It used to be more than his job. It was a career. It was his profession, his identity. No, it used to be even more…it was art. As surely as Picasso swished a brush or Michelangelo altered stone. A twist of experience, a dash of street sense. Don’t speak. Put the deal on the table and wait. He did it well. He did it easily. He thought he would do it forever. Rake in money. Toss crumbs to the cold and hungry gathered outside that fancy house he lived in. Put the deal on the table and wait. If old folks want to sell out, their house too cumbersome, their children caught up putting their children through school, make friends with the wives. Visit after all the lunch meetings when she’s just put the beef steak on the counter to thaw, covered with a bit of tin to keep the cat off. She’ll have time to talk then. Keep a ready supply of ink pens and contracts ready. Put the deal on the table and wait. Now, his Buick is parked in a great nephew’s unheated garage, and he can’t make it beyond the front stoop without his cane. From the senior van he eyeballs the value of houses on the way to buy groceries. In this market he’d be able to put in a second swimming pool, shallow enough for the babies to play in, like Margaret always wanted. He’d could take her to Belize. But he couldn’t take Margaret anywhere anymore; she lies in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. She doesn’t remember who he is. He plays cards with friends he’s made at the senior center. They bet straws and coffee stirrers. He does well. Puts the deal on the table and waits.
Most people who were in the mood for looking, kept their gaze on his shoulders. He knew it. He’d known it for years, and focused on it. He practiced in front of two mirrors to learn the exact way to flex them for attention, spent hours with his tailor draping fabrics across his back and arms to see whether the cloth would ripple or cling, and at the last faire, colleagues taught him a dehydration technique that thinned his skin across the shape of his muscles. Beyond all that, he made certain to exercise. His career warranted it, of course, but he put in extra, because of the stares he garnered.
He’d fathered several children, on both sides of the blanket, because of his shoulders. He’d wed twice, both times to women, although there were some fine young men in the world, and he never turned away what they offered. Neither marriage lasted. None of his relationships did. They were intense and flattering, but invariably short-lived. It wasn’t because of him. He never did anything wrong. He took care to be polite, gentle, and supportive. No, it wasn’t him. It was them. They couldn’t accept his line of work. He was successful, in fact, renowned — as renowned as someone deliberately anonymous could be. He owned a large house, ate well, and kept a smart team of fast horses. Yet, every single lover he ever had abandoned him once they discovered his line of work. He supposed, since it was so small of a city, it was inevitable that they all knew someone he’d handled professionally. Someone whose head ended up on a spike outside the city gate.
He wondered what more they wanted. After all, it was swinging the axe that kept his shoulders so strong.
He perched on the back steps, his long legs stretched awkwardly, his thin, shoulder-length hair tumbled into his face, his afternoon cannabis rolled in new papers and pinched between the index finger and thumb of his right hand. As he sat there alone, he watched their dogs bouncing in circles while tugging back and forth at the same tree branch. In the nearby shade, unsightly moss crept along the edge of the patio stones, and he supposed he would scrub the patio clean of it one day.
He had run out of words. The task was so simply. Wash the blue jeans. Put them into the dryer. Take them out of the dryer and fold them neatly with the seams apart so that the bellbottoms flared right to left when worn. How hard could that be? Folding the seams together so that the bottoms flared front to back was ridiculous. Nobody wore hip huggers that way.
He’d tried to explain the first time she did his laundry when they’d been married only a couple days. The wedding had been easy. They’d call their friends on the phone and said, “Getting married in the park on Saturday. Pizza at the house afterwards.” A good thirty people made it. It had been spontaneous. It had been fun despite the rain.
He’d tried to explain it again the next time she did his laundry a week later. She’d peered over her eyeglasses at him and continued what she was doing. It was a reaction he’d admired when he’d seen her target others with it.
When he’d tried to explain it two days ago, she opened her hands and let his jeans drop to the floor in front of the dryer.
Just five minutes ago he’d said loudly, “I guess I’ll have to pick my own jeans up off the floor.”
She simply answered, “Yes.”
He wished they could go back to that moment, before the phone calls had been made and the pizzas were ordered. When it was still fun. Before it was like this. Sighing, he pressed his left hand against the wooden step and pushed off to rise to his feet. The hemostat was in the living room and he’d need it if he were going to keep smoking. He’d picked the jeans up and put them away as he went by.
She lay there listening to her teen-aged sister’s slow breathing from the twin bed across the room and could tell her sister was asleep. No lights came from the hall. No voices from the television in the living room
She thought, I could sneak to the Christmas tree, look around quickly, and be back in bed before anyone notices. She propped Teddy, her stuffed bear, up in the corner of her own bed by the wall. Folded back the blankets, and slipped her feet onto the floor. She paused. She listened. Her sister’s little snore hadn’t changed, so she knew she was still asleep.
She rose to her feet and tip toed across the linoleum floor, pushed aside the tattered curtain that served as a door to the bedroom, and peered into the hall. No one was there. She stretched her neck, ear to the right, toward the other bedrooms, listening to see if one of her brothers or parents were awake. There wasn’t a sound.
She nodded in satisfaction, took a deep breath and walked down the hall to the left, toward the living room.
There were rules.
- No peeking.
- Her father was laid off so no more than $10 per present per child. Pick what you want but don’t ask for anything that cost more than that. She had asked for a Betsy Wetsy doll.
- Santa would still bring presents, but the main one was from Mom and Dad and costs less than $10.
- Everyone enters the living room Christmas morning at the same time.
- No peeking.
She didn’t believe number three anymore. At least, not the part about Santa. All four of her older brothers had lined up and explained to her, in the blunt way of older brothers, that only babies believed in Santa Claus. Her sister pooh-poohed and told her that her brothers were wrong, that Santa was very real and would bring her a present. Her older sister was always right. It was hard for her to not ignore all four of her brothers, though.
There were no streetlamps way out in the country where she lived, so no light came through the large, picture window. Her mother took everyone outside once after dark each evening so that they could see the multi-colored lights glistening on the Christmas tree in the center of that window. It was beautiful. Just looking at it tickled her ears, made her toes tingle, her stomach happy.
What was that noise? She paused mid-step and squinted her eyes to hear better. Who moved? Who’s awake? When she didn’t hear the noise again, she decided everything was okay. She didn’t stop again until she was in the living room. She could see coats and boots piled by the big oil heater on the far end of the room nearest the kitchen. She saw her father’s favorite chair pushed to one side for the Christmas tree. And, yes, there under the tree, were stacks of wrapped presents.
She almost laughed, but stuffed her hand in her mouth at the last second so that the sound wouldn’t wake anyone. It was working. She could look over her gifts, shake a few, and figure out if she were getting a doll.
She glanced over her shoulder, back down the hallway. No one was there and there was no sound, except her sister’s little snores. She liked her sister’s snores. Sometimes when she had a bad dream and couldn’t fall back asleep, she would lay awake and listen to them. It was comforting to know that her sister was so close.
She turned back and walked into the living room toward the tree. Ahead of her, where her gifts were always placed under the tree, was a big, dark spot. She couldn’t see beyond it. She couldn’t see into it. She wondered what it was and peered closer.
The big dark spot growled! It rose up higher and higher and growled louder and louder. Wet, yellow teeth flashed brightly in the middle of the dark spot…in the middle of….a bear! A grizzly bear! Here, in front of her beautiful Christmas tree, in her safe living room, was a vicious, mean, hungry grizzly bear. She froze.
The bear loped toward her snarling. A deep, long rumble rose from the bear’s chest.
She ran. She ran and ran, out of the living room, down the hall, into the bedroom, past her sleeping sister, and leapt back into bed. She could hear the bear in the hallway. She pulled the covers over her head, shivering in fright. She shook for the rest of the night. She couldn’t sleep. She was too afraid to pull the covers down and see if her sister had been eaten yet. She wondered which of her brothers would be first to become the grizzly bear’s midnight snack.
After a long time, she heard all of her family in the hallway laughing, eager to enter the living room to get their presents. Rule number 5. The bear must be waiting in the living room, she thought, ready to pounce on the unlucky person who walked in first.
Oh no. Oh no. What could she do? She was frightened. She was more than frightened. She was terrified.
“Get up, Lazybones,” her mother called from the hallway. She slunk more deeply into the blankets. Her mother strode into the room, jerked back the covers, and said, “Everyone is waiting for you. Enough is enough.”
She knew it was over. She had to get out of bed and march as bravely as she could into the living room and be eaten by the grizzly bear. There was nothing else to it. She could face the grizzly bear, or she could face her mother.
She planted her feet on the floor, straightened her back, and walked down the hall. Because she was the youngest, she always got to go first. She thought this time that was best. Maybe the grizzly bear wouldn’t eat anyone else after eating her.
As soon as she stepped into the living room, she stopped. Her brothers and sister darted around her and to the tree. She blinked her eyes. She blinked her eyes again. Wrapping paper and ribbons flew everywhere. Her oldest brother was prancing around showing everyone the new globe that Santa had brought him. Her sister was holding up a make-up case with real lipstick in it.
There was no grizzly bear. No growling. No wet, yellow teeth.
Her mother took her by the shoulders and gently pushed her toward a coat heaped in front of the Christmas tree. She recognized it as her father’s large army coat. Her mother pushed her a little more.
Maybe the grizzly bear is under the army coat, she thought. Slowly, cautiously, her hands trembling, she lifted the coat by the collar and one arm. Hidden underneath it was a child’s table and four chairs. The perfect size for tea parties, for Teddy and her dolls, the perfect size for her.
She laughed. She laughed so hard at herself she cried. It was never a grizzly bear. It was her father’s dark army coat. She made all the rest up. She had frightened herself. She laughed again.
Outside Santa peered through one corner of the large, picture window. He chuckled to himself. When she pulled out a chair and sat at the little table, he chuckled again and whispered softly, “Elves have magic, you know. Rule number 1. And rule number 5.”
With each step, grit rasps more deeply into the soles of her bare feet. Finally, she pauses, sweeps her hand from the ball toward the heel. First right. Then left. Grainy pebbles scatter to the ground. She straightens, wipes her brow with the back of her hand, breathes in, breathes out.
Ahead and to the right a bird sings. Now two birds. Now three. Soon a symphony choruses through the glade.
Thirty years past, her father, a renowned ornithologist, would have told her the names of every feathered vocalist by sound alone . . . whether robin, jay, chickadee, or sparrow. The three of them would stroll twice a day. Going out in the morning before breakfast, then in the evening after supper dishes were cleaned and dried, they went out again. She held his left hand, her sister his right. They moved casually, without hurry and he playfully quizzed them on what they had heard.
She remembers their time together happily – how they laughed, joked, how her father always listened to what she and her sister had to say. After they’d grown and her sister married, she and her father lived in the cottage on their own until her sister divorced and came back. Being around his granddaughter seemed to give her father renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Together, she and her sister watched from the doorway as he strolled along, holding the small child’s hand the same way he had held theirs. The little girl would gleefully try to warble and chirp, mimicking the birds.
The truth of it is, these days, she identifies the birds as simply life.
Often on her journey she encountered skeletons of cows, horses, occasionally raccoons or mountain cats, and far too many once-beloved dogs and cats. For reasons she couldn’t explain, though, all of the plant life remained untouched. The forest quickly overtook trails, houses, and any modes of transportation left behind.
She turns toward the overgrown path winding beyond the glade and hesitates. She knows that if she follows the path far enough, stepping over the weeds and up-heaved bricks, she will come to her family’s cottage. Moss-covered, quarried stone. Roof sagging with age. She visits the cottage, but is careful to avoid bringing attention to it, sleeping each night in a different vacant house or deserted building. It has been illegal to reside in the Reclaimed since the mineral harvesters took over, and even they are trucked in and out daily.
The cottage door is crooked and worm-rotted. If she shoulders it open and makes her way through the four small rooms and up to the loft, her father will be there.
He loved gadgets and was always chasing down the latest technological do-dad. He installed cameras on the perimeter of the cottage, by the outbuildings, and scattered throughout the woods. He used the resulting imagery as part of his scientific journaling, but she looked forward to seeing the livestream with video notes from him saying things like, “that young red-tailed hawk caught a mouse today” or “these squirrels built a nest right next to woodshed.”
That’s how she knew he had been splitting logs behind the cottage when the sun-blast came. She was visiting friends a thousand miles away and had opened the livestream to show them how it worked. Her sister waved lightheartedly at each camera as she passed on her way to town, while the baby lay fast asleep on a quilt in the deep shade near where her father labored.
By the time he could throw down his ax, his exposed skin was blistering. By the time he ran to his granddaughter, peeling. By the time he covered the child completely in the quilt and ran to the cottage, flesh melted from his hands. She would never know how he summoned the strength to surmount the pain and crawl to the loft but he’d sheltered the child there — where no windows could let the inferno of light pour through.
She’d tried to get to them as soon as the sun-blast ended. Her friends piled her into their 10-year-old car and ferried her as far as the city line. They turned back, but she continued, catching rides as she could, but mostly traveling on foot, sometimes creeping through dense underbrush or fording streams when the roads themselves were impassable.
It took weeks.
When she finally arrived she found the cottage abandoned.
Her sister had scrawled across one of kitchen walls in marker, “Dad upstairs. I took the baby to safety.”
She doesn’t know where they went, nor whether they found shelter before the second set of sun-blasts pelted the town itself. She’d hiked there and searched for them, but found only the bodies of strangers. She supposes it doesn’t matter. This deep into the Reclaimed, there is no longer a way to reach them. Like everything powered by electricity, the video cameras had quit functioning immediately.
The Council insists that the sun-blasts have been contained; that there is no longer any threat or reason to fear. Nevertheless, she prays for her family and hopes, perhaps, that they’ll return.
She sighs, brushes hair from her forehead.
Someday she will bury her father in the family plot alongside her mother. She will need to bury the others, too; other folks unlucky enough to be consumed by the sun-blast. She started to do so once, but the vomiting and tears left her body too weak for the duty and her soul too bruised for the rituals. Instead she keeps the bones of the hand that once held hers in the spirit pouch around her neck.
She knows that her father would want to be at rest, and she will give him that when she can.
She nods the promise to herself as she turns from the path home. She cannot stop. Winter here will be long, cold, and dark. She must get to the southland.
High overhead cirrus clouds scratch against the blue sky.
She walks on.
Jayne shuffled from foot to foot impatiently while her mother clanged the bronze ship’s bell at the entrance to the garden.
“Put your phone away,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said, dropping her hand from the rope dangling from the bell’s clapper. “I’ve searched for this sculpture a long time. You don’t need to be yakking away on that thing while we’re doing this.”
“I’m looking it up online,” the teenager protested. She pushed back her mass of blonde hair, rolled her clear blue eyes, and sighed. “You know I need to provide references if I am going to present this at school. I can’t just say ‘Mom told me’.”
“You don’t need to look it up online,” her mother retorted. She held up an old leather bond journal with ragged pages. “If you want to do ground-breaking research, you must leave behind what other people have done and see things for yourself. This diary I discovered while curating the stacks clearly says that the author was certain The Angel is here.”
“You should have gotten your hair done today,” Jayne said, ignoring her mother’s admonishment. “I can see the gray roots.”
“It was that or help you,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. She yanked her reading glasses from the top of her head and balanced them on her nose. Holding the journal open in one hand, she re-read the handwritten notations.
When the large, wooden door slid open, Jayne turned toward it. Her mother took advantage of the distraction to snatch the phone from Jayne’s hand and deposit it securely into her designer shoulder bag.
“Mom!” Jayne cried, indignantly.
The gatekeeper who appeared in the entrance had thin, straggly hair and round shoulders stooped to the point where he couldn’t stand upright. His nose was bulbous and red, his eyes lost in a multitude of fleshy folds.
“He looks like he’s even older than the park,” Jayne complained to her mother loudly.
Mrs. Marble-Lynn turned a stern, no-nonsense glare on her daughter. When the girl dropped her eyes in defeat, her mother offered the book to the old man, saying, “Good afternoon. We’re interested in looking at your sculptures. This one in particular.”
He took the journal from her hands, shifted it back and forth in front of him as if to find a spot where it would be in focus and then read the page marked with a sticky note.
“Ah, yes. Yes. Our best. You have very discerning taste,” he said, his smile exposing worn, yellow teeth. He peeled the sticky note off the page and crumpled it between his wrinkled fingers.
“Wait. What? You mean it’s really here,” Jayne stammered in disbelief. “Of all places.”
The gatekeeper closed the book and stepped to one side. Smiling kindly at the teenager, he gestured with one hand. “Please come in.”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn said as they crossed the gate’s threshold.
Once inside, both the girl and her mother gazed around in wonder. A quarter-mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, the garden had been in the historic district longer than anyone alive could remember. Tall stone walls pushed back against skyscrapers, steered traffic away from the garden, and hid it from the eyes of the world. Every inch seemed to be devoted to walkways meandering around a multitude of lifelike sculptures. Jayne danced over to the closest ones and inspected them.
“Look how detailed they are,” she exclaimed, incredulous. “This one has the most delicate tear coming from the corner of his eye. And this one is eating a small section of an orange.”
Glancing triumphantly at her daughter, Mrs. Marble-Lynn waited while the gatekeeper closed door then shuffled over to a cabinet where he hung a ring of keys on an empty hook. Turning back to his guests, he swept his hand in another grand, welcoming gesture. “Will you follow me, please?”
“There must be dozens of sculptures here,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn commented as they walked.
“Hundreds,” he agreed. “From several different eras. A new one comes along every few years. The one you are looking for is at the center.”
“The one of the really hot guy?” Jayne asked, her pout now replaced by a wide grin.
The old man smirked. “Some people say so…”
“I can’t believe it, Mom,” Jayne continued. “You were right. Guillaume Geefs’ L’ange du mal, Jozef Geefs’ Le génie du mal –and this one, the lost, third angel, Le provocateur du mal – The Provocateur of Evil. Right in our neighborhood all this time.”
“We’ll have to examine it carefully,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn cautioned with a smile. “There is no record of either Guillaume or Jozef Geefs sculpting a third angel.”
Jayne bounced from foot to foot excitedly.
“Run ahead, if you’d like,” her mother said indulgently, waving her off with her fingers.
Jayne murmured a quick “thanks” then sprinted off in the direction the gatekeeper indicated. The old man formally held out his arm to Mrs. Marble-Lynn who started to laugh, then composed herself and rested her hand on the inside of his elbow.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Mrs. Marble-Lynn replied. It has taken so long to track it down…so long to…so….” Her voice made a grating sound, like cement in a mixer, and then stopped. Her skin stiffened.
“Why is the dais empty?” Jayne called from the middle of the sculpture garden.
The young gatekeeper removed his arm from Mrs. Marble-Lynn’s stone hand. He extended his arms, bounced on his toes a few times then stretched out his wings and shook them. Lifting the journal on one, open palm, he blew gently across the front cover. Within seconds the journal vanished. He stood with his head slightly tilted as if listening intensely then straighten once he was certain it had reappeared in the stacks of the city’s library.
“Mom?” Jayne called again, the concern in her voice obvious. “Mom, where are you two?”
“Be right there, Pet,” he answered in the old gatekeeper’s voice.
My older sister was prettier, of course, with her black hair and shiny eyes, but I was the smarter one. I was always more subtle, sneakier, content to relish the small victories rather than indulge in the large, over-blown hoo-has and celebrations she liked. For instance, that house of hers. Which house? You mean you don’t know? You must have heard about it at some point. Gingerbread. In the middle of nowhere out in the woods. Children found it and killed her for it. If I warned her once, I warned her a thousand times. Don’t be so obvious, I’d say. Don’t let on about what you’re up to. Did she listen? No – and look where it got her. She took after our cousins in Scotland; I mean, good grief, they made an entire song out of it:
“Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
Catchy – but not very secretive, you know what I’m saying. Alexander the Great, that was some of my best work; people have argued for centuries about him and they still aren’t sure. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Quiet. Discreet. Not all hi-ho-hi-ho and poison apples. It’s harder these days, of course, but if you know what you’re doing no forensics in the world will catch you. A dash of tainted salt left in a restaurant; a bit of good mushroom mixed with the bad; a plate of chocolate candy on the counter for co-workers.
©2017 Vera S. Scott
The first bench seat on the driver’s side of the bus was completely empty – no broken legs, no canes, no walkers – of course, the bus itself was almost empty; it being early summer and so many people gone home; at any rate, I felt blessed; I could put my purse and iced coffee right there in the first seat, sit in the second, and still have room for my shopping bag on the third. Eventually an old woman with a cane got on but she sat in a regular seat; kept giving me the evil eye; I thought maybe my ear buds were too loud but she said no, no they weren’t, with a stern, uncongenial face; so I ignored her disapproval and she eventually started to knit, well, not knit but roll the yarn into balls; she was fast at it but I don’t see why anyone bothers these days; the bus filled up quickly, I was so grateful I found a seat; but wished the old lady with the evil eye would mind her own business; it isn’t like I was doing anything wrong; her face darkened when an old man got on; I noticed as he stopped by the seat where I’d stashed my coffee and purse that he was very shaky; his legs didn’t look as if they would hold him let alone climb the stairs to the back of the bus, but he made it; so did the well-dressed man with stylish, gray hair and designer sunglasses – he was good looking for an old guy – he hesitated by my shopping bag, raised his sunglasses with one hand, and gave me a frustrated sidelong glance, but I kept right on sipping my coffee as if he wasn’t even there.
Fiction Journal from June 2017