a while, the staying out, maybe an entire year. Nights in neighborhood bars like the Dew Drop and the Brooklyn Inn or even Harkins, a bucket of blood in Park Slope, got longer and longer and sometimes ended the next day. It had us all on edge because we never knew what mood he would bring home. The morning he brought the collie counted as a good mood, but some of the others were ugly. Last week he summoned us to the kitchen table at the crack of dawn after being out all night about talking on the telephone too much—even though we never got a bill since he worked for Ma Bell. No matter what we did, there was always something wrong with it and we learned to walk on eggshells around him. Or avoid him altogether.

Mom was using her lowest possible voice as she talked to him on the phone, sitting on the telephone bench on the staircase landing; I knew she didn’t want to give him five cents. Then she hung up, called me over and asked me to give her the pocket book on the dining room table. She took a ten-dollar bill from her change purse and handed it to me.

“Take this to your father,” she said evenly.

“When?”

“Now.

I finished my French and geometry homework and was ready to watch “The Avengers.” Diana Rigg in a leather cat suit doing karate on the bad guys, then changing into something sleek at the end of the episode for a martini with Mr. Steed. Never missed an episode.

Mom knew from my expression I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t say anything. I went where I was told, though she didn’t have to tell me where. I knew: the Dew Drop. “He says to take the dog with you.”

Queenie, napping in front of the television, didn’t look like she wanted to go anywhere. “Why do I have to bring her?”

Mom bit off her words. “It will take ten minutes. Do me a favour and take the dog.”

Maybe I’d make it back in time for the second half-hour. Emma Peel would be kicking the villain-of-the-week in the teeth by then and the show would really get good. Maureen could tell me what I’d missed.

I walked up Church Avenue, heading towards Nostrand. Our neighbourhood was more black than white now. The streetscape I knew was changed forever. Roti shops had replaced grocery stores. Guy’s hair salon, with its sun-bleached pictures of women with blonde beehives and champagne bouffants taped to the windows, was now called De Hair Wizzards and advertised weaves, wigs and Afros. Himself wanted me to bring the dog for protection in case I ran into any trouble, but I didn’t think I’d have any problems. Now that it was colder, the corner boys who usually hung out in front of the bodega on New York Avenue drinking Colt 45s were gone. The few guys I did pass sidestepped me as if they were afraid of the collie. Little did they know she barely barked; it was hard to imagine her biting anyone.

The Dew Drop was on the corner of Church and Fairview Place, six blocks from home. Queenie trotted along at my side under a dark blue sky, her coat shiny in the moonlight (I’d taken Gina’s advice and mixed a raw egg into her Alpo). I wore a red-and-black plaid jacket that used to belong to my Uncle George; the sleeves were a little long, but had a great scratchy feel I always associated with old-time wool. He moved to Germany last summer. As a parting gift, he gave Himself a copy of The Big Book, a present from one recovering alcoholic to another on his way down. The book had vanished, hidden somewhere in our house, I was sure, probably unread. I needed no further proof than the morning he brought home the dog, unconscious on the kitchen floor.

As I approached the bar, something strange happened. Queenie pulled at the leash. I looked down at her and said, “What’s wrong?” I took another step and she dragged her hind legs on the sidewalk, claws on her forelegs scraping the concrete. I stopped. She gave me a frightened look. She knew more about this place than I did. I didn’t know what to do, so I bent down and pet her.

I glanced at the bar. The window was decorated with green shamrocks, decorations someone forgot to take down; it was already October. Or maybe every day was St. Patrick’s Day at the Dew Drop.

We went back to the corner and crossed the street. I walked the collie down to the corner of Martense Street and crossed back over. “Come on. It won’t take long,” I said, as if she could understand me. When we were near the bar’s side exit, she allowed me to tie the leash to a No Parking sign and I stayed with her a minute.

I was hoping I could make this quick, give the old man his ten bucks and scram. I entered the bar through the side door, hands at my side, not knowing what to expect. First surprise: It was a mixed crowd. I couldn’t even imagine Himself drinking with black guys, especially the ones here with Afros, when he was always making jokes about blacks, but I guess in the smoky confines of the Dew Drop, racial tensions were set aside as long as everyone could watch the Mets game. They’d won the World Series last year and were still the city’s favorite team, giving hope to underdogs everywhere.

I was the only minor in the joint, sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. Standing on tiptoe, I saw Dad sitting on a red stool. Probably itching for this ten-dollar bill, thinking about it every time he saw the foam slide down the inside of the empty pint glass next to him. He was talking to some middle-aged white guy with a sharply receding hairline and a cigar sticking out of his mouth. The TV set was poised above the far right end of the bar. They were complaining about first baseman Ed Kranepool. I knew that name from listening to my parents watch the game at home. Dad always called him lard ass.

I stood behind him, took the bill out of my pocket and placed it on the bar in front of him. I leaned in. “Mom said this was for you.”

He turned and shot me a look. “Hey, who’s this?” the man sitting next to him asked, and I reached out to shake the hand of someone I didn’t really want to meet.

“You haven’t met my son, the scholar?” Dad said, poking the shoulder of a guy next to him. “Nicky, can I buy you a drink?”

Mom didn’t say I was going to have to stay. “Uh, maybe a quick one. I’ll take a ginger ale. I have the dog outside.”

One of the Mets scored a home run, and he shouted to everyone, in the booming voice we heard him use to cheer on the Giants, his other favourite team, “Seven to four, top of the eighth. We are home free.”

When he was wound up like this, Dad was hard to resist. He called the bartender over. “Charlie, give me another beer. And a soda for my son.”

Charlie was an older white man with liver-colored lips and thinning brown hair slicked back with some old-time tonic with a medicinal odour like Vitalis; when he spoke, his nicotined teeth flashed garishly from the right corner of his mouth. I bet Dad had known him for years, from one place to another as he stopped in for a quick one after work. Charlie slapped another foamy beer on the bar.

So this was Himself’s inner sanctum. A private world of men playing the away game from their families. Some customers were older than Dad, guys with thick-lensed eyeglasses, pudding skin, and chin lines lost to jowls, but many looked like they were about the same age, early- to mid-thirties, still slim and well built. All eyes were on the television screen and the all-important game. I sipped my soda, trying to seem natural though the smoky air was bothering my eyes; it was hard not to rub them.

Compared to some of the joints I would later retrieve Himself from, this place wasn’t terrible. The décor was standard: a jukebox, a pool table, dartboard, neon signs advertising Rheingold and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two photos over the walnut case that housed the bottles of liquor and liqueurs caught my eye; they seemed so out of place. One was John F. Kennedy, in a fake gold frame, the kind we used for our school pictures, lined up on the fireplace in the living room. The other was Martin Luther King Jr. The owner wasn’t stupid; he wanted to keep his changing clientele happy.

Dad was telling the guy sitting at the next stool—his name was Molloy, Joe Molloy—what a fantastic student I was. “This kid got one hundred in Latin, I kid you not,” he said. I remembered more the lecture he’d given me about my mediocre algebra grades on the same report card.

“I’m lucky I can speak English,” Molloy said. He got up to take a leak and I took his seat.

The ginger ale tasted kind of flat. I drank it anyway and gestured to the dog when I finished. The side exit was open now, and Dad glanced at Queenie resting on the sidewalk.

“She’s some watchdog,” he said with a wink. “Best game of poker I ever won.”

“What?”

“I was playing cards here with Tommy Sullivan and Phil Cooney and Joe was flat broke. So he put his dog up as ante. You see, he’s the owner and she was kind of like the bar dog.”

The bar dog. I wished he had the sense that she did about coming here. “And you won the game and the dog.” I couldn’t even smile.

Dad gave a hearty laugh. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

I wondered how long Queenie had lived here. We didn’t even know how old she was. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the guys sitting on the stools. How many of them would go home after the Mets had won? Most, probably. So why couldn’t Himself do that?

Standing up, I glanced at the singles on the bar, the change from our drinks. I was feeling nervy. “So I guess you’ll be home when the game’s over?”

He did a double take, as if I’d cuffed him on the ear. “What did you say, Mr. Flynn?”

For the moment, I forgot about Emma Peel. “I want to take another driving lesson tomorrow. We haven’t gone out in a while.”

He’d given me my first driving lesson in The Black Beauty, inside Holy Cross Cemetery. I crept along the winding rows in the ancient Pontiac—it was new in 1958—driving ten, twenty miles an hour amid the rows of granite and green. By some fluke, I learned to parallel-park there, on the first try. Since then, we’d branched out, taking the black-and-white tank to the Brooklyn Terminal Market, which had no yellow lines, just huge spaces between the vendors. “I don’t want to get rusty.”

“Yeah, well. We’ll see what we can do about that.”

As saves go, I was proud of myself, although my knees were shaking. An appointment with a car he could make. Spending the night with his family, he was on the fence.

Queenie looked fairly miserable out on the sidewalk, panting in the dark, but I wanted to see if I could get Himself to come home. It was the top of ninth, the score unchanged. I ordered another ginger ale, chipping away at what was left of that ten-dollar bill. Tom Seaver, the cute Met my two eldest sisters had a crush on, was pitching so that was a good sign. He could knock out the other team and when he did, the guys in the bar cheered as if they were out at Shea Stadium. Then they started to leave, settling up, shaking hands with the bartender, and going on their way.

I stood and nudged my old man. “Come say hi to the dog.”

I went outside. Queenie jumped on me when I untied the leash, thinking we were finally getting out of there. When she settled down, I pet her under the collar, rubbing the white hair under her neck, which she loved. Then Himself joined us on the sidewalk and she got excited all over again. She was ready to go. I wondered if he was too.

“Want to walk us home?”

He stopped petting Queenie and looked up at me. “Why? You afraid of the dark?”

“Game’s over, Dad. Your team won.”

He stood, looking down at the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, as if giving serious thought to my proposal. “You go on home, Nicky,” he said. “I’ve got to talk Molloy about something.”

When he raised his head, his eyes were full of regret; he knew what I was up to and he was still going to let me down. I wondered how much of that ten-dollar bill was left—enough for one more drink? Maybe he had to talk Molloy into giving him a free one. A buy back, they called it. Except that my mother was doing the buying here. He was doing the spending.

He left me on the sidewalk with the dog. I was a fool to think I’d convince him to come home. Voices came from the TV set inside the bar, sportscasters falling all over themselves about tonight’s game. I stood there like a jerk, looking at the mannequins in the window of Bob and Betty, the children’s clothing store across the street. A stock boy from the Big Apple dragged tied-up cardboard boxes to the curb for garbage pickup tomorrow morning.

I had him, then I lost him, like an image that slips out of focus in the lens of a camera. All the elements were there to give me a clear picture of what I could expect the next time I was sent to get him. And the time after that. The corner bar, the sound of my own footsteps as I walked up the street, the kid taking out the trash, as I would do when I had my own after-school job, scooping thirty-one flavours. A lingering sense of futility, and the lonely certainty that these missions would end only when I grew up and moved away.

I took the dog and headed back down Church Avenue. She pulled at the leash with the same force she showed when clawing the sidewalk. Home, that’s what she wanted. Me too. Neither of us belonged here.

André Gouyneau – Léon, the Tiger

Léon, the Tiger
by André Gouyneau
translated by Kathy Janes

Imagination will often carry us to worlds
that never were. But without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

In the old theatre, the last people were taking their seats. The compere walked back and forth in front of the red stage curtain, incessantly repeating the words on the poster by the entrance.

An unforgettable first act. From the top of the theatre, Leon the Tiger will leap onto one or two members of the audience. There is no danger, once he has landed on you he will weigh less than a small cat, a soft toy… a feather. He will fall into your arms. Don’t be afraid, have faith.

They took their seats tentatively; should they be near the aisles to escape in an emergency, or should they be in the middle of the crowd. Which strategy should they adopt? All were sceptical, not believing that a large, wild beast could, in an instant, transform its considerable weight into that of a small cat. The children were impatient and scrambling over the knees of their parents. They wanted him on their laps so they could stroke him. Anxious mothers tried in vain to keep them safely sheltered in their arms.

The wait was never-ending. Then, quite suddenly, the lights went out, taking the audience by surprise. The hubbub became a sustained whispering tinged with anxiety. Just as in the circus, a loud drum roll erupted and Leon appeared in a pool of white light. He was magnificent. He walked about to the tune of the Pink Panther, swaying his hips and rolling his shoulders.
Next, roaring in a fearsome manner, he made some jumps on the spot, perfectly in time with the loud and rhythmic music. Then, at the speed of light, he scoured the theatre in all directions. This was a well-rehearsed number, a perfectly choreographed fusion of light, sound and theatrics. This freely roaming tiger turned the audience to jelly.

Leon knew just how to play on the nerves of his clients. He roared in the face of some, swinging blows in the air at them with his paws, giving them some broad winks. Then the artist became serious. He chose his partners for this evening with care. A fleshy old man gave way to a magnificent young woman, a tattooed guy to a cute, retired couple. By turns he was wily and affectionate or loud and aggressive. He froze for a few seconds to look just right on the big screen and to allow everyone to take excellent photos. He also managed to make his breath felt on a number of spectators. This was a fierce, frightening animal and also a big pussycat, who purred and fooled around.

Then Leon, the warm up act, gave way to Leon, the artist. He became serious. From way up high in his circle of light, he slowly crouched down, hidden from the view of most of the spectators. In one diagonal swoop, like a coloured arc, he took a leap of about twenty metres and landed on a dear, old couple, who remained impassive. On his back in their arms, he begged to be stroked under the chin, then gave them a big lick with his tongue. He moved away from them nonchalant and smiling. The crowd were on their feet applauding. He returned to the top of the theatre with his supremely supple gait.

The spotlight followed him for his second performance. On his back and with all his paws spread wide, he did a kind of loop-the-loop and glided for a fraction of a second before landing on the knees of three delighted young children. The audience were completely won over. He continued his tomfoolery and his showmanship during the ovations. Now the hero of the children, he was less and less frightening.

The third jump was incredible. Swirling in the air and roaring, he espied a woman clinging to a man in a yellow suit. The panic-stricken couple threw themselves to the ground in the aisle and Leon crashed down onto their seats. The stifled, muffled sound of a bass drum rang out. Everyone understood right away that Leon had fallen with his full weight because he was not ‘welcomed’. The anger of the crowd spilled over and they booed the couple, who had to flee. Leon went out slowly, limping, leaning for support on the shoulders of two bruisers. Turning his head, he made little gestures with his paws, he smiled at his fans. The compere quickly got the crowd back under control and announced the main attraction. In the wings, Leon’s agent congratulated him.

“Well done! With the perfectly synchronised sound system, even I thought you weighed a ton.”

“Heaven forbid. Thank goodness, I am as light as a feather, otherwise how could I make such leaps.”

“It was good tonight, but we should vary the finale.”

“I could land on a rib of beef placed at the front of the stage,” said Léon.

“Or pretend to eat me,” joked his agent.

“Why not, it’s quite plausible. After all, I am somewhat feral.”