Guest Fiction Editor

Lawrence Lawson

This issue's Guest Fiction Editor, Lawrence Lawson, lived and worked as a teacher of English with the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2005 to 2007. When he wasn't learning Ukrainian or observing pro-democracy political rallies, he was writing about his experiences.

Lawrence's non-fiction work about his Peace Corps experience was nominated for the 2007 Pushcart Prize. As well, an excerpt of his current work of non-fiction, When a Lobster Whistles in the Mountains: A Peace Corps Honeymoon in Ukraine, will be published in Peace Corps at 50, a four volume collection of stories celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps.

His work has also been published in various Peace Corps publications, including Worldview magazine and "In The Field" magazine, and at perigee-art.com (where he took, respectively, second and first place in Perigee's 2004 & 2005 prose competitions).

Lawrence recently received his Master's Degree in TESOL from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He currently teaches at a college in Southern California, and is hard at work completing his second book, a fantasy novel entitled The Aria of Davin Ford: Midnight Quit of Starlight. Lawrence is also the Founder and Editor of Kazka Press.
 


Issue 28 Fiction, Select a Story from the Menu

Guest Fiction Editor Lawrence Lawson—founding editor of Kazka Press and award-winning contributor to Perigee—brings us six excellent stories including his own "Tragedy in the History of a Comedy," which is not to be missed.

Please select a story from the menu on the left.

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Foreward to Volume 421 by Simon Barron

Writers and readers are forever locked in a tragic embrace. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship wherein each relies on the other— the writer seeks someone to hear her voice, the reader seeks a voice to listen to. Like all interactions based on mutual benefit, the writer/reader relationship is doomed to failure—one party grows jealous of the other. The reader wants to control and the writer wants to lay down the quill. I was a reader like you but the book that you hold is the personification of my transition. I apologise for it.

A book's foreword is a gentle slope into the novel's depths. This book is part of a series entitled In the Midst and the series' nature defies a gentle introduction. Thus I must apologise again as I indulge in what the academics label post-modernism and tell the story of how this volume came to be written.

Years ago, I worked as a book-binder. I ran an independent trade from my small apartment: second-hand booksellers, librarians, and collectors from across the country sent stray books to me. I fixed them and released them into the wild. It was not unusual for me to find books on my doorstep abandoned like orphans in the street and so I was not surprised to discover a parcel among the post one day.

Wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, it looked as though it were sent from the 1940s. I ripped the tape off the corners and unwrapped the paper, revealing a single piece of card and a large book that had fallen apart. It was no more than a sheaf of papers sandwiched between perfunctory covers. The pages were yellowed and marked by excessive thumbing through the volume. The covers were faded and softened to the consistency of bread by water damage. Holding the book with care, I examined what remained of the spine. Silver lettering identified the book as In the Midst: Volume 189. There was no by-line offering the author's identity.

The accompanying card was handwritten in the unmistakeable style of my sister. She explained that the dilapidated text had cried out to her from a market stall in Covent Garden. Being a bibliophile, she had reacted as though it were a bruised and beaten dog. She had adopted the tome and sent it to me: "the appropriate doctor" the card said.

Like my sister, I took pity on the wretched creature. I sorted the pages, bound them between new hard covers, and etched the title into the spine in a silver that matched the original.

While I straightened the pages, chunks of the story seeped into my head. The novel charted the lives of the Delgrando family: wealthy land-owners in 15th Century Spain. The narrative depicted their fall from grace as they lost favour with business associates, neighbours, and the Church. The style was not dissimilar to Umberto Eco—whimsical but realistic to its time-period. I set aside the Tolstoy I had been reading and took up In the Midst.

I will not lie for the sake of narrative: at first I felt nothing for the novel. The reader was thrown into the story at the funeral of the family matriarch's prized mastiff although the significance of this event did not become apparent until 200 pages further in when the family history was detailed. The protagonist (the youngest son, Martín) alluded to characters and scenes that must have occurred in the previous 188 volumes of the series. There were no chapters but rather a continuous flow of prose creating the impression that these characters never stopped—they took no convenient breaks at moments of high tension and they never took any action that was not worthy of elaboration. It seemed as if the author of the book was not crafting a story but charting real lives in excruciating detail. Hundreds of pages were spent depicting the minutiae of a character's single day and their every thought, no matter how tedious or inconsequential.

Yet, with time and patience, I became engrossed in the characters' lives. Through their hopes and their disappointments, I saw a fully-realised fictional world replete with emotional nuance and the subtlety of actual human interaction. Like no other book, this one transported me into someone else's mind. I could no more tear myself from their existences than I could from my own. I never wanted to set the world of the Delgrando family aside.

After four days of reading, the book ended. There was no conclusion, no emotional denouement. Martín woke up and left the villa to fetch some water while considering the effect that the impending political union of Castile and Aragon would have on the now-destitute family. Then I hit the back cover.

The Delgrandos haunted me over the next week. I couldn't stop imagining plotlines stretching into the future, side-plots of secondary or tertiary characters whom I had come to love, how one could transpose the action from one setting to another. The possibilities of a hypothetical Volume 190 seemed infinite and majestic in their scope. I scoured the internet for days searching for any information on In the Midst but Amazon, Wikipedia, and even the world's dumping ground, eBay, left me with no more than when I began. It seemed the book was a perfect example of creatio ex nihilo.

I was left little alternative. I had never tried to write: the course of my life had entrenched me on the reader side of the equation. I appreciated, fixed, and loved books—the idea of me creating them was blasphemous. But I needed a release for my ideas and it seemed an even greater sacrilege to let In the Midst end. So I wrote. It was difficult: the words did not fit what had to be expressed, sentences were clumsy and insipid, the characters' actions sprang from nowhere, and the manuscript was peppered with turgid imagery and unnecessary adverbs.

I would not let the characters die. I had to write them a world or they would be left floating in a purgatory of imagination. The Delgrandos deserved life and I could give it to them through the medium of words. I wrote 1200 pages, single-spaced, 12-point text before I came to a natural end. I bought reams of paper, printed it out, and bound it in the same style as Volume 189. The two volumes sat beside one another like smug twins.

Scarcely two hours passed before I sat down to write Volume 191. I moved the narrative onto a member of the Church who moved to Italy, giving the story a different flavour. Bit by bit, I expanded the world with new characters and extended narrative threads.

Months later I was writing Volume 232. The defining noise in my apartment was the sterile tapping of fingers on keys. I spent days at my desk, moving only for brief periods of sleep and small meals. The phone rang—I ignored it. Friends knocked at my door—I shouted that I was busy. My story was a monolithic tapestry, twisting and turning in byzantine complexity, stretching across time and space. Volume 198 was a series of flashbacks to the early history of a monastic order which would only be brought into the contemporary storyline in Volume 212. Volume 206 was devoted to a single dream of a 16th Century Parisian baker. I became a god surrounded by a universe in stacks of paper.

I knew In the Midst as a blessing: it gave me that most elusive of human goals—meaning. My family and friends took the book for a curse. When my sister discovered my obsession, she forced me to take a trip with her. She wanted me to visit a bookshop in New England that she believed would 'cure' me of my literary affliction.

On the plane, I filled notebooks with ideas, plotlines, and dialogue.

The bookshop was situated on an industrial estate outside Augusta. It was a warehouse with three floors, each floor packed with shelves, each shelf sagging under the weight of books. Despite this prodigious store of literature, the whole shop contained only a single book: thousands of volumes of In the Midst.

Everyday during our time there, I wandered the bookshop like Theseus in the labyrinth. I uncovered the essence of In the Midst: the book that shifts the writer/reader paradigm; the book that forces those who read it to take up the pen and give up their lives. It is a drug, a disease, and a virus all in one.

I discovered astounding texts in that warehouse. Volumes reaching into the 700s; multiple texts of the same number; manuscripts by hundreds of different authors. I found a whole shelf of Volumes 76—193 written by Harper Lee—she had become ensnared by the book and prevented from writing anything else. She remains a prisoner of the story. I found versions of my own prison, Volume 189, which did not mention the Delgrando family or even Spain: these volumes branched off at an earlier point in the series and wove entirely different paths for their characters. I found volumes that branched off from my 189 in directions depicting every possibility. I found versions of the tale that reached to the 21st Century and beyond; versions that invoked fantastical nations of space-travel, time-travel, magic, or the limits of science. I found versions that had their characters lecture on physics, mathematics, or philosophy, and consequently became textbooks enumerating on concepts and ideas.

The collective In the Midst is everything: across the various permutations of the story, millennia pass; dynasties and empires rise and fall; protagonists live, love, hate and die; ideas and possibilities intermingle in wild combinations, branching from one another in endless succession, mapping the geography of a narrative that started from a single point.

I did not find Volume 1.

In the years between then and now, I never stopped writing so that I need never stop reading. This volume is the embodiment of decades spent writing a story that few will ever read and that will destroy the lives of those who do. This Volume 421 depicts a tale of revenge in 19th Century Chicago—the protagonist is a woman descended from a tertiary character in someone else's Volume 369: she is haunted by visions of a dystopian future society and becomes increasingly obsessed with the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. The story is captivating and it never ends. I continue it, countless others worldwide continue it, and in all likelihood you will continue it.

Again, I apologise.

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Biographical information: Simon Barron is an aspiring writer from Manchester, England. He has a BA in Philosophy and is currently studying for an MA in Library and Information Management with a view to a career in librarianship. He has recently had short fiction published in a number of print and online magazines including New Scientist and First Edition Magazine. His literary influences include Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino.

Seeing the Rabbit by Barbara O'Byrne

The year after college, I spent considerable time in upstate New York. In the easy way that friends are made at twenty, a circle of women formed, a band of social immigrants escaping what we knew because it was not who we were, or who we thought we wanted to be. In the wake of urban riots, student protests and the televised war, we volunteered in projects involving organic vegetables, solar energy and self-help collectives; we did not dance disco. We were a picaresque group whose roots compressed the continent and life stages from twenty to fifty into a single year, a single place, a Plattsburgh New York.

Several of us came to live at 22 Bridge Street, an imposing three-story brick home that long ago had been sub-divided into small apartments to take advantage of restless college students who hated living in dorms and whose parents were still helping with the bills. One side faced the expanse of Lake Champlain; the other an industrial garage whose engines and machines whirled and whined from eight to four each day.

Janice, older and full of books, was escaping a convent in Chicago, after confessing to her superior that she had a personal friend and he was not Jesus. Debbie left a marriage, and later a psychiatrist who patted her fanny as she was leaving the last session, reassuring her that her preference for women was 'just a phase'. She and Becky said good-bye to parents and southwest certainties of wheat, Jesus, and flying saucers. They packed an aging Subaru wagon and came north from Arizona. 

Some, like me, were fleeing the suburbs of Montreal, and the lock step of college and career. A suburban exile that had lived through the whirly twirl of psychedelics, my parents' fractious divorce halfway though high school, and the numbness of beige, I took nothing at face value. In my uncertainty about who I was and where I belonged, I was very like the other Bridge Street residents. I took a job at the college bookstore where I met Becky, and devoted my spare time to training a horse all but abandoned at the Patrick's farm by a girl whose interests had changed. To this task, I brought enthusiasm and a manual found at a local library.

Melissa was the only group member who arrived celebrating and cherishing her past. She was as confident and outgoing with people as I was reticent and tentative. If I were a blank canvas afraid of paint, of anything that could not be undone, Melissa was a wash of vibrant shapes, bold colors and rich hues. Nevertheless, she puzzled me like one of those optical illusions that you cannot quite see, the dissonant pieces picking at me like the fibers of pink insulation.

Melissa came to Plattsburgh that August to interview for the open position of technical librarian at the college library. After landing the job the same day, Janice brought her over to 22 Bridge Street where several of us were in the backyard, half way into our four to seven sherry hour. Melissa had worked for years in Cleveland at a university library but home was Louisville, which she pronounced with a soft 'u' that expanded to fill all the letters from 'l' to 'v'. "Call me Lissa," she urged, a hint of a southern drawl lingering underneath more pointed sounds from somewhere in the northeast. She had a long, slight frame, topped by short, blond hair she tucked behind her ears, revealing an unblemished oval face. Wire-rimmed glasses sat in front of grey-blue eyes that invited everyone with a cool, soft gaze. Now changed into pencil-thin jeans and white tee shirt, she could easily be mistaken for a girl of twelve. Unlike most women fighting the plus side of the scale, Melissa retained the straight lines of an early adolescent even as she edged towards thirty. Funny and quick-witted, her deep reservoir of animated stories and breadth of knowledge led her into conversations with all of us. She slipped into the circle of friends as easily as she had settled into the blue and green striped canvas lawn chair. It was a foregone conclusion that she would be told about the upstairs apartment soon to be vacated by a graduating student.

While I was still gliding around the edges of the group, Melissa was weaving herself into the fabric. She had a habit of writing notes to herself, reminders of things she wanted to bring to people: a civil war canteen for Joe who was involved in a local production of Red Badge of Courage, a finger plane for Becky making a dulcimer, and three early picture of Rockwell Kent for Ellen, struggling to put an exhibit together at the library. On a day I had planned to go into town to get groceries, she casually asked, "Would you like to drive the truck?" When her blue Chevy arrived with her from Ohio, I had dismissed it as a southern thing. I had never before given any thought to driving this or any other metal behemoth. Moments later, I was seeing the highway from high up, feeling the sweet power of moving past midget Corollas and Honda hatchbacks.

At the library, she negotiated her way through a professional minefield. Not more than a month after her arrival, Anne, the head librarian whose passion for office politics had long ago replaced any interest in the collection, showed up in Melissa' s office with a notice of a librarian position at the University of Kentucky. "I thought you might want to see this one," Anne gushed. "Not the one for me." Melissa smiled, adding, "Who'd help you keep these ruffians in order?" When Anne implied to Rob, the reference librarian that Melissa planned changes that would eliminate his job, Melissa invited him to dinner.  I met up with them leaving our building around ten. Rob was holding the door open and talking to Melissa over his shoulder, "We should offer Anne's position to the next round of budget cuts." Melissa's cackle of a response cemented Anne as a mutual enemy. I marveled at her ability to make people comfortable, at her unshakable sureness in the person she was.

All that fall and winter after her arrival, she molded the odd sized rooms of the micro unit on the third floor into a gem of charm and curiosity. She painted the walls bright yellows and soft browns, filled the rooms with quirky, second-hand chairs, tables and lamps from Bushy's Second Hand/Antique Store. These she stripped and refinished to reveal mellow oak and rich, red maple grains. The rest of the furniture, bookcases, an end table, and a shadow cabinet, she constructed herself with an amazing collection of hand and power tools that appeared one day from the bed of her blue Chevy truck. In one corner of her living room was Wilbur, a painted duck Melissa had picked up at a garage sale. Back feathers splayed, green neck coyly arched, and a long sallow bill jutting out between two black eyes, he was utterly ugly.

One day when she was out sanding boards on the lawn, I asked how she had learned to use power tools. "Fathers and brothers," she shouted over the grind of grit on wood. Sanding's nothing but patience and care," she added, as the soft sheen of the white pine emerged from within a splintered, rough casing. I thought of my own home where a broken window or faulty light fixture would lead my father to exclaim, "Don't touch it; I'll call a man in to fix it." Everything else that broke: bookcases, chrome chairs, plastic dolls- thrown out, replaced with newer, shinier models that seemed made to fall apart. My father's accuracy with numbers, with anything theoretical, never extended to practical things. Some skills he never bothered to learn. While men all around the block were building rec rooms and decks, my father was reading or sleeping. Born in a large city and into a privileged life, he divorced the suburbs long before he left my mother. Both expected too much of him.  

In between apartment projects, Melissa used the wood scraps to construct a bed and a dresser for a perfectly scaled dollhouse left behind in Cleveland. She showed me these lovely miniature pieces one afternoon after I had helped her carry in some supplies from the truck. "When I get my own home," she said, "I'll bring up the rest of the pieces." You're not planning on staying here?" I asked. "No," Melissa replied, "I need my own home." This she said in her easy, confident voice that almost but not quite glided past me. What was this apartment was if not her home?  The edges of this thought caught in my mind.

That Christmas was the first Debbie and Becky would be spending away from their families so we decided to have a group celebration dinner at a local restaurant before the rest of us left for the ritual family visits. We gathered at Melissa's for a pre-dinner drink. Melissa announced, "Next year we can do the dinner at my place," reminding us for not the first time that the apartment was just temporary. Her strong feelings on the matter of home ownership were strange to me, content to be living in any accommodation so long as it was outside either of my parents' houses, associating home ownership with marriage and settling down. Jill, who owned her own home, asked, "Why did you put so much into this place if you planned to leave so soon?" Melissa did not directly reply, saying only "I'm getting the money for a down payment." I was glad to hear someone else echo my thoughts, though Melissa's answer seemed to belong to some other question and I was as perplexed as ever.

Amid riotous excursions to historic sites, antique stores, and campgrounds, there were days when neither I nor anyone else at Bridge Street, saw Melissa. Phone calls went unanswered. We might hear from Janice that she was taking a personal day from the library. On these mornings, I would hear her stereo wafting through the ceiling in the mornings, a mix of contemporary ballads and county music; it was still playing when I went to sleep around midnight. She would emerge occasionally to get a bag out of her truck and disappear up the back stairs and into her apartment. When asked by Debbie or Janice if anything was wrong, she shrugged a reply, "Just a blue day; you know how that goes," dismissing her absence as if it were leaves falling from a tree in autumn. She would emerge a day or so later, a glistening monarch, bursting with energy for some new project. These days and Melissa's breezy explanations puzzled me in the way white spaces in a Japanese painting beg interpretation.

After one of her blue days, Melissa invited the Bridge Street residents to a party to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. She greeted us at the door in a striking blue suit that contrasted with our jeans and tees. With a loud chortle, she handed each of us a bowler hat and ushered us inside. Drinking mint juleps in silver tumblers, sweaty with unseasonable May heat and laughing through Melissa's rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," we entered her Louisville world through anecdotes colored with equal mixes of humor and chilling realism.

A photo of Melissa in silk organza and matching pumps, attired for a prom that was more like a coming out party sent us into spasms, Melissa's trademark cackle and snorts pushing the joke further and further. When asked about race relations in the south, she recalled a time when she was eight when her poppa had smacked her for inviting a black man shingling the roof into the house for a glass of water. "He's a good man; it's just how he was raised," she added in the same non-judgmental, easy tone as the other tales, but her cool eyes flickered.  When Janice questioned how the family feuds that made Kentucky infamous fit with Melissa's descriptions of close family bonds, Melissa simply shrugged and said, "Brothers fight; that doesn't mean they don't have love." Through all of her recollections, chords of belief and belonging could be heard in every story, carrying a familiar, forgiving melody.

Later that evening, in the calm between going to bed and sleep, the conversations from the party and my own unasked questions swirled in my head. Why had Melissa left Kentucky? Did she really want to live in a world where no one questioned things? I realized there were parts of Melissa that belonged to this world of iced tea and blood feuds. These parts were as natural to her as they were alien to me. If I was running from a past where I could not find my tribe, from disillusionment with instant pudding and other suburban myths, Melissa celebrated and believed in the promise and values of her southern past. In spite of the racism and the violence, her faith in her family seemed to hold the melody together. While I could hear the joy in her voice, Melissa's attachment to her family separated Melissa from the rest of the Bridge Street residents and certainly from me. It was like arriving at a familiar house only to find there was no way in.

About a week after Kentucky Derby, Melissa called in friends from Bridge Street to help move in a large table she had borrowed from the library. When we arrived, she announced that her brothers and their wives were coming for a visit. "They were supposed to come up to Cleveland last summer but Tim's vacation dates got changed."  It seemed odd timing, because Melissa had spent the last three days looking over three houses with inspectors, weighing the features and costs of several properties. From the way she was calculating down payments and asked about closing dates, it was clear that she was beyond looking and was ready to buy. When Jill reminded her of the pressure associated with the house purchase, Melissa was emphatic, "My family's always welcome; they don't need an appointment." Her tone was different from the soft, modulated voice or cackling laughter that to me was Melissa. It was not angry or critical; it was solid and rough-edged, like clay-fired bricks. Here again was that invisible wall. With a glance around her tiny quarters and a quick smile, she explained that she had already booked rooms for them at a local motel. "Next time," she exclaimed, "they'll stay with me."

For the next three days whenever I saw Melissa two towering brothers and their diminutive wives, the group scurrying to and from the building surrounded her. George and Tim were fair-haired and tall like Melissa but the resemblance stopped there. The brothers, however, were variations of the same figure. Both had solid paunches and the pasty look of those who spend considerable time under florescent lights. Both met the world through the solid brown eyes of those whose conversations often start with 'look here' or 'see, it goes like this.'

On the last day of the visit, Melissa invited friends from the building to attend a dinner party for her relatives. This eliminated doubts I had begun to entertain that she really did not want her family to meet her friends. As I made my way up the back staircase to Melissa's, I thought back to my own family visits on vacation from college that inevitably left me silent and sour. Family dinners were the worst. My mother, huge and thin-skinned, would sit at one end of the table, my father, rakish, and oblivious at the other. My two sisters and I sat between them on either side of a dark oak table. My mother's bewilderment and anger at what was happening in her life pushed against my father's tense silence. Divorce was unheard of in Catholic families. Nevertheless, my father was doing just that. After years of battle with my mother's infinite rage, with a woman he could no more fix than a broken window, he made one decision in his life and initiated divorce proceedings. The last Christmas we were together, Marie and Elizabeth, both still in high school and I, a college sophomore, were silent at every meal lest another scene unfold, leaving dishes of stewed tomatoes and greasy meat on the floor and splattered on the wall paper.

Loud voices, interjected with laughter, spilled into the hall, ended my thoughts. The apartment door was flung open; several Bridge Street residents were already sitting around the table. George was reporting on the local custom of bathtub Madonnas, proposing a guided tour for their next visit. "We need pictures; no one's going to believe this without photos. Janice, ya think the library could consider an exhibit? He nudged Tim, "Kentucky's about to lose its reputation for lawn junk." I joined in the laugher, recalling the incongruous appearance of these blue-painted ceramic grottos from the train windows on my trips home from college.

Bottles of Jim Beam were passed around, along with pictures from an album. Pausing on a recent shot of his two sons, George the older brother, exclaimed, "I feel like an old man. Hell, I'm thirty-six: I am old. Next thing you know, one of these little guys will be driving me up here." He grunted, took another swallow from his tumbler. Tim added, "At thirty-four, I'm right behind you; couple of geezers in training is what we are." Their big belly laughs put me at ease. Their wives, whose names I cannot remember, seemed to fade, as the brothers grew larger and larger.

Tim brought out a set of photos of Melissa and her brothers, showing younger versions of all three. The pictures brought forth tales of youthful escapades and familiar Louisville characters. When George told tales of teasing little Missy with reptiles and scaring her with sudden darkness, as taller hands stealthily removed a light bulb from its socket, Tim jumped in, "Remember that boy who grabbed that Cardinal's cap from you, the look on his face when my fist landed."." The look on your face when poppa wailed on you," quipped Melissa. "I heard him tell momma later that evening, 'the boy takes after me does what needs to be done.'" George interjected, "I'd a whipped you if you'd hadn't got that damn hat back." Tim and Melissa howled. Their three beaming faces cemented a particular family understanding. 

Melissa's small blond head turned in the direction of first George and then Tim, as each tried to outdo the other in memories that featured them as big brother to little Missy. As her neck rotated, her eyes appeared as constant blue circles behind wire rim frames. Her lips, slightly parted and drawn up in a grin, barely moved but for an occasional peck at the food on her plate. She seemed to feed off reminisces that defined a golden Kentucky childhood. A momentary sadness passed through me, not for the closeness I had never had at home but for realization that I had wanted it.

As the dinner party extended past midnight, the brothers' voices expanded like huge helium balloons looming over the table while Melissa's diminished to a harmonizing echo. We all joined in the raucous laughter, fed by whisky and the willingness of the young to enter into other people's lives. In time, all of the guests were calling out to little Missy, who seemed delighted by our joining in the family chorus.

I felt suspended in a bubble of belonging gently spinning in the cross currents of the voices and the hum of a circular fan in the far corner of the kitchen. Even as Melissa seemed smaller and more distant, I felt the pull of her gregarious, boisterous brothers. I could see Melissa's doll furniture poised on the mantel of an ornamental fireplace in the adjoining living room. In the half-light between the kitchen and the darkened living room, my questions about Melissa's blue days, the anomalies of her Kentucky culture, even her puzzling desire for a house dissolved into the easy acceptance of her place in this open and funny family, into things as they appeared. The sweet softness of belonging dulled the sharp edges of my doubts and riddles.

George, now more than half-drunk, switched from family recollections to editorializing that the crap about ending poverty with handouts would never work. He's seen people buy cars at his lot, using the checks the government gave them for their kids. He and Mary had saved a year for their first car, even with the company discount. The funny thing was that no one challenged him. Even Jill, outspoken and articulate, who worked with those whom George was belittling, remained silent.  Out of politeness or, in my case, a lingering desire to remain inside the buoyant hum of conviviality, the Bridge Street guests kept their mouths shut. "Family needs to stick together," George interjected; he'd helped Tim and Angie get their first house to which Tim grunted approval. Melissa remained silent, but I saw her eyes fix like a cat's.

George set his glass down and gazed at Melissa, "When you comin' home? Momma's worried sick about you alone up here. We'd get you a nice place in Louisville, a lot better than the one bedroom box you're in now." He glanced around the apartment, his voice shifting to a softer octave, "You know she's going to be seventy next month and it's not like you've got anything permanent here. It's time for you to settle down." Before Melissa or anyone could reply, Tim jumped in, "Don't start with what all that again; anyway, it's her damn life."   The scene and the ensuing silence reminded me of my parent's arguments. Battles without winners or losers, beginnings or endings, battles that ate you up, and everyone who mattered to you, battles in which your only weapon and only defense was silence.

What in my home would have been a party-ending fight was smothered in another round of whisky. After the mood had settled, Melissa proudly brought out a picture of the frame house. Perhaps she felt it would seem spell permanence to George. When my parents were fighting, my mother would often end their fights by looking for a new house, as if moving would end what was wrong between them. When I was younger, I would join her in thumbing through glossy pictures of split-levels and bungalows. After I started college, I lost interest in this pastime. Melissa told them the down payment was $15,000 and Melissa already had $10,000 covered. Tim nodded in approval at Melissa, adding, "Don't you raid your retirement funds for the rest. They'll charge big interest; I'll get you the rest. You pay me back when you can. Just let me know when you're ready." There was something hard, almost ruthless about Tim's tone that set it apart from the generosity of the message and rebuffed further dialogue. I recognized in it the same rough-edged qualities etched in Melissa's voice when she announced her family's visit. Melissa's grin dipped Tim's words in sweet honey. The silent exchange between them expressed a mutual pride in an unstated certainty that family would always be there for you. Even George, his rant foiled by news of Melissa's home, grinned in spite of himself.

An invisible circle seemed to close around Melissa and her family, George's outburst passing like an August thunderstorm. The brothers and their wives were busy making plans with Melissa for the new house. Jill tried to re-enter the conversation through the smoother current that the news of the new home had set in motion. "You might try to work out a balloon mortgage payment to give yourself more time to get the money together?" Her suggestion was barely acknowledged. She and Becky entered into a side conversation, as did others of us around the table. My earlier sense of inclusion gone, the darker edge of doubt sharpened my thoughts. Melissa was family; the rest of us, I concluded, were part of the 'nothing permanent' to which George had alluded earlier. The dinner party broke up shortly after the discussion about Melissa's prospects for a home. Guests stumbled to their own units; Melissa's family climbed into Tim's Impala and headed off to the Holiday Inn, a half-mile straight up Bridge Street.

Two weeks later, the Kentucky visit receding in memory, I heard Melissa thumping down the back steps of the building; saw her oversized white shirt flapping as she sprinted across the parking lot; seconds later, her blue Chevy uncharacteristically screeched from the Tarmac onto Bridge Street. She returned an hour later, around seven, just as sherry hour was winding down and the Bridge Street residents were drifting back to their units. We heard her race up the stairs, the door to her apartment slam shut.

Debbie and I went up to her apartment. As we approached, the stereo was already sending out the ballads that accompanied Melissa's blue days. I knocked; there was no answer. On my own, I would have left, likely feeling I was intruding. With Debbie beside me, I knocked again, calling out, "What's wrong, 'Lissa?"

Melissa opened the door and ushered us in. Once again, we sat around the wooden kitchen table, Melissa facing us in a rumpled white shirt. In front of her were an uneaten tin of mini sausages and an open bottle of whisky. A tight voice cracked out staccato messages, "Tim's backing out." Gaining control over her voice, she explained that she had put in an offer on a house, that it had been accepted, conditional on a quick closing, now just three days away. Her voice had none of the feel of rough-edged certainty that it frequently had when she spoke about her family. In spite of her obvious distress, the absence of that edge made me more at ease. She played the message he had left on her machine. Hey, 'Lissa, how you doing?  Sorry I didn't get back sooner; it's been crazy here. About the money. I had it set up, thought I had sold a Chevy to this couple. But the damned fools couldn't get the finances together; should have known they'd back out at the last minute.  And wouldn't you know it; the dentist says Billy has to start orthodontic work this summer. Why don't you postpone the closing until late July, mid-August at the latest; for sure, I'm good for it then. After all, if they wanted to sell, they'd wait. "You're the bird in the hand, little Missy; we'll get ya' your house."

As the machine beeped the end of the call, Melissa's pale blue eyes averted ours. Her brother's words echoed through the air, seeming to gather power from the replay. In Melissa's silence, I heard the buckling of a façade and saw what it cost her. In spite of the tension, a puzzle piece clicked into place. This was the other side of Melissa that for so long I could not see. It satisfied my curiosity. Then, it made me angry. I saw my mother, a college graduate, kept in the dark about family finances, being told by my father that they were complicated. She swallowed the insult, along with a Sara Lee cake.   "Sounds like Tim's still playing with the light bulbs." The words blurted from my mouth. I knew from the surprised look on Debbie's face there was paint on the canvas. Melissa looked sharply at me. Then her face softened into a smile. "He'll get me my house; did you hear that? What does he think I've been I doing the last six years?"

When I passed her in the hallways over the next two days, Melissa's face had the slightly worried look of one locked in a private struggle whose outcome was uncertain. She always had a calculator in one hand and in the other, a legal size pad filled with notes and calculations. She didn't talk much but to say she was working out the finances. She made clear she was not going to postpone the closing, that she didn't find any comfort in being the bird in the hand.

A few weeks later, the Bridge Street residents helped move her stuff over to her new home. Debbie and Becky arrived and presented Melissa with a magnificent eagle-headed helmet, a felt mascot retrieved from a storage closet of the college bookstore. After a few hours, the apartment stood empty, save the painted wire duck that bleakly stood in the corner of the living room. "Do you want me to trash this?" I asked. "No," Melissa replied, scooping up Wilbur and packing him into an empty UPS box, "I'm sending him to Tim, next day delivery."

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Tragedy in the History of a Comedy by Lawrence Lawson

They say that when the scene closes, when those purple velveteen curtains tumble down, the characters, figments only of the playwright's imaginings, die. They are whisked away into a silent hell, a dusty box, a director's shoe, until they, Lazarus-like, escape their earthly nap for another go. However, we live. Always. If a child closes her eyes, does the moon not still glow? A tree that falls in the woods does indeed engender a terrible crash. And I, Silvia Visconti, forever the daughter of the Duke of Milan, endure beyond the Bard's final exeunt.  How could I not, I who had survived his bastard Gentlemen of Verona?

Gentleman? Misnamed whoresons say I.

Shakespeare, a man for men, a man for a man, low-hanging fruit for fruits hung like carts and donkeys alike, cast quills like daggers at women.  Shrews they were or ill-lusted mothers or worse. And I? Simply a ball to be bandied about between two doghearted dotards.

Dotard numero uno? Valentine. "I love thee," said he.

"I love thee," said I, the words like ash in my mouth. I had love. I knew love.  Speed were more my speed. Speed the man, the varlot Valentine's strapped young page. The wonders that boy could unfurl from his codpiece, all while strutting across the drawing room with the windows wide to the world, I shan't dishonor with this base pen.

Dotard due: Proteus. I bore him all until he tried his hand at rape. "I'll woo you like a soldier," he said, though I knew the wooing and warming and straight thrusting capable of an elephant-hearted soldier; knew arms like arboreal rods and rods like arduous arbor; and knew that Proteus, his old soul, his old skin, and his old sac, could pay none of those debts. I said as much to him, but you have never neither heard nor read my venom-bound words. I, muse in Mr. Shakespeare's head for so long, had been shuttered. My words had spilled out across his page, and his hash marks had distilled my passion into an inky, sand-dusted pool upon his parchment.

By the Bard's hand, Proteus said, "I'll love you against the nature of love—force ye."

And I said, "Oh heaven!" as if, in that moment, God, who had so forsaken me, would be a valiant whom I could call upon. Heaven is a place for those who play it safe, and safety would not save me. In mine eye, only I would save me.

I had screamed, "Fuck, sir!  Do not lay one hand upon my vessel, a vessel not for you, not for your eyes nor hand nor heart. My life is forfeit for your feigned love. You are that hungry lion I earlier spoke of. Your fangs drip, though not on me. Come close, fen-sucked fustilarian, and I shall divest you of your codpiece's contents with my claws, my fangs, my delta's fangs if need be."

I screamed these things, and then Proteus backed away, wordless. He himself was the wordless one for the remainder of Act V, not I. Along with his manhood, I had taken his man-tongue, a blessing for all women in all eras made to sit through the ending Shakespeare had madly put on that play, on my play in that play. Broke it, he did. And broke us. Shakespeare had taken all of me away with a pen stroke. I had been left with: "Oh heaven!"

And tragedy's encore? Valentine, hidden in the shadows and watching the base beast bare his lust at me, moved not a hair. Motionless, he, just like in my heart Is when I think upon him. Woefully, I cannot yet jettison him—not until Lucifer himself drags this worst of the Bard's plays to Hell and we characters are, for true, destroyed so that my mind would not have to practice false love for four-and-a-half acts century after century.

What woman looks upon the landing of "The Two (milk-livered) Gentlemen of Verona" and casts it aside for the valor of the play's first two hours? Not a one, I wager. No woman worth salt-rock. Proteus plays at rape as if it's a game. (If a game it is, then women are unjustly cast as the flogged and whipped and flagellated actors of Hell.) Shakespeare writes Valentine the hero, as if a savior I need beyond my own barbed and slicing tongue, and he bids Proteus to unhand me, to unhinge me from his mind's eye. "I must never trust thee more," Proteus said to Valentine. What friend could love a friend who tried to roughly love that friend's love? This one, dotard uno: "Once again I do receive thee honest ... . All that was mine in Silvia I give thee," Proteus said.

All that was his? He meant my delta, my womanly Nile-head, for he never had my heart.

He gave to my rapist his rape, bow-tied and ribbon-streamed.

Shakespeare gave me no comment; instead, he left me hanging like a broken marionette doll, eyes wildly spinning. Surely you thought I a deflated water-bladder. But I did not disappear. I have not disappeared. I will not ever disappear. I raise my chin, did raise my chin, and I spit, I spit now, I spit then, spit across the Bard's text, into every eye of every man who grants himself dominion over every woman. My body is a woman's body, and a woman's body is not a hand to hold at one's masculine choosing, is not a vessel to sail down any river without the vessel's own direction.

I spit in the eye of Proteus.

I spit in the eye of Valentine.

I spit in the eye of William Shakespeare.

I said, "I am not owned; I am not to be given. I am whole and whole, and mine own eyes shall remain. Unhand me and unlove me and undo the threads you have woven so dastardly across my life's pelt. You are two spur-galled knaves, two star-crossed lovers meant for one another in gentlemanly love. No woman shall bear you. No woman shall smile at your sight for all shall know you for you, you urchin-snouted yous."

And you never felt the boil in my blood or the wet of my spit leaking down the "gentlemen's" faces for a man, a great Bard, threatened and threatened still, wrote the woman out of his play, wrote the woman out of my speech, and wrote a woman's speech out of the play for generations of audiences who need just such a speech, who need a knowing voice in the face of hateful, lustful, entitled knaves.

History has been denied me in this "comedy." These words are me as the actor of history's righting. Hear me, read me, and never forget me. I am your daughter, your mother, your wife. I am your friend, your lover, your sister. I am woman in your life and woman of your love. Turn deaf and dumb to me and cast off the women in your heart. My fate is their fate if you, dear reader, ignore the tragedy in the history of a comedy.

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Biographical information:

Lawrence Lawson has previously published with Perigee, and the magazine is a place he comes to for quality work. He was sincerely thrilled to work on this issue and was honored to unearth the treasures presented on this issue's fiction page. Lawrence's latest project is founding Kazka Press, an online literary magazine dedicated to fantasy fiction—with an eye on producing yearly print anthologies. In addition, Lawrence continues to write; his work can be found at www.llambertlawson.com. A selection from Lawrence's serial work about his Peace Corps experience, originally published at Perigee and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, will be published in a forthcoming collection produced by Peace Corps to celebrate that organization's 50th anniversary. He lives in Southern California with his wife, and he is an assistant professor at a local community college.

The Wish by Rebecca Lawton

B. Barton has water hidden deep in his bones, though you can't tell it for looking. His face is leathered with deep creases, his arms tan up to his elbows where he rolls his shirtsleeves. You look at B and think: sun, dust, and wind—desiccated before his time, and like me not yet over thirty. Never in a million years can you guess whenever he comes through the Oasis's double doors that he's connected to things wet. That he's got the best spring in a hundred miles. That he connects to groundwater in a way most people have to have air. 

How he ended up in a place drier than lizard skin is anybody's guess. Maybe drawn to his opposite, like other seekers. Like some of the rest of the misfits—or as B says, iconoclasts—we get in here. I doubt B could've picked a more arid place to land. In town we're just thirty miles east over the Amargosas from Badwater and Death Valley. We're not much more moist those godforsaken holes.  Canyons branch out in all directions, no streams in them—only rock and gravel, cleared out by heat and wind. Here and there we've got wells, and a couple of pretty green springs like the one B laid claim to. His water is more precious by far than any rare metal you might find out in the mountains.

Not an easy one to get to know, that B. We rarely saw him in here. When he did show, the rest of the miners would pause at the pool table and bar as he ground to a stop out in the lot and slammed his door of his jeep. We all listened long enough to know it was him. Then B would walk in, stretch his neck like he'd been working since Noah's flood, and settle in front of me at the bar. The others would go back to their beers and pool shots.

"Evening, B," I'd say.

"Good evening, Sue."

I'd set him up with three full glasses of water, no ice, followed by a mug of draft. He always hit the water first. He lifted each glass in turn, held it to the light, and brought it to his lips. No gulping. No obvious chugging.  He just poured the water in, like Fred the caretaker of the Herkimer Guest Ranch said, "like he's pouring a damn quart of oil down to his tank."

I fell for B right away. He's got eyes so blue you'd think you were looking through him to the sky. He has manners, too, which believe me out here is rare. A year ago when I first took this job, he came in and politely asked for three waters and a beer. As I poured the drinks, he walked back out to his jeep and I thought, oh hell, he's gone, but he returned with a paper bag of crystals to show me—all amethyst, all sizes. He drew pictures on a handful of cocktail napkins: maps, arrows, scribbled words. He sketched wild canyons where he'd found gems all around the desert. Just standing behind the bar, I lost my sense of east and west in his gorges that were deep and twisting. I saw myself in some palm oasis with B, his arms around me, the cliff tops above us edged with wind-rustling creosote.

One time he pulled out one small, perfect violet crystal. "This is my favorite," he said.  It had been just a gleam in the sand along the Amargosa River, a shine in the dust he'd passed up at first. "I could've sworn it was a big flake of mica."  As he dug down he saw more, and he kept going, following the sparkle. When he got it out, he found he had a perfect amethyst. No bigger than my thumb. The color deep as lilacs. Its unpitted crystal faces shining like the sky after a storm.

B stayed later and later as the months passed, each time promising he'd take me far up his canyon some time to see his spring. Each time I believed it less and less. One night I said, "You know, B, I'm starting to think you're full of it.  All these beautiful places. This famous spring of yours that nobody's seen."

That stopped him. Then he said, "I'll take you to my canyon, Sue. Tomorrow work for you?  Let's meet here, in front of the Oasis."

I'd believe it when I saw him in the morning.

That evening I closed up the Oasis by myself. The last thing I did before going home was clean the bathroom in back. I washed the sink and mirror first, followed by the toilet. As I mopped my way out of the little room, I stopped to pull outdated announcements off the wall. Of course I didn't touch the timeless bumper stickers the miners had brought in, things like, "Women Want Me, Rocks Fear Me," and "I'm Retired—Tired Yesterday and Tired Again Today."  There were business cards thumb-tacked up for everything from farriers to haircutters.  Then there was the page I always read last, a sheet of yellowed onionskin with a typed poem.

The Wish

     Oh! To see the waves

     Roll mutely up on shore

     Shells with all their secrets

     Sweep back into the foam

 

     Oh, if you and I

     Met as sea meets sky

     Suffused. Never ending

     Blending, damp with fog

 

Those words captured the coast where I grew up: the gray skies I didn't miss, the rain I did. I finished closing and went home.

In my trailer across the highway, I lay on my bunk listening to cassettes: Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk. Waves of music washed through me. Liquid notes carried away the echoes of drink glasses and pool balls. It was my water; my sea. As it drifted low, the music eased me down; as it climbed high, it lifted me up. Pretty soon I felt as light as a cork on water, and sleep carried me off.

B arrived at the Oasis at first light. Sunlight brightened the sky but hadn't yet hit ground. We headed east toward Tecopa Pass, no words between us. B had his jeep radio on but turned down, playing only the scratchy sound of static.  The skinny dirt road, bent by the curve of the earth, went all the way to the horizon. There were no crossroads to speak of. Hawks sat on telephone poles like they were part of the great design, watching the ground, while over it all—road, poles, hawks, mountains—the early morning light flowed soft. Not harsh, not rough.

Once we crossed the pass, we entered another dry valley, staying on the graded road, climbing into the Kingston Range. Passing the turnoff to Barry and Jerry's talc mine, the Underdog, B and I stayed silent. We only glanced up the wide canyon where two hard-working family men had been at their jobs twenty years: Barry and Jerry, the miners who brought their wives along when they in-frequented the Oasis. They stayed for only a drink or two. Fred the caretaker of the Herkimer Guest Ranch had mentioned more than once that Barry and Jerry were "the best of the friggin' lot. Damn good guys and good miners." They got plenty of talc from the Underdog, more than came from any other mine in the Kingstons, no matter how new or old.

As I thought of Fred we passed his spur road, too: an intersection with a modest sign. B drove on. After climbing a minute more, we pulled off the main graded road onto a track through scrub and scattered yucca. B stopped to open a gate at the mouth of his canyon, set back from the road. We continued beyond the fence, back into the willows and cottonwoods. We didn't park until we got to his camp kitchen near a cattail-lined pool. My mouth fell open.

A pipe flowed out dark, inviting water. B stuck his hand into the stream. His eyes glowed as the liquid wet his fingers. Maidenhair fern grew at the fringes; dragonflies as big as hummingbirds darted over the surface. A mockingbird whistled, then chattered, then warbled like a songbird. He had lily pads, too, dotted with water droplets.

I asked B, "All this is from your spring?"

He nodded and motioned toward the mountain. "Yeah. It's farther up. I'd love to take you there sometime when it's not so hot."

We heard another bird, more urgent, across the pool.

"Listen," said B. "Quail."  The call started low, climbed high, and fell again. "I used to think they were singing my wife's name. Re-BEC-ca. Re-BEC-ca. To me it sounded like an invitation. She didn't hear it that way, though." 

He didn't ask, but I said, "I've been married, too. My husband was a logger in Fort Bragg."

"Ah."  B pulled a dandelion from the edge of the pool. "You lived on the ocean."

"Yeah.  The opposite of here."  Where Tom and I'd had a home, rain fell hard, in curtains. Storms blew in off the sea, dark black and sudden. We used to hold each other in bed, listening to gales we thought would lift the roof. Those storms pinned us there, like ocean-going birds forced onto rocks along shore.

B studied me. "And ... where's your husband now?"

"Las Vegas. At Harrah's, dealing blackjack. We're divorced."  Tom's logging job ended when the big trees got scarce. He moved to Vegas ahead of me. By the time I sold our home in Fort Bragg and followed him, he'd been sharing his apartment with a stripper for six weeks. He couldn't resist all that skin, he said, after years of seeing women dressed in wool plaid.

"Why'd you stay down here?"

"I like it."  I shrugged. "I found the Oasis job in the penny paper and that was it."

B looked like he was thinking hard. He held a stone no bigger than a deck of cards. "Sue," he said. "Do you know what this is?"

"A rock."

"Yes. What kind?"

"A gray one."  I shrugged. "Marble?" 

"No. It's much softer than that. Feel it, you can scratch it with your nail."  He put it in my hand.

My heart leapt at his touch. "It feels greasy."

"Right.  It's talc, or soapstone. A clay mineral—with water in its structure. Rocks don't come much softer."  He leaned close and whispered. "Its name is ancient. From the Arabic talk. Full of secrets. It only surrenders them when heated. Bake it, and it will steam and boil. Broil it, and watch it bubble."

My blood pounded so hard I was sure he'd notice.

That evening B stayed for dinner at my fold-down table. He washed dishes and I dried while the cassette deck played Sonny Rollins. I swayed to the rhythm of the saxophone. When we'd finished cleaning up, we sat back down for coffee.

"What's this music, Sue?"

"Jazz.  Old standards. I never get tired of it."

"What do you like, exactly?"

"It just gets in my body. I can't explain it." 

"Try."  He squinted the short distance across the table.

"Well.  I like that it takes its time. There's the head—that's the melody—the tune set out for all to hear. Then there's the improvising. The players try on the song in every different way they can. You can just let yourself go off with it."

B nodded.  Obviously he was waiting for more.

I closed my eyes. "It doesn't travel a straight line. The music wanders, but it doesn't get lost. It explores, you know?  Then it returns to the head, much deeper, much—I don't know ... " I stopped, embarrassed.

"Go on." 

"When it comes back to the head, it ... enters my veins, is all I can say. It drives in deeper than if it hadn't strayed. Like—the rewards are greater for all that searching. The sweetness is sweeter, or shininess shinier, like . . ."

His breathing got loud. Heavy. "Like?"

"A gemstone. Like that perfect amethyst crystal you dug up on the Amargosa.  After all those years of looking. And then—I'm found. I'm back to where I was but at the same time farther along. I'm where I've been wanting—wishing—to be for so long. And I feel lucky. Like I'm finally home."

I opened my eyes. A startled-looking B faced me. He stood, suddenly. Oh, crap, I thought, he's leaving. But no, he leaned across the table. He kissed me, long and deep, turning over a warm feeling inside me.

Then he pulled back, his eyes wide. "I'd better go."  In a moment he'd pushed out the door of my trailer.

"Don't go," I called after him. "Come back."

B stayed clear of the Oasis for days after that. He didn't stop in once, not even to town as far as I knew. Which after having kissed him put me in a state of mind. The other guys noticed, and they asked lame questions, like "Hey, Sue, where'd you hide the body?"  "Does this mean the wedding's off?"  Real jerk-off material. When forty-eight hours had passed and there was still no B, I called Fred. I asked him if he knew anything, had seen B coming and going.  He said no, but he'd check around. "He's hid out before," said Fred. "Since his wife died. But damn, it's been a while."

When I got home, I lay in the dark listening to Monk. B was on my mind even as the music played—through patterns of climbing scales and improv that went on for verse after verse. The flow of notes didn't carry me off as usual so I turned on the light. My mind wouldn't settle. About a half hour later, I heard scratching on my screen door. "B?"

"No, Sue, it's Fred. Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. I never did know how to knock on these things."

"No problem, Fred. Come in."

"Can't stay.  Been in Vegas and have to get back to the Herkimer."  He stood outside with his hands in his overall pockets. "Has B showed up?"

"No."

He pushed back his cap. "It's that damn spring of his. He's worked it like a slave since he lost his wife four—no, five—years ago."

Finally.  "How'd she ... pass on?"

"It was a friggin' weird thing. Where you can't eat—what's it called?"  Fred looked away. "Failure to thrive." 

"But.  Only eighty-year-olds and babies got that."

"No.  Anybody can."  Fred said no one knew why Rebecca stopped eating and drinking. "She hated the desert, couldn't stand things dry. Still ... I mean come on ... no one expected her to up and dehydrate herself to death."

After her passing B worked around the clock to improve his spring. "He drove himself," said Fred. "Hell, he blamed himself. Planted new palms, rows of them. Where there are trees, there's water, he told me. Damn. I always thought it was the other way around." 

It figured. On the north coast the creeks all but stopped flowing when the forests were cut. Entire streams went dry once their shade disappeared.

Fred said B weeded out invasive grasses at the Golden Rule. He built little rock structures to deepen the pools and planted cottonwoods and willows attract songbirds. He showed Fred how to restore the creek at the Herkimer, too.  "Palm trees and willows. Native berries for wildlife. Hell, you've seen it.  B did all that." 

"It's the best place around."

"Nope."  Fred shook his head. "B's spring makes the Herkimer look like the moon. So many birds you could be at some zoo. And the water table's come back. Like he's a friggin' magician—water so near the surface it fills your bootprints when you cross the sandy patches. B really brought it back."

"Not in time to save Rebecca.

"No."  Fred looked thoughtful. "But she wasn't too tough. Fragile, even. Kind of an Emily Dickinson type, into poetry. As if." 

He shook his head. "No offense. As if words could green this place up. You've seen her work, haven't you?  In the bathroom at the Oasis?  A poem called 'Hoping' or 'Wishing' or—"

"'The Wish'?"

"That's it. She wrote 'The Wish.'  B put that up there."

After Fred left, I kept picturing B out at his spring, working late into the night. Hiding in a darkness you couldn't hide in. What he didn't know: my blood runs strong.  I'm no wienie, and it was time he knew it. I dressed for a drive and walked out to my truck. I left town, headed for the washboarded road toward B's claim. There was no moon. Other than my headlight beams and the dust blowing up red in my taillights, everything looked dark—the blackness of sky and mountains blending together.

Light shone from the pass, in the direction of B's canyon and spring. The rock ridges looked bright, a sort of daylight in the night. As I drove closer, I saw it wasn't B's claim shining like a million diamonds. It was the Underdog.  Barry and Jerry's talc mine.

When I pulled up and stepped out of my pickup, I heard the distant sound of metal pounding rock, then silence for a minute, then the grinding of a power saw blade. Then more pounding. I couldn't see much, just an eerie glow cast into the desert sky and onto the rock walls. The pounding came and went, and the grinding, too, stopping only for moments at a time before starting up again with more fury.

In one break, in the radiance from the canyon, I saw the movement of khaki pants up the road, then a white shirt above them. B's clothing. When he came near, I saw his smile, caught in the light so they shined separately from the rest of him. I was about to ask where in hell he'd been all these days, when the pounding started again up at the talc mine. "B, what in God's name is going on up here?"

He shook his head. "Beats me. I climbed around to have a look. The place is lit up like Dante's inferno. They're building something."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Come on."  He pulled a small flashlight from his hip pocket, keeping the beam unlit as he led me across the road. We moved like two cats, me behind B imitating his stealth walk. We pushed through willows and rushes, past a dark spot on the ground where they used to have a pool.

"They blasted the mother rock," said B. "And this is what happened."

Where the plants ended, we stopped. When I saw the Underdog's base camp, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Barry and Jerry. The place was so bare bones: boxes of canned food, dishes drying on a card table. They had a row of five-gallon jugs as their water supply.

"This is what you guys call a fabulous mine?" I asked.

"Shh.  If they find us here they might get nasty."

"Right, B. Barry and Jerry?"

"I'm serious. Miners get weird about their claims. That emergency clinic in Shoshone has seen plenty of black eyes and broken knuckles from fistfights over places like this."

Sounded strange, but I held my tongue. I followed him up the canyon, onto a rock ledge where we could look down on another patch of sand surrounded by willows. Barry and Jerry wore goggles and hardhats. They sweated in the night as the hammered out metal on a work bench made from sawhorses and plywood. A generator ran their klieg lights, making the place as bright as daylight. Between the mighty swings that crashed metal on metal, I could hear the tiny sound of a radio.  Not jazz; not a cultured talk program. It was Led Zeppelin, their early tunes, from the album showing the crash of the Hindenburg. Appropriate. No doubt they had their music blasting; even so we could barely hear it above the din of their manly work.

B signaled me to leave. We walked back down the gravel drive to my truck. He turned to me. "I'd like to invite you back to my canyon. Honestly."  His voice sounded small. "I just—." 

I waved off his words. "No need to explain. I already know."

"Know what?"

"About Rebecca. And I just want to say it's okay."

"Okay?"  His eyes flashed. "No, Sue. It'll never be okay. You know nothing about it."

My back was up. "Wrong. Fred told me your wife died from the dry."

B's mouth fell open. "That's what people think?"

"If that's not it, maybe you could tell me what the hell it was."

"If it was any of your business, which it is not, I'd tell you about a frail woman, a good woman, who believed in the power of words."

"She was a good poet. I love 'The Wish.'"

"Yes, but it killed her."

"I don't believe it."

"Believe it."  He reached for me, kissed me once, and after a second was gone. His white-shirted figure got smaller and grayer, then went to nothing, back up the road to the Golden Rule. Crap. There wasn't anything to do but retreat the other way, into the darkness I'd come through earlier.

When I reached my trailer, it was two a.m. I put Monk on the tape deck. I was listening, thinking, wondering what to do. I could call Fred to tell him B was all right—if you could call it that—but Fred, like the rest of the normal people, would be sound asleep.

When I saw B again, it was at my own doorstep. He knocked on my trailer door days later, so early the sun hadn't yet hit the tops of the Amargosas. He stood on my front step, his work clothes coated with silt. Mud caked his face, and a bruise colored his chin and cheek. He held a red bandanna over one eye. When he pulled the bandanna away, I saw the eye was swollen shut.

"God, B!"  I felt sorry, but I'd resolved not to ask him back in. "What happened to you?"

"Nothing."  He waved it off. "Forget about it. We've got to get going."

"Where?"

"Please.  Just come with me. I want to take you somewhere."

"I need an explanation first. No more of this running off."

"We can talk on the way."

Reluctantly I agreed. First I packed ice from my freezer into a plastic bag. "Not without this."

We started off in the pre-dawn air, with his jeep's soft top rolled up. He iced his face as I drove. I kept sneaking looks. Finally I asked, "What happened?  Did Barry and Jerry work you over?"

He groaned from the pain. "No. No. Now I know they ever would."  He sighed. "I'm embarrassed to say. The silly rake I use to clean out my pool flew up and hit me in the face." 

"That sucks."

"Yes."

We rolled up to the only stop sign in town on Highway 127. Turning left would lead us up to B's spring. Turning right would take us to Badwater, out in Death Valley. "Which way?" I asked.

"Go right."

I cranked the wheel. The road to Badwater stretched out before us. In the rearview mirror I saw the glow of the sun about to rise over the Kingstons.

After a few miles, B said, "I'm such an idiot."

"How so?"

"Barry and Jerry did come looking for me."  He moved the ice pack.

"And ... ?"

"And that object they were building?  A cistern for water storage. They'd meant to make it for Rebecca years ago, before I restored my pool, but didn't get around to it in time. But now they've finished it. Last night they gave it to me.  It's even engraved."

"Engraved?"

"Yes.  With two words."

"Let me guess. 'Golden Rule.'

"No," he said. "No. It says, 'The Wish.'"

"So her words did bring water."

"Yes."

As I drove I felt tears on my cheeks, the first I can remember since coming to the Oasis. But B didn't see, I don't think, thank God. We kept on, and we arrived at the salt flats near Badwater just as the sun was rising. Sunlight hit the tops of the Panamint Mountains to the west. Their peaks blushed pink, and red.  The light moved down toward the valley, the warmth of the sun taking the edge off the night's chill. On the flats a web of mudcracks reached in all directions from the edge of the parking lot where we stood.

B's swollen face had gone down a little. He shaded his eyes as he and the mud came into the sun. Then we heard it:  a single, small pop. Silence followed, then another pop, then a string of cracks that sounded like tiny, muted drumbeats.  The sun gained strength. It had the non-rhythm of popping corn—starting soft and random, growing loud.

"It's music," I said. I turned to B, my eyes wide.

In spite of his swelling and bruises, he looked happy. He put his arms around me and stood close behind me. I felt his heart beat. "It's the salt crystals. They snap as the mud warms and expands. It means there's water down there. It's talking to us."

"Singing to us," I said.

When the sun came full on the flats, the mudcrack choir went wild. It didn't last, slowing to one pop every ten seconds, then every half minute, then longer. When it all stopped we faced each other in a long embrace until it was time to leave. We walked to the jeep, where we rolled down the top. With me at the wheel again, he stared out the windshield, his eyes wet. "Okay," was all he said. He was spilling actual tears as I drove, and I just let him, figuring he'd have to let it out. He'd have to let it flow. There was nothing to do but hold the wheel and listen to the wind as we followed the highway home.

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Biographical information: Rebecca Lawton received the Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers in 2006 for work on her novel, Junction, Utah. Her memoir on the river guiding life, Reading Water: Lessons from the River (Capital), was a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller in 2008. Her work has been published in Orion, Sierra, THEMA, More, Shenandoah, Santa Barbara Review, and other journals, and she is the co-author of four books of prose. Also a geologist, Rebecca currently directs the research, restoration, and education programs for the Sonoma Ecology Center.

Redemption, an excerpt from Tempest, by Robert Miltner

Paucity's pinch or deprivation's grip: losses, as in the way the death of a family member reduces us. Or as in the way theft or disappearance diminishes us. Organic loss is a failure from within. Adding tired to tired leads to strength. But add failure to failure? Disappointment to further disappointment? Or worse, in a relationship, add distance to distance. Failure is the fault of commitment.

The autumn I turned sixteen I could see my mother faltering, weakening, declining as the sun does in the west. Sacrificing herself for her children, for her husband, for her family. Plain tea, no sugar. Filling our plates then eating what we left behind. Chicken necks and pig knuckles and beef tails. Thin broth calling itself soup. Flour and water gravy with parsley. The bruised apple and a paring knife. We ate what meager food my father's vocation could provide for a prayer and a song.

The Lloyd Joneses were generous with staple fare they delivered: potatoes, beets, carrots, dried limas, a crate of pullets, a barrel of apples. Food from above us or below us, but never the full balanced meal of what was at eye level. Between sparse mouthfuls she would mouth platitudes about how good the food was, how she loved the simple menu, how she wasn't very hungry what with the heat or cold or in between. One night she just sat at the table holding a boiled potato in her hand.  No wonder I wondered.

Father's pride rubbed him as does a burr, irritating him, making him always feel aware of how his poor provisions for his wife and children must have made him seem to his family and community.

He was a part-time worker in a rich agricultural region, trying to live on music lessons whose payments of a few coins were as scattered as his pupils. An irregular itinerant preacher, he had no congregation to give regular support, only what mostly poor families could share. Once he rode from Madison to Richland Center and back and was paid a slice of bread. The Lord will provide, he would say. But the words he mouthed regularly by rote sounded as empty as our stomachs.

As mother's cheeks pinched from hunger or holding her tongue, father's cheeks pinched from bitterness, irritation and helplessness.

When mother's people, Uncle James and Uncle Enos, came to visit, they would not look father in the eye, nor he in theirs. But he saw no doubt the glances between them and mother.

It made me feel uncomfortable, not being able to honestly look anyone in the eyes lest I be seen as a partisan in this family rift. I worked summers for my uncles, helped them put in their barns and larders the same food they brought to supplement, to sustain us. If I was not to stand on one side or the other, then I knew I would soon be caught in the middle.

I wandered to the stable. The quiet solid nature of horses always settles what roils inside me.  Stroking their long faces, their warm breath on my arms, the rich scent of hay and mash and manure, I calmed. After all, as much as I felt my mother's pain, I also felt admiration for my father, for the love of music he imparted to me, to his dedication to what he saw as his mission in life. Must success be measured in material worth? Is not giving the gift of our talent back to the world enough? Do not debt and indebtedness grow from the same root?

So lost in thought was I that his entry into the stable eluded me. It was not until I heard him speak lines from his favorite poem, Poe's "Raven."

Darkness there and nothing more,

'Tis the wind and nothing more

I knew he spoke those words to me.  I knew he too had left the house to find me in the stables.

When I turned he looked me in the eye.  

Go, Frank, he said, return to your Uncle James. You'd rather he was your father than me. Or to your uncle Enos, that other father-usurper.

No, I replied, that is not true, father. I love them as my uncles, as my teachers, I said, feeling my eyes well up, but neither as my father.

Get out, Judas, he said, his eyes like red coals smoldering in tinder, about to catch fire.

No, I replied, standing my ground. You can not make me leave you.

Suddenly he was upon me, his fists striking me on my cheeks, neck, nose, temple. My back, ribs, kidneys, ears. It was as if I was the straw man, the scarecrow upon which he was releasing his anger, letting all he held in upon me.

Each time he struck me as I leaned against the stall, my arms trying to cover my face, I could hear almost contented sounds erupt from his lips, as if the release he was feeling from thrashing me granted him some kind of peace. He could not achieve the freedom he needed to feel inside until he was able to clear out space for it. In that moment I was my father's redemption, his healing. I was the organ he played the song of his failure upon.

My father may have intended I be the instrument of his salvation, but I was his son, not his song. His freedom needed to emerge from within. No one could tell him what it would take to become his own man, tall and strong as a beech or oak tree. He needed to expand into himself, into his own salvation. He needed to be his own increase, to create his own sense of self worth. I felt it to be true in my heart in that moment.

For the heart is the most important part of a functioning mind. And my mind told me that being beaten like a dog would never allow me to grow. Only my own arrogance could save me. Not my weakness, ornamented by bruises and blood—that would make me less than a dog, for a man knows the dog can live under the porch but only the man can build the porch the dog can hide under. In my life I would bear the marks and bruises I brought on myself, not inflicted by others. Many of the black and blue marks on my body came from too many contacts with my own furniture, but not from a willow switch or a piece of kindling from a wood pile. And no more marks upon my body would come from my father. His attack upon me and the subsequent thrashing at his hands was imperative from his need to be free. I sensed that as I cowered against the horse stall.

But common sense, that uncommon sense, told me that the urge to cultivate my own growth, to nurture myself by nature is as old as human life. I had my own song to sing.

I turned up and toward him, drew myself up to my full height.

I was taller than he was by only a few inches but I quickly determined that my arms were longer, as much as four or five inches, and that when we got in close, I would strike him before he could reach me. So I raised my fists like a boxer, left arm forward with the elbow out and the fist confronting him and ready to block his next punch, right arm held back with the elbow tucked against the rib, coiled to strike with its fist like a snake.

Enough, I said.

My father laughed, pulled in his shoulders, hunched his back, tightened his fists. His eyes glistened with rage and anger and tears and confusion and joy. The grin on his face suggested he was done beating me. Now he wanted to be beaten himself.

He swung his right hand toward my face but I lifted my left arm and deflected his punch. So he swung his left hand toward my face but I deflected with my right arm. Then he tucked himself tighter and moved in like a battering ram toward a castle.

Summers on Uncle James' farm had strengthened me more than I had realized. My having become a young man was not some mere circumstance, but a quality I had achieved. I side-stepped my charging father to his left and shoved him like I would a dairy cow that was trying to crowd me and keep me from milking it. He struck so hard against the stable wall opposite the door that I could hear the sound of his head and shoulder and hip hitting wood and of the muck shovel clattering to the floor at the same time.

He shook his head from side to side, as if to shake something out of it, then he charged me again. His stubbornness was his strength, his dogged belief in his own need to suffer sent him at my like an angry bull.

Because I'd seen him lead with his right already, I anticipated he would do so again. This time I caught him by the wrist rather than deflect it, then caught his left wrist with my right hand when that one came. My hands were vices. His arms were copper pipes in my grip. He tried to pull his arms back but my muscles were oak root, oxen, granite, limestone.

Thus we stood. Our eyes locked. Huffing breath into and out of our lungs. My holding him in place like a puppet. Eyes locked. I knew he wouldn't kick. He was not a coward or a cheat, but merely a proud man fighting off his own failures and defeats. Eyes. Locked.

Enough, I said, pushing him away, watching him catch his balance on his second back step. His arms dropped as if they were tree branches shaken loose during a spring wind storm. His fists dripped back up into open hands. His face was sweaty, smudged, a piece of straw above his eyebrow.

Still we stood looking each other in the eye.

I heard one of the horse's hoof scrape at the stall floor. Heard another horse snort. Felt a breeze from the open stable door cool my warm back. Felt tired, drained. Felt the world shift. Felt the ground drop. Felt the rotation of the planet accelerate. Felt myself age. Found myself breaking eye contact and turning away from him toward the stable door and walking out.

That night I must have traveled a dozen dozen miles through lush meadows and over rounded hill tops around rail fences and into deep vales and across stone bridges and under ancient trees and into cold moving rivers creeks ponds and to the border and what is beyond it and to the ocean and the arctic and the moon and the north star and the milky way and beyond Orion to Mars and Jupiter and over the rising sun that illuminated the grassy patch atop the limestone outcropping where I woke empty yet refreshed, wet with the morning dew.

When I returned home, I found mother at the kitchen table staring at her empty hands. My father, William Russell Cary Wright, preacher and music instructor, was gone.

A broken wasps' nest.

The robins' nest knocked to the ground from a summer storm.

A yellow jackets' underground hive dug up by raccoons.

A cottage blown up by a bomb in an army battle.

The cabin shattered by the oak uprooted by the tornado.

My home was broken when my father left my mother and sisters and me.

I would be the man who held the roof beam. Who leaned to keep the walls straight. Who spread his arms as a door way where my family entered and no danger no wolf could enter.

I would be the house, become a builder of houses.

When later I left my own wife, broke my house, my mother gave me back the plot of ancestral Lloyd Jones land in the Wyoming Valley I had given her for her cottage. Build your new home here, she had said. Make it new.

And so I came to build Taliesin.

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Biographical information: Robert Miltner teaches in the Northeast Ohio MFA Consortium in Creative Writing at Kent State University. His fiction has appeared Istanbul Literary Review, Apple Valley Review, Ophelia Street, Hamilton Stone Review, Mochila Review, Storyglossia, and is forthcoming in Christmas Stories from Ohio (Kent State University Press). He edits The Raymond Carver Review.

The Sad Ballad of Santiago Pancho Sanchez by Tatjana Soli

I

Okay the jury summons blindsided me, I'll admit it. With one thing after another—the remodel, Cara being expelled from private school even as we struggled to pay that semester's tuition, Scott's slow sales at the gallery—I just didn't concentrate enough on taking care of the thing.

Two months before the trial date, I sat at the kitchen counter, scratchpad in hand, generating excuses. My grandmother is sick in the hospital. Scratch. My mother is sick—scratch. I'm sick in the hospital—and writing to you from my sick bed. Who's your doctor? Scratch. I've moved to another state. I want to move to another state. My car is broke. Take the bus! I'm broke. Scratch. The summons sat on the table in the entry hall while I agonized foolproof excuses to get taken off. This after I was refused any more six-month deferments. I kept assuming life circumstances would somehow take care of the reasons. Instead life only managed a slow snowfall of other mail to bury the summons until it was too late to do anything but ... go.

So there I was at eight in the morning, lost in some super-structure concrete building in the labyrinthine bowels of civic center downtown, struggling my purse and cappuccino through the metal detector. Then sitting in an auditorium in the semi-dark, watching a film about the pride of fulfilling your civic duty. A text message came in from our contractor, who had neglected to pick up the rojo alicante tile for the bathroom shower so that now the man hired to lay tile and his assistant were at this very moment on my back patio on an extended, paid coffee-break on our time. Can you swing by State College and pick it up?

Dimitri, I texted, can't help you. I'm at jury duty.

Why, he texted back, don't you say you have root canal done? That work for me. I say the vicodin stringing me out.

This was the fastest response time I had ever had from him since he demo-ed our house ten months before. After he received our deposit, he then settled into a lethargic, pot-smoking sloth. Dimitri had forgotten that he told me that he was serving jury duty several months back. When he returned after two weeks, he had an even darker tan than usual and a new tattoo of a bird on his calf.

Pick up the tile, I texted. Before I fire you, I continued in the privacy of my brain.

They were calling badge numbers over the intercom system like at a bingo parlor for the unlucky. Volunteers were requested for a grand jury that would likely be sequestered for months in a downtown hotel. For a moment, it was tempting to take this cowardly way to flee my problems, but instead I escaped to the sunny concrete terrace where smokers and cell phone users were sequestered.

I asked a redheaded, teenage girl with creamy white skin, reading Anna Karenina, to wave at me through the window if my number was called. It's good to see youth reading serious literature, but when I looked at her more closely I see a piercing through her eyebrow that looks like a safety pin. I wondered if she had her heart broken and was indulging in morbid fantasies.

I had a scheduled teleconference with the vice-principal, Mrs. Rowley, at the private school where Cara's tuition was past due, even though at the moment she had been put on detention for smoking a joint in the girls' bathroom. A joint probably procured from Dimitri. I wondered if secretly the registrar hadn't communicated our slow payments to the VP. That in addition to a waiting list of paying students wanting to get in, Cara, although smart, was lazy and rebellious to authority, a troublemaker with slipping grades. Instead of groveling, I'm tempted to tell Mrs. Rowley off, call out the vampire country club for the over-privileged she was running, and throw Cara into the wild seas of Southern California public schools. Sink or swim. I myself am a product of the public schools, but that was decades (ages beyond reckoning) ago and in the rural Midwest, to boot. Although the elitism offends me, I'm frightened of the stories of drugs and guns I hear from other parents who've tried this route. So I groveled.

"I think Cara is upset lately. Difficulties at home."

"Yes, she told me."

"What?" I said, surprised, paranoid. "What did she tell you?"

"That Cara's father is seeking comfort outside the martial relationship."

I was stunned, not only to hear my pain from a stranger's mouth, but the fact that Cara couldn't leave me the smallest amount of privacy, pride. Just like her father.

"We're remodeling a house for resale. Lots of tension. You know what they call remodeling—the marriage buster."

"About Cara ... "

"But I always loved him. Even with his flaws. He's my husband. We were high-school sweethearts."

A light coughing on the other end. Did I mention that I'd done a little acting in my early twenties? "Would you like to talk to the counselor here? It's a bit unorthodox, but I could arrange it."

I simply burned with embarrassment, with sunstroke and the fumes of fifty lit cigarettes in close proximity. I was appalled.

"Could I?" Because, after all, my health insurance was just cancelled since I quit my job as a decorator to work full-time on the remodel, this before finding out that my one-and-truly was involving himself with a brunette plein-air painter.

"Why don't you come over this morning and talk with her?"

The creamy-skinned redhead was frantically waving Anna Karenina at me through the window.

"They just called my number."

"Where are you? Prison?"

What had Cara told this woman? "Jury duty."

"Why didn't you just get off? Tell them you're self-employed. Works every time."

The courtroom was up the elevator on the twelfth floor. A long wall of green-tinted glass. A row of oak-veneer double doors, leading to eight separate courtrooms, with trials going on simultaneously. The elevators let off a chaos of people trying to get where they belonged. Disappointing, assembly-line justice compared to the TV shows.

A pool of over two hundred people to weed down to the dozen jurors. I was called to come in before the judge in a batch of twenty-five. That's when the real circus started. We were asked if there was any reason we could not serve, and that was just the key to open up the whole litany of human misery. The most popular reason was that the juror didn't understand English well enough to follow the trial. This from a French woman who was a college professor. I heard another woman claim this in pidgin English while outside in the hallway she was cutting a mean deal on her cell phone for a supply of kitchen products for her restaurant. Healthy men complained of shingles, of panic attacks, and erectile dysfunction (what did that have to do with being on a jury?), of phobias related to Federal buildings. Women complained of breast-feeding schedules, incontinent elder care, alcoholism, and Prozac-related depression.

When it came my turn, the judge tiredly asked if there was any reason I could not be of service. There was nothing else that I could do but acquiesce to the truth: "No. There is absolutely no reason I can't serve." The judge's eyebrows shot up, and he looked at me for the first time as if he were watching the birth of some rare, stupid creature never before seen in the confines of the courthouse.

The winnowing process continued the rest of the afternoon while I hated myself for being so spineless not to lie. I lied about my age regularly; I lied to the neighbor why we couldn't attend their party; I lied to my hairstylist when I went to someone else for a cut. A beautiful Philippine woman in a white mini-skirt said she was a singer and had to prepare an audition for a reality show. Dismissed. I sat there fuming and appalled. What was this country coming to? And what was wrong with me that I couldn't come up with the lamest excuse?

Now the nature of the case was revealed to the remaining pool: child molestation. My stomach cratered. With horrific stories from the local news of abuse cases that made you want to hang your head in shame for the behavior of your fellow human beings. A young Hispanic man said that he had young children at home and did not think he could be objective because of that. Dismissed.

Everyone jumped on that like flies on honey. Even people without kids claimed deep emotional attachment to nieces and nephews. Sure, I had Cara, and the very thought of anyone touching her made me want to tear them apart limb by limb. Five people before my turn, the dismissal rate ran so high, the question was rephrased: Even though you are outraged by child molestation, are you capable of being fair to a person perhaps unjustly accused?

Call me juror number seven.

I was told to report the next morning at eight o'clock sharp. I wondered if the Philippine torch singer was at that very moment in a piano bar somewhere, toasting her freedom with an iced martini.

The next morning I arrived bleary-eyed with a coffee spill on my blouse, courtesy of a large man who bumped me from behind going through the metal detector. I had brought a novel, Maugham's Up at the Villa, to while away the interminable periods of waiting that we would now be subjected. I daydreamed that I was the widow living in the hills above Florence at that moment. Both jury parties spoke only Spanish so court-appointed translators joined the prosecutor's and defendant's tables, making it a full house, and slow going.

Dimitri had decided on his own that a slate-blue tile, resembling the inside dark of a coffin, was preferable to the red tile that I had picked out. Half the shower wall was done when he sent me the picture over my email.

Not on your life, I texted back.

At last the defendant, Santiago Pancho Sanchez, was brought in. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I was certain he was guilty. I wanted to tear him apart limb by limb.

Medium height, he weighted upwards of two hundred pounds. His stomach bulged over the belt of his pants and strained at the shirt he wore. His face was pudgy, the skin rough and pocked, his brown hair ragged as if cut with a pair of dull kitchen scissors, in the dark, while drunk. What struck me the most was how he did not look anyone in the eye, especially not us, the jurors. He kept his eyes down on the table in front of him, and nodded to the whispers of the translator in his ear. An elegant, middle-aged woman wearing heels and a skirt-suit, I wondered how she could stand to sit near this human vermin. Now I watched his hands — stubby, fat hands that were really more like mitts, fingers like sausages, with black under the fingernails—how he folded them on top of the desk. His hands made me nauseous.

We were informed by the judge that there would be two days of testimony and then our decision. Each of us mentally ticked off Wednesday, Thursday, a quick look at Mr. Sanchez—it would be over before Friday at five. The prosecutor, a pale, librarian-type, with brown hair pinned up tightly in a bun, started with the rather startling information that the defendant had already confessed to the crime. Decided, I thought, the rest is just housecleaning.

Once the interrogator began to give testimony for the prosecution, I doodled palm trees in my assigned notebook, and stole glances at Santiago, who appeared not to be listening, appeared to be in another world, totally unconcerned with what was going on right in front of him, his fate in the scales of our not-blind justice. Pay attention, man, I thought, then remembered he did not understand a word of English.

Santiago had gone to the "victim's" house to shine shoes. That is what he did for a living, went through the Hispanic neighborhoods door-to-door. The victim's four adult brothers and her father were outside on the lawn drinking beer and watching a soccer match on a TV brought out on the porch for that purpose.

The mother said that she didn't have money that day to pay him for shoes, but Santiago said he was hungry and would work for food. She didn't really need shoes cleaned, but she was a Christian woman. She agreed.

The attorney for the defense got up with a sigh. He was a thin man in a shiny suit, but his face was kind. He went over his client's confession with the interrogator. I thought, What a waste of time this is. Dimitri picked BLUE tiles. Put the poor guy away and throw away the key.

After preliminaries, the attorney asked: "So you told the defendant, Mr. Sanchez, a man with no formal education and no knowledge of English, that you had evidence of black shoe polish on the girl's body?"

"Yes."

"On her belly, on her abdomen, on her private parts?"

"Yes."

"And that he would go to prison for a long time?"

"Yes."

"And that night, the defendant tried to commit suicide?"

"That's my understanding."

"With his shoelaces?"

"That's in the report. I had nothing to do with that."

"And all your statements about the shoe polish evidence were false?"

"Yes, sir. That's an approved interrogation technique."

We were told to come back the next morning at eleven because of scheduling conflicts: a verdict in another case had been decided. We were given five-dollar coupons to use at the cafeteria, courtesy of California taxpayers. Santiago never looked up as we filed outside at the end of the day.

That night, I sat on the bathroom floor and stared into the shower, thinking of Santiago in his cell. My shoelaces looked like dirty gray stays. Why was I wasting my life worrying about bathroom tile? Why was I living blinded? I put a Post-it on the shower door saying to tile it half in blue, the rest in red, like the circles of Dante's Inferno.

 

The next morning, we heard quick, cursory testimony by the examining nurse at the hospital (no signs of sexual trauma), by the social worked assigned the case (child was emotionally upset), and by the arresting officer, who explained how someone hired to shine shoes in the front yard ended up alone with a twelve-year-old in the living room. The story was that the girl had a stomachache and did not feel well. Which later turned out to be her first menstrual cramps. The mother, who was from an isolated rural area, Chiapas, in Mexico, was complaining of a migraine to Santiago while he ate leftover rice and beans from the night before. He offered that he was the son of Carina, a famous healer from the same region, and he would try to help her. He gave her a tea from dried leaves he carried, then laid his hands on her head for five minutes.

The two attorneys stole exasperated glances at each other across the aisle. Law school had not prepared them for this.

"Did he cure your headache?" the defending attorney asked the mother when she was on the witness stand.

"Si," she said to the interpreter, refusing to look at the attorney as if he were the devil.

"And then you asked him to cure your daughter?"

During the fifteen minute afternoon break, a fellow juror, a law student from the nearby university, and I split a candy bar and a coke.

"No need for Tylenol anymore, with stuff like that," she joked. "Just a laying on of hands."

I turned my phone on to see about a zillion frantic texts from Dimitri. I turned the phone back off. "Diet be damned. Let's share a corn dog."

After the recess, the child was to be brought for the first time into the courtroom. A victim of too may TV series, I was picturing a slight, waif-version of Selma Hayek. The girl who came in was a large, beefy twelve-year-old. She smiled and beamed at the over fifty people gathered for one reason or another in this room with her the center of attention. Carefully she avoided the table where Santiago sat. She had a horsetail of thick, blue-black hair down her back, the only thing vaguely adult and sexualized about her. She wore a cartoon T-shirt and jeans. On the stand, she giggled and wagged her feet back and forth under the seat.

The prosecuting attorney came up and said sternly, "Alicia, you understand why you're here and that this is very serious?"

The girl's face fell.

II

She told her mom that she didn't want the man to touch her. She told her. That he was ugly. That he smelled funny. That his hands looked dirty even though he washed them again and again at the kitchen sink. His fingernails were stained a permanent, glossy black like the hooves of some animal. "My stomach ache is going away," she said, hopefully, pleadingly, but her mom ignored her.

She told her mom she was spending the night at Sandra's house, but really they were going to a party at Alejo's. The biggest night of hr life, and her mom forced her to waste time with this fake medicine man.

Her brother, Robert, was in the living room with his beautiful, Maria, of the white teeth and curvy hips, and their baby, little Miguelito, between them on the sofa. They were unwrapping tamales from cornhusks, steam rising off the crumbly mixture. The food smelled so good, Maria caught both Santiago and Alicia looking and so offered them some. Santiago greedily gobbled down two in a few bites. Alicia refused although she wanted them frantically, but she was trying to lose weight and would only eat one apple for the whole day, even if she passed out. Which would be better, come to think of it, because then she wouldn't know how hungry she was. Then Santiago told Alicia to lie down on the sofa. Robert and Maria moved away as he covered Alicia's eyes with the napkin he'd just wiped his fingers with.

"It's greasy," she complained, grossed out but hungry too, and Maria laughed and went to get a clean towel from the bathroom.

"Use this," Maria said, handing Santiago a hand towel.

He folded the towel into thirds the long way, then laid it over Alicia's eyes. "Can you still breathe, niña?"

She nodded, blinded. The dark felt good. Like velvet. And the crowded, small room now felt like a huge empty room, but in the dark. Sounds came to her sharply: the soccer game on the TV outside, Miguelito's slap of hands and suck of breath, the healer mumbling his chants. She forgot all about him and daydreamed about Alejo from her homeroom class. Even though he was a little cross-eyed and got worse grades than her, he was the bomb. A friend of a friend had asked him if he liked her, and he had said maybe. Being Alejo's girlfriend would be a BD, big deal, since none of her friends had a BF yet. He had told a guy friend that he thought that she was maybe sexy. Did he understand what the word meant? Alicia had the forced innocence of homeliness.

So she had to go to Alejo's party even though he hadn't invited her specifically, but instead said anyone could come who brought beer. Which she and Sandra couldn't.

The healer was talking to her mom, who had come back into the room, but Alicia felt drowsy and didn't pay much attention to their words. All of a sudden there was something cold and hard and heavy on her forehead, and she bolted upright, frightened, and a big, rock fell into her lap.

Her mother swatted her shoulder. "Lie down, stupid girl. He's trying to help you."

Alicia blinked in the light and was disappointed to see the same small living room as before—dirty dishes stacked on the coffee table, Maria changing Miguelito's diaper on a blanket on the floor—unchanged.

The healer had grown puffed up and important in his role, bossing everyone around, not shy like when he was outside shining shoes. Ignoring Alicia, he talked only to the mom and Maria, explaining that the rock was a river stone from the sacred Usamacinta river. That its healing waters created a magnetic power in the stones that would realign the magnetic field in the girl's body. Alicia hated when people talked about her in the third person.

"I do not know," he said, "where she's been, but I feel her energies are scattered, and this could be the cause of her stomach ache."

"It's America," her mother said, making that noise, tsk, tsk, that irritated Alicia. "McDonalds is the evil."

"Not so simple as that," he snapped.

"I'm sorry. No insult intended. I'm just a plain village woman."

Alicia again lay down, this time gratefully letting the towel's darkness envelop her. Her mom always got taken by these phonies from Mexico. She thought maybe she'd do this more often—cover her eyes and block everyone out. Again, her mind returned like a homing pigeon to Alejo, while the healer placed his hands firmly on each side of her skull and made small, circular motions, raking his fingers up to the top of her head as if he were dragging something out. It felt like that, as if he were the magician down at the fairgrounds, pulling scarf after scarf out of the top of her head. She worried briefly if there was any chance he could see what she was thinking: if he could and told her mother, she would be grounded, like forever. Again the weight of the stone on her forehead. This time she felt light and happy and empty. What would it feel like for Alejo's lips to be against hers? But no way would she French him, ever, though her friend Sandra said you had to do that with a boyfriend, or he dumped you. Do that and more, Sandra said.

A crash, and Alicia bolted upright again, the towel falling, the rock banging her thigh. Miguelito had charged the side table and toppled the plaster of the Virgin of Guadalupe from on top of it. The Virgin lay broken, the head snapped off at the neck, on the floor. Maria swept Miguelito up in her arms, sheltering him under the dark, perfumed curtain of her hair as he bawled, frightened by what he had done.

"Sorry, Mama," Robert said, but their mother merely shook her head and motioned for them to move so she could sweep. The statue was one of the only things she still owned from her abuela. The Virgin breaking could only be taken as a sign. Since they had come to America twenty years ago, the family had done nothing but break apart. Half the relatives wouldn't talk to each other. Alicia knew it would be a Sunday of praying and mass.

"Let's take the baby outside," Maria said, and the three of them left, slamming the screen door behind them. Robert had Miguelito out of wedlock with that beautiful simpleton, Maria, and they just told her that morning another baby was on the way. Alicia's mother crossed herself and looked from the broken virgin to Santiago.

"What should I do?" she said.

He stared at the statue for a moment. "Glue it?"

Her mother crossed herself and then carefully picked up the head in one hand, the body in the other.

"It's a miracle," she said. "A clean break. One could pretend it never happened."

The healer ignored her mother, and Alicia plopped herself down on the sofa again, putting the towel over her own eyes. How many years until she was old enough to marry Alejo and live in an apartment with him alone? But then she'd definitely have to kiss him. She loved Maria, who was like the best older sister, teaching her about cigarettes and diets and low-cut jeans, telling her what it felt like to go all the way with a boy, and what his private looked like. Alicia hadn't told Maria yet that at Sandra's birthday party, all the kids played dare, and Alicia had gone into the bathroom alone with Alejo, and he had pulled down his pants and made her touch it. She had been so scared of being caught and so nervous to finally be alone with Alejo that she had closed her eyes after catching a look, but she was surprised how soft it felt, like the soft, bare part of a dog's belly. She wasn't sure of the exact way it worked, except that it was a kind of wand, and when it touched the secret place, a baby came out. Alicia loved Maria but didn't want to end up like that, sixteen with a baby, living with her boyfriend's parents.

The healer was moving his hands down each side of Alicia's neck and then rounding her shoulders with speed till he flipped his hands away, like a bird taking flight. It was like he was brushing away dandruff, she thought, if she had any, which she definitely did not. She squirmed, remembering how Alejo grabbed at her breast, and she ran out the bathroom door.

"Be still," the healer said.

His hands moved down her sides and kneaded her stomach. She was getting a warm, tingling feeling under the velvet darkness of the towel, and she pretended it was Alejo, not the healer, touching her.

Her mother came in the room, and the healer's hands drifted off her, and she found herself impatient for them to come back. Without their heat, her skin was goose-pimply and cold. When Alicia got home from Sandra's party that night, she felt a little ruined, and she let her mom sing her to sleep like when she was little.

The healer whispered to her mother to bring back white food for the ceremony: bread and an egg. Then as she walked toward the kitchen, he made an added request of a small glass of tequila, if she had it. Alicia knew that her dad hid a bottle behind the flour in the pantry.

When the noise of cabinets being banged open and shut started, his hands came down on Alicia's skin differently. The fingers dove and caressed, they touched and squeezed. Her body turned like a hot coal.

In the courtroom, the prosecutor brought out a big poster with the outline of a girl. The eyes of all the people turned on Alicia in a different way, and she didn't feel so good. Like her friends looked at her when she ran out of the bathroom, and Alejo followed her. If he didn't ask her to be his girlfriend at his party, they would all think she was a slut. Her face burned as she studied the stick-figure of the girl on the poster and saw that the outline of her waist did not curve inward, like an hourglass, but outward, like a balloon. Do they think I'm fat? she wondered.

"You and your mom have special names for the parts I point to with my stick. Is that right?"

She nodded. When she had failed to show up that night at Alejo's party, Veronica, her frienemy, had made a move on him. Sandra told her she saw them kissing. But it didn't matter because Monday morning the whole school found out about the healer and the police coming and all. Alejo wouldn't even look at her. She had gone from anonymous to freak with no stop in between. 

The stick went to the chest. "What do you call these?"

"Birds," she said. The burning in her cheeks tortured her.

The stick moved to the V between the poster girl's fat thighs, which also bulged out like small moons. "What's this?"

"Shell."

"And where did that man," the prosecutor said, her voice raising in an ugly way, like when Alicia's mom was mad at her after the police came and she got confused, "touch you?"

Alicia thought she was supposed to stand up and touch the points on the fat, poster Alicia. She sucked in her stomach.

"Say it out loud so they can write it down."

"My bird and my shell," she whispered, closing her eyes, dizzy from sucking in her stomach. Her bird and her shell were supposed to be where Alejo touched her when they married, and she was his wife, even though her friend Sandra told her that maybe Alejo had already moved away, he hadn't been in school the last two weeks, and someone else thought he had seen him at another school across town. But she had touched him. When the healer put the stone on her forehead and then it fell off, hitting her thigh, Alicia had felt a ping deep inside her belly, like a guitar string being plucked, and then there was a warm whoosh of liquid between her legs so that she thought she'd peed herself, but then she thought maybe she'd by accident gotten a baby from touching Alejo, maybe it was coming out. Later with relief she saw her first blood on her white panties. My bird and shell, she said, to everyone, to no one.

III

You are her. The stars overhead and the dust of them created you. A long, white stem that stretches farther and farther away, until all memory of the black space, of the gaseous fluid of stars, is gone. Rumors that your father was the devil come in disguise as a jackal. You are a baby living in a one-room, mud hut, high in the mountains. You remember suckling on your mother's breast, the dry wind blowing her long brown hair in coils, an umbilical cord. Her breasts are bared in the sunlight because there is not another human being anywhere around for hundreds of miles. Your first memory of another human voice is not until your eighth year.

Those early years you cannot tell the difference between your mother's existence and your own. You touch her breasts with the same unashamed wonder as you touch yourself. She calls this lack of guilt, Eden. Together, you walk the red dirt hills, collecting leaves and roots, collecting bits of rabbit and possum bone, skins of snakes. At night your mother burns a fire, spread her legs before it, and divines the world.

It is not till the age of understanding that she tells you that she is the modern Virgen Morena, the brown-skin Virgin, and that you are the incarnation, but the people, having lost their faith, do not believe. The anger over her swelling belly exiled her, and you inside her, to this abandoned hut in the hills, where she says her real life began. Only when the people have exhausted every remedy do they call on her, and then she combs out her long tangled hair, pulling out twigs and flowers, feathers, coiling it into a bun, and puts on a shirt, jeans, and men's boots that are too large, and you wonder if they are meant for the feet of your father. She goes to heal, walking on foot, never for money. She ties you to the table in the center of the room with a long, white unfurled cloth, so that you can wind and unwind around the room like the angry arm of a clock. Sometimes she leaves you for days like this.

Only after healing is there food, and you feast once every two or three weeks. The rest of the time, the two of you live on air. She teaches you the chants, you collect the leaves and the roots, the bones and the skin, rain and clouds, you sit on top of the mountain and join the birds in their flight. There are rumors started that people have seen the outlines of your mother and you sitting, unmoving, for weeks at a time. You do not know this, but your reputation grows. You have left your bodies; you are reeling in freedom. Imagine—air, feathers, speed, freedom. The journeys back to the reluctant body are harder and harder to make.

As your mother's hair turns white and you turn into a man, people begin the long climb to the one-room, mud hut to seek you out. There has been a miracle in the village, a woman has spotted your image in the reflection deep inside a well, a ballad has been written about the sad life and miraculous powers of Santiago Pancho Sanchez. You are shy of them, but they ignore your mother, an old crone now, and ask for you to heal them. You cure a man of jealousy, a woman of barrenness. You heal boils, blindness, tumors, rotten teeth. News spreads, and now there are always chains of people coming up the mountain, camping out in the nearby trees, waiting.

Parents offer their nubile daughters for you to implant your seed. You have never seen another woman's naked body but your mother's. She stares at you, jealous, red-eyed, wild. She wants the people to go away, she doesn't care about the food, she wants you to stop healing.

You tell her you cannot, even though you yourself do not know why. Even though you miss the days of solitude, the flying.

Your mother takes to screaming at the people, throwing her own feces at them, walking around naked outside the house, her breasts like empty bags flat against her chest, so that the men turn away in shame at her old woman's body. She no longer sleeps, and now, refusing the piles of food, she is gaunt from not eating. She tells you she has had a vision and is ready for the afterlife. Clear that the vision is a lie. She twirls a knife. She wants to cut out her own heart, and she wants you to join her. The two of you will become one body again as this will complete the cosmic journey.

La bruja, people now call her.

You flee.

In the new world, you experience loneliness like a wound. It is a surprise, how it hollows everything out. Finally you understand all the people who have been coming up the mountain to you for problems that did not exist, in a way you couldn't understand them before. It is the one ailment you cannot cure.

The white people look through you as if you were already invisible. So you stick to the brown-skinned neighborhoods, where you can detect life as you are familiar with. Warmth in their skins, and hair, and eyes. In the soft syllables of their voices. In the movement of their bodies. Rumors follow like the flight of birds that you heal, but mostly you are left alone.

You live in a small, thin-walled room in a neighborhood where all the grass has died. No matter the time of day or night, there is never quiet: the pounding of music, the pounding of feet on stairs, the pounding of voices raised in happiness or anger, it is sometimes hard to tell which. Your mind can never rest, cannot take flight.

You realize that you have never loved a woman as a man does. Your love has been the love of healing, a disinterested, abstract love, like God's maybe, the only kind your mother told you of. The only thing you can remember is her warning you of the filth of copulation between a man and a woman. Treacherous thought—could your mother have been crazy, jealous of you having love without her?

Weeks pass without your exchanging more than simple requests with the people around you: How much for the tortillas? Do you have any day-old ones for half? Clean a pair of shoes for five dollars, for two, for fifty cents if you give me food. No one cares what is in your heart. Hardly anyone even looks in your face after the first glance. But you feel their illness, a constant wind of poison as you move through a crowd. All of their pains and aches, the disease and heartache and insanity, everything shows itself to you, unbidden, until it exhausts you. You get rid of the telephone, have the electricity disconnected. When darkness falls, you light a single candle. You are the one who needs a healer.

You have been waiting for a sign, a revelation, of what to do. You hold on this existence is growing attenuated. When people speak directly to you—Anything else, sir? Would you please move? No work. Where's the rent?—you have to remind yourself that you exist. Santiago Pancho Sanchez. If only you had the strength, you would return to Mexico, back to the small village, back up the mountain to the one-room mud hut. Even your mother's madness is preferable to be forgotten.

You walk down the sidewalk in a swoon. The wooden box of your cleaning tools is as heavy as lead. Your head is spinning with hunger. This morning you left your rooms for the first time in four days, hunger driving you out, like an animal from his hole. You haven't washed, your clothes stink. The sun beats into your eyes, and you half-close them, but it's no use—the pain of the bright light is killing you. You who were once one with the light. Inside the chain-link yard, you see a squat Indian woman with a long, thick braid that reminds you of the village.

"Por favor, Señora, do you have some work for me?"

You close your eyes and sway. If she says no, perhaps you will lay down on the sidewalk and sleep.

"No, no. Nothing today," she says, but then she turns to make sure you are leaving and sees your knees buckle. You are kneeling on the sidewalk. She comes to the chain-link fence. "Are you sick, son?"

"I haven't eaten in four days."

"My God, come in. I have food ... ."

You shake your head because the dignity of the healing must be protected even at the cost of your small life. "No charity."

"Stupid me, I forgot. My husband's shoes need mending. And my son's. And a pair of my daughter's."

Inside the house, you have never before suspected the happiness people lived in. You have only seen the confusion, the illness, but never the other side. The woman is from the same area that you are from, not more than fifty kilometers apart. A sign. When she, who reminds you of the village women, complains of headache, it is all you can do to offer the healing.

When next the young girl lies under your hands, you are already feeling stronger. It is clear your own people nourish you. Her skin is like warm electricity, and now you, too, are tingling. You put one finger on the girl's shoulder and already know the story—the thing that had formerly eluded you and that you now know is loneliness, why she was frightened to have her eyes covered. When you touch her stomach, you smile—deep inside like a tendril unwinding, her womanhood pushing to the surface. She would be fine. You close your eyes and are back in the one-room mud hut, close your eyes and you are beside your mother on top of the mountain. The warmth of the sun is like mother's milk pouring down your throat. The eagles are circling, catching an updraft of wind current, they spread their wings in wide sheaves of iron, spiral up, the mountains and canyon falling far below. You are one with them. You are blinded.

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Biographical information: Tatjana Soli's stories have been published in The Sun, StoryQuarterly, Gulf Coast, Other Voices, Nimrod, Confrontation, North Dakota Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, Sonora Review, Third Coast, Inkwell and Blue Mesa. In April 2010 Soli's novel, The Lotus Eaters, will by published by St. Martin's Press. Soli has been twice cited in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Most recently Soli was awarded the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize, the Dana Award, and scholarships to both the Sewanee Writers' Conference and Bread Loaf. Currently Soli teaches through the Gotham Writers' Workshop.

Brain Games, by Mike Finley

In the months after my stroke and brain tumor diagnosis in 1998, I experienced weird headaches. When I tried to have sex, I was fine for the first few minutes. But as my excitement increased, I involuntarily "bore down," and the pain in my head began to skyrocket. It got so bad I had to stop whatever I was doing immediately.

A couple of times, before my neurologist warned me not to do this, I tried to "go through" the pain. It was impossible—even when I was able to, aherm, finish, I experienced a migraine-intense pain that dwarfed whatever release the orgasm allowed. In fact, the two sensations merged, and the orgasm became unambivalent agony.

I did not take this well. To lose such a thing, and to not know how permanent it would be—it made me want to keep trying. So I kept hurting myself. I even tried doing it alone, trying in vain to find a way around the pain, to complete the act without "bearing down." Friends, you would need to be some kind of superyogi, with total breath and reflex control—in which case you probably wouldn't be hot to have sex anyway.

So one of the first results of my stroke and tumor was to make the act of love physically intolerable. It pitted that part of me that most wanted to be alive with that part of me that most wanted to stay alive. It was like a computer dividing by zero; fatal error.

The next residual side-effect was memory loss. Months after the stroke, I was still having a dickens of a time remembering simple things— the names of things, and what people told me on the phone. All my head could seem to hold anymore was generalizations and vague reminders. Frieda thinks it would be fun to go out sometime.

It was especially troublesome because I feel called upon, for my life's sake and my family's, to listen very, very well—like, to doctors, about the science of tumors and such. But to me now, tumor names all sound like Oklahoma.

I was reminded of the Kafka novel Amerika, which involved a traveling theatrical troupe from that state. Perhaps the tumors were actors in that company. Come to think of it, I can suddenly remember every story of Kafka's I had ever read. And perceive a new relevance.

It was somewhat similar to the normal memory loss I was experiencing anyway, at age 48. I was already notorious in my own household for being "absent-minded"—mislaying papers, forgetting phone messages, etc. Some of this was due to encroaching middle age, but an equal part had to do, I believe, with being a writer, and being more interested and absorbed in the project I was working on, which could occupy at least part of my mind 24 hours a day, than in what Mrs. Mientkiewicz told me on the phone about Thursday's soccer practice—or was it Friday's? I have always been selectively amnesiac.

But what was happening now was worse. I now had a hard time remembering anything, even in my work. And even when I did recall something—a date, a word, a name, an intention, a message—I had to coax it out using an assortment of mental pulleys and cables.

It was embarrassing. I was always apologizing to people, telling them I wasn't quite right since the stroke. People, bless them, made every kind of excuse on my behalf. "Oh, we're all like that," they say. "I'd forget my head if it weren't stapled on." "You'll get it back." "I'll bet it's mostly stress."

Indeed, stress was the wild card. Experts on memory say that the number one factor preventing us from readily accessing the information we have stored in our brains is the pressure we put on ourselves to come up with quick answers. The harder we try to remember, the less we can remember. Which makes perfect sense: people with great memories exude confidence. It's not that their memory is naturally superior, and therefore they are confident; rather, their confidence is the reason their memory is better. Attitude is everything. And my attitude was shit.

And it isn't just memory—the failures extend to simple focus. One day in February, Debbie, an old friend of mine from college, invited me via e-mail out to her farm, about 50 miles from Saint Paul. She had horses, and Daniele liked to ride. Debbie e-mailed me a set of instructions, which I kept on my lap during the long drive. I was very proud of myself. I not only didn't have a seizure (I never have experienced one while driving, he boasted), but I navigated all the country roads, turning the right way, staying on the icy curves.

It wasn't until we found the house, and I knocked a dozen times on her door, that I realized I had come on the wrong day—a day clearly stipulated in the very first sentence of the e-mail message in my lap. Humiliated before both my daughter and an old friend, I drove home in silence.

Another day I couldn't think of a famous writer's name. I searched frantically though my memory for it, ransacking the associations I did have. I knew he had white hair. I could see the hair in my mind, and intuited that his name had something to do with the weather. Could his name be snow? Sleet? Was it Gordon Sleet? My mind was a flurry of possibilities that led me nowhere. Snow White? Snowy Bleach? C.P. Snow? Lord Snowed On?

I got it finally by relaxing and thinking of his face, and then the name came to me. Only when I knew that, of course, the writer's name was Robert Frost, did I come up with a good mnemonic:

Some say the world will end in fire

Some say in ice.

But from what I know of loss,

It could also end in frost.

It is possible to have a virulent brain tumor and feel no pain from them. This is because, while the brain is the switching yard for the body's nervous system, telling you how everything in your body (and in your soul) feels, it itself has no nerves of its own, hence no sensations. If you somehow bypass your skin and scalp, which are loaded with nerves, you could stick a fork in your brain and feel nothing. Think of the Ray Liotta eating-his-own-brain scene with Hannibal Lecter.

The exception is intracranial pressure. Some, but not all brain tumors, cause headaches. A few of these are excruciating, migraine-level affairs. The pain of most tumor headaches, however, can be treated with a few Advil.

What you are more likely to feel are psychological pains. My primary sensations in the weeks following my diagnosis were distress that I seemed to be forgetting things, worry about my declining abilities, and shame— yes, conventional old shame—that I had allowed this thing, this sneakerful of flesh in the backseat of my head, to overtake me.

My tumor has decided to dwell right next to my temporal lobe, the part responsible for language. If it grows, it stands an excellent chance of causing major disruptions to my abilities to speak, to write, and even to understand English. (Along with the Spanish and French I muddle along with.) Already, I count among my symptoms an inability to come up with the right word for things, and sometimes, a fuzziness over the meaning of a statement I hear on TV or the radio. The words vanish as soon as I hear them. I can't recall them to parse their intent. They are gone.

My primary symptom is a decreased ability to do detailed assignments. In the months after my diagnosis I only retained a handful of clients, and the most important to me of these is a speaker series called the Masters Forum that brought in management philosophers and futurists like Alvin Toffler and Lester Thurow to talk about organizations, leadership, and change management. My job was creating a 10-page report on each speaker. The report had to be useful, but it must needed to be readable, something attendees could pass on to their teams back where they work.

In my gravy days I was able to hear a business talk and quickly create a textured, detailed report on the points raised. Since my diagnosis, however, it's been harder to focus on the minutiae of a talk. When I review my notes, I often can't recognize them. I feel like I have foolishly accepted a dare—"I could write that article with one lobe tied behind my back."

On the other hand, I was still able to convey the overall cut and thrust of a talk, so I simply wrote my reports with a twist, more about general themes and philosophies and less about specifics. No one complained— yet I felt I was cutting corners, and ceding ground I would never again occupy. What will happen as the tumor grows, I wondered, and I cede even more ground? Will I step back even further? Will I abandon themes in favor of flavors? Long sentences for short? Will all meaning collapse like a black hole into a single dense punctuation point from which no light escapes?

(Indeed, as I wrote the preceding paragraphs just now, it took me three full minutes to come up with the name of Lester Thurow, perhaps the world's best-known economist, with whom I was fortunate to have lunch just a year ago. I knew his name began with a T, and that he was at MIT, and that he had a head of curly hair, and had once climbed K2 in the Himalayas. But I had to sit with those associations until my brain rerouted the question and furnished the answer.)

This is different from the way I used to remember things. How will I remember his name once I have forgotten all the clues? At what point, en route to total language loss, do I set the pen down for good?

When I do set it down, I will be letting everyone I know down with it. It's my job to keep things going, keep money coming in, keep grinding grain, keep laying track. It's a brute task, a manly task, even if all I am is a writer. But its brutality protects me from fine details. Grind the grain, lay the track, and no one will ever think less of you—you’re a good provider. All you have to do is keep providing. Which translates to, keep fooling people that you are delivering the goods.

Honestly, I don't think I'll be able to do.

How dare I throw the lives of those I love into tumult just because some pointless protein has spread its bedroll inside my ear?

 So many things fasten us, like roots, to this life. Guilty feelings, though we associate them in our minds to the greater life beyond this one, often root us tighter to the routine we cannot bear to move away from.

What is "martyrdom," the way we have come to use the word, but a way of getting what we want? How often do we let guilt slide us closer to God, compared to how often we use it to anchor ourselves to dead habits?

After my diagnosis, and the emerging likelihood that doctors, in order to save my language center from being squeezed till it ruptured, would have to dig the expanding meningioma out of my head, I read up about the history of brain surgery. It is a stunning story of people slashing the long, hairy roots of conscience and hubris, for a greater good beyond.

Reading about the early surgeons has helped me deal with my own sense of guilt. What they did in the early years of experimentation, cutting into suffering people's heads and killing them all, was awful—but they did it anyway, to ameliorate the suffering of others to come.

Think about that.

 There has always been craniotomy—the opening of the skull to relieve pressure, to release spirits. There are wall drawings of skull penetration going back 7,000 years.  But craniotomy is bone surgery, not brain surgery. It doesn't breach the sacred veil of the brain. Richard von Volkmann, the greatest German surgeon of the 19th century, a doctor who would go anywhere and do anything to save a patient, drew a line at the brain. In 1904, Harvard Medical School doctors, reviewing experiments that crossed this line, concluded sadly that the only benefit of brain surgery for persons with tumors was to relieve pressure—removing tumors was impossible.

A search of medical journals in 1906 showed that of 828 brain tumor operations undertaken, 315 patients died almost immediately. But that number didn't tell the whole story. Of the survivors, a sickening majority lingered for a time—"paralytic, epileptic, blind"—and then died. True surgical cures occurred about a tenth of the time

But 10 percent represented progress. Enough good things were happening in the field to embolden surgeons to continue. Indeed, it was the pathetic condition of brain tumor sufferers that impelled pioneer neurosurgeons to go on a cutting, sawing, and drilling campaign that killed virtually the first one thousand patients on the table. They were in such misery that taking their lives away, or their ability to think, or speak, or smile, or move, did not seem so unbearable a risk.

Much has been written about the hubristic attitude required to make an initial incision in another human being. Take that hubris and then quadruple it and know that you’re going in where no one has gone before, and that your first hundred patients died the instant you opened them up, and you have an idea what these surgeons were made of.

Like Civil War generals, they shed the blood of many, and besplotched their own immediate reputations, to create leverage for the future. Those doctors' patients died on the table so that my neurosurgeon’s patients today could get operated on and survive.

And do I imagine that, at the end of each day, these doctors felt guilty? And how. In that sense, their psychological complex leaves God’s in the dust. God can revel in his omnipotence and omniscience because he is, after all, omnipotent and omniscient. Like Superman, he never pays the price for his powers.

"Victor, if you operate on that man, he will die," a neurologist said to the turn-of-the-century brain surgeon Victor Horsley, who used to perform brain surgery in his patients' parlors. "Of course he will die," Horsely replied, "but if I do not persist, those who come after me will do no better."

Another surgeon, Harvey Cushing, performed an operation on Maj. General Leonard Wood, a military pal of Teddy Roosevelt's. Wood was about to be named chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1909, when he began to experience paralysis in his left leg and seizures. Cushing was terrified of going inside the head of a national hero, and was relieved when the surgery was postponed. "Glad the operation has been postponed," Cushing said. "For everyone dies that I touch."

Eventually, Cushing removed a huge meningioma from Wood's brain. Eleven days after surgery, the general, who had lost all feeling on one side, was up and walking again. It was a red letter day for practical brain surgery. But it was a terrible struggle for Cushing. Was he God, to take upon himself such a task?

Neurosurgeons take so much upon themselves, all the doubts and self-accusations, and then they summon the strength to go in again anyway.

There was a lesson in there for people like me and the kind of guilty feelings I was having. Maybe guilt is just the price of admission for being alive and cutting the flawed deals we have to cut. Maybe it is just the table stakes for sitting down to play.

I had the opportunity to visit another brain surgeon, for a second opinion. Everyone I spoke to recommended and praised him for his personality and technique. I was "happy" with my current surgeon, Dr. Gregory, but I saw no harm in obtaining a second opinion.

Let me call him Dr. Rajib. He was a handsome, charismatic man, equal parts Ricardo Montalban, and Rutger Hauer—heroic, international, borderline mystical.

"I am so glad you came to me," he greeted me with an arms-around embrace. It was like meeting Jesus. I thought for a second he might kiss me—and my meningioma might shrink to the dot of an i.

Instead of sitting behind a desk, Dr. Rahib sat on the floor, legs crossed. Instead of medical whites he wore khakis, with a tan belt holding him in. He spoke more like an actor than a doctor, in rich, dramatic cadences. He seemed to be a Superman of every kind of intelligence—medical, social, emotional, theatrical. Instead of examining negatives on a light panel, he laid his pianist's hands on my head, and massaged the place where the trouble was. Holding my head in his hands, he reminded me of Galileo, measuring the circumference of the earth.

"You have what is called a meningioma," he says. "I concur completely with Dr. Gregory's. To me, you are so lucky, because you can do whatever is in your heart. You can leave this entity where it is, and if it ever should cause you a problem, I will go in and I will take it out. It is easy to get to. I could do it in my sleep.

"But I wouldn't do it in my sleep," he joked, holding up a cautionary index finger. "I promise you I would not do that.

"Or, if it is your wish, you may ask me to go in this very week and take it out of you. It is not necessary, I assure you, but I would not blame you in the slightest if you felt this way. If it were me in your place, I might well want it gone, so that I need never think of it again."

I left Dr. Rajib's office, unsure if my feet were touching the ground. I would be so lucky to have this man saw my head open, I was thinking. I would be blessed, in fact.

But my wife Rachel, who is very plugged into the regional medical scene, discovered over the course of the next few days that a number of Dr. Rahib's cases were in litigation. Not easy cases like mine, but very difficult, virtually impossible tumors that Rajib evidently felt confident unraveling.

He was either a very good man, I decided, willing to cut into people with unsolvable problems, hoping his genius and luck will carry the day.

Or he was a very mixed man, with many wonderful successes to his credit, and some failures that whisper the word hubris in a clenched voice.

It was the ancient dilemma of brain surgery, going back to the Bronze Age, where early doctors drilled holes in skulls to let out the spirits. Dr. Rajib laid it out for me like a sacred coin flip. Die now or die later.

I decided I would stick with Dr. Gregory.

 

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Biographical information: Mike Finley is a professional communicator with 30 years of experience writing in every realm—print, broadcast, in-person and online. As a journalist he specializes in stories about technology, organizations, and the human psyche. His writings on change, technology, and the future have appeared in more than 700 publications. He has authored or co-authored over a dozen business books, including his award-winning collaboration with Harvey Robbins, Why Teams Don't Work, which won the 1995 Financial Times Global Business Book Award for best management book published in the Americas. In the 1990s he was head writer for The Masters Forum, an executive education group based in Minneapolis, where he chronicled the ideas and insights of the world's most prominent change theorists. For seven years Mike wrote a syndicated column on modern life, "Future Shoes," which plotted the shifting human edge of technology and change. In the 2000s Mike took on healthcare, as web writer for the Minnesota Medical Association, where he ran an award-winning advocacy website dealing with such public health issues as tobacco, affordability, and health care reform. In addition to, and as a complement to, his work in technology and business, Michael is a poet and storyteller with many titles.