All posts in Fiction

  • Mummers

    We stopped just inside the entrance and watched them. Up the dirt-packed slope they walked in train, with king and queen at the head of the column and the rest trailing after: princes and princesses, squires, guards, assorted barons, baronesses, dukes and duchesses, all of them wrapped inside thick embroidered costumes. The procession trod slowly; bagpipers followed at a respectful distance, playing the royals into an open-air canopy where with pomp and pomposity they sat and gazed out at awestruck children and their parents, never smiling or breaking character, but merely gazing: uncurious, oblivious, noble.

    “You gotta be kidding me.” Seth removed his sunglasses and winced up at all the king’s men, as though to convince himself it wasn’t some horrible fever dream.

    Then he placated his hangover by shoving his glasses back on his face. “This is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had, Twitch. And that’s saying something.”

    Baby Duke stayed between me and Seth, shifting his weight uneasily. He looked more afraid than skeptical. “It could be fun,” he said quietly, dropping his eyes. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead; he left them glistening, afraid to draw attention to himself. He didn’t want to be here. Baby wore bluejeans and a Rockies sweatshirt with the left sleeve pinned to his side so it wouldn’t sway as he walked. He’d probably be more comfortable back home under the covers swimming in central air. Probably wanted to be anywhere else but in Larkspur in a dry dirt field on a dry hot day, surrounded by play-acting royals, suburban fair-goers and random costumed freaks.

    I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t exactly my crowd either, but Seth and I had made a pact. Baby’s road to recovery would not be a touchy-feely affair. If only because it wasn’t our style and, anyway, we didn’t know how. Instead we’d let him run the gauntlet alone and leave the kid-gloves and the pity with his father and his physical therapist and his other therapist and everyone else he would ever meet. There would be rubbernecking stares and rude encounters and strange faces flush with the kind of cheap sympathy that tries to take a piece of you away, but Seth and I wouldn’t interfere or take the bullet. Baby Duke had better learn to deal with it.

    “We’ll make it fun,” I said. “There’s beer.”

    Seth perked up a bit. “Of course there is,” he said with conviction. “Take a doctor’s advice–once you black out, this place is a laugh riot.”

    “You’re not a doctor,“ I started, but Seth was already halfway up the slope, passing under banners and flags with rainbow patterns and the crests of lions and arrows that were either invented whole-cloth or else too old to matter. Baby and I watched him tramp up through the crowd of musicians playing for tips and pale middle-aged women selling hoop earrings and necklaces. Seth’s cheap, dog-eared copy of Confessions stuck half out of his back pocket. Two months ago he had finished up his second year of medical school in Iowa City, then abruptly quit without a word of explanation. In three weeks he would be in Mount Angel, Oregon, in seminary. Until then, obsessed with Augustine, he had decided that the more sins he had to wash clean, the better priest he could be, and spent his time planning and executing more and more creative ways to be wicked.

    Baby turned and gave a wan smile. “I don’t know,” he said, then swallowed and pursed his lips and just looked at me.

    I looked away. He’d only been home two weeks and had spent it mostly in bed. Before that he’d been two weeks in Landstuhl, Germany and three months at Walter Reed. He didn’t look ready.

    “Let’s get a beer,” I said. We started up the hill and both of us were soon panting. It would break a hundred in an hour. The air felt boiled and hard.

    “You should’ve worn your uniform,” I said.

    “Shut up.”

    “The dress-blues, white hat and gloves and sword–do they really give you a sword?”

    He laughed, almost angrily, as though he had decided he’d never laugh again and was discouraged at how quickly the pact was broken. “The dude in the commercial gets one, anyway.”

    Seth dropped back to join in the conversation. “Twitch is right, Baby. The whole man-in-uniform angle. You’d be waist-high in comely wenches.”

    Baby Duke only shook his head and looked at the dirt.

    “Okay, okay,” Seth said. “Syphilitic wenches. But I know of what I speak. I’m a doctor.”

    Baby Duke grinned. “You’re not a doctor.”

    Seth opened his arms wide to embrace the world. “Soon I will be a doctor of souls, each one a pristine snowflake to tend to as I undertake my peregrinations across this American holy land.”

    “You’d make a better lawyer,” I said.


    They stood in line for beer and I rounded the corner and lit a cigarette in the shade of the beer tent. I was glad Baby Duke hadn’t mentioned the last time we tried to get him laid in uniform–nearly a year ago, in Las Vegas, right before he’d been sent to Diego Garcia on his way to the desert. It was the last time we’d all been together, and Seth propositioned girls at random: cocktail waitresses, wives, grandmothers. But none of them seemed too impressed by the whole off-to-war spiel. Seth considered it a grave mistake to let our friend leave American soil a virgin, but Baby refused to let Seth buy him a girl. Shades of his old self, when he was just sweet quiet Adam Shepherd, high school troubadour, folk singer in waiting who grew weak-kneed and starry-eyed at Simon and Garfunkel lyrics.

    I watched him now. Sweat trickling down his cheeks, his eyes seemed locked in a perpetual squint, desperate not to wilt. I bet he knew all about the sun, things I’d never know.

    I hoped someone would pick a fight with him, and even though it was against our rules, I would stand up against astonishing odds, surrounded by a gang of amputee-hating warmongering peaceniks. In the shade, dragging hot smoke into my lungs, I glowered at passersby and imagined the roundhouses and jabs and butterflies that would send them crashing to the dirt. I watched Baby Duke, watched the people around him. But no one gave him much attention. No one seemed all that interested.

    Seth appeared out of the dizzy glare and pushed a paper cup of warm light beer into my hand. Baby Duke stepped close to me and seemed to shrink down, bowing his head and staring numbly at his shoes. He looked about to crumble, slumped forward from however many invisible burdens were stacked up on his back; eyes half-closed, he held tight to his beer cup. I thought he was mortified that he might drop it, that people might look.

    “I don’t feel so well,” he sniffed.

    Seth and I exchanged a quick look, like parents deciding whose turn it was to get out of bed at two a.m. I took the lead. “Is it heatstroke, Baby? Or a regular stroke, maybe? At least you’ll get a free funeral.” I stuck out my beer till it touched his. “Hold this, will you?”

    “Please,” he said. He wasn’t looking at us and I knew he didn’t think it was funny anymore.

    But Seth was undeterred. “It’s the crowd, Twitch. Baby just needs a little privacy, a few minutes alone in a locked bathroom with the black-and-white J.C. Penney ads from the Post. The saltpeter’s finally run its course and Rosy left him high and dry — gallivanting through downtown Tikrit, jerking off some haji. And our boy’s got to make do with Rosy’s less coordinated sister.”

    “That’s no joke,” Baby said, just above a whisper, directing his words at the dirt. “My right hand is useless.” Then he started to laugh, deep guttural laughs. He straightened up and drained his beer in one long gulp. “Refill,” he said.

    Seth love-tapped him on his only true shoulder. “At least you won’t go blind.”


    We stayed near the beer tent long enough for Seth to guzzle six or seven. I suggested he temper his pre-noon intake with a turkey leg, but he only laughed and pulled me with him back in line. The serving girl was a chubby blonde outfitted in a purple skirt with white trim. “The gentle sir requireth further ale to slake his mighty thirst?”

    “You said it, Ophelia. Get your ample ass to a nunnery.”

    She didn’t respond, which Seth took as encouragement. “See, nunnery in this sense is utilized as a double entendre, meaning convent, of course, but with an embedded insult, because nunnery, my darling, also meant good old-fashioned straw-on-the-floor whorehouse.”

    “Thanks,” she said dryly, mechanically taking his money and slapping change on the counter in front of him.

    Seth gave her his slackest grin, which had for years endeared him to women of all ages: his girlfriends, their mothers, their grandmothers. His voice took on a soft edge with just a hint of Southern accent. “Normally I’d tip you, either out of custom or habit, because I’ve tipped you five times already and feel natural sympathy for the demeaning service industry to which I’ll never belong, but–but, if I tip you again you’ll give me that grating ‘hizzah for the tippa’ line that you’ve given me five times already, and it might just drive me to jam a cockful of hemlock down your throat.”

    “Seth.” I tried to grab his arm but he shook me off.

    “And it’s all motive,” he continued, faster now. “Because really, Juliet, really I’d be tipping you because you’re attractive, at least moderately so, and I’d be thinking somewhere in my irrational brain that an extra dollar would ingratiate me into your heart and you’d be so swept away by my plenary munificence that nothing would mollify your gratitude but to sneak back behind these tents to play a lick of Mozart on my skin flute.”

    “Seth,” I said.

    “Asshole,” the girl said.

    “Skin flute,” Seth repeated.

    It was Baby Duke who finally acted, dropping his beer and hauling Seth backwards. Surprised, Seth offered no resistance, and even looked a little repentant. He said nothing, but stared down at Baby’s beer-soaked sneakers.

    “It’s okay,” I told the girl solemnly. “He’s gonna be a priest.”


    We ambled along the grounds, with Seth giving lip to any barker who dared to address us, and even more to anyone who tried to ignore us. We stopped at an amphitheater where a short bald ventriloquist was talking to a skeletal dummy, then to the main stage where two swarthy men fought a poorly choreographed duel and held ambiguously ribald conversations about their swords. Ending up back near the entrance, we once again picked our way through the flute and harp and lute players. A man juggled fiery sticks while balancing on a miniature teeter-totter; Seth stopped and followed the motions of the sticks with wide eyes. Sufficiently drunk now, he was much more impressed by the music, and he swayed back and forth and didn’t care how silly he looked. Stuck in harmless, infantile drunkenness, everything he beheld was glorious, tangible proof that the old covenant had not been breached–God in His heaven, blessing sinners and bestowing gifts of the keenest mercy.

    “They’re called buskers,” he whispered. “They play for tips.”

    Neither Baby Duke nor I were very impressed by this information, but I saw Seth drop a twenty into the upturned bowler hat at the juggler’s feet.

    “And that,” he said, clutching my sleeve, “is the sound of heaven’s angels in coitus.”

    He stumbled over and stood before a young girl, maybe eighteen, who wore a simple blue sundress and played an odd, leech-shaped instrument.

    He spun back to us. “It’s called a hammer dulcimer,” he said breathlessly.

    The girl’s feet were bare and she had a freshness about her that for some reason reminded me of when young Adam Shepherd, before enlistment and his new nickname, used to walk down to the Walnut Hills Park and sit in the grass under the ancient oak tree near the creek and play old Jackson Browne songs to no one in particular.

    Baby Duke took a step back and pulled me with him–far enough away that we could observe the girl without looking unseemly. Her fingers strummed gently and her body moved to the music she made.

    “Anyway,” Baby said, “it’s an Appalachian dulcimer. There’s a difference.”

    Seth had lost interest in the sound of angel sex and lurched over to a forty-something troll–either in make-up or real life, I couldn’t tell–who was dressed in an Obi-Wan robe. She immediately launched into a lecture about authentic Renaissance folk art. Seth appeared to be listening intently.

    Baby Duke kicked at the dirt and stood close to me–too close, with only an inch or two between us where his arm and shoulder ought to have been. Months ago, Seth had explained it all. He stood in my parents’ living room in south Denver, his body jerking with nervous sleepless energy because he’d driven all night from Iowa City to tell me in person. He stood with his back to me, and as he lectured he tore page after page out of a heavy textbook called Musculoskeletal Surgery for Carcinoma. Most of it I forgot, except certain words snapped back into my head sometimes. Interscapulothoracic. Dissection. Neurovascular bundles. Transected clavicles. What it means, he finally told me, is they take off his arm and his shoulder with it. But that’s when it’s cancer, he told me. That’s when it’s amputation. I don’t know what they call it when your arm just gets blown right off.

    Baby Duke gave a low whistle, still looking at the girl in the blue dress with her Appalachian dulcimer, the sound of which I couldn’t even hear over the random snatches of crowd conversation. “Remember that folk festival up in Lyons,” he said.

    “Uh huh.”

    “I love that day. Everybody was nice. Those lesbians we walked with from the parking lot?”

    “We decided they weren’t real lesbians.”

    “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “The one with that stuff wrong with her face? I remember thinking how great that was, real lesbians or not, that the other lady was with her. Like partners, you know, back in old West. Partnering up for safety. But mostly what I remember is how many pretty girls there were, and all of them wearing sundresses and going barefoot in the grass. Jesus.”

    He stepped back from me and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “I want to go home,” he said quietly.

    My chest froze up a little, that dread fear of knowing he meant something else, that he wanted to go home to his mom, who was two years dead, or else get a million miles away to some green place without sand or even the memory of sand, where he could stroll down to the park on summer afternoons and sit under oak trees strumming Jackson Browne songs and singing softly to young girls in sundresses. Instead we were at some stupid fair and Baby Duke would never play a guitar again as long as he lived.

    I tried to catch Seth’s eye, but he was too far gone. He fumbled through the homemade jewelry in front of a merchant, whose Renaissance costume bore an uncanny resemblance to Princess Leia. With his slack flirty grin he bought one of the lady’s wares—a necklace woven together out of twigs—and very methodically broke it under her nose. She cried out; the juggler yelled at him; the girl in the blue dress stopped playing and called him a prick. Seth just stood there grinning, until the juggler came over and grabbed him by the collar and flung him to the dirt. He didn’t resist.

    Baby and I hurried over. Seth looked up at us, his face placid and sweetly smiling. “I’m like Gandhi,” he said.

    I helped him up and he brushed himself off. Utterly unfazed, he spat dirt from his lips. “Zounds,” he told us. “Let’s go back to modern times and get some beer and hit up Chipotle.”


    Outside the entrance, a stocky older woman sat at a card table nursing a shoebox of cheap plastic bracelets. She asked if we wanted to return later in the day. Seth ignored her and I gave a friendly shake of my head. As Baby Duke passed, she reached out and gently touched his hand. “Excuse me,” she said. He froze and smiled politely; she tilted her head and assumed a grandmotherly over-the-top Norman Rockwell look of sweet adoration.

    “I don’t mean to bother you, sir,” she said. “But at my church last month we all made a promise not to just walk by. It’s not Christian to just walk by.” She spoke with a kind of nervous pride. “I’m sure people say this to you all the time,” she said. “But thank you for your service. God bless you.”

    Baby tried to keep his smile and faltered. His face twisted into an awkward wince, trying to come up with something to say. But Seth stepped in front of him to take the bullet. Seth would soon be a man of the cloth, after all, and had a certain authority with which to speak. His jaw went slack and he used the softest lilt he could muster.

    “Go fuck yourself,” he said.

  • Waiting for Help to Arrive

    At two o’clock that afternoon, Herbert was downsized out of his job, and at four fifteen, he was running the trails in Middlesex Fells harder than a winter of inactivity really allowed. His heart throbbed, his lungs ached, and his legs weren’t screaming now but surely would be later.

    A zip of cold lurked within the softening spring air, and he felt it dig into the bottom of each breath while he lurched along the root-and-rock strewn paths. The trees were just beginning to bud, and he could see through their branches to the brown leaves of undergrowth and ground cover. If he weren’t so woefully out of shape, this would have been a perfect day to strike out off the beaten paths he knew so well, dodge white birch and maple, skirt boulders deposited by glaciers so long ago, and lose himself in the woods.

    Being lost in the woods would perhaps be for the best, but Herbert lacked the courage that getting lost would require, the possibility of a wrong step that would leave him tumbling down a hill to a broken leg or neck. No, Herbert was a careful trail runner, studying the paths and his footing and never distracted by the sweet air and the music of water in a nearby stream.

    Life happened to Herbert just like gravity happened to that water. For years, he lazed along between gentle banks, accumulating the sediments of life: a job, marriage, two children. He rode a slow current toward the sea of retirement and eventual death, steered more by the environment than his own volition, but long before the sea came the rapids. As if his wife had it penciled in her date book, she’d called a meeting with him January second to lay down the edict of their immediate separation and impending divorce, leaving him too stunned even to protest, proving her beleaguered point of his essential and infuriating lassitude.

    The lawyers, the house, and the kids, who he couldn’t think about without first swirling in a vortex of helpless anger and sharp sadness, pummeled him. And then, when he’d gotten almost used to the headlong fury of change, this termination pushed him over the falls. When coherent thought returned, it brought with it the idea of the Fells, a run where no one knew where he was, maybe not even himself. He imagined a fleet race through ripping branches and across boulders and fallen trees. He imagined feeling the freedom of a bird and dissolving into the spring breeze.

    In fact, it was more plodding, gasping torture, but the struggle was at least a tangible one. He ran, then walked, then stumbled into a run again over roots and rocks, across deep ruts in the path from winter runoff, feeling the sun beat on him through the chill, the sweat on his back cold in long, shaded stretches. For two or three seconds at a time, he could forget the dark one-bedroom apartment he was renting, or the humiliation of packing up his things at work, or even the slog ahead toward the rest of his life that now stretched before him like a foreign riverscape harboring unknown hazards.

    Midway up a hill, he stopped and leaned against a tree, gasping for breath and waiting for the gray haze to clear from his eyes. While his heart’s pounding receded from his ears, something in his peripheral vision made him look down the side of the hill. At first, he couldn’t identify what had snagged his attention, but then he saw it. Something pale against the leaves. He stepped to the edge of the trail and squinted. A body. A woman.

    He was sliding down to her before he’d made any such decision, having no idea what propelled him forward with such urgency. She was so naked, lying on her back and exposed to the elements, her face bloodied, her arms and legs laced with lacerations. Her eyes were closed, and Herbert was afraid to touch her.

    Still, his fingers pressed at her throat in search of a pulse then he put his ear first to her nose then her naked breast listening for life. Her breath was as faint as her heartbeat, and Herbert jumped up and looked around, a cry for help stuck in his throat. No one was around to hear it. He patted down his shorts and shirt, searching for the cell phone his wife had always made him carry, but he’d left it in the car in his effort to misplace himself for a while.

    He looked back and forth between the woman and the hill while the memory of the trail between them and his phone unspooled in his mind.

    “I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

    He scrambled up the hill and barreled down the trail. He leapt over rocks and thin streams and pushed up inclines and careened down descents. Breath seared in his chest, and he wheezed like an asthmatic, but he kept going. He tore around a corner and slipped, slamming his knee on the ground so hard he had to push back a wave of nausea before he could get up and continue. But he continued, did not falter into a walk though he thought he might spit up a lung. The naked woman squeezed his chest, making it even harder to breathe, but he continued.

    He fell again when he broke into the bright sunshine of the Sheepsfold clearing, knowing by the people and dogs on the field that he didn’t have to make it across and to the car, that he’d done something right and good if he could just remember exactly where she lay, hopefully still breathing.

    An agony of waiting followed the 9-1-1 call. Although Herbert finally caught his breath, a deep ache remained in his lungs, and his knee swelled up to a knobby cantaloupe and all but refused to bend. He grew cold and panicked while they waited, having not found anyone in the small group who knew the trails. How was he going to lead the EMTs to her if he couldn’t walk?

    People tried to help him, but he didn’t need help, she did. When he heard the distant wail of a siren, he got to his feet and ground his teeth against the pain. He could do it. He could get them to her even if he felt lightheaded and stiff and sore all over.

    Along with the ambulance came a park ranger and a police cruiser, and Herbert was partway across the field, urging them on while they were still pulling bags and a stretcher from the ambulance.

    “Hurry,” he yelled. “I can show you where she is.”

    They were a small army of rough breathing and whispered curses. His knee was full of glass, and he began a lurching limp-hop but didn’t let himself slow.

    “This way,” he said. “It’s not far.”

    And then they were there, and she was there, exactly as naked and broken as he’d left her, and the EMTs picked their way down to her and started their work.

    One of them said, “She’s alive.”

    Herbert sank to the ground. Tears moistened his eyes, congestion filled his nose. He heard crackling radios and the snap and crinkle of plastic pulled away from IV needles and bandages. The universe shrank down to these sounds and the pulsing horror that used to be his knee.

    After an eternity, the EMTs and the park ranger appeared from the hillside, easing a stretcher along with them that bore the woman, now nearly unrecognizable in a neck brace and under a gray blanket. He tried to get up, but his knee wouldn’t hold him.

    One of the EMTs said, “Stay here. Another ambulance is on the way for you.”

    “But I’m—”

    “Stay here. They won’t be long.”

    “Where’re you taking her?”

    “The same place you’re going: Winchester Hospital.”

    Then they were gone, the ranger promising to return with the other team of EMTs. Herbert could hear them hustling away down the path in a different direction from the Sheepsfold, toward a closer access road, their footsteps and voices fading until he heard them only in his memory, ghosts within the whistle of wind through bare branches.

    He closed his eyes against the pain of his knee and felt adrenaline leak from his body into the hard dirt. He grew soft with exhaustion and something very much like disappointment, and for the first time since he glimpsed the woman, he thought of his life beyond this moment, not Winchester Hospital and the police and seeing this day through, but beyond all that to his empty apartment, to the long climb back to who he’d always thought he was, a climb that would make this afternoon’s effort look like nothing in comparison.

    He opened his eyes wide to the spring forest and waited for help to arrive.

  • More Bones

    There were four of us once, four boys. Andreas was the brother who disappeared. Michalis was killed, Petros was wounded in the leg, and I, too young for war, had slept during the predawn battle. It was a Saturday. July 20, 1974.

    After the war, Petros and I lived together in a refugee settlement and waited for Andreas to come home. While we waited, years passed and scientists figured out how to decode the DNA of bones in unmarked graves.

    When the forensic anthropologist arrived at our door, Petros said not to answer. But I invited the two foreigners in and the woman who introduced herself as the “translator” sat down next to the foreign anthropologist. His trousers were the same olive color as our sofa, so that it was unclear where his leg ended and the sofa began. Petros lingered in the foyer, his thin frame casting a shadow fringed with the rusty afternoon light. I would have switched on the light, but Petros stood in front of the switch.

    “We would like a sample of your DNA,” explained the anthropologist, who spoke English though he was not British. “It is as simple as touching this cotton inside your mouth.” I knew enough English to understand his words, but not to place his accent. I knew that the people who worked to find the Missing Persons came from neutral countries—Argentina, Sweden. They only cared about finding bodies and matching each to a name.

    “Leave my house,” Petros replied. “We’ll give you nothing. Andreas will come home.”

    The anthropologist said some diplomatic things about hope, and how hope was a very good thing, but sometimes it got in the way of things, in the way, for example, of being brave—having the courage to face a difficult truth. And then he used the word “reality” which the woman hesitated to translate because it is a word used by the Turks to justify their continued occupation of the northern half of Cyprus, the part we lost in the four day war, the war in which Andreas was lost. Petros bristled and he looked around as if for a weapon or a place to spit.

    The anthropologist had taken some photographs out of his bag and spread them on the coffee table. Petros came closer to look. They showed bulldozers and men bearing shovels on the land where Petros and our brothers had fought together against the Turks for the last time. The men’s fluorescent uniforms looked garish against the brown and green hills.

    Petros took the pictures from the table and sat on a chair near the anthropologist. I knew that I could let the anthropologists swab my cheek without Petros’s consent. We were both Andreas’s brothers. But I felt I could not do it—I could not be the one to let the news in, to let someone say the words your brother is dead. Until Petros yielded, I wouldn’t get an answer. Petros flipped through the photos again.

    “You must be thirsty,” I said to the guests, hoping Petros would keep looking. “Please accept a little Cypriot hospitality.” In the kitchen I found the jar of watermelon rinds, pale green, dark-veined, two years old, preserved with a pound of sugar. While I served the sweets, Petros came in, rinsed the ibrik and made two cups of coffee, each with a perfect froth. He brought them to the guests, who were nodding at the taste of the rind. The intruder was made a guest and as a matter of pride my brother had to treat him like family. He talked about our mother, who taught her sons the art of making sweet preserves because she had no daughters.

    Then the anthropologist turned the talk from sweets back to our missing brother, and asked if Petros would cooperate. “I will have nothing to do with it,” he said. “But we are all free men. Isn’t that what Andreas and I were fighting for? To be free men?” He looked me in the eye for a moment and before he left the house without his coat he turned to the foreigners and said “Ask this one for his DNA. It seems my brother is eager to put up tombstones.”

    He looked at me in a way that filled me with the fear and the knowledge that I would go, after all, go against my oldest brother’s will.

    When they found a fragment of Andreas’s toe and put it in a box, and gave it to us so that we had a piece of him to put into the earth, to break a plate over the box that stood for a coffin, to pour oil and throw wheat as we have done for centuries, so that my brother’s soul could go up into the other world, I saw Petros behind the crowd of mourners, hands over his face, and I lost him—I don’t know where he went after that day—and I lost Andreas, two brothers in one day.

  • Breakage

    You first noticed it in that restaurant in Salt Lake City. Sitting at the bar, waiting for a table, you heard the sound of a glass crashing behind you. You started, looked at him and he at you. “Someone’s in trouble,” he said. You nodded but didn’t laugh.

    Two nights later, in a little Italian place, right beside your table: a plate falling from a waiter’s arm, shattering, scattering food at your feet like scurrying lizards. The waiter apologizing, rushing to clean up the breakage. You excused yourself and went to the ladies’ room, sat there in a padded brocade chair, and wept.

    After that it seemed to be all around you, breakage, everywhere you were. Rain taps against a window like fingernails on an empty wine goblet, and you hear the glass shatter.

    You look into a mirror and see the cracks in your own face, spreading through the glass.

    Breakage. Even the word broke: that hard k in the middle, cracking it in two. You think: there is an ancient mythology, isn’t there, of a primitive people—you can’t think which—that tells of creatures, or maybe spells, that cause things to break in their presence. It is a sign of doom, of evil. Nothing can hold together. If there is no such mythology, you think, there should be: maybe you will invent one, the myth of the Glass-Breakers. Maybe they are among us all the time, you think. That would explain so much.

    How have you not realized this, that the world is nothing but billions of tiny pieces held only by immaterial force, that anything can break apart at any second? You begin to hear music this way, too, not melody but staccato notes, individual pieces, each floating alone in the space between its source and its hearer. Broken.

    He wants to go out tonight. To a restaurant. You haven’t been in one since Utah. You have always made an excuse, and he’s become impatient. He calls it stress. He calls it nerves. He tells you to get over it. But he doesn’t feel what you feel, the way the air breaks on your face when you step outside. He doesn’t hear the sounds of shattering all around you. He doesn’t see the two of you breaking apart, feel the fear. You married him to be protected from all this, the sharp jagged edges of life. And he cannot.

    A child’s balloon bursts. A kicked stone fractures the surface of a puddle. And in the breakage you see the destruction of the world.

    “I can’t take this anymore,” he says. You look into his face and see him crack down the middle, top to bottom, then left to right, like a cross.

  • Master Class

    Emmett had tried to rationalize the decision. He was no different from a scientist, dissecting tissue to uncover its cells, the very building blocks just under the surface. Or from a little boy who dismantled the parts of a BB gun, trying to decipher its inner mechanics. Or yes, that too, a mechanic, whose tinkerings under the hood of a car offered up understandings of a whole other world.

    He took a few swigs from his bottle of whiskey, each taste burning a little less than the one it followed. He still wasn’t completely right with what he had decided to do. He had hoped the booze would bring courage, as it so often did. As it usually did.

    He paced around the room, took in the painting from a few feet back.

    Perhaps he would start in a corner – the bottom left. The autograph was on the bottom right. He would do that last.

    Or first! First, and obliterate all sense of ownership.

    Ownership. The word sounded strange in his thoughts, as if it were a pinball getting knocked around the levers and passageways of his brain. Funny how some thoughts could be so disruptive – meandering, fast, without an intended destination or purpose, just pure movement and descent.

    Own. He owned it, this piece. It was not his own work, his own painting. But it was now his, purchased, and he was free to do what he pleased with it. Posterity be damned.

    Only. It was the only one of its kind. The originator had made others like it, countless others, let’s face it, Emmett argued to himself. But this was the only one with this curvature here, to the center canvas. The particular shade of blue – no, cerulean – no, azure – elongated across the plane.

    The bottle emptied down his throat; heat spread through his sinuses. He went to the cabinet for another.

    Once the whiskey had been poured, he mixed the necessary chemicals in a small plastic cup. Yes, he’d do a little at first. The name, first. The rag dabbed the authorship away. The P, most prominent, was gone in just a few strokes, the i and c shortly thereafter. He took the o next, then stopped.

    Ass. Emmett snorted, decided to leave it. It seemed fitting, a reminder of what he himself was. A desecration so humorous it could make his decision if not palatable, then tolerable. And yet he still felt he had to do it.

    He hadn’t told Laura, seeing no need to inform her of his purchase – or his plans. Laura, an artist in her own right. Laura, whose own paintings adorned the walls of their home, this very studio. Laura, who would try to dissuade him, of course. Maybe he would tell her, in due time.

    How could he tell her, though, that he hoped to learn something that couldn’t be taught any other way, in no other shape or form? He had turned it over in his mind, ricocheting between despair and elation. His act, in her eyes, in anyone’s eyes, would be deemed a crime, unconscionable. But then …

    What better way to learn from the masters than deconstruction? What better way to understand something than to peel away the surface, delve under each layer, study the skeleton? Bones had showed us the dinosaurs. Teeth identified a body when nothing else remained. She would have been deaf to these arguments, upset with his plan. She would discourage him, maybe even leave. He didn’t need that. Not today, not ever. So this would be—it must be—a private lesson.

    He took a little off the top, revealing a swath of ink, lightly rendered, under a layer of charcoal. A little thrill raced across the tips of his fingers as he swabbed, as if he were reading Braille, the comprehension of intent and communication manifesting physically from fingertips to brain. He took a step closer to study the line. He took another step, slight, until he couldn’t get any closer to the painting. He leaned as close as he could, nearly bringing his nose to the canvas.

    A thumbprint. Just underneath the first layer, pressed in the charcoal, was the telltale presence of the artist. Emmett trembled at the reveal, as though seeing a lover unclothed for the first time. He studied it for a moment, then took a few steps back again.

    The pinball in his head rattled once more.

    Owe. What debts was he accruing today, with this crime? What lessons would he take away that he shouldn’t have been privy to – that were never intended for him, or for anyone?

    If he were sober, he thought as he poured another drink, he would admit he was at an impasse. That he needed to desecrate another master’s work to move forward with his own. That he imagined his next piece to be a sort of phoenix, rising from the ashes of what he would lay waste to today.

    He took the rag and smoothed it right down the center of the canvas, its trail a swath of colorlessness, a void in a forest of greens and blues and grays. No retracing any steps now.

    Old. The pinball shifted lanes, bumping associations anew. True. He was old. But he didn’t feel his age, his history. And as long as he didn’t feel it, he didn’t want it to be true. Old meant his prime was behind him. Old meant his future would never catch up with, nor equal, his past. Old meant slowing down, settling, not learning. He looked at the mangled canvas. Wasn’t that the whole point of this purchase, this insanely expensive decision? He had forked over the money to purchase a lesson that, like the work itself, was priceless. He had no desire to teach, to work with those who would come up next. He still wanted to learn, to be awestruck by talent, grand talent, that had preceded his own.

    Ode. Would anyone understand his motivations, how his crime came from a place of need, of desperation? And if he could just recover that spark of learning, get those juices flowing again, that he would create – as much as he could – in tribute to those past masters, including his own masterworks?

    He heard the familiar engine of Laura’s car approach the small drive behind the studio, then its final wheeze as she came to a stop. Home, early. She’d find out now. His first justification would be due.

    He dipped the rag again, made a fresh swipe along the paint. The skeleton emerged a little more, the lines increasingly distinct. A grid, organization underneath the chaos. A roadmap, there all the time, if only one knew to look for it.

    Chaos contained, Emmett thought. To destroy a work could be a similar act, he reasoned. Could Laura agree? An act of controlled chaos, all toward the purpose of his own forward motion – would that be enough to convince her? Or would she see only the crime, and nothing more?

    Laura’s footsteps were coming along the drive, now at the door. Emmett reached out, touched his thumb to Pablo’s thumbprint. Explanations would be forthcoming, more justifications would be offered. As he saw the doorknob turn, just in his peripheral vision, he also discerned the settling of the pinball, somewhere just behind his eyes, and with it, space and quiet – the place of absorption, where the master’s teachings would be deciphered.

    He reached for his glass, took another fiery shot of whiskey. The door opened.

    He turned to greet Laura, to offer his first defense, but in his movement saw the artwork anew, from a fresh angle. He stopped to stare, and felt the air crackle around him. Class was about to begin.

  • College Girl

    I get the sense that you can do anything with these boys. They work the grill, wear hair nets, dress in sleeveless undershirts because of the heat. Muscles moving beneath the skin, flesh marked with tattoos and cigarette burns.

    College girl, they say, out back near the dumpster between lunch and the dinner rush when there’s nothing else going on anyway. They pass me their cigarettes, still damp from their mouths, and I put my lips where theirs were and pretend to inhale.

    You with your big words, they say, taking their cigarettes back with thick, warm, calloused fingers spotted with grease. What you gonna be when you grow up, anyway? Doctor? Lawyer?

    I like working in a restaurant, I say, which makes them howl, even when I tell them that my dad has worked in places like this one his whole life.

    Isn’t that why people like you go to school, college girl? To be better than their parents?

    The boys all have girlfriends like my friend Jorie, who lives in a two bedroom apartment with her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. Jorie, whose teeth stick out in front because her family never had money for braces. I run my tongue over my own straight teeth and say, You go to college to learn things.

    That right? They laugh. You want to learn things, college girl? Come a little closer. I’ll teach you things.

    All of them with girlfriends; some with wives, usually ex-wives. They pull you close like you’re dancing except that it’s dark out and there’s no music: the others laughing and you just hanging on, pretending to have a good time, pretending that your heart isn’t going like it’s going to slide right out of your throat. And when they let you go again – so fast that you stumble a little in your regulation non-skid old lady shoes – you feel all the electricity leave your body like a balloon deflating. For a minute – just one minute – you want to be one of those girls, one of their girls, a girl with big teeth and wide hips and yellow nicotine stains on her fingers, a girl with dirty hair and a man’s hands on her waist, a girl who dances with men in an empty parking lot on a hot night in late spring: the girl you are for right now, for this night, and only this night, and never, never again.